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Destruction in Syria; Interview With Rick Santorum; Interview with Susan Rice

Aired March 9, 2012 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm John King.

Tonight, breaking news: dramatic new photos of the destruction in Syria, as well as new U.S. suspicion Iran now helping Syria crush the pro-democracy uprising.

Plus, Rick Santorum hopes a Southern surprise will knock Newt Gingrich from the Republican presidential race. Senator Santorum joins us from the campaign trail tonight in Topeka, Kansas, tonight.

And an American Airlines flight attendant startles passengers by screaming that their plane is doomed and about to crash.

Let's begin with dramatic breaking news about a dramatic overseas story. The U.S. now suspects the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, is using drones, weapons and other high tech equipment supplied by Iran.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, also seeing reports of high-level defections including at least four generals. Do U.S. officials think that's significant?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Right now, John, senior U.S. intelligence officials are telling us no. And that's the problem.

They are seeing no cracking in the inner circle around Bashar al- Assad. There have been some defections, but they really see no evidence that his powerful inner circle is cracking. And that imagery that has now been declassified and released today is also critical, because what it's providing the U.S. intelligence community is very specific information about where Syrian forces are on the move, what they are shelling, the destruction of mosques and hospitals in critical neighborhoods.

You have the video on the Internet. But this is the kind of key intelligence that they are poring over right now to get a better idea of what the Syrian military's really up to -- John.

KING: As they try to get more information about that, Barbara, tell us about is it suspicion or is it evidence Iran is now helping the Syrian government to try to crush the rebellion?

STARR: I have to tell you that senior U.S. intelligence officials are telling us they have evidence. They believe Iran in the past has supplied unmanned drones, UAVs, that Syria is now using in these neighborhoods to track people and track opposition movements.

Iran is providing computer technology, the kind that they used in their own -- to put down their own revolution so many months ago to track the opposition forces, to jam or track their Internet postings. Very, very tricky business, but it's that kind of support from Iran that has them concerned right now.

And you know, the real bottom line, John, still is with all of this destruction going on, if the U.S. military was told by the president to intervene, these senior intelligence officials are telling us in detail Syria has thousands of surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft batteries, radars, very densely packed, very tough for U.S. airstrikes to get at. It would be very grim business for the U.S. to try and go in, John.

KING: Important and very sober breaking news. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon tonight, Barbara thanks so much.

STARR: Sure.

KING: New let's take a closer look at those brand new satellite images Barbara just referenced and just released by the U.S. government. First, before and after pictures, you see them there. This is the assault on the Baba Amr neighborhood of the city of Homs.

You see on the left everything is relatively intact. On the right heavy black smoke pours out from one or more of the buildings there. A wider view pinpoint marks the Baba Amr neighborhood and a large area pockmarked by artillery craters. The next set of before and after pictures shows a bridge near the Syrian border with Lebanon. In the right-hand picture you clearly see that bridge perhaps an access for people to escape the country destroyed.

The U.S. government released these dramatic images on the eve of a new diplomatic push to try to stop the bloodbath.

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi-Annan is now a special envoy for the U.N. as well as the Arab League. He plans meet President Assad tomorrow in Damascus.

A short time ago, I spoke to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.


KING: Is there any kind of a you must act now, any kind of a deadline that will be given to President Assad?

SUSAN RICE, UNITED STATES AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: Well, the imperative is to resolve this as swiftly as possible.

And our view is and I think the mounting view of the international community is that Assad's days are numbered. But in the meantime, he's killing an atrocious number of people. Our preference has been and remains for this to be resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means. And that's Kofi Annan is trying to do.


KING: We will have more of that conversation with Ambassador Rice a bit later in this hour.

Now let's shift though to today's important news about jobs. And a new show of vigor, the United States economy added 200,000-plus jobs for the third consecutive month. The unemployment rate held steady at 8.3 percent. It's a boost for many of you and perhaps a boost for a president looking to keep his job.

Let's crunch some of the numbers. Then we will have a conversation with Chrystia Freeland of Reuters.

First let's look at the -- you see the file here, 227,000 jobs created last month, 8.3 percent unemployment rate. During the Obama presidency you see the rate was up around 10 percent. It's now dropped down. Pretty static since January, but down from its highs anyway. The question is will it go lower than 8.3 percent before November?

Let's look now. Since the president came to office, remember back in 2008, the final months of the Bush administration, then first year of the Obama administration? The economy was bleeding jobs. That's all the red. Been in the black mostly since. A few tough months in the middle of 2010. Look at that, though.

Since this rough period here and into 2011 and 2012, jobs up. These are the three months in a row above 200,000. One last thing to look at here, where are the jobs? In the last month 233,000 created in the private sector, 6,000 jobs lost in the public sector. Manufacturing up, health care up. The hospitality and service industry up.

Let's bring in Chrystia Freeland now. She's a global editor at large for Reuters.

Chrystia, if you're the president, three months in a row above 200,000 has to make you think this recovery finally has a sustainable foundation, right?

CHRYSTIA FREELAND, GLOBAL EDITOR AT LARGE, REUTERS: I think that's absolutely right. I think they're cheering in the White House right now.

And look, John, you and I are both journalists. In some ways you could say our job is to look for the clouds in the silver lining. But I think we have to concede that these job numbers are really strong, stronger than people expected. And as you showed with those charts, we're now seeing some sort of mounting numbers. It's three months in a row. It's two million jobs over the past 12 months.

That's pretty good. It's looking better.

KING: And so if -- let's say looking better. Manufacturing is up, and the president says manufacturing is up nearly 500,000 over the last two years. Those are bright spots. Those are good spots.

But if you are looking never mind from a political standpoint, just from an economic standpoint, if you're looking for anything in there that's a warning sign or potentially a pothole, what is it?

FREELAND: I think there are probably three things to bear in mind and to be worried about.

The first one is, even though the trend is our friend, the situation is still pretty bad. You know, as you said, unemployment is 8.3 percent. Who would have thought that Americans would be cheering for an 8.3 percent unemployment rate? That's 13 million people still out of work. So that I think is a big issue.

I think the second thing which is an issue is we have had some false dawns, right? Since the depth of the recession, there have been moments when it looked like things were getting better and then the problems returned. We had that last spring, particularly with the Japanese tsunami and then the debt ceiling debate.

So I don't think we're out of the woods yet. And then the third thing which I think is really a pocketbook issue, and I think economists need to be careful to bear in mind, is although the jobs numbers are looking better the level of people's wages is still not keeping up with inflation. So maybe it's easier, a little bit easier to get a job, but people are still feeling the pinch in their pocketbooks.

KING: That's very important when it comes to spending and consumer confidence.

Chrystia Freeland, important context there. Thanks so much.

A couple quick data points before we move on to how this played on the campaign trail, if you look at this the darker the state the higher the unemployment rate by states. You see these states in the Industrial Midwest, California and Nevada. You see the dark states. So many of these states happen to be from a political standpoint presidential swing states as well.

Here's also a potential warning sign, gas prices, energy prices on the rise. You might note this horrible coincidence. A lot of the highest gas prices around the country happen to be in states that also have high unemployment.

Out on the campaign trail today, the Republican presidential candidates mostly ignored the new numbers, the positive numbers about job creation. During this stop in Jackson, Mississippi, Mitt Romney focused instead on the stubbornly high unemployment number.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ... 37 months ago told us that if he could borrow $787 billion, almost $1 trillion, he would keep unemployment below 8 percent. It has not been below 8 percent since. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A bit earlier, I also spoke to another Republican presidential candidate, the former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

Began that conversation as well with today's news, encouraging news on jobs.


KING: Senator, let's start with the new unemployment report. You're among the Republican candidates traveling the country trying to convince not only Republicans, but all Americans we need a new president because of his economic leadership.

Three consecutive months now of job growth above 200,000 a month, the president's in a better position today than he was a few months ago, no?

SANTORUM: Well, three-and-a-half years with 8-plus percent unemployment, that's not a good position for anybody to be.

And this is a recovery that has been anemic by any standard. And the principal reason is the president's oppressive regulatory and tax policies and his continuing growing the size and scale of the budget, and, again, the budget deficit, all of which are weighing down, and his horrible energy policy, which as we have seen is leading now to higher and higher gas prices and another headwind for the economy.

KING: But you know how this works. If the statistics do continue to get a little better, he will be in somewhat better, maybe dramatically better chance of reelection.

So if there's a Republican voter out there about to vote in Kansas, about to vote in Mississippi or Alabama or beyond who says, whoa, this looks like it might be an even tougher race now, what's your case to say, here's why I can still beat President Obama on the economy in a sentence or two?

SANTORUM: Well, the bottom line is that if we have a candidate that is -- just a little different than Barack Obama and just running on the fact that he can create jobs, which is what Governor Romney's doing, even though he was 47th out of 50 states when he was governor in job creation, you're going to have a hard time.

You have got to have a broader message. You have got to have a message about what's really at stake in this election. And that is, yes, the economy -- the reason the economy is struggling and will continue to struggle under this president is because of government regulation.

He's denying people freedom. And this is an election about liberty. This is an election about big things for this country, about government regulation and oppression of our lives. And that has to be the narrative. It can't be about, well, you know, I'm better -- I'm going to create X-number of jobs. I'm going to create the freedom for you to go out and create the jobs. That's the issue.


KING: Still ahead, passengers on an American Airlines flight witness a shocking scene as a flight attendant warns them their plane will crash before they had even taken off.

And Newt Gingrich says he isn't going anywhere. How does that affect the Santorum strategy? We will ask Senator Santorum right after this.


KING: Let's continue our conversation with now the Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. He's looking for wins in Kansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. But some recent polling shows he's got some catching up to do.


KING: You have been telling the voters in Kansas, in Alabama and Mississippi in recent days, give me a couple of good days here, give me a few wins and I will have a two-person race, Rick Santorum against Mitt Romney.


KING: But if you look at latest polling down in Mississippi out just today, Newt Gingrich 35 percent, Mitt Romney 31 percent, Rick Santorum 20 percent.

You're running third in that poll in Mississippi.

But listen here to Speaker Gingrich today. He says he's not going anywhere.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm going to be all the way to Tampa. There's no question in my mind.


KING: Senator, the Romney campaign says if Gingrich stays in and you guys keep splitting the votes, there's no way either one of you can mathematically get there.

SANTORUM: Well, we will just let this all play out.

As we have seen since I think it's Nevada, we have finished first or second in almost every state, I think maybe three or four that we didn't. But Congressman Gingrich, outside of the state of Georgia, has finished third or fourth in every other race. And so the congressman can stay in, the speaker can stay in as long as he wants to stay in. I think what we're going to see is, as this campaign goes on, I think we're going to have a good win here in Kansas. I think we're going to run well in Alabama and Mississippi. I have seen other polls that have us a much closer race in both of those states.

So, I feel like we're clearly the candidate right now that is the alternative to a moderate Republican from Massachusetts being the nominee of the party, not exactly the kind of contrast that I think is going to be a winning one for us in the general election.

KING: You're standing in Kansas tonight. You just criticized Governor Romney.

So, I want to read you something from a Romney supporter who happens to be a pretty famous son of Kansas, Bob Dole. He says this about you to ABC News: "I don't know what the appeal is to Rick. He's a great family man and he's certainly a good person, but I don't see him as a leader. I don't believe he's had any real private experience and no position of leadership -- well, high leadership in politics."

How would you answer Senator Dole?

SANTORUM: Well, I -- look, I have a lot of respect for Bob Dole. He is someone who was I was privileged to serve with in the United States Senate. And Bob Dole left in 1996. I was two years in the United States Senate. And, clearly, I was 36 years old when I came to the Senate.

And the Bob Dole and the Rick Santorum relationship was almost 20 years ago. So I don't blame Senator Dole for saying what he said and the experience he had 20 years ago with me. Obviously, I have gone through a lot more in my life since that time.

And I think what the people are seeing is someone who can paint a vision for this country, someone who can go out and has the courage to lead and fight to make things happen in this country, and someone who tells them the truth, unlike Governor Romney, who has repeatedly throughout the course of this election maintained that he simply did not advocate for Obamacare and did not offer a federal mandate as a solution to the health care problems that this country is confronting.

And now we find repeatedly that Governor Romney in 2009 at the heart of this debate did just that, and then went out in this campaign and did not tell the truth to the voters of the Republican Party. We already got one president who isn't honest with the American public on a variety of different issues. We should not put up someone whose policy is wrong and very similar, if not identical, to the president's, but also can't tell the truth to the folks about what his position was in a very critical time when Obamacare was being debated.

KING: Let me ask you a commander in chief question. As we speak today, the United Nations' top humanitarian official went to Syria. She presented the Assad government with a plan. She's trying to get relief supplies in. She's trying to get monitors in. She says they want some time to think about it. Senator McCain says the United States should start moving quickly for airstrikes, some other effort to help the opposition.

What would you do if you were president today?

SANTORUM: Well, I would be working to provide as much aid to the rebel forces there as possible, indirectly, be supporting them as best we could.

I'm not comfortable at this point with committing to airstrikes. But I think we have to understand that Syria's part of a very important axis against Israel and the United States and the West. And that, of course, is Iran and Syria are very much joined at the hip. And even the Russians have weighed in about protecting Syria and this thug regime of Assad.

So this is not just -- this is not Libya. This is not even Egypt. This is a much more complicated picture. And I think we have to be bold, in the sense that we need to continue to maintain that he needs to leave, and we need to act accordingly. But I think we have to be very, very cautious about how much we act in that regard.

KING: Senator Rick Santorum from the campaign trail today.

Sir, good luck in Kansas and the next few days. We will touch base after the next round of contests.

SANTORUM: Thank you very much, John. Appreciate it.


KING: Up next, Coke or Pepsi? Either way, your favorite soda is about to change.

Plus, the house from the 1990s smash movie "Home Alone" was sold. Remember this?


MACAULAY CULKIN, ACTOR: Other than that, I'm in good shape.




KING: Welcome back.


KING: Still ahead here: new U.S. and international attempts to turn up the pressure on Iran and Syria. We will talk to Susan Rice. She's the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Plus, a passenger's iReport of a flight attendant's bizarre outburst today, including talk of the plane crashing and references to 9/11.


KING: Coming up in this half-hour: A ranting flight attendant tells her passengers the plane is going to crash before it even takes off. Your will hear her screams which passengers call demonic.

And a 30-minute viral video makes Joseph Kony a household name. We're going to go live to Africa to get the truth about the warlord- turned-Internet-sensation.

And will Iran respond to ultimatums it must come back to the negotiating table to discuss its nuclear program? We will ask the U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, who is among those talking tough.

A flight attendant scared her passengers just before takeoff by talking about crashing, mentioning 9/11, and screaming. One passenger said she sounded demonic. Just listen.

Let's bring in CNN aviation and regulation correspondent Lizzie O'Leary.

You listen to that, it's pretty frightening. It must have been amazing to be a passenger, amazing and scary to be a passenger on that plane.

What do we know about what happened?

LIZZIE O'LEARY, CNN AVIATION AND REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: So, what we know is that this plane was taxiing to the runway in Dallas.

It was headed towards Chicago. And passengers said, at first, it seemed like maybe this flight attendant was just sort of confused. She had mentioned whether they were in Houston. And a passenger was a bit confused by that. Then there was a scuffle going back and forth over the P.A. She said, "We're not taking off."

Another flight attendant said we were.

And then it devolved into this screaming. You heard her raspy voice there, talking about getting off the plane, mechanical problems. At least four times saying it was going to crash, talking about 9/11 and the American Airlines bankruptcy, which is currently ongoing.

Some passengers and another member of the crew subdued her. They went back to the gate. And she was taken to the hospital. The flight did get a new crew and proceed in -- on its way to Chicago eventually.

KING: I'm going to guess it took a little calming for the passengers before that took off. But what happens now for this flight attendant?

O'LEARY: Well -- so we know she was taken to the hospital. One passenger said she made a reference to being bipolar and not having taken her meds. That was according to a passenger on board. She was being evaluated at the hospital. No state or federal charges, according to folks we've talked to. And if this is a medical issue, that's probably all we'll know, because it will remain private. But certainly those tapes are pretty dramatic when you listen to them.

KING: A scary morning for those passengers. Sad event in any event. Lizzie, thanks for your help on that one.

Joseph Kony just may have been the most hated man -- may be the most hated man alive right now. A controversial film about the Ugandan warlord and his child army has gotten more than 57 million -- that's right, 57 million -- YouTube clips just since Monday. That's nearly 8,000 views a minute.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For 26 years, Kony has been kidnapping children into his rebel group, the LRA, turning the girls into sex slaves and the boys into child soldiers.


KING: Critics say this movie plays fast and loose with the facts. And there are questions about where donation money to this organization goes. So Piers Morgan asked the filmmakers about it.


JASON RUSSELL, FILMMAKER, CO-FOUNDER, "INVISIBLE CHILDREN": We spend about a third of the fundraising dollars on the movie to make it amazing. And then we spent a third on the movement. The movement is actual volunteers around the world, our vans that tour the movie to high schools and colleges, the T-shirt, the Web sites to make it powerful and aggressive. And then finally, a third is the mission, which is to end the war, to stop Kony.


KING: David McKenzie live for us in Nairobi, Kenya, tonight.

David, you've seen this Kony 2012 video. So have leaders in Uganda. Listen to this.


FRED OPOLOT, UGANDA GOVERNMENT SPOKESMAN: There's been an outrage. I've already mentioned the country is completely peaceful. And what he is doing is to castigate or rather reflect Africa as a dark continent where there's unending trouble.


KING: So two very different stories here. Tell us about Kony and his impact in Uganda in the region right now.

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's certainly a simple and powerful message in the Kony 2012 campaign. But maybe simplistic in some view of people here.

Kony is the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. It's a terrible group that has caused havoc in central and eastern parts of Africa. Right now, though, John, he isn't really having much effect in northern Uganda. In fact for the last six years. that part of the country has been in relative peace.

Turn back the clock before that. certainly there were kidnapping children in the tens of thousands. They were attacking the Ugandan military and causing havoc in the north. But they were pushed out by the Uganda military, at times with help of the U.S., and into the sort of remote regions of central Africa, through the Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Eastern DRC.

So now, right now, in fact, he hasn't had much impact at all. And so that's why there's this sort of irritated and angry response by the Ugandan government.

It must be said, though, he still is causing problems for those regions, still kidnapping children. But military analysts believe that his force has been splintered and that he is a lot less powerful than he was maybe five, six years ago.

As one military official in Uganda told me, John, great idea. Great message. Fifteen years too late.

KING: David McKenzie live for us in Kenya today, helping us get the truth about this Internet sensation. David thanks for your help tonight.

A nuclear standoff perhaps with Iran. A lot of questions about what the world community can do to stop the violence in Syria. Two good subjects for a conversation with the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.


KING: United States ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Susan Rice, joins us from the State Department.

Madam Ambassador, Kofi Annan, the new special United Nations envoy, will meat with President Assad in Damascus on Saturday. The opposition says this is a waste of time, that all it will do is allow the regime to buy more time and continue the killing.

What will the message be? Is there any kind of a "you must act now," any kind of a deadline that will be given to President Assad?

SUSAN RICE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: It comes with a mandate from the United Nations General Assembly, as well as from the League of Arab States to try to broker a swift transition in which, ultimately, Assad steps aside, and the people of Syria are able to choose an interim government that's representative and leads to elections. That's ultimately what his mission is about, as well as trying to stop the fighting right away and ensure that humanitarian access is granted. This is his very first visit. He hasn't yet had the opportunity to sit down with either the opposition or the government. So I think it's quite premature to declare his mission dead before it even begins.

KING: And yet, you know, I think you'd be pretty honest and say it's unlikely, at least in the short term, you can get a tough new resolution out of the Security Council because of China and Russia. The top humanitarian official for the U.N., she says the Assad government is considering her plan. It wants more time to think about it.

Answer the critic that would say President Assad is playing the international community, running out the clock, saying he's for diplomacy, listening and having meetings but continuing to slaughter people.

RICE: The pressure is mounting. The economic pressure, very importantly, is also mounting. The United States, the European Union, countries neighboring Syria have put on tougher and tougher sanctions. And we see their currency crashing. We see businesses having real difficulty thriving. So the noose around his neck is tightening.

Now, obviously, we want to see it tighten as quickly as possible. And for this to be resolved as swiftly as possible and peacefully to the extent that that remains still a viable outcome.

KING: Let me shift your attention to another big crisis in the same neighborhood, Iran. You gave some tough words the other day, saying Iran must come back to the bargaining table, and it must understand that this is a finite negotiation; it is not wide open.

Among the Republicans running for president, they've been sharply critical of this administration. I want you to listen here to Senator Rick Santorum.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We've got your back, he said to you before when he spoke to AIPAC, and then two days later turns his back on Israel again and says, "Oh, we'll negotiate without preconditions." This is weakness in the face of hostility.


KING: Is the president showing weakness in the face of hostility, Madam Ambassador?

RICE: Absolutely not. You know, candidates can say what they will out on the election trail, but the reality is there's been no administration and no president who's ever had a stronger security and intelligence relationship with Israel than President Obama and this administration.

The level of our defense assistance -- $3 billion in foreign military financing -- has never been higher. It was the United States that supported the installation of the iron dome anti-rocket system which has saved many, many lives already in Israel.

And we have been very clear that, in the United States' interests, the interests of our allies and partners in the region, including Israel, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.

What we're also saying, however, is the best way to ensure that Iran loses a nuclear weapon capability for the future is that it decides as an affirmative decision to give that project up. And that can only be done through a negotiated solution.

Even a military strike, which some are talking very loosely and I think irresponsibly about at this stage, would not end the nuclear program in perpetuity. It might send it back a year or two.

So what this administration has done is led the international community to be more united than ever in putting the toughest sanctions ever in place, multilaterally and nationally, against Iran and Syria.

And like Syria but much more so, Iran's economy is crumbling. The pressure on them is mounting. And now we're trying to test a proposition as to whether...

KING: And what does it mean...

RICE: ... with that mounting pressure, we could actually get...

KING: What do you mean by that?

RICE: Let me just finish. What we can get with that mounting pressure is a negotiated solution. That's the permanent way to end the program.


RICE: Now, what I said about the window of opportunity for negotiation, I said the window of opportunity for negotiation was not finite. In other words, you know, we're not going to see these negotiations strung out for years and years.

We need Iran, if it's serious and if it wants to get out from under the mounting and perhaps crippling, ultimately deadly pressure that it's under economically, it's going to need to come to the table very seriously in the process that it has now said it's ready to resume and deal concretely and seriously with its nuclear program. We need to see it ended. And it cannot and will not be allowed to engage in negotiations that extend years and years and years.

KING: Madame Ambassador, appreciate your time tonight.

RICE: Good to be with you.


KING: The latest economic news may add up to bad news for the Republicans. We'll show you why next. And sorry, "Love Boat" fans. There's no happy ending for the ship itself.



KING: The economy added 227,000 jobs last month. That's the third consecutive month of gains above 200,000. Now, unless you have amnesia, you know that's a dramatic difference from the dark days of late 2008 and most of 2009. President Obama? Well, he remembers.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And three and a half years later, we're still recovering from the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes. We've got a lot of work to do before everybody who wants a good job can find one.


KING: Tonight's "Truth" is a statistics lesson that will make Republicans nervous yet Democrats should hold the celebration. It is March, after all. How this analysis looks in October is what matters most in the race for the White House.

One data point smart political strategists tracking presidential election years is the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index. If it's in the 90s or higher on election day, the incumbents win. Below 80 and they lose. Today it's at 75.

These slides are courtesy of Republican pollster Bill McInturff. Now, full disclosure time. Bill's partner is Mitt Romney's pollster. Still, Bill tells his clients the numbers don't lie, and the numbers show President Obama, while still on shaky ground, in a much, much more competitive position than just a few months ago.

But not out of the woods. Look here. At the moment using the Michigan data, President Obama is in the Jimmy Carter zone, not the Ronald Reagan zone. Republicans, like Romney, can only hope he stays there.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This president has not succeeded. This president has failed. And that's the reason we're going to get rid of him in 2012.


KING: Truth is, we don't know what this data will look like in October. If the economy keeps adding 200,000 jobs or more a month, it's a pretty safe bet consumer sentiment and the president's approval rating will bump up.

But the recovery is still fragile, and rising energy prices could provide a shock at some point. This chart here is a reminder of the volatility.

See that big drop in the Consumer Sentiment Index last summer? That was during the big debt ceiling showdown here in Washington last August. Look here, as this slide shows you, as the Consumer Sentiment Index drops so does the president's job approval number. And vice versa.

Look at August and the debt showdown. And more recently look at those months. As the economic outlook has brightened, so has the president's job approval rating.

Now, the election is 242 days away. When we check these same stats in, say, 220 days, odds are they will tell us just what will happen on election day.

Let's talk truth tonight with Democratic pollster for the Obama campaign Cornell Belcher; Republican strategist and former Gingrich adviser Rich Galen; and Romney campaign advisor Bay Buchanan.

So these are better numbers right now. Right now. How careful, when you're calculating the president, saying Mr. President, obviously, you want to be upbeat. Obviously, you want to celebrate this and enjoy this, but you better not be overconfident. Where's that line?

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think you saw today he's not overconfident. I mean, look, the president made some hard decisions two years ago, almost three years ago now about sort of the move this economy in the right direction. And it's beginning to show off. I mean, he has moved the economy in the right direction.

You know, I find it amusing the consumer index, they're always finding new ways to sort of spin and make the president look bad. Truth of the matter is the Americans think the economy is growing better. We're not where we want to be, but we're moving in the right direction. And it's really tough to sort of kick an incumbent out of office when people think that things are moving in the right direction. He's -- we're all feeling better about the economy, but we know we're not out of the woods yet.

KING: How do you -- if you're advising a Republican candidate who's going out today, Republican candidate going out today, and look, 227,000 jobs that's good.

But never mind presidential politics for a minute. That's good. My brother's unemployed. That's good for people out there who are trying to find a job. So how do you advise a candidate, look, you know you want to be critical of the president, but be careful here.

RICH GALEN, FORMER GINGRICH ADVISOR: I think because of the way this administration has done this, it's a fairly simple message. You can't root against good numbers. You can't root for higher unemployment. That's not only politically crazy, but it's ethically incorrect.

But I think what you can say is, "Look, if the president would quit playing the class warfare card every 13 hours and scaring the you know what out of small businesses and medium-sized businesses, so the -- if the president would have policies that said, look, here's how you plan 3, 6, 8, 10, 12 months ahead, they would feel a lot more comfortable rolling the dice just a little and maybe hiring the extra person or the extra two people. And if I'm elected that's what I'll do."

KING: How do you gauge the psychology to this? The statistics are starting to go in the president's favor. We're a long way from election day. Gas prices could send them back. Greece could send them back. Something that happens here could send them back. But the statistics say one thing.

But talk to voters, a lot of voters still feel tired. I remember back in 1992 George H.W. Bush was running around the country saying look at the statistics. Look at the statistics. Things are getting better. And the statistics said they were. But voters, especially in key states, didn't feel it.

BAY BUCHANAN, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN ADVISOR: Two points. One is the thing you just said. Key states. So you have to take a look at those five, six, eight key states. How are things going there?

Because if the president is going to run on his record, that record better be something to tell that's positive. And I suggest that right now, if poll after poll shows what is the greatest concern of the voters, the economy, jobs, the outrageous spending in Washington and now gas prices.

That's what's on their mind. They are not happy about what has happened. They do see this president as having failed them, failed their families. That is why they're in this difficult situation. And that's what he's going to end up running on.

The second point, John, is you know, you say October is what's going to matter. No, it's not October. When it comes to the economy voters start making a decision six months out. That decision is rock solid. If you look at George Bush when he ran, the economy was coming back. We were doing well as it got closer to October, but they had made up their mind come June, July. We weren't changing their minds with a few numbers in October.

KING: Everybody stand by. We'll continue the conversation in just a moment.

But "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" coming up at the top of the hour. Erin, what's your take on today's jobs numbers?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: You know, I have to say, John, this is good. It's been several months in a row. So this is obviously something that has got to be greeted with jubilation in the White House.

The president, though, pretty careful, because he doesn't want to bank on this. But you know, we've been saying for the past few months this is a lot like 1984 and Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign mantra, right? Morning in America. We'll see.

One thing that stood out to me, though, John, is we're going to get to the bottom of, is this issue of a lack of wage growth. Wages in this country, according to the data are up 1.9 percent from a year ago. That lags inflation. That means most Americans are able to buy less with their money now than they were a year ago, and that obviously is a very concerning thing, a decline a standard of living.

So we're going to be talking about that, top of the hour. Back to you.

KING: Important. See you in just a few minutes. Thanks, Erin.

Now, if you walk into a bar on a hot day, you don't have to decide between ordering a cold beer or a tall iced tea. We'll tell you about a brand-new third choice.

Also ahead, an "oops" moment for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. He got into a shouting match at a town hall, and somebody had a camera.



ROMNEY: I'm learning to say "y'all," and I like grits. And things are -- strange things are happening to me.


KING: That's the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, on his southern conversion as he campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama this week. Those primaries are on Tuesday. That would be one day after Governor Romney's 65th birthday.

Let's continue the conversation with Bay Buchanan, Rich Galen, Cornell Belcher.

If you look at the polling, here's a Mississippi poll just out. A lot of people thought Romney in the south, this is going to be Gingrich, and Santorum. Newt Gingrich 35, Romney 31, Rick Santorum 20, Ron Paul 7. On Tuesday, does Governor Romney have a chance to actually win either of these states in the south?

BUCHANAN: It's tough. It's very tough because, obviously, the other two have much more of a natural base down there. However, he runs everywhere, John.

Governor Romney, he'll go everywhere. He's going to run hard. He's got a national organization; he's got national appeal. The economy is the issue, no matter what state you're in, and he has a terrific message. Plus, he's got the experience, know-how and a plan. So yes, I think his message is resonating in the south. We'll see Tuesday how well he does. But he's on the path to the nomination. There's no question about that.

KING: A couple of days ago, Speaker Gingrich was saying, "I have to win these states or face the cold, hard facts." Today, he said, "I'm in all the way to Tampa, no matter what happens."

GALEN: Yes, well, somebody might probably wrote him a check. Might have been Romney, for all we know.

But one thing we've learned is that the polls that are released on Friday have no bearing on what happens Tuesday. We'll see what happens. I think -- I think that is a surprise to everybody that he -- at least in the polling, he's running as strongly as he is.

BELCHER: Yes, he has a chance to win, because he's going to do what he has done in every other state. And it is bury the other guys under a pile of negative advertising, because he has the money to do so. I'm not criticizing that. It's just smart campaigning, but that's what he's done.

KING: Smart campaigning, but can he turn out on Tuesday? If he wins, if Mitt Romney wins either Alabama or Mississippi, when the whole argument against him is he hasn't won a contested contest in the south, he hasn't proved he can win in the geographic base of the party. If he can win one of those, Rich.

GALEN: Well, Florida's in the south, at least for starters. The -- but, no, I think that would be pretty much the end of the -- everybody would stay in. But they'd stay in just knowing that they're going to spend their money wisely.

BUCHANAN: That's the key. You know, why are they staying in? You know. Because they like to have the Secret Service? Because they cannot win, you know. And so you have to wonder, do they start focusing all their attention on Obama? Then you understand. Then you raise these important issues. But otherwise, they're going to be harming the party and the country.

KING: That's the conversation I think we'll have Wednesday. We'll see what happens on Tuesday, first.

Bay, Rich, Cornell, thanks. Have a great weekend, everybody.

There's Kate Bolduan. She's back with the latest news you need to know right now.


So a reminder, everyone. This Sunday, most of us will be springing forward, so remember to set your clocks ahead an hour to begin Daylight Savings Time.

And if you've ever wondered, like I really did, why your weekend gets cut short by an hour every spring, it's all about lowering energy consumption. It was enacted during World War I. It's intended to get more use out of the daylight hours. But there's plenty of debate, as you can probably expect, over whether it actually works.

And the FDA says be on the lookout for poisoned beauty products. Toxic amounts of mercury have been found in skin creams, soaps and lotions in seven states. The products are imported or sold illegally as skin lighters, anti-aging creams or acne treatments. If you have questions, head to and check out the "for consumers" page to find out more about those products.

Oh, fond memories. Well, it turns out the Love Boat won't be making another run. It's headed to the scrap yard, actually. Sold to a Turkish demolition company for about $3.5 million. The ship set the scene for the adventures of Captain Stubing, Gopher and the rest of the crew for nearly a decade before the show ended in 1986.

So sometimes, you're in the mood for a beer, yes? Maybe sometimes you're in the mood for an iced tea. Of course you are. And now, Coors is hoping that it can satisfy both of those cravings with one drink, folks. Coors Light Iced Tea debuts in Canada next month. The beer giant says its goal is to lure in customers who tend to be wine or cocktail drinkers. Very, very interesting.

Also interesting, Huggies has a bit of explaining to do after releasing this ad, called "The Dad Test." It says Huggies are so strong, they can handle the toughest test: Dads left alone with their babies for five days.

As you can imagine, quite a few dads weren't so happy with that message. The diaper company now says it has removed the ad, and they're making efforts to smooth things over with dads who were angered by it.

I'm not sure which one I want to talk more about more: Huggies or beer iced tea.

KING: I don't like beer iced tea, and I'm insulted as a dad back in the diaper changing business. Huggies can -- Huggies can go you know where.

BOLDUAN: One and done, no discussion.

KING: Stay put. Stay put. Tonight's "Moment You Missed" and what might be the most exciting New Jersey town hall ever. Governor Chris Christie called an ex-Navy SEAL an idiot after the two got into a shouting match over the future of New Jersey's public universities. The veteran is now a Rutgers law student who's worried about a possible merger.

We should mention most of this video was edited not by us, but by our i-Reporters.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My question to you, Governor, is please consider veterans and -- like myself here in South Jersey. GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Here's what's going to happen. Rutgers is going to merge (ph). Let me tell you something: I can go back and forth with you as much you want.

And let me tell you something: after you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in the courtroom, your rear end's going to get thrown in jail, idiot.

You know, I tried to be patient with the guy. Every time I started to answer, he started yelling over me again. Damn, man, I'm governor. Could you just shut up for a second?


KING: Wow.

BOLDUAN: Enough said.

KING: Wow.

BOLDUAN: I think that's what people love about a Mr. Chris Christie.

KING: Yes. It is part of his appeal. It's also part of people shaking their head. And Cornell, Rich and Bay are still here. They're shaking their heads.

BOLDUAN: Of course they are.

KING: That idiot. You know? People don't trust politicians. He's authentic.

Have a great weekend, everybody. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.