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JOHN KING, USA

Super Tuesday Showdown; Interview With Texas Congressman Ron Paul

Aired March 6, 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: It's Super Tuesday, the biggest night yet of the 2012 race for the White House.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Americans are voting, and we're counting down to the first results.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Tonight: a Republican campaign blockbuster, 10 states and hundreds of delegates on the line at the same time.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's our time for choosing. And this time we got to get the choice right.

ANNOUNCER: Will this night bring any clarity to the most unpredictable presidential race in memory?

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's an episode of "Survivor." We just need to stay on the island, not get voted off.

ANNOUNCER: Voters are deciding in Vermont, Virginia, and Georgia.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's very important for to us do well in Georgia.

ANNOUNCER: In Ohio, Massachusetts, and Tennessee.

SANTORUM: We feel really good about Tennessee.

ANNOUNCER: In Oklahoma, Idaho, Alaska, and North Dakota.

ROMNEY: I want North Dakota's votes.

ANNOUNCER: It's America's choice and it's Super Tuesday.

Mitt Romney needs to prove he can finally close the deal with voters.

ROMNEY: I'm not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support. I am who I am.

ANNOUNCER: Rick Santorum needs to move prove he can stop him.

SANTORUM: We're the one going out here and scrapping and clawing. And you know what? We're doing all right.

ANNOUNCER: This may be Newt Gingrich's last chance for a campaign comeback.

GINGRICH: I'm not a team player. I'm a change agent.

ANNOUNCER: And Ron Paul's biggest chance to pick off more delegates.

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We do know that the strategy of building up delegates is a pretty sound position to have.

ANNOUNCER: Will any one candidate emerge as the big Super Tuesday winner or loser? Republicans are choosing. The world is watching. And nothing in this election compares to what's happening right now.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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

There's a gold mine of delegates at stake right now, more than 400 in contests that stretch from Vermont to Alaska and something that may be just as valuable, a chance for the Republican candidates to prove they can win on a big national playing field.

Take a look here, a live picture from Fargo, North Dakota. People gathering right now for a huge Republican congress that begins later this hour. Voters in all turning out in 10 states across the nation to have their voices heard today. It's going to be a very, very, very busy night. Could go into the morning.

Wolf Blitzer will guide us through it -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Look forward, John, to every moment of this. It's going to be exciting.

We could get results coming in at least a little bit less than an hour or so from now. Polls close in Georgia, Virginia and Vermont 7:00 p.m. Eastern, less than an hour from now. At 7:30 p.m. Eastern voting ends in the Ohio primary. That's the most watched contest of the night. Polls close in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Massachusetts at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. We may project a winner in Idaho and North Dakota some time after the 10:00 p.m. Eastern hour as the caucuses in those states wind down.

And voting ends in the Alaska caucuses at midnight Eastern. A total of 419 delegates are at stake in 10 contests across the nation on this Super Tuesday.

As always, Anderson Cooper is with us -- Anderson.

COOPER: Wolf, let's look at where the delegate race stands right now. Heading into tonight's contests, CNN estimates Mitt Romney has 207 delegates, more than twice as many as Rick Santorum, who's got 86. Ron Paul has 46 delegates. Newt Gingrich has just 39. Now, remember, 1,144 delegates are needed to clinch this nomination.

Four years ago, John McCain already had clinched the nomination by early March with more than 1,200 delegates. The calendar, though, was much more front-loaded, as we have been telling you, back in 2008.

Tonight we have a brand-new way to show you how the fight for delegates could affect the Republican Convention in Tampa. We will use some state of the art technology to put Tom Foreman in the middle of a virtual convention.

Let's go to John with some new exit poll information -- John.

KING: Anderson, 10 states on the map tonight. A lot of data coming into us. Not exit polls in all of them, but let's start with Ohio. We know that is the biggest contested battleground state tonight, critical in the Republican nomination battle.

It will be critical come November. Let's look at what's happening in the state of Ohio. Voting by ideology, we asked people as they showed up to vote today how do you describe yourself? Well, 64 percent, nearly two-thirds of the voters described themselves as conservative. Let's have a sneak peak at some of the exit poll data.

The polls aren't closed yet. But among those who say they're conservatives, this tells us we have a close race in Ohio, 39 percent for Santorum, 39 percent for Governor Romney, 12 percent for Speaker Gingrich and 9 percent for Ron Paul.

But you look at this tie among conservatives, that tells you, you have got a contested race in the state of Ohio tonight. Let's take a closer look more about the Ohio electorate. Will you vote for the GOP nominee in November, asking people no matter who wins will you vote for the GOP nominee? Now, 62 percent, more than six in 10, say, yes, I'm a loyal Republican, I will vote for the nominee.

But look at this -- 23 percent say probably, 10 percent say only if my candidate wins. You have got some sense of reservation. That happens sometimes in a hotly contested nominating process, but could be a sense that the Republicans might have difficulty healing their wounds after this process. Are you satisfied if Romney wins the nomination? Nearly six in 10 of Ohio voters, 57 percent say yes. So Governor Romney much of them say yes. About 36 percent, more than a third, that's a bit worrisome, say no.

What about Rick Santorum? He was tied in the polls with Governor Romney heading into the voting in Ohio. That's why we're focusing on those two, slightly more -- 61 percent of Ohio Republicans say, yes, I would be satisfied if Rick Santorum wins the nomination. As you see this you know a tough battle between Santorum and Romney for conservative voters and some sense of hesitation and reservation.

Wolf, it will be very important as we watch all 10 contests tonight and then we pitch forward after Super Tuesday if the Republicans finally settle on a candidate, then the big challenge will be healing their wounds. But we have a long way to go tonight before we know if we can answer that settle question.

BLITZER: A long way to go, key words, John. Thanks very much.

We certainly have correspondents covering all the campaigns tonight.

First, let's go to Candy Crowley. She is covering Mitt Romney's campaign.

He just wrapped up a little informal Q&A, Candy, with reporters out there. What's the message he and his folks are trying to project tonight?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Listen, the same message that they have been trying to project for the last 10 days, 12 days. They want to get back to jobs.

In terms of how they feel about this evening, I spoke to one senior adviser who said, listen, we understand that big states win big headlines, if you take those states. But the action is where the delegates are. They want both, of course, but right now the Romney campaign really is focused on the math of this. Where do you pick up that number to get the nomination?

They can't do it all tonight but they are back there crunching these numbers, if you will. That's really what Romney had to say outside the voting booth today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: It's really hard to predict what's going to happen tonight. As I said, I'm hoping for a good win here in Massachusetts. And what happens elsewhere, I don't know. But I think we will pick up a lot of delegates.

And this is a process of gathering enough delegates to become the nominee. And I think we're on the track to have that happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: So what they are looking for tonight, of course, are all those delegates. But we all know that there's been so much focus on Ohio, that that is really the kind of the crown jewel, the headline that the Romney folks would like to see, as well as the Santorum folks.

But I will tell you that one of the things that they have said all along, every time whether the Romney campaign has been down or up, every time I have talked to them, they have said listen we have a great ground game out there. We have a way to get these folks to the polls. That's what brought them home in Michigan. They think that's what will do it in Ohio as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy, stand by.

Jim Acosta is over at Santorum headquarters in Ohio right now.

The polls show it was very, very close between Santorum and Romney in Ohio. But I don't understand why the Santorum folks were spending only a minimal amount of money in paid advertising in Ohio.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. If you look at the ad tracker Kantar Media, Wolf, they will tell you that Rick Santorum is not spending a whole lot of money in Ohio on ads in broadcast TV markets.

And the Santorum campaign responds to that essentially Mitt Romney is the establishment candidate. They say they are not. But, Wolf, I have to tell you, we are picking up on some Super Tuesday defiance from the Santorum campaign.

A spokesman for Rick Santorum, Hogan Gidley, had a chance to catch up with him a few moments ago. And he started to lower expectations a little bit. He said, yes, we will be comfortable if we come out of Ohio in a strong second-place position in the popular vote. Yes, it wasn't that great that we did not file the necessary paperwork to get those delegates in every corner of the state.

For example, where we are tonight, Steubenville, Ohio, Rick Santorum is on the ballot, but he can't pick up delegates in this area. So that's a blow to his campaign. But they say -- picking up on what Mitt Romney was just saying a few moments ago -- that Mitt Romney is incapable of clinching the 1,144 delegates that he needs to get the nomination.

Here's what Gidley had to say a few moments ago. They're willing to take this as far as they need to take it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOGAN GIDLEY, SANTORUM COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: He's got to get to 1144, too. It's not compelling. But he wants us out because he knows he can't get there.

And if we all go to the convention with a certain amount of delegates and we have to figure something out at the convention, then so be it. But that's democracy and that's the way the party structure is set up. And that's what we will see. We will cross that bridge when we get to it.

ACOSTA: That was the argument Barack Obama made back in '08. He kept saying it's mathematically impossible for Hillary Clinton to clinch the nomination, and get out. And she ended it taking it all the way to June and she came close, but she didn't get it.

Is that essentially the same situation that we could be in the middle of right now? can you overtake him?

GIDLEY: It's another issue where Mitt Romney lines up just perfectly with Obama. First, it was all the issues. Now it's campaign strategy. Got to love it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: The Santorum campaign sees one bright spot in these days heading into Super Tuesday. They feel like this assault that they have made on Mitt Romney's record on a national insurance mandate has been effective.

They feel like they have blunted his momentum here in Ohio. And if they're successful tonight in a lot of these states, and they hope they are, they think they're going to take that message forward and keep hurting Mitt Romney as the days go on -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta over at Santorum headquarters in Ohio right now.

Joe Johns is covering Newt Gingrich's campaign in Atlanta.

Joe, he's likely to win. All the polls show he's doing really well in his home state of Georgia. But what's his strategy beyond tonight?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Well, the first thing I think you have to say, Wolf, is they see a path to the nomination still. That path runs through the South. It goes through states like Mississippi, through Alabama, onto Texas.

Of course, Georgia is certainly critical in that strategy. Newt Gingrich saying he expects to win the majority of the delegates and do very well here tonight. Listen to him from earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: We're going to carry Georgia by a big margin tonight. We're going to do much better than people expected in a number of other states.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GINGRICH: It turns out the American people like positive ideas and positive solutions. And the American people like proposals that give them a better future, that create jobs and help create a better future. And so I think for the third time we're going to come bouncing back.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: Talking to aides with the campaign, I have to tell you, they have said here, they have said in other places around the country it's all about the delegates, amassing as many delegates as he possibly can with an eye toward the convention.

Newt Gingrich, not only in Georgia, not exclusively in his home state, also doing a little bit of traveling in Tennessee as well, some of the polls showing him trending upward there, looking halfway good in the state of Tennessee. By the way, Wolf, here in this ballroom in the Atlanta area, they have already cued up the song "Georgia on My Mind." So you know what the Newt Gingrich people are thinking here in the state of Georgia.

BLITZER: Georgia certainly on his mind tonight. We will have all the speeches later in the course of tonight as well from these candidates.

Joe Johns, thanks very much.

Anderson, let's go back to you.

COOPER: Yes, let's check in with our analysts.

What does a win mean for all these candidates? For Mitt Romney, what does he need to claim a win tonight?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: He needs attrition. He needs to grind the other folks down. It looks like that's increasingly happening. And that means he can go on and it's increasingly hard -- to see how others can't go on.

That's what he needs to look for tonight. Newt need a breakthrough -- a breakthrough for Newt would be in addition to Georgia winning Tennessee. And Rick Santorum needs to do real well in Oklahoma, maybe take Tennessee, and hopefully for him win Ohio. That's what they need.

COOPER: Does Romney have to have a win more than just in the East Coast? Does he have to have wins geographically all over the place?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No candidate will come close to getting 1,144 delegates. So tonight what they're trying to do is to basically pick apart the country and try to win at the congressional district level.

It's not just about winning at the state level. It's about finding delegates at the C.D. Level, at the congressional district level.

COOPER: But if Romney can win in each region of the country, can't he then claim to be the national candidate?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: He can. Romney so far has won important states in the general. He won Florida, he's won Arizona. He may win Virginia. We're expecting him to win, being as he's about the only guy on the ballot with Ron Paul.

He's won Michigan. These are important general election states. If he wins Ohio tonight, that will put another one of those in the bag. I think that helps him look more like a national candidate.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There's four different regional minute primaries today. There's the Yankee primary, which is his base, Massachusetts, where he was governor, and Vermont. He has to run well there or he's not going to be very credible.

There's the blue-collar Republicans, to me the most interesting because they can be swing voters in Ohio and that's a swing state. Then there's the Southern evangelicals, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia. Virginia, it's kind of a special case because there's almost nobody else on the ballot. He's got to run strong there. Then finally there's the Western libertarians, Alaska, North Dakota, to a lesser extent Idaho. There is a strong Mormon population there. It really should favor Romney.

But those are four pretty diverse regions. And if he can take one out of each four region, he's got a serious claim as a national candidate.

CASTELLANOS: The two states that matter for Mitt Romney are Ohio and Tennessee tonight.

Ohio -- if Santorum loses Ohio, he not only loses a state, he loses his rationale. That's blue-collar, Santorum, beer-drinking territory. That's populist America. He's just lost one of those states, Michigan. He can't afford to lose another. Those are important states to watch. If Romney wins in Tennessee or scores well in Tennessee, Anderson, I think you're right. Now that's a beachhead in the South. Romney hasn't demonstrated he can do well in the South.

COOPER: Right. And nice antidote to Gingrich, who we think will do well in the state of Georgia.

A lot more to talk about. John, we will be watching particularly those blue-collar voters that Paul was just talking about.

KING: Anderson, more exit polls ahead and some of them reveal a significant problem for Mitt Romney. Stand by for that.

And Ron Paul tells me his Republican rivals are being reckless. Find out just what he means. That's ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Ten states at play on this Super Tuesday.

The first polls close in just about 40 minutes. We will continue to track the results when they come in. But let's look at our exit polls. Coming into the night Mitt Romney has been bragging he's on a five-state win streak. But in our exit polls we're seeing some evidence of some problems for Governor Romney.

Remember these are Republican voters voting in a Republican primary. What about in the state of Georgia tonight, Newt Gingrich's home state? What about Governor Romney's positions on the issues, we asked people. Well, 53 percent of voters in a Republican primary -- Romney is considered the front-runner at the moment -- say his views are not conservative enough. That's the state of Georgia -- remember that -- 53 percent in Georgia say Mitt Romney's positions are not conservative enough. What about the state of Ohio? That is on the ballot tonight. This is a little better for Governor Romney -- 47 percent of Republicans in Ohio say his positions are just about right.

But, still, more than a third, 37 percent, say not conservative enough. Let's move on to the state of Tennessee, another big battleground tonight. We know here a dead heat with Senator Santorum in the final days. Nearly half of those voting in the Republican presidential primary today says Mitt Romney's position on the issues not conservative enough.

We will continue to look at this data throughout the night, not only to see who's winning in the key states and why, but what it might tell us about the race going forward.

Another candidate we haven't mentioned much yet, Ron Paul, he's in North Dakota tonight, sticking with his strategy of channeling most of his energy into the caucus states.

I spoke with him earlier during a stop in Idaho.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Congressman, good to see you on this important day, 10 states voting today, yet to have a Ron Paul victory. We thought it might come in Maine, close, but not a victory. We thought it might come in Washington State. It didn't come there.

Will today end with Ron Paul in the win column, and, if so, where?

PAUL: Today, we're looking at three states in particular. We're looking at Alaska, we're looking at Idaho, and we're looking at North Dakota. And we expect to do real well, but it remains to be seen exactly what will happen tonight.

KING: You're third in the delegate chase coming into today. Governor Romney is starting to pull open to a big lead. Many people might ask tomorrow morning, Congressman -- if you have maybe one victory, but you're still well back in the delegate race, they will ask, what is it you want?

PAUL: Well, we want a lot more delegates. And we haven't even counted the delegates for -- the delegate process that has been started in the last couple months won't finish for another two months. So we don't know exactly what we will do.

So we have got to count the delegates before we make any decisions.

KING: You're a veteran of this process. If Governor Romney were to win five or six of the 10 states tonight, does that make him inevitable? Does it make him likely? What would it make him?

PAUL: No, it makes him the front-runner. But I think he would still have a long way to go. Nobody's going to clinch the election today. And you get Gingrich winning some states, you get Santorum winning some states, you get Ron Paul winning some states, and sorting all this delegate selection process, I think we have a little bit of time left before you declare anybody a winner.

KING: One of the big conversations in the country right now and in the campaign is what to do about Iran and its nuclear program.

The prime minister of Israel was in town to meet with the president of the United States. Your three rivals for the Republican nomination, Senator Santorum, Speaker Gingrich, Governor Romney, all spoke to AIPAC in Washington today.

I want you to listen to their tough talk when it comes to Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I will make sure Iran knows of the very real peril that awaits it if it becomes nuclear.

GINGRICH: In a Gingrich administration, we would not keep talking while the Iranians keep building.

SANTORUM: If they do not tear down those facilities, we will tear down them ourselves.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Congressman Paul, you disagree with them on Iran. The Democratic president, President Obama, today said he's worried about the casualness with which Republican candidates talk about a possible military conflict with Iran.

Is President Obama right?

PAUL: He certainly is closer to my position than the other candidates, because it -- what the other Republicans are saying is very reckless.

I mean, to talk about -- already now McCain is advocating in the Senate, why don't we start dropping bombs on Syria? And then they're so anxious to go to war. It reminds me so much of our efforts before we went into Iraq to try to alert the people, look, let's pay attention to what's going on. Let's find the facts.

But, you know, Iraq was not a threat. They didn't have weapons of mass destruction. There was no al Qaeda. I think the same thing is going on here. There is no evidence whatsoever that the Iranians have or are on the verge of getting a nuclear weapon, according to our own military people, our own CIA, according to the U.N.

So I think it's blown way out of proportion. It's very reckless and very dangerous. And the last thing this country needs -- and our military agrees -- is another war, because, ultimately, though, yes, we can beat anybody militarily. But the military operation around the world is bankrupting this country.

So the greatest threat to us is a financial crisis. And this will enhance the chances of this financial crisis. Just look at what's happened to gasoline and oil prices right now. And that's going to get much worse.

Once the bombs start dropping on Iran, whether it's Israel or the United States, believe me, this world is going to be in a much chaotic shape. So they're worrying about something that they need not have such a worry about. I don't want them to have a weapon.

But I also lived throughout the 1960s, being in the military, being in the Air Force. The Soviets, a ruthless, terrible nation, we dealt with them. They had 30,000 nuclear weapons. So I think the war drums are beating much louder than they need to be. We need to defend our country. But we don't need to be the aggressor nation.

KING: Congressman Ron Paul, appreciate your time on this Super Tuesday. We will count the votes tonight and we will check in with you soon on the campaign trail, sir.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: You just heard there from Ron Paul and his Republican rivals talking tough on Iran.

Ahead, we will hear President Obama hit back and hit back hard.

And CNN tonight doing something new to help us understand the impact of today's Super Tuesday voting. We will take you into a virtual Republican Convention.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're only about 30 minutes or so away from the polls closing in the first three states, three out of 10, Georgia, Vermont and Virginia.

At the top of the hour, let's see if we will be able to make any projections. Stand by.

Even with all the delegates up for grabs on this Super Tuesday, no one will be able to clinch the Republican nomination tonight. There's a lot of concern among Republicans that this long, drawn-out fight could end up with a weakened nominee and a divided Republican Convention.

Our Tom Foreman is here to take us into what we're calling a virtual convention.

Tom, give us a sense of what may unfold later this summer in Tampa.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, this is about the delegates, the delegates, the delegates. They're how you really keep score, not fund-raising, not ads, not debates. It's, do you win enough delegates?

What the Republicans want is a candidate with a clear lead they can get behind, rally behind when they head to Tampa. What they don't want is a divisive battle.

So how could such a war actually shape up here, where I'm virtually standing right now, at the Republican Convention in Tampa, and how will the top contenders deal with it, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul?

To figure that out, let's start by looking at the convention floor as it stands right now. And instead of clustering delegates by state, let's put them together by whom they support.

So, let me see the big group first, Mitt Romney's delegates. So far, he's won more than anyone else with strong showings in places like Florida, Nevada and New Hampshire. And he's picked up some delegates even in states where he did not win outright.

But here comes trouble. Now show me Rick Santorum's supporters to this point. He's done well with conservatives in places like Iowa, Colorado and Minnesota. Let's add Newt Gingrich's delegates. He won South Carolina. And he could do well in other Southern states voting today, like his home state of Georgia or Tennessee.

(on camera) And lastly, we throw in Ron Paul's forces. Now we're going to take our shot up high, and you can see the problem. Romney has never truly broken free of the pack to establish himself as an unbeatable force.

(voice-over) Sure, individually he has clearly outgunned each of his challengers. But if we put them all together, make them one color, and it's not at all clear that he is the choice of this party at this point.

For a comparison let's jump back to 2008 and look at John McCain's delegates at this point in the primaries. Completely overwhelming Mitt Romney's and Mike Huckabee's. There was no question at that convention who the nominee would be.

So back to this race, if the party stays this divided until the convention, what will happen?

First, you'll have major fights on the floor and behind closed doors. Multiple votes as each campaign twists arms, makes deals, and tries to push delegates into giving their guy a majority.

Second, you'll have furious talk of draft movements. Efforts to drag in someone who's not even a candidate right now as some kind of a 11th hour compromise, such as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels.

And third, you will almost certainly see a Republican Party coming out of its convention with deep fractures that will need mending even as the real battle against the Democrats gets under way.

That's why all eyes are on these Super Tuesday states and all the delegates they will send to this floor. And this is where I will be tonight, tracking the changes minute by minute and letting you see if we're getting closer to a wild, brutal, bruising, brokered convention or closer to the balloons dropping for a clear and obvious frontrunner.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Tom.

We're going to have reports from Tom Foreman at the virtual convention throughout this night, an important Super Tuesday night.

Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Wolf, thanks very much. Talking to some of our analysts and contributors. What do you think the likelihood...

BORGER: I want to go to that virtual convention, OK?

GERGEN: I feel bad. Is Tom Foreman trapped in that virtual world all night?

BORGER: How do we get him out of there?

COOPER: Like Mike Teavee in "Willy Wonka."

So what happens? I mean, do you believe it could be some sort of brokered convention? It seems unlikely.

BORGER: I think we'll know a lot more about that at the end of the -- at the end of the night tonight. This could be the beginning of the end or not.

But I think if Mitt Romney wins Ohio, for example, does well in Tennessee or even wins Tennessee, then he's going to have a compelling case to make about the inevitability of his nomination, about how the party should unite behind him.

We've already seen some senior conservatives this week like Eric Cantor come out a leader, Republican leader in the House come out and say he's supporting Mitt Romney. If Romney does well tonight, I think you're going to see some Republicans line up like planes at LaGuardia, saying, "OK, time to endorse now, because he's -- he's going to be our man."

GERGEN: You've got to have half the delegates plus one, right, to win? He's been having steadily more than half the delegates. Right now he's got more than half. He's likely to get half tonight. It's just very hard to see who can beat him, who can -- who else can get half. I don't think it's assured, but I think the chances of having a brokered convention have gone down.

COOPER: But you don't see him -- there's no likelihood of anybody dropping out after tonight. BURNETT: I mean, I would imagine you'd have a strong point of view on that. Everyone seems to think they're going to go just a little bit further so you wouldn't have that happen yet. But someone was talking today about back, actually looking when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter had seemed to be inevitable coming in. Ronald Reagan -- actually they compared him to Mitt Romney when they looked at how he had done pro-choice legislation in California. He had done all these things, but then he became known for something very different.

GERGEN: "Wall Street Journal" today.

BORGER: It's a very interesting story.

GERGEN: Reagan didn't look like the obvious electable candidate. Romney doesn't look like the obvious electable candidate, but Reagan grew a lot.

BORGER: But I don't think anybody's going to drop out after tonight, because if you're -- if you're Newt Gingrich and you're Rick Santorum, and you're heading into Alabama and Mississippi, not exactly strong territory for Mitt Romney. You're saying, you know what? I ought to hang around. By the way, they've got the super PAC money that can back them up. And so...

COOPER: And Newt Gingrich is hoping to be reborn yet again, hoping Santorum falls.

GERGEN: When you run for president you've got a fairly healthy ego.

BORGER: Really?

GERGEN: These guys ain't getting out. Each one of them thinks, "I can win. The other guy's a clown; he can't win. And therefore, I'm going to stay."

BURNET: It got me wondering, though, always -- just thinking about this whole thing about we're going to change the whole system so we have proportional allocation of delegates. I'm going is that really, really crazy?

BORGER: They're acting like a bunch of Democrats, which may not be a compliment. Sorry, guys.

COOPER: We're just about a little bit less than 25 minutes away from the first polls closing. John, let's go back to you.

KING: And Anderson, great conversation inside the election center. We also have the most resources out there in the field on this Super Tuesday: taking you inside the voting with our ballot and caucus coverage.

Huge caucus getting underway right now in Fargo, North Dakota. CNN's Jim Spellman right in the thick of it all.

Hey, Jim.

JIM SPELLMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John, take a look at this. Hundreds of people have just poured in, maybe over a thousand, poured into this caucus room at a hotel room here in Fargo, North Dakota. They're going to come up to their district table, or this is an at- large table.

They're going to be given a ballot that looks just like this. If they need more they just hit the Xerox machine. They mark their preference of -- candidate preference after they show some I.D. like this gentleman's doing.

And take a look at this, John. Slide that over there, would you, please? Take a look at this, John. To be sure nobody votes twice, they got this idea from voters in Iraq. Voters are going to ink their thumb, mark their ballot, and drop it in a metal box like this.

The election results from each table get tallied. They go to the H.Q. in Bismarck. They think in a few hours they're going to know who they -- they're going to know who they've chosen here in North Dakota, John.

KING: If somebody wins by one vote, Jim Spellman, I suspect they'll be subpoenaing you to testify that you didn't just cast a vote there in Fargo, North Dakota.

SPELLMAN: Void, void, void, void, void.

KING: They knew in advance -- they knew in advance to keep you out of the voting there. That's great to see democracy in action. Jim Spellman will be with us from Fargo throughout the night.

Jim, thank you.

In the next hour you'll see the voting in Fargo, North Dakota. We'll also note next hour's crucial for the Newt Gingrich presidential campaign. His home state of Georgia, the first wave of polls closing. That's coming up right at the top of the hour.

But next President Obama warns his GOP rivals. He says they're playing a dangerous game with foreign policy. Sharp words from his news conference ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Even on this busy day on the campaign trail, three of the Republican candidates took time out to speak to a leading pro-Israel lobbying group, APAC. They talked tough about Iran's nuclear threat and promised strong U.S. support for Israel.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Israel doesn't need public lectures about how to weigh decisions of war and peace. It needs our support.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've seen a president who's been reticent. He says he has Israel's back. From everything I've seen from the conduct of this administration, he has turned his back on the people of Israel.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We would indicate clearly that their failure to stop their program is, in fact, crossing a red line. The red line is not the morning the bomb goes off. The red line is not the morning our intelligence community tells us they have failed once again. The red line is now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: President Obama responded during his news conference at the White House today, accusing his Republican rivals of playing a dangerous game.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief. And when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war. I'm reminded of the decision that I have to make in terms of sending our young men and women into battle. And the impacts that has on their lives, the impact it has on our national security, the impact it has on our economy. This is not a game.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's bring in our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

Jessica, the Republican candidates are talking tough, using very muscular language. But when you look at their policy proposals, what they would actually do, is it all that different from what the current president is doing?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, President Obama argues that certainly not. And you heard him take it directly to the Republicans today, saying that they are talking loose about war.

The fundamental difference, John, is about their argument about public posture. The Republican candidates argue that there should be no perceived daylight between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to what they would do on Iran. No matter whatever differences there may be in private, there should be no perceived differences in public.

President Obama and the administration argues it's all a question of degree, and that we've heard in recent days that President Obama has said as much as he possibly can, they would argue, saying that the president has Israel's back, that they are a sovereign nation and that the U.S. stands with them, even going so far as to say even military options are on the table. And you heard his tough language today, saying that it's not the folks, quote, "popping off on the campaign trail" who have to make the tough sacrifices in the end, John.

KING: Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. No surprise, I think, the president decided he wanted to be involved in the Super Tuesday conversation. Jess, thanks.

Anderson, take it away.

COOPER: Yes, John. I mean, certainly, no accident the president decided to come out and make these remarks today, they made at APAC. Do you think his comments were effective?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I find it remarkable that the president last week was talking tough. In an interview with "The Atlantic," said, "I have Israel's back." Then he goes to APAC and gives a pretty muscular speech. And then today, he criticizes Republicans for being muscular. It seems to me that he had Israel's back, and then he took it back.

COOPER: Was he criticizing them for being muscular or for being just cavalier and attacking him for things which, when you actually look at what they are proposing, it's not that much different than what he's proposing?

FLEISCHER: I think the only perspective that really matters is the Iranian one. Do the Iranians say that they're being cavalier? Or do they say, if Republicans are in office they mean it. They're going to take military action.

If President Obama is in office, we don't know if he will or won't. Maybe he will; maybe he won't. I think it's the Iranian perspective that's determinate of whether this is coercive diplomacy and is effective or not.

CASTELLANOS: I think that's the difference. With George Bush as president, there was never any doubt about the administration's commitment to Israel. With this president, whether you agree with what he's done or not, there certainly is doubt about this president's commitment. He's raised it himself, going back to the '67 borders, lecturing Israel. There's...

COOPER: Wasn't that the policy of the Bush administration, just never say that...?

CASTELLANOS: No. Politically the fact is it's not the policy; it's the commitment. With this president, there is doubt. And you look around the country. You can see it in the Democratic divisions here. Politically, there is doubt. And weakness attracts wolves. Not the Wolf -- wolves. Weakness -- not...

COOPER: But (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in on it.

CASTELLANOS: Weakness invites -- weakness invites aggression. That's the risk I think that this administration has engendered with their -- with their, I think, lack of a strong commitment.

COOPER: Paul?

BEGALA: There's always a risk if you politicize these things. And that's what Mitt Romney looks like. And frankly, I think that's what these guys look like.

I was at APAC on Sunday. It is a very pro-Israel organization. I'm a supporter of them. And Shimon Peres spoke. He's the president of Israel. I don't think he's very weak on defending Israel. He gave a speech that a leading Republican at the conference told me sounded like it was made by the chairman of the Obama re-election campaign. There's no doubt.

And playing politics with this actually, I think, feeds into the potential adversaries, our adversaries, potentially, much more than anything that the president has said.

You know, he has been remarkably resolute for a guy who did come into office with very little foreign policy experience. He has authorized almost 300 lethal drone attacks. President Bush authorized 44 in eight years; Obama's only had three. I don't think anyone worries about whether he'll pull the trigger. He's done it time and again.

COOPER: It is really interesting when you hear the rhetoric on both sides. From the Republicans, it's that this administration is incredibly weak on foreign policy. And from the Democrats, they believe that foreign policy is a strength of this president. They're both looking at the same set of facts and yet see two completely different narratives.

CASTELLANOS: When you look at the political surveys, Americans think this president, I think probably because of the bin Laden operation, this president has been strong on foreign policy. In fact, this is -- you know, the reverse Democrat. He's stronger on foreign policy than he is on economics, which is not the way Democrats usually are.

No president, I think, in the United States, would go to war for political purposes. I don't think President Obama would or anyone. But there is no political break preventing President Obama from being overly aggressive here if there's an opportunity to do so. Yet you look at political levels...

BRAZILE: Israel's -- Israel's own leaders -- Israel's own leaders, and I was in Israel just a few months ago, and I was with Paul at APAC. They have said that the support that they're receiving from the United States at this time is unprecedented.

So I think that what we're seeing today is these callous political attacks to discredit the president at a time when the country should understand the threat that Iran poses, and also the consequences of going to war.

This politics, it sounds nice; it's cute; it makes them seem tough when they don't have to make grown-up decisions. But the real truth is, is that when it comes to Israel, it's not about party. It's not about the prime minister. It's about our shared interests and shared values.

KING: We're going to have more on this discussion. We've got to go back to John, though -- John.

KING: Foreign policy big in the campaign. As you look at the ten states on the map today as we wait for the first results in just about 12 minutes from now. Different economies, when you go state to state, from Vermont to Idaho to Alaska. Also, different battleground decisions made by the candidates.

Erin Burnett, when you look at the economy, you look at ad spending, what stands out to you as we get ready for the big Super Tuesday?

BURNETT: Ten different economies. You've got some of the best and worst in the country tonight. But ad spending really says a lot about where these candidates have put their bets.

I've started to really like this chart as we've gone through the primary season. This is how much money on Super Tuesday, so the ten states up tonight, that the candidates have spent. As you can see, candidate by candidate, Newt Gingrich hasn't spent anything. This is broadcast ads and also ads that air on CNN or FOX News Channel; cable, as well.

Now let me add in -- this is my favorite. I like the soft touch. Super PACs. Hello. There all of a sudden, Mitt Romney, 4.4...

KING: Wow.

BURNETT: ... times more than his next competitor, Newt Gingrich. And of course, this is the Sheldon-Adelson-financed super PAC here for -- for Mr. Gingrich.

But when you look at where it was spent, Mitt Romney. a lot of his money going into Ohio. You see more of the southern states, a lot of Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

And then playing the ads, which I always like to do. We'll play a Mitt Romney super PAC, and we'll play a Rick Santorum super PAC. This ad aired in Ohio for Mr. Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times, and for billions in wasteful products, including the Bridge to Nowhere. In a single session, Santorum co-sponsored 51 bills to increase spending and zero to cut spending.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: This is one of my favorites, the -- the whole debt ceiling -- the debt ceiling thing. KING: Another one of those very positive ads that we're seeing a lot of in the campaign.

BURNETT: Yes, it was skewed 85, 95 percent negative. That isn't going to surprise you.

Because we like to be equal in our negativity or positivity, let's play one Rick Santorum -- Rick Santorum super PAC put out about Mitt Romney, also airing in Ohio.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How can Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama when, on the vital decisions, they're not much different? Like Obama, Romney drastically increased spending, increased state taxes and fees. Even worse, Romney care is the blueprint for Obama care.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: It's all very pleasant.

KING: All in the family. All in the Republican family. They just love each other. You can tell by these ads.

BURNETT: If these guys ever ended up running together for anything, they are providing so much fodder.

KING: And every once in a while, we'll get that moment at the convention where they all come out and pretend they love each other. Looking forward to that.

We're also looking forward now and just minutes away from the first poll closing of this big night. In Georgia, Virginia, Vermont at the top of the hour, we could have the first big projections, as well.

Plus, we're counting down the results for the most coveted prize of Super Tuesday, Ohio.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We could learn the first Super Tuesday winners and losers in just a few minutes.

COOPER: We are counting down poll closings in three states on this huge night in the race for the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, a Republican campaign blockbuster. Ten states and hundreds of delegates on the line at the same time.

ROMNEY: It's our time for choosing, and this time, we've got to get the choice right.

ANNOUNCER: Will this night bring any clarity to the most unpredicted presidential race in memory?

SANTORUM: It's an episode of "Survivor," and we just need to stay on the island and not get voted off.

ANNOUNCER: Polls close in the next hour in Vermont, Virginia, Georgia, and Ohio. It's America's choice, and it's Super Tuesday.

Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum are slugging it out for the most coveted prize of the night, a proving ground for November.

ROMNEY: Ohio is a special place. It's a state, as you know, that often decides who the president is.

ANNOUNCER: Georgia has the most delegates at stake tonight. It's Newt Gingrich's home turf, and it could decide whether his campaign can bounce back.

GINGRICH: I said all along that Georgia was the key.

ANNOUNCER: Will any one candidate emerge as the big Super Tuesday winner or loser? Republicans are choosing; the world is watching. And nothing in this election compares to what's happening right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Welcome to the viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN Election Center.

We should get our first sense of how this crucial night is going to go for the four Republican candidates very soon. Polls close right at the top of the hour in Georgia, Virginia and Vermont. A total of 139 delegates are at stake in those three states.

CNN's exclusive ballot and caucus cameras, they are in place across the country to take you inside the voting and bring you the results before anyone else. Our analysts and correspondents are out in full force for our Super Tuesday coverage, including Candy Crowley and Joe Johns.

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

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: I would describe, Wolf, the Romney folks, and Mitt Romney, himself, as sort of steady as she goes; very calm atmosphere. Nobody is beating their chest saying, "We're going to do really well tonight." Their M.O. has been, "Listen, we are in it for the long haul. We have the money to move forward. We will go all the way to the conventions if we have to, and we expect to do well tonight.

But they won't give you any numbers or any states to go along with that. But suffice it to say that they do feel pretty good, but they just don't want to raise the expectations, Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy, stand by. Joe Johns is over at Newt Gingrich headquarters in Georgia. Set the scene for us, Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Newt Gingrich has spent enormous amounts of time traveling around this, Georgia, his home state also, making a couple trips up to Tennessee. Now, he's expecting all of that hard work in these southern states to pay off.

The question really tonight for Newt Gingrich is whether, essentially, he's going to get enough votes and the largest percentage of the vote and able to say he's now a credible candidate and able to go forward. So, we're waiting to see what happens.

Back to you.

BLITZER: All right. Joe, thanks very much.

Anderson Cooper is watching this exciting night with us, as well -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, Wolf. We are getting closer to the first poll closings of the night in Vermont and Georgia and Virginia as we count down to the top of the hour. Let's look at where the delegate race stands right now.

Heading into tonight's contest, CNN estimates Mitt Romney has 207 delegates, more than twice as many as Rick Santorum. He's got 86. Ron Paul, 46; Newt Gingrich, 39 delegates.

Now, tonight, 419 delegates, they are up for grabs. That's more than all the delegates won before tonight. Remember, 1,144 delegates are needed to clinch the nomination.

We've got a brand-new way to show you how tonight's results could affect the outcome of the Republican convention this summer. Using state-of-the-art technology, we're going to put our Tom Foreman in the middle of a virtual convention.

Right now, let's check in with Erin Burnett. She's tracking the influence of money and ads in tonight's battleground states.

BURNETT: That's right. We're going to be looking at that. When you look at our battleground states tonight, pretty amazing. You've got better than average. National average unemployment rate 8.5 percent, but look at our states. Eight of them have better than average unemployment rates, and that includes the crucial state of Ohio with 7.9 percent. That's pretty impressive.

North Dakota, 3.3. I'm going to talk more about that later, but that's a fascinating story. When you look at the worst states, the states that have higher than average unemployment rates. It's Georgia where we are right now, where we're getting results in a few moments and Tennessee. So better than average all in, Anderson. We'll see if that will affect the tally tonight.

COOPER: Erin, thanks very much.

Also joining us tonight, as always, our analysts Gloria Borger and David Gergen are here in the Election Center. Along with our political contributors, they're going to put tonight's results into perspective for us as we count down to the first poll closings.

Let's also check in with John King -- John.

KING: Anderson, in Ohio, the biggest contested prize tonight, Georgia has the most delegates. One of the big questions, if Mitt Romney is the front-runner, can he start winning in the south, the bedrock of the Republican Party.

We want to show you some quick exit-poll data that suggests there could be a bit of an issue with his religion, the Mormon faith. Yes, 71 percent of the voters in Tennessee identify themselves as evangelical white born-again Christians in the primary there tonight.

And do religious beliefs of the candidates matter to you? More than 4 in 10, 42 percent, of Tennessee Republicans say yes, it matters a great deal. And look at this: Senator Santorum, Speaker Gingrich; Governor Romney a distant third among those voters right there. You see this issue as we go across the south.

You look differently, only matters somewhat, look at this. You see Governor Romney doing much better, actually leading among those voters. That suggests to you that perhaps among some southern evangelicals, Mitt Romney's Mormon faith could be an issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John, thanks very much.

We're getting close to the top of the hour. Three states will be closing their polls right at the top of the hour within a few seconds. Stand by. We're going to be able to share what we know exactly at the top of the hour. We're watching Georgia. Georgia, very much on our minds right now.

And we can make our first projection of the night.