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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

The Mississippi and Alabama Primaries

Aired March 13, 2012 - 20:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Polls in both Alabama and Mississippi will be closed.

And we're right to the top of the hour. The polls are closed. Right now we cannot, repeat not make a projection in either Mississippi or Alabama based on the exit poll information we're getting we cannot give you a projection, at least not yet. And here's why. Let's take a look at the exit polls. We're going to share those numbers with you.

These are the polls that we took of individuals after they emerged from voting, Alabama first. Here's what we see in Alabama based on exit polls. Look at this. Rick Santorum with 34 percent, Mitt Romney, very close, 29 percent, 28 percent, Newt Gingrich, a battle for second place, at least according to the exit polls, Ron Paul way, way behind in Alabama with only 6 percent.

These are the exit poll numbers in Alabama.

Let's take a look at Mississippi right now. Here's what our exit polls showed. And look at this. Thirty-five percent for Mitt Romney. Wow. Thirty percent for Newt Gingrich, 29 percent for Rick Santorum, 5 percent, 5 percent only for Ron Paul.

Newt Gingrich, at least according to the exit polls, not ahead in either Mississippi or Alabama. These are just the exit polls, these are not official numbers. We have no official numbers -- significant numbers at least yet, John. But a win for Santorum, at least, according to the exit polls, a win for Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, not so much.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: If Newt Gingrich is 0 for 2 tonight in the south, there'll be a lot of questions about whether he continue his campaign. But why can't we call these races right now? Well, you showed the top one numbers. That's why. We need to come with it that close.

Also, if you look a little bit deeper at the exit polling, we know 54 percent of the voters in Mississippi said the economy was issue number one for them. So stay in Mississippi. Let's take a closer look. Well, Governor Romney has a healthy lead among that group, 40 percent there. Speaker Gingrich second, Senator Santorum closely behind.

So, among this group, Governor Romney has a pretty healthy lead on the economy. But other issues did matter and nearly 3 in 10 voters said the budget deficit matters to them. So the Romney lead here, look here, upset a little bit among these voters. Senator Santorum with a slight lead, 33 percent to 32 percent. So Governor Romney wins on the big issue, about breaks even on the deficit, and other issues not as well.

Move over to the state of Alabama, again the same, 57 percent say the economy is issue number one. If you look at it here, Romney leading there, Santorum second, Gingrich is a very close battle there. So again you would say, on the big issue, Governor Romney seems to have a healthy lead. However, again, the budget deficit, this has been in every state, the Republicans, economy first, budget deficit second.

If you look here, you see it, Gingrich lead, and a pretty decent lead over Governor Romney here. So they're splitting on some of the issues, Governor Romney winning among some. If you move on to others, we want to move over, one of the reasons I think people might be surprised, how is Governor Romney competitive in both of these deep southern states. Well, maybe you think these deep southern states are way more conservative than your state.

Look at this ideological breakdown. One of the reasons is you have, yes, this is a largely white electorate tonight but it's a diverse electorate in terms of ideology, 42 percent in Mississippi, very conservative, 27 percent somewhat conservative, 30 percent describe themselves as moderate to liberal.

In the Deep South state of Mississippi, Wolf, in this Republicans primary, almost identical numbers if you move over to Alabama, 38 percent very conservative, 31 percent somewhat conservative, and 31 percent moderate or liberal. So one of the reasons Governor Romney is competitive is perhaps it's not as deeply a conservative electorate as one might expect, and you know, the big questions for Governor Romney tonight. A lot of people saying, you know, can he win?

This is a big test. This is the highest number, by the way, of all the contests so far, of all the contests we've had so far, Mississippi has the highest percentage of people who identify themselves as evangelical born-again Christians, 81 percent of them in the state of Mississippi. That's a critical test for Governor Romney.

BLITZER: But -- so let me just press you on Mississippi. According to the exit poll numbers that we have, Mitt Romney is ahead. According to the exit polls in Mississippi.

KING: Right.

BLITZER: And if there's 81 percent who describe themselves as white evangelical born-again, that's a significant development if, and it's a huge if.

KING: If.

BLITZER: If he goes on to win in Mississippi. KING: If he goes on to win in Mississippi that means he would have to have done very well if not win the evangelical vote. He'd have to win all of these votes. If he doesn't win the evangelical vote that would be a huge defining moment for the -- let's just slide over a little bit. As you see, too, on the map, as you look at -- again, as you look at the contest and you watch how this fills in.

Romney has won pretty much all over the country. Senator Santorum has won mostly in the Midwest. If you notice, you can play a strange game of dominos, all his states are connected at one point, Santorum.

The question is, can Santorum pick up one of these? Can Gingrich -- Gingrich wants to dominate the south, Wolf. He wants to go all the way to Texas. At the moment if you look at those exit polls the possibility Gingrich doesn't get a win tonight -- let's count the actual votes -- and that will be the key, as the votes come in, we'll start looking.

Remember the state of Ohio? Let me go show you what happened more recently in Ohio. This is Governor Romney's key tonight. If he is going to win one of these states, the map would look something like this, meaning, where you see a dot, major population center, that's where Governor Romney has done very well. In urban areas and the suburbs, Santorum, in this case, Gingrich in other states wins in the rural areas.

Well, if you come down to these states tonight, and you look at Mississippi, he needs to do well along the coast, he needs to do well in the suburbs of Jackson, in the middle part of the state here. This is where you have Tea Party and evangelical voters. Don't look for Governor Romney to fill in the middle of the state.

And if you can do well around the population centers, that's the key. Endorsement of the governor, things like that, it's very similar if you move over here to the Gulf Coast areas, important to Governor Romney and the major suburbs around Birmingham and Montgomery.

BLITZER: We'll be -- I suspect over the next course of the next few hours getting a much better appreciation of those counties in Alabama and Mississippi.

And Anderson, if Newt Gingrich were to come in second or third in these two states, that would be a significant setback for his hopes.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: It certainly would. He's been counting on at least one of these states over the last couple of weeks.

Ari Fleischer, if he does not come in first, can he continue? Can he justify continuing?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, you know, to use a French expression in Mississippi and Alabama, this is (speaking foreign language). I mean Newt has to have the south. And if he doesn't have it, I just cannot see a rationality for him to go on. And Newt, at the end of the day, Newt is a big eye with big ideas but he also is going to put the party first. Let's see what happens tonight. It's real close in both states.

COOPER: Does it surprise you, Mary, to see that -- at least in the exit polls he does not seem to be in the lead?

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No, because in Mississippi, it's low turnout, and hands down, Romney had a good organization. So a little -- a good organization, low turnout goes a long way. And Romney continues to have electability. So there's -- Romney has been closing well and he closes on the electability question. And that doesn't mean Gingrich has to get out or they don't like Gingrich or he's not a southerner, whatever. But he's just never has tapped into that electability thing which continues to be the number one concern for Republicans.

COOPER: He can live off the land, I mean, as we've been saying for quite a while, even if he doesn't win anything.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: He can but he needs debates. I mean he -- that's where he has shown -- he's had a few bad debates, mostly he's been terrific in the debates and that's, I think, what's kept him going living off the land. He does have in Mr. and Mrs. Adelson powerful donors to his super PAC. But he still has to raise enough money for himself. But I think it's supremely in operation, he can live off the land or, as I said earlier, just off of ego and just keep this going. But he may lose his rationale. But I don't know that that means he will be rationale and make a rational decision.

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: But increasingly, he will look like the spoiler here and there will be pressure on him. You know one of the interesting things in the exit polls is that Gingrich and Santorum supporters both said that they would be satisfied if the other candidate were the nominee. Those same voters were less satisfied if Romney were the nominee. So their voters seem much more interchangeable even by the exit polls than the Romney voter. And that's why that, you know, clean shot at Mitt Romney is so important for conservatives.

COOPER: But to our analysts, I mean, if Mitt Romney did win in Mississippi, for instance, that would be a major feather in his cap to say, look, I won in a southern state.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. He's had a huge sort of psychological hole in the middle of his campaign, which is that he can't win in the Deep South which is where the base of the Republican Party resides, and is the most fervent and is the most conservative. And if you're campaigning as a conservative, you ought to be able to win there.

So when you talk to Romney advisers, they will tell you that if they could win either Mississippi or Alabama, it's something that they would not have anticipated. But they have organized, they have a huge get-out-the-vote effort there which is you were talking about in low turnout really, really matters. And you know this gives them just one more thing to say, you know what, if these other fellows are conservative, why did we win in the most conservative state?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and Anderson, if Romney can win Mississippi tonight, he will have jumped over one of the last remaining hurdles on the way to the nomination. He had to show that he had strength in the south in a state where 80 percent of the people voting are evangelicals. If he can win in that state, that really burnishes his credentials.

I think the other part of this story, though, if Gingrich were to lose both, if the exit polls were to hold, he would be in a situation where a lot of -- a lot of people in the conservative community would be saying, but, Newt, you ought to put your loyalty to conservatism above your ego. You ought -- you ought to give us a shot, a clean shot at Romney with only one candidate.

COOPER: Joe Johns is actually standing by with the chief of staff for Newt Gingrich. Let's check in with him -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Anderson. This is Patrick Millsaps. He is the chief of staff for Newt Gingrich. And you weren't able to hear the conversation that was going on previously but the gist of it is that the early exit polls show that Newt Gingrich is not in the lead, rather, he's either second or third. So the question for you tonight is what's the implication for Newt Gingrich if he doesn't win one or both of these states this evening?

PATRICK MILLSAPS, GINGRICH CHIEF OF STAFF: I think first we have to wait. I think it will be a long night. I think that the polls up until now have shown that this is a tight race, a three-way race. We're not even at the halfway mark of this -- of this campaign season. Louisiana will be the halfway point. So depending on what happens tonight, I think that we'll do well in the south, we'll pick up delegates, no matter where we are.

But it's interesting, even a few minutes ago, before I walked down here, Secretary of Energy Chu has now altered his position on higher gas prices. So now we have a White House that's responding to one presidential candidate, and that's Newt Gingrich.

JOHNS: And it's pretty clear that your campaign thinks you're doing pretty well with the gas price issue. But I think the question for this campaign is, is there a watermark? Is there a place where he has to come in, in order for you to feel that you're credible going forward?

MILLSAPS: No, I think we're -- I think we're credible candidate now and, again, only time tonight will tell in terms of where we end up. But if we have a first, second place finish, we'll all get delegates, and we'll do the math and we'll go on to Illinois and Louisiana, and Louisiana will be the - -it will be the halftime.

JOHNS: And you know coming into Mississippi and Alabama, there was some talk, even from inside the campaign, that you had to win here or else you wouldn't be credible going forward. Have you shifted that view?

MILLSAPS: Well, that didn't come from Newt Gingrich. That was -- I think that was reported, but in terms of when we did the math and looked at the delegate count and looked at where we are right now, Mitt Romney has spent 10-1 money against both Santorum and Gingrich and can't close the deal. He's not hit the halfway mark for delegates. So, you know, this is a -- there's going to be a long path to Tampa. And I think that you're going to see us there.

JOHNS: Very quickly, you guys put out a memo today that suggest in the second half of the campaign, you think you'll do better than the first. Why?

MILLSAPS: Well, we have Wisconsin, which is Mrs. Gingrich's home state. We have Maryland and D.C. which is where Gingrich is, and so we -- and Louisiana is part of the south so great, great. Yes.

JOHNS: Patrick Millsaps, thanks so much. Good talking to you. And comeback any time, all right?

MILLSAPS: Thanks. Thanks.

JOHNS: Back to you in the studio.

COOPER: We're also watching very closely what the Gingrich campaign doing as the Santorum campaign. Let's check in with Jim Acosta who's with the spokesperson for Rick Santorum -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Anderson. I'm joined now with Alice Stewart, the press secretary for the Santorum campaign.

And we just saw those exit polls a few moments ago showing Rick Santorum winning in Mississippi, a close third in -- excuse me, winning in Alabama, a close third in Alabama. It seems to me the spin tonight from the Romney camp, if they can pull one out here in the south, is they can say, well, we can win in the south. But it seems to me what you guys might say is Newt Gingrich, it's time to go.

ALICE STEWART, SANTORUM CAMPAIGN SPOKESWOMAN: Absolutely. I mean being, you know, son of the south, you should be doing much better than this. But these numbers indicate that Rick Santorum is the consistent conservative. He's the consistent conservative. He resonates with the people here. We're going to do well as we move further down the primary calendar.

But for him to do as well as he's doing in the south just goes to show that people realized he has the momentum, he has the right message. Mitt Romney is out of touch. The fact that he's even -- with the money he has and the name I.D., and as long as he's been doing this, he should be running away with this, but the fact that he's not -- he's not in touch with what voters want, he's not in touch with them in terms of, you know, economic issues, on social issues and, you know, a lot of the comments he makes in terms of, you know, my wife's got a couple of cars and --

ACOSTA: Yes.

STEWART: And, you know, I like to fire people, those things are turning off voters.

ACOSTA: Let me ask you about what Rick Santorum had to say earlier today. He was on the Glenn Beck program and he essentially called for Newt Gingrich to jump out of the race. Earlier this week, he said, well, I don't want to go there. I don't want to tell Newt Gingrich to get out of the race. He was definitely taking a more aggressive posture. Why is that?

STEWART: Well, I think all of them should get out of the race. We -- they should vote --

ACOSTA: I don't think that's going to happen.

STEWART: Well, somebody -- because Rick is the conservative candidate that can take on Barack Obama. We've got Romney and we've got Gingrich, a lot of the issues are off the table that are important to voters when it comes to Romneycare, and both of them, the grandfather and the father of Obamacare in terms of the individual mandate issue. That issue is off the table. When it comes to cap and trade, that issue is off the table. When it comes to bailouts, that's off the table.

Rick Santorum is the candidate in this race that is the contrast to Barack Obama. And that's what people are beginning to recognize. And people are frustrated with Romney given that he -- he wrote the model for Obamacare and was dishonest with the American people saying all along that it was just for Massachusetts but now we've come to learn that he did advocate for being implemented nationwide.

ACOSTA: Earlier today, Mitt Romney was on the "SITUATION ROOM" and told Wolf Blitzer that Rick Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign. What do you have to say to that?

STEWART: Well, that's not very nice. But, you know, we're in -- we're in good shape. You know the Romney campaign has been pushing this --

ACOSTA: Is that not very southern of him? Is that --

STEWART: That's not -- no southern hospitality with that statement. But look, they've been pushing around this fuzzy math, this nonsense about it's mathematically impossible for Rick to win this. That's a smoke screen to distract from the fact he is not resonating the base. We've got good support in many states that are up next on the primary calendar. A lot of the delegates that are out there are unbound.

Those delegates typically will be given -- garnered around a more conservative candidate and a conservative base, the Tea Party base, they don't want a Massachusetts moderate. And they're going to rally behind Rick Santorum. This is going to be -- after tonight, this will be a two-man race. It's going to be Rick and Mitt and we're going to clear the field and Rick has got a good shot down the road. ACOSTA: Alice Stewart, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

Wolf, you heard it right there. They think after tonight it's going to be a two-person race, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: All right. Well, we'll see what happens. By the way, we're getting an update on those exit poll numbers we shared with you a few minutes ago. We're still going through or still crunching these numbers. I think that there's going to be some changes in the top line exit poll numbers. So stand by. We'll let you know what's going on right now.

Also something fascinating is going on in Alabama right now. Prisoners with striped jumpsuits, they're getting ready to be involved in this election in Alabama tonight. We'll explain what's going on. Our own Dana Bash is on the scene.

Much more coming up. We're here at the CNN Election Center. This night is only just beginning, get ready for results, real results, coming in from Alabama and Mississippi.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We got important information just coming in. A revised updated exit poll information.

All right. There's been a change. More information coming in on the Mississippi exit poll. Take a look at this. It's narrowed a bit. Thirty-three percent for Mitt Romney, 31 percent right there for Rick Santorum, 30 percent for Newt Gingrich, only 5 percent for Ron Paul.

Look at that battle that's going on. It's literally a three-man race. But right now, Romney is first, Santorum is second, Gingrich is third, Ron Paul obviously fourth. These are only exit poll numbers. We're waiting for more information. This is the latest round coming in. We've tabulated all the numbers, not just the first round. Stand by. More information will be coming in.

You saw earlier, the exit poll numbers for Alabama. Right now, Santorum in the exit poll had 34 percent, Romney second with 29 percent, 28 percent for Gingrich. That's third right there. Once again a third place if these numbers were to hold, and that's a huge if right now because these are only exit polls, this is what individuals told us after they emerged from the voting booths. So Ron Paul only 6 percent.

A very, very close race in short in both of these -- both of these states. Alabama and Mississippi. We're waiting for the official numbers to start coming in. But we have something right now. We're going to show you that you will only see here on CNN.

Dana Bash is standing by in Birmingham, Alabama. Shannon Travis is in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

But first, Dana, to you. Look at what we're seeing behind you. We see police officers, we also see men in striped jumpsuits, if you will. What's going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's going on is we're at the loading dock, waiting for the ballots to all come in from all around this very important county, Jefferson County. And what's going to happen is these cars are going to come out, and people are going to help bring the ballots in. Well, two of the people who are here are inmates. They're here from the county jail which happens to be right on top of where we are, Wolf. This is a government facility and the jail is attached.

These two gentlemen, we're told, were sentenced to hard labor, normally that includes working in the kitchen, cleaning floors, et cetera, on Election Days. This is something that they have done for years, I'm told. They bring those who have sentenced to hard labor here. You know they get a little fresh air, they get outside, and they help these election officials bring the ballots in.

And what they're going to do is they're going to bring the actual ballots into this room, Wolf. This is what they literally called the vault. As you see it's empty now because the ballots have not started to arrive yet. We'll probably see them come in about 10 minutes or so from now. But once the actual hard ballots go in there, then of course these days, things are computerized and they're electronics.

So they're going to bring memory cards into this particular area here and they're going to bring it into this window. And this gentleman here is going to take the memory cards and he's got a computer back here. I'm not sure if you can see it from this vantage point. But he's going to put the memory card into the computer and that is when it's going to start tabulate the results in this very important county of Jefferson County.

Now, Wolf, this is the most populous county in the state, which is why we're here, which is why a lot of eyes are on this -- on this county, Jefferson County, because this could well determine who actually will win the state in the Republican primary. And the Romney campaign specifically is going to be watching this big time because I'm told by folks in their campaign that they're really looking at the outskirts which tend to be more affluent. They want to get those numbers up there.

I just want to show you one last thing, and this is what we've seen in other states, this is kind of a fishbowl, a pod, and these folks are going to be getting -- you saw the first computer. They're going to be getting the results from there and they're going to really be tabulating it and putting it out to the public, putting it out to us, to give us a sense real time of who is winning and who is doing -- is doing well. All of the raw numbers that we're going to get as we see them.

BLITZER: So, Dana, if this works the way we anticipate, and if it's very close in Alabama, you, just as you did in some of the other contests, you'll get the first indications and we'll be way ahead of all of the other news organizations in sharing these numbers with our viewers, is that right? BASH: Well, we hope so. I'm going to actually just swing around and show you what we're going to be looking at here. This is a board, it's a little bit off center here but you can see that we will have all of the candidates, some of them obviously are not in the race now, but they're still on the ballot. The candidates that we're going to be seeing -- be seeing the results here real time. And we have also the probate judge, Alan King, who's in charge of this. He's here with us and he'll be joining us later to help us give the results as they come in and we'll be giving them to you.

BLITZER: All right. We'll be sharing what you know with all of our viewers in the United States and around the world. Dana, thanks very much.

Shannon Travis is over in Pascagoula, Mississippi. What are you doing? Where are you right now, Shannon? Tell our viewers what kind of access you have.

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Well, right now, we're at the Jackson County commission, election commission's office. A very similar process from what Dana just explained in terms of ballot delivery, ballot counting, and all that.

Let me just walk you through the process. This is the door where the poll workers from the 31 precincts here in Jackson County will be delivering their materials. They're going to stop at one of these two tables first, Wolf. Either at this table here which will be processing the ballot materials for Republicans or this table over here which will be balloting for Democrats.

Democrats also held their primary today here in Mississippi.

Then, one of the most important pieces of this night, what I have in my hand right here. Now this is a dummy. But this is the memory card that each one of the voting machines here in Jackson County, this is what records those actual ballots. These ballots will come out of those bags over there among the different materials and they'll come over here to sort of nerve center where basically Danny Glaskox, who's the chairman of the county commission here, the election commission, will basically take each one of these cards, insert it into this machine and this machine will start to not only tabulate a ticker tape of sorts of what the results are but he'll be uploading them right here into this computer.

And, Wolf, as you just talked with Dana about, we'll be getting those unofficial tallies first. We'll be showing you those once they come in.

Let me just swing around here and just show you a few more steps in this process here. Again these are the tables where the ballots will be dropped out. And this is where some of the absentee ballots will be dropped off, where they need to be resolved. Those will also be added to the tally.

And I'm actually being told, Wolf, that we have some ballots that might be coming in right now. Let's go and take a look and see what we have going on. I'm going to just open the door and see. And in fact, if you can see right here, we've got some poll aides who are helping secure -- or helping basically with the bags where a lot of the materials that I just explained to you are going to be coming one by one from the different precincts.

So we'll continue to monitor that, Wolf. Actually, I might as well hold the door for them while they come in. You notice those blue bags? Again those blue bags contain a lot of the different materials. But what's most key to us, Wolf, again, is this card that I showed you before, that has all the balloting information, with votes for Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum. We're going to be showing you some of those raw data. One other thing about this county, it's one of the most Republican in Mississippi, Wolf.

Mississippi, McCain won the state by 13 points in 2008. But in Jackson County, he beat Barack Obama by 33 points -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Shannon, if you got a second, go inside and ask that woman to explain what's in those bags, if you don't mind, see if she'll explain it to our viewers.

TRAVIS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Yes.

TRAVIS: Absolutely. Let's go inside. And we're actually going to talk to Danny. Danny is in charge here.

Danny, you're live on CNN right now with Wolf Blitzer, and he has a question to just explain about what's inside that bag.

DANNY GLASKOX, JACKSON COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI, ELECTION COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: Well, there's actually two bags. One of them is called a hanging ballot bag. And in that bag, we're asking for specific items. What we're looking for first is the memory cards. Now tonight, the memory cards are assigned to the Democrats because we switch them back and forth. One party does it one time, the next party does it the next time. So what we're looking for is that little hanging ballot bags. The memory pack with the memory cards, the absentee list, the --

TRAVIS: The memory card that you gave me a sample.

GLASKOX: Yes.

TRAVIS: Just like this.

GLASKOX: And the absentee voter list. The absentee book. Those are the things we're going to process tonight.

TRAVIS: That go over to that table.

GLASKOX: Correct.

TRAVIS: Correct.

GLASKOX: That's what we're going to process tonight.

TRAVIS: And how fast do you think you will be processing these cards? You told me you have about 235 that are out.

GLASKOX: We have 235 machines that are out. And as soon as they come in, I start uploading the results here. So as soon as the machine counts the ballots on the machine, it uploads them to the system and records them.

TRAVIS: We'll be looking over your shoulder and looking forward to those results.

GLASKOX: All right. I'll be here.

TRAVIS: All right. There you go, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, thank Danny for all of us. We'll be checking back with him. We're checking back with you, Shannon. Appreciate it very much. We're going to watch everything that's unfolding.

We'll take a quick break. When we come back, the first official numbers are coming in. We're going to check in Alabama and Mississippi, see what's going on. We'll continue our coverage from the CNN Election Center right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We got our ballot cameras watching everything going on in Birmingham, Alabama, Pascagoula, Mississippi. We'll check back with our correspondents, Dana Bash and Shannon Travis in a moment. We're also getting some official numbers coming in, but I want to go to John King right now.

John, we have been studying closely or you have, I should say, all of these exit polls. You're getting new information what the voters actually thought about Mitt Romney in both of these southern states.

KING: And because these races are so close, we're trying to dig and dig to find some hints and clues. One of the things do we know the voters were asked regardless of who you voted for, who do you think is most likely to defeat President Obama?

Who's the strongest Republican candidate in the general election regardless of who you voted for? In Mississippi, half, fully half said Governor Romney and if you look at this, Wolf, no surprise, I guess.

He gets 63 percent of the votes among those who say they think he's the strongest general election candidate. You could say that's great. However, you could also say that you have a lot of other people who even though they said Romney was the strongest candidate, 37 percent said, no, we're going to vote for somebody else. So that's one way to look at it there.

BLITZER: So electability is important, but it's not necessarily decisive.

KING: Not in an ideological primary. That's the tension we see in the Republican primaries especially as we get nearly to the half way point in states voting. Do they want to vote with their heart or they want to vote with their minds for the fall.

Alabama, again, almost half, a little fewer here, 46 percent say Governor Romney is the best general election candidate and again, among these voters he gets two-thirds of the voters there. Gingrich, Santorum, and Congressman Paul splitting the rest of uncommitted folks down there.

Another thing to look at as you move over here. This is what's fascinating to me. Governor Romney's positions on the issues, too conservative, not conservative enough or about right?

So about half of the voters in Alabama say Governor Romney is not conservative enough. So you would think he wouldn't do very well. If you pull up among these voters you see that, 44 percent for Santorum, 37 percent for Gingrich and only 8 percent for Governor Romney among those who say he's not conservative enough.

Now remember that's the state of Alabama. Let's move over, Mississippi, it's right next door. And again, half of the voters say Governor Romney is not conservative enough, break down those as well, Santorum, Gingrich and Romney.

So Governor Romney among those who say he's not conservative enough is struggling, one of the things that might work to his advantage, Wolf, as we get deeper into counting the votes is, in the areas where Governor Romney is struggling, no one candidate, you have a split between Gingrich and Santorum.

That split is helping Governor Romney and you go through issue after issue after issue. I do think this might surprise some people. Three in 10 describe themselves as moderate or liberal and 27 percent somewhat conservative.

Among very conservative voters in Mississippi, you will see here Governor Romney struggles a bit. Santorum, Gingrich, Romney running third, competitive, but a third behind the other two candidates here that's among very conservative.

If you come over to somewhat conservative voters, you see a Romney string. He's leading 38 percent to 30 percent. It's one of the reasons we can't call these races because as you go through the different subsets, you're seeing different leaders among the different subsets. It's a fascinating tug-of-war in the geographical base in the Republican Party.

BLITZER: That's a very, very tight three-man race. I think it's fair to say, in both of these states. Anderson, we're watching very closely. We're about to get some official numbers coming in as well.

But if Romney were to win at least one of these states, it would be a huge, huge gain to him looking down the road to Illinois next week and the states that follow.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: No doubt about it. It would allow him to say that he has won in the Deep South, which at this point, he can't say it because Newt Gingrich obviously won in Georgia.

It is interesting when you see the breakdown among voters and how they describe themselves, 30 percent of voters in Mississippi describe themselves as moderate to liberal in the Republican Party.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's an open primary, too. So, you know, you could have more moderate voters who don't have a Democrat to vote who decided that, you know, they wanted to participate in this. I mean, the key to me though was what John was just saying.

It's sort of interesting that the Republican Party, with its head, says, OK, we think Mitt Romney can beat Barack Obama, that's why we want to go for him. But with their hearts --

COOPER: They don't think he's conservative enough.

BORGER: They don't think he's conservative enough and there's also one interesting exit poll question about whether the candidates understand the average problems of Americans. In both of these states, Newt Gingrich wins and Mitt Romney comes in way behind. So it's sort of interesting.

COOPER: Mitt Romney has been somewhat tone deaf on the campaign trail. I mean, just recently, you know, talking about eating grits, like he just discovered grits.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But he's been willing to poke fun at himself for the first time recently. I think that's a sign of growth as a candidate. But coming back to this, look moderate in Mississippi has a very different meaning than being a moderate in Manhattan. It's a different universe what you're talking about. So I don't read that much into it.

COOPER: By the way, Cooper family reunion is in Mississippi every summer. Watch what you're saying there, David.

GERGEN: Are you visiting?

COOPER: I do. My dad was born in Mississippi. We don't talk much about politics.

GERGEN: That says something to me about your gentility. But the other thing, I think all of us are struck by now this closing up in Mississippi is that, Santorum has drawn within striking distance in recent exit polls. If Santorum were to win both tonight, that would put a different cast on the evening.

COOPER: The very criticism of Mitt Romney by some of these voters he's not conservative enough that would play well for him obviously in a general election among independents. CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it would. We have to remember here, we are talking about the primaries. The chances that these Evangelical very conservative Republicans are going to vote for Barack Obama instead of Mitt Romney if he were to become the nominee are zero.

And so, you know, we're not talking about the fall here, we're just talking about right now. So we did the same thing in Ohio, we were talking about it earlier, you know, talking about Mitt Romney winning the cities. Well, the chances that Mitt Romney are going to win the cities in Ohio are also -- fairly close to zero.

GERGEN: But he's here in the suburbs.

CROWLEY: We need to at least say what we're talking about here, it's not that Mitt Romney will lose these votes, it is simply he can't get them right now in the primary process.

I wanted to comment on something Hillary said earlier, just because I remember very well in June, when Hillary Clinton pulled out of the race after the final contest. In that room in Washington were all these people who had supported her said I will never vote.

COOPER: I remember that.

CROWLEY: I will never vote for Barack Obama. I will not vote for Barack Obama.

COOPER: They were screaming that as I remember.

CROWLEY: Yes, absolutely and guess what. Almost all of them came home. So we can build this up into something that will dissipate by September.

BORGER: And the measure of their enthusiasm, by the way, may be the fact that they're willing to go with electability for somebody they don't really like. I mean, we've had this debate. I've this debate with Ari Fleischer for weeks.

But if you look at these southern primaries, what you're seeing are voters who really want to win. So they may be going for a candidate that they don't love, but they think he can beat Barack Obama, which may give us some indication about voter enthusiasm among Republicans.

COOPER: I want to go to Jessica Yellin who's in Washington. Is that the concern obviously of the Obama White House, that Romney can appeal to independents because of those people who say he's not conservative enough?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they know that this is going to be a razor thin margin of victory no matter who the candidate is. They expect it to be Mitt Romney. They are planning for an appeal to the independents right now, Anderson.

Right now, while this is going on, they are out with a campaign, for example, tomorrow, they're going to unveil nurses for Obama. They're focused on pushing what they've already unveiled in their health care platform that will appeal to independents.

You've seen what they've done to try to appeal to women. So, yes, they're targeting, while all this is going on in these primaries and we're focused on, you know, these conservative voters, they're focused on this independent voters in these swing states and they're sending Vice President Biden to Ohio in two days to give a message that is designed to appeal to swing voters lunch bucket voters if you want to call them that.

And he's going to actually take it probably to Republicans maybe by name and send a hard hitting message that you're going to hear for the first time from the vice president and increasingly from the White House to appeal to exactly the voters you're talking about.

COOPER: Jessica, we have seen a big drop just in the most recent "New York Times"/CBS News poll of favorable ratings for president Obama. A month ago, he had reached I think 50 percent for the first time in a while. It's now down to 41 percent among those who say they approve of the job he's doing.

YELLIN: Well, I'll tell you what they say on background, which is basically, nothing.

COOPER: They actually say pasha?

YELLIN: I'm paraphrasing. The actual -- so if you -- at the same time, Anderson today, there's a Reuters poll that shows the president's approval rating at 50 percent. The overarching point is in politics, it is a lifetime between now and the election.

I would point out that this same "New York Times" poll showed the president at 58 percent -- 57 percent approval in May of 2011 and then four months later, he had plummeted to 43 percent.

Now he's even lower at 41 percent. You know, these numbers go all over the place. If you take a snapshot in time, it's meaningless.

So, yes, gas prices are rising. Iran has been, you know, tension filled. There are all sorts of reasons you could look at these numbers and have concerns. They are concerns.

COOPER: David Gergen is shaking his head. There actually has been good news you would think would be good for the president, in terms of job numbers, for instance. And yet in the same time frame, these numbers have dropped significantly.

GERGEN: I think that's right. I think it's a surprise to see. We had two polls out this week. They were a wake-up call for the White House and frankly for the press.

Because there had been a growing conventional wisdom as the president had become the frontrunner against Mitt Romney or any other Republican and was very, very likely to win the election. I think these polls show what the White House has been saying all along, this could be a very, very close race is apt to be quite true, that there is a base of people out there who want somebody different.

Whether it's gas prices or Iran or whether it could be five other issues that come up between now and then, that the president does not have this in the bag and it's very worth having a Republican nomination.

CROWLEY: The problem with the gas price issue is that it affects everyone whether you, you know, are a business, or whether you're just trying to get to work. In that it undermines consumer confidence about the future. Every time consumer confidence is undermined, that hurts the president.

BORGER: We haven't had debates -- we haven't had Republican debates lately, so suddenly, it seems to be, Barack Obama is going down in the polls, Republicans were heading down in the polls. Mitt Romney was losing ground with independent voters in the middle of all those debates.

Now that we haven't had any, suddenly, this seems to be evening out and I'm wondering whether it's Barack Obama against X and not looking at those four people that may affect this.

GERGEN: I think there is still a fundamental reality. These primaries have left Romney in a worse position than he would have been had they gone a very different way.

COOPER: I want to check in now with Wolf Blitzer. We have motion going on in Alabama -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, let's go to Birmingham, Alabama, Anderson. Right now, Dana Bash is standing by. What's happening? We see some of the prisoners getting ready to work. Dana, tell our viewers what we're looking at.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're looking at the first ballots arriving here at the center, where we are reporting from, where they're going to count all the ballots from Jefferson County.

This is probably going to be ultimately a steady stream of ballots coming in. This is the first bag that has come in. You see the inmates, as we described earlier, they're inmates from a jail literally right above where we are.

They're just in for misdemeanors. They're only in for a year, but part of their sentence is to do hard labor. So come election time, we're told for years that they've been doing this as part of their sentence.

But, again, we're waiting to see these ballots come in and along with the actual paper ballots, we're also going to have the memory cards, which, of course, are going to be put right into a computer so we can get the results from this county as soon as we can. This is just the first batch of ballots that we've seen -- we're seeing tonight.

BLITZER: Dana, stand by. I want to go to Shannon Travis. He's over in Pascagoula, Mississippi. You have initial votes already, Shannon?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. These are the first unofficial raw numbers coming out of Jackson County here Pascagoula, as you just mentioned, Wolf, I have raw numbers right here.

Out of 401 votes cast in one precinct alone, Mitt Romney 135 votes, Newt Gingrich 127 votes, Ron Paul 19 votes, and Rick Santorum 115 votes. Now as I mentioned before, I'm here with Danny, who's basically in charge here at this election commission.

He's going to briefly explain to us how he just delivered those numbers to us. You have those cards there, Danny.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

TRAVIS: They're coming in from the different precincts. What's the next step?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The next step is we insert them in the machines and we upload the results. When we upload the results, you could see that it prints off the totals for each.

TRAVIS: It's pretty blazing fast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, pretty fast. It prints off totals. There was 52 votes on that one card. When I get through, it tells me the results were successfully uploaded. I pop the card out and put in another card.

TRAVIS: Right, you just processed 16 of those cards, all 16 of those again for one precinct.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Correct.

TRAVIS: And that's how we got the numbers you uploaded automatically from that machine into here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Correct. When it does, it will tell me it's uploading and how many votes are on the bottom of the machine. When it finishes will show me a count for that particular machine.

TRAVIS: Absolutely, again, Wolf, these are numbers just coming in. No one else has seen these numbers except us because we're right here obviously showing democracy in action. I'll just repeat those numbers to you.

BLITZER: Will you repeat the numbers, Shannon? Give us the top three right now. Ron Paul is way behind. But I want our viewers to appreciate how close in that one precinct it is between these three top candidates. TRAVIS: That's right. That's right. You're absolutely right. Mitt Romney 135 out of these votes, he has the most. Newt Gingrich comes in second at 127, Wolf, and in third is Rick Santorum at 115. That's out of 401 votes cast in that one precinct -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, it's very, very tight. I don't know if that one precinct is representative of the whole state. It probably is, based on the exit poll numbers that we're getting.

It's going to be very close in Mississippi as well as Alabama. We're watching all of this unfold. Some of the official numbers, more official numbers are coming in as well. Stand by, our election numbers continues from the CNN "Election Center" in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, we have some initial official numbers coming in very, very early, less than 1 percent of the vote in, but I still want to share them with you.

It shows you it's going to be tight based on the exit poll numbers. In Mississippi, right now, 34 percent for Rick Santorum, 34 percent for Newt Gingrich, 27 percent for Mitt Romney and 4 percent for Ron Paul.

But look at the few people that have been officially counted so far 382 for Santorum, 381 for Gingrich and 302 for Romney. So this is very, very early.

A very similar situation in Alabama right now, let's walk over here and you see, once again, only 1 percent of that very few people have actually been officially counted, 34 percent Santorum, 28 percent Romney, 26 percent Gingrich and only 8 percent for Ron Paul.

Alabama and Mississippi, both shaping up as very, very close, very, very close three-man contest. We know what the exit polls have shown us. But you know what it's going to be really important when all is said and done --

KING: Yes, coffee.

BLITZER: Yes, it could be a long night, but also delegates. It's not winner take all as used to be the case in Republican primaries, it's proportional.

KING: And that's why those number one state-wide, the closeness would matter and then go by congressional district. But first, let's look at the overall map, first it's about bragging rights here. You want to be the candidate who want some key southern states and let's not forget Hawaii and American Samoa. We'll get to those later.

Governor Romney has won 14 so far, Senator Santorum 8, Speaker Gingrich 2, bragging rights in the south is at stake, but as all the candidates say, you hear Governor Romney talking about this more and more. He says, this is about delegates. He says, no matter what happens, he'll get a lot of delegates tonight. He's right because of the proportional rules. As long as he runs second even a close third, he'll get delegates. Here's where we start tonight, Wolf.

This is what you need to win. As you can see, nobody's close. Governor Romney is in the ballpark of 460. These are ballpark projections made by our great delegate team. And no one is close. You see Senator Santorum is not even half.

If you add up all the other candidates, you don't get to Governor Romney. So he's well ahead coming into the night. They would argue well ahead does not mean anywhere near clinching. So let's turn this off and look at what might happen today.

If we go through this, tap on this for today, we assume Governor Romney is going to win Hawaii. I just gave him proportional delegates from Hawaii. We assume he is going to win American Samoa, based on our reporting.

So what happens down here? What's at stake? You'll notice when I do this. I'm going to do this hypothetically. I'm going to assign let's just say for the sake of argument that Governor Romney will come around here. He wins the state of Mississippi there.

Let's do Alabama. Let's say Senator Santorum wins, OK. You saw what happened there. Romney goes up a little bit. Santorum goes up a little bit and even Gingrich goes up a little bit because it's proportional.

Here's what's interesting. I'm going to switch this, say Santorum wins both, in terms of delegates, Romney only went down a handful, went down a half-dozen. So it would not have a huge impact on delegate chase if he came in a close second.

He would still gain delegates and go forward. What it would have an impact on is bragging rights and the whole question, is he weak? In this sense, Senator Santorum can say I've won in the Midwest. I've won out in Colorado and now I've won in the geographical base of the party.

I'm the better candidate nationally. If you have this and have a Romney win, he will say I'm almost up to the halfway mark. I won a big swing state in Florida. I proved myself in the south. I've won in New England.

I've won in the Midwest. I've won in the Mountain West. I'm the stronger national candidate. So the delegate factor might not even matter much if Romney is a close second in these states as opposed to just winning, but it's about bragging rights.

BLITZER: A quick question because I'm getting questions on Twitter. Let's say Gingrich, and this is hypothetical were to drop out. He's got 131 delegates right now. What happens to those delegates come the Tampa, the convention in Tampa? KING: They are technically free agents. Some of that might be reassigned because again, these are based on projections and it depends as you state by state. Most of his delegates come from South Carolina and Georgia. A few come from other states where he ran close seconds and third.

Now they become available. The other candidates can lobby them. Gingrich can say I want to hold them until I get to Tampa. Most of them you presume, they were his delegates. They would stay with him.

But the rules vary state by state. There are Perry delegates out there. There are Huntsman delegates out there. There are other people out there from candidates who've left the race where the other candidates go and then can try to compete for.

So can they sign up with other candidates that's why we say this is a projection because some delegates are bound and others not bound and others -- some of these states are still early in the process. We make projections based on the voting results and we follow up constant reporting every day.

Trust me our delegate team works long hours to keep this going. But there is a possibility if a candidate drops, they become a free agent. That's one of the reasons candidates say they suspend don't quit. Part of it is fundraising. Part of the reason is to hold onto the delegates.

BLITZER: Dana Bash is in Birmingham, Alabama. Go to Birmingham right now, I want to show our viewers what's going on in Birmingham. There you can see Alabama, Birmingham. Dana is over at the election headquarters --

KING: Jefferson County is absolutely critical at this point.

BLITZER: It's 14.9 percent of the population. Dana, you're getting some new votes coming into Birmingham. What are you seeing?

BASH: That's right. You saw the ballots actually coming off the cars and now being inputted. We have, I should tell you, Judge Allen King who is, in charge here and he will walk us through.

I'll start you of here. Wolf, these numbers are changing by the second because they're being inputted. But right now, you can see Rick Santorum ahead slightly. Tell us the rest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we have, this number here, we have 360 voting machines in Jefferson County, 177 precincts. We have 14 voting machines that have already been inputted. From that, you have the different vote totals. This will be a continuous feed and continuous update throughout the evening.

BASH: And right now the vote totals and again, just changed as we were talking. Rick Santorum 257 votes, he's in the lead. Newt Gingrich right behind with 239 votes and Mitt Romney 232. So again, with very little reporting, only 14 out 360, you just said, wow, it's a three-way race, but it's very early. BLITZER: All right, Dana, thanks very much. I will take a quick break. We will continue our coverage in a moment. What if it's a three-man race, very, very tight in both of these states?

We're watching it very closely. We'll see who actually wins up winning. It could be a win by a few thousand votes or few hundred votes or few dozen votes. We'll see what happens. Stand by our coverage. We'll continue in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to the CNN Election Center. It's a very, very tight race both in Mississippi and Alabama, a three-man race in both states. You saw what the exit polls showed.

Here the official numbers coming in and now we're beginning to get real numbers, 6 percent in Mississippi of the precinct is now in. Look at how close it is. Mitt Romney 32 percent. He's 40 votes ahead of Rick Santorum with 32 percent.

Newt Gingrich so far third with 28 percent. Ron Paul, a distant fourth with 6 percent. You could see it being updated even as we speak. Only 17 votes with 6 percent of the vote in Mississippi in right now.

Only 17 votes separate Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Watch that. That's pretty amazing what's going on, 6 percent, still very early, but we're watching it. The exit polls showed a very, very tight race in Mississippi as well.