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JOHN KING, USA

U.S. Army Sergeant Held for Mass Killing; Romney Leading Obama in New Poll

Aired March 12, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm John King from the CNN Election Center.

Tonight, two big Southern states are too close to call on the eve of voting that will dramatically change the Republican presidential race.

Plus, gas prices are up again. And as you pay more at the pump, President Obama is paying at the polls, dearly.

And another massacre in Homs, Syria. Women and children among the dozens found with their throats slit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Russia and China should look at the horrific images and stop blocking a stronger global response.

We begin this evening with another dramatic breaking news story. New details just into us about the veteran U.S. Army staff sergeant accused of the unthinkable. Walking off his base into an Afghan village and executing 16 civilians, nine of them children.

Tonight, a senior defense official tells CNN the sergeant is a qualified infantry sniper trained to hit and kill people at a distance of eight football fields.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence.

Chris, what else do we know about this accused gunman?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, we're now learning he's a combat veteran that did three tours in Iraq. On the last tour in 2010, his vehicle rolled over. He suffered a traumatic brain injury. The Army treated him for that. He was diagnosed and declared fit for duty.

He's also a married man, a father of two. Over the weekend, the military moved his family, his wife and kids on to the military base in the state of Washington for their own protection. Now, as to what happened here, he left the base, his combat outpost about 3:00 in the morning, just walked off the base. The Afghan guards at the front gate noticed he was gone. Noticed him leaving.

They called their American counterparts because that raised alarms. The Americans start to get a search party together. They put a helicopter into the air to search for the soldier. At the same time this is going on, Afghan civilians start coming to the gate carrying the wounded saying there had been a shooting.

But before the search party could get out and locate the soldier, he came back to the combat outpost, walked in, gave himself up. As far as we know from an official we spoke with, he has refused to talk about what happened -- John.

KING: As the case goes through the justice system, obviously he's an alleged gunman right now and he has accused and he has every right to due process. But could he face execution here?

LAWRENCE: He could. President Ronald Reagan reinstituted capital punishment for the military. Yes, he could face the death penalty. The method of death in the military is lethal injection.

But no service member has been put to death in more than 50 years. It's unlikely. And even if the court recommended it after a court-martial, President Obama himself would have to personally sign off on it and approve it.

In fact, the last time this happened, President Bush actually signed an order approving the execution of a soldier back in 2008. That soldier is still going through the appeals process, though. But get this, the soldier he signed off on was for offenses committed well over a decade before.

By the time the soldier actually goes through the process and exhausts many of the appeals, it could be well beyond 2016. This may be something that a future president would have come before his desk -- John.

KING: Important reporting tonight from the Pentagon. Chris Lawrence, Chris, thank you.

While the Obama White House promises this tragedy won't interfere with what it calls steady progress in Afghanistan, the massacre has the Taliban vowing bloody retaliation.

CNN's Sara Sidner is in Afghanistan covering the anguish and vows of revenge. A quick caution, some of the video in this report is disturbingly bloody.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Not far from a U.S. military outpost, a disturbing scene. A dead toddler with a blood- stained face lies sandwiched between two dead men in the back of a pickup truck. In another truck, a blanket is pulled back to reveal the charred remains of two more people.

These are just a few of the victims of the shooting rampage. "One guy came in and pulled a boy from his sleep and he shot him in this doorway and then they came back inside the room and put the gun in the mouth of another child and stomped on another boy," this mother says.

U.S. officials, including President Obama, have all expressed their condolences and sadness, but that has little meaning to the victims' families. A local minister said one family alone lost 11 family members in the incident.

"Look at these bodies. They all belong to one family," this villager cries. Men we want openly, barely able to speak through their tears while investigators sifted through the grisly scene, picking up shell casings. The evidence something terrible happened overwhelming, the floors and walls of these homes stained with blood.

As the day went on, the sorrow was replaced by anger at American forces. "This base told us to come back to our villages. They said we won't bother you. This is your land and this is your own village. Then those dogs come and grab us," another mother shouted.

Some of the villagers claim there was more than one soldier on the ground when the massacre happened around 2:00 in the morning on Sunday. But the International Security Assistance Forces refute that, saying that this was the work of a single soldier who walked away from base and was acting alone.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SIDNER: Now, Afghan lawmakers have called on the U.S. government to allow for a public trial on Afghan soil. There has been a response to that by the Pentagon. A spokesman saying if this is indeed a U.S. soldier who committed these acts, there is already an agreement in place and that the soldier would not be tried in the Afghan judicial system -- John.

KING: Sara, how much does that complicate the trust and the anger and the anguish here? If the Afghans want a public trial, they want it done in their country, how convinced are they the soldier will actually receive a trial and be held accountable if he's found guilty?

SIDNER: Not very I think is the way to answer that. There is a lot of suspicion. There's a lot of worry that someone is going to get off with a "slap on the wrist."

What they don't want to see is to have this person end up back in the United States and not have what they believe would be justice served. What people are calling for is this to happen swiftly. But you know, John, a lot of times, the investigations take some time and they will look at all the different angles.

We are hearing now reporting from Barbara Starr who spoke with someone in the Department of Defense that this person had suffered a traumatic brain injury. That certainly will play into this, so this could be a bit of a long process. If that's the case, there may be reactions. The Taliban already is saying that it is going to take revenge. We will have to see what the villagers in the area and others in Afghanistan do in the coming hours and days.

KING: Sara Sidner live for us there as this dramatic and horrible story plays out. Sara, thanks so much.

We also got word today of a massacre in Syria. Activists say at least 45 women and children were stabbed and burned to death by government forces in the besieged city of Homs. Reuters quotes a medical worker who says some of the women were raped and strangled and the children's throats slit. CNN's Arwa Damon will have the latest from Syria in just about 30 minutes.

Let's turn our attention to politics now. Tomorrow brings four contests with 110 delegates at stake. But both of the big prizes, Alabama and Mississippi, are tossups. Gingrich leads Romney 34 percent to 31 percent in Alabama. That lead of course within the margin of error, four point sampling margin there. Another tight race in Mississippi, Romney has a two point lead there, 34-32 percent over Gingrich. But again, it's too close to call within the poll's margin of error.

The candidates are down to their closing arguments.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I just want to say thanks to you for your generosity, for your warm reception and for your hospitality and for your votes. We are going to win tomorrow. We need your help.

(APPLAUSE)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The reason I'm running is I'm the one candidate who has a clear, consistent track record of actually working with Reagan and then working with Clinton getting very large scale change.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know the values of the people of Mississippi are in line with us. They just need to listen to their hearts and go out there and vote for the person that best represents their values.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is with us here in the CNN Election Center.

Too close to call in the two big prizes. One of the big questions, one of the criticisms both Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich have been -- Mitt Romney can't prove himself. He can't be a Republican nominee unless he can win in the geographical base of the party. If you look at that polling, possible.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I think they have a point there, by the way. Even people in the Romney campaign understand there's a big psychological hole, if nothing else in the middle of their campaign that says this is where the core of the party is and you ought to be able to win here.

But as you were saying, look at these polls too close to call. Someone in the Romney campaign said to me today it's closer than we had any right to expect it to be. That's probably because Gingrich and Santorum are splitting the voters they have been splitting throughout the entire process.

You know them. You do the exit polls. The very conservative voters, Tea Party voters, the evangelical voters. As long as they continue to do that, Romney does all right. One other thing, his campaign believes he's gone back to the basics on the business experience message. They believe it is also helping him in the South.

KING: You forwarded me earlier in the day a memo from the Santorum campaign. Yesterday the Gingrich campaign leaked what they said internal polling, leaked. The Santorum campaign puts out a memo saying, no, no, we can win, we can win.

When campaigns do this, trust me, that means they are worried and they are trying to get some good blog postings and spin the conversation.

BORGER: Leaked to me and 500 other reporters, right?

KING: Their whole point was Santorum still has a mathematical chance. And he does. If Romney collapses, he does.

Here's what Governor Romney said about this idea that somehow Gingrich and Santorum would start picking up delegates and we would get to the convention with no nominee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, if we go all the way to a convention, we would be -- we would be signaling our doom in terms of replacing President Obama. We need to select someone to become our nominee, get that person nominated, and get focused on President Obama, and get him out of the White House.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: I'm not sure he's right. An excited brokered convention might actually be good for the Republican Party. Maybe, maybe not. But that is a message. Governor Romney is sending a message to Republican voters, get it over with.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Yes, get in line, get it over with.

By the way, that Rick Santorum memo didn't talk about a brokered convention. It said actually that Romney can't do the math properly and that, in fact, they will get delegates at state conventions state and local conventions are more conservative and gave a whole complicated rationale for that.

Look, I think a brokered convention in theory is a great thing. It might get some conservatives really riled up. But if you think the debates were good for Republican candidates with independent voters, how would a brokered convention be with independent voters?

KING: It would be good for journalists. I'm not sure about the voters.

Gloria, thanks. We will see you a bit later. Thank you.

BORGER: Sure.

KING: President Obama has his own problems tonight.

Next, we will show you how rising gas prices are taking a dramatic toll on his approval ratings.

Later, a stop sign for a controversial Texas law. Critics say it's designed to scare away potential voters.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The Obama White House "don't blame me for higher gas prices" campaign is in full swing today just as there's powerful evidence pain at the pump is taking a political toll.

The president conducted energy-related interviews with eight local television stations today. Surprise, seven of them in 2012 swing states. The average price of gas is up again today to a national average of $3.76 a gallon for regular unleaded. It's 29 cents a gallon higher than just a month ago.

A new "Washington Post" poll from ABC News as well finds nearly two-thirds of Americans disapprove of how the president is handling gas prices. And it's a domino effect. The president's approval rating is also down and he runs weaker against the leading Republican candidates again compared to just a month ago.

Pretty fair bet. If gas prices dropped, it would probably help the president politically. But can he count on that?

Joining me now is consumer petroleum for GasBuddy.com, Patrick DeHaan.

Patrick, simple question then. Can he count on that? When we get around to people thinking how will I vote in the presidential election September, October, down or up?

PATRICK DEHAAN, GASBUDDY.COM: Well, you know, John, gas prices are only going to go up. Any politician that can promise lower gas prices should be dealt with some skepticism.

I really don't think that there's a whole lot that can be done. Unfortunately, higher prices are here to stay. Ramifications not only from Iran, but the upcoming summer driving season is putting upward pressure on prices. There's not a whole lot that can be done. It certainly doesn't mean there's nothing that can be done.

But a lot of folks think it's just a real simple issue when it really is not quite so simple.

KING: Is the president in some ways a victim of the recovery? The recovery is good for an incumbent president. It's certainly good for an American looking for work. But as people get more optimistic, are they spending more money and are they consuming more gas and is that a supply and demand issue that is driving prices up, or is it something else?

DEHAAN: Well, a little bit of that.

Demand is down compared to last year. But we can trace it back to the higher prices. An improving economy is simply a double-edged sword here. It's what we saw it in 2008. A little bit less of it happened in 2008 because we didn't realize we were in a recession until the collapse of Wall Street. But it happened with President Bush. Gas prices went up when the economy improves. Obama is seeing a similar situation unfold.

And really the only thing that could slow down an upward trend in gas prices is a slowdown in the economy. That will not really help, but it will slow people down in how they travel. And that will, in turn, lower demand for gasoline and thus prices will likely ease up a bit.

KING: All the politicians know people are grumpy when they are paying $3.76. In many parts of the country they are paying over $4. If you buy premium, you are spending over $4 already. The politicians know people are mad and grumpy about this, so they all say trust me. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We can't just drill our way to lower gas prices.

ROMNEY: The right course ahead for America is to drill our oil, to drill our gas.

GINGRICH: I believe it's essential that we establish the goal of being the most productive oil producer in the world and natural gas producer in the world.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Sixty billion barrels off our coast. The president says no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is there anything, Patrick, a president could do today or tomorrow that would bring down the price at the pump a week or two from now?

DEHAAN: Well, that's real quick.

There's not a whole lot. We tried the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Nobody is putting oil in their car. That's the problem with the Oil Reserve. It's exactly that. It's not refined gas that is ready to pump into our cars. A short-term solution in the next week or two? Well, you start shaking hands with Iran and things would probably happen. But that's not really likely the situation. I think one of the bigger things we can do that may take a little bit longer than a week or two is get the United States on one blend of gasoline for the entire year, instead of having all these localized different types of gasoline that meet different air pollution standards. Get the country on one standard so that we don't continue see the seasonal rise in prices. I believe this rise in prices has a lot to do with that seasonal switch-over.

KING: Patrick DeHaan of GasBuddy.com, appreciate your help tonight. Thanks so much.

DEHAAN: Thanks so much.

KING: Tonight, Texas is the latest battleground in a war over voting rights. State officials say they are just trying to present fraud. But critics say it's not the real reason. More on that in a moment.

Plus, Whitney Houston's daughter tells Oprah Winfrey what has happened in the month since her mother's death.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

(NEWS BREAK)

KING: One night to go until Alabama and Mississippi vote and right now too close to call. How the votes could dramatically change the Republican race for the White House -- just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: In this half-hour: reaction from the Washington State base that was once home to the Army staff sergeant now accused of massacring Afghan civilians.

Also, a new atrocity in Syria. Activists in that country say dozens of women and children were killed on purpose by government forces.

Plus, the truth about Mitt Romney's religion and the Christian conservative voters in the South.

The White House says progress in Afghanistan will not be compromised after a rogue American soldier allegedly went on a rampage killing 16 people, including nine children.

Republican presidential candidates are reacting from the trail today. Here is Mitt Romney just moments ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: The actions of a deranged person are not going to shape American foreign policy. That being said, we should on a regular basis reassess what is happening in Afghanistan, and any place, for that matter, where we have kinetic activity going on, and assess what is the right course forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: His rival Newt Gingrich says it may be time to get out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: There's something profoundly wrong with the way we are approaching the whole region. And I think it's going to get substantially worse, not better. And I think that we are risking the lives of young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Rick Santorum says in this case the Afghan people deserve an apology.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: It's not a mistake. It was not something that was inadvertent. This was something that was deliberately done by an American soldier to innocent civilians. And it's something that the proper authorities should apologize for.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We are learning new details tonight about the alleged shooter.

As we reported at the top of the hour, he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury in 2010, but found fit for duty. The suspect's wife and children have been moved onto Washington State's Joint Base Lewis-McChord for their safety.

And that's where our Casey Wian is live tonight.

Casey, this base has a troubled past, does it not?

Having some technical issues there with Casey Wian. We will get back to him as soon as we can.

A high-profile United Nations peace envoy has left Syria without a ceasefire, and it seems the situation is growing more desperate. The United Nations humanitarian chief was in the hardest-hit areas of Syria just last week. Here's what she saw.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VALERIE AMOS, U.N. UNDERSECRETARY FOR HUMANITARIAN: In Baba Amr, I was horrified by the destruction I saw. No building was untouched, and there was clear evidence of the use of heavy artillery and tanks. Baba Amr was almost deserted. A few people in tears as they tried to salvage a few possessions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The stories of slaughter just keep getting worse. At least 45 women and children reportedly killed in cold blood in Homs yesterday. The youngest, 5 years old.

CNN's Arwa Damon is following the story from Beirut, Lebanon.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, opposition activists are saying that government forces and pro-government thugs rounded up a number of Sunni families from the neighborhood of Karm al Zaytoun in the flashpoint city of Homs.

They then separated the men from the women. The men were tortured for two hours, shot at, and there are also horrific images online showing burnt corpses. One survivor saying that some of the corpses were then set on fire.

The women and children murdered, as well. Some of the children had the side of their face blown off. Others their throats slit. There are also reports that some of these women were raped before they were then killed. The youngest of the victims just 5 years old, John.

Now, the Syrian government is saying that this was carried out at the hands of armed terrorist gangs, saying that they kidnapped a number of residents from throughout the entire city, killed them, and then deliberately filmed and uploaded the images to try to put more blame on the government and instigate even more international action against the Syrian regime.

But most certainly, these images are a brutal reminder of the ongoing violence inside Syria. Violence, at this stage, doesn't seem that there's going to be any sort of a political resolution. And many activists and in fact the government itself, too, warning that if the situation continues like this, Syria will certainly spiral into an all-out civil war -- John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Horrible story. And we'll stay on top of this.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying Russia and China should again look and ask themselves why they're stopping a global response to this. Arwa Damon from Beirut, Lebanon, tonight.

Let's move now to tomorrow's big political story here in the United States. Four contests, 110 delegates at stake. The two biggest prizes are in the south, Alabama and Mississippi. And the polls on even the voting show a race too close to call between the three leading Republican candidates.

Ralph Reed is a veteran of southern politics. He's a chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Welcome. So when you look at this, you look at this. Santorum is purple. Romney is the dark red. Speaker Gingrich, though, his only two victories, South Carolina and Georgia. Is it safe to assume, or is it maybe no longer safe to assume that he can put Alabama and Mississippi in his column? When you look at the polling tonight, it is stunning to see these three-way races. What are you looking for?

RALPH REED, CHAIRMAN, FAITH AND FREEDOM COALITION: Well, it's really remarkable, John. Because as you point out, we've got a number of polls in both of these states. And it's basically effectively tied within the margin of error.

I think what you look for tomorrow night is you look for Romney to over perform in Jefferson County, which is Birmingham.

This is where Huckabee beat McCain by only 1,000 votes. Four years ago.

KING: We can show you that. Go back here, come to the Republican primary. There you go. Jefferson County -- oops, we've got to turn the teleprompter off. There we go. Turn it up. Bring it out. There's a little history. You're good. Your memory is pretty good. That's not bad.

REED: Yes. There you go. And then where Huckabee cleans up. Anywhere that is urban, Romney is going to do well. Suburban, you'll see the vote gets split. Whoever wins north Alabama, this is the Bible Belt of Alabama. I know there's a lot of people who think the whole state is the Bible Belt.

KING: This is evangelicals here.

REED: This is where Governor Fob James won his primaries in '94 and '98. This is where Congressman Bob Riley became governor in 2002 and 2006. These are counties up here like Franklin, Colbert, Jackson.

KING: So you say across that stretch?

REED: That's correct. And then down here, again, demographically, the Gulf Coast of Alabama looks a lot like the Gulf Coast of South Carolina. Looks a lot more like Hilton Head.

KING: That was a Romney area.

REED: That's right. So Mobile -- Mobile County, Baldwin County, this is again where Romney should do well.

What's interesting is 77 percent of the vote four years ago was evangelical. Huckabee only won that vote by 12 points, because by then it was basically a two-man race.

Romney is only getting a quarter of that vote. But what may save him is the votes being split by two candidates. And they're both getting about a third of it.

So the irony is, is that Romney wants these candidates to go away eventually, but he needs them both.

KING: So this is Alabama. Let's move the story to Mississippi. And the darker the area here, this map, this is evangelical. So you saw how deep the evangelical population is in Alabama. When you move over to Mississippi, people identifying as evangelicals running pretty much the entire state.

REED: Yes, that's right. But a very similar demographic pattern. Here in Jackson, which is Hinds County and Rankin County, you're going to look for Romney to do better there. OK?

But once you head up to the northern part of the state, where Tupelo is, again, the Black Belt, the Bible Belt of Mississippi. And again, when you go down to the Gulf Coast, which is Biloxi, Gulfport, there again, Romney will do better.

So here's the question. He's not, at least on the early polling we have, the public policy poll and other polls, first of all, it's a much small early vote. It's only 5 percent, whereas in Florida, it was 40 percent.

KING: That's how Romney -- the organization, that's helped Romney quite a bit.

REED: That's right. So he's not going to have that advantage here.

And the second thing is, again, based on the polling, he's not doing better among those voters.

So everybody tomorrow night, John, has a lot on the line. Gingrich, I think, has to win at least one of these to keep the momentum going from the Georgia victory. Santorum wants to keep the momentum going from the Kansas caucuses. And Romney would very much like to demonstrate that he can win in the south.

KING: And you're in touch with people on the ground. You know the grassroots people in all these states. What are they telling you, in the sense that not as much as in other states, but Romney does have, for example, the new governor of Mississippi is on Team Romney. So you think infrastructure-wise, turn out the vote, a guy who recently won an election statewide, that's a good thing to have.

REED: Right.

KING: Santorum and Gingrich are hoping more of the passion vote, if you will. What do people on the ground say?

REED: Well, people on the ground are saying there are two things that are helping Romney. No. 1, these are both now Republican states. They didn't used to be. But the Republicans now control the congressional delegations, the state legislature and so forth. That's been a big shift from, say, ten years ago.

So there really is, in the deep south now, a Republican establishment. And you saw what the governor in Mississippi and others, they're getting behind Romney.

The second thing is, at a certain point, and you're seeing this even among Tea Party voters and evangelical voters in both of these states, people at some point begin to ask themselves how much value is in this race going on?

So, what you have is more pragmatic, strategic voters competing with ideologically Tea Party and faith-based voters. And again, because that conservative vote is split, this race is close. I think, John, if it were mano-a-mano, either Santorum or Gingrich, both would of these states be gone to Romney right now.

KING: He likes the three-way race. We're going to continue the conversation when we pull the map out. Ralph's going to stay with us.

When we come back, the truth about how Mitt Romney's Mormonism will play among those evangelical voters in the south.

And the politically edgy comic strip Doonesbury does it again. Find out who's mad this time.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: If Mitt Romney wins either Alabama or Mississippi tomorrow night, you can be certain you'll hear this from his allies: game over. After all, the former Massachusetts governor is well ahead in the delegate race, and a win in the Deep South would poke a giant hole in his rivals' big argument that he can't run strong in the GOP's geographic base. We can, if need be, have that debate tomorrow.

But tonight's "Truth" deals with another big question as the south takes center stage. What impact will Romney's Mormon faith have on his chances? We know some Southern Baptists are told from childhood by their ministers that Mormonism is a cult. What we don't know -- I have to say, I'm more than a little curious -- is why the Christian Broadcasting Network chose now to post this 2008 clip of Romney discussing his faith's unique teachings.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Throughout the Bible, Christ appears in Jerusalem, splits the Mount of Olives to stop the war that's coming in to kill all the Jews. It's -- our church believes that. That's where the coming and glory of Christ occurs.

We also believe that over the 1,000 years that follows, in the millennium, He will reign from two places. That the law will come forward from one place and -- from Missouri and the other will be in Jerusalem...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: At a radio interview in Alabama last week, the host also raised the Mormon belief that Christ appeared to the LDS prophet Joseph Smith in the United States in 1820.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you, as a Mormon, believe that America is the new Promised Land? Yes or no?

ROMNEY (via phone): You know, you would have to talk to the church to see what they think about that. But there's no question about the fact that Israel is the Promised Land. That's what the Bible tells us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: "Truth" is, there has been less talk of Romney's Mormon faith this cycle as compared to when he first ran back in 2008. And out west, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is more familiar, there's no question. Support for Mormons has been a plus for Governor Romney.

But there are signs, still signs of doubts or worse in the South. Last week in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia, voters who said the religious views of the candidates mattered a great deal were anything but kind to Governor Romney. Let me show you what I'm talking about using our exit polls.

This is in the state of Tennessee. Forty-three percent of the voters in the Tennessee primary said the religious views of the candidate mattered a great deal. Look how low Governor Romney fared among those who said so. Senator Santorum had 53, Speaker Gingrich 25. Governor Romney, only 16 percent. That's in the state of Tennessee.

Let's slide it over here. This is the state of Georgia. Thirty- seven percent said the candidates' religious beliefs mattered a great deal to them.

If you look at that and pull that out, again Governor Romney, only 9 percent of the votes, of those voters who said the religious beliefs mattered a great deal.

So tomorrow's more than just a test for Romney. It's a test for the south, as well, and whether age-old misunderstandings and prejudices are fading or festering just beneath the surface.

With us to talk "Truth" tonight, the editor-in-state [SIC] of RedState.com, CNN contributor Erick Erickson; Tea Party Express chairwoman Amy Kremer; and still with us, the Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman, Ralph Reed.

You've done a lot of work on this issue over the years. And sometimes people are taught this from when they're a child, and they believe it. I'm not ascribing any ill will to them. They are raised and they believe it. How much of an issue now, if you look at the exit polls, there's a nagging question.

REED: You know, John, I really don't think it's a significant issue. The last time that I'm aware of that we saw a poll question in a Deep South state that asked is this an issue for you in terms of your voting behavior was just prior to the South Carolina primary. Seventy to 77 percent of South Carolina voters said that it didn't matter at all or it made them more likely to vote for them.

And I think the fact of the matter is, if you look at the way Romney's run this campaign, he's been very on message as "I'm Mr. Fix- it. I'm the turnaround artist. This election is about the economy."

So when you look at the exit polls, it breaks out that way. Because he's talking about that. Voters who care most about the economy, which is the No. 1 issue in all these exit polls that are breaking his way.

And then the other group that votes with him is the pragmatic or strategic voter who says, "I want to beat Obama." And so he's winning there. Not surprisingly, Rick Santorum, given his profile on these issues, and his service in Congress and as a devout Catholic, is doing much better among faith-based voters.

KING: When you talk to Tea Party folks across, does it come up at all? Look at those exit polls. Among those who say religious beliefs matter not at all, Governor Romney does very well. Among those who say it matters somewhat but not a great deal, he does pretty well. Among those who say a great deal, he does perform well. So there's a slice out there who have some question about this. How big of a slice?

AMY KREMER, TEA PART EXPRESS: Right, but John, I have to go back to my base, which is the Tea Party movement. And the reason we've been so successful is because we focus only on the fiscal issues. We don't focus on the social issues.

When you're talking about religion, you're not talking about how to create jobs. And that's what concerns most Americans today, is jobs, jobs, jobs. So that's what we need to focus on. I've said it time and time again. And I've said it on the show. We need to get off the social issues.

I mean, we're talking primary here, but we need to look at the bigger picture of the general election. Because we want to defeat President Barack Obama. And we can't focus on this. It is all about the economy.

KING: To that point, Erick, Governor Romney did an interview this morning. I believe it was with FOX News. And you know, you say you want to beat President Obama. Speaker Gingrich has been trying to say, "Well, you can't nominate Mitt Romney, because he'll lose. He's a weak front-runner, Gingrich says. Here's Romney's response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: If I'm a weak front-runner, what does that make Newt Gingrich? I mean, I'm well ahead of him. So I'm solidly ahead.

And, you know, these are good guys. I don't begrudge them the fact that they're out there campaigning and working hard getting some support. But ultimately, I believe I'm going to become the nominee. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: There are some questions: can Governor Romney win in the South, for example. That's one of them. But that's a pretty good answer, isn't it?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It is. If he's weak, then Newt Gingrich is really weak. I mean, what other -- just the worst word can I use to describe? Looking at the map over there: two states to Gingrich. A lot to Santorum, a lot to Romney.

Gingrich's path to victory is through the south, and he's competitive there with Romney. That's going to be a problem for him. If Romney can win the South, then I think suddenly, all of a sudden, all the talk of brokered convention goes away.

I do think, though, that his faith is going to have an impact in Mississippi and Alabama in the same way, if you look at those states around Utah on the map, his faith had an affect positively for him.

KING: How big? My question is how big is the slice?

ERICKSON: You know, I would suspect we're only consistent with Tennessee and Georgia. It's going to be a third to 40 percent of the voters in Mississippi and Alabama are going to weigh heavily on his faith.

KING: If he wins one of the states tomorrow night, game over?

REED: I don't know that I would say game over, because the proportionality still means that he's not going to have a significant number of delegates, relative to Santorum or Gingrich.

But he needs to demonstrate, John, what he demonstrated in Florida. In Florida, he was within two points of Santorum among evangelical voters, and he basically split Tea Party voters. That's what he needs to do. He's got to keep making the case for the grassroots of this party that, on the core fiscal tax spending and moral issues, that he's going to fight for them.

KING: And in that sense, this primary has been good for him.

REED: And I would just say, compared to four years ago, the Mormon issue isn't even on the radar screen.

KING: No question. Everybody is going to stay with us. Hang by one second.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" is coming up at the top of the hour. Erin's here with a preview. And you're covering the aftermath of this horrific shooting, allegedly, by an American soldier in Afghanistan.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, we are, John. And obviously, we've been hearing today that the soldier was a certified sniper, had served, as you know, multiple tours in Iraq and also now in Afghanistan. We have some breaking details we're going to have at the top of the hour. We've learned a little bit more about the shooter tonight. And we're going to have that for you as we talk about exactly what the president might do now.

And if he were to, say, change his policy in Afghanistan, say, well, "I'm going to pull troops out more quickly," what would that really mean in terms of the date of when U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan?

Also, going to talk tonight with a woman forced into an arranged marriage. Her parents beat her, tried to kill her. And she has spent the past ten years running from her family. She's going to be our exclusive guest tonight. Some story. Way too many women still suffer from these forced marriages that they don't want to be in. Even women in the United States.

Back to you.

KING: Important stories. Erin, we'll be with you in just a few minutes. Thank you.

Coming up here, we continue our conversation with our political panel. On the eve of the Mississippi and Alabama primaries, President Obama says, "If you're mad about rising gas prices, don't blame me. Look at the guys running against me."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We're on the eve of important Republican presidential primaries, especially in the states of Mississippi and Alabama.

Talking politics tonight with Ralph Reed, Amy Kremer, Erick Erickson.

The president's approval ratings are down some because of rising gas prices. People are mad. But listen here. The president gave local interviews today across the country. Eight stations. Seven of them happen to be in swing states. You decide whether that's a coincidence or not. The president says, "Don't blame me. Blame the other guys."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The biggest driver of these high gas prices is speculation about possible war in the Middle East, which is why we've been trying to reduce some of the loose talk about war there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Loose talk about war there. He says the Republicans are being -- he says the casualness, which was they talked about war of the Iran. It's not only reckless when it comes to foreign policy. Now he says it's causing the price of gas to go up.

REED: This is an extraordinary comment by an incumbent president.

I mean, first of all, the reason why the market is factoring in pricing and what may or may not happen in Iran is because the U.N. has announced publicly that they're preventing them from getting the military sides. And everybody knows that because Iran poses an existential threat to Israel, that neither Israel or the United States at some point will probably have to do a military strike, and that's why, A.

B, he's the one who went to AIPAC and said, "I'm not bluffing. I won't allow them to have a weapon."

So this is hypocritical, No. 1. And No. 2, it's irresponsible.

KING: It's a Republican group here, so Democrats watching at home are saying I'm leading a session where everybody's going to be against the president. And I'm not. We just had a Republican group in in advance of Republican primaries.

But again, as the Tea Party voice here, if -- your party was born, your movement was born of concern about this kind of thing, a lot of blue-collar people, how much are you hearing about this? The gas now, $3.76 a gallon, up 29 cents just a month ago. Look at the politics for a moment.

KREMER: It's huge, and I think in Illinois, gas prices have gone up 57 cents in four weeks. It affects every American and it affects their pocketbook. What turns people out is when it affects them personally. That's why they got engaged with Obama care and now with these gas prices.

But look, the buck stops -- stops with him. I mean, how long is he going to say blame it on Bush and now, he's saying blame it on these other guys. He is the president of the United States. He needs to take responsibility. They need to figure out what we can do to make these gas prices go down and do it.

I mean, you cannot continue to blame other people.

And I agree with everything that Ralph said. I mean, this is a serious issue, and this is what people are going to be focused on going into November. Are you better off now than you were four years ago, and, John, most people would say no.

KING: Are you surprised at how much -- if you were having this conversation a month ago, everyone was saying the president's approval rating was back up. He's more competitive in the election. The economic data seems to be getting a little bit better, and then six weeks, especially in the last month, of higher energy prices, and people are saying, "Ugh."

ERICKSON: Right. It's baffling, well not really baffling. This happens all the time. We talk about the day-to-day machinations of campaigns, but there are a lot of external factors that weigh in on the presidential election -- presidential election. Europe, Iran, gas prices, whether or not he can do anything about it. The Keystone XL pipeline, I suspect we're going to hear the Republicans start picking that up again, that having been lost in the Senate last week.

I talked to Newt Gingrich a couple weeks ago, and I said the Republicans are premising their entire campaign on the economy going downhill. It looks like it's improving. What are you going to do?

His response was, "Well, it's not. Gas prices are going to be $5 a gallon this summer. People will pull out of one sector of the economy just to get to work and put gas in their car."

REED: And John, when you talk about 4 or $5 gasoline, you're essentially talking about a $350 to 400 billion tax increase on the American people during a weak recovery. So this is a big issue.

KING: Huge issue.

All right. Ralph, Amy, Erick, appreciate your coming in. Big day tomorrow. Thanks for your help tonight.

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

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

Good evening again, everyone.

President Obama, he says the massacre in Afghanistan apparently at the hands of a U.S. soldier highlights the need to stick to the withdrawal plan. That plan would have American combat troops out of the country by the end of 2014. Listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It does signal, though, the importance of us transitioning in accordance with my plan so that Afghans are taking more of the lead for their own security and we can start getting our troops home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: President Obama called Afghanistan's president over the weekend to offer his condolences for the 16 lives lost in the rampage.

And in other headlines, many struggling homeowners could be one step closer to getting their piece of a $26 billion settlement. The Justice Department asked a judge today to approve the landmark deal with some of the country's biggest banks over abusive and negligent practices. The White House says nearly 1 million people could see their principle reduced by an average of $20,000. Many more could refinance.

And more than a dozen Ford Taurus owners say their cars sped up without them pushing on the gas. Very scary. Fortunately, no one has crashed or has gotten hurt, but federal investigators are now looking into those claims, zeroing in on cruise-control cables in some 2005 and 2006 Tauruses. As many as 360,000 cars could potentially be involved. And this week's "Doonesbury" comic strip lampoons a new abortion law, though you may have to flip to the op-ed section of your paper to find it or even go online. Some newspapers are pulling or moving the cartoon, which takes aim at a Texas rule requiring ultrasounds before abortions. In one strip, the waiting room is referred to as a, quote, "shaming room." Another compares the exam to rape.

And the federal government says it won't pay -- will not pay what tornadoes destroyed in southern Illinois. FEMA says the damage from February 29's storm wasn't severe enough, but that decision has left the state's governor and senators stunned, and they say they'll appeal.

And finally, tonight's -- oh, sorry, John. I was jumping all over you.

KING: You can take that one if you want.

BOLDUAN: I got excited about "The Moment You Missed."

KING: It's very interesting watching the president fighting with the Democratic governor and the Senate delegation in his home state over this FEMA thing.

BOLDUAN: I know.

KING: That's an interesting one to watch.

All right. Here we go. Tonight's "Moment You May Have Missed." Kate wanted to steal the script, but this one's mine.

It's Mitt Romney's 65th birthday and no big party, no romantic date with his wife, Ann. That's because she's out campaigning on her own, trying to help him out. But Romney does have a birthday voice mail -- now this is nice -- waiting for him, according to Rick Santorum's campaign.

The communications director, Hogan Gidley, tweeted this: "@RickSantorum called @MittRomney to wish him a Happy B-Day, got voice mail, left msg."

We wonder if Governor Romney will return the favor. Senator Santorum is a bit younger. He turns 54 in May. Newt Gingrich celebrates his 69th birthday in June. And Ron Paul is 77 in August. It will be nice to be going, actually, with all those birthdays.

In case you were wondering, Mitt Romney now old enough to go on Medicare, but he says he'll stick with his private insurance. Democrats are tweaking him for that.

BOLDUAN: Of course they are. You know, I always wonder when this stuff comes up, if pre-Twitter, this would have been something we talked about.

KING: I don't know. I'll tweet you my answers if I figure it out. We'll see you tomorrow. Big election night. That's all for us. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.