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Mississippi, Alabama Hold Primaries; Tight Race in Mississippi

Aired March 13, 2012 - 21:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Six percent, still very early, but we're watching it. The exit polls showed a very, very tight race in Mississippi as well.

In Alabama, fewer votes have come in, only 1 percent not even but it's tight. Thirty-four percent for Romney, 30 percent Santorum, 26 percent Newt Gingrich, 6 percent Ron Paul. But this is real early we're watching right now.

We have our ballot cameras and our reporters watching what's going on. We're going to be bringing you all the numbers first before anyone else. We've got cameras in Birmingham, Alabama. You can see it right there. Those are inmates, those are inmates walking in their car. They've been asked -- they've been told actually -- they're going to carry the boxes of the votes into the election headquarters, Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama. This is their job for the night. They're serving time in the prison there, one of their responsibilities is to help out do some manual labor. And that's exactly what they're doing.

Pascagoula, Mississippi, we've got cameras as well.

Take a look at this. In Mississippi, 6 percent in, but now it's six votes separating Santorum and Romney. Santorum slightly ahead by six votes, 32 percent to 32 percent for Romney. So tight with six percent of the vote in. Newt Gingrich a little further behind but he's not that far behind, only 29 percent.

Look at that. In Alabama, they've just changed. Very early in Alabama, much earlier in Alabama than in Mississippi. But now Santorum slightly, slightly ahead of Romney, 21 votes ahead of Romney, Newt Gingrich in third. But it's close as well. Anything can still happen in Alabama. Anything can still happen in Mississippi.

Anderson Cooper is watching all of this happen.

Anderson, I've been covering politics for a long time. First time I've seen prisoners get involved in this process carrying ballots, inmates carrying these ballots from the cars into the offices.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's pretty fascinating to see.

We're here with our contributors, also our analysts. What do you make, I mean, of these numbers being so close? Obviously it's a very small percentage at this point, but it's -- I mean it's a three-way tie basically in both states.

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: We are just looking at this and it feels like tonight is the closest of all of these primaries in terms of the spread among these three candidates that we've had in the last several weeks. That it is that evenly distributed. And that, to me, says one thing. It says weak frontrunner. Now I know David Gergen is going to say a win is a win.

COOPER: You say it with a smile.


ROSEN: Well, obviously, it's amusing that, you know, Romney and, you know, this coalescing around Romney and because of the numbers and this is a delegate march, not a state march, but you just can't help to notice every single time about that lack of enthusiasm.

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know tonight just has that old-fashioned feel that we're all glued to it. You don't know what's going to happen. It feels that close in two different states. It's kind -- if you're political, this is -- it doesn't get more exciting. But the other thing that makes tonight different as the Republican race is turning the corner, the races now are a consequence for knockouts.

Previously, it was a consequence for positioning. Who is the front-runner, who could compete, be the one-on-one against the frontrunner. Could there be three -- room for three? Now if you lose too many, you get knocked out. And that's the future trend of this race. It could happen tonight to Newt. And that's where this race is going.

COOPER: But if Newt Gingrich and Santorum are very close in terms of the actual vote count, can't both make the argument for staying in?

FLEISCHER: I don't think so. I think you have to win. You're at the point now in the race you have to win. Previously, you could stay close and keep going. It's turning into that point of consequence where it's the knockout.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: But, Ari, it used to be that Republicans primaries were winner-take-all.


BEGALA: The Republicans, I think sensibly, organized their primaries to mimic the electoral college. Winner take all by state. Now, oddly, you've copied the Democrats.

FLEISCHER: We mimic the Democrats.

ROSEN: That's right. BEGALA: Where we had a long process for Hillary and Barack because of proportional representation. It didn't make any sense. Even when the math didn't necessarily work for Hillary for her to drop out because she could still win delegates.

Newt Gingrich can still win delegates at least in Mississippi if he places third. Alabama, if you're third in a particular congressional district, I think you don't get anything. But still, moving away from winner-take-all has helped to prolong this process for Republicans.

FLEISCHER: No question.

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: You know, I'll say again, I do not think that is a negative. We've been talking all night about not conservative enough. That's an opinion. Conservative enough, good enough is an action. There are none of these voters that are going to say not conservative enough and stay home. That did happen in '08. That's not going to happen this time. But while you mention thresholds, I guess we should put on the table, if these numbers hold, there's a 15 and a 20 percent threshold for getting any delegates and Paul is not --


MATALIN: He's not going to take anything out of here which --

COOPER: But you don't think these candidates are being hurt the longer this race goes on? I mean you don't think Mitt Romney is being hurt the longer -- I mean do you think he's getting better?

MATALIN: I absolutely do not. There's never been in the history of modern presidential politics numbers in the spring that are predictive for the fall. When we get to the fall -- I mean nobody is touching Obama. He's out there in the field by himself and he just got -- continuing bad job numbers or episodic good job numbers.

So, no, I do not think it's lingering. There -- no fundamentals have changed out there. What I do think is very helpful is -- and this is why the RNC did it in the first place, there was a unanimous vote to change the rules to elongate the process so more people could play and feel like -- that they had given their opinion.

If they feel like they've given their opinion, he's not conservative enough then they will feel better about voting for somebody that they're not -- did not think was conservative enough.

ROSEN: I don't buy that it's a conservative versus not conservative issue anymore because look, Mitt Romney today announced he wants to get rid of Planned Parenthood. That's conservative enough.


ROSEN: What the issue is, is he likable enough, is he popular enough, you know, enthusiastic about your nominee? That's really the piece that Mitt Romney is still focused on. But again, this is a -- this is a march towards delegates, and the -- you know, that's why if you're Newt, you're going to stay in, you've still got some leverage. If you've got a few hundred delegates, maybe you've got some leverage. If you're Rick Santorum, you're collecting delegates, that's where you're looking for is where you can keep going.

COOPER: David?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think what's extraordinary is it's an hour since these polls closed. We have just a tiny number of votes. What in the devil is going on? I understand the counting process among other things that's going on here but I don't --


BEGALA: (INAUDIBLE) got nothing but time.


GERGEN: But a win is a win and a Romney win in the Deep South is a big win. If he were to pull it out, it would be very significant for him to do that. But you know we'll have to wait and see on that. What is also very apparent is that if Rick Santorum were to win a couple of things tonight, given how close this is, I'll go back to point out for three men Santorum has got a much stronger argument. If this were a two-man race, the dynamics would change.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, my question is, if Romney wins one or both of these states, when does the so-called establishment start coming in and sort of quietly saying to people, you know what, we really now have to rally around Mitt Romney because he's going to be our nominee and this process, although Mary says it's helpful, and maybe you can answer the question, Mary.

COOPER: Why do you think that hasn't happened --


ROSEN: There is no establishment really anymore. Who's going to tell him to get out?

MATALIN: Well, there is that and they have tried to rally. But there is something organic. We can't quantify it. But there's something organic but Romney has not had -- he said no mo, he said mini mo, he's not had any momentum. But there is a bandwagon. And at some point, they -- and I feel like this is tonight, I'm just giving you the feel. Like -- not all supporters are created equal. So those who get in at a critical juncture or get in early are worth more than supporters who get in when you don't need them and late.

So there is -- I think that's the narrative, it's not the establishment rallying. It's like I want to get on this bandwagon, it's a put-put momentum but there is a bandwagon.

BORGER: It's the electability. MATALIN: Yes.


BORGER: People saying they'd rather be with somebody who they think can beat Barack Obama than somebody they agree with or love or even think understands their problem.

FLEISCHER: But the reality of being a candidate also is you always say I'm going all the way to Tampa, I'm going all the way to the convention. Of course you said that you have to keep your people fired up so long as you're in it.

GERGEN: Right.

FLEISCHER: But after the results come in, I do think there's sobriety among these candidates. Paul likes to say that Newt has got his ego, he'll never get out. I think it's a lot deeper than that. And I really do think that candidates also want to beat Barack Obama. If they see there's no path for them left, I think it's going to take time. Their people, they have to absorb this, and I think over a couple of days, they will. In this case, if it's Newt, drop out. I just don't see him wanted to take down the party. That's not Newt Gingrich. But if he has a chance he's going to stay in. If it's a bad night tonight they're going to give him a couple of days --

COOPER: Do you think a third place finish for him --

FLEISCHER: No, I think -- I think he has to win. If he loses both Mississippi and Alabama, the two southern states, he has shown he has the ability to win no where other than South Carolina after two debates.


ROSEN: If Newt gets out -- sorry, folks, if Newt gets out, then Rick Santorum has a clean shot at Mitt Romney.

FLEISCHER: That's right.

GERGEN: That's right.

ROSEN: And when you look at those numbers, all of a sudden, you can see Rick Santorum being very competitive with Mitt Romney.

COOPER: And the last thing Mitt Romney wants is a one-on-one battle with Santorum.

ROSEN: It's a significant number of Gingrich voters.


BEGALA: But Louisiana not being one of them, but the rest of the terrain moves toward Illinois, which should be better for Mitt Romney, Maryland, Wisconsin, the District of Columbia. I think Mitt Romney's in a lot of trouble if Santorum gets him one-on-one. It's true, he would plainly be losing today in both states, I think, if he were one- on-one with either of the more conservative candidates. But I -- Ari knows the speaker far better than I do. I'll be surprised if he gets out.

ROSEN: I would, too.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Let me tell you what the Romney campaign has said over the past couple of weeks. They believe, as Ari stated, that in the end, I said, look, you know, Newt Gingrich is really mad at you, guys, so why do you think he's going to get out? And one of the top guys in the Romney campaign said because he's a party guy, and so we believe that he would eventually do that if the writing is on the wall.

They think there will come a time, as you know they think the numbers add up for them already. They think there will come a where you will hear more things like former New York Governor Pataki said, which was, you know, we're kind of hurting ourselves here. It's pretty much time for us all to gather around, maybe not direct, you know, hey, Newt, get out, you know, hey, Santorum, time for you to get out, but just people sort of worrying aloud about what it's doing. So that -- they sort of expect that and they expect there might be some defections.

BORGER: Don't you think it's so personal right now for Newt Gingrich?

CROWLEY: Well, yes, they don't expect it happen tomorrow. I mean they -- or even next week.

BORGER: I mean I've heard he's -- he's calling people in the -- who support Romney saying why did Romney run those terrible ads about me saying that I resigned in disgrace.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. But that's tomorrow or next week. They think in the long run, he's a party guy.

FLEISCHER: But personal doesn't last forever. That's where these people have been around the block long enough and they know how to make good judgments when they need to.


COOPER: David?

GERGEN: Can I come back to one other point, though? I want to go back to Mary Matalin's point.

Mary, my sense is -- you don't -- you can't measure how much damage has been done to Romney simply on the head-on-head. That on this issue of women and contraception, Planned Parenthood, Mitt Romney has been sucked to the right on social issues by Santorum. And it doesn't show up in the polls so much, but I can just tell you and you must have run into this all the time, Gloria, because I run into it, you might almost run into it.

There are a lot of women who were sort of -- had grown soft on Obama who are now fired up. They're angry. They feel threatened and they're part of the Obama base that has really been enlivened by this. And it's -- I do think in the long run, Romney may look back and say on the women's issue, I really got that wrong and I got way too far out there.


BORGER: Here's a place where --

BEGALA: And on Latinos.

BORGER: Here's --

BEGALA: Yesterday, I talked to one of the most prominent Republican Latinos in America who said he was appalled that the Romney campaign or its super PAC, I don't know which, was running ads attacking Rick Santorum for voting for Sonya Sotomayor for a lower court position. This is someone who is a Democrat, but who is Latino and said -- and he said to me, are they trying to drive Mitt down to zero?

He's losing the Latino vote right now. It's too early, I know, but right now he's losing it 70-14. He's got to be about 45 among Latinos if he wants to be the president of the United States. So this is having, I think, huge consequences among women and Latinos, which is the two key votes in the November elections.

ROSEN: And again, let's come back to the fact that sort of Republicans have done this to themselves. Mitt has done this to himself in the chase to try and drive Santorum and Gingrich away. Now obviously most Republicans don't think he believes any of this. We had this conversation last week. But --

MATALIN: Don't point at me.


ROSEN: We had this conversation last week.

FLEISCHER: You're talking to yourself.

ROSEN: That Republicans do not believe that Mitt is actually that conservative. Democrats' challenge is going to be to not let him get away with sort of running back to the center and being the phony that he is.

COOPER: But do you guys agree that he has moved to the right? Or do you not? You don't buy that?

FLEISCHER: What doesn't add up in all of this is -- granted, this Republican primary has moved the favorable/unfavorables for the Republicans down. It has not played out the way we would have hoped it would have, but then you're still running neck and neck with Barack Obama on virtually every poll. That tell you how weak the president of the United States is. You can't just say the Republicans have hurt themselves in this race. Barack Obama has hurt himself in the presidency.

And you're not just looking at a Republican primary, you're looking at a general election where they both have records.

ROSEN: This is a choice. Yes.

FLEISCHER: And that's what it's ultimately going to come down to and I think it's amazing they're running so close to the president.


ROSEN: But --

MATALIN: Let me pick up on this point because the weakness of the president -- it was the president that put that HHS regulation out, it was the president that made it about birth control when it's really a religious liberty and an economic liberty message. And when you poll it as a religious or economic liberty message, which the Republicans have failed to do so far, but even with women, women do not want the government intruding into religious institutions.

So the reason -- but he -- Obama did that specifically because his women were soft and he needs to gas up his base. So he's doing all these lefty things --

ROSEN: But then Republicans --

MATALIN: You're talking --

ROSEN: First of all, that's silly, Mary. Actually, Congress required the HHS to come up with a regulation to implement the statute. So this was not manufactured. This was intended to be a thoughtful substantive policy position.

BORGER: But Republicans --

ROSEN: And then Republicans reacted --


MATALIN: We're not done yet.

ROSEN: And by the way, all of the polling -- says you're wrong.


ROSEN: That people do not see this.

MATALIN: It does not. Hilary, today --

ROSEN: As a religious liberty issue. Now women see this (INAUDIBLE). There's one other point, though. Paul talked about Latinos and the base. The other place where the base matters is in youth. And these issues now, the social issues are things that young people really, really don't understand why this has absorbed our politics for 25 and 30 years. They're in a very different place. And now young people are energized again in a way for the president and I think that's going to make a big difference.

FLEISCHER: Actually I think the energy is with the senior citizens who actually vote. You saw them come out powerfully in 2010 in favor of Republicans and that's going to be the trend in 2012 as well. The president has just really hurt himself with the group that votes the most and the youth vote is not going to come out anymore near the numbers that it did in 2008. And that's going to be a big problem for the president.

ROSEN: We'll see.

COOPER: Guys, we've got to take a quick break. We're getting more raw votes in from our ballot cams and our correspondents all throughout Alabama and Mississippi. We'll go check in with them in a moment. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back to the CNN Election Center. Let's take a look at the votes. These are the official numbers that are already in. Sixteen percent, that's a significant number of votes have already been officially tallied in Mississippi. And Rick Santorum is developing a slight lead, 34 percent to 30 percent. He's more than 1,000 votes ahead of Newt Gingrich right now. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney basically -- virtually tied, Gingrich about 200 votes ahead of Mitt Romney, 30 percent to 30 percent, Ron Paul way, way behind.

With 17 percent of the vote now in, Rick Santorum has more than 1,000 lead.

In Alabama, only 2 percent, if that of the vote is in. But once again, Rick Santorum is ahead. He's 566 votes ahead of Newt Gingrich with 29 percent for Gingrich, 28 percent for Mitt Romney. There's a real battle for second place under way. Santorum is ahead with 34 percent right now, but it's a very small number in Alabama. I'm sure Rick Santorum and his supporters would love to see him atop both of these states when all the vote is tallied later tonight.

Let's go over to John King, but, John, I know we're going to be studying these two states very closely. But we've got -- we've got some reporters standing by as well. But if you take a look at these two states, Mississippi and Alabama, right now, fiercely, fiercely tight. But let's take a look at Pascagoula in Mississippi, Birmingham in Alabama, because we've got reporters in those two places.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And if you watch the states start to fill in, here's the state of Mississippi, you see right now they're splitting it up. You have a tight three-way race, guess what, some counties for Gingrich, some counties for Romney, the purple is Santorum. This is a very important county for Governor Romney, it's Hinds County right here in Jackson. You see he's winning with 51 percent of the vote, Wolf. He needs to keep that margin because you see in the rural areas, Santorum and Gingrich, the split. If Governor Romney is to hold on to win either one of these states, this will be the story. The split between Gingrich and Santorum in the rural counties. You mentioned Pascagoula is down here, and Jackson County at the bottom of the state. Biloxi is right next to it and Harrison County. This is a very important area along the Gulf Coast. It's an area where you see Santorum, in the counties where we have official results so far, Santorum running ahead. Again, this is important to Governor Romney as he did in South Carolina. You have some more affluent, some retirees along --

BLITZER: Northerners who have moved down south. Yes.

KING: Along the -- on the coast where Governor Pascagoula needs to do well. But Pascagoula itself is right in here.

Let me just move next door. We can bring in those reporters whenever you're ready. If you come over to the state of Alabama, again, you're seeing much the same thing. A tight three-way race, you see the results, and different counties going for different candidates. This is critical in the middle here. Montgomery County, very important to Governor Romney. If he wins in places he tends to win in the population centers, and then in the suburbs around them, that's been important for him all along.

You see it there, this is very important. Birmingham is colored in Jefferson County, that's where Dana Bash is, 15 percent of the state population, colored in for Santorum right now. If that holds, it's -- A, it's a big county, and B, this is critical. If Romney is going to have a chance in Alabama, they think Mississippi is a stronger state. But if he is going to have a chance in Alabama, this is where he would need to win, again, in the urban areas and in the suburbs around them.

BLITZER: If they showed up. All right. Let me bring in Shannon Travis. He's in Pascagoula. Dana Bash is in Birmingham, Alabama.

Shannon, first to you . Are you getting more official numbers over there? What's going on?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Absolutely. Lots of activity here at the Jackson County Election Commission. One by one these polling -- these precincts are continuing to drop off their materials, they're dropping it off there. But as you just mentioned, Wolf, fresh numbers. No one else is getting these numbers. We're the only network who's here, who's getting these numbers. And let me reveal them to you.

Out of five precincts, there are 31 precincts in Jackson County, these are the totals. Mitt Romney, 508 votes, Rick Santorum, 399 votes, Newt Gingrich, 360 votes, Wolf, and Ron Paul, 58 votes.

I'll read those back to you. Mitt Romney, 508, that's at 37.85 percent. Rick Santorum, 399, that's at 29.73 percent. Wolf, Newt Gingrich has 360 votes, that's at 26.83 percent, and again, Ron Paul, 58 votes at 4.32. We're continuing to talk with our contact over here, Danny Glaskox, and we'll bring you the latest numbers as we get more of them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And so basically that's five precincts you said, Shannon, out of about 30, is that right?

TRAVIS: Correct, five out of 31. And he's still loading them in one by one. It's a fairly quick process, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, thanks, Shannon. We'll get back to you and Danny as well.

John, explain what potentially this means for Romney, Santorum and Gingrich.

KING: Well, tiny numbers here. You see Romney with a pretty healthy lead, 508 to 399 to 360. You might say that's not a huge number but by percentage wise, as Shannon says, as more of the vote comes in, that's this county here, Jackson County. You see it's not called it in all yet because we don't have officials results in yet. CNN is getting these ahead of the official results being put out to the public.

If this county fills in Romney red, as you see next door in Harrison County where you see Governor Romney just barely winning there. Governor Romney needs to win along the coast here and to be honest, Wolf, to carry the state, he probably needs to win these counties by more just than a couple of hundred votes, or in this case, eight votes, in that county right there as the results come in.

So you come back over, I just shrunk it down. Again we have a very tight three-way race and we're going county by county by county. So when you look at this map from a distance, it's not so much that you see a lot of purple here in the middle, it's where is the population. Here is an area where Gingrich is leading with 33 percent of the vote, with 48 percent in. This tells you one thing, we have a low turnout election. A very low turnout election.

Forrest County, it's just shy of 3 percent of the state population. But that's almost half the precincts reporting, and look, 852 votes gets you the lead. So you have a very low turnout in Mississippi. If that's continuing across the state, then you are going to look to the bigger places, Hinds County, barely 9 percent of the state population. Governor Romney winning. That's almost a third of the vote. Again a very low turnout.

BLITZER: If he could maintain that, that's good for him.

KING: If he can -- if he maintains that, that's good for him but the turnout might not be high enough. If you look at the numbers there, yes, he's getting 50 percent. But if that's a third of the vote, and he only -- excuse me -- third in the precincts, if he only doubles that there, it may not be enough to offset what's happening out on the rural areas. Romney's hope here is that he wins in the urban areas, that I just pointed out, and in the suburbs and that the other two candidates split in the more rural areas. And it's a very much the same dynamic here, although to me, the most significant thing so far in the state of Alabama is that Santorum is ahead. Again it's very narrow. But if he wins Jefferson County very hard to see how Romney --

BLITZER: It's almost 15 percent of the population in the entire state.

KING: Right.

BLITZER: Jefferson County and Birmingham. Let's go to Birmingham. Dana Bash is standing by.

Dana, what's going on?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, Mitt Romney is ahead, but only slightly. Let's look at the numbers. It's about 21 percent of the votes in here in Jefferson County. First let's look at the percentages, Mitt Romney, 32, almost 33 percent, Rick Santorum at 30 percent, and up here, really right behind Newt Gingrich at 30.16 percent.

Let's look at the raw numbers here. Mitt Romney at 3,096, Rick Santorum at 2,872 and up here at Newt Gingrich, 2,838. So -- I mean if you look at the difference here, it is just not even 100 votes, a few hundred votes separating them. Again this is about 20 percent of the vote in. Neck and neck here. And this is really coming in -- every second they're updating these numbers. And I just want you to look around here. This is -- these are the people who are doing it. This is state-of-the-art, a state-of-the-art facility here in Jefferson County.

These two fellows, Ricky Hill and Keith Harris, they are putting the numbers in as they're getting the computerized information from around the county. And that's why we're getting the information as it's coming in, again, changing every second. And we could probably stand here and there you see, it's changed already since I gave you those numbers. But it's neck and neck between the three of them.

BLITZER: Yes, a real three-man race, Dana. Let's assess with John.

This is Birmingham, this is in Jefferson County, 15 percent of people of Alabama live in this county?

KING: And I just told you how important if Governor Romney is to be competitive in the state he needs to win this county by those numbers Dana just gave us. He is very narrowly, but he is leading the county. Look at the difference here, the value of having the reporters on the scene. Romney with 3,096 votes. If you go over what's been officially reported, Romney has only 837 votes, Santorum 860, compared to 2872.

So we are well ahead of what the official vote tally is coming in right now or coming out. So what that does is if you see this, that puts Governor Romney in a more competitive position in terms of knowing the counties and the places he needs to do well. Again, is that a big enough margin? Hard to tell without knowing the rest of the state. If you're Governor Romney, any place you have a major population center and more importantly suburbs in the area around it, this is where he's done well.

Everywhere he does well, he wins in the urban areas where there are Republicans. But more importantly in the close-in suburbs, that's the key to his success. And he needs to win by pretty good margins in those places, because again, when you pop out to a statewide view and these numbers in the middle will confuse you a little bit but if you look out there, Gingrich, Gingrich, Santorum, Santorum, Santorum. In most of the rural counties, and we've seen this across the country, that's where you have your evangelical voters, your Tea Party voters, Governor Romney does not do as well.

It is critical, any place you see one of these circles, that's a population center, Montgomery right here, Montgomery County, 5 percent of the population, Romney winning, is that a big enough margin? That's the question. When you get into a race like this. And again, if you come down along the coast, these are places we will watch a bit later, Baldwin County, down here along the Gulf Coast.

If Governor Romney is to be competitive in Alabama, that's where he needs to do well. The bigger question again, the Romney campaign believes with the help of the governor, with the help of some other people, they're more competitive in the state of Mississippi at the moment. In the official results, he's running third but there are still a lot more of these votes to come in, Wolf, as we wait and wait. And it looks like we have a little bit of checkerboard here with --


KING: With three candidates competing fiercely in both of these states.

BLITZER: Yes. Look at how close it is. It's a third of the vote now in in the state of Mississippi, and Santorum is slightly ahead, 33 percent, 31 percent for Gingrich, 30 percent for Mitt Romney. Two-thirds of the vote still to come. So it's still -- anything can possibly change. You want to make a point?

KING: The only point I would make is that those -- those numbers we just showed do not include the numbers Shannon Travis just gave us because you see Jackson County, we have it completely blank right now, no official results, but we know Governor Romney has a slight lead there.

So some of the official numbers are a little behind our CNN numbers because we have reporters in these key places. That's not enough to change the statewide totals right now but it does tell us that this is one of the places to watch as more of those results where Shannon has come in. If Governor Romney is going to come back and take away what is now a Santorum lead, this is one of the places that will happen. BLITZER: It's an incredibly tight three-man race in both Alabama and Mississippi. Their numbers are coming in very quickly now. It's been about an hour and a half since all the polls in these two southern states have closed. They're coming in very quickly. We'll share with you what's going on.

Also, I spoke earlier in the day with Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential frontrunner. I'll share with you some of what he said, that's coming up as well.


BLITZER: Very, very close races in Mississippi and Alabama unfolding right now. Here are the latest numbers. More than a third of the vote in Mississippi is now in, 37 percent to be precise. And Rick Santorum continuing to maintain a slight lead over Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. He's about 1500 votes, Santorum ahead of Gingrich right now. Thirty-three percent for Santorum, 31 percent for Gingrich, 29 percent for Romney, Ron Paul, way, way, way behind.

In Alabama, we've now got have 6 percent of the vote in. Similarly, Rick Santorum slightly ahead of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, 34 percent for Santorum, 29 percent for Gingrich, 28 percent for Romney. A 1500 vote difference. Santorum is ahead of Gingrich. Now 7 percent of the vote in Alabama is coming in.

We're not obviously going to be able to make any projections until we get a lot more numbers. This is shaping up to be a fascinating night in both of these southern states.

Mitt Romney, he is the frontrunner. And I had a chance to speak with him not that long ago.


Governor, thanks very much. I know you have a limited amount of time. Let's get right to Afghanistan because the situation there seems to be going from bad to worse. Even Newt Gingrich said this. He says, "I think it's going to get substantially worse, not better. And I think that we are risking -- we are risking young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable."

Is it time to start getting out of Afghanistan much more quickly than President Obama has in mind which is -- he wants everyone out by the end of 2014?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, 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, but of course from time to time we have to assess what the process is there.

I'm very disappointed that the president has not, over the last year or two, talked about what's happening in Afghanistan, what progress is being made, what setbacks there are, describing a timetable that makes sense -- or describing why his timetable makes sense or not as the case may be.

My own view is, we have to listen to the commanders on the ground, hear what they have to say. We're going to hear input from General Allen in just a few days. Let's hear -- let's hear their reports and see what prospects we have for having a successful mission of turning over as soon as possible the responsibility for the security of Afghanistan to the security troops there.

BLITZER: So do you agree or disagree with Gingrich that the mission may not be, in his word, doable?

ROMNEY: Well, yes, there is no certainly in a matter of foreign policy of this nature, of course, and one recognizes that, as one goes into a conflict, but one over time collects information to see what progress is occurring, what setbacks are occurring. But you don't make an abrupt shift in policy because of the actions of one crazed deranged person. But, of course, you assess your prospects over time, again, given the input of the people closest to the -- to the action.

But at this stage, to say we're going to throw in the towel without getting the input of General Allen, or actually making trips to Afghanistan and meeting with leaders there, and meeting with our commanders there and troops there, that wouldn't make a lot of sense. I'm more deliberate when it comes to the lives of our sons and daughters and the mission of the United States of America.

BLITZER: The super PAC that supports Rick Santorum has come out with a very tough commercial or very tough attack ad against you. I want to play a little clip and then we'll get your response.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mitt created Romneycare, the blueprint for Obamacare. And just like Obama, Romney left Massachusetts $1 billion in debt.

Who can win? Rick Santorum.


BLITZER: All right. I'm going to give you a chance to respond to Rick Santorum's super PAC.

ROMNEY: Well, you know, it's been interesting that FactCheck has looked at Rick Santorum's claims over the last several ads, and the things he said, and I think in almost every case, they've said that Rick Santorum's attacks have been baseless and wrong. I think they have something called Pinocchios. They gave him four Pinnochios or something like that.

I'm not going to get into discussing various ads, but obviously we left Massachusetts with over a $2 billion rainy day fund and a balanced budget. So I'm afraid his conclusions are exactly wrong. But, you know, 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. BLITZER: Why do you think he's at a desperate end of his campaign?

ROMNEY: Well, I mean, he's far behind in the delegate count, he's far behind in the popular vote count. If you look at the math and how many delegates he'd have to win to become the nominee, it's a -- it's a very difficult road for him. And so at this stage, he's looking for some way to try and gain ground.

I understand that, but I would hope that you'd use truth as one of the pillars of your strategy as opposed to trying to come up with one attack after the other that frankly has been determined by those who take a careful look from the outside to be inaccurate.

BLITZER: One of the criticisms you've leveled against Senator Santorum when he was a sitting U.S. senator was he repeatedly voted to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

Here's the question to you. If you're elected president of the United States, will you make a commitment not to raise the nation's debt ceiling anymore?

ROMNEY: Well, I made it very clear when this last question came up about raising the debt ceiling that I would not have raised that debt ceiling without getting an agreement to cut, cap and balance the budget. And I continue to believe that that's the right course. And if I'm president, I will cut, cap and get America on track to have a balanced budget. That's what we have to do.

And if we don't do those things, we should say, look, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling, we're not going to keep on opening our children's future to politicians that want to spend away that future by borrowing from the Chinese and others. So my view is very simple and straightforward. My plan is to get America on track for a balanced budget by cutting and capping federal spending.

BLITZER: So do I understand that to mean that's a commitment that no more increases in the nation's debt ceiling, if you're president?

ROMNEY: Any increases in the debt ceiling are going to have to be accompanied by compensating cuts in federal spending and making sure that we get ourselves on track to having a balanced budget.

BLITZER: Governor, thanks very much. I know we have a limited amount of time. Appreciate your spending a few moments with us. I appreciate it very much.

ROMNEY: Thanks, Wolf. Good to be with you.


BLITZER: All right. You heard Mitt Romney, the frontrunner, say that Rick Santorum is, in his words, at the desperate end of his campaign. Well, not necessarily all so fast. Look at this. In Mississippi, right now, half, 50 percent of the vote is now in, Santorum slightly ahead of Gingrich and Romney. But look at how close it is. Only 1700 votes separates Santorum and Gingrich, 33 percent for Santorum, 31 percent for Gingrich as well as for Romney. Ron Paul way behind.

H the vote in Mississippi now in. Could still go any way. Santorum, Gingrich or Romney.

In Alabama, 12 percent of the vote is now in. Santorum seems to be building up his lead slightly, 34 percent for Santorum, 30 percent for Newt Gingrich, 28 percent for Mitt Romney, only 5 percent for Ron Paul. Santorum with 12 percent of the vote in Alabama, doing a bit better than his two rivals.

Anderson, I think it's fair to say, as we watch both of these states, it could still go when all the dust settles anyway.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's fascinating to watch the numbers come in.

Is Rick Santorum in the desperate end of his campaign as Governor Romney says?


DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And that'll be going to tonight.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think Governor Romney should probably hope he's not because Governor Romney needs Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich right now. As you see in both of these races. I mean if it weren't for them splitting the conservatives -- the very conservative, the evangelicals, the Tea Party voters, Mitt Romney would not be within sort of a position to win.

COOPER: Right.

BORGER: In either Mississippi or Alabama. So the fact that they're splitting the vote, whether it's desperate or not, he ought to pay them both to stay in for a little bit longer.

GERGEN: We've had so many long nights, all the way back to Iowa.

BORGER: You remember that?


GERGEN: And they -- I try to forget. In which there's been this close voting between Romney and Santorum. Time after time after time. It does seem to me that the argument he has that this should be a two- man race or this has become a two-man race has gained a great deal of credibility over time.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And well, it actually has because so far what we have is Newt Gingrich with one state. BORGER: Right.

GERGEN: Right.

CROWLEY: Gingrich has got South Carolina.

BORGER: Right.

CROWLEY: Which seems like 100 years ago. But you can't -- it's going to be very hard for Newt -- he can stay in the race. It's hard to -- it's going to be hard to see him as viable if he doesn't do something big. And I think Newt Gingrich has to win something. If Rick Santorum wins both these states, I think it's a blow to both.

BORGER: But then there's a question of what happens if sometime soon, maybe not tonight, whatever, Newt Gingrich gets out, who would get Newt Gingrich's votes?

COOPER: Well, Rick Santorum, wouldn't he?

BORGER: Well, not --


CROWLEY: Not necessarily, no.

BORGER: If people in the Romney campaign I talked to say, you know what, Rick Santorum would get about half. But they believe, through all of their extrapolation or whatever, that they would get 30 percent. Now that leaves some undecided, but they say, you know, not necessarily. It wouldn't all go to Rick Santorum.

GERGEN: But if -- in some of these states, if 70 percent went to Santorum and 30 percent went to Romney, Santorum wins a lot of states.


BORGER: That's right. That's why he needs both of them.

COOPER: Let's see with our contributors. Do you guys with that that about 30 percent of votes that would go to Gingrich would go to Mitt Romney?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's impossible to know.

COOPER: Right.

FLEISCHER: You know, and it depends. Every race creates a dynamic for the next race and it also depends on what state you're talking about. Are you talking about New York and some of the northern states? Are you talking about Louisiana and some of the other states, different regions of the country? But certainly -- and I got a tweet about this earlier -- 100 percent of Santorum votes will not go to Newt and 100 percent of Newt votes will not go to Santorum. It is a mix.


HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: But it would definitely raise Santorum to make him competitive with Romney. And it might not change the delegate math. But once you get to proportional, if you start to get about half the delegates instead of about a third where you're going, you begin to have a shot at this. Now --

FLEISCHER: If he gets half. And that says he can win in both states.

ROSEN: That's right. There are still too many states that Romney is advantaged in that are winner-take-all which gives him even more delegates. But it definitely would give Santorum a shot.

MARY MATALIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: We don't know but here's something we do know. And it's been consistent. In all but Santorum's trifecta, those caucuses, electability has beat purity. And in every one of those cases whether or not they voted for him, voters said they thought that Romney was going to get the nomination and they thought that Romney was stronger against Obama. Was the strongest against Obama. That showed up again in these exit polls by 2-1. So Santorum would have to show -- he'd have to make some gains in electability. There's a difference between being a message candidate and get-'er-done (ph) candidate. And he's just that -- he's not positioned to do it. I'm not -- I don't have --



MATALIN: I just want to say Jeff Foxworthy was for Romney in Mississippi.

BEGALA: He was.

MATALIN: And I hear he's going to make a difference. But that we do know. We don't know how they'll split but we do know that Santorum has not gotten close to winning that electability in the exits.


FLEISCHER: Let's take a look at the -- I'm sorry go ahead.

BEGALA: If Newt wants to live off the land, he has to get on the air. And I think that's why, if I'm working for Newt, what Candy says is going to trouble me a lot. He has to get attention from the press. He's not as newsworthy if he loses both of these southern states. As Candy points out, he only carried Georgia and South Carolina. If he loses Mississippi and Alabama, so what does he do? He either gets out as the rational Mr. Fleischer advises, or as the crazy Mr. Begala advises, he gets crazier, he says more outlandish things, more outrageous things.


BEGALA: He makes crazier charges because attention must be paid to Newt Gingrich.



COOPER: We've got to take a quick break. We are getting more votes coming in right now. We've got ballot cams. We got correspondents all throughout Alabama and Mississippi. We'll check in with them in a moment.


BLITZER: Significant numbers of votes are now being officially counted. And it's very, very close. But Rick Santorum continuing to maintain his lead in Mississippi, almost 70 percent of the vote is now in, 68 percent, and he is slightly ahead of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, 33 percent for Santorum, 31 percent for Gingrich, 30 percent for Romney. He's about -- almost 1700 votes, Santorum ahead of Newt Gingrich right now, and Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, very, very close, a fight for second place.

But once again, only 68 percent of the vote is in. There's still plenty of votes that yet -- are yet to be counted in Mississippi. We're going to be digging deeper, where those outstanding votes are. You see it just changed right there once again, but Santorum maintaining his lead of 1,727 votes ahead of Newt Gingrich.

Let's go over to Alabama. A quarter of the vote in Alabama is now in, a significant number. Similarly, Santorum maintaining a lead, a bigger lead in Alabama so far than in Mississippi. He's 5800 votes ahead of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney so far third place in Alabama, 35 percent for Santorum, 30 percent for Gingrich, 28 percent for Romney -- it's changing once again -- only 5 percent for Ron Paul.

Still very close there. Seventy-five percent of the vote still outstanding in Alabama. Let's go over to John King and take a look. Dana Bash is over there in Alabama, in Birmingham. But we're watching these counties, and what you've -- the similar pattern in Alabama and Mississippi developing, the bigger urban concentrated areas, Romney does better than out in the more rural areas.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And let's start in Mississippi then we'll come back to Alabama and get to Dana who I think has some numbers beyond what we have. If you look again, watch for the dots, that's an urban area. In most states, Governor Romney does well in urban. Some of these are smaller cities. Now Biloxi in Mississippi is not a huge city. Jackson, Mississippi, is not a huge city, but it's the capital. The man in the suburbs around them. If you look right here this is the area where the government is based. Organization matters. The governor is for him. Some of the Barbour family working for Governor Romney.

Yazoo County, that's the home of Haley Barbour, the former governor. Right there, Yazoo, Mississippi, you see low turnout could a factor here. If Governor Romney falls just short in Mississippi, low turnout in these areas could be an issue because you see him winning with 36 percent of the vote, but look how low the turnout is here, Wolf. I want to come back down to Hinds County, which is the bigger county, the critical county for Governor Romney.

BLITZER: Almost 9 percent of the population.

KING: Almost 9 percent. That's where the state capital is. Again, he has a very big lead, the biggest lead you'll find probably county by county. The question is, is that enough. It's 83 percent of the vote already, so he can't count on many more votes here. The question is, is that enough to offset --

BLITZER: Before you do the next, take a look. Let's go out to the full number, 72 percent of these -- of these votes is now in. But look at how close it is between Santorum and Newt Gingrich, 33 percent to 32 percent. They're not very far -- I mean 72 percent that's a significant percentage of the vote in Mississippi.

BLITZER: Right. And Governor Romney currently running third. So if he's to make this up, you've got a small population center here in the western part of the state, Washington County. We're waiting on that. And we've got Shannon Travis down here in Jackson County. We only have 35 percent of the vote here. It's a place where Romney is winning, but again, if turnout is low and the margin, is that enough? If he makes up the vote there, you move over here in Harrison County, he's winning but by a tiny amount there at 85 percent of the vote in.

So the question is, in the places he is winning, is there enough room to make up the math? It's a key question in Mississippi. If you move over to Alabama, 26 percent of the votes state-wide in right now. Romney again running third. Santorum, and again, if you look, this has just switched. This was for Romney earlier. It has now switched to Senator Santorum. Baldwin County --

BLITZER: That's only 4 percent of the vote.

KING: Only 4 percent of the vote, then you move over here to Mobile County, that's 9 percent of the vote. This is a critical area down along the Gulf Coast. If Governor Romney is to be competitive in Alabama.

But this is where -- Dana Bash is up here in Birmingham. I just want to touch Montgomery County first. Again, in the population center, in the suburbs around it, Romney tends to win, but the turnout is low. Is that enough to offset what's happening in the rural areas, is the big question. And this is where Dana Bash is, and I think she, Wolf, has some numbers. This is 15 percent of the state population. We have the numbers here. Romney ahead with 34 percent of this county in. I think Dana has numbers that go beyond that.

BLITZER: Well, let's go to Dana and see what she's got.

Dana, you got some more numbers over there?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And I'm actually going to show you the numbers as they are right now in one second. I just want to show you the activity that's going on to bring those numbers in. Again, we still have cars pulling up, one after the other, a steady stream with, again, the inmates who are from the local county jail helping them do this. And if you -- Stewart Clark wants to swing around here, this is the vault where the information is going.

But come with me back here, because I want to get to the screen where they're flashing the numbers for the entire county here of Jefferson County.

Now, John, you mentioned that this is very important because it's about 15 percent of the overall state of Alabama, comes from here in Jefferson County. Now before, when I went outside, it was about 41 percent of the county reporting. Now, I think it's about 44, 45 percent. So let's look at the hard numbers. The raw numbers, I should say, right now, and look, you still have Mitt Romney leading, 7,877. Rick Santorum is -- excuse me, Newt Gingrich is right behind, 6,691. And then Rick Santorum, 6,685.

I mean, wow, they could not be any closer. Looking at the percentages, Mitt Romney, 34.8 percent, Rick Santorum, 29.54 percent, and Newt Gingrich, 29.56 percent. So it is still very, very close, but at least right now, with -- at this point, nearly half of the machines coming in from here in Jefferson County, Mitt Romney still doing well.

And as you had mentioned, John and Wolf, both of you had mentioned that this particular county is very important to Mitt Romney because he does need to run the numbers up, especially in the outskirts of Jefferson County, it tends to be more affluent. Those are the kind of -- typical Romney voters that he needs to get out and get out big to do well in the state.

BLITZER: Yes, it's interesting, Dana, and I'm here with John, you know, earlier, Romney was ahead of Santorum by about 500 votes. But these new numbers that haven't been officially counted yet he's up by about 1200 votes in the Jefferson County in Alabama.

KING: And you look at it, it's a gain of about 2800 votes for Governor Romney, a little more than that in this county. It's a gain for both of these candidates as well. But not by as much. If you look at these new numbers came in, obviously some precincts that were very good for Governor Romney came in, the question then is, so if you assume this is just about 500 votes, 400 votes for Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum, so now let's beam up.

Remember this, Romney picked up -- well, their numbers now have updated, our numbers have just almost caught up, almost caught up with these numbers in the wall, so if you do that, let's just check out to go to state-wide, what happens, Romney has closed in a little bit but not enough.

In the state of Alabama, he seems to be far enough behind, although we're still at 28 percent. Now you see the numbers changing as we speak. Well, if we get to this point, we've been waiting and waiting for these states to fill in. You get to this point, they start to fill in pretty quickly. Again, Alabama is the tougher state for the Romney campaign if you ask them. Right now, he's winning where he would need to win to be competitive, in Huntsville, in Birmingham, in Montgomery. We still don't have anything from Mobile. That's the formula for Romney. Win in those areas.

But you see in the rural counties, it's a Gingrich/Santorum tradeoff in the most of them. And if you go to some of these rural counties, try to tell, (INAUDIBLE) and to do that, you go to some of these rural counties and pull out Senator Santorum with a healthy 12- point lead in these counties. But again turnout is low. In both of these states, you have relatively low turnout. So in a close three- way race, we need to be careful and we need to keep going, and the places that are out matter quite a bit. Just want to check --

BLITZER: It looks like Santorum, at least as of now, is in better shape in Alabama than he is here in Mississippi.

KING: In Alabama right now, he's got a five percentage point lead, but we're at only 28 percent of the vote state-wide so we need to be careful. You can jump especially with a major population center out completely down in Mobile. Let's just see again in Montgomery what we're getting. Seventy-one percent of the vote there, Romney is leading, but the question is that margin big enough? Where Dana just was, again it's about half the vote, a little less than half of the vote.

So there's a chance for the things to change here. It's only 28 percent of the vote in, here's what's getting interesting. We're at nearly 80 percent of the vote now in the state of Mississippi. And this is very close. Romney now running third. This is what they thought was their best shot tonight, Wolf, the state of Mississippi. He's running third with almost 80 percent of the vote counted. Now that's only about 5,000 votes. A little shy of 5,000 votes. So can he make it up? Yes, but as the map fills in, he better do it quickly.

BLITZER: It's going to be an extremely interesting hour coming up because a lot can still change. Twenty-one percent of the vote is still to be counted in some of the areas where perhaps Gingrich is doing well, Romney is doing well. We'll see what's going on. Much more of our coverage coming up at the top of the hour.