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THE SITUATION ROOM
Taliban Poisons Food at NATO Base; One Dead, Four Injured in Ohio School Shooting; First Photos Of Possible Shooting Suspect; Down To The Wire In Michigan; Santorum: Obama Is A "Snob"; Romney's Car Trouble; Afghan Suicide Attack Kills Nine; North Korea "Ready For War" With U.S.; Gas Tanker Causes Fiery Crash
Aired February 27, 2012 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Five Ohio students are shot, one of them fatally, the suspect chased out of the school by a teacher and now under arrest. Authorities are holding a news conference right now. We're going to bring it to you live in a moment.
Also, a bloody suicide bombing and the poisoning of food at an ally base, new Taliban claims of revenge for the burning of holy books and new signs the U.S. is fed up with the violence. We're going to hear from the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
And on the eve of two big primaries, Mitt Romney fights to win the state where he grew up. But can he stop Rick Santorum's momentum?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
We're following the breaking news in Chardon, Ohio, near Cleveland right now. It was a scene of horror and chaos when a young man opened fire on students in a high school cafeteria, killing one, injuring four. A suspect is in custody. The investigation is unfolding.
Here's a news conference that's happening right now.
(BEGIN LIVE SPEECH)
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
TIM MCKENNA, CHARDON POLICE CHIEF: ... and rapidly to today's event.
As a result of that training, that practice, if you would, law enforcement was quickly placed inside the school upon arrival. And we believe that that helped to lessen the tragedy that occurred. Unfortunately, much had occurred prior to law enforcement's arrival.
I would like to bring Joe Bergant, Chardon's school superintendent, forward to speak as well.
JOE BERGANT, CHARDON SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT: Joe Bergant, Chardon local school superintendent. First of all, I would like to thank our law enforcement for working with us so diligently over the last couple of hours. Nonetheless, our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the five victims in the case. There's really not a lot you can say when you are responsible for the safety of 3,100 kids, other than the fact that we're going to do the best we can to make sure our schools continue to be safe and continue to work with law enforcement.
We do have grief counselors available as we speak at our middle school from 3:00 until 8:00 tonight. And we have organized a candlelight vigil at St. Mary Church across the street tomorrow night at 7:00. We will have counselors available for -- obviously, for the victims and their families. We have school personnel...
(END LIVE SPEECH)
BLITZER: All right. It looks like we lost that connection with that news conference. We will try to reestablish it and see what's going on right now.
But it looks like that -- well, actually, I think we have it back.
(BEGIN LIVE SPEECH)
BERGANT: ... immediate vicinity where the incident took place as well as to our teaching staff, our professional staff, bus drivers, et cetera.
So the next couple of days we certainly will be focusing heavy- duty on some of our grief counseling and then obviously, subsequent sessions after that. Classes will be canceled for the entire Chardon schools tomorrow. There will be no students in attendance. And I'm asking that our teachers and faculty and all support staff, with the exception of about five maintenance people, in case we need access to the buildings, we want them to stay home and spend some time reflecting on family.
I hope every parent, if you haven't hugged or kissed your kid in the last couple of days, you take that time. Thank you. And, again, it's a sad day for us here at Chardon schools. I will introduce our police chief and good friend of mine, Tim McKenna.
MCKENNA: Thank you.
My name is Chief Tim McKenna. I'm the police chief here in Chardon, Ohio.
At 07:38 this morning, our first 911 call came in to our station, shots fired at Chardon High School, 151 Chardon Avenue. Immediately, the units that were on as well as myself and numerous other law enforcement agencies were responding to our scene.
Information received upon my arrival was that the shooter had left the building. At that point, our team went right in the door to advise EMS to get in and start assisting with the injured students. I want to assure the Chardon community and the neighboring communities, we are safe. We have done diligent work up to this point and our work is not done, OK? I do want to give the news media here an update. Currently, we have one deceased student. His name is Dan Parmertor. It's Parmertor.
The two other students that were Life Flighted to Cleveland Metro are both in critical. The two students that were ground transported to Hillcrest Trauma Center, Cleveland clinic, one is stable and one is serious. No names.
Obviously, our subject that we have made an arrest on, he's a juvenile. And until that's adjudicated in the proper court, no name release on that. But that's all I have to say at this time.
I want -- my deep heart goes out to the families of the five victims, not only to them, but to our whole community. And, folks, just bear with us. We do have a lot of homework to do yet. This investigation is very -- going to be very long. And I thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's been a lot of inquiries pertaining to the 911 tapes.
It's been decided no 911 tapes will be released today. There's a large volume of them that we are needing to go through. As soon as it's at all reasonably possible we will make those available to the media.
I want to thank the media for their help and their patience in helping us get through this tough day. And at this time, I want to introduce a grief counselor from Ravenwood Mental Health, David Boyle.
DAVID BOYLE, RAVENWOOD MENTAL HEALTH CENTER: Hi. My name is David Boyle. I'm from Ravenwood Mental Health Center, which is the mental health center for Geauga County.
And I just wanted to provide a little bit of information about the response to this event for those who have been affected by it.
First of all, I want to say to those who may be listening to me that there is no normal response to this kind of event. Some will seem to handle it in stride. Others will be very distraught. And it's all within normal limits.
What we'd like to say to you is that it is our opinion that it's best for you to talk about and deal with these events as soon as you can after the event and thereby reduce the long-term impact of this terrible tragedy.
I wanted to point out that the response by the professional community has been enormous. In addition to people that we have here from my agency, the other Geauga County agencies are here, Catholic Charities, Lake-Geauga Recovery, Family Pride, and as well as many agencies from around Northeast Ohio, Recovery Resources, Beech Brook, and Belfair. I had a call this morning or this afternoon from University Hospitals and they have offered to help with whatever is needed. So I want to say to all those that are affected, there are plenty of expert professionals to help you deal with this situation. Please take advantage of it.
And then one last thing, some will find that this sort of event is apparently taken in stride at first and long after the uproar over the situation has died down, begin to suffer. We will be there next week, next month or next year.
Please call us and ask to speak to someone if you find emotions or depression or anxiety coming up in relation to this or any event.
But, finally, just two last things, I know the schedule is kind of being built as we go along. There is grief counseling here until 7:00 p.m., I believe, and as long as necessary, of course. We will be back at schools tomorrow at 10:00 and at 4:00 p.m., and then in the schools later in the week.
And I would like to mention to Geauga County residents here, in the front of the Geauga County phone book is a number called the Copeline, 440-285-5665. We answer it 24 hours a day and have professional staff around the clock and are available to respond. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Again, I would like to mention the phone number to get on the mailing list for our e-mails, for your updates, for the press releases, 440-279-2009, extension four.
That will get you to our records department. We want a phone number. We want an e-mail address and a name. And then as press releases are provided by the Chardon P.D., we will be more than happy to disseminate them out. Again, we will be here tomorrow, 11:00 a.m., in this parking lot, your vehicles more than welcome. The school has opened this parking lot up here for your vehicles. I want to thank you.
(END LIVE SPEECH)
BLITZER: Let's go to Ted Rowlands. He's on the scene for us in Chardon, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland.
Ted, pick up the story here. What do we know? Walk us through what happened earlier this morning at the school.
TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, at 7:30 a.m. like the chief of police just articulated, that's when the first 911 call came in and that's just after the shooting began.
Apparently, according to eyewitnesses, this individual, a student, apparently at the school, stood up from a cafeteria table and started shooting. At that point, as we know, five people were injured.
A teacher, who was monitoring the study hall scenario in the cafeteria which apparently takes place before school each day immediately reacted and chased the student out of the school and off of school grounds. At that point, they were able to deal with the injured.
Obviously, we know that there are four still injured. Unfortunately, one individual has died, Daniel Parmertor. His family actually issued a statement a few hours ago. He was one of the students that was taken to Cleveland, airlifted to Cleveland. Three of the five went to Cleveland and the other two are hospitalized here.
That statement says in part: "We are shocked by this senseless tragedy. Danny was a bright young boy who had a bright future ahead of him. The family is torn by the loss. We ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time."
Another thing we can tell you right now, Wolf, is that the ATF and the FBI are helping out with the local sheriff's department and the local police with this investigation. We have some video that we just shot just a few hours ago at the suspect's home. It is clear that they're going through that. Clearly, they issued a search warrant and got a search warrant and they're going through the home there.
And this is still in the initial stages of the investigation, of course, the chief of police just said that press conference. But they are confident at this point that the suspect did act alone. They did recover a handgun and it's been turned over to the ATF to analyze. But at this point, again, they believe that this is a lone gunman, that one person did act alone.
I also had the opportunity to talk to a family member of one of other injured people. And he told me that his relative is out of surgery and they have been told that he's expected to survive. So, good news on that front -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And as you know, the suspect being, himself, a student, do we know anything about this individual?
ROWLANDS: Only what students around here say, that one individual said that he used to be friends with him in elementary school and he had sort of dropped off the radar. And he described him as being Goth, if you will, for a while and being a quiet individual.
Getting a lot of conflicting reports, too, about certain social networking communications that he may have had in the days and day of -- prior to the shooting. We're still trying to organize that and iron out specifically whether or not he did communicate over Twitter and/or Facebook.
But this individual is in custody and he, apparently, gave up without any problem to folks outside the school. He's being identified as T.J. Lane. That was from a witness who talked to "The Cleveland Plain Dealer." And everyone we have talked to outside the school seems to corroborate that, that that's, indeed, the identity of the suspect.
BLITZER: Ted Rowlands will stay on the story for us. Thank you.
Deborah Feyerick is also working the story for us. She's here at the CNN Center. What are we learning? What else are we picking up, Deb?
DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we can tell you moments after several parents dropped their children off at school they began to get frantic calls from several students in the building saying a gunman was on the loose and he was shooting at some of the teenagers. While they're not releasing 911 calls, we do have the dispatch calls that came in early. Listen
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have three students down in the cafeteria at this time. We still don't know where the shooter is.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ten-four. Squad 57 and Squad 53 are (INAUDIBLE)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Attention, Chardon Rescue, we have an active shooter at the high school. Repeat, active gunshots at the high school.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to be en route.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
FEYERICK: And, Wolf, police are now investigating the possibility that, in fact, the gunman may have targeted a specific table inside the cafeteria, a group of teens, all sitting together, early in the morning, all of them about to head to vocational classes.
One of them, Nate Mueller, was friends with the alleged gunman. Mueller was grazed in the ear. When he spoke to reporters, he was clearly in shock. He was clearly processing the information. But listen to these details.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NATE MUELLER, VICTIM: We were at the table right next to him. He was within three feet of us. And three of the victims were at my table as well out of five people.
QUESTION: Nate, has this sunk into you yet?
MUELLER: No. It's still pretty -- it's pretty fake to me still. It all feels like a movie. Tomorrow, ask me, because I'm sure tomorrow I will be devastated.
QUESTION: Did you see the gun first or did you hear the shots?
MUELLER: He took one shot. He didn't say anything the entire time. He took one shot. And then that's when we looked to see what was happening, because it sounded like a firecracker almost.
And, at that point, I looked back and I saw him shoot -- which hit one of my other friends that was sitting at the table with us. And then as I was turning around, that's when he hit me. And I had (INAUDIBLE) left.
REPORTER: So, Nate, you're at the table. How many kids are at the table?
MUELLER: Five. Four at the table including me. And then one standing next to the table.
REPORTER: Did the gunman just walk in or had he been --
MUELLER: He had been -- he had been sitting at the table behind us after everybody left. I assume he was sitting with and gone to class. And we were just talking like a normal day. And then we heard the first shot and that's when it all started.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FEYERICK: And this teenager, Nate Mueller, his ear was grazed, miraculously escaping death. That's how close he was. But he says that the group he was sitting with, one of the teens had apparently started dating the ex-girlfriend of the alleged shooter. That is under the investigation as a possible motive.
And you heard Ted Rowlands talk about Twitter and Facebook. And there are some students who say that they did see pictures posted by the alleged gunman. In one of the pictures, he's holding two guns. In another picture, he's apparently, holding up a warning sign, alerting the school massacre. All of that right now, under investigation.
So fluid, as you know, Wolf, that they are piecing together the details right now. Everyone in shock, everyone devastated, especially, one of the five did not survive.
BLITZER: Deb, I want to stay with me because we have one of the students at the school on the phone right now, Neil Thomas.
Neil, where were you when all of this was happening this morning?
NEIL THOMAS, STUDENT AT CHARDON HIGH SCHOOL (via telephone): I was in the -- my Spanish class down the hall.
BLITZER: What did you hear? What did you see?
THOMAS: Well, you know, I was in my class. I didn't hear the gunshots. What I heard -- I heard and I saw the kids running down the hall screaming and shortly after the kids ran down the hall screaming I heard on the announcements, the principal say we're going into lockdown.
BLITZER: And so, what did that mean when he said you're going into lockdown? What did you do and the other students?
THOMAS: Well, you know, we rehearsed that, the drills. The drills -- the teacher goes over to lock the door. And, you know, we're supposed to be quiet and go over to a wall where they cannot see in through the door. So if you look into the door, you cannot see anyone in the class.
BLITZER: Did you think that this was for real, or just an exercise or a drill?
THOMAS: Well, at first, you know, I thought it was a drill, but you can tell by the intensity in the principal's voice that it didn't -- it didn't seem right. It wasn't just a normal drill. And, you know --
BLITZER: Do you -- let me just ask you if you knew the suspect, the individual who's now been picked up and is being questioned?
THOMAS: I don't -- I didn't personally know the suspect. From what I can tell, he seemed like the quieter kid. Didn't really have a group, I guess, you could say.
BLITZER: Neil, Deborah Feyerick is with me. She wants to ask you a question as well.
FEYERICK: Neil, there were reports that one of the teachers actually chased the gunman out of the school and in doing so, he may have saved multiple lives. What are you hearing about the teacher?
THOMAS: Right. That teacher is also a football coach. A great guy. Coach Hall. What I've heard is that he chased out the gunman and from what I've heard from people that were there is that he may have been shot at. And, you know, not hit. But Coach Hall just like -- he always talks about like how much he cares about us students and, you know, his team and, you know, everyone.
And I think today he really went out and he proved how much he cared about us. He would take a bullet for us.
FEYERICK: Do you know -- once the gunman was out of the school, did officials make it clear that, in fact, the coast was clear or were students still in lockdown waiting for police and sheriff's deputies, as well as the SWAT team to arrive and give an all-clear?
THOMAS: Well, I could say they wanted to take precautions, you know.
FEYERICK: I mean, they wouldn't put us out there in harm's way. Everything was, you know, as far as I could tell, was controlled by the school and the authorities. And that's all I know as far as I know.
BLITZER: So, right now, Neil, what are the principals and the authorities told you, is school off tomorrow? What's going on?
FEYERICK: From the reports and everything, they're saying, Mr. Bergant (ph) has said tomorrow's classes are over. We won't have classes tomorrow.
BLITZER: No. At least, not tomorrow.
All right. Neil, good luck to you and good luck to all the students over there in Chardon, outside of Cleveland. We appreciate you joining us very much.
Deb, this teacher, football coach, clearly a hero.
FEYERICK: There's no question about it. We don't know how many guns he had, whether he had two guns, more guns. ATF, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, they are doing an emergency trace on he gun.
But had he been given the chance to reload, assuming he had extra bullets, this massacre could have been even worse -- the shooting, I should say, could have been even worse. But he was able to get the student off the premises. They were able to set up a perimeter, and then check the bags of each and every student to make sure that the gunman was, in fact, acting alone and didn't have an accomplice inside the building.
So, small steps that resulted in very big end results.
But, again, one student is dead. Four others wounded. So it's -- the town's still in shock.
BLITZER: We're just getting a picture of the student.
We're going to come back. We'll take a quick break and continue the breaking news story. We're also getting a statement from the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who has reacted to what happened in Ohio on this day.
That and all the day's other important news, coming up.
BLITZER: We're just getting in a statement from the education secretary, Arne Duncan. We're also getting in a picture of the suspect in this case. Stand by and we're going to go there in just a moment. We're going to take a look and see what's going on. This is an incident at a school in Chicago.
Here he is. This is the individual. This is the student who's been arrested in connection with this shooting.
You can see right there -- Deborah Feyerick is with me watching as well.
This is from his Facebook page, Deb. Tell us what you've heard. You've been reporting on this throughout the day.
FEYERICK: So, a couple of details about this young man. One of the students interviewed at the high school said that apparently he was having some sort of family troubles, may have come from a broken home. That, in fact, he was living with his grandparents at this time.
Again, this according to a student, all of this information from kids who knew him. Not clear why he was living with his grandparents. But, again, you can see his picture on Facebook.
And what's so interesting about this is that, you know, he had been communicating that, apparently, there have been some correspondence that he was getting angry. There was a letter that's been published showing that he was unhappy with certain things.
All of this is under investigation by police. They're trying to get to the heart of this -- what caused this young man to bring a gun into the school and open fire in the cafeteria at the busiest part of the entire morning.
You have to imagine, they have a breakfast program there. Kids were eating. There was a study hall there. So, it's not for nothing that he picked this particular area and this particular table. And that's exactly what the authorities want to know, is to why he decided to open fire. And the fact that he didn't say anything while he was shooting. That also complicated his motives.
But he was taken into custody shortly after the shooting, about an hour and a half after the first gunshots. He was being questioned. We do not know whether he's retained an attorney and we don't know whether he's even cooperating. But at least he's in custody and that gave great piece of mind to all the school officials. So, it was a contained -- it was a tragic situation but it was a contained situation.
So -- and there he is, the young man and other pictures soon to follow.
BLITZER: And I'm sure the authorities are going through his Twitter accounts, his Facebook, all his social media activity to see what potentially could have motivated --
BLITZER: -- allegedly, this individual to open fire on fellow students early this morning in Cleveland.
We also have a statement from the Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Let me read it to our viewers.
"The shootings at Chardon High School are an unspeakable tragedy and our hearts go out to the entire community as they grieve this terrible and senseless loss. It's still too early to know yet why a student took a firearm to school and shot his classmates."
The statement says this: "But preliminary reports indicated that if it were not for the extraordinary courage of a teacher who chased the shooter out of the school, and if not for the speedy reaction of school leaders, the toll of these shootings could have been even worse. Our thoughts today are with the children, the teachers, and the parents of Chardon. The department has been in touch with the superintendent's office to offer our help and support and we will do everything in our power in coming weeks and months to help support the Chardon community as it recovers from this tragedy."
That's a statement from the Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
And the federal authorities are offering ATF, FBI assistance any way they can.
FEYERICK: They are, absolutely. The lead agencies, the police, the sheriff's department, the federal agencies have come in.
But, you know, one thing you have to keep in mind, this school was able to minimize the tragedy because they were actually, after Columbine, running drills in the school, in the event that this were to happen. They knew what to do if shooting started. They knew that teachers were supposed to close the door and that all the students were to get away from windows and from any visual identification from the door, so that the gunman couldn't simply look in and see the shooting.
A lot of students, you laugh, you joke. But it was -- the ability to be prepared, to do these dry runs that enabled those in the classrooms to remain secure. But, also, there were people in the cafeteria and they ran. They just ran as fast as they could.
And, Wolf, Nate Mueller, that young man who we heard from, he initially got out of the school, after being shot, after seeing his friends fall, he got out of the school, into the parking lot, hid behind the cars. He was able to call his mother and then he was able to call 911.
And everybody responded and they responded quickly. And so, they were prepared.
So, as crazy as you may think, why are we doing this here? Because it's such a random act, it is better to be prepared.
BLITZER: And at the news conference which we saw live here in THE SITUATION ROOM at the top of the hour, they said they have all those 911 calls, but for now, the investigation is only beginning. They're not going to release any of that.
FEYERICK: No. They've also got surveillance tapes. Apparently, there were a lot of cameras inside the school. Not clear whether those were installed after the Columbine shooting but there were surveillance cameras in that school and that also will give investigators a great deal of information as to the gunman's movements and motives. It's a crime scene and they want to piece it together and they've got to do it right.
BLITZER: And, you know, these students, they're going to be going through some major shock right now. You heard the superintendent, the authorities at the news conference saying that grief counseling is under way already.
FEYERICK: Yes. Absolutely. This young man, near-death experience. Can you imagine, turning your head and in that split second, that turn saves your life? So, the bullet just grazed his ear and then he watched a friend of his be shot.
So, it's just -- you can't even imagine, and you saw just the pain and the fear on the students and the parents who raced to the school to get any kind of word. But interestingly, Wolf, you mentioned, you know, the social media and Twitter, a lot of those kids were texting from inside the school. They were notifying their parents, so that the parents were able to track, at least, know that a certain number of students were OK, because no one information is probably the thing that terrifies parents the most --
FEYERICK: -- not knowing where your child is. Not knowing if your child is safe. Not knowing what's going on.
So, there was more information that was coming out. They did have to siphon through it to see which was legitimate and which was not legitimate. But at least they had some sense of what was going on in that school and so did authorities.
BLITZER: What kind of community was this, a suburb of Cleveland?
FEYERICK: It's 30 miles east of Cleveland. It's got about 5,000 people. Interestingly, the school itself has about 1,100 kids, not clear whether those kids are from other communities, but --
BLITZER: I'm sure they are.
FEYERICK: Yes, but Chardon itself, just 5,000 people. So it's a small community. Most people walk, one of the moms told us. Everybody walks around. They know each other. So for this to happen is, for this to happen anywhere -- it doesn't matter.
BLITZER: The question is the suspect, where did he get the guns? How did he have access? He shows up at school with weapons and ammunition and all of the sudden he just randomly starts, early in the morning, opening up fire?
FEYERICK: Well, that's exactly right. And one thing that a student said early this morning, and that is that there was a rumor that somebody had brought a gun to school, which is very interesting.
So there was at least a sense among the kids that there was someone in there who had guns and other kids had seen it. So, again, it was almost like dropping a pebble into a pond and it begins, slowly.
And then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger until you sort of know the outcome and that seems to be what happened in terms of the information sort of filtering out. Obviously, the gunshots and that clinched it.
BLITZER: I want to play a little clip of what Chief McKenna said, the Chardon police chief said just a little while ago. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As a result of that training, that practice, if you would, law enforcement was completely placed inside the school upon arrival. And we believe that that helped to lessen the tragedy that occurred. Unfortunately, much had occurred prior to law enforcement's arrival.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, there's the police chief in a small community, Chardon, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. Deb Feyerick, stand by. We're going to continue the breaking news. We have other news we're watching as well.
Including what's happening on the political front? Breaking news also happening in Syria. All the day's important news coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: We're getting more information on the school shooting outside of Cleveland, Ohio. We're going to go back there live. Stand by, more information coming in.
But there's other important news we're following here in the SITUATION ROOM as well, including the Republican presidential frontrunners. They're making a last minute push for votes in Michigan and Arizona. They hold their key primaries tomorrow.
Polls show a tight race nationally and in Michigan where Mitt Romney is supposed to have a home-field advantage over Rick Santorum, it is especially tight.
Let's go live to our national political correspondent, Jim Acosta. The stakes in Michigan for both of these candidates are significant but especially for Mitt Romney. If he were to lose in Michigan, they would potentially be a disaster?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The stakes in this race have not been much higher for Mitt Romney. He's in one of the biggest fights of his political career, all for the purpose of winning a state where he grew up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We started off about, what, 15 points down in the polls and now we're leading in the polls. Thanks, you guys, appreciate the support.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Caught in a dog fight with Rick Santorum in the wolverine state. Mitt Romney is scrambling to claw his way out of Michigan with a victory.
ROMNEY: Senator Santorum is a nice guy, but he's never had a job in the private sector. ACOSTA: Desperate to avoid a trip down into Al Gore country, that is losing his home state. Romney is sharpening his lines of attack taking note of a Santorum op-ed in the "Wall Street Journal" where his GOP rival lays out his economic plan.
ROMNEY: I'm glad he recognizes that this has to be a campaign about the economy. It's time for him to really focus on the economy.
ACOSTA: Santorum's plan calls for approval of the Keystone oil pipeline plus big reductions in income and corporate taxes and $5 trillion in cuts in federal spending. But Santorum has a time strayed from that message.
RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The president of the United States said the other day that every child in America should go to school. What a snob.
ACOSTA: Whether it's accusing the president of trying to send young people to college, to, in Santorum's words, indoctrinate them in liberalism or criticizing John F. Kennedy's four-decades-old call for the separation of church and state.
SANTORUM: You say that people of faith have no role in the public square, you bet that makes you throw up.
ACOSTA: But Romney hit his own speed bumps. The Romney campaign is downplaying a comment he made at the Daytona 500 where he told a reporter he doesn't really follow NASCAR, the comment made to an Associated Press sports reporter was later picked up by the liberal- leaning web site, "Think Progress."
ROMNEY: But I ask friends that are NASCAR team owners --
ACOSTA: It sounded to some Republicans like another cringe-inducing gap like his description of a Romney car collection at a mostly empty Ford field in Detroit.
ROMNEY: I drove a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Anne drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually. I used to have a Dodge truck. I had all three covered.
ACOSTA: All of this may explain why Newt Gingrich is still smiling. Taking a pass on this week's contest in Arizona and Michigan, Gingrich is looking ahead to Super Tuesday and even to the Republican convention in Tampa.
NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think Governor Romney has to carry Michigan. I think he has an enormous amount at stake. You can have all four of us in Tampa. You could even have number five and six and somebody gets excited and jumps in.
ACOSTA: And team Romney is pushing back on the notion that their candidate is out of touch with voters saying out on the campaign trail earlier today, I was talking with a Romney adviser and that Romney adviser was saying, no. Mitt Romney does connect with voters. He's been correcting with them across the country, but get this, Wolf.
A top Romney surrogate, in the state, a former Republican Party chairman here in Michigan is floating out the possibility that Mitt Romney could lose the popular vote in this state, but actually win more delegates.
So there are lots of different outcomes that could come out of this Michigan primary. Of course, the most important outcome will be decided tomorrow night -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, let's see who wins tomorrow night. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta. Let's discuss a little bit deeper right now in our "Strategy Session."
Joining us our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist Paul Begala along with the Republican strategist, Rich Galen. Rich, first to you. How much of a problem is this for Mitt Romney, more of these comments that seem to suggest these out of touch with average working-class folks?
RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I'm not so sure you have to be a working-class person to win the presidency. That's something that we sort of all -- we've all sort of decided. That's the turning point.
But let's go back to the business about NASCAR. His other choice would have been to and pander and say, I'm a great NASCAR fan and then somebody said, who's the pole sitter, who's the 27? He wouldn't have a clue.
So better he say that way, unlike President Obama, a couple years ago here in Washington, who proclaimed himself to be a great White Sox fan growing up and then when asked on TV who his favorite players were as a kid, he couldn't name one.
So I think these things just sort of pass along and they go on. Nobody is going to decide not to vote for him because he's not a NASCAR fan.
BLITZER: As all of our mothers once told us, honesty is the best policy in all these kinds of situations. Paul, listen to Chris Christie, he supports Mitt Romney, the governor of New Jersey, defending his candidate. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: The cat's out of the bag, Bob, on the fact that Governor Romney's wealthy. So he has a number of cars. Many people have made a lot of money over time, do. And so I think that this is just something where, to be candid, folks are looking for him to make trip-ups. Governor Romney has been successful. I think that's what we want in a president of the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: All right, Paul, does he have a good point? PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: No, not at all. Maybe as blunt as Governor Christie, he's full of beans. He's completely wrong. It's not about whether a presidential candidate is wealthy or from the middle class. Rich Galen makes that point. He's right.
Certainly, John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt were from the moneyed elite. It's whether you care about the poor and the middle class and Mitt Romney doesn't. He's so out of touch. He did say to Soledad O'Brien, I'm not very concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net.
He tried to bet Rick Perry $10,000 on the stage a couple months ago. He said when he made $374,000 in speaking fees that wasn't very much money. He makes Marie Antoinette look like William Jennings Brien.
I mean, he is complete elitist and this is why it matters because he got rich in part by laying off middle-class people. He got rich in part by profiting from companies that he drove into bankruptcy. So when you're that kind of a Wall Street shark --
GALEN: And the strategy here, Paul, would be what?
BEGALA: Say it again?
GALEN: You just zipped into Begala land again, which we love. We love to see you there --
BEGALA: -- lovely place. Join us.
GALEN: I sometimes wish I could. But we were talking about the strategy of it.
BEGALA: He's a terrible candidate. I did not anticipate this. He's frequently terrific in these debates, but he's a terrible candidate. The staff, you've been a staff guy. I don't have much hair left. You tear your hair out when people like Romney say things like that because it goes to his core weakness. The core concern voters have about him.
GALEN: The other side of it -- another piece of it though, might be, Paul, might be, that they've stopped backing away as they did when he started making these verbal ticks. And I think it may be because they feel now, that that's just the way he is. And you either accept him for that or you're not going to vote for him but trying to explain it and spend another day explaining these sorts of things is of no value so they just keep pushing on.
BLITZER: All right, a win is a win tomorrow, Paul. If Romney wins decisively, even narrowly in Michigan, if he wins in Arizona, that gives him momentum a week from tomorrow at Super Tuesday. You understand the way this political momentum thing works?
BEGALA: Yes, but if Mitt Romney can't win against this field in this state of Michigan, he's got to find another country to run in and another party to run in. I mean, with all due respect to Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum and Ron Paul, this is not exactly a field of Ronald Reagans and George Bush's and Bob Doles.
This is a very weak field. He's running in a state where his father was three-term beloved governor and the head of one of the largest employers in the state and he grew up there. He may not win even there that's pathetic. That's a really weak campaign.
GALEN: I think that's right. I think he does need to win tomorrow night and I think he frankly will. But remember as we move into Super Tuesday, remember, first of all, it's only 10 states on Super Tuesday as opposed to 21 four years ago.
I just looked this up today, four years ago, John McCain only won nine of the 21 Super Tuesday states. So as we get past tomorrow into Wednesday, we'll have this conversation and if he doesn't win, if Romney doesn't win 9 out of 10, he's in big trouble and we'll see.
BLITZER: There's no doubt that tomorrow and Tuesday, a week from tomorrow, will be critical days in this Republican contest. Guys, thank you very much.
GALEN: You bet.
BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the breaking news out of Ohio, the school shooting just outside of Cleveland. It's hitting home to a lot of folks, especially to our CNN correspondent, Martin Savidge. He's from that area. We're going to be hearing directly from him and that's coming up.
Also a bloody suicide bombing and the poisoning of food at an ally base. Now new Taliban claims of revenge in Afghanistan for the burning of the Muslim holy books.
BLITZER: A new explosion of rage over the burning of holy books in Afghanistan. At least nine people died in the suicide bombing outside an air base in Jalalabad. There are no NATO casualties.
The Taliban called the attack a retaliation for last week's Koran burning by NATO troops and the militants claimed to have poisoned food at a base near the Pakistani border.
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is joining us now from Kabul with more. It seems like the reaction is getting worse by the day, Nick?
NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's changing in character, too, Wolf. Interesting about this suicide attack today, the Taliban claim they were avenging the Koran burning. This is basically a conventional Taliban, suicide bombing on a NATO base.
But they may try and frame this violence and the forthcoming insurgency campaign of the warmer summer months, is perhaps, all tied into avenging the Koran and that could perhaps appeal to other Afghans, also furious at this NATO blunder.
We also heard today, as you said, about this possible poisoning attempt. The Taliban claim they may have killed five Americans by poisoning food on the base near the Pakistani border. NATO denied anybody was hurt, but did admit that coffee and fruit had had chlorine bleach somehow contaminated on it.
They don't know how. But these sorts of things including the death of four Americans in these past seven days of violence at the hands of Afghans in army uniform play into the distrust now formulating between the Afghan soldiers and the NATO troops training them to take over security responsibilities in the country so they can leave, Wolf.
BLITZER: You know, this is a bigger question. I write about it on my blog, my SITUATION ROOM blog post today. The U.S. is still spending $2 billion a week in U.S. taxpayer money, $2 billion a week in Afghanistan, to maintain the military presence there. Providing economic assistance, infrastructure development, if you will, training Afghanistan police and security forces.
But I'm getting a expense based on what experts are telling me, Nick, and you're there on the scene -- that so many Afghanis, they simply want the U.S. and the NATO troops to honor their country. Give us an update on where this stands.
WALSH: I think many Afghans want a better life and I think after 10 years, perhaps, they're not sure if what NATO has been trying again and again, often repeating the same tactics, is necessarily going to bring that for them.
I think the major point of last seven days may have seen a change. This broad, not universal, but this very intense, felt by many Afghans, fury about the Koran burning, this has damaged the trust relationship between the Afghans and Americans.
The incidents where Afghans have shot U.S. soldiers and I think there's a reassessment is fair to say, in the hearts of some NATO soldiers here, really wondering how they can trust the Afghans they're working alongside.
When that begins to break down with the transition is in jeopardy and that's really key plank of NATO and America's exit strategy here. So a lot really, potentially, has changed in this last week, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, there's no doubt about that. There's enormous political pressure here in the U.S. to stop spending $100 billion a year for the Afghanistan initiative ten years after 9/11. Nick, thank you so much.
Meanwhile, a new crisis at sea. A Costa cruise lines, details of a fire on board the sister ship of the line they are wrecked off the coast of Italy.
Plus a gas tanker in a fiery and deadly crash. The dramatic video only tells part of the story.
BLITZER: As I noted the United States is continuing to spend billions and billions of dollars in Afghanistan every single week, every month.
Here's the question -- is it all worth it? What's going on? Let's discuss with CNN's Erin Burnett, the host of "ERIN BURNETT OUT FRONT," week nights, 7 p.m. Eastern here on CNN.
I can't tell you, Erin, how many people say to me, instead of spending all the money in Afghanistan, at least over the next nearly three years, until the end of 2014, build housing and bridges and infrastructure. Power plants, here in the United States, instead of Afghanistan.
ERIN BURNETT, HOST, CNN'S "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": It's something we're hearing more and more, Wolf. I mean, it's the longest war in American history and I know you were going through the overall numbers with Nick.
But something that stood out to me, we've spent $86 billion on quote/unquote "reconstruction" in Afghanistan. And $51 billion, Wolf, on training Afghan security forces and a lot of people, in light after what happened this past week, might say, what did that all that money go for?
I mean, there are some Afghanistan troops who will be very frustrated with the Afghan troops they're working with and call the standards those troops have as quote/unquote, "is Afghan good enough?"
So there's a lot of frustration. One thing that's interesting, Wolf, when we look at the troop pullout plan, of course, they were at one point 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. We're now down, this summer we will be down to about 68,000.
But even if as planned, all NATO troops are out by the end of 2014, there are some experts who say that in order to have any semblance of stability and any success at some of these investments the United States has put in, we need to have 25,000 American, quote, "advisory troops" left in Afghanistan.
Now, of course, advisory troops are among those who were killed this weekend. These are people who don't have a lot of security. Work one-on-one in the Afghanistan ministries as an example, they take on an incredible amount of risk and it's those troops that we might have seen a change as to what kind of commitment the U.S. continues with.
And therefore, what kind of stability remains in Afghanistan. My math, Wolf, when you look at keeping 25,000 troops in perpetuity in Afghanistan, even in an advisory role, we're spending right now about $1.2 million per troop, per year in Afghanistan.
Even the noncombat troops, which would cost less, we're going to be looking at somewhere between $20 billion and $30 billion a year in ongoing commitments of U.S. taxpayers.
BLITZER: A huge amount of money. Erin will have more at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on "OUT FRONT." Thanks very much, Erin, for that.
We're going to get back to the breaking news here on THE SITUATION ROOM, the mass shooting at an Ohio high school. Right at the top of the hour, we'll have the very latest on the victims and the alleged shooter and the investigation. Standby.
Plus, the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is now speaking to CNN. She's speaking about Syria, Afghanistan and the president's own chances of getting re-elected.
BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now including North Korea threatening war with the United States. What's going on, Lisa?
LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. North Korea state-one news agency has this ominous message saying, quote, "Troops are poised for a war carrying nuclear war equipment."
The warning comes as the U.S. and South Korea begin their annual joint military drills, which the U.S. insists are only defensive. North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un says he wants to retaliate if an enemy crosses even 100th of a millimeter into his territory.
Drivers at Daytona are still waiting to start Sunday's race. Rain delayed the event by one day for the first time in 53 years. Then even more rain postponed today's noon start. NASCAR's most prestigious race is scheduled to start later tonight.
And check out this scary crash caught on camera in Wisconsin. A tanker truck carrying gasoline crosses over the median and narrowly misses two cars and then crashes into a bridge and bursts into flames. The camera missed the impact, but it shows the flash of the explosion. The highway is immediately engulfed in fire and the truck driver was killed in the crash, but fortunately, no one else.
And it's a rough day for cruise liners. The ship Allegra, sister ship of the ill-fated Costa Concordia that wrecked off the coast of Italy, suffered a fire in its engine room. It was then stuck near the island country of Seychelles. Last we heard, a tug boat is en route and the passengers are doing just fine -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Lisa, thank you.