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JOHN KING, USA

Vice President Biden on the Attack; Interview With Michigan Senator Carl Levin

Aired March 15, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm John King.

Tonight: Afghanistan's president says relations are damaged, that it's time, he says, for U.S. troops to leave Afghan villages. We will ask the Senate's top man on military matters whether that undermines the mission.

Also, Vice President Biden names names, directly attacking Republican candidates, as team Obama shifts to a much more aggressive reelection strategy.

And President Obama's gas price politics amnesia. As he mocks Republicans for their gas pump photo-ops, we will take you back to a time when he looked more kindly on such stunts.

We begin with an important story just into CNN. The still unidentified U.S. soldier blamed for this week's deadly massacre in Afghanistan now has a high-powered lawyer, the prominent Seattle attorney John Henry Browne, who once represented serial killer Ted Bundy.

Browne spoke with CNN's Casey Wian just a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN HENRY BROWNE, ATTORNEY: It's a tragedy all the way around. There's no question about that. I think it's of interest that we have a soldier who has an exemplary record, decorated soldier who was injured in Iraq to his brain and to his body, and then despite that was sent back.

I think that's an issue. I think it's a concern. I think the message for the public in general is that he's one of our boys and we need to treat him fairly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Casey Wian joins us now from Pierce County, Washington.

Casey, listening to the attorney there, he didn't say my client didn't do it. He seemed to say his defense would be this soldier never, because of his injuries in Iraq in 2010, should have been sent back to the battlefield.

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he did not say that definitively, John, but he certainly indicated that that was one avenue that they would be going to be -- they were going to be exploring.

Of course, there have been many concerns, many reports in recent days about the base out here near Tacoma, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and allegations that perhaps troops were sent back into the battlefield earlier than they should be. Perhaps concerns about PTSD were not being fully addressed.

So clearly this attorney is planning to address those issues and see if that is one avenue for a possible defense. Other information that we were able to gather from him, he spoke with the soldier this morning, very early this morning. He said the soldier who he would not identify by name for us was very quiet and asked his attorney to send his love to his family, his wife and children.

That brought up another interesting issue, John, because there has been speculation and there have been reports that there were marital issues and that that was maybe one possibility of why this soldier may have done what he did.

And John Henry Browne, his attorney, said that that is absolute hogwash in his words. There were no marital issues here and that he continues have a very close relationship with his family, also says it's one of the reasons that the soldier has not been named and a concern he shares is for the safety of the family. They have been moved onto the base here near Tacoma for their own protection, John.

KING: Very important reporting from our Casey Wian.

Casey, thanks so much. We will stay in touch as this story develops.

In a related development today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai calls for a drastic pullback of U.S. troops. Still angry about Sunday's massacre, 16 civilians killed in that shooting spree, Karzai told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta U.S. forces should leave their outposts in Afghan villages and return to their main bases.

He also wants Afghan forces to take over the country's security in 2013. That's a year earlier than planned right now.

After the meeting, Panetta emphasized there's no change in U.S. strategy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEON PANETTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I think everyone also agreed that we need to stick to the strategy that we have laid out for the future. The campaign, as I have pointed out before, I think has made significant progress. All of the leaders agree.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Another important related development to this story tonight, new worries tonight anger over the massacre in Afghanistan could spark a terror attack here in the United States.

A new security bulletin says the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are concerned that this event could contribute to the radicalization or mobilization of homegrown violent extremists in the homeland, particularly against U.S.-based military targets.

Important developments in politics today as well. Both Senator Rick Santorum and the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney are focusing on Puerto Rico, upcoming primary this weekend in Puerto Rico. Today the Romney campaign picked a fight with Senator Santorum by coming out against the former senator's contention that Puerto Ricans will have to make English their official language in order to be granted statehood.

In San Juan today, Santorum defended that position.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What I said was English has to be learned as a language. And this has to be a country where English is widely spoken and used, yes.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Should it be a requirement for this territory to become a state?

SANTORUM: I think English and Spanish -- obviously Spanish is going to be spoken here in the island, but this needs to be a bilingual country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN national political correspondent Jim Acosta has more from San Juan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: John, Rick Santorum created this controversy all on his own when he told a Puerto Rican newspaper that he thinks it should be a requirement for Puerto Rico to adopt English as a main language as a condition for statehood.

This is a big issue on the island because Puerto Ricans may be going to the polls this fall to decide whether or not they would like to become a U.S. state. The reaction to Santorum's comments were almost instant. One of his delegates announced that he was withdrawing his support for the former Pennsylvania senator in light of these comments.

But when we had a chance to catch up with Rick Santorum earlier today he did not back down from these comments, although he did say he would like to see English and Spanish be the main languages for this island. But the Romney campaign is already drawing a distinction on this. Mitt Romney released a statement saying that he would not insist on Puerto Rico adopting English as a condition for statehood.

He's going to be here on the island over the next couple of days campaigning for the 20 delegates that are up for grabs on Sunday. It just goes to show you, once again, that not only does every state matter in this race for the GOP nomination, but every territory does as well -- John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Jim Acosta in San Juan.

Now some more politics back here on the mainland, a sharper, higher-profile campaign mode for both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Tonight, the Obama reelection campaign premieres a new 17-minute video pointing to what his people see, the Obama team, as the big accomplishments of the president's first term.

And today in the vital swing state of Ohio, Vice President Biden went after the top Republican contenders by name.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The economic theories of Gingrich, Santorum and Romney, they are bankrupt.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: If you give any one of these guys the keys to the White House, they will bankrupt the middle class again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's check in with our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

Jess, why name names now?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I have talked to multiple senior Democratic sources on this one, John. The answer's pretty simple. They thought that there would be a Republican nominee by now.

The folks I have talked to say that in addition to that, they planned this a few weeks ago. And not only did they think there would be a nominee, but they ultimately decided they just can't wait until May or June to start responding to Republican attacks. And so they decided to start -- quote -- "drawing contrasts."

KING: So, Jess, Ohio today for the vice president. What's next? And I guess the more important question may be when we look at an electoral map, where next? How are they deciding where to go as they escalate the attacks?

YELLIN: So Vice President Biden I'm told by a senior Democratic official will go to Florida next week to a senior center where he will focus on Medicare and attack the so-called Ryan budget. That's what they term the House Republican budget.

And so that will be the message he hits there. The vice president will also focus on -- these are key states for the president in his campaign effort, New Hampshire, Iowa and parts of Virginia possibly as well. He's also going to have a little bit of focus on Pennsylvania.

But the campaign is feeling a little bit more cheery that their chances are looking better there. So, Ohio and Florida, and then those other states are the vice president's focus, John. Finally, as you know, the campaign feels that Vice President Biden is among their best ambassadors to these states because he has the best rapport with basically blue-collar voters as well as Jewish and Catholic voters, John.

KING: You're going to be speaking the words Ohio and Florida quite a bit in the eight months ahead. Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, Jess, thanks.

And still ahead here: the return of the gender gap. Some key issues appear to be hurting Republicans in their efforts to appeal to women voters.

But, next, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee weighs in on letting Afghan forces take responsibility for their country's security.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: We have given them the training. They are much larger in terms of numbers. They are better-equipped. They are respected by the Afghan people. And they should take responsibility for their own country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: In the wake of the massacre this past weekend in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is insisting, despite some damages in relationships and despite some outcry back home to bring the troops home, that it will stick to its strategy to bring the troops home and end the combat role in 2014.

A new poll out today shows that could be a tough sell; 50 percent of the American people want U.S. troops out quicker than the president's timetable. So will public pressure change the policy?

A bit earlier, I spoke with the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Mr. Chairman, President Karzai says he wants NATO troops to leave their outposts and to come back to their bases. If the president of Afghanistan says they should get out of the communities and go back to the bigger bases, should the troops do that?

LEVIN: What I understand President Karzai is saying is that not that all combat troops would out by 2013, but that they'd only be out of certain areas by the end of 2013.

So I don't think this is necessarily a major difference. And we will decide, the president will decide what the pace of the reductions are of our forces after summer of this year, when we're down to about 70,000, whether we're going to continue to reduce troops from the end of this summer to 2014 or whether there's going to be a delay in any further reductions. That's to me the real big issue which is facing the president, not necessarily what President Karzai said today.

KING: But, to what President Karzai said today, the point of a counterinsurgency strategy is to put the troops in the community, to try to rebuild the communities where the Taliban once held them, to try to rebuild trust first with the U.S. troops and then with the Afghan forces who would presumably take over.

If you can't be out in the most troubled communities, what's the point of the mission?

LEVIN: The mission should be, as far as I'm concerned, number- one mission is not that we protect the Afghan people, but that we help train, equip and strengthen the Afghan forces, so that they can protect their own people.

And that is consistent with what President Karzai said, in my judgment.

KING: The point of this mission for 10 years now has been to get Afghanistan to a point that when the troops ultimately leave, al Qaeda does not come back, the Taliban does not come back and allow terrorist camps, the Taliban does not come back and allow its heinous reign in some of these communities.

Are you convinced that that is still necessary? Bin Laden is dead. The president often says al Qaeda is decimated. Many of its top deputies are dead. Do we need to be there at those levels, sir, especially when it's clear a lot of the locals don't want us there, to accomplish that mission?

LEVIN: I don't think we should be there at those levels if you're referring to the 108,000 level. And that's why I very strongly supported the reduction of troops, which we are doing right now. That reduction is under way; 30,000 troops will be removed by the end of this summer, the so-called surge forces.

And then the key issue which the president will have to resolve is whether, after the 30,000 surge force is removed by the end of this summer, whether we will continue to reduce our troops through 2014, when we will be down to no combat troops being there. I hope the president sticks with what he said some months ago, that the reductions will continue at a steady pace after this summer and that he will not feel that he should stop the reductions, as some of our key uniformed military would have him do at the end of this summer.

KING: Well, you get to a point of contention in the debate. You seem in sync with the president, although you have that question for what happens down the road a little bit. I want you to listen to your friend and colleague -- mostly friend and colleague -- Senator John McCain. He was on this program the other night.

He thinks the president has got this one wrong. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: He doesn't have much credibility anymore in the region because initially for a surge, they asked for 40,000. He agreed to only 30,000. They needed the end of another fighting season in order to finish the job in Eastern Afghanistan. The president announced an early withdrawal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So the senator is saying, Senator McCain is saying give the commanders what they want.

You're saying the commanders are out of time, don't give them any more troops?

LEVIN: Some of the military leadership here want to stop reductions at the end of this summer. That's what some of our military leaders want. The president has said we're not going to stop reductions at the end of this summer. We're going to continue at a steady pace.

I hope the president sticks to that position and that we continue to reduce our troops at a steady pace, because that is the way to force the Afghan army and the Afghan security forces to take responsibility for their own security. We have given them the training. They are much larger in terms of numbers. They are better- equipped. They are respected by the Afghan people.

And they should take responsibility for their own country.

KING: Mr. Chairman, appreciate your time tonight.

LEVIN: Sure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Again today, President Obama mocked his Republican rivals for promising -- and for photo-ops in the process at gas pumps -- promising to lower your gas prices, apparently forgetting a bit of his own political history. More on that in a little bit.

But, next, the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, well, he makes the most of his last chance to share the spotlight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

(NEWS BREAK)

KING: Up next: disturbing allegations that the president of Syria and his wife -- get this -- were shopping online while their country descended into chaos. Thousands of alleged e-mails have been uncovered. We will have that story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: In this half-hour: new evidence the gender gap is back. And Republicans are making it wider, Democrats say, by pushing issues like birth control.

But President Obama, well, he has a bit of a problem of his own, a case of political amnesia when it comes to complaining about photo- ops and high gas prices.

And while the country burns and thousands die, the wife of Syria's leader apparently e-mailing her friends about among other things "Harry Potter." We will read some of these e-mails in just a bit.

It's the latest round in the battle of what the Democrats call the Republican war on women. It's the Violence Against Women Act now up for reauthorization in the Congress. And last time it passed with plenty of support from both Democrats and Republicans.

But here's why there's trouble this time around.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Yet, The bill includes lesbians and gay men. The bill includes undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse. The bill gives Native American tribes authority to prosecute crimes. In my view, these are improvements.

Domestic violence is domestic violence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is here.

How big of a fight are we looking at? Is this fight about expanding the bill or would this be a vehicle for another argument?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Both, yes.

Look, you just heard Dianne Feinstein lay out pretty well what Democrats are trying to do, expand the Violence Against Women Act to include gays and lesbians, to include illegal immigrants. But Republicans say the Democrats are trying to do with their version is to expand the scope beyond what the Violence Against Women Act was meant to do.

And, for example, Chuck Grassley, he says that what the Democrats' version would do would give visas to immigrants without really having things in there to ferret out fraud. So that's what the Republicans say.

The answer to your important question about politics is absolutely yes, because, as you mentioned, Democrats feel that they really were doing well politically by saying that Republicans are waging a war on women. That is the main reason why we saw all of these Democratic women go to the Senate floor today, because, I mean, what could be worse, more offensive potentially to women out there than saying the Republicans are against the Violence Against Women Act?

And that is why on the Republican side, Jon Kyl, the number two Republican, he told our Ted Barrett that it is -- quote -- "reprehensible" what Democrats are doing, because Republicans are for it. They just want a different version.

KING: They want a different version, so they see politics here. But that's Jon Kyl, male Republican. This isn't all one-sided. Lisa Murkowski, she's on board with this. Listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: Our statistics as they relate to domestic violence and sexual assault are horrific. They're as ugly as they come. Overall, nearly six in 10 Alaskan women have been victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, is she trying to send a message to her own party there? Is she in a tough spot herself?

BASH: Again, all of the above.

She is -- I think at the end of the day, it is going to be very difficult for Republicans to be in a position where it looks like they're against Violence Against Women, but it also is going to be difficult for Democrats to keep beating this drum.

There's a subplot going on with Lisa Murkowski, because the last issue dealing with women of course was contraception. Lisa Murkowski voted with her fellow Republicans against allowing free contraception for women. And then she later said she regretted that. In fact, she told me in an interview on something else yesterday that she believes that her party is in the wrong place when it comes to women.

So, she was aligning herself there with women because she actually heard about it from women back home.

KING: The conversation on the Senate floor today is going to be a conversation in our politics for the next eight months for the election.

Let's bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger and see how this fight over contraception and other issues are playing into 2012.

And Gloria, let's look at the numbers. If you look at the free birth control issue, women favor getting free access to birth control as part of the health coverage, the 58 percent. But if you look at the government mandating birth control, 40-40 split among women. So depending on what the actual question front and center is, a different debate?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Democrats think -- Dana was saying that they're going to get a free ride on this issue. I think it's much more complicated than that. It really does depend on how you ask the question.

If it's a health issue, a women's health issue, and birth control is seen as a women's health issue, then the Democrats have the advantage. But if it's seen as a religious liberty issue or just a liberty issue, unh-uh. Then the Republicans have the advantage.

The problems the Republicans have is that they turned a good issue into a bad issue, because they turned it from religious liberty into an issue of contraception. And that's where you lose women.

KING: If you look at the race for the White House right now, we're going to watch this play out across the country. Let's look at the race for the White House right now. You look, show the numbers up here. President Obama has a considerable lead, if you do the gender gap question, over both Mitt Romney and Senator Rick Santorum among women.

So at the moment, the Republicans there need to worry.

BORGER: Oh, my gosh, yes. They really need to worry. And that's why you see President Obama out there talking about women's health issues, you know, meeting with nurses. You know, I mean, this has become a huge issue for them.

There's usually a gender gap in favor of the Democrats. What we see now is a gender gulch. And in order to win the election -- women vote; women are independent voters -- the Republicans really need to figure out a way to narrow this to get women on board.

They managed to do it in the 2010 mid-term elections. They did very well with women. They have to do it on the economy, I think, and health care. If they can convince women that health-care reform does not work for their family, that will be very useful to them. So far they haven't done that.

KING: Is there a concern -- Gloria said the Republicans had this one on the issue of religious liberty, then overplayed their hand and ended up in a conversation about contraceptives. Do any Democrats worry that when they see this, they're getting almost too happy to get into these issues, and they could overplay their hand?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Probably there's no question. For example the Violence against Women Act, this doesn't necessarily have to be re-authorized until the end of the fiscal year. But politically, the time is right for them to strike. That's why they did it.

A lot of Democrats privately say that they're a little worried that they're going to do too much.

KING: This will be an important subject. BORGER: I've never heard of a politician overplaying his hand.

KING: Never. Never happens. Never. Especially not in an election year. Dana, Gloria thanks for coming in.

Now shifting to important national news, on March 15, 2011, the people of the Syria took to the streets in mostly peaceful protests, pushing for the right to speak for political reforms. One year later, it's a country deep in crisis, possibly on the brink of a civil war.

Watch as it appears here that an army tank targeted for attack.

An activist inside Syria says the death toll is fast approaching 10,000. The United Nations put that number at closer to 8,000.

And as the people of Syria have been fighting and dying for their freedom, their president, Bashar al Assad, apparently has been ordering pop music off iTunes. His playlist includes "Sexy and I Know It" by LMFAO, "Look at Me Now" by Chris Brown, and "Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order. How do we know that? Well, that's according to thousands of private e-mails now obtained by CNN.

Our senior international correspondent, John Vause, has been leafing through these e-mails. And John, what else horrific are you finding?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, John, we've had a lot of people going through these e-mails. There's about 3,000 of them in all. We've been looking at them from Dubai to Beirut. Some are in Arabic; some are in English. There is no one breathtaking revelation in all of this.

But what we do see is a president, his wife and their aides who appear to be oblivious to the turmoil around them. We also get to see the influence that Iran has on the regime.

Now, last January before a major speech, an aide said that she was in touch with Iran's embassy and they advised President Assad to use strong and powerful language. In that speech, Assad said he would crush the opposition with an iron fist.

There's another collection of e-mails coming from the Damascus bureau chief for Iran's press TV. This was sent when Arab League observers were on the ground. And he advises the president, "We need to take control of public squares. At the same time, groups affiliated with us will fill those squares."

And then there is the first lady. Now, back in November, just as the violence in Homs was really starting to tick up, Assam al-Assad was e-mailing a friend. And she said, "Are you coming around the 2nd or before? If so can you bring the Harry Potter DVD, 'Deathly Hallows, Part 2'?"

In fact, it seems that the first lady spent a lot of time online shopping for expensive jewelry, art and furniture. She was e-mailing the boutiques in London and Paris. She even sent away for a special fondue set at Harrod's in London.

One thing we get from those e-mails, repeatedly, we see Assad's inner circle, his aides, just fawning all over him. There's a typical message that reads like this: "I never met an amazing person like you. I get so proud when people meet you and go tell the world how amazing you are. Miss you."

Now, there's no 800-pound gorilla in all this. But it is an insight nonetheless, John.

KING: An insight into the disconnect, the oblivious or maybe just the deliberate ignoring of what's happening in the country. John, many viewers are probably asking, how do we know these e-mails are real?

VAUSE: Well, we got about 3,000 of them. We got them from a source in the region. And for the last couple of days we've been going through all the e-mail addresses. We've been cross checking them with e-mail addresses that we know.

We've also been looking at events -- a family vacation that was referenced in one of the e-mails, the speech which Assad gave -- to make sure that they were legit.

What we also know is that this all began about a year ago. A government worker, we're told, smuggled out what appears to be the e- mail addresses and the passwords for Assad and his wife, for their e- mails. And these e-mails have now stopped, because that small group of activists who have been watching the regime in real time for the last 12 months, they were hacked by a bigger group. And then last month all traffic to Assad's e-mail account stopped.

KING: Important reporting. Our senior international correspondent John Vause. John, thanks so much.

Coming up, tonight's "Truth." Why is Vice President Biden naming names and the Obama campaign suddenly getting tougher.

Plus, the president mocks his Republican opponents, saying he's seen this movie before. They go to the gas pump; they promise lower gas price. He has seen this movie. In fact, stay with us. You'll see. He starred in it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Something important happened on the campaign trail today that didn't involve the Republican race. Team Obama decided it was time to get personal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The economic theories of Gingrich, Santorum and Romney. They are bankrupt. If you give any one of these guys the keys to the White House, they will bankrupt the middle class again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: It was the first time the vice president has named names. And speaking at an auto factory there in Toledo, Ohio, he gave the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, a bit more attention than the others.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: Governor Romney was more direct: "Let Detroit go bankrupt."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Here's tonight's "Truth." The vice president and the Obama campaign aren't just getting personal for kicks. They're getting personal and more aggressive because they know how vulnerable they are, just how tough the state-by-state Electoral College map is.

Need more proof? The president is dialing it up a notch, too, though he prefers not to use the names just yet.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Every time prices start to go up, especially in an election year, politicians dust off their three-point plans for $2 gas. They head down to the gas station. They make sure a few cameras are following them. And then they start acting like, "We've got a magic wand, and we will give you cheap gas forever."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Now, in criticizing Republicans for their gas price attacks, the president says -- you heard it there; it gets worse -- in a mocking tone that he's seen this movie before. Maybe he forgets. He hasn't just seen it. He starred in it.

Look here. Here's then-Senator Obama back in the 2008 election year. Yes, down at the pump with a few cameras following him. I hope we can get those pictures up for you there. Blaming oil companies in the Bush administration and even his Democratic opponents for high gas prices.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: So what have we got for all that experience? Gas that's approaching $4 a gallon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So sorry, Mr. President. What goes around comes around. But that's beside the point. Truth is, Vice President Biden is naming names and the president himself responding more often and more forcefully because they see what we see. Polling data suggesting that voters in much of the country just aren't feeling much better about the economy. Higher gas prices only add to that anxiety. And economic anxiety is an incumbent politician's dreaded enemy.

Where they're attacking is also telling. The vice president was in Ohio just two days after the president was in Ohio for some March Madness. The next stop for the Biden naming names tour? Florida. You see a lot of national polls, but in election years the presidential contests are settled state by state.

And while most of our attention is on the roller-coaster Republican race, team Obama knows the map this year is much, much, much tougher than 2008.

So today, 236 days -- I know you're counting -- until the big election, the incumbents decided it was time to turn it up a notch and get personal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, these guys have a fundamentally different economic philosophy than we do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's talk truth tonight with former congressman and Newt Gingrich supporter J.C. Watts of Oklahoma; CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Maria Cardona; and the "TIME" deputy Washington bureau chief Michael Crowley.

Let's start first, Maria, to you as a Democrat. You know, naming names, going to the key states, counting the days now to the election. Seems pretty obvious they understand. They thought they'd have a nominee by now. They can't wait, because the map's pretty tough.

MARIA CARDONA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely. There's no question about that, John. And regardless of whether they thought there was going to be a nominee now or not, I think it's smart politics. Because as a Democrat, Democrats love hearing this president all fired up and the administration all fired up, making sure that not just Democrats but independents understand what the challenges were coming in, what he has done to actually fix the economy. Now the numbers are going in the right direction.

And also because he knows his biggest opponents or his most challenging opponents are not anyone on the Republican side. It's those gas prices you talked about, and it's the economy you talked about.

And the more that they can frame this election right now about the contrast and the differences in the vision, the better it is going to be, come November.

KING: But how hard is it, Michael? I'm always reminded this year about 1992 where a lot of the statistics were getting better, as they are now. They were in 1992. But President George H.W. Bush could not convince much of the country because they didn't feel it. They still felt tired in their legs. They were still having a trouble getting a job or getting health insurance.

How delicate is the balance? You have to attack the Republicans. But how optimistic can team Obama be about the economy where, in many of these key swing states, people are still hurting?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, DEPUTY WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME": Well, absolutely. That's precisely the dilemma. And there's been polling by a Democratic polling firm that shows that Americans don't want to hear the message "America is back." They don't think we're back yet. Obama has used that language. I think there's some danger that it will back fire, that people think that he's overstating it, overshooting the good news.

So what you want to do is say, "We're headed in the right direction. There's good news. Things are getting better." Without making it seem like you're taking too much credit or without making it seem like you're out of touch. I will say it's delicate. It was interesting. I think Biden was speaking to the UAW there in Ohio. That bailout issue that he talked about today for Detroit is key.

We think about Detroit, Michigan. But Ohio very dependent on the auto industry there. So you're going to see them hammering that theme, because Romney and Santorum opposed that bailout.

KING: But when you watch the Democrats. I know you're a Republican; you're a Gingrich guy. But you want one of these Republicans to beat him in the end. Smart to come out now? How do you calibrate a message at this point, where you don't have an opponent? And the Republicans, one of the reasons the president's numbers are down a bit is he's getting hammered by three candidates.

J.C. WATTS, FORMER CONGRESSMAN: Well, then, I do think it's good politics on the part of the president to come out and defend himself. If I was the president, I would do the same thing.

But the president -- the American people are being reminded at least twice a week that gas prices are continuing to go up. They've doubled since the president took office. Today we saw the foreclosure numbers going up. People continuing to lose their homes.

So they're saying, is this really getting better? Is this -- are we better off three years down the road, four years down the road than we were in 2009 when the president was sworn in? I don't think so.

So the president still has some serious challenges. And I think, you know, there's an opening for the Republicans to gain some ground, just based on some of the -- the numbers that we see every week in the economy.

KING: Does the president -- forgive my language -- think we're stupid? And all politicians do this. I'm not beating up on President Obama. They all do it.

But "look at them going down to the gas pump. They say there's a magic wand." I just asked this morning, can we go back and look? Lo and behold, there he is. CARDONA: But you know what the difference is, John? I don't think you'll find footage of President Obama promising $2 a gallon. And that's exactly what.

KING: He didn't have a specific number. But I think at that event he blamed President Bush, the oil companies, even Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. They were part of the problem in Washington. If you get these people out of the way and change Washington, prices would go down.

CARDONA: So you're right. What goes around comes around. But I think the difference is, is that you had Michele Bachmann back in the day and Newt Gingrich now promising $2, 2.50 a gallon. I think Americans are a little bit smarter than that, understanding that they know that the president doesn't get all the blame, and he can't fix it all.

KING: Write that down. If you don't use a number, it's not hypocrisy.

CARDONA: It's a big difference, John.

WATTS: But the answer isn't to say, "Well, it will take us ten years to get there." We've been using that lame excuse, Republicans and Democrats, for the last 30 years. When do we start the clock on the ten-year cycle to say, let's become less dependent on foreign oil? We've got enough resources.

CARDONA: That's what this president is talking about. He focuses on that.

WATTS: He said it would take us ten years to get there. We would be four years further down the road, had he just gotten on the team of exploration.

KING: Anybody out there trust the politicians when they get into this debate?

CROWLEY: I think not, John. I think one thing to remember as this election unfolds is that there's still just a pervasive hostility towards Washington and the political establishment in general. That that energy that started the Tea Party and that energy that swept Oklahoma in that beat Hillary Clinton, people are sick of Washington. They don't like politicians.

And I don't see any of the candidates right now really harnessing that sort of outsider energy. And I think that could really be the key to the election as we get ahead into the coming months.

WATTS: John, one thing on oil. If it's worth fighting for in the Middle East, why isn't it worth exploring for here at home?

CARDONA: And we're doing a lot more exploring now than we did during the Bush administration.

WATTS: Not due to this president. CARDONA: Yes. Yes, they have given out more permissions...

WATTS: I've got a buddy -- I've got a buddy in Oklahoma that would say, give me a physical break.

CARDONA: Can I just say one thing to Michael's point? He's right that the president -- and he has actually been more careful in saying we're not -- we are not where we need to be. We need to do a lot more. Because I think they understand that danger and that it's a balancing act.

KING: Everybody stay put. You've got to just stay with us. We'll go to a quick break.

Apple stocks hit the 600 mark today. That means one share would cost you more than one of those brand-new iPads.

And later see how a vacuum cleaner stole the spotlight during David Cameron's White House visit.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Back to politics now with the former Republican congressman, Newt Gingrich supporter, J.C. Watts of Oklahoma; our CNN contributor, Democratic strategist Maria Cardona; and the "TIME" Washington deputy bureau chief, Michael Crowley.

Let's move to the Republican race right now, and Puerto Rico primary, who would have thunk it, right? The Puerto Rico primary is now a big deal in the race, and Senator Santorum caused a bit of a stir when he said if you want statehood, if you vote yourself into statehood, he says you have to make English the official language. Let's listen to Senator Santorum first. We have Senator Santorum. This was Senator Santorum defending this idea.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: English has to be a language that is spoken here also. It's spoken universally.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

SANTORUM: It is already the language of the federal government here on the island. That's the language. I think that will be a tradition. I think it's important.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, Governor Romney campaigning in Puerto Rico. He says this through a spokeswoman. "Governor Romney believes that English is the language of opportunity and supports efforts to expand English proficiency in Puerto Rico and across America. However, he would not, as a prerequisite for statehood, require that the people of Puerto Rico cease using Spanish."

Now that's not -- Senator Santorum did not say cease using Spanish, but he did say it should be the official language. Good or bad politics?

CARDONA: I think terrible for politics for Santorum and, frankly, I think terrible politics for Romney, too. I'll get back to that in a minute.

There are 4.7 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland who actually vote in Florida and Pennsylvania and all these key swing states. You don't mess with the Puerto Rican Spanish. I'm sorry. I grew up in Puerto Rico, and I know just how intense this -- the status issue is and the language issue is and the culture issue is. I think it's tremendously bad politics.

Romney's going to be interesting. What he says tomorrow, because he's going to get cornered by the Puerto Rican press. Because that statement said absolutely nothing. It didn't really state where he is on this, and it's going to be interesting, if he really does back off of the official English as the language. He backed English only here on the mainland, so how is he -- how is he going to jibe those two? Plus, Romney's attacks to Rick Santorum on voting for Sonia Sotomayor, the icon of the island. Unusually bad politics on all of those fronts.

KING: So, Speaker Gingrich, you would think, might have an opportunity here, but he's not going. One of his daughters is going to campaign in Puerto Rico. Where's the comeback plan? Gingrich has not been to Tampa. Show me. Tell me on the map where we're going to have a day where we say, "Oh, there it is."

WATTS: Well, John, I don't know, quite honestly, how any of the candidates get to 1,144 before the convention, and I think Newt can make a plausible argument to stay in the race if the resources are there, simply because you see this -- this little spat...

KING: Can you stay in -- can you stay in, picking up delegates, especially for now -- we still have the proportional states. Can you stay in picking up delegates in second and third or do you at least have to win? We've got half the states still left to go. You have to win five, six, eight to be plausible?

WATTS: I personally think there needs to be some wins and not just places and shows. And I think the speaker probably feels the same thing. But what these -- the proportionality of these delegates, I think, I don't think Newt Gingrich is the issue. I think Mitt Romney is the issue. The fact that he's been running for six years, spent probably 150, $200 million, and they haven't -- they haven't closed the deal. But that's been the narrative all along. Nobody wants to believe that. And I think Newt's still right in the middle of it, and so does he.

KING: I think there's no question Romney's weak. Problem is, This to beat him, somebody has to be stronger. And none of these other guys are stronger at the moment, right?

CROWLEY: That's right. And you know, with all respect to J.C., I think the road is really hard for Newt. You know, he said he has to have the resources to stay in. You know, he does have the super PAC . He does have a benefactor in Las Vegas. But I don't know that he's going to have that much money coming in.

And I think we're -- you know, you're seeing Santorum massively outspent in Illinois right now. I think that, in this long slog, money will continue to be really a defining factor. Romney has such a financial advantage.

By the way, what's happening in Puerto Rico, I think, supports those Republicans who are upset that we have such a long, drawn-out primary process. They're sniping each other. They're alienating a segment of the population. They're taking positions they don't really need to be on the record taking at this point. And they don't help either of the candidates in this fight in the general election. They don't need this thing; probably be better off settling.

WATTS: God help us when Newt Gingrich gets out, because with the Latino vote, the black vote, something I fought for for 25 years, we haven't -- we have no chance.

KING: Republican Party wrote these -- Republican Party wrote these new rules and...

CARDONA: I agree with that.

KING: ... and now they're living...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Michael, Maria, J.C., thanks for coming in.

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

Hey, Kate.

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

Hey, there, everyone. Some headlines for you.

We're just getting word of a tornado in the Detroit area. The National Weather Service confirms a tornado touched down near Dexter, Michigan. Just look at some of the images we're bringing in from one of our affiliates there.

Tornado watches and warnings are posted for several counties in southeastern Michigan. Stick close to CNN. We'll bring you any updates as we get them.

In other headlines, a new analysis predicts the health-care reform law may not force many employers to drop insurance coverage after all. Admitting that its finding is a bit of a surprise, the Congressional Budget Office reported there are a number of different scenarios, ranging from 3 million people -- 3 million more people having employer coverage by 2019 to 20 million losing it. A lot more to talk about there.

And in Chicago, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel says Mitt Romney doesn't have the fortitude, strength or character to be president. As proof, he says Romney should have blasted Rush Limbaugh's calling a female college student a slut. Quoting the mayor here, he says, quote, "I thought what Rush Limbaugh said was not only wrong, it was absolutely repulsive. That said, if you can't stand up to Rush, how are you going to stand up to Russia?"

It now costs about $600 to own a slice of Apple. The tech company's stock briefly hit the milestone this morning, one day before its new iPad goes on sale. Apple is the stock market's most valuable company, and the price of a share has more than doubled over the past year and a half.

And a New Jersey construction worker who hit the lotto with pooled money but lied about it, will have to divvy up the $38.5 million jackpot. Sorry, buddy. A jury has ruled that Americo Lopes cheated his co-workers out of the winnings when he failed to tell them that their Mega Millions ticket was a winner, and he tried to collect the money for himself.

John, you would never do that to any of your co-workers, would you?

KING: No, no. Actually, no. If it's in a pool, it's in a pool. Period. If I won on my own, I'd find a way to take care of my co- workers and maybe you, Kate.

BOLDUAN: We will hold you to this.

KING: Stay right there. Tonight's "Moment You Misses." We've got to rush through this. The red carpet rolled out at the White House. You sort of want it to be clean, right? Look at this. The woman in charge of keeping it VIP ready had an accidental cameo on British television.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That is the formal welcome. Look at this. I love live television. That woman's now famous in the U.K.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We all love live television. So that woman is now famous in the U.K.

BOLDUAN: And you know what? It's good to know you want your red carpet clean. You really do.

KING: You do. You do. She looks like she knows what she's doing.

Kate, we'll see you tomorrow. That's all for us tonight. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.