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CNN GOP Debate; Interview with Cindy McCain; UVA Verdict

Aired February 22, 2012 - 19:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, HOST: All right. Thanks so much, John. John getting ready for the debate. We are an hour away from what could be the final GOP debate of this incredibly bizarre election season. What do the candidates need to do tonight?

And officials say that they have linked bombings targeting diplomats in Thailand to similar bombings in India. Israel says Iran is behind the attacks.

And breaking news, a verdict reached in the University of Virginia lacrosse murder trial. Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Erin Burnett. It is an absolutely gorgeous night here in the high desert. High stakes in the high desert, because we are live in Mesa, Arizona. In just one hour, the candidates will face off in what could be the -- everyone hear that bird? I'm sure you hear it too. Must be excited to go OUTFRONT.

Well, it has been a bruising and surprising primary season, and it's going to be a really big debate tonight. What a difference from the last time these men shared a stage. Take a look at January. Just before Mitt Romney's landslide victory in Florida. He was riding high, but tonight, a very, very different story. A lot has changed and the former Massachusetts governor knows it.

He is feeling the heat from Rick Santorum, who surge shows absolutely no sign of abating right now. He won, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. And just today, another national poll shows him leading Mitt Romney 35 to 26 percent. In the two states voting on Tuesday, Arizona and Michigan, Romney has seen his commanding leads whittled down just over the past couple of weeks. And wasting no time, Rick Santorum has seized the moment, carpe diem, going after Romney today with some stinging shots.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look at the record and then look at -- versus the rhetoric of what you see of, in many cases, Johnny come lately to the conservative cause. That's the decision you have to make here in Arizona. Who do you trust? Who's authentic? Who's believable? Is it the guy reading from the teleprompter or the guy -- or the guy out here on a high-wire line telling you what's in his heart and what's in his gut.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BURNETT: Also on the attack, Newt Gingrich, known for his strong debate skills, and Ron Paul, who as we know, has incredibly passionate support among young voters, but has lost some steam more broadly in recent weeks. Now, they are both making the case they should be challenging President Obama in November. OUTFRONT tonight, the four things to look for in this crucial debate. With me at the Mesa Art Center, Ari Fleischer, James Carville, and John Avlon. And you know what I just realized it is? It's bird bedtime.



BURNETT: It's bird bedtime.


BURNETT: That's right. Newt Gingrich is arriving right now. We're going to get all the candidates obviously are coming in, doing the final walk through. Callista wearing a lovely fuchsia, I guess that is, fuchsia, by his side, arriving here at the Mesa Art Center to get ready. We've got the things we're breaking down to in terms of how decisive this is. Let us start with Rick Santorum in the hot seat. This is his night, and Ari Fleischer, you have gone out on a limb and said he can win the nomination.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, he can. For the first time this week, Rick Santorum has a shot. And the reason is because of the conservative collapse of support from Mitt Romney, combined with the social wing of the Republican Party, swinging powerful leader Rick Santorum. The problem Rick Santorum has is can he close the deal and is he doing too much damage to himself in the general election? That remains a huge issue. He's got to open up a powerful economic front in order to really springboard out of a primary into a general.

BURNETT: What do you think, John? What pitfalls does he need to avoid?

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Romney's game plan tonight is going to be to make Rick Santorum look small, say he's too inexperienced. He can't be president and that he doesn't have the executive experience necessary, so what Rick Santorum has to do is say you know what, I'm a fighter, I'm an authentic conservative, you heard him saying that today. And in contrast to Mitt Romney, I'm a guy who can win over Reagan Democrats, because I've won them before. I can connect with folks in the Midwest, because I've done it before and I'm doing it this season. And just as crucially, I can connect with the middle class, and that's who we need to win this election.

BURNETT: Now it's church bells --


BURNETT: -- and helicopters and bird bedtime and all right. James Carville -- (CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: A lot going on here --


BURNETT: All right, Newt Gingrich's last stand, we just saw him arrive, is it his last stand? He is a great debater, but can he turn it tonight?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, you know it's going to be very hard. I actually think Santorum is due to have a pretty good debate. I talked to my resident in-house Republican expert, my wife today who made the point --

BURNETT: Literally in-house --

CARVILLE: -- conservatives like when someone is under attack. They like the fact that he's -- you know he's been (INAUDIBLE) particularly on a (INAUDIBLE) of faith and I think Santorum is going to come out you know pretty hard. Now could he go over the top? Maybe or maybe not, but another thing is I think everybody -- one thing that can't happen Romney can't have a bad debate. That would really be bad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He could do OK, he doesn't have to like win --

CARVILLE: But he's got to be -- he's got to do a decent job out there, a bad debate --


CARVILLE: -- which he generally does not have in his defense.

FLEISCHER: Here's the other thing Rick Santorum has got to find. Social issues are important issues, but they're tough issues. Because people feel so passionately on two sides of it. He cannot lead by condemning people or people's actions. He has to inspire and direct people to a better place. That's what's missing. Rick Santorum sounds a little too preachy, a little too condemnatory. Now there's a part of the Republican Party that likes that --


FLEISCHER: But if you're going to broaden the message you can't turn people off, you have to lead them to a better place.

BURNETT: And we're going to talk a lot more about the social issues later on in the show because it is crucial especially when you look at your beloved I's, the 40 percent of the Independent population --


BURNETT: It is his beloved I's. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely.

BURNETT: All right --


BURNETT: Mitt Romney's going to change the subject everybody (INAUDIBLE).


BURNETT: -- comes out with his tax plan and it's not fully done, right? It's coming out Friday, but he wanted to rush it out today for some reason, what could it be? But let me ask you John why is he doing it now? And he already had a tax plan, so --

AVLON: He had the broad outlines of one, but this is significant and the fact he rushed it out today is because he wants to change the subject. I mean, he wants to bring it back on economic issues, because that's (INAUDIBLE) issue number one, and that has traditionally been his strength. But when you see a campaign this late in the primary season, all of a sudden put out a much more detailed tax plan, something's fundamental to the Republican policy as that, it is a sign of desperation. He wants to change the debate, because he needs to change the debate.

CARVILLE: The one thing we know for certain about Mitt Romney, just because he's done something before it doesn't mean (INAUDIBLE) different again.

FLEISCHER: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait --


FLEISCHER: To be fair to Romney on this, this is a matter of degree. He's always been for tax cuts. He just is now applying them a little bit differently than --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not a change of heart.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a change of --


BURNETT: All right. Well we've got Ron Paul arriving, so let's show that, because Ron Paul, this is what we call an interesting romance, bromance, I'm sorry. A little bromance going on between Ron Paul -- oh there he is with his wife. And that is my favorite part about Ron Paul, by the way, is her. Remember when Wolf Blitzer asked the question about your spouse, and I liked how he answered it and I liked how she responded. But Ron Paul's been coming to Mitt Romney's defense, repeatedly. What's the logic in that? What's the strategy, Ari?

FLEISCHER: You got me.

BURNETT: He just likes him?

FLEISCHER: You got me.


BURNETT: The green room --


CARVILLE: He wants Rand Paul to be --




FLEISCHER: It's not because Ron Paul wants to be the vice president --

BURNETT: No, no.

FLEISCHER: He's not being nice on purpose.

CARVILLE: By the way, my almost 14-year-old daughter thinks that he's the cutest one running for president.


BURNETT: But there's something about him. The very young and him as the oldest candidate --


AVLON: Whatever kind of good relationship they seem to have personally, the real question is will Ron Paul supporters be able to move to a Romney if he's the nominee? I mean it's very hard to see what they have in common, philosophically, given the intensity of Ron Paul supporters on very specific philosophy that is not shared by Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum. I mean, they're not libertarians.

BURNETT: There's one thing in this tax plan today, and Ari knows where I'm going to go with this, this carried interest thing. And I know I have a beef about this. But you know, we have this opportunity today to say, look, I'm for lower taxes, but some loopholes don't make sense, one of them is one I happened to have benefited from and you know what, I'm going to close it, but instead we got some generic, oh, we're going to look and think about maybe closing it and having some task force --

FLEISCHER: (INAUDIBLE) that on Friday we don't know yet --


FLEISCHER: -- but the details of that more important speech (INAUDIBLE) Detroit Economic Club.


FLEISCHER: Look, I think generally speaking and I'm for (INAUDIBLE) carried interest 15 percent rate, I think it ought to be taxed at the normal capital gains tax rate, if it's your own money. If it's not your own money and you're playing with other people's money, it's ordinary income --

BURNETT: All right.

FLEISCHER: It should be taxed that way.

BURNETT: So we're in agreement on that --

FLEISCHER: But the biggest issue here is to push for absolute lowest rates possible while eliminating as many loopholes and deductions as possible. President Obama actually put something on the table today that was good, it wasn't very good and it wasn't good enough, but it was good, it was a start. It's gotten a somewhat good reaction on Capitol Hill. I would like to see them come together on something like that. Republicans have the bigger, broader reductions and reforms. Maybe there's a marriage here that can be made, even in an election year.

CARVILLE: A lot of -- there are some Democrats, and I'm not sure that I'm not one of them (INAUDIBLE) study it more (INAUDIBLE) corporate income tax and tax dividends and capital gains in a normal way. Just get it on the back end. That it's more efficient to do it that way. I'm not saying that's a majority of the people in the party, but I know a lot of smart Democrats that think that.

AVLON: And look, the president proposing 28 corporate rate is something that Republicans have rallied around in the past and they should be able to do again.


AVLON: Tax simplification --

BURNETT: You said Rudy Giuliani whom you worked for --

AVLON: Yes --

BURNETT: -- had proposed that.

AVLON: Absolutely. I mean this has been a matter of broad consensus. You can disagree about the degrees and the loopholes, but tax simplification is something that there should be an opportunity for action on, even in an election year. I really do believe that.

BURNETT: All right, well thanks to all three. We're going to see you all back later in the hour. Social issues, I found something really amazing on that today, so that's coming up.

And also John McCain -- just 50 minutes to go until the debate -- a woman who knows the state well, Cindy McCain comes OUTFRONT. John McCain, well he owned it last time around. She knows a whole lot about what is going to happen in the next week.

And President Obama revealing his tax plan, we talked a little bit about it, Mitt Romney releasing his own plan. We're going to have the details on which one actually makes sense and the breaking news on a verdict reached in the murder case of UVA lacrosse player Yeardley (ph) Love. That's next.


BURNETT: We are live tonight from Mesa, Arizona, where we're counting down to a crucial CNN debate, the 20th debate. But you know what, it might be the last debate. That's why you have to watch it. Our CNN poll in the state shows Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a statistical tie. Although some have seen the momentum shift towards Mitt Romney. Arizona should be friendly territory for him. He did very well here in 2008, one-tenth of the voters in the state are Mormon, and he has the backing of the very popular senior senator, John McCain. OUTFRONT tonight, Senator McCain's wife and a maverick herself, Cindy McCain, and wonderful to see you.


BURNETT: Wow, the weather is so amazing. I don't think I want to go home.


C. MCCAIN: -- we offer.

BURNETT: All right. Your husband obviously has thrown his support behind Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney has kind of chugged along, had some pops, and then some drops. Now, Rick Santorum is coming on strong. You know this state, obviously, incredibly well. What do you think is going to happen?

C. MCCAIN: I really think this state is, obviously, we are a very dynamic state. We have a lot of diverse people, but I think this is Mitt's state. We're in a situation, our economy's bad, we -- the people of Arizona are looking for someone who has business experience and an understanding of what it's going to take to pull us out of this. We have, you know, in Yuma County, we have 23 percent unemployment right now.


C. MCCAIN: We really need someone who knows what they're doing.

BURNETT: Social issues are going to be front and center tonight. And it's interesting, you're talking about the economy, it seems that most Americans think about it. It's not, however --


BURNETT: -- what has become center stage --


BURNETT: -- in this campaign over the past few days. You famously joined the no-hate campaign to promote marriage equality. It's an issue obviously you and your husband don't really agree on, but here's a short clip of an ad that you participated in.


C. MCCAIN: Our political and religious leaders tell LGBT youth that they have no future. They can't serve our country openly.


BURNETT: So is the Republican Party on the wrong side of this issue and alienating crucial Independent voters that could come in the general election?

C. MCCAIN: No, no, Republicans are not on the wrong side of this issue. I think that there are diverse opinions. There is agreement and disagreement on the issue. But, no, but what you're saying, Republicans are not on the wrong side of this issue, but we do -- some Republicans do disagree with this --


C. MCCAIN: -- but we openly disagree and we fairly disagree on things.

BURNETT: Do you find it frustrating that there's a perception among the voting public, and maybe it's a wrong perception, but there's a perception that to be a play-by-the-rules Republican, you can't be friendly to gay marriage, you can't be friendly to abortion. All of these things, that social issues still define the party.

C. MCCAIN: I disagree with that. I think the media portrays that. I think being a Republican, being part of the party for -- as many years as I have and knowing the Republicans the way I do that is not the case and that's not the bulk of Republicans that believe in that, at all. The vocal ones, maybe the ones that are on the far right side of the issue, but I -- certainly in the state of Arizona --


C. MCCAIN: -- we are open-minded Republicans and believe in equality for all.

BURNETT: Do you feel some frustration, then, that the conversation has become so much about social issues in recent days. I mean it's going to be a big issue tonight in this debate.

C. MCCAIN: Yes. I am frustrated, because you're sitting in a state that I said just now, that we have a huge economic problem, and social issues aren't even on the radar here. I mean people want jobs and they want the economy to be better.


C. MCCAIN: And so I think I'm sorry that the race has taken a turn to focusing on issues that are, in my opinion, not the top of the line on what we should be talking about.

BURNETT: (INAUDIBLE) on election night, covering the exit polls, you had six percent of people saying abortion was the number one issue. Last time around, it was multiples of that. So I mean certainly the numbers --


BURNETT: -- bear (ph) out what you're saying.


BURNETT: Your husband campaigned -- a champion campaign finance reform; his name is associated with that. What is your feeling about Super PACs?

C. MCCAIN: Well, you know, whenever there's a lot of money washing around, it's always a problem. However, with that said, you know, we are looking at our opposition, President Obama, having an enormous -- he's talking about raising $1 billion in this race. So right now, Super PACs are where it's at and, you know, that's what this race is -- has to go with right now, in terms of raising money, whether it's right or wrong, I'll leave that to folks like my husband to figure out.

BURNETT: And how much time have you and your husband spent talking to Mitt Romney? Is he advising him on, OK, you've got some issues right now, here's what you could do differently, here's how you could embrace, some of what worked so well for your husband, that charisma that he had, that Mitt Romney has struggled to find.

C. MCCAIN: Well, we're good friends with the Romneys. We have been since '08. I mean we knew them before then. Advising him, yes, he has advised him on certain things. I mean, there's a lot of issues that my husband, as you know, is not only involved with, but is an expert on. And of course, my husband offers that advice and Mitt takes it too. But this is Romney's race. And this is his race to define and to run. And I think he's doing a wonderful job at it. I mean, this has been an unusual year. And I --

BURNETT: That's for sure.

C. MCCAIN: Is that an understatement?


C. MCCAIN: Let me put it this way, I'm glad we're not running this time.

BURNETT: All right, well Cindy McCain so nice to see you -- C. MCCAIN: Oh, thank you.

BURNETT: And thanks so much for --

C. MCCAIN: Thanks for having --

BURNETT: -- giving us such great weather.

C. MCCAIN: Welcome. I'm glad you're here.

BURNETT: All right, well we have breaking news. A verdict has been reached in the murder trial of the University of Virginia lacrosse player, Yeardley Love. As you know, she was found dead in her room after a night of drinking and the jury has found that Love's on/off again boyfriend George Huguely (ph) was guilty of second-degree murder, after he repeatedly slammed her head into a wall during a drunken rage. This all happened after a party in May 2010.

CNN legal contributor Paul Callan is on the phone with me now. Paul, are there any surprises to you in terms of this verdict or the speed with which it was reached?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: The rocket speed with which it was reached is a great surprise, I think. This was a complicated case. There were more than 50 witnesses. There were a variety of theories, that it was a pre-meditated murder, an intentional murder, that it was a murder that took place during a robbery or a burglary. A lot of things for the jurors to discuss and debate. So to see such a quick verdict is a surprise to me. I would have expected a couple of days.

BURNETT: So given the speed with which it was reached, what are the implications for sentencing?

CALLAN: Well, he's been convicted now of murder in the second degree. He's avoided the big problem area, which was a murder in the first-degree conviction, which would have meant life in prison as a possibility. His sentencing range now is five to 40 years in prison, and that's a huge range, but the judge could go low end if he wanted to. Now, it's my understanding, you know, I think he may very well be sentenced tonight.

Things move so quickly in Virginia that it's kind of shocking to people in other parts of the country where these cases go on forever and there's three months between the jury verdict and the sentencing, but the judge could, in fact, impose sentence later tonight if he wanted to. So we'll -- we're going to have to see what's going to happen in that courtroom.

BURNETT: All right, well, Paul Callan, thank you very much.


BURNETT: Well, Romney is up in Arizona, but Santorum is surging. Can Rick find the number he needs to win? There's a strange take on this tale. And we're just 40 minutes away from what could be the final GOP debate (INAUDIBLE). Will one of the candidates close it out or are we headed for a brokered convention? We'll be back.


BURNETT: We're just over half an hour away from tonight's debate in what could be the last chance for the candidates to wow voters in the primaries, which brings us to tonight's number, 200,000. That's the number of people who have already voted in the Arizona primary. Now, most of that number is from Maricopa County, which is the most populous in this state. But there have been reports of high early voter turnout in other counties as well. Now, the 200,000 ballots represent more than a third of the total votes cast during the 2008 Arizona primary, when Romney placed second to hometown boy John McCain.

That's a lot of votes, though, cast early. And you know what it means? It means good news for Mitt Romney, because early voting in Arizona started five days before Rick Santorum started surging in the polls, and then sweeped Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, those primaries, of course, were on February 7th. Now, if you combine that with Arizona's Mormon population, it's going to take a big primary day and high numbers, high turnout for Rick Santorum to pull it off. We'll see if he can do it.

Well, officials say that bombings in Thailand can be linked to ones in India. Israel and Iran are pointing the finger at each other. And four years ago, Rick Santorum said Satan had his sights set on the United States. What did he mean? Does this revelation help or hurt?


BURNETT: We start the second half of our show with stories we care about, where we focus on our own reporting, do the work, and find the "OutFront 5". And tonight number one, Mesa, Arizona. In about 30 minutes, the GOP presidential candidates will square off at a debate right here, actually, right off to my left, not many feet away.

One of the big issues will be taxes. President Obama unveiled his corporate tax plan that will cut the rate from 35 to 28 percent in exchange for closing loopholes. Top treasury official tells me the number will be revenue neutral to the treasury.

Meanwhile, GOP contender Mitt Romney gave us more details on his tax plan. He wants to cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, but the news is that he wants to cut individual marginal tax rates by 20 percent, no matter what your bracket.

Number two, the Thai national security council says they have made tentative links between bombs set off in Bangkok last week with ones which were found in Georgia and a bombing in India. Now, the bomb in New Delhi was attached to an Israeli embassy van. There's a lot of finger-pointing on this. Israel blames Iran for the attacks, Iran actually blames Israel. The bombs were disguised as radios and contained C-4 plastic explosives. Now, no one was killed in the Thailand attack, but Thai police says the devices were likely smuggled into the country.

Number three: at least 49 people have been killed in a horrific train crash in Argentina. More than 600 people injured. The accident actually occurred when a commuter train hit a barrier at a Buenos Aires train station during rush hour. Officials are trying to figure out exactly what happened, but the Transportation Secretary of Argentina says that the conductor, who was 28 years old, had just started his shift and had a good record.

Number four: some horrible news to talk about from Syria tonight. You may be aware that two Western journalists were killed in the besieged town of Homs overnight, the victims of heavy shelling from government forces. American Marie Colvin and French and photographer Remi Ochlik were reportedly killed in a makeshift media center.

Marie's mother, Rosemarie Colvin, talked to CNN today about her daughter's assignments and whether she ever asked her to stop covering such dangerous stories.


ROSEMARIE COLVIN, MOTHER OF AMERICAN JOURNALIST MARIE COLVIN: No, I've never said that, because it would have been the most useless conversation you could ever have had with my daughter. From the time she was a little child, she was committed to doing things that were important.


BURNETT: Colvin and Ochlik were among 60 people killed in Syria today.

Well, it has been 201 days since the United States of America lost its top credit rating. What are we doing to get it back?

Well, we have some good news. Sales of existing homes were up in January. The median home price actually dropped, though, to $154,700, which -- hold your breath -- is the lowest level since November of 2001.

One economist tells OUTFRONT that the rise in sales may have been due to the unseasonably warm weather. Still, that continued drop in prices is perhaps the biggest issue holding this economy back.

And you have heard it again and again and again. That it is the economy -- the economy, stupid, in fact. That term coined by our own James Carville.

Why is it, then, that lately we've been hearing so much of this from the man that is now leading in the national polls?


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not about your jobs. It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the bible, a different theology, but no less a theology.

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

I'm a person of faith. I believe in good and evil. I think if somehow or another because you're a person of faith and you believe in good and evil is a disqualifier for president, we're going to have a very small pool of candidates who can run for president.


BURNETT: All right, that last sound bite, as you heard there, with people around him, was Rick Santorum defending his commenting back from 2008 at Ave Maria University when he said the United States was under attack by Satan.

Now, he's now backing down from talking about social issues. And, frankly, it may be paying off. Today's new Quinnipiac poll actually shows that Rick Santorum is leading Mitt Romney by 45 to 19 percent among white evangelical Christians. That is a trouncing.

And just a short time ago, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson released a new radio ad in Michigan calling on his followers to vote for Rick Santorum.

OUTFRONT now: Gloria Borger joins us, Erick Erickson, and Brett O'Donnell, who Advised Mitt Romney in the last debate.

Good to have all of you with us.

I've got to start with you, Erick, and the reason I have to start with you, Mr. Dobson coming out and as a religious leader, saying vote for Rick Santorum.

Interesting articles in "Foreign Affairs" today. They were talking about some polling. And in it they said the 2011 survey shows 80 percent of responders said it is not proper for religious leaders to tell people how to vote, 70 percent said religion should be kept out of public debate over social and political issues.

Is this strategy going to backfire when he gets to -- not just talking to white evangelical voters?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: If it's the way he's talking, if he gets into the general election, and he talks about the economy and jobs -- then, no, probably not. But, you know, everyone always says that religious leaders shouldn't say this. But, in fact, evangelicals have been a force in American politics for 30, 40 years.

So they may say that they don't want preachers to tell them how to vote, but they don't think they're telling (ph) how to vote, they think they're voting their own conscious, which is reflected in their preachers as well.

BURNETT: Well, this has not just affected Rick Santorum, it's also affected Mitt Romney.

And, Brett, I want to ask you about this because what this has done is forced Mitt Romney, who was trying to go for those independents, to go much harder on social issues. Here he is.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But I have fought for traditional marriage. I also went to Washington and testified in favor of a federal amendment to the Constitution, defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. I am pro-life. I am in favor of protecting the sanctity of life. I'll cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.


BURNETT: Brett, does talk like this help Mitt Romney or hurt him?

BRETT O'DONNELL, FORMER ROMNEY DEBATE COACH: Well, I think it helps him with Republican primary voters, but in the long run, he's got to re-focus. And tonight, he could do that -- refocus the debate on jobs in the economy, because that's really Mitt Romney's wheelhouse. And that's where he needs to refocus the electorate on what this election really is about. It's about jobs and the economy.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Republicans aren't the only people watching these debates. The general electorate is watching these debates. Independent voters are watching these debates.

And I've talked to a bunch of Republicans in Washington who say that Rick Santorum's problem is that he's essentially gone down what one of them calls a rabbit hole, and just started talking only about cultural issues, social issues. They know he's doing it to try and win over evangelicals in the primary.

But as a general election candidate, it doesn't do him much good. I don't think Mitt Romney can beat him on the social issues. It's just not going to happen.

BURNETT: Well, that's my question to you, Erick, right? I mean, all the way along, every exit poll we've saw, the people that real care about these issues have always from day one gone for Rick Santorum, maybe Newt Gingrich -- but not for Mitt Romney.

ERICKSON: That's true, but you've got more and more people paying attention. By the way, I can't think of an American race in a swing state, in a swing district that was lost because someone was adamantly pro-life. I don't think that issue is as negative. But the issue -- that's true.

But at the same time, Rick Santorum needs to understand, people when he talks only about that issue, they think, but do you not care about jobs, because, you know, Jesus and the devil didn't cost me my job or get me my job, they don't think. They want to talk about that issue.

BORGER: And that's the worry among Republicans, which is you've got to be talking about jobs. I mean, today Mitt Romney put out part of a tax reform plan without the details, because Barack Obama talked about corporate taxes today. And maybe Mitt Romney will start sort of turning the debate back to the issues that people care about, which is the economy and their future.

BURNETT: Brett, what would you -- what did you advise Mitt Romney to do when these social issues come up? I mean -- and I'm talking about specifically about the social issues that alienate a lot of voters in the center, but that motivate the base. And he gets put in the position in the debate if he doesn't answer it, he looks like a flip-flopper, but if he answers it directly, it bites him in the back when it comes to the general election.

How do you tell him to answer a question like that, say, on abortion or gay marriage?

O'DONNELL: First of all, you answer the question honestly. But it's how you talk about those issues that causes people in the center to get nervous. It's not whether or not you talk about them, it's how you talk about them.

And I think that you've seen a very striking difference in how Rick Santorum has been talking about those issues and how Mitt Romney talks about them.

So, you know, I challenge the assumption that it really hurts you in the center to be talking about social issues. It's how you talk about those issues. You can't -- you can't be judgmental.

You can't seem as though you're exclusive to one particular religious sect. I mean, I just think that it's about how you talk about them. How they're couched that makes all of the difference in the world.

BURNETT: Let's talk about Mitt Romney's home state, now, of Michigan, which is obviously also hosting its primary Tuesday. A new poll there is also showing a statistical tie between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, 37 to 35.

Now, one of the largest papers in the state, "The Detroit News," did just endorse Mitt Romney, which is obviously a good thing for him. Perhaps, he wished it would have happened much sooner than this, but he was not so friendly with those bailouts.

They say, quote, "Republicans are delusional. If they think either Santorum or Gingrich can prevail in the fall against Barack Obama."

OK, not a ringing endorsement, it's the kind of endorsement that Mitt Romney gets.

BORGER: Yes, it's kind of, he's electable. And the electability argument, the inevitability argument is just not enough. It's a part of his argument.

But if you look at the internals of these polls, they have showed us the same thing throughout this primary process, which is that the most conservative voters, the evangelical voters, and the Tea Party voters just can't get their arms around Mitt Romney, and that remains a problem.

ERICKSON: You know, John Kerry ran on electability in 2004. A lot of good it did him. That's Mitt Romney's problem this time. I think both parties need to pass a rule that says, neither one of us will nominate someone from Massachusetts again.


BORGER: Is that it?


BURNETT: -- the party platform.

O'DONNELL: But I think the electability --

BORGER: He's from Michigan. He's from Michigan.

ERICKSON: Yes, he's from Michigan this time.

BURNETT: It's M's. Michigan, Massachusetts.

BORGER: Right, exactly.

BURNETT: If he loses Michigan, though, is Mitt Romney out of the race?

O'DONNELL: No. Absolutely not. I think it makes his path a little longer and a little harder. But you know, the flip side is, I think Rick Santorum has to win Michigan, because a failure -- he's not going to win in Arizona, and a failure to win Michigan really, you know, is you know, is going to hurt him going into Super Tuesday, and it makes the long-term sustainability of his campaign a lot more difficult.

BURNETT: All right. Well, thanks to all three of you. We appreciate it.

We are just 15 minutes away from the debate and the big one, the 20th, the Wednesday debate. Can Romney stop the Santorum surge? Will Rick Santorum look presidential? And what if none of the candidates secure enough delegates during the primaries? Oh, it would become a dream come true for so many.

Erick Erickson is sitting next to me, going, yes!

Could we see the rise of someone like Chris Christie at a brokered convention?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BURNETT: All right. This just into OUTFRONT: President Obama has just signed the bill to extend the payroll tax cut through the end of the year. Now, you'll remember there was -- well, there were a lot of fights about this on Capitol Hill. The president almost didn't get to go to Hawaii for Christmas.

But it's done. The deal means the average American keeps about $40 per paycheck. So, that's about $80 to $85 a month.

All right. Well, we're a few minutes away from show time -- the last Republican debate, most likely. And like we've been saying, this one really matters.

And behind the scenes in the Republican Party, these two words, though, "brokered convention," seem to be getting louder and louder. That's when no candidate wins the 1,144 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination in advance to the convention. So the contest was all the way to the convention.

And we've been doing the math here at OUTFRONT. If Romney and Santorum split every delegate in the remaining primaries, we have a brokered convention. In that case, guess who most Republicans may want to vote for as an alternative?

Where is it? Chris Christie, the popular governor of New Jersey. A new Quinnipiac poll puts him head, shoulders, and stomach above former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Lucky thing that Chris Christie has a sense of humor.


BURNETT: All right. James Carville, Ari Fleischer and, John Avlon are all with us.


BURNETT: All right. This brokered convention, in all seriousness, it gets people excited, Ari.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's also nonsense at this point. You hear this kind of talk every four years and it's too early for anybody to give it any credibility. You've got to wait until at least after somewhat Super Tuesday, 10 states vote on Tuesday. It's too early mathematically to say we could get to that. I'm not there yet.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, here's what we don't know. Look, we're OUTFRONT and talking about it and that's the fact. But after Super Tuesday, we're going to get a good look at the map. If the map -- knowing what we know now, it's mathematically possible that nobody hits 1,144.

And that's Super Tuesday. We'll get a real good look at it. But the fact is activists are not excited and some of them are excited about this possibility. JAMES CARVILLE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Someone said, and I wish I could remember who it was to give them credit, said, it's not a brokered convention, because a brokered convention denotes that someone's actually in charge.


CARVILLE: Is this going to be like an open convention or something like that. There's to the going to be one guy who says, OK, you come through me and I go listen.

FLEISCHER: I want to be the parliamentarian at that convention.


CARVILLE: Whatever the chances of it happening are greater today than they were a month ago. If it's a 10 percent chance today, it was 5 percent a month ago.

FLEISCHER: This is the fun speculation that people enjoy getting into, but I just think still, you've got to wait until after March 6th when enough math is done --


FLEISCHER: -- for people to know if it's credible or not credible.

CARVILLE: Why do we have to wait? I don't want to wait to the all-star game to talk about who's going to win the pennant. You talk about it in the first spring training day.

FLEISCHER: And that's you. And that's why LSU lost.

BURNETT: Wow, he's sitting next to you.


CARVILLE: You know what Miami is? But, of course we do that. We irresponsibly -- just speculate.

BURNETT: How does it happen for someone like a Chris Christie to come in late? Can you really come -- there's different ways. You can come in when you get on ballots later versus coming in at the convention.

AVLON: So, basically, most ballots are closed. There's four or five states where it's still possible to get on the ballot, California being one of them.

What you've heard is, is that some folks have been saying that if Mitt Romney were to lose Michigan, that you'll really do the, in case of emergency, break glass and there'd be an outright move to get somebody on, not with the idea that they could get in the primaries and win the primaries --


AVLON: -- but they could make it more difficult for anyone to clinch, and that would kick to it Tampa.

FLEISCHER: There's one other factor, I think, actually. If it does get to that point, I think the most important names are going to be Gallup, Quinnipiac, Pew, CNN, ORI.

What I'm saying is if these contenders get in there and day don't have a majority and the polls show that none of them have a shot at beating Barack Obama, that's when Republicans say, we need somebody from the outside, we need a new name.

If the polls show it's close with one of these three, then that convention's going to go with one of those three or one of those two.


CARVILLE: Gary Brown got in and won all the primaries late. If somebody were to get in, you're right, mathematically. But let's just say Chris Christie (INAUDIBLE) irresponsible speculation gets in --

BURNETT: People like to talk about Chris Christie.

CARVILLE: Right. And he wins the last four primaries, and he has a good case to make going to Tampa. He has a case to make. And, look, Republicans, blah, blah, blah, have voted for me -- it would give him, certainly, a leg up over the other candidates.

AVLON: In the context of this debate, this race right now, it shows you how much ground Mitt Romney's got to do to solidify his status as the de facto front-runner. He's got to go long way to say, you know what? I've been the conventional wisdom front-runner, I've earned it; I can unite the conservative coalition behind me. And if the can't that's for someone else to say, you know what? I can do it. Otherwise, all bets are off.

CARVILLE: You know, we always talk about how big an event is, particularly if it's on our network, we tend to promote it. I think we've got to agree, this is a pretty big debate.

The consequences of this -- forget this kind of hype and everything, and particularly big for Romney, because he can't have a bad debate. If he has a bad debate, then the thing could unravel.

FLEISCHER: I actually think it's particularly big for Rick Santorum.


FLEISCHER: Because if Rick Santorum can show that he has the depth to go beyond social issues and if he can talk softly and effectively about social issues and looks presidential, he can blow this thing apart. He can win.

CARVILLE: See, I disagree. (CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: That's what's amazing about where we are. Romney is always steady and solid and somewhat strong. He debates actually pretty well. But he doesn't wow people. That's the difference.

AVLON: The edges between -- and we're seeing this in the polling. I mean, Santorum's got the support of evangelicals and the Tea Party. And Romney's got sort of the wealthier Republicans and the establishment behind him.

It's going to be -- I think it's going to come down to whether Santorum can say, you know what? The middle-class voters, that's who's going to decide this election. I can relate to them. I can connect with them. I got plans on folks --

FLEISCHER: And we can't forget Newt Gingrich. He's a debater.


BURNETT: Newt and Ron Paul.

CARVILLE: The only person in this race, I disagree with all respectfully but I did -- Romney is the only person in the field that has any chance to be nominee. Other guys can be (INAUDIBLE), the other guy can make a difference, they can affect --

BURNETT: You still don't think Rick Santorum can do it.

CARVILLE: No. No, no, no.

FLEISCHER: I love how Democrats try to think about how Republicans vote.

CARVILLE: I'm going to sit right here, and you know what? I'll be the happiest person in the world. There's no person in the race that has a chance to be the nominee but Romney. They're not going to -- they haven't even started.

FLEISCHER: It's a misread on the conservative angle with Mitt Romney that's decaying him from the inside and Santorum's possibilities because of the social issues.

CARVILLE: That's why he was a nice choice. That's why he was a nice choice.


FLEISCHR: it doesn't matter what you see. It doesn't matter where you start, just where you finish.

CARVILLE: They'll go to Michele Bachmann before they go to you, you probably got --


AVLON: Yes, it's not a good sign.

FLEISCHER: There aren't many people left who can win, and that's Santorum and Romney.


CARVILLE: If I'm wrong, I'll be the happiest wrong guy in the world. I thought that was (INAUDIBLE). So, I was wrong.

FLEISCHER: James, you're always the happiest wrong guy in the world.

BURNETT: Ari, I want to read one sentence from this article which I thought was really interesting in "Foreign Affairs," "God and Caesar in America." And they've done this analysis of religion. We're talking a little bit about it.

There was one sentence that I think some people might find offensive but I think it's worth reading, talking about millennials, a lot of them tote liberal, but obviously, a lot of millenials are now behind Ron Paul.

The sentence says this, "To them, religion means Republican, intolerant, and homophobic."

FLEISCHER: If that's what it means, that's very sad because to me religion means faith, religion means love, religion means healing. It has its downsides for people who take it the wrong way.

I hope that's not the case for millennials.


FLEISCHER: I think a lot of young people are busy. They have other things going on in their lives and they enter into faith a little later in terms of regular --

BURNETT: That's a fair point.

FLEISCHER: -- when they have families especially.


AVLON: Millennial generation identifies the spiritual but they have been alienated by organized religion, especially the politicization of religion. And I think that's the important distinction.

FLEISCHER: Yes, I agree with that.

CARVILLE: I think that Santorum, in my own view, I think he represents a brand of Catholicism that -- and I am a Catholic -- that I don't find particularly attractive. It's all about sex and what you can't do, as opposed to solid doctrine, Jesus and love and all the other things.

But that's me. I think these young people think this guy is obsessed with, you know, with gays, obsessed with --

FLEISCHER: And this is the risk for Rick Santorum.


CARVILLE: By the way, I don't think that's what the real face of the --

BURNETT: I have one last thing I want to share. It's a picture from a trail, I guess, some sort of parade but not actually a campaign parade. Let's take a look at it. I think it's Mardi Gras. Yes.


BURNETT: So I'm just wondering, yes, the person behind the mask there, yes, that person --




BURNETT: So we have -- Donna Brazile had this picture. And I just want to give you these beads. Now, you know, I know we're talking about sex, religion --


BURNETT: I don't know what it would take to get these many beads. There you go.

CARVILLE: I told Donna I was on the king butterfly float. (INAUDIBLE).

She was sitting down in Napoleon Avenue and John called her (INAUDIBLE). We had a great time.

FLEISCHER: A handsome look on you.

CARVILLE: That's right. Look at that.

BURNETT: That is achievement.

CARVILLE: Who dat?


BURNETT: Thanks to all of you.

Just a few minutes away from the debate. Of course, John King is getting ready behind the scenes. Wolf Blitzer is up next.


BURNETT: Well, you heard James Carville say it. This debate matters a whole lot, the most important debate, perhaps. It's the 20th of the Republican primary season.

We all know they have moved the needle time and time again, but this could be the last debate. We're right here at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa, Arizona. John King is getting ready.

OUTFRONT now a man who has hosted three of the debates so far this season, including the last one, that, of course, would be the one and only Wolf Blitzer.


BURNETT: Thank you.

So, what happens in those few minutes before the debate?

BLITZER: Yes. I did five debates four years ago in the last cycle, three debates this cycle. You get nervous. It's only natural. You know there are a lot of people in the audience but there are millions and millions of people watching all over the United States, indeed, many more millions watching all over the world.

So you get a little nervous. You've gone through your questions. You know what you want to do. But it's natural you begin to get a little nervous.

BURNETT: You feel the pressure.

BLITZER: You feel it. Of course. You want to do a good job.

And you know, you know, that these four gentlemen who are going to be questioned, they have their agenda. They're going to try to do what they want to do. You want to give them all an equal amount of time, you want to be responsible, let them answer the questions. They'll see if they disagree, where they agree.

And they might come after you, which, of course, happens all the time.

BURNETT: That's right.

BLITZER: So, you got to be ready. You got to be prepared for that and, you know, you do a lot of work going into it.

BURNETT: I have to advise that if Newt Gingrich does that to John King again --

BLITZER: I assume --

BURNETT: I think he might get leveled.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens.

BURNETT: All right. You've got Rick Santorum on your mind tonight as you said -- Santorum on your mind.

BLITZER: Yes. BURNETT: What does he need to do tonight?

BLITZER: You know, this is really the first debate. You know, usually he's on the ends. First, he's one of the ends.

Now he's in the center. He's a front-runner, nationally in a Gallup tracking poll, he's ahead of Mitt Romney. So, he really has to do well tonight. I suspect the social issues will come up. I'm curious to see how he handles them.

I assume the other three are going to go after him. And will he let them get under his skin? Will he be sort of above it all or really start getting angry and feisty and how will the public respond?

I'm sure just like the moderator prepares, rehearses, goes through with producers and researchers with questions, these guys have been practicing all day -- hypothetical questions. How are you going to handle it if Newt Gingrich were to say this or Ron Paul went after you on that? They've got their advisers.

BURNETT: They have coaches, right?

BLITZER: Oh, yes, they got coaches. This is almost like a sporting event. They come in ready. And they've had 20 previous debates so they've got some experience going into this one.

BURNETT: All right. Well, Wolf Blitzer, thank you very much. Thanks for telling me what goes on behind the scenes. I'm curious. Last few minutes, you would think there would be butterflies in your stomach.

Well, if there are butterflies in John King's stomach, they're going away right now because he is about to host the CNN right here in Mesa, Arizona.