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Interview With Arizona Senator John McCain; Deep South Votes; Interview With Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

Aired March 13, 2012 - 18:00   ET


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

Two important stories we're tracking this hour. The Taliban vowed beheadings of Americans to retaliate for the massacre of Afghan civilians allegedly at the hands of an Army staff sergeant. And the horrific violence raises new questions about the decade-long U.S. military mission and about the care given soldiers with traumatic brain injuries.

Plus, the Deep South gets its say in the roller-coaster Republican presidential race. Will Alabama and Mississippi cement Mitt Romney as the front-runner or help Newt Gingrich engineer yet another comeback?

Let's begin with the latest round of voting. Four contests in all tonight. Hawaii and American Samoa also casting ballots, but most of the attention is focused on Alabama and Mississippi. Late polls in both states showed races too close to call. Our exit polls also suggest a fierce competition in both states with conservative support.

Let's look at some of the early exit polling, we will bring this over for you. Here we are in the state of Mississippi tonight. Voters were asked as they went to the polls what's the most important candidate quality. You can see more than four in 10 Republican voters in the state of Mississippi today say their number one priority is beating President Obama in November.

About 20 percent say they want a true conservative. About 20 percent say strong moral character matters most to them. Let's move over and look at the state of Alabama. Same question. What's the most important candidate quality? Little lower number there, but about four in 10 say the most important thing they want is a candidate who can defeat President Obama. A true conservative, strong moral character and the right experience about equal, right around 20 percent, a little below that right there.

Let's move again to the next question here, who is that candidate? Remember this is not telling you who they voted for. Voters are asked regardless of who you voted for, who do you think would be the strongest candidate against President Obama? Governor Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, 52 percent of Mississippi voters said they believe Romney would be the strongest candidate. Again that doesn't mean that's who they voted for but that's what they think. In the state of Alabama, Romney came out on top -- 46 percent of Republicans there said he was the candidate they believe most likely defeat Obama. Again, doesn't mean who they voted for -- 23 percent said that of Speaker Gingrich, 24 percent of Senator Santorum.

One last question from the exit polls, are Romney's positions on the issues too conservative, not conservative enough or about right? Well, in the state of Mississippi, more than half of the voters today said his positions are not conservative enough. Remember, this is a conservative Southern state. And in Alabama, a higher number, 55 percent said Governor Romney's positions are not conservative enough.

So where did these voters go? Let's take a closer look on this one -- 42 percent of Alabama voters who said Romney's not conservative enough voted for Rick Santorum -- 40 percent of those who said Governor Romney's not conservative enough voted for Speaker Gingrich. It shows you not only a fierce competition for the most conservative voters, but potentially a split among conservative voters that conceivably in the end actually could help Governor Romney.

We will watch how that plays out as we actually get the results. The stakes tonight are enormous. A win by Governor Romney in the South would significantly bolster his front-runner credentials. And many Republicans argue Gingrich needs a Southern sweep to keep his bid alive.

Let's get a first impression from Candy Crowley, Gloria Borger, and David Gergen.

For Governor Romney, this is about proving you're a real Republican in the geographic base of the party. If he wins one, is it over?


I think if he answers that question -- listen, whoever thinks that those folks who are going to vote for Santorum or Gingrich tonight will turn around and vote for Obama in the fall, crazy. Let's put that out on the table. But, yes, I think when you look at -- Mitt Romney has the most to win out of tonight and Newt Gingrich has the most to lose. And Santorum goes on.

KING: Santorum goes on regardless?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think Santorum continues. His campaign will tell you that they have got some good primaries coming up. They can do Pennsylvania, that this isn't a math problem.

But I think the party has a head-heart problem. If you look at the numbers you just showed, their heads are telling them electability. This is what we care about. But their hearts are saying Mitt Romney is not conservative enough. He doesn't share my values. So they're having a real tug-of-war there about who they want. DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think Rick Santorum has to win at least one of them to go on as a viable candidate. Anybody gets blanked out of both of these, if it's Newt Gingrich or Santorum...

KING: It's hard to say that I'm a better conservative alternative to Mitt Romney if you lose two to him in the South, right?

GERGEN: Exactly. Who thought we'd be here?


GERGEN: Who thought Mitt Romney would be competitive at this point in these two states?

KING: Is he competitive because he's competitive, Candy, or is he competitive because Gingrich and Santorum are still in the race splitting the vote?

CROWLEY: Yes, that's a big part of it. But we have also seen a lot of folks that have looked deeper into the numbers and who's your second choice. And it's not necessarily that if one of them gets out of the race all of those votes then go to the other. It doesn't work that cleanly.

BORGER: Well, the Romney people say that if Newt Gingrich dropped out they'd get half of those -- that Santorum would get half of those votes. They'd only get 30 percent. But that 30 percent would be enough.

GERGEN: But Santorum would also get -- if Newt Gingrich dropped out Santorum would start getting more money in. He would be a more competitive candidate. It would be a bigger test of Romney in the states ahead.

KING: Conceivably, as we count the votes tonight, that's tomorrow's conversation. Either Gingrich or Santorum have such a bad night, it's time for them, even though they both insist, no, they're going on.


GERGEN: If Romney wins one or both of these states, that's the other half of the conversation.

KING: David, Gloria and Candy will be with us throughout the evening.

It's an interesting night in Republican politics.

And Alabama's conservative Republican governor made his preference known just this morning. Governor Bentley says he was voting for Rick Santorum. But the governor insists that's not a formal endorsement.

Governor Bentley is live with us tonight from Montgomery, Alabama.

Governor, explain the distinction for me.

I assume that means you didn't call your political organization and say, get out there, turn out the vote, grab people by the ears and get them out for Senator Santorum?

Am I right?

GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY (R), ALABAMA: Well, that's exactly right. I was asked last evening who I was going to vote for and I said I was going to vote for Senator Santorum. And that word got out today. And that -- that is the form of the endorsement.

I actually believe it's not good to endorse people because people in this state like to make up their own mind. And I certainly believe they have the right to do that.

KING: When you look at the voting, you just listened to the conservative we were having with our smart reporters and analysts here, you're a Santorum supporter.

Do you think if Senator -- Speaker Gingrich should get out of the race or if Senator Santorum, say he comes in third or second and loses both these states, should one of the non-Romney candidates get out so that an allegedly more conservative alternative gets a one-on-one shot?

BENTLEY: You know, I don't think you should tell anybody to get out. I don't think it's anyone's right to tell a candidate to get out. they have been working hard on this campaign for a number of months and they certainly have a right to stay in as long as they wish.

KING: What's your sense?

You do see the head heart, as Gloria Borger just put it. A lot of Republicans say the most important thing is beating President Obama in the fall. And a lot of them then go on, in the next sentence, to say they think Governor Romney would be the strongest candidate. But then many of those same people are voting for somebody else, either Speaker Gingrich, Senator Santorum or Ron Paul.

But what's the struggle of Republican voters right now that has extended this process and made it so unpredictable?

BENTLEY: Well, I think that any of the candidates would be good candidates. And I think that Governor Romney probably has the best chance of winning the nomination. I mean there's no doubt about that.

But, you know, you should also vote your heart, I think. And if you believe that someone is the best candidate, even though you don't think they're going to win, I think you ought to vote for who you think is the best candidate.

KING: You gave an interview to our former friend here at CNN, Bill Hemmer, on Fox News Channel yesterday, where you said you thought Governor Romney's Mormon faith would be a detriment to some voters in the state of Alabama.

How significant do you think that is and does it bother you, sir?

BENTLEY: You know, it really does not. It does not bother me. But I don't think that it is -- it is a very subtle thing. And -- and no one is going -- when you question people, most people will not admit that.

But I -- I do think, not just in Alabama, but I think in many non-Mormon states, I think it certainly can be a -- a problem for -- in the primary, in the primary.

But now once the general election comes around, if Governor Romney is the nominee, it will not be a problem.

KING: I assume Alabama will stay red in November.

Governor Bentley, we certainly appreciate your time tonight, sir.

A fascinating night. We'll watch as the results come in, along with you.

BENTLEY: Thank you.

KING: Thank you, sir.

Now let's shift to today's major international news, the fallout from the massacre of Afghan civilians allegedly by an Army staff sergeant who'd been treated for a traumatic brain injury after an earlier tour in Iraq.

Two senior military officials now telling CNN alcohol was found in an area of the base where the suspect lived. And they're investigating now whether alcohol might have been a factor in the rampage. But they also caution us the alcohol may not have belonged to the suspect at all.

Also, military officials say the military now reviewing pictures of the soldier leaving the base and then returning later. In eastern Afghanistan today, about 500 people blocked a highway, burned effigies and shouted anti-U.S. slogans, but their demonstrations stayed peaceful.

The Taliban, however, promised bloody retaliation, is now threatening to behead Americans. But at both the White House and on the campaign trail, we're hearing calls for the United States to stand firm and resist the temptation for any quick changes in policy.

Here's what Republican candidate Mitt Romney told CNN's Wolf Blitzer just moments ago.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's certainly time on a regular basis to review our mission there and to see what progress we're making, and not to make decisions based upon some actions by a crazed gunman. We don't determine our foreign policy based on something of that nature.


KING: At the White House today, President Obama voiced his condolences for the victims and their families, but said the United States must complete its mission in Afghanistan.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no question that we face a difficult challenge in Afghanistan, but I am -- I'm confident that we can continue the work of meeting our objectives, protecting our country and responsibly bringing this war to a close.


KING: Chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is here to take us inside the administration's deliberations.

Jess, is there a chance, despite what the president says publicly, that this incident could become part of a pressure to move up the withdrawal date?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it seems that way, but the White House is adamant that they have absolutely no intention of withdrawing troops sooner than the end of 2014, which, as you know, is what the president has publicly committed to.

Now, privately we know there are disagreements within the administration about the rate at which those troops should be withdrawn. That's after the surge troops come out at the end of this summer.

So senior military officials, they have made it known that they'd prefer as many troops stay as long in Afghanistan as possible. Now, some in the White House -- let's call it the Biden faction -- are believed to want to bring as many troops out as fast as possible. And then there are others prefer a middle option.

Bottom line, publicly, the White House has committed to no timetable for that drawdown. All of that is to be announced.

KING: And you say to be announced. Part of it is discussion with allies. The British prime minister, David Cameron, is here right now for conversations with the president. How important is Afghanistan to this meeting?

YELLIN: Well, Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama are both major contributors to NATO forces. And NATO will be meeting in Chicago this May. Now, we expect this topic of troop drawdown in Afghanistan to be a topic of discussion there. And no doubt Prime Minister Cameron and the president would want to work something out to be on the same page or close to it in advance of that May NATO meeting. So, this seems an inevitable topic of conversation for these two men, John.

KING: Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. Jess, thanks. We will stay on top of this story.

Another very important international story tonight, a former United Nations weapons inspector tells CNN Iran may have conducted explosive tests connected to a possible nuclear weapons program. David Albright, who is now the president for the Institute of Science and International Security, says his group has identified a building in an Iranian military base near Tehran as the possible site of a high-explosive test chamber. It's in the upper right quadrant of the picture you're seeing right there. Here's a closer view.

Mr. Albright says the building has its own perimeter security, wall or fencing with an earthen berm separating it from a neighboring building. Very important qualities there for a building that could have a high-explosive testing facility. We will stay on track of that as well.

And in just a moment, we will talk to Senator John McCain. He is being quoted today as saying the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is in jeopardy.

We will also get more insights tonight on traumatic brain injury from one of the doctors who helped save the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.


KING: The deaths of 16 Afghan civilians allegedly at the hands of a U.S. soldier, then followed by threats of retaliation, has renewed the debate of when U.S. troops should leave Afghanistan.

President Obama indicated today the strategy hasn't changed.


OBAMA: Make no mistake: We have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war. We're steadily transitioning to the Afghans who are moving into the lead. And that's going to allow us to bring our troops home.


KING: But the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, says the president's rhetoric sends the wrong message to leaders in Afghanistan. Senator McCain joins us now live from Capitol Hill.

Senator, how so?

How is the president sending the wrong message?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Oh, he sent the wrong message for a long time. I was glad to hear what he said today. But he doesn't have much credibility anymore in the region because initially for a surge, they asked for 40,000. He agreed to only 30,000. They needed the end of another fighting season in order to finish the job in Eastern Afghanistan. The president announced an early withdrawal.

The military commanders said, in testimony, that would, quote, "increase the risk".

Why would we want to increase the risk?

One doesn't know.

A few months -- a month or two ago, Secretary Panetta said that, well, more troops would be coming out in 2 -- 2013 and then that was retracted.

Obviously, you just reported there's a debate going on in the White House now as to what have Vice President Biden, who was dead wrong about the surge and other aspects of national security policy, wants a lot more out and a lot quicker.

What signal does that send to the people in the region?

That America is leaving?

That they can't depend on America?

And they can't depend on even finishing the job that -- and the strategy that General Allen laid out for them?

That's what the problem is, John.

KING: You just mentioned General Allen, Senator. Often when we have these debates, people say, well, there's a political debate, maybe it's partisan. And let's let the politicians decide and let's talk to the commanders on the ground to see what they think.

Listen to General Allen here talking to my colleague, Wolf Blitzer, just the other day.


LT. GEN. JOHN ALLEN, COMMANDER, INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCES: The relationship will only grow stronger between Afghanistan and the United States and Afghanistan and the international community. And the campaign remains on track.


KING: Are you confident, Senator, about that last part, the campaign remains on track?

A lot of the American people, as you well know, are pretty tired and they don't see evidence that this is worth it.

MCCAIN: Well, look, I -- I understand the war weariness of the American people. I understand their sorrow and anger at what just happened and also these killings of American servicemen by Afghans in uniform.

This is very tough and Americans are war weary.

But it is the job of some of us to remind people that 9/11 began in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda and the Taliban could come back, and very likely would, if we left Afghanistan in disarray. And we don't want that to happen. It's not in our national security interests.

I think General Allen was talking about his plan. We have had significant success on the ground. But as Ambassador Ryan pointed out, we still have a problem -- serious problems with corruption within the Karzai government. The ISI, the Pakistani intelligence, still supporting the Haqqani network, who are killing Americans.

But I can tell you from being there that we are sending signals of withdrawal all the time, not signals of staying the course. And I admire our military leadership, but you just reported, this debate continues within the White House.

What kind of signal does that send to our adversaries?

KING: Well, let me ask you another question. And I call this a generational challenge for the country. And I'm not sure the country has had enough of a conversation or even started the conversation. And we can't connect the dots yet. But we do know the suspect in this shooting had a traumatic brain injury from a vehicle rollover in Iraq.

And, Senator, I know you visit Walter Reed and other places. I have been to bases around the country. These Wounded Warrior programs.

Do you think that the American people and your colleagues in the Congress understand that for the next 20, 25 years and beyond, there's a moral -- and it's going to be a pretty big financial obligation and to understanding what these brave men and women, whether you supported the wars or not, some of the issues and the trauma they're coming home with?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, the most gratifying part of -- of America today, to me, is that even though Americans may disagree with our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, overwhelmingly honor those who serve. That was not the case in the war in which I was in.

Look, there are these kinds of injuries and problems associated with every conflict that we've been in. I am confident that the American people will continue their support for these individuals who have served and sacrificed so much.

KING: I want to shift real quickly.

MCCAIN: Sure. KING: This is a big day in presidential politics. Two Southern states voting today. You know what it's like to be a front-runner and you know what it's like to have your opponent say, oh, no way, the math won't add up, he's weak, we can get him, we're going to have a brokered convention and we're going to catch up to him eventually.

I want you to listen here. Speaker Gingrich was on a radio show, I believe it was in Alabama, earlier today. And he says this might be the way we get Mitt Romney.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With Rick and me together, we are really slowing him down with -- with some help, frankly, from Ron Paul. And I think if you look at the country is sort of saying, by a -- a majority are saying not Romney. And the biggest bloc is saying Romney, but it's not a big enough bloc to be a majority.

We now are beginning to think he won't -- he will literally not be able to get the delegates to get the nomination.


KING: You're a Romney supporter.

Will he literally not be able to get the delegates to get the nomination and can Santorum and Gingrich somehow come together to block him?

MCCAIN: I think it's very possible that Mitt Romney may win both Alabama and Mississippi tonight, putting to rest that myth that he can't -- that he can't succeed in Southern states.

By the way, I'm sure it's because he's grown to like grits and...


MCCAIN: -- and other things. But...


MCCAIN: -- but the fact is that if he wins both of them tonight, I think it sends the signal that he can win anyway.

You and I have been around politics for a long time. Every time, when there's been contested races, we've heard, quote, brokered convention. It's just not going to happen, John.

KING: I'm staying in this basic, hoping there might be one eventually, Senator. That's why I stay in... MCCAIN: It would be fun to watch, wouldn't it?

KING: -- and just keep going.

MCCAIN: Yes. KING: It sure -- sure would be.

We'll be up late tonight watching the results.

I know you will, as well.

Senator John McCain, appreciate your insights tonight, sir.

We'll see you soon.

MCCAIN: Thanks, John.

KING: And, as the senator noted, they're going to count the votes, about an hour 40 minutes now from the polls closing in Mississippi and Alabama. Stand by for more of what voters in the Deep South are telling our exit pollsters.

Also, why an everyday laundry item you may have at home right now has turned into one of the hottest items for shoplifters.


KING: Welcome back.


KING: Just over 90 minutes now until most polls close in Mississippi and Alabama.

The results could dramatically reshape the Republican race.

Plus, some new exit polls for you in just a couple of minutes.

And it's been called the most troubled base in the military. And the suspect in the Afghan rampage calls it home.

Coming up, we're talking to the congressman who represents that Washington State base.


KING: In this half hour, new exit poll data on the battle for the south and the Republican presidential nomination.

The latest on the investigation of the Army staff sergeant now accused of gunning down 16 Afghan civilians.

And the surgeon who helped save Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords's life explains the horrors of and treatments for the traumatic brain injuries that are now far too common among the troops who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Taliban now calling for the heads of Americans in Afghanistan. Revenge, they say, for the methodical murders of 11 children and five adults, allegedly at hand of one U.S. soldier. As we reported at the top of the hour, outrage is growing. You see these pictures. Hundreds of protesters gathered in Jalalabad, chanting, "Death to America" while burning a cross and a figure of a man in green.

And tonight, we're learning that alcohol may have played a role in the rampage. Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is live with the latest.

Chris, what can you tell us?


Two senior officials now say that the military is investigating whether alcohol was a factor in this massacre. One official says that alcohol was found in the area where the suspect lived on base, but right now they are not sure who it belonged to. They did do a toxic screening, but so far those results haven't come back yet.

We're also told that, because the legal proceedings will likely last beyond this soldier's tour of duty in Afghanistan, at some point he'll probably be brought back home to the United States.

KING: And Chris, any other problems investigators are finding as they try to work on this investigation?

LAWRENCE: There are some. For one, John, the bodies of the victims were buried quickly, according to Islamic tradition. And it's highly unlikely they would ever be exhumed.

But a U.S. official tells us that, because these victims were shot at close range in their homes, many of these high-powered bullets passed through them and embedded in the wall. He thinks ballistics won't be a problem.

But leaks in public statements may be down the road. Military officials are now concerned that recent statements may lead a defense attorney to say, "This person cannot get a fair trial."

You had the defense secretary raising the issue that he could face the death penalty, and you had the commander in chief say that the United States takes these attacks and takes this massacre as seriously as if our own children were murdered, using the word "murder" -- John.

KING: Chris Lawrence for us tonight, tracking the investigation. Live at the Pentagon. Chris, thanks so much.

Now, we don't know much about the suspect, staff sergeant who has not yet been identified, but we do know he suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq in 2010. He was later deemed fit to return to duty. Now a lot of people are questioning whether that was the right call.

No one knows more about the human brain than Dr. Peter Rhee. You might recall, he helped save Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. He's also the chief of critical care at University Medical Center and a retired Navy captain.

Dr. Rhee, appreciate your help at this difficult time. Some 30,000 cases of TBI across the military last year. How much do we know? How much does your business, the experts, actually know about how to figure out, A, how severe it is, and B, when somebody's ready to go back into the dangerous combat role?

DR. PETER RHEE, CHIEF OF CRITICAL CARE, UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER: Well, I think there's always more to learn. And the research in traumatic brain injury is still in its infancy.

Obviously, the brain is very complex. And fortunately, the vast majority of people who get traumatic brain injury do recover and return to their normal lives. Because it is -- the majority, mild traumatic brain injury.

KING: I want you to listen to something here. I was actually out at this base, Fort Lewis, where this suspect is stationed at the wounded warrior battalion, because it had had some problems. They were trying to redo it. And I met with the commander at the time. And he was talking about how PTSD and traumatic brain injuries were among the biggest problems. Listen to this.


LT. COL. DANNY DUDEK, COMMANDER, WARRIOR TRANSITION BATTALION: Some of the tools that we have, there's hyperbaric treatment for some traumatic brain injuries that gives more oxygenization [SIC] to the brain to help them deal with that. I don't know how that's working. I think pretty good in some cases.

Whatever we can do that gets some success, I think we should promote that. But you're right: I don't think we've really cracked the nut on how to really get at PTSD and TBI.


KING: Now, that's two years ago. He says I don't think we've really cracked the nut. How different is the level of care somebody coming from -- back from Iraq or Afghanistan would receive on a military base while still on active duty than, say, if I were in a car accident and was taken to a civilian hospital?

RHEE: Well, I would say that it's actually much better. Because they screen for it. And they're very cognizant about the fact that many of the people get traumatic brain injury even from mild concussions and blasts.

In the civilian sector, in most sections we don't screen for it nearly as carefully as the military does. So I would say the military's treatment for it is much superior than the civilian aspect.

KING: And you understand the military culture, sir. How much does culture factor into this one? You go to the wounded warrior battalions like that, you meet these heroes. Many of them have physical injuries. Many of them have -- with TBI or PTSD. And all they say is they want to get back with their buddies. They want to go back. They want to go back. And God bless them for that. But does that sometimes perhaps get in the way of a more careful, more cautious medical diagnosis?

RHEE: Well, actually, I think in some senses it does. But motivated individuals have a tendency to want to get back and they're very heavily screened to make sure that they're ready and able to go back. So I don't think that's too much of an issue overall.

But again, the military is very good at that. They have a systematic process in place that screens everybody coming back from deployment, anybody that's in harm's way, to make sure that they're doing all right and to give them all the necessary tools to get back into their life.

KING: Dr. Peter Rhee, appreciate your insights tonight, sir, in this -- it's an issue in this current investigation. It's also, I think, a generational challenge for the country in the years ahead. Appreciate your help tonight, sir.

RHEE: Thank you very much.

KING: And the soldier accused was based in Washington state at the joint base Lewis-McChord, home to 40,000 service members. It was described in 2010 as both the most troubled base in the military by "Stars and Stripes," a military newspaper.

A ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, Democrat Congressman Adam Smith, joins me now from Seattle. His district includes this base.

Congressman, is it in your view? Do you agree with "Stars and Stripes"? Is this the most troubled base in the system? And if so, why?

REP. ADAM SMITH (D-WA), HOUSE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Well, I think a statement like that is not terribly helpful. There's no metric to measure it against. I remember that article shortly thereafter. You know, there were a lot of statements about what does that even mean?

Look, I think we need to stop thinking about the individual base and start thinking about the military more broadly. Certainly, the issue that you just raised with Dr. Rhee, how can we do a better job with PTSD, with TBI. Because these are complicated, difficult problems. The science isn't clear. And we have just a huge number of our men and women coming back from combat zones: in Iraq earlier, Afghanistan now. We've got to come up with a comprehensive approach to that.

So focusing on one base or another I don't think is really helpful. But let's focus on the individuals serving in the military and how best we can help them.

KING: I want to ask you, because you do represent this base the suspect calls home, his home base here in the states, because of your position on the armed services committee. Do you know anything? Do you have any access to private information? Do you know more about this suspect and about what allegedly happened than those of us know in the public domain?

SMITH: I do not. At this point, most of it is speculation. That's the other thing about passing judgment on an entire military base. We don't even know exactly what happened here. The actions of a handful of individuals should not be used to taint a base that, as you said, has over 40,000 servicemen and women. Even more civilians and gosh, over 100,000 people come on and off that base every day. And most of them, the overwhelming majority of them, are serving our country quite well. They deserve our respect and our support.

So we should be careful about casting wide aspersions based on a couple of individuals.

KING: Do you take issue at all, then, with the president's use of the term "murder" or the defense secretary saying that, if the investigation leads to charges, there could be a death penalty here?

SMITH: No, I don't. I think those are common sense comments given -- given what we know happened. Sixteen people were brutally killed. I think they are expressing appropriate condolences for the families of those who were killed, and outrage at the incident. This is a horrible, horrific incident that needs to be roundly condemned, just as both the secretary and the president have done and many others, as well.

KING: And you're on the record, sir, saying that if it's possible to accelerate the draw-down of U.S. troops, the president and the commander should try to figure out a way to do that. Do you believe this incident will add to the political impetus for that? Or should people say, well, again as you said, if it's one incident, don't let that get involved in that calculation?

SMITH: Well, I -- you know, I think it will be a part of it. But I think there are larger issues that are more important than an individual incident.

Look, our goal here is to have an Afghan government that can stand. So the Taliban don't come back to power, don't give safe haven to al Qaeda again.

But the time has come for the Afghan people to stand up, provide their own security, provide their own governance. We've done a lot of work there. Incredible work. Beating back the Taliban, training the Afghan national security forces, trying to improve the governance.

But at the end of the day, the Afghan people have to be responsible for all of that on their own. And the presence of a large foreign military force is, in many ways, a destabilizing factor. Nobody in any country would like to have a foreign military walking up and down their streets.

So I think we've done the work we can do. We need to draw down as soon as we can responsibly. I mean, the president's working towards that. That's the direction that we need to go in.

KING: Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington state. Sir, appreciate your insights tonight.

SMITH: Thank you.

KING: Thank you.

About an hour and 15 minutes now away from the time most polls in Mississippi and Alabama close. In a minute we'll take a closer look at what the voters are telling us as they head out of the polls and talk to extra pollsters.

Also the "Truth" about tonight's impact on the delegate chase.


KING: A little more than an hour now until the polls close in Alabama and Mississippi. Two very important Deep South contests that could dramatically reshape the Republican race for president.

Let's look a little bit at what we're learning from our exit polls as they come in tonight. Here's one thing we know. Voters going to the polls, these Republicans in both states, say defeating Obama is important to them. And in both states -- now, this is not how they voted -- they asked people regardless of how you voted, who's the best candidate, strongest to beat President Obama? In Alabama, 46 percent said that was Mitt Romney.

Let's move over here to Mississippi. 52 percent said that in the state of Mississippi. Again, that's not an indication he would win these states. It's an indication Republican voters think, regardless of how they voted, he'd be stronger against the president.

Let's look at one more data point here. Are you a white evangelical born-again Christian? In Alabama more than 7 in 10 voters say, "Yes, I'm an evangelical." This has been a huge question for the Romney candidacy. Can he win in states dominated by evangelicals?

Look at the state of Mississippi. It's the highest number in the campaign so far, the highest percentage of voters in a primary describing themselves as evangelicals: 81 percent in the state of Mississippi.

Let's move over here to the magic wall and look at how we start the day. If you look at these dark red states, those are Governor Romney. The purple, Senator Santorum. These two down here, South Carolina and Georgia, Speaker Gingrich. These are the two big prizes in play tonight, Hawaii and American Samoa also voting.

Here's where we start. It takes 1,144 to win. Governor Romney is well ahead of his rivals but not close to the finish line yet. Why is winning in south so important? Let's just say for the sake of argument -- let's say that -- well, got to turn this over. Let's touch here. There we go. Let's say that Speaker Gingrich wins right there and Governor Romney wins one. Let's give Governor Romney one of the two tonight. Proportional delegation. What would happen, it would put him over the 500 mark. You'd still have the others well behind him. And that's what Governor Romney says is the goal. He says he'd like to win one down in the south. He'd love to win two. He thinks he'll win Hawaii. He thinks he wins American Samoa. At the end of the day, Governor Romney thinks this up here, his delegate lead, will be even bigger.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's all about getting delegates. And I hope to get -- get more delegates tonight. If the polls are anywhere near correct we'll end up with, I don't know, a third of the delegates. And if that's the case, why, that makes us closer to that magic number.


KING: So will the south make Mitt Romney the inevitable nominee or will this go on and on and on and on? We've got a great group here in the CNN election center. Erick Erickson, Hilary Rosen, Mary Matalin, Paul Begala, Dave and Gloria right over there.

Trust me, Erick Erickson not a Romney fan. If he wins one and places second in these Deep South states, maybe wins two, what's the conversation late tonight?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think he was over after Ohio. I think it's definitely over once he can say, "I can win the south, as well." Now, how he wins the south, I'm sure the Gingrich and Santorum campaigns will come up with excuses if he wins one of them for why he won it. But at the same time, I think it's over.

KING: As a Democrat watching this race, you want this to go on and on and on? Or...

HILARY ROSEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That would be so sad if it were over.

KING: Oh. Now, why from a tactical November reason, why?

ROSEN: Because really, the longer that this goes on, we've seen from poll after poll that they -- these three candidates are corroding the favorables for Republicans generally, so this primary going on would benefit the Republicans -- would benefit Democrats.

But you know, I think it's going to be tough for Gingrich and Santorum to keep at this. But really, the issue, we'll talk about this more, it's not going to be what the candidates want, it's going to be what the candidates' funders want. It's going to be about whether Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess want to give in the towel, not whether Gingrich and Santorum do.

KING: You can't keep a campaign going without money, although some do try to live off the land. Mary, if Governor Romney can win one of two of these tonight, what is the rationale? They all say he's a weak frontrunner. Santorum says it. Gingrich says it. If Governor Romney beats you in the geographical base of the party, if you call him weak, what does that make you?

MARY MATALIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Just what he said the other day. If I'm weak what are you guys? So the argument has been, he can't close the deal. Well, they can't close the deal.

Let me say it from the reverse of what happens to Romney. If Newt Gingrich is the southern regional candidate -- that was his rationale -- if he won both these states he would not eliminate Santorum. If Romney wins one or both, he can eliminate one or both of his conservative challengers. So he doesn't have to do as well tonight as Gingrich or Santorum have to do.

And I disagree with my friend here. We like it going on. Some Republicans like it going on. I really like it going on, because the conservative verbiage gets better. They're not so mean to each other, and they have sort of gone back to everybody's sweet spot for us which is against Obama. So it did not hurt y'all last time, it will not hurt us.

KING: I was going to say -- I'm not going to say "y'all."

MATALIN: Well, I can say it. I can say it.

KING: You live in Louisiana.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And lived in Chicago.

KING: There was some debate about that. Because, look, 2008 was a Democratic year. Either Obama or President Clinton or Chris Dodd or Joe Biden or if John Edwards had won the nomination, 2008 was a Democratic year. I think if Mickey Mouse was the Democratic nominee, he probably would have won.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who are the Democrats?

KING: There's -- there's no question that Senator Obama was a much better candidate having gone through the race, and are you sure that drawing this out hurts the Republicans this time?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN ANALYST: Well, it helped Ronald Reagan to have a long, tough primary. It helped Bill Clinton. It certainly helped Barack Obama. It helped George W. Bush, even though he led wire to wire. Why? In those cases the candidates did not get pulled out of their message toward the extremes during the primaries.

Mitt Romney has taken positions, particularly in terms of the Latino vote and women, which are two of the most important constituencies in November. He has taken positions that are extreme: promising to veto the DREAM Act. Attacking Rick Perry to the right from it. Now he's promised to outlaw all funding for contraception. Not even just Planned Parenthood. All funding. That's an extreme position.

He didn't have those positions in the beginning of the race, to my knowledge, but he's been pulled out of the mainstream. He's paying an awful price.

And this thing about if I'm weak, what are you? Well, they're pathetic. That's what they are. So he's the strongest candidate in a totally weak field. It's like being the sexiest member of the Supreme Court.


ROSEN: And the shorter period of time that Mitt Romney has to move to the center which is inevitable -- inevitably what his strategy will be, the better that is for us (ph).

KING: A strong politician learns deflection, is what I call it. I'm not sure what the smart strategists call it. So Wolf Blitzer was interviewing Governor Romney not that long ago. He asked him a question about an ad run by the Santorum super PAC, not by the Santorum campaign. This was the answer.


ROMNEY: Well, senator Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign and is trying in some way to boost his prospects and, frankly, misrepresenting the truth is not a good way of doing that.


KING: Let me turn this way. David Gergen and Gloria Borger with us. "The desperate end" is how Governor Romney describes where Santorum is right now. I just showed 8 in 10 voters in Mississippi are evangelicals. More than 7 in 10 in Alabama are evangelicals. And so if Governor Romney can win one of those states, run strongly in maybe even two of these states, one of those in second, let's say. What is the argument for Gingrich or Santorum, saying he can't win over the party?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know what? I think Mitt Romney should make the argument to both Gingrich and Santorum, please stay in, because the way he is winning Mississippi and the way he is -- could win Alabama is they're splitting those very conservative evangelical voters, and so I think you know what? You should beg them to stay in.

KING: Do we lose a candidate tonight, David?

GERGEN: Yes. Because if Mitt Romney wins one state, by definition, one of the other two candidates is going to lose twice. And the pressure is going to be on them. That person could get out.

So two of the most conservative states in the country, among the two most conservative states. What is your argument, you can't beat Mitt Romney in two of the most conservative states? KING: Well, we've got to go quickly, because we're sneaking up to the top of the hour, but do you think we'll lose a candidate tonight?


KING: We may?

ROSEN: I don't think so.

MATALIN: They all want to be there. We're all camped out in Louisiana. They're going on.

KING: You and James ready for the candidates when they come through?

MATALIN: Open house. Open house.

BEGALA: Ego plus money is all you need. I think they'll continue on in the face of all reality.

KING: Ego plus money. Votes help occasionally, too.

BEGALA: Well, apparently not, though.

KING: All these guys are with us all night long. We're going to make cheesy grits late tonight.

Coming up, we're going live to Jefferson County, Alabama, a big prize in tonight's primaries. Dana Bash is there. She's going to walk us through why this county is so important right after this.


KING: Just about an hour to go now until most polls close in Mississippi and Alabama, two huge southern contests in this Republican presidential primary.

Our Dana Bash is life tonight in Birmingham. That's Jefferson County, Dana, and tell us why this county is being so closely watched by all of the candidates.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Because this is the most populous county, and that's why they're watching to see where the votes come in. We are actually physically where the votes are going to come in.

Check this out, John. This is the loading dock, and the ballots will be pulling up here in an hour and a half after the polls close.

And I also want you to see this. This is literally called the vault. The ballots will be going into here. They just opened it up for us. And see now, obviously. When they come in, they'll be put there. But those are paper ballots.

Everything, of course, these days is done on computers so they also have memory cards for all the precincts, about 177, around this county. They're going to drop the memory cards here through this window. There's a computer in there, and that's where the information will go in terms of the results from all of those precincts around this very important county.

And then I want to show you what goes on back here real quick. This is -- we're going to be able to look through this window. This is literally where these two gentlemen on these computers are going to be looking at the results, counting the results as they come in from all around this county.

In terms of why it's so important, not only is it because it's so popular, but it's also because it tends to be a microcosm in a general election of the state, but also in this Republican primary of Republican primary voters. And for Mitt Romney in particular, especially in the outskirts of the county, it tends to be more affluent. Talked to his people. They say that they need to run those numbers up big time if they have a chance of winning the state -- John.

KING: And Dana, you're down there on the ground, obviously, tracking the votes coming in. Any sense from the campaigns about turnout in their own particular, any one candidate, campaign or the other, saying, "We feel like we're going the best job today on the ground"?

BASH: You know, they all say it's really hard for them to tell. Anecdotally, in talking to Republican officials and state officials here, turnout does seem to be pretty low, but they're not really sure inside the campaigns what that means for them.

But I will tell you, I want to show you one other thing that we're going to be looking in here, we're going to know the real numbers, the real answers to the questions by looking at this screen here tonight. You see some of these candidates are no longer officially candidates, but they're still on the ballot, and we're watching the numbers for all of these candidates as they come in. We'll be able to give you the answers to those questions.

KING: Watching them all night long. We'll be there in Jefferson County. We're watching the map as it fills in. Two critical southern primary states. We'll continue our coverage.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.