CNN CNN


 

Return to Transcripts main page

JOHN KING, USA

Michigan and Arizona Vote

Aired February 28, 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: Two presidential battlegrounds on the line right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And the two front-runners in a bitter duel with a lot to prove and a lot to lose.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, Mitt Romney's toughest test since Rick Santorum's surge.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you want a fiscal conservative, you can't vote for Rick Santorum because he's not.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Does the word hypocrisy come to mind?

ANNOUNCER: It's a two-state showdown with one front-runner trying to avoid an embarrassing defeat.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Governor Romney is discovering in Michigan you cannot take your home state for granted.

ANNOUNCER: Will Romney prove his staying power or will he suffer a crippling setback in Michigan or Arizona? It's America's choice.

Santorum climbed his way to the top. Now he wants to win a valuable prize, the state where Romney was born and raised.

SANTORUM: It's laughable that Governor Romney suggests that I am not a conservative.

ANNOUNCER: Romney is waging a fierce battle in two states that should have been shoo-ins.

ROMNEY: Senator Santorum hasn't been as carefully viewed by the American public as have the others.

ANNOUNCER: The two leaders struggling to erase voters' doubts, fighting each other and underdogs who are ready to pounce.

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Those others who are at the top now doesn't mean they're going to stay there.

GINGRICH: This is the wildest, strangest nominating process.

ANNOUNCER: Will there be a split decision or will one candidate take it all?

SANTORUM: Who's authentic? Who's believable?

ROMNEY: Look, my team is the people of Michigan and of America and I'm going to fight for you.

ANNOUNCER: The momentum keeps shifting. Controversies keep coming. And tonight kicks off a blockbuster round of contests that could change everything.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Welcome to the CNN Election Center and this special edition of JOHN KING, USA.

We're counting down the first raw votes of what could be a watershed night in the presidential campaign. Voting under way right now in Michigan and Arizona -- 59 delegates are at stake in two states that should have been easy targets for Mitt Romney. Instead he's in a fierce fight against his main rival, Rick Santorum.

As always Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper joining us here every step of way this evening -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John, thank you.

If Romney were to lose one or both battlegrounds at stake tonight, the Republican race for the White House could be more up in the air than ever.

Anderson, it's been remarkable how the battle between these two guys has been going, because it really is close.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, this month has been a remarkable month for Rick Santorum.

Romney heading into the round of voting tonight with four victories, in New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, and Maine. Santorum also won four contests, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota.

We are not forgetting of course Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. But it's been a while since Gingrich had his one victory in South Carolina, and Ron Paul still searching for that big win, John.

KING: Anderson, we're going to look now at our early exit polls, Michigan and Arizona. But let's focus on Michigan.

One of the big questions there, it's an open primary. Rick Santorum has been openly calling the homes of Democrats, robo-calls, saying come out and vote for me. Democrats have also said they don't mind if Democrats -- the president is unopposed, remember -- if Democrats go out and cause mischief in the Republican primary.

Let's take a look at the electorate in Michigan tonight. Let's bring this over. Number one we are seeing if you look at this -- this is stunning. Remember, this is a Republican primary. Moderate or liberal. And the voters in Michigan today, 40 percent are describing themselves as moderate or liberal, 30 percent as somewhat conservative, 30 percent as very conservative. So 60 percent are conservative or somewhat.

But this is a number we will watch throughout the night -- 40 percent, Anderson, say they're moderate or liberal. Who are they? Let's take a closer look at the electorate in Michigan tonight and again 59 percent, six in 10 identify themselves as Republicans. That's a pretty low number. That's down. It was 68 percent in 2008 in the primary there -- 10 percent of the voters in the state of Michigan tonight, remember that number, 10 percent, describe themselves as Democrats.

That's up from 7 percent four years ago and 31 percent describe themselves as independents. That's also up from four years ago. One other quick look at who's voting in Michigan tonight -- 14 percent, 14 percent say, yes, they are union members. Now we tend to identify union members with the Democratic Party.

However, while the Democratic percentage is up this year, that 14 percent, Wolf, that's identical to the Republican primary four years ago. So one of the things we will watch tonight, how much influence are Democrats having on this Republican race in the state of Michigan?

BLITZER: It's going to be a fascinating moment. We will see what happens on that front. John, thanks very much.

It's going to be an exciting night. I can assure you of that. Let's check in with our correspondents over the front-runners' headquarters.

Let's go to Candy first. She's over at Romney headquarters.

I should have said Candy Crowley, in case there, Candy, there was any doubt which Candy we were talking to. But go ahead. Tell us how we got to this point.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Listen, as the Romney campaign looks back, I remember vividly coming out of Florida, a big win for Mitt Romney, and talking to some of his strategists. They said, you know -- I said, what are you worried about? They said, Rick Santorum, really. He's particularly good in some of these caucus states, but we're watching him.

Then after Nevada, a caucus state, obviously Mitt Romney won that, they were a little more bullish about their chances, but still had their eye on Mitt Romney -- I'm sorry -- on Rick Santorum. What they did not expect is that the message would go off the economy. Remember, this is how Mitt Romney got in. I'm a business guy. I know how to create jobs.

They thought his resume perfectly fitted this year. But in the past three weeks, what we have seen is a dynamic where the social issues have come forward. And that is not terra firma for Mitt Romney. It's not where he feels comfortable and it's not where he can collect a lot of conservative votes. He want to get back on the economic message. And he was trying to do that even this morning. Take a listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I happen to think that people across the country want someone who understands the economy. That's what I know. That's in my wheelhouse. I understand how the economy works.

I'm running against a guy in this state who's an economic lightweight. He doesn't understand how the economy works. Never having had a real job in the private sector, he doesn't know what it takes to create real jobs in the private sector. And I do. And I want to use that experience not to convince Democrats to vote against me, but to convince Republicans, independents and Democrats to vote for me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: The economy, the economy, jobs, and jobs, this is where Mitt Romney wants to take the conversation back. He thinks it helps him with those conservatives and even those very conservatives that have been going to Rick Santorum, because he's also keeping an eye out on those voters who say the primary thing here is for us to win in November.

Those generally in past elections have been proven to be Mitt Romney people. So they are hoping that the combination of trying to refigure the message and get it back on track and the number of folks saying that number one in their heart is someone to beat President Obama will keep him on track here in Michigan.

But, as you know, everything we saw going into this race at any rate said it was a tossup here, Wolf.

BLITZER: All the polls showed that. Candy, thanks very much. He calls Santorum an economic lightweight.

Let's go to Santorum headquarters. Jim Acosta is standing by over there.

Over the past couple days, three days, there's been what some are calling a little political mischief going on. Santorum supporters actually going out and trying to recruit Democrats to vote for him. What's going on?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

I just caught up with the senior strategist for the Santorum campaign, John Brabender, a few moments ago. He was saying they were basically targeting, micro-targeting the way he put it Reagan Democrats in this state. And so they feel like there's nothing wrong with this robo-call that they put out in the last 24 hours encouraging Democrats to cross over in this open primary and cast their ballots for Rick Santorum. I had a chance to catch up with the former Pennsylvania senator earlier today. He was cruising some diners for some votes. But he sort of acknowledged he was also cooking up some mischief. He basically told me, Wolf, that what he was doing is trying to appeal to conservative Democrats that he'd like to have in his camp come this fall. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Even though the Romney campaign says it was a dirty trick, what's your response to that?

SANTORUM: Oh, dirty trick. I see. So when he goes out and recruits and 53 percent of the voters in New Hampshire that are not Republicans, that's OK. And when he goes out and recruits folks who aren't Republicans that's all right, who aren't going to be the decisive votes in the election.

But when I go out and have a message of growth and opportunity instead of running negative ads or running robo-calls with my voice from four years ago, that's not a dirty trick? And I didn't complain about it. I don't complain. You know what? I'm a big guy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: So Rick Santorum says he's a big guy, he can take the heat.

Just to put a couple of those comments he made into context, he talked about 53 percent of people in New Hampshire not being Republican voters in that New Hampshire primary voting for Mitt Romney. According to our CNN exit polling, it was actually 51 percent. So I want to correct that for the record, voters who are not Republicans who voted for Mitt Romney in that primary.

The Romney campaign has fired back very sharply on that front saying that, no, they won among Republicans in that primary. So a little bit of relitigating that New Hampshire primary.

One last thing. I talked to John Brabender, that senior strategist for the Santorum campaign, about the Mitt Romney claim earlier today that if Rick Santorum wins this race, it will be tainted because Democrats crossed over and helped him win. He said that sounds like the comments of a sore loser -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta in Grand Rapids waiting over at the Santorum headquarters. Jim, stand by for that.

I want to go back to Anderson.

Anderson, enormously high stakes tonight for these candidates.

COOPER: A lot of big states indeed.

Let's get some words from our strategists and our political contributors on the Democratic side and Republican as well. Paul, tonight, what are you expecting?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Who'd have thought that Michigan would even be close? If you looked at this a year ago you would say Romney is the son of the very popular, beloved three-term former governor and he's fighting for his life.

COOPER: Does Santorum's talk about social issues help him in Michigan?

BEGALA: I don't think so, actually. I think Romney is right that he says voters want to hear about the economy. We will wait and see how the results come in. But I thought that was actually a distraction. I thought Santorum was better when he talked about his grandfather was a coal miner his blue-collar family roots.

COOPER: Maria Cardona, Democratic strategist?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I agree with Paul.

It seems like even the fact we're talking about if Romney wins tonight is a loss for him, both tonight as well as in the general. I think that what he has had to do in order to make sure he wins Michigan is going to be indicative of a party with tunnel vision, meaning that they are so focused on the small particulars of the pieces they need to get to win the nomination that they're going to be losing the key coalitions for the general election.

COOPER: The question I asked Paul, though on the Santorum issue, do you think it helps him or hurt him in Michigan talking about the social issues?

CARDONA: I think it ultimately hurt him because he's not expanding his base of voters either.

COOPER: So both Democrats say it hurts.

Ari Fleischer, on the Republican...

(CROSSTALK)

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, first of all, you cannot forget that Arizona votes tonight as well. And Mitt Romney is going to win Arizona and he's going to take all the votes in Arizona because it's basically uncontested, all the delegates are winner take all.

So he starts out actually getting more delegates tonight. As far as Michigan, I think it was probably a small net plus for Rick Santorum because it energized a part of the electorate that otherwise might not have shown up, put him in contention with Mitt Romney in Mitt Romney's home state.

But beyond Michigan it's a problem. If he becomes the general election candidate, he's going to have to address his issue with women and suburban voters. ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think if it's a small net plus, he can't afford a lot more small net pluses for Rick Santorum, because he was up double digits a couple of weeks ago and now at best it's a horse race.

COOPER: How much though was that about his performance in the last debate?

CASTELLANOS: I think a lot of it was his performance in the last debate because it has echoed the campaign.

The campaign has been about social issues. Santorum has been defending himself on social issues, as opposed to, hey, the economy is on fire. Can anybody put the fire out? That's what he should have been talking about.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: He was pointing at reporters and saying it's you guys who keep asking me about social issues.

Is it that simple?

CASTELLANOS: Well, there's a rule, though. Reporters get to ask whatever they want. Candidates get to actually give the answers.

(CROSSTALK)

CASTELLANOS: And if you run a disciplined campaign, that's one of your jobs is to help steer your boat and not let the news media do it for you. It's one of the tests of being president.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: I used to stand at a podium and have to take questions from reporters. And there's no question that the things I say, the things Rick Santorum says lead to questions.

So when he brought up social issues in the manner in which he brought it up, in the provocative way, challenging the president's theology, he invited this on himself.

CARDONA: His focus on social issues I think will help him to get Democrats out to vote for him.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: He sets this fire and then he says you're complaining about the heat. He says that President Kennedy's speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association made him want to throw up.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: He now says he kind of regrets that.

BEGALA: OK, so just mild nausea. He said if we send our kids to college, we're snobs if we want to send our kids to college. Crazy stuff.

CASTELLANOS: But you remember at the beginning of this race when people thought Mitt Romney might not be a strong candidate. Oh, my heavens, Rick Perry is going to come in and be this great conservative hope.

The guy who has turned into that now, Rick Perry, is Rick Santorum. And he has become that conservative threat to Romney.

COOPER: It's going to be fascinating tonight. We will be watching -- John, Wolf.

KING: Anderson, Michigan is so close the winner could be determined by, that's right, Democrats. Mitt Romney says Rick Santorum is using dirty tricks against him. We will get reaction from the campaign trail.

We're also getting fresh information from our exit polls about how many Democrats are voting in what is supposed to be Michigan's Republican primary.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And welcome back to our continuing coverage. It's going to be a very big night.

Want to go into the cube over here and check in with our political director, Mark Preston, to find out when we may be able to make some sort of a projection about who is going to win tonight, both in the state of Michigan and also in Arizona.

Mark, do we have any idea what kind of timetable we're looking at tonight?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Anderson, we have had some pretty late nights, haven't we, so far in season.

Let's look at two states, two different poll closing times. Let's start with Arizona. No earlier than 10:00 tonight, would be the earliest.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Ten o'clock Eastern time.

PRESTON: Ten o'clock Eastern time. All of this is Eastern time -- that we could actually make a prediction.

The reason why is that the polls in Arizona close at 9:00 Eastern time. The state will not release its data until 10:00 Eastern time. So that's out west. Here in Michigan which we're really focusing on right now because it's the state that everyone thinks that Mitt Romney has to win, it's a little bit different, because the poll closing times are broken up between Eastern Standard Time and Central time.

No earlier than 9:00 Eastern time could we possibly call this race, although if you look at early polling, it is so tight right now, this could be a very, very, very late night.

COOPER: In terms of exit poll information, what kind of timetable for that?

PRESTON: Well, we're already starting to get exit poll information right now. It's early numbers right now and it comes in waves. We're starting to look at that data right now. It helps us at least start to build the narrative right now but it doesn't give the whole story. And that's what we're worried about.

COOPER: but when we make that projection we do it based on some of the exit polls as well as the vote tally at that point.

PRESTON: Exactly. So we create the formula. We have the exit poll data and then we take the real vote, we put it together, kind of tie it all up and pull it back in a big knot. And that's where we get the answer.

COOPER: So, 9:00 possible in Michigan, no earlier than 10:00 Eastern time Arizona.

PRESTON: In Arizona. But Michigan could be later than Arizona. Who knows?

COOPER: John, a lot to watch for tonight.

KING: A lot to watch for.

Remember, we're going to look at Arizona but most of the attention has been on Michigan. Let's bring up the state. It's one of the largest, big industrial state. A lot of economic pain over the last decade, not just the last few years. What are we looking for tonight as we watch Republicans voting in Michigan?

Let's look at some of the important demographics in the state. One of the things I want to show you here is Tea Party support. We want to see who's getting the Tea Party vote. The darker the area, the higher percentage of Tea Party support. You see some Tea Party support north of Detroit here in the suburban, the exurban areas, a lot of Tea Party support down here, blue-collar and rural areas in the south and western part of the state.

Also up here in the upper peninsula, we see some. Another thing to look for as we watch the Tea Party, that's one demographic we will watch. Evangelical voters, you see again the darker the area the higher percentage of evangelical voters. You watch all that play out. You want to see -- if you're Rick Santorum you want to do well in these conservative rural areas and you have to do well down here where we see higher pockets of evangelical support. We will watch for that tonight.

One of the things visually if you just want to get a look at the state, this is a state that actually is one of the few states you will go to in this cycle where the unemployment rate, even though it's still quite high in Michigan, has actually gone down a bit. This is 2009 unemployment, the darker the area the higher the unemployment rate. Well, let me bring this one back up now and show you the current unemployment rate. It's not quite as dark you see down in here. Again, still in painful economic times. But Michigan for the longest time was the highest unemployment by state in the country. Nevada now has that distinction.

As we look at the race tonight -- I want to go so I'm not confusing just to the straight map. Remember this. Remember Bush v. Gore, and remember the big conversation about the Electoral College? Watch tonight. It is possible tonight that one candidate wins the popular vote statewide in this Republican primary but doesn't get the majority of the delegates. Why?

In Arizona, you win the state, you get all the delegates. In Michigan, the delegates are awarded by congressional district, two delegates for each of the 14 congressional districts. We will have to go race by race and district by district, 14 congressional districts in the state. A lot of them, there's a handful to a half dozen right down in here. A lot of these congressional districts at play tonight are held by Democrats, in the Detroit area and particularly Democratic seats, not a lot of Republican voters.

That's one of the places we will see if there's what I will call Democratic mischief in the Republican primary. So even as the votes come in tonight, remember, if you're processing it, one candidate opens up a lead in the statewide vote, that doesn't mean that same candidate will get the bulk of the delegates.

We are going to have to work through maps, work through county by county, congressional district by congressional district to figure that out tonight.

Part of that is that Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are accusing each other of cheap shots and dirty tricks. Stand by. We will sow you the highlights and the low blows from the campaign trail over the past 48 hours.

And a Democrat tells us why he decided to vote in the Republican presidential primary today in Michigan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back to our special coverage, America's Choice 2012.

We're waiting for the results of Republican presidential primaries in Arizona and in Michigan. Arizona a closed primary, Republicans only. but in Michigan they don't have party registration. Anyone can vote in the open primary. We're already seeing the impact of that as Democrats decide to try to influence the Republican race.

This is Michigan 2012 -- in the Republican presidential primary today, 10 percent of those voting, one in 10 voters say they are Democrats. That's up from 7 percent four years ago in 2008. And we know this. We know this from our exit poll data. Half of those who identify themselves as Democrats say they are voting for Rick Santorum.

There's been a lot of talk of potential mischief in this campaign. Democrats trying to support Rick Santorum to undermine and embarrass Mitt Romney in his home state.

Dana Bash is standing by out in the state of Michigan. She's been exploring this controversy all day long.

Dana, is there a good sense the Democrats are doing this for mischief to hurt Romney or do they actually like Santorum?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: A., definitely for mischief.

Democrats I talk to admit that left and right. And it is to hurt Mitt Romney, not because they like Rick Santorum.

I happen to have a Democrat here, Bruce Fealk, who is one of those Democrats.

Now, Bruce, you did not vote here but you voted nearby here, and you're a Democrat.

BRUCE FEALK, DEMOCRATIC VOTER: Correct.

BASH: Who did you vote for?

FEALK: I voted for Rick Santorum.

BASH: What's the reason?

FEALK: Well, I just think he's by far the weakest candidate. And Mitt Romney has done a lot of harm by writing his editorial about letting Detroit go bankrupt. We want Mitt Romney to go bankrupt in Michigan.

BASH: You say he's the weakest candidate, meaning that is the best outcome potentially for your candidate, Barack Obama?

FEALK: Absolutely.

BASH: This is pretty strategic voting here.

FEALK: Absolutely. I don't think anyone is ashamed to admit it.

BASH: When it comes to the issues, I'm guessing Rick Santorum isn't necessarily along the lines of where you believe.

FEALK: Absolutely not. Rick Santorum is so far to the right, he's going to take this country -- if he were to be elected by some fluke he would take this country back to the 18th century.

BASH: People look at this and say, some people -- even Democrats I talked to say give me a break. It is just wrong for a Democrat to go and vote for somebody that they vehemently disagree with.

FEALK: That's their opinion. And they're welcome to have their opinion.

But I think it's the right thing to do strategically. I think it's perfectly fine for Democrats. They're charging the taxpayers of the state of Michigan $10 million for this primary and we're entitled to take part in it and vote for who we think will be the weakest candidate and give our candidate the best chance to win in November.

BASH: How did you feel after voting for Rick Santorum?

FEALK: A little dirty. I went home and took a shower and I felt fine.

BASH: Thank you very, very much. I appreciate you talking to us.

We will see, John, if Bruce's story is widespread enough that it really does make a difference.

But I can tell you in talking to many Democrats today, including the chairman of this party here, who, of course, does not officially condone this, but is kind of winking and nodding saying I'm not going to necessarily try to stop it, they say that this wouldn't be an issue, Democrats wouldn't even be able to have an impact if Mitt Romney weren't as weak as he is right now and if this wasn't such a close race with Rick Santorum.

As you well know, this state has a history of crossover voting. If you look back to 2000, I know Ari Fleischer is over there, George Bush did not win here because Democrats crossed over to vote for John McCain to try to hurt the then front-runner, George Bush.

KING: Absolutely. Michigan does have a history of what I will call mischief voting. We will see how it plays out.

Again, 10 percent of our voters in today's primary, the Republican presidential primary in the state of Michigan describe themselves as Democrats. We know half of that 10 percent voted for Rick Santorum.

The question, Anderson, as we get later into the night and we start counting for votes, how close is the race? If it's not that close, might not matter. But in a very close race, it is possible the Democratic crossover voters -- you just heard that man right there saying he enjoyed what he did, but he needed a shower after -- could potentially have an impact in the state of Michigan tonight on a very important night, Anderson, in our presidential nominating process.

COOPER: Let's talk to our analysts about it, David Gergen, Gloria Borger.

Do you think it actually could make a big difference, 10 percent?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: If it's a very close race, anything can make a difference.

I think what's so funny about the gentleman that Dana was interviewing is that he made it clear he doesn't like Rick Santorum. When you talk to the Santorum campaign, who has done robo-calls trying to get these Democrats out to vote, they call them Reagan Democrats.

He did not sound like a Reagan Democrat to me. He sounded like somebody who just wanted to make some trouble for Mitt Romney.

COOPER: There are a number of robo-calls going out. We actually have one of the robo-calls. This is not from the Santorum campaign. This is from a Democratic group. Let's listen in.

BORGER: OK.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

NARRATOR: On Tuesday, join Democrats who are going to send a loud message to Massachusetts' Mitt Romney by voting for Rick Santorum for president. This call is supported by hardworking Democratic men and women and paid for by Rick Santorum for President.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: Some of the calls have pointed out that Mitt Romney, while he voted against -- while he was opposed to the Detroit bailout, he voted for the bailout of Wall Street and how unfair that is. And that's part of the Santorum-speak to get these Democrats out.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Right. And that was from obviously -- from the Santorum folks.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Right.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I don't think we know yet, Anderson, whether it's going to make that much of a difference.

It could. As Gloria says, if this is a very close race, it could tip it.

I think the harder question is, would this taint a victory by Rick Santorum? And it would be very unusual, I think, for a candidate to have made these kind of robo calls. I have a hard time saying it would taint the victory. I have a hard time saying this is a dirty trick in particular.

BORGER: It's out in the open.

GERGEN: It's out in the open. And this is legit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the way the system works.

GERGEN: Some justification, I paid the taxes. I was asked to pay. You may not like the rules but those are the rules. That's what's happening here in Michigan. These are the rules. Democrats can cross over.

COOPER: Ari Fleischer, do you as John King mentioned, experienced this first hand when your candidate was up against John McCain?

FLEISCHER: It was miserable.

COOPER: Is this dirty tricks?

FLEISCHER: No, it's not dirty tricks. This is how you win races. And Rick Santorum, coming from Pennsylvania, where he always did try to attract Democrats to turn out, he has a history of trying to get Democrats to turn out for him.

But I do remember in 2000, the Republican primary had only 48 percent Republican participation in it. It was 17 percent Democrat participation in it, because John McCain drew those Democrats out and the independents, too.

But the numbers this year, I think that there's going to be anecdotal reports. You're going to have some liberal mischief of people who came in to do it. But 7 percent of the voters who turned out in 2007 were Democrat. Looks like 10 percent this year. It's not a big difference, especially when you consider Hillary and Barack Obama were on the ballot in 2008. So 7 percent when there was a huge other race going on, and now it's 10 percent with no another race going on? It's not a lot.

CASTELLANOS: Well, it doesn't take much to tilt a tight race. When you look at, for example, Tea Party voters in the exit polls, you would think that people who oppose the Tea Party wouldn't be voting for Rick Santorum. Guess what? They are.

So there's some Democrats who have snuck into the electorate tonight. And we'll have to see how many there are and do they make a difference? In Ann Arbor, for example, young people who think politics is something that happens on the John Stewart show, right? They just go out and have fun voting against Mitt Romney and maybe tilt the CD.

COOPER: Mitt Romney has been arguing, though, his campaign has been arguing this is a sign that the Obama White House, the Democrats are more scared of me than they are of Rick Santorum.

BEGALA: I think they're less scared of him every day. He just performs so badly. He's a serious guy. He's, I think, very likely to wind up being the nominee.

But this whole -- I just think this is overblown. You remember when Senator Clinton and Senator Obama were running. There was this Operation Mischief or Project Mischief?

CASTELLANOS: Chaos.

BEGALA: Chaos. It was a hugely fat radio guy, and I can't think of his name right now. The big fat blowhard on the radio who was pushing this.

CASTELLANOS: Paul Begala.

BEGALA: And it all amounted to nothing, and it's nothing now. It's all a bunch of gas and hot air.

COOPER: You don't think it matters?

BEGALA: I don't think it matters at all. It's a tiny slice. If you win the Republicans in Michigan you're going to win in Michigan. Doesn't matter about the rest.

FLEISCHER: I do have to say my brother, who is a Democrat and lives in New York City, sent me an e-mail saying he went to Michigan today to vote for Rick Santorum.

CARDONA: And it's a good story. Clearly this is something that the progressives in Michigan are running with. It's on the front page of the free press. The radio stations are run with it. I do think that some young people could do it, some labor folks could do it who are mad at Romney for the betrayal on the rescue. So who knows? In a tight race it very well could make a difference.

CASTELLANOS: The big stories are Detroit. And does that bailing out Detroit or not bailing it out, does that say something about Mitt Romney and his strength, elitism? Has Mitt Romney gone too upscale, detached himself, or in fact in the general election against another elite candidate, Barack Obama, would it make any difference at all? There are some big stories out there to watch tonight.

COOPER: And we'll talk about how the bailout plays in this primary and also how it's going to play in the general election, which may be two very different stories indeed.

John, take it away.

KING: And Anderson, you have the conversation there: the bailout, the economy, jobs. That has been the defining story in Michigan. Yet Rick Santorum in recent days not hesitating to talk about some of the other and very sensitive issues from religion to contraception. Help him tonight or will it backfire?

And the state of Michigan, as you were just noting, owes a lot to American taxpayers. We're going to look at the politics of the Detroit auto bailout in this campaign. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Michigan a critical contest tonight in the Republican nominating process. We know, of course, it will be a big state, a battleground state in November. The economy has been issue No. 1 issue there for the past decade or more.

Let's take a bit of a look at what's on the mind of Republican voters tonight as they vote in the primary. No surprise here. The economy is the top issue. Fifty-four percent of voters in the Republican presidential primary in Michigan today say the economy is issue No. 1.

And of course, a subset of that has been the U.S. auto industry. This is interesting. All of the Republican candidates for president opposed the auto bailout, opposed it. Started under George W. Bush, accelerated under President Barack Obama. A 51 percent disapproved, so just a slim majority of these Republicans in Michigan disproved. Their candidates all disapproved; 43 percent of the voters, they actually approved of the auto bailout.

On this day of the GOP primary in Michigan, President Obama, the incumbent, took one of his toughest swipes yet at the Republicans who would like to take his job. And he did it in front of an audience with a lot of influence in the state of Michigan, the United Auto Workers. Listen here: a not-so-gentle swipe at Mitt Romney and his opposition to that bailout.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now they're saying, "We were right all along." Or -- or you've got folks saying, "Well, the real problem is, what we really disagreed with was the workers. They all made out like bandits. Saving the auto industry was just about paying back the unions." Really? I mean, even by the standards of this town that's a load of you know what.

You know, a few -- about 700,000 retirees had to make sacrifices on their healthcare benefits that they had earned. A lot of you saw hours reduced or pay or wages scaled back. You gave up some of your rights as workers. Promises were made to you over the years that you gave up for the sake and survival of this industry, its workers, their families. You want to talk about sacrifice? You made sacrifices. This wasn't -- this wasn't an easy thing to do.

Let me tell you, I keep on hearing these same folks talk about values all the time. You want to talk about values? Hard work. That's a value. Looking out for one another. That's a value. The idea that we're all in it together, and I'm my brother's keeper and sister's keeper. That's a value.

They're out there -- they're out there talking about you like you're some special interest that needs to be beaten down. Since when are hard-working men and women who are putting in a hard day's work every day, since when are they special interests? Since when is the idea that we look out for one another a bad thing? I remember my old friend Ted Kennedy. He used to say, "What is it about working men and women they find so offensive?"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's bring in our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, with more on the president's strategy.

And Jess, a feisty president there, a more personal tone, questioning not just the positions but the values of the Republican candidates. Is this more of a departure from the president? Again, he seems to be getting a bit more feisty. JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it a very high-octane speech by the president today, John. But it was also a departure, as you say, because you'll recall he said he wasn't going to get involved in electoral politics until they pick a nominee on the other side.

And without naming any one candidate, the president really took aim at Mitt Romney in this speech. And he said, you know, some candidates -- some folks say let Detroit go bankrupt. That was the title of an op-ed Mitt Romney wrote at one point.

And then he really tore into some of the Republican positions on the bailout. So without naming any one candidate, he clearly waded into GOP primary politics here on the very same day of the Michigan primary, John.

KING: And Jess, the president, then Senator Obama, I think had 57 percent of the vote in Michigan back in 2001, butted his head, tough economic times. Do the Democrats, do they have evidence that using the bailout against the Republicans will help keep a state that should be tough for the president just because of the state of the economy in his court this time?

YELLIN: They're feeling increasingly cheered now, John, that Michigan is moving more and more into their corner. One piece of evidence is there is a new Marist/NBC poll that showed 63 percent of registered voters in Michigan believe that the bailout was a good idea, and that includes 61 percent of registered independents believe that it was a good idea.

So, while as you showed, most registered Republicans who are voting today don't agree with the president's position, the majority of those key swing voters that he'll need to win in order to clinch that state are on the president's side in this one. And so they're feeling a little bit more cheered. That together with the improving employment numbers in that state are making them feel a little better about Michigan, which is really a must win for the president looking ahead to November.

KING: Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Jess, thanks.

And as you look ahead to November, Anderson, we know the economy will be issue No. 1, which is what makes tonight so important. Michigan a key laboratory. This argument will be made across America. But the Republican who emerges victorious tonight, whether he can sell his economic themes, will go a long way in whether that Republican can then defeat President Obama come November.

COOPER: Yes. And very interesting to hear how the bailout is viewed differently among independents and also, obviously, among Democrats for the general election. That bailout really does play differently in those different groups.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: It really does, Anderson. And this bailout -- bailouts in general are such a political third rail. Let's just take a look at the auto bailout here in Michigan and exactly what happened. Bailout by the numbers.

Now numbers don't lie. So let's just look at exactly what happened here. Here's the total amount of money that went into the auto industry. About $80 billion vis-a-vis taxpayer money and the government loan programs. GMAC is now Allied Bank. May be familiar with it if you're watching. Obviously Chrysler got money. We all know Ford did not. But the bulk of it, $51 billion went to G.M. and a few suppliers.

So let's just take a look at G.M., because it really does come down. Here's how much money we put into G.M.: $51 billion. Here's how much money G.M. has paid back in cash and taxpayers have gotten back. About $24 billion. So you can see this balance: $23 billion that taxpayers still want.

This depends on one thing. We the taxpayers own about 32 percent of G.M. So when you look at where it trades every day on the stock market, that's what's going to determine if taxpayers ever get their money back.

Today this is where G.M. shares closed: $26.14 a share. Any guess, Anderson, on how much higher it has to go to be in the money?

COOPER: How much?

BURNETT: A lot higher. We've got to go at least double that.

COOPER: Wow.

BURNETT: Analysts are saying $59. The Treasury Department says 50. That's still double, but most analysts are saying 59 to 60. So a long way to go to still make money on G.M.

COOPER: Right. Yes. More than double. Jessica also referenced, obviously, unemployment numbers. Still high in the state of Michigan but improving.

BURNETT: Improving. And that's one of the things that we're seeing at G.M. G.M. has been hiring again. You've been seeing a real improvement in the auto industry. People who support the bailout point to that as evidence that it worked.

And if you look at unemployment in the state of Michigan, it's pretty grim: 8.5 percent nationally. Only have a couple places in Michigan where you match that. There's still a lot of issues. It's a manufacturing-heavy state no matter what you see. And I wanted to highlight one specific state [SIC] -- Ontonagon County. And this one -- Ontonagon, sorry -- 13.7 percent.

Now Smufit-Stone, a paper company, had a factory there. And what happens in a lot of these counties, you have one factory that's really what employment in the county is relying on. In the end of 2009 that factory closed. At one point unemployment in this county was north of 21 percent.

COOPER: Wow. BURNETT: So you say, OK, it's down to 13.7. That must be good. Not really. Because what's happened is a lot of people left the state. A lot of people have not come back into the workforce so they're not counted as unemployed. So a lot of the employment improvement in Michigan is a little bit of a false story, even though, to be fair, you have seen some real improvement in auto manufacturing.

COOPER: All right, Erin Burnett. Fascinating to look at it county by county.

Republicans in one of the ultimate battleground states, we're going to be watching tonight's results. We're going to hear from undecided GOP voters in Ohio. And John King's going to show us how the -- how the 69 delegates at stake tonight could make a big difference in the presidential race. Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We want to go right out to Tom Foreman in Columbus, Ohio. He's with a group of Republican voters. As you know, Tom, a week from now, Ohio is part of Super Tuesday. Tell us what these voters in Columbus, the state capital, have on their minds.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, this is one of those states that every election cycle is a big, big deal, and we've great group of Republican voters here who are undecided. Am I correct?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

FOREMAN: Yes, undecided Republican voters, and we are going to be tracking their reaction to what's happening tonight with what the candidates have to say.

How many of you would consider yourselves very conservative? Pretty good crowd there. Put your hands down, if you would.

And how many of you say that you're Tea Party supporters? Again, a pretty good crowd.

How many of you would say that you are moderate conservatives? Get your hands way up high so we can see you.

So you see, Wolf, we've got sort of an interesting mix of folks here. What they're going to be doing tonight is going to be using devices like this -- we've done this before -- a perception analyzer. And they'll be dialing back and forth, producing different numbers as the candidates speak so we can measure the reaction of the entire group to what's going on here.

That information has been coming from our location here in Ohio State University, feeding right back over here to our experts from Southern Methodist University, who will be analyzing all of this data through the evening, Wolf, keeping track of precisely what these voters are saying and, just as importantly, how strongly they feel that way. Because as you properly noted, Wolf, Ohio big deal state in all this, not just for what's happening right now for the Republicans, but for the overall races in what can be a decisive state.

We'll be tracking the movements throughout the evening to see what people have to say and passing them right on to you there, Wolf.

BLITZER: And quickly, Tom, these are not necessarily undecided Republicans. Some of them have already made up their mind. Some are Romney supporters, Santorum supporters, and others. Is that right?

FOREMAN: No, no. These are undecided voters. Some of them may be leaning one way or another, but let me ask real quickly.

Any of you leaning toward Mitt Romney, you think? A little bit? One in the back.

Toward Rick Santorum? A little bit.

But by and large, still undecided. Wolf, that's the whole point here. These are the folks who are up for grabs. These are the folks that the candidates really want the reach. We're going to be tracking it all evening to find out if they are reaching them. We will see if their mind changes.

BLITZER: I'm very curious where they stand now and where they stand at the end of the evening when we get the results. And we will be seeing if their minds change at the end of the evening as we hear the four candidates speak out. Just ask them quickly: if they had a vote at this second, right now, who would they vote for of these four candidates, just to establish a baseline.

FOREMAN: You've got it, Wolf.

OK. A question from Wolf here. Put your hands up way high. If you had to vote at this moment, how many of you would vote for Mitt Romney? OK. We have one, two, three, four, five, six.

How many of you would vote for Rick Santorum? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11.

How many for Newt -- for Newt Gingrich? That's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven.

And how many for Ron Paul? One, two.

Well, Wolf, this is a fairly -- not evenly divided, but there are some weight behind every candidate. Nobody is here with no votes or only one or two, so it is going to be interesting to see how that shakes out through the evening, Wolf.

BLITZER: It's interesting to see the baseline, to see if that changes in the course of the night. And I love the fact they'll be able to tell us what parts of these four speeches they like or if they don't like. We'll be watching those squiggly lines at the bottom of the screen.

Tom Foreman in Columbus, Ohio. If this turns out to be a very late night -- and guess what? I suspect it will be, it could be, because there's a dispute over delegates. Is Newt Gingrich rooting for one of the opponents, one of his opponents, I should say, to be the big winner tonight? Stand by for my interview with the former House speaker who's staking his hopes on Super Tuesday.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: About an hour away from getting our first votes in the two big contests tonight, Michigan and Arizona. Let's get the state of play in the Republican race so far and see where we are.

Remember Mitt Romney so far has won four states here in New England and Florida and Nevada. Rick Santorum has won four states. His are the purple states. Newt Gingrich, South Carolina. That is Michigan and Arizona voting tonight. We'll also get some preliminary reports from the Wyoming caucuses.

It's not only about wins; the way to get the nomination is to win delegates. So this is where we are tonight. Governor Romney with a bit of a lead. He needs 1,144, so he's ahead, but we're very early still. Speaker Gingrich and Santorum essentially at a tie. Congressman Paul trailing right now. He thinks that number will go up a bit with some of these caucuses and the follow-up processes early on.

But let's look at where we are right now. Michigan and Arizona tonight. Let's just do this. If we have a model that has Governor Romney winning both states and Senator Santorum getting some of the delegates in Michigan; perhaps Speaker Gingrich or Congressman Paul picking one or two, Arizona, winner take all. That would move Romney up some.

Let's assume -- let's split this and say if Senator Santorum wins, you see that Senator Santorum would pass Newt Gingrich and pull into second place so that the proportional representation of Michigan is the key to tonight.

The winner of Arizona, we would be stunned if it's not Governor Romney. Let's let them count the votes. It's winner take all. Here, this is all done by congressional district.

I want to come back to the other map to show you just what I'm talking about. You can win the state of Michigan tonight. You can carry the state and not get the most delegates, because we're 14 congressional districts, two delegates for each district. But those are awarded on a case by case district. So one of the things we will watch as the night goes on. A lot of congressional districts down in this part of the state that are Democratic districts, especially in the Detroit area. Where did they go? We're looking for those mischief Democratic votes, so it's possible Romney could win the vote stateside and Senator Santorum could pick up the bulk of the delegates. That's one of the things we need to watch.

But again, just to come back to the delegate map one more time. The race, the race is to get to 1,144. One of the questions is if Governor Romney can win two tonight and get back his front-runner status or will he have a split with senator Santorum and send the race into Super Tuesday, ten contests next week, in total unpredictable status?

Big results coming in soon. Our coverage of "America's Choice 2012" continues right now.