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Iran Crisis; Arizona Sheriff Under Fire

Aired February 20, 2012 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening from Mesa, Arizona, the site of this week's CNN's Arizona Republican presidential debate and where a growing international crisis may join jobs and health care as top- tier issues.

Tonight, amid worries of $5 a gallon gasoline, the top U.S. general warns Israel an attack on Iran's nuclear program is not prudent.

Also, Paul Babeu, an Arizona sheriff prominent to this state's immigration debate, confirms he is gay and had a relationship with a Mexican immigrant. Another outspoken lawman, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, weighs in on that controversy and the heated GOP presidential race.

Plus, a natural wonder that isn't. What it seems, a waterfall that looks like red hot lava.

More evidence tonight that if there is a front-runner in the Republican race, it is at the moment Rick Santorum, not Mitt Romney. The nomination is won state by state and Arizona and Michigan are up next a week away. But as we prepare for our big debate here Wednesday night, check this out. Santorum now surging to a 10-point lead over Governor Romney in the national Gallup tracking poll.

No surprise the former Pennsylvania senator is getting more scrutiny from his rivals and now from the Democrats, too. Some of the scrutiny goes back to his record in Congress. Some focuses on new more pointed Santorum rhetoric like his weekend accusation that President Obama is imposing his own theology on Americans.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is what the president's agenda -- it's not about you. It's about you. It's not about your quality of life. It's about some phony ideal, some phony ideal, some phony theology, oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology, but no less a theology.


KING: That there was a campaign stop in Ohio. Then Sunday on the CBS program "Face the Nation," Santorum said the government should not require health care providers to fully cover the cost of prenatal screenings such as amniocentesis, which can determine the possibility of Down syndrome or other problems with a fetus.


SANTORUM: Yes, prenatal testing, amniocentesis does, in fact, result more often than not in this country in abortion. That is a fact.


KING: Our chief political analysis, Gloria Borger, is here with us in Mesa.

Gloria, let's start with the here and now. He's running in the Republican primary and he's trying to appeal to the conservative base not only to take votes from Romney but try to take away Speaker Gingrich's base. In the short term, the more strident rhetoric, the focus on social issues, religious issues could help.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Could. It's a very hot message for him with conservatives and with evangelicals. People respond viscerally to this kind of a message.

So the good news is, you're right. Could help him in a primary. The bad news is that it could also narrow those people would vote for him in a general election should he become the nominee, which is why Republicans are so concerned about it.

KING: You mentioned that point. I was talking to a bunch of Republicans today. A lot of them are nervous about this. They worry social issues, strident rhetoric, references to religion could hurt down the road. One prominent Republican, a former top national party official told me everyone is scared of Santorum right now.

BORGER: I have been talking to Republicans all day. One of them said to me, look, he can't keep going down these rabbit holes talking about the cultural agenda. What he needs to start talking about is the economy. He needs to prove to Republicans that he can run a national race and potentially attract some of those independent voters.

And so some are whispering these scenarios, which, by the way, I don't believe are possible or plausible, about an open convention because they're so nervous and they're saying, oh, my God, let's get somebody else in the race. They also think Mitt Romney has proven himself to be a pretty weak front-runner.

KING: A weak front-runner at the moment. Arizona and Michigan vote a week from now. But smart strategists look at Santorum and say he's not doing this by accident, and he's not doing this just by impulse and reflect, that he's trying to do something in the short term to solidify his standing.

BORGER: Absolutely. Look, he's got to differentiate himself from Newt Gingrich. He's got to prove he's the true cultural warrior in this race because in Republican primaries, those are the people who turn out to vote.

So, that's what he's trying to do right now. The question is, should he succeed, should he also be the populist in Michigan who can beat Mitt Romney, then can he possibly take that turn and broaden his base? Within the Santorum campaign, they will tell you it's because he's a populist. He's able to do it, he's got a great life story to tell. They're not so worried about his broad appeal. They're just worried about getting the nomination.

KING: Other campaigns say look at the race he lost in 2006, but more on that a bit later. Gloria will be back with us a bit later when we ponder that question. Might we get a new candidate? Might we get a contested convention?

In a moment, we will also be joined by the Boston University religion scholar and CNN Belief Blog contributor Stephen Prothero. He says Santorum has opened what he calls a new and dangerous front in the culture wars by asking us to debate who's really a Christian.

Rick Santorum is also firing off some new complaints about Mitt Romney. In a reference to the Romney campaign's attack ads just this afternoon, Senator Santorum declared Republicans -- quote -- "don't want mud-wrestling."

Over the weekend, the former Pennsylvania senator found fault with Romney's handling of the Winter Olympics and that's back in 2002.


SANTORUM: One of Mitt Romney's greatest accomplishments, one of the things he talks about the most is how he heroically showed up on the scene and bailed out and resolved the problems of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

Now, Governor Romney is suggesting, oh, Rick Santorum earmarked, as he requested almost half a billion dollars in earmarks as governor of Massachusetts to his federal congressmen and senators. Does the word hypocrisy come to find?


KING: "The Cincinnati Enquirer" newspaper checked on then Senator Santorum's votes and found he voted yes on the funding he criticized, money for extra security and other expenses related to preventing a possible terrorist attack on the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Games.

Despite their bitter disagreements, the Republican candidates are united in blaming President Obama for the sudden spike in gas prices. Experts are warning gas could hit $4, even $5 a gallon this summer, but they blame the run-up on oil prices on growing tensions, at least in part, over Iran's nuclear program and worries about a possible Israeli attack on Iran.

Right now, President Obama's top military adviser is cautioning the Israelis against taking military action.

Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, let's listen before we talk to General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. Here's what he told Fareed Zakaria over the weekend.


GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: We think that it's not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran. I mean, that's been our counsel to our allies, the Israelis, well-known, well- documented.


KING: Barbara, is that a message to Israel, stand down?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Oh, very much so, John. Good evening.

Martin Dempsey is basically saying what the Pentagon thinks, what the Obama administration thinks, which is it would like Israel to take a deep breath. Here's where the debate stands tonight.

Israel fundamentally believes that Iran has made a decision to go for a nuclear weapons program. The U.S. isn't so sure. They don't think that Iran has crossed that line just yet. But the question for Israel is now, do they strike? That's what Martin Dempsey is trying to say, that's what the administration is trying to say to Israel. Wait a minute. Take a deep breath. Let sanctions work. They're beginning to have some effect. They're beginning to have some bite on Iran's financial and economic situation. Let the IAEA nuclear inspectors do their job. Let some of these things work, that military action would be an action of last resort.

But Israel may not be willing to wait so long.

KING: And to that point, Barbara, if Israel decided to go ahead, the big question, does it have the capabilities to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities?

STARR: Well, that is the question. Could Israel go it alone or would it wind up that the U.S. would be dragged into this because Israel couldn't finish the job, essentially?

Israel has hundreds of fighter bomber jets that can drop the heavier weapons. They have extended fuel range. They can get into Iran. They can deal with Iran's air defenses. But Iran has now buried and spread out its nuclear program, its nuclear sites to a great degree.

It will -- it would have to be a sustained bombing campaign over many days. And whether Israel can take that on fundamentally remains to be seen. It's another reason the U.S. is saying, take a deep breath. Let's see if we can find a route other than military action, John.

KING: Very tense situation. Our Barbara Starr tracking it live for us tonight at the Pentagon, Barbara, thank you.

Here in Arizona, Mitt Romney's campaign was blindsided by a major distraction this weekend. The Pinal County sheriff, Paul Babeu, stepped down as a Romney campaign co-chair after an ex-boyfriend accused the sheriff of trying to have him deported.

The sheriff's accuser spoke with CNN.


JOSE, EX-BOYFRIEND OF PAUL BABEU: He never invited me to any public event until last year, 2010. He invited me -- he invited me just a few events lately, but before then, no.

QUESTION: He was a public guy. You knew he had other responsibilities. But then you found out he was cheating on you again?

JOSE: Yes, many times.


KING: Wolf Blitzer joins us now. He spoke with the sheriff just a few moments ago exclusively on CNN's "SITUATION ROOM."

The sheriff was quite adamant and passionate in that interview saying he's done nothing wrong.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, he was very forceful and to a certain degree he was almost relieved it's come out that he's openly gay, to a certain degree. But he also did step down as the co- chairman here in Arizona of Mitt Romney's campaign.

I asked him why if he's done nothing wrong did he decide to do that. Listen to what he said.


PAUL BABEU, PINAL COUNTY, ARIZONA, SHERIFF: The Romney campaign -- and I don't think anybody should have a problem with my personal life and who I am. It doesn't take away from my patriotism or my service. And if you asked any of the candidates that, I don't think that they would disagree with that.


BLITZER: And, you know, John, he's running for the Republican nomination for congressional seat here in Arizona, as he says, a conservative Republican. He says he's not backing away though from this. He's going to continue the struggle to get that Republican nomination.

KING: I thought it was interesting at the end of the conversation, you asked him. He's been keeping this secret for a long time, during his military service. Now during his law enforcement service. You asked him if he had a sense of relief now. He seemed quite passionate saying that, yes, it was a very difficult time, but it's better to have it out there, even though he will have political controversy.

BLITZER: Yes. There's going to be political controversy, but he does seem relieved that he doesn't have to hide it anymore. He's openly gay now. He's going to go on. He's going to be a Republican. Let me play another clip from the interview.


BABEU: This is outrageous that this has been brought out because I'm a conservative Republican, and now they think that somehow there's hypocrisy because I'm gay. I have never worn it on my sleeve, like this is who I am.


BLITZER: Yes. He says he's going to continue on as if nothing has changed. He's going to go forward, although he does realize he will probably emerge as an advocate now for gay rights.

And we did get into the issue of if he's a member of Congress, would he support gay marriage, would he not? And he says this is an issue that should be left to the states. But if two men or two women want to get married, I don't think he has a problem with that.

KING: Left to the states, a libertarian view there. Fascinating politics here. Fascinating short term. See if it has any impact on the Romney campaign. We will see if he can win that primary down the road in August.

BLITZER: End of August.

KING: Great interview exclusively in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

Wolf, thanks so much.

BLITZER: Thank you.

KING: And the Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, joins us next. We will ask him about Sheriff Babeu's problems, as well as about his impact, his potential impact on the presidential race right here in Arizona.

And later, an arrest in the robbery of a vacationing U.S. Supreme Court justice.


KING: The U.S.-Mexican border is about three hours from where we're sitting tonight. So it's no wonder, no wonder immigration reform, border control the top of the mind for Arizona voters.

Just ask the Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, AKA America's toughest sheriff, a man who has made a name for himself and some controversy by tough enforcement of immigration law. Sheriff, it's good to see you.

Let me start. I want to get to the presidential race. but one of your colleagues was just here talking exclusively to Wolf Blitzer, Paul Babeu. And he has an allegation by a former -- he's come out now and says he's openly gay. A man with whom he had a relationship has questioned his character and his integrity.

You have worked with Paul a long time. Any question of his character and integrity, in your view?

JOE ARPAIO, MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA, SHERIFF: You know what? I'm not going to get into that. I'm the sheriff of Maricopa County, fourth largest sheriff's office in the nation.

Paul has got his responsibility in Pinal County. So he's going to have to work through this. I'm not going to give him any advice.

KING: Not going to give him any advice.

What about his run for Congress? You have been involved in Republican politics here a long time. Help, hurt, indifferent, the controversy?

ARPAIO: I don't know. He's asked for my endorsement, along with Gosar, Congressman Gosar, and Senator Gould. I haven't decided yet. But this is something that's going to have to play out.

KING: A couple nights from now, we have a big debate right here in this arts center behind us here. The Arizona Republican primary is next Tuesday, Michigan as well. You were a Rick Perry guy. Rick Perry, Governor Perry, is no longer in the race.

I know Senator Santorum has been in touch. Speaker Gingrich has been in touch. Governor Romney has been in touch. You were a Romney guy four years ago. Who gets Sheriff Joe's endorsement now?

ARPAIO: I don't know. Michele Bachmann visited me in my office, Herman Cain. I don't know why they're all coming to me.

KING: Well, you're down to the final four now.

ARPAIO: I'm not tall, dark and handsome. But this is something I haven't decided yet.

KING: You haven't decided yet?


KING: What's your sense of the state of play here right now? A lot of focus has been on Michigan because we have seen a lot of public polling with Senator Santorum ahead. If the vote were today here in Arizona, who do you think would win?

ARPAIO: Well, I don't know. Arizona is still very important, regardless of what some people may say. I know Romney was ahead in the polls. You can't believe the polls all the time. We will see what happens a few days from now.

KING: Are you satisfied with the proposals, the border security, how to deal with the, maybe it's 11 million, maybe it's eight million illegal immigrants currently in the country now? Are you satisfied any one of these candidates doing a better job on the policy, you think?

ARPAIO: Well, I don't know. I spent years as the head of the federal drug enforcement in Mexico and on the border. So I get a little confused sometimes when you listen to people running for office.

But we should not make that the primary issue. There's more important things. That's important for me as law enforcement, but we have other issues in this country, too. So I don't think we should elect someone just because of the illegal immigration.

KING: You're in a state, one of many states, but here you see it every day, an incredibly fast growing demographic shift, the growth of Latino population, the Hispanic voting population. There are many Republicans who worry about the tone of the immigration debate. They look at the last election. President Obama got two-thirds of the Latino vote.

They think if that continues, the Republican Party will be isolated. I want you to listen here. I had a recent conversation with the former Republican governor of Florida, Jeb Bush.


JEB BUSH (R), FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR: I don't think a party could aspire to be the majority party if it's the old white guy party. So, clearly, there are new constituencies emerging in our country. They're making a difference in our communities, a positive difference. The tone of the message, the message itself needs to be focused on where the changing demographics of our country are.


KING: Now, when they question the tone, people who question the tone often point to guys like you who some pretty tough rhetoric along with your pretty tough enforcement.

ARPAIO: Yes, I don't just talk about it, I do something about it.

But let me just say this. I enforce the laws. If you don't like it, change the laws. So if you have an issue with this, let's stop talking politics. Change the laws if you don't like what's going on. Washington should at least do something one of these days and the White House and see what happens in the future. But everybody talks.

KING: You say Washington should do something. The last time the president was in your state, he had a little moment with the governor. And they have been back and forth. She wrote something in the book that the president says mischaracterizes the meeting that went on at the White House.

If you called the White House, they would say more boots on the ground than when George W. Bush left office, fewer people coming across. Whether that's enforcement or whether that's a bad economy, they say fewer people coming across. They say lower crime rates in all of the border counties. You would say?

ARPAIO: I have had no problem locking up illegals coming through Maricopa County.

KING: But does the president get any credit?

ARPAIO: Yes, maybe he should get some credit, but they're still coming across.

And let me just say this. I'm so tired of politicians saying secure the border first. Why do they say first?

We should arrest illegals already in this country and not blame it on the border only. So that's another semantics, political garbage, if you will, to not arrest illegals that are already in this country.

KING: Sheriff Joe, appreciate your time tonight.

ARPAIO: Thank you.

KING: Good to see you, sir.

ARPAIO: Thank you.

And next, Senator John McCain says it's time for the United States to put all options on the table for the U.S. to stop massacres in Syria.

Plus, a rare and spectacular sight. No, this is not red hot lava. It's just water. We will explain in a minute.


KING: Welcome back.


KING: You just heard there a moment ago from Senator John McCain.

He's in Egypt trying to win the release of almost two dozen detained Americans.

Coming up: why there may be some reason for optimism tonight.

Plus, you might call this hamburgers the hard way. We will see how scientists now can grow beef, not on a farm, but in a laboratory. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back. In this half hour, new optimism about the fate of 19 Americans detained in Egypt, including the son of the transportation secretary, Ray LaHood.

Also, some Republicans seem to be wishing for a white knight candidate to ride in and save the party. Tonight's "Truth" looks at whether that's realistic.

Plus, a new study pinpoints the most corrupt city in the United States.

There's optimism over the fate of 19 American aid workers facing trial in Egypt. Listen here to the South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Quite frankly, I'm very optimistic that we're going to get this episode behind us and have a fresh start with the new government. It's my hope sooner rather than later.


KING: Graham, along with Arizona Senator John McCain you see there traveled to Cairo to try to resolve this growing diplomatic crisis. Ian Lee is covering the talks in Cairo.

Ian, the senators are sounding optimistic. What are Egyptian officials saying?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, Egyptian officials also expressed some optimism that this could be put behind them. And they're eager to get this out of the news and put this, really, to bed, because this is souring releases between the United States and Egypt.

And Senator Graham said that, in his meetings with Egyptian officials, including the supreme council of the armed forces, who's ruling Egypt right now as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, who's the major party in parliament, he said both parties were very eager to put this behind them and to move forward with relations between the two countries -- John.

KING: And Ian, if there's not a deal, they can't work out a deal, what happens? What is the fate of the American aid workers?

LEE: Well, as it stands right now, the 19 American aid workers are expected to appear in court on Sunday. Now, during this trial, they'll have the charges brought against them. And their defense is expected to ask for a bit more time to develop their case.

Following the story as it's progressed, the defense has talked about how they haven't had the best access to documents and to the charges and just overall to the entire case. So they're expected to ask for a bit more time.

Now, the Americans are ordered to appear in court, but they won't be put in jail. Rather -- but if they don't appear and if they decide to stay away, then there will be an arrest warrant issued for them -- John.

KING: Ian Lee live for us, tracking this delicate diplomatic situation in Cairo. Ian, thanks so much.

Back here in domestic politics, Rick Santorum is explaining himself after appearing to question the president's Christianity. Over the weekend, Santorum wondered aloud if faith takes a back seat to environmentalism at the Obama White House. Listen to what he said on Saturday, followed by his clarification yesterday.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's about some phony ideal. Some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology.

I accept the fact that the president's a Christian. I just said that, when you have a world view that -- that elevates the earth above man and says that you know, we can't take those resources because we're going to harm the earth, this is just all an attempt to, you know, to centralize power and give more power to the government.


KING: Stephen Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University, a CNN belief blog contributor.

Professor Prothero, thanks for your time.

Senator Santorum says he's not questioning the president's faith, not questioning his Christianity. But when you listen to him and knowing his history, what do you think he's doing?

STEPHEN PROTHERO, PROFESSOR OF RELIGION, BOSTON UNIVERSITY: I think he's questioning the president's Christianity. I think you know, we all know what race codes are. What we have here is a kind of new religion code where you say the guy doesn't have a biblical Christianity, he has a phony theology, and then you back off.

When you're asked a little bit afterward, you say, "Well, you know, if he says he's Christian he's Christian." And the next day you say, "Well, OK, he doesn't have a phony theology. Maybe he does. He has a phony world view."

Evangelicals, who he's appealing to here, understand very clearly what he's saying, and what he's saying very clearly to them is Obama is not a Christian.

KING: Do you see any precedent if you go back in recent campaign history? George W. Bush was a Republican candidate for president, then a Republican president who was very open about his Christianity. But I can't remember a candidate who, as often as Senator Santorum does, either says, "My personal belief on contraception is that it's wrong and it's dangerous, because that's what the Catholic church teaches me." To use terms like theology just in there.

Is there any recent precedent of a candidate who uses the language of faith so often?

PROTHERO: Well, you know, I think over the last generation, we've really shifted where it used to be you had your private religion and then in public you talked about public policy and you kind of left churchy things out of it. We've shifted there with Carter and with Reagan.

But I think we're crossing a line here, because now what we're talking about is not simply appealing to your religious faith to explain your public policy. You know, to be able to bring your own theology to bear. I think both Democrats and Republicans have now accepted that.

What we're talking about here is asking whether somebody else in the conversation is really legitimately there, whether they're really, legitimately Christian. And so we're having this kind of conversation now about what's the theology of each person who's running for president? And do they pass a certain kind of theological test rather than asking about their economic policies or even their question, their answers about social questions like abortion and gay rights.

So we're really shifting to a kind of, you know, theologian in chief model here, where Senator Santorum is setting himself up as the kind of arbiter of what's true and what's false Christianity in America. I think it really is a bad precedent.

KING: And so let me play devil's advocate, Stephen. I've covered Senator Santorum for a number of years, and I can hear him, if he were watching this interview, saying, "There's some elitist academic from Boston, of all places, questioning me." How would you respond?

PROTHERO: Well, anybody in America ought to be able to question people who are running for president. The issue here isn't me questioning Rick Santorum.

You know, I think Santorum has every right. I agree with him, that the public square doesn't have to be secular. I agree with him that, you know, we've never had pure and strict separation of church and state. I'm on board with all that.

I think he's crossing a line, though, when he says -- he's not simply saying, "These are the religious reasons why I am having a certain policy" to saying that some other person, including the president of the United States, just doesn't qualify because he doesn't have Rick Santorum's theology.

I think that's wrong. I think there's a lot of people who would say Rick Santorum's theology is kind of odd. There's a lot of Catholics who don't agree with a lot of things that he thinks Catholicism is all about. There's no place for that in a presidential campaign.

KING: An interesting issue and a fascinating conversation. We'll continue it if Senator Santorum rise in the polls. Professor Prothero, appreciate your time, your help, and your insights tonight. Thank you, sir.

If you follow politics, you might recall John Ensign was a Republican U.S. senator from Nevada until an ethics scandal forced him to resign last year. Our chief congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, recently caught up with him and had an exclusive look at his new workplace. You might say he's now living a dog's life far from Washington.




ENSIGN: Yes. He's got the gingivitis.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One minute he's examining a cat, the next bandaging up a dog. If this hard-working veterinarian looks familiar, he should.

ENSIGN: I am Dr. Ensign.


ENSIGN: Nice to meet you.

BASH: Dr. Ensign is former Nevada senator John Ensign, who abruptly resigned ten months ago amid a high-profile sex scandal.

ENSIGN: This has been really, really good, first of all, to come back into a profession where you're humbled. You know, I used to own this practice. Now I'm working for somebody. That's sometimes a very healthy thing to have happen in life.

BASH: Now instead of being hound by reporters like yours truly...

(on camera) Are you considering resigning?

(voice-over) ... he's caring for hounds of all kinds.

ENSIGN: Oh, you got the quick. That has to hurt.

BASH: Ensign was the only veterinarian in Congress.

ENSIGN: You can till it had a crushed pelvis. See our x-ray equipment? It's all digital now.

BASH: Until his resignation, he hadn't practiced for more than a decade. ENSIGN: Literally, I'm studying, you know, till 10, 11 p.m. every night and just trying to make sure that -- that I get back up to a very high level of veterinary medicine.

BASH: Taking us on an exclusive tour of this animal hospital to see his life after politics, Ensign says he now realizes this is where his heart is.

ENSIGN: I loved being in the Senate. That was a wonderful experience. But it's -- I'm putting as much passion into this as I did that, and so I'm really enjoying it. And the other nice thing is being home every night and seeing my wife and kids every day.

BASH: Ensign is still with his wife and says they're doing great, healing after an affair led to his political downfall.

Last spring, the Senate Ethics Committee accused him of violating the law by trying to help his mistress's aggrieved husband find lobbying jobs. Ensign resigned three weeks before the report came out.

(on camera) Did you leave in order to avoid testifying before the committee?

ENSIGN: My family had been through enough. I didn't want to put them through more.

BASH (voice-over): He's introspective, warning those still in politics not to let power get the best of them like it did him.

ENSIGN: Do everything that you possibly can to keep yourself grounded. And a big part of that is keep people surrounded -- keep people around you who will basically slap you upside the head and tell you when you're doing wrong.

BASH (on camera): Did you not have that?

ENSIGN: I thought I did, but after a while, you develop invisible barriers and to where they're actually intimidated to do that, even though I would say it all the time.

BASH (voice-over): Ensign's political star was once so bright, this former member of the Republican leadership in the Senate had pondered a presidential run.

(on camera) Now watching the presidential race, do you have any pangs saying, "I could have been there. I could have been in the race with Governor Romney"?

ENSIGN: The chances for me would have been so slim anyway, but you know, you can't go back. You can't look back. I'm looking forward to veterinary medicine. I'm having a ball.

Come on, Daryl (ph).

BASH (voice-over): Dana Bash, CNN, Las Vegas, Nevada. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Fascinating look there. Former Senator Ensign. Our thanks to Dana Bash.

And still ahead tonight's "Truth" ponders this question from Republican circles. Is there room for a white knight in the Republican presidential race?

And a deadly avalanche in Washington state. How one skier managed to survive and the technology that saved her.


KING: Today is officially Washington's birthday. Most of you celebrated it as Presidents' Day. Some Republicans, well, they're not just reflecting on the legacy of Lincoln or Reagan but looking at their current field of contenders and wondering if something, someone is missing.

True, it happens just about every cycle and in both parties. When things get messy, when the polls turn more bleak, the clamoring for a knight in shining armor begins or resumes.

The current version goes something like this: if Mitt Romney loses next Tuesday in Michigan, the state where he was born, it will prove he's too weak to lead the GOP into the fall campaign. Now, those driving this chatter go on to say Rick Santorum would be a doomsday nominee, so conservative and judgmental, they say, on social issues, the GOP would get punished in November.

Newt Gingrich, well, these people say he's toxic. And Ron Paul, well, the GOP establishment considers Paul either amusing or a nuisance but not a nominee.

So then the whisperers say, "We need a new candidate, stat." Is this chatter idle or informed, realistic or reckless? Well, here's tonight's "Truth": It's inevitable and unavoidable unless and until there's some clarity in what so far is a volatile and unpredictable GOP nomination chase.

Now, is it possible to get in now and win the nomination?


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's no "gimme" here. Nobody's going to show up and become Superman or Superwoman. So they have to understand, they're entering the arena and it is a very challenging, very hard-working arena.


KING: But is it still possible? Well, the true answer to that is not exactly. There are only 13 states where the filing deadline has not yet passed. You see them on the map I'm going to show you here. All told, those 13 states have 558 delegates. Texas is moving its primary. So let's assume Texas reopens the filing window. So, for the sake of argument, make it 14 states and 713 delegates. It takes 1,144 to win the nomination. So simple math tells you a Jeb Bush or a Chris Christie isn't going to take the risk. Getting in now is betting it all on a brokered convention.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: I don't see how that can happen. It's just too late I think. And first of all, it's February. These things have a way of taking time. I assume this is going to drag out well into April. So we'll be relevant here in Wisconsin. And I just -- I have a hard time seeing how somebody could get in at this late date.


KING: Congressman Ryan is right about the timing. It's too late to mount a credible campaign. Truth is, like it or not, Republicans have their final four: Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul. Now, that doesn't mean the chatter will stop, especially if Governor Romney loses one or both of next week's contests. That's here in Arizona and in Michigan.

But after a few more filing deadlines pass, the chatter will change. Instead of a new candidate joining the field, there will be buzz what new name could emerge at a brokered convention. And why not? It's been a wild cycle already. Unlikely does not mean unthinkable.

Joining us to talk truth and the prospect of a broken convention or more right here in Mesa, Republican Congressman Ben Quayle, Gingrich supporter and former Arizona congressman J.D. Hayworth, and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

I want to start with you on the end, J.D. You're a Newt guy. Santorum has surged recently. Part of this conversation about we need a new candidate is people say, well, Romney hasn't proven himself and he was the establishment guy. And Newt and Santorum, if either one of those guys is the nominee, the party will just get leveled in November.

J.D. HAYWORTH, FORMER CONGRESSMAN: You know, it's funny. I heard that same talk back in 1979 about a fellow by the name of Ronald Reagan. How he was too extreme. How Jimmy Carter would mop the floor with him. It didn't happen then.

In honor of Abraham Lincoln, let's remember what he said to Stephen Douglas. Don't confuse a horse chestnut with a chestnut horse.

KING: Congressman Quayle, you don't have a candidate right now. Gloria is trying to figure that out. She'll be writing (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

You don't have a candidate right now. We were just joking before. You have a new baby. That's plenty to worry about right now. But is part of it -- are people who have not endorsed already, I assume, you know, your primary is a week away. Somebody would like your help. You just won an election. You've proven you've got a network out there. Is it part of it now if you're not already in, this is so messy, you just say whoa, let's just let it play out?

REP. BEN QUAYLE (R), ARIZONA: Well, I think in watching all the candidates and what they're trying to say, nobody has really, I think, captured the conservative movement, hasn't captured all of the voters with the optimism that Ronald Reagan had. And also I think, from what I'm trying to see, is somebody who can actually...

KING: Do you want somebody else?

QUAYLE: I want somebody who can fully articulate, you know, the morality of the free enterprise system and really champion that. I think that that person can win both in the primary and in the general election. I just haven't seen that so far.

KING: You haven't seen that so far. Listen to Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana. He's one of those who say conservatives say, "Please, come save us."

He says, "No thank you."


GOV. MITCH DANIELS (R), INDIANA: I really would not be interested. I'd be interested in finding -- if we get to that point, I would be interested in finding someone who can present a really credible and winning alternative to where the nation's going right now. But I still think it's very unlikely. These things have a way of resolving themselves.


KING: They do have a way, Gloria, of resolving themselves. But if you're a Mitch Daniels or Chris Christie, a Jeb Bush, a J.D. Hayworth, anyone else who's looking around -- anyone who's looking around, saying, "Well, you know what? Maybe there is an opening," you wouldn't get in now, right? You'd just keep them crossed and hope there's a brokered convention and show up and say, "Here I am"?

BORGER: I think there's a real danger that if you get in now, you're going to lose. And who wants to do that? Because then you're going to mess up the entire party, go to some kind of contested convention, make an awful lot of enemies of someone who might, in fact, become the next president of the United States, should that person be Barack Obama.

Why would you do that if you were Mitch Daniels? I mean, I have to take Mitch Daniels at his word. He knows how these things work. And they love you today, but then they'll find something wrong with you tomorrow.

KING: He went through this when he had time to prepare. All right, everybody stand by. We're going to take a quick break, but our panel's going to stay with us. When we come back, a new report pinpoints the city with the most corruption in the United States. Just which city it is might surprise you. Don't worry, I'm not going to ask these guys about that.

And tomorrow's Fat Tuesday, but authorities are cracking down with partyers with a tough new curfew.


KING: Welcome back. It's a beautiful afternoon in Mesa, Arizona, the site of Wednesday night's CNN Republican presidential debate. We're talking politics here with Republican Congressman Ben Quayle; Gingrich supporter and former Arizona congressman, J.D. Hayworth; and our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

Let's talk a bit more about the presidential race. Over the weekend, we've seen over the last week or so Senator Santorum questioning the president's theology. Very tough rhetoric, clearly trying to make a big play for the conservative base. And just today, just moments ago, Speaker Gingrich, sensing what's happening, turns, essentially ups the ante when it comes to criticizing the president. Let's listen.


GINGRICH: So defeating Barack Obama becomes, in fact, a duty of national security. Because the fact is, he is incapable of defending the United States.


KING: Ben Quayle, when you were running for Congress, you had what became a famous ad, "the worst president in history." Is there a danger zone, though? He's the president of the United States. He's -- defeating him is in the interest of national security? How?

QUAYLE: Well, actually, if you look at the defense custody (ph) he's trying to make, that is going to have the longest impact on our national defense than anything else that he's doing right now.

And if we look back at what happened during the Clinton administration and how they really went after the intelligence community and didn't allow it to continue to grow and actually provide us that national security, we've been taking decades to get that back into a place where we're actually secure.

So I think that what Speaker Gingrich said is exactly right, that what is happening with the custom defense and what he's proposing is going to put us in immediate risk and long-term risks are going to be astronomical.

KING: You know the debate that goes on in the party when something like this happens. People say, you know, they're trying to get the base, or they're going so far right, they'll never get pack to the middle where you win the center of the electorate. You shake your head at something like that.

HAYWORTH: Well, John, it's candor. This is not conservatism. This is not smoke and mirrors. The problem is this president is not a good steward of our national security. Sorry if that hurts some feelings; it's the gospel truth.

KING: If Mitt Romney loses one of the two contests next week, what happens in this race?

BORGER: I think all hell breaks loose, actually. If he loses Michigan. Not if he loses here in Arizona. I think he's favored here in Arizona. Would you guys?

HAYWORTH: I would say so.

KING: If he wins them both, is he -- are we back into inevitability? Or are we back on a roller coaster?

HAYWORTH: I think a lot of people will try to say that. But stay tuned. Look, if it's inevitable, nobody will want it.

BORGER: But Michigan, you know, is his adopted home state. Everybody thought he was going to be easily -- win Michigan. Now it's within a few points.

KING: So help me with the truth. Help me with the honest-to-God truth. In the Republican conference, does Speaker Boehner -- you look around; you just got the majority. Do you look around and say, "With this guy, win or lose, we keep our majority. With this guy, we lose our majority"?

QUAYLE: Well, I think that, win or lose, we think that the Republican candidate's better than the current sitting president. And we will have to rally behind him to make sure that he is going to be the next president.

But I think it really comes down to you need somebody who's going to be out there and champion our troops (ph). I know a lot of people are saying, this is good; we're sharpening our skills. But at some point, we need to have one person to be the standard-bearer, to have our message, to be the counterpart to President Obama.

KING: That person has to start winning to find out who that person is.

Congressman Quayle, J.D. Hayworth, Gloria, thanks so much for being here.

Let's check back in with Kate Bolduan. She's in Washington with the latest news you need to know right now.

Hey, Kate.


Good evening, everyone. More news to catch you up on. An avalanche killed three experienced skiers near -- near a resort in Washington's Cascade Mountains. They were part of a larger group skiing on Sunday when the wall of snow came rushing down. Four people were swept down the mountain, some tumbling as far as 2,000 feet. Of those four, only one survived, thanks to a special air bag designed for avalanches. You're seeing one of them here in action during a different avalanche in Colorado.

Also, Chicago is the most corrupt city in the nation, according to a study by the University of Illinois at Chicago. The study looked at corruption convictions over the last 36 years. The Chicago area had over 1,500 in that time. The L.A. area and the New York City area are the runners up.

And it's Mardi Gras season. I probably didn't need to tell you that in New Orleans. But for the first time, teen revelers will need to bring Mom and Dad along if they want to party on Bourbon Street after 8 p.m. So far there has been about 200 curfew-related arrests.

No curfew needed for this guy. That's comedian Will Farrell in royal garb atop a float. He's been in New Orleans all winter filming a political comedy movie called "The Campaign."

Now, imagine a burger grown in a test tube. Sorry, everyone having dinner. Researchers in the Netherlands are creating strips of meat from stem cells. They're hoping to make a product identical to a real beef patty without the environmental effects of farming. But it's much more time consuming than a trip to the drive-through. The finished product will be served in October. The total cost for that single burger, about $350,000, Mr. King.

KING: Uh, no thanks. We're out west, you know,. We hit the In- and-Out Burger today.

BOLDUAN: Oh, jealous.

KING: Finally tonight's moment, the moment and the man you probably missed. Ed Weiland is a FedEx delivery man by day, but his true passion is finding and blogging about the nation's best but unnoticed college basketball players.

Back in 2010, he chose an unknown kid at Harvard named Jeremy Lin as his top prospects. Well, turns out he was right.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you were analyzing Jeremy Lin as a college player, did you ever watch him play?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you look for underdogs?

WEILAND: Oh, yes. I mean, I -- when I led the 2010 preview off with Jeremy Lin, the idea was that, you know, I thought this would, if and when he broke out, you know, that there might be some notoriety there. I obviously never expected anything like this.


KING: Kate, next time the Knicks are in town, I'm going to take you to see some Linsanity.

BOLDUAN: Awesome.

KING: That's it for us tonight.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.