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JOHN KING, USA

Western Journalists Killed in Syria; Republicans Prepare to Debate in Arizona; Interview With Texas Governor Rick Perry; Interview With Arizona Governor Jan Brewer

Aired February 22, 2012 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening from Mesa, Arizona.

Tonight, we're counting down. Two hours now, just two hours until tonight's CNN presidential debate. It could be the final showdown of the tense GOP nominating contest.

Also, CNN's Anderson Cooper remembers a U.S. correspondent who died today in Syria. They spoke just hours before rockets killed her.

We're also joined tonight by Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer. She says this debate tonight will determine which candidate she will support. We will ask Governor Brewer just what she's looking for.

We begin with a huge night in presidential politics, what could be the last debate of this volatile Republican nominating contest. Since the last debate nearly a month ago, Rick Santorum has surged into the lead in the national polls. But it's a Mitt Romney-Santorum dead heat in one of the states that votes next, and that's Michigan. And the polls here in Arizona suggest a late shift here perhaps in Governor Romney's favor.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here to get us started.

And, Gloria, let's focus on the poll here today. We had a poll out yesterday that showed a relatively close race here. But if you look at the NBC/Marist poll, they show Governor Romney with a pretty big lead, a healthy lead here.

There's a lot of debates within the campaigns about the numbers. But why Arizona apparently shifting in Romney's favor?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, it's very fluid, as you know. And there's been a lot of changes in the last four or five days. And the shift has been to Romney.

You can say it's because he's got a lot of ads on the air. You could also say perhaps -- and this is all conjecture -- that it might be about Rick Santorum and the social issues and talking about Satan, et cetera. But there's one thing to keep in mind that is really important here and that is early voting.

By some estimates, almost half of all the voters who are going to vote have already voted. And Mitt Romney is doing very well, winning more than a majority of those voters. So that could really be the key to his success if he's going to have it in this state.

KING: So maybe because of the early voting, tonight's debate not as important in Arizona, although there's still plenty of time for people to get out and vote.

But in the state of Michigan where essentially you have a dead heat, the latest polls in Michigan showing Romney 37 percent, Santorum 35 percent, 13 percent for Ron Paul, Speaker Gingrich at 8 percent, the stakes in Michigan, where Senator Santorum has spent more time, are incredible.

BORGER: Very, very important.

I mean, if Mitt Romney loses his home state, this race is wide open again. And I think what we see for Mitt Romney is something we have seen in all the exit polls you have been looking at so closely, which is he's got problems with the Tea Party. He's got problems with evangelical voters. He's got problems with voters who describe themselves as very conservative. And all of those voters like Rick Santorum.

So he's -- Mitt Romney tonight has to let those Tea Party voters know, you know what, he's not as fiscally conservative as you might believe, because that's his opening on Rick Santorum.

KING: Gloria, stand by.

Often on debate days candidates take a low-key approach in the hours leading up to the contest, but not Governor Romney. Looking to answer questions about his conservative credentials and to frame a contrast with President Obama at the same time, Romney today laid out a proposal he said would encourage economic growth by making the tax code flatter and fairer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm going to lower rates across the board for all Americans by 20 percent. All right?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: I want to make sure that you understand, for middle income families the deductibility of home mortgage interest and charitable contributions, those things will continue. But for high income folks, we're going to cut back on that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And this afternoon in Tucson, Rick Santorum drew laughs from a Tea Party audience by quoting something the former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman said about Governor Romney earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: A track record that stands solidly on the things that we're talking about, not someone who's been, as one person has suggested, a well-oiled weather vane. I didn't say that.

(LAUGHTER)

SANTORUM: Just saying. That's all, just saying.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN national political correspondent Jim Acosta joins us.

And, Jim, you see Senator Santorum somewhat playful, but serious tone heading into the debate. You have been talking to both the Romney and the Santorum campaigns about the stakes and their strategies coming in tonight.

Let's start with Governor Romney. What's he looking to do?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No kid gloves going into tonight's debate. You heard Rick Santorum also say earlier today welcome to the party, Mitt Romney, talking about Governor Romney's tax plan.

When I went to the Romney people and asked them about what Senator Santorum had to say, they fired right back. It took maybe a minute for Andrea Saul, the spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, to get back to me to say the difference between our plan and Senator Santorum's plan is Senator Santorum's plan will increase the deficit.

I think this tax plan whether it was a good idea for the Romney campaign to float this out today or not will be one of the focuses of tonight's debate.

KING: Senator Santorum comes into with the momentum. The challenge is can the anti-Romney candidate finally hold and sustain the momentum? Governor Perry had that ball. Speaker Gingrich had that ball. Herman Cain had that ball. They all dropped it.

What is Senator Santorum's strategy to keep it?

ACOSTA: To play off what Gloria said earlier about this talk of Satan, whether or not this was a good thing for Rick Santorum, whether it is hurting him here in Arizona, he went back to the garden of good and evil today in that speech today in Tucson.

He was talking about good and evil. I had a chance to talk to Rick Santorum last night and ask him about that Satan speech he gave back in 2008. He defended it. He did not make any apologies. He said I'm a man of faith. I am a man who thinks of good and evil in this world. And he's not shrinking from it.

It's going to be interesting to see does anybody test him on this at tonight's debate? These social issues have been a weakness for Mitt Romney. Does he go there? KING: Interesting questions.

Speaker Gingrich, Ron Paul all there. We will talk about the calculations for them a bit later.

Jim Acosta, Gloria Borger, thanks so much, a big night here in Tucson.

Even though our focus is on tonight's big debate here in Arizona there are some critical developments in a major international crisis. We're talking about Syria now. You see the violent pictures there. At least 60 people reportedly killed across Syria today as government forces stepped up attacks on several cities, the overall death toll now nearing 9,000 with no end in sight to the violence.

On Friday, representatives of 70 nations gather in Tunisia to ask in the words of a State Department official -- quote -- "What do we do?"

Two Western journalists are among those killed today in Syria. Marie Colvin of the United States worked as a foreign correspondent for London's "Sunday Times." She and French war photographer Remi Ochlik were in the western city of Homs when rockets fired by the government forces hit the house where they and other journalists were staying.

CNN's Anderson Cooper spoke with Marie Colvin just hours before she did. Here's how she described the situation in Homs.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARIE COLVIN, "THE SUNDAY TIMES": This is the worst, Anderson, for many reasons. The last one -- I mean, I think the last time we talked when I was in Misrata. It's partly personal safety, I guess, there's nowhere to run. The Syrian army is holding the perimeter. And there's just far more ordinance being poured into this city and no way of predicting where it's going to land.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Anderson Cooper joins us live now.

Anderson, listening to that conversation from last night, we were watching here during the program last night and leaning forward to listen to her urgent report because she's so good. Has to be tough to listen to that now, knowing what happened overnight.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's really shocking.

I mean, her voice, just hearing it again, it was always so cool under fire. And even though she had been to so many conflicts and so many front lines, she never lost her humanity and her ability to see with a new way of seeing it and to bring that humanity to all of us. And I think that's what made her so remarkable. She was such a brave, such a good reporter, but so very human even in the midst of all this inhumanity. KING: And I think her experience is important. You mention it. She kept her cool, she was always calm. She liked to go where the action was and expose the outrage, if you will.

Listen to this part of your conversation where she is talking about the Syrian tactics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLVIN: It's a complete and utter lie that they're only going after terrorists.

There are rockets, shells -- tank shells, anti-aircraft being fired in parallel lines into the city. The Syrian army is basically shelling the city of cold, starving civilians.

COOPER: Marie Colvin, I know it's impossible to stay safe, but please try. Thank you for talking to us.

COLVIN: Thanks very much, Anderson.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Anderson, two things about that snippet there just jump out at you. One is her direct and straightforward 'telling it like it is" reporting, essentially saying what the Syrian government is telling you is a lie.

And then, at the end there -- forgive me, my friend, it has to be eerie -- and you did the right thing saying, stay safe, but then, when you listen to that today, it gives you a bit of a chill.

COOPER: Yes.

She used the word lie, which a lot of people don't lose. And I think a lot of people certainly in Syria and around the world appreciate the fact that Marie Colvin was willing to use that word when she saw a lie.

And that is what she has seen day after day in Syria, that the regime is lying about what is happening there, lying about what they're doing there, the atrocities they're committing there.

Yes. And, certainly, at the end, you always sound like an idiot when you're safe here on stateside and saying to someone in a war zone stay safe. You know they can't. And she knows you can't.

But she chose to go, even though she knew there was no place to stay safe. And Homs, unlike so many other places, there's no place you can escape to. They're surrounded. And anywhere, anybody there can get killed.

And one of the things, John, people keep saying she's fearless. And I think -- I don't think that gives her enough credit. I think she like many people who report from war zones, I think she felt fear, but she never allowed fear to stop her from going. And I think that's what makes her heroic and that's what made her so brave.

KING: It's a very important point you make there, important perspective at the end.

We mourn our two fallen comrades. And we also salute the brave journalists at CNN and other new organizations who continue the reporting in such terrible and dangerous conditions.

Anderson Cooper, thank you.

Much more ahead tonight on this tragedy on "A.C. 360."

And still ahead here: the Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, on what the Republican candidates need to do to win her endorsement.

And, later, Governor Chris Christie's not-so-polite advice to Warren Buffett on his push for higher taxes on the wealthy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Well, he should just write a check and shut up, really, and just contribute, OK? I mean, the fact of the matter is that I'm tired of hearing about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: There's a lot at stake for the candidates in tonight's debate including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's endorsement. The governor says she's held out on picking a candidate because she wants to see how they perform tonight, right here on her home turf. So what's it going to take to get the nod from this state's Republican governor?

Governor Brewer joins me here in Mesa.

What are you looking for?

GOV. JAN BREWER (R), ARIZONA: Well, I'm looking for someone to come out and be very decisive and very concise in exactly what they mean when they say what they're going to do about all the issues we've been on the forefront on.

KING: 8. 7 percent unemployment rate here in your state, third in the nation when it comes to the foreclosure problem. Have the candidates so far, whether it be Congressman Paul, Governor Romney, Senator Santorum, Speaker Gingrich, have they talked in enough detail for you on those issues to makes you comfortable?

BREWER: No.

KING: What's missing?

BREWER: Well, I want some concrete answers about what they're going to do. Are we going to continue to bailout of the mortgage companies and the banks? What is it that we're going to do? I think it really actually comes back to jobs and the economy.

We need to have less regulation, we need them to be inspirational, to give us the tools in which the states can work in order to increase our economy. And that's what we want to hear tonight, we want to hear about that and we want to hear, of course, about states' rights, something that's very, very important.

We as governors, whether we're Republican or Democrat, we really believe that we know what's best for our people. And in Arizona, and particularly we're very interested about natural resources. Arizona, our beautiful state, was built on mining.

Copper is huge here, and now uranium. And then we have the federal government coming in, writing all these rules and regulations and telling us that we can't do this and we can't do that. We need concise, clear answers.

KING: As you know, this state has drawn a lot of national attention in driving some of the immigration politics in the country, your state immigration law quite controversial. You've had it back and forth with the president about this issue.

Within the Republican Party, all of these candidates say they support the right of Arizona to have its own law, and Alabama and other states that have followed and copied suit. There are some Republicans, though, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida; Marco Rubio, the new freshman senator from Florida, who say be careful.

Even as you talk about these issues, be careful about the tone, because the fast-growing Latino population could be turned off. You have that population here in this state. What's the challenge for the Republican Party to be right on the issue but not put-offish, if you will, in the rhetoric?

BREWER: Well, I think it's real important that people understand, first and foremost, those of us that have lived in Arizona or in southern California, we have a very diverse population. The Hispanic population has been part of all of our lives since we've been born here or since we've grown up here. So it's not about race and it's not about bigotry, it's all about the rule of law.

And it is against the law to come into our state illegally. But more than that is that we need our border secured. The simple fact is that the drug cartels are coming in through Arizona. Arizona is the gateway for all the narcotics and the crime that is connected with it.

They kidnap people that are coming across illegally, they take them to drop houses. They extort money from their families in Mexico. They torture them. And they talk about civil rights. And they're right in our neighborhoods and our people in the southern border are afraid to go to sleep at night on their ranches.

KING: After the debate tonight there'll be just a handful of days until the people of your state finish voting. Some might have voted early already. Will you endorse tonight after the debate? Will you wait a day or two to think about it? BREWER: You know, actually I don't know. If I'm totally convinced tonight, I might announce tonight. But I think I would like to give it a couple of days and think about just exactly what they really have said and digest it and make that announcement, of course, before our primary on the 28th.

KING: We'll check in with you after the debate tonight. We'll see what you're thinking. Governor Brewer...

BREWER: Thank you.

KING: ... thank you for your time again. It's nice for in your state. Thanks for the beautiful weather.

Coming up here: Rick Perry knows better than anyone the hits and misses of a debate performance. He tells us what his candidate now, Newt Gingrich, needs to do tonight to win.

Plus, tweeting your way into heaven. The pope gives good lessons on being a Catholic in 140 characters or less.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

(NEWS BREAK)

KING: We're about 90 minutes away now from the big debate.

And if you have got a question for the candidates, break out your iPad like the pope. Still time to submit it on Facebook or Twitter.

And after the break, Newt Gingrich does the unthinkable.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am going to give up desserts, all desserts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: You're looking at live pictures there of the Mesa Arts Center here in Mesa, Arizona.

The Republican presidential candidates will be arriving soon for tonight's crucial CNN debate right here in a state that votes next Tuesday.

We're just 90 minutes away from what could be the candidates' final encounter in a setting that will look quite different from the earlier debates.

The Texas governor, Rick Perry, took part in many of these encounters and has the battle scars to prove it. In this half-hour, his last-minute advice for all of the candidates, including his choice now, the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Plus, horrifying scenes of a rush hour commuter train slamming into a barrier, injuring some 600 people, killing at least 49 people.

The Obama administration is trying to get a jump on tonight's big Republican debate, taking a page from every Republican candidates' playbook, the president today proposing dramatically lower tax rates for businesses and corporations.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is back in Washington.

Jess, walk us through the details of the president's plan.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John.

They call it a framework that begins the process of corporate tax reform. And the big picture points of this plan, they propose reducing the current tax rate for corporations from 35 percent to 28 percent for most companies. But for manufacturing companies, the effective rate for them would be 25 percent.

It would also under this proposal create a new tax for companies that have overseas profits. The goal of that is to encourage companies to invest and hire here in the U.S. The administration also says it would simplify the tax code and keep all these changes deficit-neutral.

In the big picture, John, they say the goal here is to eliminate subsidies and loopholes, so that certain companies like oil and gas companies would in the end see their taxes go up, but other companies that are now paying the full 35 percent would end up seeing their taxes go down -- John.

KING: And, Jessica, the administration says it would love the Congress to move on this as soon as possible. But they understand the political environment. That's most unlikely.

Is the president instead more drawing a contrast perhaps with the Republican candidates? Anyone in particular in mind?

YELLIN: Well, they insist this could get done this year. Believe that if you will.

He's definitely wading into the tax fight that's happening in the Republican race and I think just trying to start drawing contrasts with the Republicans in general, whether it's Romney or Santorum.

I think one thing you have to take note of is the fact that they single out the manufacturing sector for a lower tax rate. And they say that's because they believe there's a ripple effect; when you encourage manufacturing, it has a beneficial impact on the rest of the economy.

But you can't help but notice that this could also help him in manufacturing states that are important for him to win, states like Ohio, Wisconsin, even North Carolina and Michigan have big manufacturing bases, as well, John.

KING: Every policy proposal we get these days you have to put it in the context of the campaign and the months to come. Jessica Yellin down at the White House tonight. Jess, thanks.

Here in Arizona today, Mitt Romney warned the president's tax plan isn't, he says, what it seems.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's proposing today a corporate tax plan which I understand sounds like he's lowering taxes, but in fact, he's raising taxes. Raising taxes on businesses by hundreds of billions of dollars.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Governor Romney released some new details of his own tax plan today. They include slashing the income tax rate by 20 percent with a top bracket of 28 percent. Governor Romney also wants to cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent. That's lower than the president's 28 percent corporate tax.

Also Romney would limit deductions on mortgages and charitable contributions for upper income tax payers but not for those in the middle class.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" is coming up at the top of the house. She'll be talking about this and other issues, and she joins us now.

Erin, when you look at the Romney plan, missing anything?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Well, we're going to, as you know, be getting more details at the Detroit Economic Club on Friday, supposedly more detail.

And keep in mind, this is from a man who had laid out, what is it, 59- or 69-point plan which was supposedly very detailed but has been labeled as lackluster and much like the president's plan. He's clearly feeling the heat. Right? He's coming out with this new -- this new plan.

Talking to people today, the biggest criticism that I'm hearing about this plan is it doesn't seem to pay for itself, that it is -- you lose a lot of revenue. Now, we'll see if he gets more details on this on Friday as to whether that's true or not.

But in particular, is that corporate tax rate going to pay for itself? There are some other cuts in here that, as I said, some people that even lean to the right in the economics sphere seem to think he's relying on, quote unquote, luck, economic growth to come back big time to pay for this.

KING: Luck, that's not exactly the best way.

You also talked to a senior Treasury Department official today about the president's plan and his approach. What are they looking to accomplish?

BURNETT: Really interesting. I had a conversation with a top treasury official. And they said look our goal here is to try to -- and I kind of thought this was -- you might like this. Hire engineers, fire the tax engineers. The goal is to get rid of the lobbyists and the armies of lobbyists and lawyers and accountants that we have running this country.

Now by the way, if you were to go to a flat tax overnight, I don't know what you'd do with all the people that lost jobs. But they say this is a starting point for a conversation. They think that they can't go lower than 28 percent without raising revenue, but they're willing to consider it, if someone will come with something to the table.

Jessica was talking about that crucial issue of profits overseas being taxed. That is a lightning rod issue in corporate America. And the top treasury official was very careful to say, look. We didn't put a rate on what we'd tax that money at. We just want to put it on the table.

So I get the impression there's a lot of bargaining chips already out there, because they want to get major reform done, but they want to look like they're really trying to compromise.

KING: Start the conversation.

BURNETT: That's right.

KING: Leave the door open to dealing with Republicans more down the road if necessary.

BURNETT: Yes.

KING: Erin Burnett will have a lot more at the top of the hour in "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT." Thanks so much.

It's been 27 days since the Republican presidential candidates last met on stage. Twenty-seven days for each of the candidates to prepare for tonight's crucial showdown, the final debate for Super Tuesday. And for Newt Gingrich, who finds himself down in the polls, how does he gear up for tonight? Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My debate prep is to think people (ph). I think I do much better when we talk about big topics and big solutions and I do much worse when you get down into the kind of negativity of the campaign. So my goal will be to talk about big solutions like 2.50-a-gallon gasoline and then my (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You talked a lot about -- that, you know, Governor Romney is so dishonest that it's hard to even debate him based on the last times. Is it safe to say he's probably going to be making some of the same statements? GINGRICH: I don't know. But my goal is going to be go back to the big solutions, the big issues and not get drug [SIC] down to his level.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, each candidate, including Speaker Gingrich, faces unique challenges at tonight's debate. Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is back with us.

Gloria, let's start with Mitt Romney. You say Mitt Romney has to look presidential and don't get personal.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. He's not really good on the attack. People don't like that. This is his moment to tell people, ", you think I'm the most electable, which is what all the polls show. This is why." So don't give into any big cat fights there.

KING: No sniping, no cat fights.

BORGER: Don't talk about Barack Obama.

KING: A big night for Rick Santorum. The first time he's sort of at center stage, the candidate with momentum. You say deflect attacks to President Obama and defend his faith.

BORGER: Right. I was talking to somebody in the Santorum campaign just before I came on the air. They say he's really looking forward to this, by the way. He's walking over, Rocky-like, to the debate hall tonight. And he's going to be talking about Barack Obama. And if he is asked about his faith, he will defend it.

KING: And Speaker Gingrich, we just heard from Speaker Gingrich. He says he wants to talk about big ideas. You say it's critical he take back the spotlight on the issues.

BORGER: Right. I think this is not the moment for Newt Gingrich to go on the attack. I think he's got to talk about the issues, and he's got to present himself, John, as the bold conservative in this race. The person with the big ideas. Because that's when he does the best.

KING: And you say Ron Paul, the fourth candidate tonight, doesn't have a win yet.

BORGER: Right.

KING: He's the only candidate who doesn't have a win yet. You say be candid, stay candid. Why?

BORGER: That's his appeal. His appeal is that he's candid. I also bet you that he's going to end up -- if he attacks anybody, it's going to be Rick Santorum.

KING: That's what you think. All right. Gloria Borger, thanks. And Gloria will be with us throughout the night, of course, during and after the debate, as well.

And today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent for Roman Catholics, a time of reflection for Christians who observe this day's special meaning. It's also time for many of the faithful to give up something they enjoy. True, of course, for all Catholics, including Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What are you giving up for Lent? Have you decided?

N. GINGRICH: I am going to give up desserts. All desserts. For all of Lent.

And I challenge you to ask her what she's giving up.

CALLISTA GINGRICH, NEWT'S WIFE: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What are you giving up?

C. GINGRICH: I'm giving up my opinion.

N. GINGRICH: That doesn't count.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's continue our conversation about the big stage in tonight's debate with a man who knows what it's like to be up there on the Republican presidential debate stage. The one-time candidate, the former Texas governor Rick Perry, now a Gingrich supporter.

Governor, it's good to see you.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: It's good to be with you.

KING: Speaker Gingrich has not disappeared, but he's fallen a bit. He was -- after South Carolina he was the frontrunner. That's when Governor Perry got out of the race. Senator Santorum has the momentum at the moment. And you know the dynamic of the race. You were trying to take that spot and you had it for a while, to be the alternative to Mitt Romney. How has Senator Santorum taken that trophy away from your guy?

PERRY: Let me just say that we've had a lot of frontrunners in this race, and we may have two or three more frontrunners before August gets here. It won't surprise me for this to go all the way to the convention.

But Newt's the -- I tell people Newt's the real deal. He's the real fiscal conservative. He's the real social conservative. He's the real Tenth Amendment-believing and breathing individual on the stage. And each one of the other candidates, whether it's on the military side or whether it's on the fiscal conservative side or whether it's on the social issues side, the other candidates can be and are being picked apart a little bit by the Republican faithful out there.

So Newt has been always and will continue to be the individual who, from a fiscal conservative standpoint, the person who's balanced budgets. I mean, when you really get down to what is it that's facing America that most Americans are gravely concerned about, is they don't have a job. Is that they've got family members that are either underemployed or unemployed. And so getting this country back on track from an economic standpoint. And Newt's done it before; he's balanced the budgets. And I think that's the real driving force for people out there.

KING: Some people say he hurt himself in the two Florida debates where he tried to say above it all. He tried to be big, and the other candidates sort of outmaneuvered him. But does he need to be more feisty? Does he need to pick a few direct fights with the other candidates? What's your advice?

PERRY: I think he can be both Churchillian and point out the differences that he's got in the candidates. I think he's got that great trait and ability to do it.

But listen, when you -- when you take as much water on as he did with the negative ads that came out of Florida, it's going to beat you down. He didn't have the ability nor the money -- we'll just say he didn't have the money. Certainly has the ability to fight back.

But when you have that much money spent against you it's going to make a difference. And I think that's what happened post-South Carolina.

So I full well expect for him to be out on the stage tonight, being feisty when he needs to be but also being very Churchillian when he stands there, intellectually engaged in talking about, you know, the big issues and then really getting down in the weeds if that's what he needs to do to bring the point home.

KING: You said we could have two or three more frontrunners. That means either Congressman Paul takes it over or somebody else. Why is that? Normally in Republican races we know by now. But you have a party that seems to be having an internal tug-of-war. Some call it a civil war about what issues should be at the forefront. It's not just about the who, who should lead the party? But it's about what should be first? What's going on in the Republican Party?

PERRY: Well, I think 20 debates is part of what's going on in the Republican Party. I mean, the idea -- that's history. You all have changed the dynamic for the presidential election. So that's part of it.

But also I think that the -- you know, the candidates are talking about the issues that are important to them. And I go back to it's about the economy. Every Republican -- yes, social issues is important, the military is important. All of these other issues are important. But when we talk to people across this country, it's about the economy. And it's about who has the plan that can put America back on track? Who knows how to work in that shark tank up there?

KING: But if we keep -- if we keep going from frontrunner to frontrunner to frontrunner, that means nobody has convinced the Republican electorate yet they're that guy convincingly. Am I right?

PERRY: I think you're probably pretty close to being spot on from the standpoint of if we were, this thing would be over with. I mean, if there was one individual that came forward and said, "Hey, listen, this is the person that can beat Barack Obama. This is the person who gets this country back going." I happen to think it's Newt Gingrich. I'm pretty convinced of that. But the fact is, the bulk of the Republican people out there aren't convinced of it yet.

KING: You'll have a different perspective on tonight's debate. I look forward to catching up with you afterwards. Good to see you again. Thank you, sir.

And tonight's "Truth," we're down to the final four, the last debate before Super Tuesday, with no clear frontrunner. The Republican presidential race remains as uncertain as ever.

Plus, you won't want to miss this sad story. A horrific scene in Argentina as a train slams into a platform killing dozens, injuring hundreds. The latest on what went wrong and the fate of those who survived.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A few weeks ago, some were complaining of debate fatigue. Well, now we hear talk of debate withdrawal. Yes, it's been almost a month after all since all the Republican presidential contenders shared a stage. And tonight's "Truth" underscores the critical stakes of the showdown now just a little more than an hour away. We're down to the final four -- Paul, Santorum, Romney and Gingrich -- in a race that has been volatile from the outset and at this big moment remains as uncertain as ever.

Nine states have voted so far. Governor Romney has won four, Senator Santorum four, Speaker Gingrich one. There is no clear frontrunner. And, in a race shaped and reshaped repeatedly by the crowded debate schedule, tonight's faceoff could be the final debate of the GOP campaign.

We are certain it's the last one before the next 14 states add their voices and their votes. Arizona and Michigan on Tuesday, Wyoming and Washington state later next week. And then ten states. Ten primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday. That's March 6.

Here's what we know leading into tonight. The establishment that has long viewed Governor Romney as the inevitable nominee and the strongest general election contender, well, now has a serious case of the jitters and second thoughts.

It is tonight testing time for Senator Santorum. Can he, unlike the many others before him, sustain a run as the conservative alternative to Romney? And "Truth" is, here's something we don't know. Which Newt Gingrich will show up tonight? The statesman or the gladiator? To come back again, Gingrich needs to stop the Santorum surge. And debates have been his favorite venue throughout this campaign.

Let's talk truth and set the debate stakes tonight with our CNN contributors: Erick Erickson and Donna Brazile and Ed Montini of "The Arizona Republic."

Let's talk to the conservative in the group first. The volatility has been fascinating in this race. It's fun, from my perspective. This is what you do for a living. Why and what do you see as the most important dynamic in this debate about an hour away?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, to quote my friend George Will, that we have a frontrunner in the race. His last name is Romney and his last name is "Not." And the question is, we're bouncing around, trying to decide who is the guy to go up against Mitt Romney. A lot of people sat it out. Some because they thought Barack Obama would be strong, some because they didn't want to go up against Mitt Romney's money.

Well, Santorum and Gingrich have held on, and look what's happened. We have not had a clear frontrunner yet, other than that more votes go to the non-Romney candidate.

KING: Is it, Donna, you're a veteran -- you're a Democrat but a veteran of presidential candidates. Do we not have a Republican frontrunner because the candidates keep having good weeks and then bad weeks, each has had good weeks or bad weeks. Or is it more about the electorate, the Republican electorate doesn't know what it's looking for, so how can it know who it's looking for?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I think it's a sign of health of a political party to have a long campaign process because the voters get an opportunity in all these states, which by nature they're diverse, they're different.

So they're still on a shopping spree. They're looking for someone who will represent their conservative values but also someone who's electable in the fall, someone who is able to take on and perhaps beat President Obama, which I think is still difficult, given the fact that the economy is improving.

And you know what? Democrats are closing that enthusiasm gap. So Democrats are prepared for whoever turns out to be the Republican nominee.

KING: And yet, Ed, this is the home state of the last Republican nominee, John McCain. If you came to this state 10 or 15 years ago, the people who were leading the Republican Party and the issues that were sort of at the forefront of the Republican agenda a lot different than they are now. This state is...

E.J. MONTINI, COLUMNIST, "ARIZONA REPUBLIC": Very different now. What would have been considered a very conservative Republican 10 or 15 years ago is now considered a RINO, practically. It's a very different place.

And I think the problem with a lot of the national candidates when they come to a place like this, is in Arizona it's very clearly defined. The hard right in Arizona still has total control of the legislature and the governor's office and stuff like that. So Arizona voters know who they like. And they like those kind of people.

In this kind of debate, these guys are trying to win the middle. They've got to win the middle in order to win the national election. And that's a completely different animal. You're speaking to different people. Within this room, they're going to be speaking to people who are probably not the audience that they are actually trying to reach.

KING: It's a fascinating point, though, because the audience they're trying to reach now, because of that, because you don't have a frontrunner, because you have no clear favorite, if -- and it is a big if, in my view -- if this -- whoever wins is going to tack back to the center. We'll watch that if and when it happens.

But right now you have this fierce fight. Governor Romney had hoped to have this locked up by now. You see him tacking more conservative. You see Senator Santorum at the moment with a very right strategy, which I think is the short-term goal, is quite obvious: to try to knock Gingrich out of the race. Try to wake up the morning after Super Tuesday in a one-on-one with Governor Romney. I'm assuming it doesn't concern you, but this race is moving right. Not to the center.

ERICKSON: Yes. The issue to me, though, is I think it's moving right on social issues, not necessarily on fiscal issues. And this is an issue where I think the conservatives' fiscal issues right now would resonate with the country. Cutting taxes, reforming the tax code, not necessarily cutting them; reforming it, simplifying it, cutting regulations, helping small businesses.

We're having a debate now on the social issues because we have a lot of Bible Belt states coming up on Super Tuesday. But I think the candidates need to recognize that some of the principles can be political liabilities in the general. I'm very sympathetic to and agree with Rick Santorum on social issues. But even I recognize this election is about the economy.

KING: Election about the economy. Donna, I want you to listen here. The pro-Obama super PAC up to a little mischief in Michigan. Let's listen to their ad right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His message was clear.

ROMNEY: Let Detroit go bankrupt.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mitt Romney. There's no question he made a fortune from businesses he helped destroy. Even when the businesses failed, Romney came out ahead. Are those the values we want in an American president?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Well, why would a pro-Democratic, a pro-Obama group obviously be trying to influence the Republican race? The Michigan primary is the same day as Arizona's, next Tuesday. Trying to prolong it, trying to get Santorum instead of Romney? What's the goal here?

BRAZILE: You know, whenever you have an uncontested primary, on our side this time, just like George Bush in 2004, you're trying to not only wake up your party, your faithful, but you're trying to help define the candidate who's likely to emerge as the Republicans finish their process.

And so they're trying to define Mitt Romney as someone who's a quitter when it comes to American jobs in this country. And I think that's a pretty effective spot.

KING: Mischief making. A little mischief making. Ed Montini, real quickly. Four years ago the Democrats ceded the state because McCain was the nominee. Will this be a battleground in the fall?

MONTINI: Looks like it could be, but it really depends on whether or not the Latino vote comes out. There was a little bit of a disappointment in '10 with the Latino vote, because they thought that, with the passage of SB-1070 and a lot of the animosity that was created, there were many voter registration drives, but in that race, Republicans did really, really well.

KING: Ed Montini, Donna Brazile, Erick Erickson, thanks so much. The debate now just a little more than an hour away. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, some breaking news: the jury in a big trial, the UVA lacrosse murder in the state of Virginia, reaching a verdict. We'll have that for you right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: I want to bring you some breaking news now. A verdict in a case that drew national attention. George Huguely has been convicted by a jury of second-degree murder, also of grand larceny.

You might recall, he's the University of Virginia lacrosse player who was accused of fatally beating, now found guilty of fatally beating his ex-girlfriend back in 2010. George Huguely convicted of second-degree murder, we are told now, in the death there you see of Yeardley Love. She was 22 years old when this case drew national attention. He was accused of beating her. A letter found in Love's desk after her death.

Jurors deliberated for eight hours yesterday before breaking, and resuming their deliberations today. George Huguely now convicted of second-degree murder and grand larceny in the University of Virginia lacrosse case. You can see the pictures there of the defendant going into court, a case that drew national attention after the 22-year-old victim was killed back in 2010.

More on this story as it develops tonight, including next on "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT."

We're preparing here in Mesa, Arizona, for the big Republican debate tonight. Four candidates on stage. That has been the case for some time, the final four. But when you see the debate tonight, the debate hall and the atmospherics will be a little bit different. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: This is CNN's seventh debate of the 2012 Republican nominating cycle, the 20th debate overall. You're looking at the Mesa Arts Center. This is our venue tonight here in beautiful downtown Mesa, Arizona. Arizona votes on Tuesday. Michigan does, as well.

Pretty much an empty hall right now. You're seeing our crew putting the finishing touches on the preparations. But among the VIPs tonight, Governor Jan Brewer of this state, the Republican governor. The former vice president, Dan Quayle, lives in Arizona now. He will be here, as well.

As you look around the hall, some of our backdrop looks quite familiar. You see the seal of the United States up there, our CNN Politics logo above.

You might notice something is different. At all of our prior debates, the candidates have been standing at podiums. Tonight they'll sit down at a desk. Congressman Ron Paul, Senator Rick Santorum, Governor Mitt Romney, the former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. I'll be sitting over here at a separate table asking the questions.

We'll also take questions from our studio audience, as we have in the past, questions from Twitter, questions from Facebook, questions from CNNPolitics.com. Still a chance for you to participate at home if you have a question. Please send it in online and take a look.

It's a very important night tonight. These are the final four contenders. It's been nearly a month, nearly a month since they have had a debate together. This one comes at a critical time. It's the final debate on the books. As I noted, Arizona and Michigan, but on Tuesday, then Washington state on Saturday, the Wyoming caucuses coming up, as well. And then a host of contests all over the map on Super Tuesday.

It's been a very unpredictable, a very volatile Republican race, and now with the calendar moving in a much more aggressive fashion, many more contests coming up, an interesting opportunity for the candidates to get back into debate season tonight. And we're waiting for the candidates to arrive here at the Mesa Art Center. The debate a little more than an hour away, and as we wait, let's bring back in Kate Bolduan with some more news you need to know right now.

Hey, Kate.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, John.

Good evening, again, everyone. Some more news to catch you up on.

At least 49 were killed, and more than 600 rush hour commuters were injured when a train plowed into a platform at one of Buenos Aires, Argentina's, main rail stations this morning. Early indications are that the train was having trouble with its brakes.

And more than a month after the Costa Concordia capsized off the Italian coast -- how can you forget that? -- divers discovered eight more bodies on the cruise liner. The grim recovery raises the number of confirmed dead to 25. Seven people are still missing there. Unbelievable.

And on CNN today, the Reverend Franklin Graham clarified some remarks that made big headlines yesterday, when Graham seemed to question President Obama's Christian faith. First, here's what he told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REV. FRANKLIN GRAHAM, SAMARITAN'S PURSE: He's come out saying that he's a Christian, so I think the question is, what is a Christian?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you don't take him at his word when he says, "I'm a Christian?"

GRAHAM: No, of course I do. I wasn't saying. You have to ask every person, but he has said he's a Christian, so I have to assume, you know, that he is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: And here's what Graham says to CNN today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRAHAM: But I'm not questioning whether he's a Christian or not. I disagree with his position on abortion. I apologize if this has gotten blown out of proportion. It's unfortunate, but they're the ones that brought it up. And I do not question the president's faith at all. I'm not questioning that. I'm questioning his values.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: John, this issue does not ever seem to go away, it seems.

But on the big news of tonight, I've got to ask you. You're asking a lot of questions this evening. Big debate, huge stakes. What are you looking forward to?

KING: You know, I'm interested in these candidates. It's a fascinating dynamic at play. Yes, conservative voters want to know where are they on taxes, where are they on spending, what will they do about Iran, is this the next commander in chief? But there's a trust problem. The reason there's no clear front- runner, the reason different candidates keep winning state after state, the Republican electorate is wrestling with not only who it wants as a nominee, but what it wants to be as a party. And these candidates are dealing with what is a civil war, at least a tug-of-war within the Republican Party, Kate, and I'm fascinated by it.

I'm going to yield the stage now, though, and go get ready for tonight's debate. Please stay with us. As you stay with us, stay with us right now as "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" takes it away -- Erin.