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U.S. Defense Secretary Visits Afghanistan; Republican Race Goes On

Aired March 14, 2012 - 18:00   ET


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

Tonight, as Rick Santorum looks to build on his dramatic Southern sweep, Mitt Romney's camp insists Santorum can only stall, not block Romney's path to victory.

Also, the defense secretary gets a firsthand look at the fragile Afghanistan mission just as we get word the army sergeant who allegedly gunned down 16 Afghan civilians was flown out of that country tonight.

Plus, President Obama says regime change in Syria is a question of when, not if. But President Assad isn't listening, pressing a crackdown on the south a day after seizing a key northern city from anti-government rebels.

First, some major international news tonight. A scary moment just as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived on an important visit to Afghanistan. An Afghan vehicle drove onto the runway area of a military base and then set it afire just as Panetta's plane was landing. It was another major security breach but Pentagon officials say no explosives were found in the vehicle and Secretary Panetta went on with his schedule, which includes a face-to-face promise to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a thorough investigation of the shooting rampage blamed for the deaths of 16 Afghan civilians this week.

Military officials confirm the suspected gunman, an Army staff sergeant, was flown out of Afghanistan tonight, heading for another detention facility in Kuwait, and that Afghan officials were alerted to this transfer beforehand.

This and other tensions have brought calls for a quicker withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. But at the White House today, after talks with the British prime minister, David Cameron, President Obama insisted progress is being made and insisted the timetable in place which would bring all troops home by the end of 2014 was the right one.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't anticipate at this stage that we're going to be making any sudden additional changes to the plan that we currently have.

We have already taken out 10,000 of our troops. We're slated to draw down an additional 23,000 by this summer.


KING: Let's head straight now to the Pentagon and our correspondent Chris Lawrence.

Chris, first let's deal with the transfer of the suspect here to Kuwait to Afghanistan. What do we know about that?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, I was told by a defense official just a couple hours ago that basically it was for two reasons, one, the legal advice of some of the advisers to General John Allen there in Afghanistan, and also because they felt they did not have anywhere adequate to detain this service member for any long length of time.

Remember, it's very likely that his legal proceedings will last well beyond his tour of duty. And at some point he'd probably be brought back to the United States.

KING: And help us out. How serious was this incident on the tarmac there in Afghanistan that led Secretary Panetta's plane once on the ground at least to be diverted?

LAWRENCE: It was an egregious breach of security. I mean, this was someone actually getting onto the runway.

And you had this incredible dichotomy because back here in Washington you had the image of the president and prime minister talking about this enduring partnership with the Afghans, as we were getting word that an Afghan had tried to drive this stolen vehicle onto the runway as the secretary of defense was arriving.

We're told the Afghan worked on this base at Camp Bastion, he stole this British vehicle, ran over a British soldier on the base and breached at least one layer of security before getting onto the runway and ending up in a ditch.

Some of the officials we spoke with say as he was getting out of the car, he was on fire, ran to another truck, and that's when the security folks were able to apprehend him, put out the fire, although he was burned over probably more than half of his body.

KING: Chris Lawrence live for us tonight on the breaking news at the Pentagon, Chris, thanks so much.

At that same White House event, both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron said their talks included potential military contingencies in Syria. President Obama said though he prefers what he calls a soft landing, a transition that did not involve a bloody military intervention or a civil war.


OBAMA: Assad will leave power. It's not a question of if, but when. And to prepare for that day, we'll continue to support plans for a transition to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.


KING: Saudi Arabia today became the latest country to close its Damascus embassy and remove all diplomats from Syria. But with Russia and China still blocking a stronger global response it's clear the Assad regime is unimpressed by what it hears from leaders like President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron.

CNN's Arwa Damon reports the day after retaking important ground in northern Syria, the regime now are targeting opposition strongholds in the South.


ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, according to activists more than half of the casualties on this day happening in the province of Idlib, where it seems the Syrian military is now focusing its efforts.

The Free Syrian Army and the opposition enjoyed a certain degree of freedom in this province, especially in the provincial capital of Idlib. There were then four days of fierce fighting. Now the Free Syrian Army saying it was forced to withdraw.

They were also forced to withdraw from the town of Binish that activists are saying is repeatedly being shelled by government tanks because they say they were concerned for the population there and also quite simply because they do not have the ammunition, the weapons that they need to actually adequately fight back.

Avaaz, a global activist network, is reporting based on what it says are eyewitness accounts that there are also a number of instances where women, even children were being raped, massacred as they were trying to flee. And activists and residents of the Idlib province had been warning of this for quite some time now, saying that they believe that the government, once it got done cleaning out Homs, the restive city of Homs, it was then going to set its sights on Idlib province.

Now they're warning that government forces are advancing on a number of towns right along the Turkish border, John.


KING: Arwa Damon reporting from Beirut on the troubling situation in Syria.

Turning now to presidential politics and a moment of opportunity for Rick Santorum after his impressive sweep of two big Southern presidential primaries, Mississippi and Alabama. Today, the former Pennsylvania senator is in Puerto Rico, trying to stun Mitt Romney in a place where the former Massachusetts governor is the overwhelming favorite.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We had a pretty good night last night.


SANTORUM: We're very excited. And I can't think of a better way to celebrate than hopping on a plane and coming to Puerto Rico.


KING: Governor Romney is off the trail today raising some money. But his top strategists telling reporters they see no viable path for Santorum to block Romney from ultimately winning enough delegates to clinch the nomination.

Let's put that to the test.

Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here.

And you listen to this narrative, the Romney people coming out and saying he can't win. He can't win. I want you to listen here. A lot of people are criticizing Governor Romney's message, saying all he's said in the past week is I can't lose. I can't lose. I have the delegates. Saying he needs to have a tougher message, a more direct message on the economy.

He didn't do any campaign events, but he did do an interview with FOX News today. Listen here.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Some who are very conservative may not be yet in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee, when I face Barack Obama, because again, what the nation wants is someone who understands the economy, not an, if you will, an economic lightweight. I mean, Senator Santorum is a nice guy, but he does not understand how the economy works.


KING: Is that the new message, he's a lightweight, I'm not?


I think he did a tele-town hall this afternoon and he was also talking about his business experience. Now, there's been a lot of conversations within the campaign about, how do you reposition Mitt Romney? Because the message of math, you know, be for me, I'm ahead, just doesn't really work.

So they're saying, OK, what should Mitt Romney do? He needs to get back to talking about his economic message, to differentiate himself with Rick Santorum, show that he is in fact the business heavyweight. But the question really is, is that going to inspire the passion among the base?

Because those are the people he's really not getting to be with him. And to be fair to the Santorum campaign, they're not saying they can get enough delegates. They're just saying that they can stop Mitt Romney from getting enough delegates.

KING: But in the case of Romney, though, is it the candidate or the campaign in the sense that the candidate speaks for the campaign?

I was at 2:00 this morning e-mailing back and forth with a Romney adviser after we got off the air. He said this, a senior strategist. "We have lapsed into process." That's the math talk you're talking about. "This past week, Rick pounded us in earned media," meaning television interviews and the like, "and we essentially left him alone. We will need to engage."

Engage with Santorum, engage with the passion? I think that's what we haven't seen from Governor Romney on a consistent basis. Sometimes he does it and then he fades.

BORGER: Here's what's interesting. In talking to somebody who is an ally of Mitt Romney's, he made this point to me, which is that it's ironic, but Mitt Romney's just uncomfortable.

And he may be more comfortable running in a general election than he is in a Republican primary process, because he's so afraid of making a mistake because he knows that the base is so skeptical about him. He knows evangelical voters are skeptical about him. He knows Tea Partiers are skeptical about him.

So, as a result, he boxes himself in as a candidate. And he looks as uncomfortable as he really is.

KING: Well, he's in a bit of a box at the moment, even though he has that big mathematical lead. We will see how it plays...


BORGER: He does, but he needs to have an emotional lead at some point, right?

KING: I think that's exactly right.

The Santorum campaign is pushing the narrative Romney can't win the nomination and would struggle in the general election. But what about the math and the message for Senator Santorum?

John Brabender is a senior adviser to the Santorum campaign and he joins us from Washington.

John, first, congratulations on last night.

But it's pretty clear now that the Romney campaign gets it, that he's going to be a bit more aggressive. You just heard a little bit there. He called your candidate a lightweight.

Listen to this, too. This is another interview with FOX News where he tries to draw what I will call a sharper contrast with Senator Santorum. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I find it interesting that he continues to describe himself as the real conservative. This is the guy who voted against right-to-work. This is the guy that voted to fund Planned Parenthood. This is the person who voted to raise the debt ceiling five times without any compensating cuts.

NEIL CAVUTO, FOX NEWS: So, is that your way of saying you wouldn't -- you wouldn't put Rick Santorum on your ticket?

ROMNEY: It's my way of saying -- it's my way of saying that Rick Santorum is not a person who is an economic conservative to my right.


KING: If you have got the two-man race you have been looking for, is this what we're going to hear for the next week or two?


Let's put this in perspective. While Mitt Romney was writing personal checks funding Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the country, Rick Santorum was writing the law that ended partial-birth abortions forever.

While Mitt Romney was giving us big government mandated health care, Romneycare, which became Obamacare, a new entitlement, if you will, Rick Santorum was the one who got rid of welfare and put a welfare to work program in place.

You go right down the line. While Rick Santorum was fighting the bailouts, Romney came out for them, which gave birth to the Tea Party. So Gloria said something very interesting. I think she's right. Mitt Romney seems uncomfortable in a Republican primary. And the problem is his core values don't have anything in common with Republican primary-goers.

KING: Let me ask you this. I want to ask you something about something your candidate said in Puerto Rico. He went down to Puerto Rico spending two days there. If you could stun Mitt Romney in Puerto Rico, that would begin to change this narrative and the math that says, sure, you're having some good nights, but you can't catch Governor Romney.

But he said this in an interview with the newspaper down there "El Vocero." He said -- this is if Puerto Rico wants to get statehood -- Senator said this -- "Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law, and that is English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language such as Hawaii, but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language."

Based on what? That's not in the Constitution. Congress hasn't passed any law saying English must be an official language. Did the senator just misspeak or is that his personal opinion?

BRABENDER: No. He's said all along though that English needs to be the official language of this country.

That's something that he supports very much. Another interesting thing, though, as you mentioned he is down in Puerto Rico today looking and talking to people for votes. I notice that Governor Romney I think he's in New York tonight for a big fund-raiser with the former head of AIG and Goldman Sachs, the same people that he supported the bailouts and now he's trying to get money from them.

This is the contrast the American people keep seeing, a blue- collar, conservative like Rick Santorum and somebody who's there with the Wall Street buddies. And that's why in states like Kansas, where there's a lot of conservatives, Rick Santorum got more votes than Romney, Gingrich and Paul combined.

It's why I think he shocked the world in Mississippi and Alabama last night. There's an appetite for Republicans to unify behind a conservative candidate to be our representative, and people understand that's our best way to beat Obama.

KING: And answer your friends in the Republican Party and some of them are your close friends, John -- you have worked with them in past campaigns -- who are nervous about your candidate being the nominee. They say his views on some of these social issues would hurt Republicans with moderate women in the suburbs. And they cite polls -- and I will show you the most recent one from Bloomberg -- Obama vs. Romney is a 47-47 dead heat. Obama vs. Santorum is Obama at 50, Santorum at 44.

They say Governor Romney is a more competitive general election candidate. And they make this case, and I want to give you a chance to rebut them, that if Santorum were at the top of the ticket, House candidates would suffer, Senate candidates would suffer, maybe gubernatorial candidates would suffer.

BRABENDER: Well, I think there's two ways to look at it.

First of all, if Romney becomes our nominee, what we're taking of the table number one is Obamacare, because it's Romneycare. So we take that issue off. We take the bailouts off.

Second of all, Rick Santorum has extensive foreign policy experience. Romney has none. So we take that off the issue. The third thing that was interesting, if you look at the exit polls yesterday, Rick Santorum actually I believe did better among women voters than Mitt Romney did.

The truth of the matter is, for conservatives and the Republican Party to win, we need to unify Tea Party and conservatives. If we stick to our core principals, we will gain seats and we will beat Barack Obama.

KING: Interesting stretch ahead. John Brabender, appreciate your help tonight. We will keep in touch as we move from Puerto Rico to Illinois and beyond, a little roller-coaster ride still to come, I think.

BRABENDER: Thank you very much for having me. Appreciate it.

KING: You're welcome, John. Thank you.

And we have a lot more politics ahead here. The former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, he's also a former Pennsylvania governor. He joins us to explains why he's supporting Romney, instead of his home state senator, Rick Santorum.

Later, our Fareed Zakaria says President Obama is boxing himself in by talking tough about Iran and its nuclear program.


KING: New poll out today in Pennsylvania shows Rick Santorum leading in his home state by double digits. But you might say Governor Romney is calling in some reinforcements, picking up an endorsement today from the former Pennsylvania governor and the former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Secretary Ridge joins us now from Washington.

You were a Jon Huntsman supporter, and now you're supporting Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum was a senator when you were governor. What's wrong with Rick Santorum?

TOM RIDGE, FORMER U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY CHIEF: Well, it's not what's wrong with Rick. It's what's right with Mitt.

I think last week was kind of interesting, John. I think both men had pretty good weeks, but I think Mitt ended up having the better week. But frankly my advocacy for Mitt Romney has what I believe everything to do with having led a private sector, demonstrated his leadership in the government sector and leadership at the Olympics.

I know all four candidates left in the race. I just prefer Mitt Romney to the other three.

KING: I want to ask you a question. You navigated your state. You won a House district. I covered you back then in a Democratic district. Then you became governor in a Democratic state. Democrats haven't carried Pennsylvania -- I mean Republicans haven't carried Pennsylvania in presidential politics for a very long time, as you well know.

There are a lot of people making the argument now the longer this race goes, that Governor Romney is being pulled to the right by candidates like Senator Santorum. I want you to listen here. This is Governor Romney giving an interview yesterday to a local station in which he talks about killing Planned Parenthood. We know he meant ending federal funding for it. But listen and then we will talk on the other side. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: My test is pretty simple. Is the program so critical, it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? On that basis, of course you get rid of Obamacare. That's the easy one. But there are others. Planned Parenthood, we're going to rid of that.


KING: There are female Democrats in Congress and in local government all around the country, especially in swing states, putting out statements today slamming Governor Romney on this.

Do you think the longer this race goes on the less competitive Governor Romney if he is the nominee will be in a general election?

RIDGE: No, John, I don't.

I think frankly the really competitive nature of the campaign has frankly helped him sharpen the message. And I think all candidates, all four men remaining in the race would admit if you have single- issue voters out there who are prepared to vote for a president on one issue, then they all fall by the wayside.

But I think at the end of the day in Pennsylvania particularly, you have a lot of independent-thinking Democrats. And obviously the Republicans are going to unify behind Mitt once he gets the nomination in order to defeat President Obama. So I'm not worried about that at all.

KING: You have a lot of friends in the party, sir. You served in the Bush administration. You were a big state governor. You know the mumbling, some of it's public, a lot of it's private.

A lot of people who like Governor Romney, who support Governor Romney say he's not quite getting there as a candidate, not connecting with blue-collar voters, not showing empathy. What's wrong with the Romney message? What would your advice be to your friend?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, I think he needs to stay on the message.

I think, at the end of the day, the message that I think is most appealing across the board -- and perhaps he needs to raise the decibel level and get into a little more specifics -- is that presidency requires a decision-maker, a decisive person, someone who's led from the front.

He led in the private sector. He led a state. He led the Olympics. And I think that message of leadership, a decision-maker, someone who's prepared to take the tough decisions, not that I'm even going to agree with him from time to time, but somebody who's demonstrated the capacity to understand and then lead through tough decisions, against a president who frankly I think who has kicked the can down the road, a president who said we need to do something with the deficit, but then he dissed his own deficit reduction committee, who said we need an energy policy, but he pushed the decision on the TransCanada pipeline down the road.

So, John, at the end of the day, I think Mitt's with the right message, need to embellish it a little bit, but it is about leadership, it's about decision-making, not about speech-giving.

KING: At the end of an interview and this conversation, on a scale of one to 10, one being no, 10 being yes, how likely is it that Mitt Romney can come back and beat Senator Santorum in his home state?

RIDGE: Well, I give it better than a 50-50 chance. Look, Rick is popular among the Republican primary voters. So is Mitt. At the end of the day, they're a pretty sophisticated group of voters. I know them very well. They treated me well. I'm 8-0.

They want somebody that can win the general election. Mitt Romney, of the two, will win the general election.

KING: You said better than 50 percent, so I will call that a 5- plus, I guess.

Mr. Secretary, it's good to see you. We will be in touch in the days ahead.

RIDGE: Thanks.

KING: Still ahead here: glowing praise for President Obama from a conservative. In this case, it's Britain's conservative prime minister. In a little bit, we will have more on their partnership and their pledges to work together on Afghanistan and more.

Next, Encyclopedia Britain moves exclusively into the digital age. That means no more heavy volumes put on the bookshelf.


KING: Welcome back.


KING: President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron go from cracking basketball jokes to deadly serious conversations about Afghanistan.

And, tonight, our Fareed Zakaria says the president is running out of diplomatic solutions in Iran.


KING: This half hour President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron say they're sticking to the plan in Afghanistan. Our Fareed Zakaria tells us why he thinks that's a good idea.

But Romney's third place finishes in Mississippi and Alabama show the GOP presidential race is far from over. We're talking truth about what it will take to win.

An American flag featuring President Obama's face. Why veterans in Florida fought to take it down.

Just about 30 minutes, President Obama hosts the British Prime Minister David Cameron at a state dinner at the White House. But pomp and pageantry aside, very serious business to tend to. The massacre in Syria, Iran's nuclear capabilities, and of course the future of the mission in Afghanistan. Both leaders say they'll stick to the plan in the war zone.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today the prime minister and I reaffirmed the transition plan that we agreed to with our coalition partners. We're going to complete this mission. And we're going to do it responsibly. And NATO will maintain an enduring commitment stop that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for al Qaeda to attack our countries.


KING: CNN chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is with us live from the White House tonight.

Jessica, what else did we learn today besides the words of resolve from the prime minister and the president about our future in Afghanistan?


Today the president said that the U.S. and its allies will shift in 2013 from a combat role in Afghanistan to a training and assist mission there. This is the first time the president has set a time for the shift in mission. It's something the secretary of defense had said a few weeks ago, but he seemed to get ahead of his boss on this one.

The prime minister and the president will meet again when there's a NATO summit in Chicago. That happens in May. And the president said today that more details of this shift will be worked out in coordination with NATO allies, so stay tuned. We'll hear more details when that meeting happens. That's this -- that's this May in Chicago, John.

KING: Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Jess, thanks.

Let's get some perspective of the day's major global news from my colleague Fareed Zakaria, the host, of course, of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS."

Fareed, the president, with the prime minister of Great Britain standing by his side, says despite the recent violence, the recent horrors in Afghanistan he sees no reason to accelerate the withdrawal timetable for U.S. and other troops. Do you think that's the final answer?

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: I believe that's probably the final answer. This will blow over, I think, particularly this last event.

The Quran burning was seen as a kind of U.S. policy decision, which in fact, provoked much greater reaction among Afghans. This one is seen as a one-off. This was clearly not a case where any senior commander was ordering this to happen. This was unfortunately a single very troubled individual.

I also think that it would send a sign of weakness. So it's very unlikely that, under this kind of pressure, they would accelerate the withdrawal.

KING: Let's shift our focus to Iran. Another big subject between these two leaders. President Obama making clear that he wants Iran to come back to the table, but also making clear that Iran better come back to negotiate, not to stall this time. Let's listen.


OBAMA: Because we have employed so many of the options that are available to us to persuade Iran to take a different course, that the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking.


KING: Pretty candid assessment there. We have sanctions in placement, and there's not much else more the world could do, right?

ZAKARIA: It's true. And I think that President Obama was reflecting maybe a slight frustration when he talked about the window closing. Because he has boxed himself in. He has ruled out containment. He says, you know, "My policy is not containment. I don't bluff."

He's talked about the Iran problem in a way that was meant to satisfy some of the hawks on the right here, particularly on the campaign trail, the Republican candidates. Certainly the Israeli government and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

But the result is he's boxed himself in. Either Iran comes back to the negotiating table and negotiates what appears to me essentially a surrender, or he has not left himself with many options.

KING: What struck me today is you have the prime minister of Great Britain from the Conservative Party, one would think more in tune with the Republicans. Listen here to this defense of President Obama.


DAVID CAMERA, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: The president's tough, reasonable approach has united the world behind unprecedented sanctions pressure on Iran. And Britain has played a leading role in helping to deliver an E.U.-wide oil embargo. Alongside the financial sanctions being led by America, this embargo is dramatically increasing the pressure on the regime.


KING: If there's supposed to be a natural kinship between the conservative prime minister and the Republican Party, the Republicans aren't happy today.

ZAKARIA: No. And David Cameron was reflecting the reality, which is that the president's policy on Iran has been very tough. It's also been very effective because it's been multilateral. Because we don't have any trade with Iran. So the only way you can choke them off is to get other countries -- is to get other countries, particularly Iran's neighbors, to enforce sanctions. And that only happens if they are U.N. sanctions, and they're multilateral.

KING: Let's close. You just finished working on an important special. The global lessons, the GPS road map to saving healthcare. Let's use the president's guest today as an example, the prime minister of Great Britain.

Is there anything, and this has come up in our domestic politics in the past but let me ask the question, anyway. Is there anything the United States can learn from the more government-run system in Great Britain?

ZAKARIA: Gosh, you know what I discovered, John, is that we can learn something from almost every country. Taiwan, which is this free market haven, was adopting a new health-care system in the 1990s. And they studied all the world systems. I asked one of their experts what did you learn from the United States? He said, "We learned how not to do it from the United States."

All these other systems delivered better health care at significantly lower costs than we do. And so the British is the most extreme. That really is a kind of socialized medicine.

But the administrative costs of the national health service are 5 percent. The administrative costs of private insurers in America is 20 to 30 percent. You can look at anywhere in the world; you'll find that they in some important way or the other, they do it better than we do.

KING: Fareed Zakaria, as always, thank you.

ZAKARIA: A pleasure.

KING: And Fareed's special, "Global Lessons: The GPS Road Map for Saving Health Care," is Sunday night, 8 p.m. Eastern.

Coming up the truth about math and message. Who can and who can't really win the GOP nomination? We'll crunch the numbers next.


KING: Rick Santorum says conservatives are sending Mitt Romney a message. They don't want him as their standard bearer.

Mitt Romney says the numbers, these numbers here, don't lie. He says he has a substantial lead in the delegate chase, and he said it's too great for Senator Santorum or anyone else to overcome. Well, here's tonight's "Truth."

With a straight face, both can say they are right. Yet eventually, one of them has to be wrong. Eventually.

Romney's advantage is indisputable. Let's just look at today right here. He's just shy of 500, well ahead of everybody else. You could add everybody else up, and they don't get there.

If Newt Gingrich stays in the race, picking up delegates, even with third-place finishes, even scenarios that give Santorum the benefit of the doubt, just about every turn still leads you to Romney as the nominee.

Watch this. I'm going to go through the rest of the states. I won't bore you with every state in particular but I'm going to go all the way ahead to the end of the process.

Look what we've given Santorum. We've given him Kentucky, West Virginia. We give him North Carolina, Indiana, Wisconsin. Even if he won all of those states, with Gingrich in the race getting some delegates, Romney coming in second or coming in third and getting some delegates, look what happens. Romney still clinches the nomination. Still clinches the nomination. Maybe. Maybe if Santorum could take away California, Romney still clinches the nomination. Santorum would also have to win some place like New Jersey to deny him. Even then Romney would have a big lead. That's one scenario.

Even if you take Gingrich out on the theory that maybe he exits the race, say after a Santorum victory in Louisiana. The proportional delegate rules in most states suggest again, even being extraordinarily generous to Senator Santorum, that Romney will be difficult to beat.

Let me show you that scenario. We'll change the map a little bit. First, we'll go back to where we are today. Going to give you a scenario. Even if you take Speaker Gingrich out, and then let's just say again Santorum wins Wisconsin, he wins Indiana -- we'll switch that one. Let's say he wins West Virginia; we'll switch that one. He wins Kentucky; we'll switch that one. And he wins North Carolina; we'll switch that one.

Being very generous to Senator Santorum, Romney still wins. This is with Gingrich out of the race and Romney and Santorum essentially splitting the delegates, depending on whether they come in first or second.

So again Santorum would somehow have to win California. Even if he did that, Romney would win with Gingrich out of the race.

So notice I said, though, extremely difficult. It's not impossible. Because all of these scenarios are based on estimates. And yes, in some ways informed guesstimates of how things will turn out down the road.

Want to be clear. Our team that works on this stuff is cautious, meticulous. I would say they're the best in the business.

When I got done here last night, I nodded off again back at the hotel, a couple hours after our coverage ended, looking again at the polling data and the delegates rules, because we try to get this right, and trading e-mails with Republicans in states yet to come.

But even our best research and best reporting can't always factor in the biggest variable in all this. That would be the voters. And you surprise us sometimes. Often, this year, in fact.

Who would have thought, for example, the Puerto Rico primary would matter? But it does. To change this math, Senator Santorum needs to start beating Romney, and because of the delegate rules beating him by big margins on Romney's home turf. Puerto Rico would be a start. Illinois next Tuesday would be a statement.

Yes, the map and the math still favor Governor Romney. But "Truth" is, anyone who tells you it is over for sure is too far out ahead of the people who actually get to decide that: Republican voters.

Joining us now to talk truth from Nashville, senior adviser for the Gingrich super PAC, Rick Tyler; Romney advisor Bay Buchanan in Washington tonight; and here in Atlanta, Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Rick Tyler, I want to go to you first. You're a long-time friend of Newt Gingrich. You know the pressure from conservatives. I understand the speaker's pride. I understand also he can see a path to come back. What happens if Romney or Santorum wins Puerto Rico, Romney or Santorum wins Illinois, and then, say, Santorum wins Louisiana? Would the speaker think again then?

RICK TYLER, SENIOR ADVISOR, GINGRICH SUPER PAC: I think you have to go back to what Newt said in the very beginning. If he could -- if there were someone in this race who could actually beat Barack Obama and these two, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, cannot, and could actually change Washington. Neither one of them has a record of reform, real reform change like the speaker does, then he would -- he would have endorsed them. And if one of these two were the guy he would step aside and endorse them. I absolutely believe that. But they aren't. So he's going to stay in.

And while everybody admires CNN's ability for election coverage, and I certainly do, I think it is equally difficult for Romney to actually get the requisite number of delegates by Tampa. My estimation is all the candidates alive in Tampa with somewhat equal footing. That is none of them will have the requisite 1,144. And on a second ballot, I don't think they would go for Mitt Romney. In that scenario, I give even money to Speaker Gingrich.

KING: Ralph Reed, you're a veteran. You're a veteran of this rodeo. So I want to ask you, and I understand his loyalty to Speaker Gingrich. I admire it. I think everybody in this process should be loyal to their guy. But if you're where you are right now and you're Speaker Gingrich and you're a distant third, I'm having a hard time with Rick's math. How do we get to Tampa unless Speaker Gingrich suddenly turns the world up on its head and they're all roughly equal with Governor Romney?

RALPH REED, FAITH AND FREEDOM COALITION: Well, look, Newt's a very smart guy. He obviously knows that it's uphill. But I think it's extremely difficult to tell somebody whose congressional career began running a congressional campaign in 1964 in middle Georgia, and who's been one of the most significant figures in the party in the last 30 years, helped usher in the first Republican majority in the House in 40 years, that he ought to go sit in the corner and shut up.

And so I think if you really look at the way this is being handled, John, both Santorum and Romney, and I would suggest even party elders, have to proceed with real delicacy. Because if you -- if you tell somebody they ought to get out of the race, sometimes it can have the opposite of the intended effect.

KING: I understand the delicacy. I understand the delicacy, Ralph. But you do the math. Can you see a plausible path to -- not a Gingrich nomination but to Gingrich getting so close to Governor Romney he could show up in Tampa and say, "Me not him"?

REED: Well, look. I'm in the business of encouraging people to run for office, not in the business of telling people not to run.

The reality is this. If you boil down what you did at the map, John, there are 1,358 delegates yet to be chosen. Romney needs 694 of those, which is about 48 percent. He's on track to do that. The dynamic would have to change, probably, to deny him the nomination.

KING: Bay, as someone who's loyal to the Romney campaign, would you prefer Speaker Gingrich stay in? Governor Romney does better in the three-way scenario, right?

BAY BUCHANAN, ROMNEY ADVISOR: I think it's terrific that Speaker Gingrich stay in and see if he can't go right into that convention and try to represent his constituents there. Yes. I think there's no -- no need for him to pop out of this race.

KING: You say no need to pop out of the race. But what about your candidate? He just -- he came close, but he was third in two southern states. Only a few points behind. Doesn't he have to prove himself in the geographical base of the Republican Party?

BUCHANAN: No. Listen. There's no question that last night Santorum got some bragging rights, did well down there in Mississippi and Alabama.

But the key here is that Mitt Romney won the day. He won that evening last night. He won more delegates than anyone else, same as he did last weekend. Same as he did Super Tuesday. And he will continue to do this. That's how he's going to win this nomination. Each week go by, he increases his -- the gap between him and these other candidates. Today he has more delegates than all the others put together.

So we are on track, and as Ralph Reed pointed out, to win this thing. We're going to do well, we think, in picking up delegates this weekend. And then again next Tuesday, we'll pick up more.

I mean, Rick Santorum, there's several delegates in Illinois next Tuesday, Rick Santorum wasn't able to come up with a delegate slate. How can he expect to turn things around, win almost 70 percent of the delegates so that he can win this thing, if he can't even get delegate slates in key places?

So that's where we are. We are really strong -- there's no question Mitt Romney is going to be the nominee of this party.

KING: Some people do have a question. I'm going to ask everybody to stay put. We're going to continue the conversation on the other side of the break.

Also ahead, veterans in Florida are outraged over a flag with President Obama's face on it. Hear how they got it taken down.

And I bet this little girl knows how to spell "ambitious." She's only 6, off to the national spelling bee.





KING: Let's continue our conversation about the road ahead in the Republican presidential race. We're joined by Rick Tyler. He's the senior adviser to the pro-Gingrich super PAC. Bay Buchanan is a Romney supporter. Ralph Reed leads the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Rick, I want to go back to you first, because this pro-Gingrich super PAC that you help run has been instrumental in keeping the speaker in the case. So Sheldon Adelson, a casino owner out in Vegas has been a big donor. Are you having any trouble? Is the money still coming in when you look at this now, and Speaker Gingrich's own campaign and saying he's going to win from South Carolina all the way over to Texas. He loses Mississippi and Alabama. Isn't the money going to dry up?

TYLER: I think the money will be a challenge, but I don't think this is about money, and I don't think it's about buying the Republican nomination. I think this is about the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

Our team is a very small team. All of us have been loyal to Gingrich. We've steadfastly kept the professionals out, even when we had money because we wanted to keep Speaker Gingrich's interests at heart. So the decision is really up to him, and we'll be there as long as he's going to fight on. I believe, as I say, that he'll arrive in Tampa on equal footing in the sense that he will not have the requisite number of delegates, and neither will Mitt Romney, and neither will Rick Santorum. So in a second ballot scenario, in a brokered convention, which I actually think would be good for the Republican Party at this time, I think I'd give Newt even money to win that -- to win that contest.

KING: Ralph, you say you're not in the business of telling people to get out of the race. You're in the business of helping them get in.

REED: Right.

KING: But you're also pretty plugged into people around the country, at the grass-roots level and at the establishment level. And I know the grassroots doesn't often trust the establishment. What are the conversations today about this race going forward?

I'm going to get to Bay in a minute. I know there's a lot of criticism of Governor Romney's message, that if he wants to close the deal, he needs a stronger economic message. But what are the conversations about Speaker Gingrich today?

REED: I mean, you know, John, really not that much different than the one we're having tonight. I mean, I think a lot of grass- roots conservatives and a lot of evangelicals -- and by the way, John, if you take the 16 contests for which we have entrance or exit polls, from New Hampshire and Iowa all the way across the south, as you head towards the Rio Grande, 50 percent of all the voters who have darkened the threshold of the voting booth in these primaries has been a self- identified evangelical. And Romney's only getting about a quarter of those votes.

So the problem here is not Newt or Rick or, before that, Herman or Perry. The issue is, is that Romney's got a deal to close. He's got to be able to convincingly, cogently and persuasively make a case to the grassroots of this party that, if he becomes president, he's going to advance their public policy views, and he's going to fight for their values. And it isn't an opponent that's causing the issue.

He's got a job left to do. I think he and his campaign know that. And that's why I think this process has been so healthy.

KING: And so Bay, how is he failing to do that? What does he need to do differently?

BUCHANAN: I don't think he has to do anything differently, John. He's winning. That's the key.

If you look at those people most concerned in our party about the economy, Mitt Romney wins overwhelmingly. What's the general election going to be about? People concerned about the economy.

When you look at people who -- they want to see Obama beat, thrown out of office, Mitt Romney wins overwhelmingly. He's clean-sweeped the popular vote here. Over a million more votes than Rick Santorum. He's winning in the delegates. He's won most of the states. He closed the deal in Florida, in Ohio, in Arizona, in Michigan. The big states, swing states, and Virginia. Mitt Romney is overwhelmingly the front-runner here.

And for us to suggest suddenly we've got to change our message is ridiculous. If you want to talk evangelical, there's no question that's Rick Santorum's strong suit. No question about it. But what else has he got going for him? Not much.

KING: All right. I'm going to end this conversation tonight. But it will continue in the days and weeks and contests ahead. Rick Tyler, Bay Buchanan, Ralph Reed, appreciate your help tonight. We'll stay in touch as the roller coaster continues.

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

BOLDUAN: Hey, there, John.

Good evening again, everyone.

A jury says Virginia Tech was negligent for waiting to warn students about the gunman in the 2007 campus massacre. A total of 33 people died that day. And after the first victims were shot, the school waited more than two hours to send out a campus-wide alert.

And the Washington Monument may be two millimeters shorter than it was last summer. Federal surveyors say it might have sunk after last August's earthquake. And we are, of course, talking about a dip the size of about two dimes stacked on top of each other. Seems insignificant on a 555-foot obelisk, but the monument's been closed for months as surveyors look for quake damage.

And a 6-year-old Virginia girl is headed to the national spelling bee. Lori Anne Madison is the youngest student ever to qualify.



MADISON: Vaquero, V-A-Q-U-E-R-O.


BOLDUAN: Lori correctly spelled, a Spanish translation of cowboy, to earn a spot in the national contest. The annual Scripps spelling bee kicks off in May right here in Washington.

I will never forget, John, the one and only spelling bee I entered and lost in the first round. You'll never forget how to spell that word.

KING: I hope she cowboys up in that. Let's get quickly to our "Moment You Missed." The American flag isn't quite the "Star-Spangled Banner." The stars have been replaced with a picture of the president. This was outside a Lake County Democratic headquarters in Florida until yesterday when a group of veterans said take it down.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any American citizen should be sick to see something like this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't describe how upset I was. Because you just don't do that to the American flag. If you've been a veteran and fought and some died for this, for this flag, you don't want to see it...


KING: Veterans won their argument. The flag is down.

Well, see you tomorrow. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.