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PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT

Republican Primary in Illinois

Aired March 20, 2012 - 23:59   ET

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


PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST: Tonight a last word on Illinois? And the first word in the rest of the race. The winner?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: God bless the United States of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: The losers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're feeling very, very good about winning Louisiana on Saturday, I might add.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am a much better debater than either Romney or Santorum.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: And what it all means for the Republicans and for America.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: Each day, we move closer not just to victory, but to a better America. Join us. Join us. Together, we're going to ensure that America's greatest days are still ahead.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: The battle for the GOP. This is PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT.

Good evening. It's a big night for Mitt Romney in Illinois. He's the winner by double-digits. Our superstar CNN team is here for much more of that in a moment. But let's take a look at tonight's results. Romney way ahead in the lead, followed by Rick Santorum. And Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, a distant third and fourth.

Listen to a tough talking Mitt Romney in his celebration speech a little while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: So tonight was a primary. But November is the general -- general election. And we're going to face a defining decision as a people. Our choice will not be about party or even personality. This election will be about principle. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot. I'm offering a real choice and a new beginning. I'm running for president because I have the experience and the vision to get us out of this mess.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: So Mitt Romney rolls in Illinois. A crucial win for him. But is it a game-changer for the GOP race?

Here to talk about it all is CNN's top team led by Wolf Blitzer and John King in D.C., Ari Fleischer in Miami, and here with me in New York, Gloria Borger and David Gergen.

Wolf, let me start with you. I think a pretty significant night for Mitt Romney. What do you think? I mean in the general context of the whole race, are we nearing the tipping point?

WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, SITUATION ROOM: Yes, I think it's a very impressive night for Mitt Romney. It's not over yet for all practical purposes, Piers. I think it's becoming a two-man race. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. We'll see what happens in Louisiana over the weekend. We'll see what happens in the early April contest of Wisconsin, in Maryland, the District of Columbia.

There's going to be lull for a few weeks after that, but then there are some big states that are still out there including Texas and New York and California and New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the home state of Rick Santorum. So there's still a long way to go. But I think for all practical purposes, Mitt Romney now has a very impressive delegate lead. A decisive lead. But it's not necessarily over with by any means. This is going to go on for sometime.

MORGAN: And, John King, and I thought that he stroke a note much more presidential and much more actually like his early speeches after early primary wins when he focused on President Obama and on the economy and not on squabbling with the other contestants, mainly about social issues for which he seemed pretty ill fitted to debate with them about.

JOHN KING, ANCHOR, JOHN KING, USA: And the key question, Piers, is can he keep that confidence? When Mitt Romney is talking that way, that's a sign of his confidence that he will be the nominee. This rollercoaster has knocked him off that confidence stance on several occasions. The question is, is this truly a turning point?

You said -- you heard him say tonight not only focused on President Obama, this is our movement, our cause. He's trying to rally conservatives in future states to say hey, even if I'm not your first choice, it's time. It's time for the party to come together. It's time to focus on President Obama.

And look this is a big win for Governor Romney for this reason alone. Yes, as Wolf just noted, this could take him deep into May, even into June. Yes, there's still an opportunity for his rivals to knock him off track. But the only way for a Santorum or a Gingrich, if he can come -- somehow come back from the dead for the fourth or fifth time in this race -- is to start beating Governor Romney and beating him big in the state's where he's favored.

Well, Illinois was one of those opportunities for Senator Santorum tonight and Governor Romney is winning big. It is impossible to take away his delegate lead unless you start beating him up here and not just beating him. You have to beat him big to make up the delegate math. This is a big, convincing thumping for Governor Romney tonight.

MORGAN: It is. It is. And David Gergen, I mean, it just strikes me that this could be a point, when you look at all this numbers, the sheer amount of money that Mitt Romney is throwing at this. He has much more money than anybody else combined. He's got more delegates than anybody else combined. He's won more states than, I think, all of them combined.

When you get to that kind of statistical level of analysis, it's nearly game over. Isn't it? I can't quite understand why people aren't saying game over?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Because we've had so many twists and turns in this campaign. It's been the most unpredictable, volatile campaign, I think, we've seen in some years. So it could still. You could still have some upsets along the way. But I'm in your camp. I think this is nearly over, you know, because this was a one-time in a big state where Santorum had a clean, one-on-one shot, and he lost decisively.

And the "Washington Post" pointed out something very interesting tonight and -- it's tweeting, that is, that Mitt Romney, in every state where there are more than 50 percent evangelicals, he's lost. And every state when there are less than 50 percent evangelicals, as in Illinois, he has won. Now there are some states ahead, like Louisiana just ahead where there are more than 50 percent of the Republican vote would be evangelical. But most of the big states that are coming, that John King just (INAUDIBLE), they have less than 50 percent evangelical.

(CROSSTALK)

MORGAN: Gloria?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, here's the problem for the Republican Party. This was supposed to be the year of the outsider. This was supposed to -- which Mitt Romney says he is. But this was supposed to be the year when the person whose turn it was to become the nominee was not going to become the nominee. This was the year anti-establishment, rise of the Tea Party, and these are the voters who, by and large, with some exceptions this evening, for example, the Tea Partiers went for Mitt Romney who are uncomfortable with Mitt Romney.

They don't like him. They don't trust him on issues like health care. Evangelicals are skeptical about him because of his faith. So these voters who are the base of the base of the Republican Party say, you know what, this isn't the person we thought we're going to wind up with. And so it's going to take them a little bit of time, if they do at all, to say, OK, here's our guy, we want to beat Barack Obama, which is why this race will probably continue.

I mean, to me, the big question is going to be, will Rick Santorum be able to win his home state of Pennsylvania? That comes up on April 24th. And if I had place a bet, I'd bet that Mitt Romney is going to spend an awful lot of money in Pennsylvania.

MORGAN: And try and knock him out there.

Ari Fleischer, I mean, does it matter if the Republican Party loved Mitt Romney or not? I mean if he's the guy with the money, the infrastructure, the drive, and he can present a good case to beat Barack Obama, and the economy is his area of special -- specialty, which is what it's going to be fought over, why does it matter if a field of diehard conservatives don't really love him?

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER BUSH WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, Piers, it does matter, but it's not the only thing that matters. You know, ideally in politics, is your base loves you and your base hates the other guy. And that leads to landslide elections. In the case of Mitt Romney, presuming he's the Republican nominee, you're going to have a base that really isn't that crazy about him. However, I think he's probably not that threatening to a lot of independent voters and women who Republicans have some work to do to bring back into the Republican category.

And then it turns on how many people are just so disappointed in President Obama, think that he failed, think that he promised to keep unemployment -- below 8 percent, failed. He said he'd cut the deficit in half. He failed. How many people are going to turned against the president because of those let-downs in President Obama?

That's all the stew, that's all the mix that makes up for people's voter behavior. But Mitt Romney has that lack of love. That's one of the reasons why I think in the Republican primary you've seen so many other people from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain to Rick Perry pass him at various moments. Everybody consider Mitt Romney a safe plan B. Meanwhile they were looking for plan A. They haven't found plan A. It looks like this party is starting to increasingly settle on plan B.

MORGAN: Wolf, let me just bring you back in here. Newt Gingrich made a slightly cheerily statement, I thought tonight, and when she refused resolutely again to congratulate Mitt Romney. But they also made a point, and I'll quote this, "Republicans cant nominate a candidate who relies on out-spending his opponents 7-1."

I don't get this argument they keep throwing at him, that he has too much money. That he's raised too much cash. That is normally, unless I'm mistaken, a positive. An advantage for a candidate. Isn't it? It shows that --

BLITZER: Yes. MORGAN: They've got good planning.

BLITZER: Because you'd think the Republicans want somebody who can go out there and raise a lot of cash, who's got a very substantive organization, that can go out and do these kinds of thing in the early contest so that in a general election against the president -- an incumbent president who's going to have hundreds of millions of dollars and a huge organization out there plus all the perks of being the incumbent president of the United States. You'd think you want somebody who's precisely able to raise a lot of cash and has a very efficient organization. So that -- you make a good point, Piers.

MORGAN: And John King, just very quickly, take me through the next few battlegrounds as to where, if things stand as they do right now in the polls, we can see likely victories for Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and/or possibly Gingrich or Ron Paul.

KING: Well, the next one you see, the Illinois primary was today. And then next stop is -- then we have Louisiana. That's -- tends to be a Santorum. We'll see if Gingrich can have a comeback there.

Piers, then we come up here in Wisconsin, District of Columbia and Maryland. I just switched that Romney win with Santorum win. I think that's the one that's a big question mark. Romney is favored in Maryland and the District of Columbia. And then you move on from there, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island. Pennsylvania will be the big battleground there. That's April 24th. As Gloria noted, those other states are viewed as big Romney states.

The only way to stop him is for somebody to block him in one of those states. But if Romney is favored in those states and he can take on Senator Santorum in his home turf, that could be defining night for the man who is now the number one challenger but an increasingly distant second to Mitt Romney.

MORGAN: I mean, David Gergen, we are looking at needing a kind of political tsunami waiting to erupt for one of these other guys to knock off Mitt Romney. Something extraordinary has to happen.

GERGEN: Yes, I've got a -- series of upsets. And just going through that list of states that John King just presented, you know, Romney is going to win most of those. Of course we're going to focus on Pennsylvania because it's going to be contentious. But think of the fact that New York state is -- is not in play. Connecticut is not in play. New Jersey is probably not in play. Those are all Romney states. That's where he's going to rack up a lot of delegates.

California doesn't seem to be in play. Romney is going to rack up a lot of delegates there. That's why I think you're right to say nobody wants to say right now game over because it's been so unpredictable and so volatile. But we're darn close.

MORGAN: Gloria, let's talk love.

(LAUGHTER)

BORGER: Any time. Any time.

(CROSSTALK)

MORGAN: You look like to me the first that I can have this conversation with based --

BORGER: Yes.

MORGAN: Let's just talk love.

BORGER: Yes.

MORGAN: How does Mitt Romney, if he wins the nomination, make his own party and the vote that comes with it love him enough to drive Barack Obama out of the White House?

BORGER: I think it's about hate, not love. I think it's about hating Barack Obama. And I think the Republican voters who are the least enthusiastic about Mitt Romney who don't love him, who are not passionate about him at all are passionate about defeating the president of the United States. So that could drive their enthusiasm. And that's what he's going to have to depend on. He has to -- he has to really gin them up and say this is really why you have to vote. I'm your only hope right now.

MORGAN: David, final --

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: But the love-hate thing really works out and it's really critical among independents. And they're -- but things are -- if you go too far right --

BORGER: They're ambivalent. Right.

GERGEN: You drive a lot of those independents over toward Obama.

BORGER: Right.

GERGEN: They start to like him more.

MORGAN: And Obama is a brilliant campaigner.

GERGEN: He is.

MORGAN: No doubt. He will be unleashing $1 billion plus war chest and his campaigning skills. It's going to be very tough.

BORGER: Which is -- which is why in the end, in the end, it's going to come down to these two men on a debate stage.

MORGAN: Yes.

BORGER: It really will.

MORGAN: I think you're right. Gloria, David, thank you both very much.

John and Wolf, thank you both very much. And Ari.

Coming up next, reaction from Mitt Romney's jubilant campaign.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: A very happy Mitt Romney after a decisive victory but is tonight's win big enough to help him nail down the nomination? That's the question for Eric Fehrnstrom, senior adviser to Mitt Romney and who joins me now.

Eric, a big win, a big night. There's no denying that. But we've had a few of these. And then the oxygen, something gets sucked out of the balloon. Will the Santorum surge explode again? How significant do you guys think tonight is for your campaign?

ERIC FEHRNSTROM, SENIOR ADVISER TO MITT ROMNEY: Well, it's 21 states now, Piers, that Governor Romney has won. Twenty-one states and territories. He has half the delegates he needs to secure the nomination. If you look at the math and if you understand how delegates are allocated and you understand the upcoming contests on the calendar, there really is no opportunity for Mitt Romney's opponents at this point to make up the ground that they need to make up to overtake him in the delegate count. So we feel very confident that Mitt Romney will be going to Tampa in August as the Republican Party nominee.

MORGAN: Newt Gingrich has come out with a soon to be cheerily statement tonight saying that basically you can't have a nominee that outspends his rivals 7-1. I didn't quite understand why you couldn't. I must say, because it seems to me that the one thing you have to concede about Mitt Romney, whether you agree with him or not, is that he has run the best campaign. He has the most money. He has the best infrastructure. He has the biggest staff.

I don't really see that as a legitimate, credible stick to beat him with.

FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think you're right there, Piers. You really need three things for a winning campaign. You need a good message, of course. We have that with a strong pro-jobs economy message. But you also need a strong organization and, of course, the third thing you need is the resources to run a competitive race. And Mitt Romney has those resources. And for people to complain that their opponent has too much money is almost like a basketball team complaining that their opponents are too tall. I mean, that's part of the game. You have to play tall people when you play basketball.

And if you're going to beat Mitt Romney, you've got to come with a strong organization and you have to be well-resourced. And I think in some cases, we've seen with our opponents they don't have the ability to organize effectively. You saw it tonight that in Illinois, there were four congressional districts where Rick Santorum was unable to get his name on the ballot. Of course we have the D.C. primary coming up on April 3rd. He's not on the ballot there either. And of course Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were left off the ballot entirely in Virginia which is a big state with a lot of delegates.

MORGAN: It seemed to me from the speech tonight by Mitt Romney that he's trying to get back to what was his early mission plan with these speeches which is to whack Barack Obama, position himself above the other contestants, not even mentioning him really. And also to make the economy the plank of his campaign because he's been definitely distracted, as they all have, it seems to me, by this obsession with social issues in the last few weeks.

I mean do you accept that your campaign tonight seem to be realigning itself back to where it began?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think we've stayed on jobs and the economy from the very beginning of this campaign back in April of 2011. We think this race is going to be a referendum on President Obama's handling or mishandling of the economy. That's what it's going to come down to. If you look at the exit polls from Illinois, you'll see that voters there ranked economy the number one issue on their minds, which makes inexplicable some of the things we saw and heard from Rick Santorum over the past few days.

He said that the economy is not his number one issue. He said that the president and his policies can't really have an effect on the economy. And then yesterday, of course, he made the statement that the unemployment rate doesn't really matter to him.

Well, these are all things that matter to Mitt Romney. He does believe that the president and his policies can have an effect on the direction of the economy. And so we've been talking about Barack Obama and his failures on the domestic front for some time. And we're going to continue to do that right through the fall campaign.

MORGAN: It was roughly this stage last time when Mitt Romney pulled out alliance on McCain to take on his opponent. Is it time for at least some of the contestants here left in the Republican race to pull out, do you think?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, that's a personal decision. And each candidate is going to have to weigh that on their own. I appreciate and understand all that goes into a campaign. There's a lot of emotion involved. A lot of hard work. A lot of tears involved in a campaign. So this is not an easy decision to make. But four years ago, Mitt Romney found himself in a similar situation.

John McCain hadn't yet secured the delegates he needed to win the nomination but he was certainly on that track. And Mitt Romney decided to step aside. He said at the time that we were a country at war. In Iraq then. And that he wanted to give John McCain the opportunity to rally the party behind him and build a strong campaign for the fall.

So you know, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, all good, decent Americans. All good party people. I'm confident that at the end of the day, they're going to make the right decision for themselves, for their country and for their party.

MORGAN: There's no doubt that your man has had a big night tonight. But he's also had a long, hard battle on this campaign. Perhaps harder than he would have predicted the start if he was honest. One of the reasons is that people don't think he's really resonated with the working class, also with the south in particular.

What will he do about his areas of weakness now to really cement this nomination?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think one of the interesting data points coming out of the Illinois exit polls is that Mitt Romney won among those people who said he understands the problems of average Americans. I think that's very heartening to hear that because one of the biggest problems that we're facing as a country is high unemployment, high gas prices, high food prices, high health care costs.

And I think they look at a candidate like Mitt Romney and they look at his experience and qualifications in the private sector, also the four years he spent as governor, and they see a person who has the capacity to lead on all the important issues of the day. So we feel that the -- that the -- the person who's having trouble connecting, that the thing that voters find unexciting is this bad economy and the president who's currently in the White House.

I think the reason that Mitt Romney does well in all of the general election polling, he's either beating them or -- within the margin of error on these national polls that we see, is because of his failures on the economy. So we look forward to resetting the race as we get into the general. And we think it will be a good debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

MORGAN: Well, given you're all in so much good moods over there at the Romney camp, how about giving me your man for another interview?

FEHRNSTROM: OK. I'm sure we can discuss that. He's been doing a lot of press and he's been on your show before, Piers. He enjoyed it and I'm sure we'll be back.

MORGAN: I look forward to it. Eric Fehrnstrom, thank you very much indeed for your time.

FEHRNSTROM: Thank you, Piers.

MORGAN: When we come back, a defiant Rick Santorum promising to stay in the race. I'll talk to one of his top advisers next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: This is (INAUDIBLE) things. This is an election about not who's the best person to manage Washington or manage the economy. We don't need a manager. We need someone who's going to pull up government by the roots and throw it out and do something to liberate the private sector in America. That's what we need.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: And losing Illinois, but as confident as ever. That's Rick Santorum tonight. It's clear that he's in the hunt until the end. John Brabender, a senior campaign adviser for Rick Santorum.

Welcome back, John. What are your thoughts after tonight?

JOHN BRABENDER, SENIOR SANTORUM CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Thank you for having me, Piers. Well, you know, look, you have to look at this as a long process. Last week, we won Kansas, we won Alabama, we won Mississippi. We knew that Governor Romney would eventually win again. And so now we're moving onto Louisiana and, after that, we're only going to be at halftime.

MORGAN: I mean I suppose if you look at the stats and you would that in terms of delegates and states, Mitt Romney is beginning to put real clear water between himself and the other candidates. Is it time for some of the others, not necessarily your man, but some of them to drop out?

BRABENDER: Well, let me put it this way. I do think that it is important that the conservative wing of the Republican Party, the Tea Party part of the Republican Party, do unify and get behind one candidate. And I think Rick Santorum is that candidate.

Let's make this a real choice. A conservative versus a moderate. Let the party decide which do we want to accept? Let's also have some one-on-one debates between Rick Santorum and Romney. I think that is the right process.

MORGAN: I want to play you a clip from yesterday Rick Santorum dropping a little bit of a gaffe. Let's watch this and discuss it afterwards.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: We need a candidate who's going to be a fighter for freedom. Who's going to get up and make that the central theme in this race because it is the central theme in this race. I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. There's something more foundational that's going on here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: At whichever way you spin that, I guess that bold statement, I don't care what unemployment rate is going to be, was a clumsy use of phrase. It also followed a few other clumsy phrases that have come out in the last few weeks. The implication being from some people who actually like your man that he's getting a bit tired of the campaign and he's getting (INAUDIBLE) a bit, and he's losing that slight edge that you need at the crucial stage which we're now at.

What do you say to that? BRABENDER: Well now I think what it really is is Rick is an authentic candidate who doesn't use a teleprompter. Sometimes says some thing where the meaning doesn't come through. What Rick was saying was that he thinks it's a terrible mistake for this country if we have a president who thinks the only thing that matters about the United States of America is what the labor statistic is in a one-month period.

Sure that's important. Jobs are important. But America is bigger than that. It's a concept. It's freedom. It's about making something that nobody else have. When you look at things that are going out in the world right now, Iran, rapidly moving towards nuclear bomb. Who's going to stop them if it isn't America. There are so many big issues and to just say that we need somebody like Mitt Romney who should be a labor secretary, we need a president that knows how to lead. And that's what Rick Santorum was saying.

MORGAN: Map out for me, John, the next six weeks, if it all goes according to the best expectations in your plan.

BRABENDER: Well, first of all, Louisiana is key, which is Saturday. Rick Santorum will be going there tomorrow. He'll be spending the rest of the week there. There was a poll out today showing him up by 13 points so we're very optimistic.

Then we move into places like Maryland and Wisconsin. Important states particularly Wisconsin, I think the senator can do particularly well. And there will be parts of Maryland that he'll do very well. Then we basically take a three-week halftime. Let everybody rest a little bit. And then we go back for the second half of this contest.

This thing is going to go for quite -- you have huge states, Pennsylvania, Texas, California and certainly all of them should have a say of who the Republican nominee is.

MORGAN: Is it healthy -- this is a question that's been asked a lot, I think I've asked it of you before. Is it healthy for this battle to continue raging for another two, three months, possibly? Or would it be better for the party if it got resolved quicker and you can get stuck into Barack Obama before the economy continues to improve to the extent that by the time he has a real opponent, he can say, hey, look what I've been up to while you've been squabbling.

BRABENDER: Look, the great unifier in this whole campaign for the Republican Party is Barack Obama. Regardless who the nominee is, all of us will rally, all will be there. One of the things Rick Santorum will say, though, is at the end of the day we better have somebody who has contrast with Barack Obama.

Mitt Romney -- Romneycare became the blueprint for Obamacare. We take that off. They agreed on the big Wall Street bailouts. That takes that off. Romney doesn't have any foreign policy experience so we take that off against Obama. Cap-and-trade, we take that off. What we need, though, is a candidate that can contrast with Obama. That's why if you saw, there was a poll that came out this week that showed in the battleground states, Rick Santorum is actually doing better against Obama than Mitt Romney.

MORGAN: I mean, your man has to win 70 percent now of the delegates remaining. In football terms, he's got everything to play for but it's pretty tough, isn't it? Has he got what it takes --

BRABENDER: Yes, but don't forget --

MORGAN: -- to get himself over the line?

BRABENDER: Romney has to win almost half of all of the delegates, as well. It's going to be very difficult both of them have an uphill climb to make the 1144. Somebody catches on fire that can happen. If not then we go to the next step of the process that's put in place.

MORGAN: John Brabender, thank you for your time, as always.

BRABENDER: Thank you, and always a pleasure being here, Piers.

MORGAN: Newt Gingrich had a disappointing finish tonight. How long will he stay in the race? I'll ask one of his top men.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: I honestly believe I am the one candidate who can beat Barack Obama and defeat him in the debates. I think that is central to winning the elections. And that's why Callista and I are campaigning so hard. We really believe defeating Obama is central to the future of our country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: A big victory for Mitt Romney tonight. Another defeat in Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker is vowing to press on. The pressure is mounting for him to drop out. With me now is his chief of staff, Patrick Millsaps.

Patrick, thanks for joining me. A lot of heat coming on your man now to possibly stand aside, throw his weight behind Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney. But -- to make it a two-horse race. How do you respond to that heat?

PATRICK MILLSAPS, NEWT GINGRICH'S CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, I'm sitting here in Baton Rouge which is a few miles away from LSU. And I wish that advice had been given to Les Miles last year in the SEC championship because because if Les Miles have taken that advice, my Georgia Bulldogs would have won the SEC championship.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLSAPS: Instead, they came back in the second half and won the whole thing.

You know that's -- we are -- Louisiana is halftime. I think we learned three things this week, very interesting points. Number one, I think we can all agree that no presidential candidate should sunbathe in public. I think that's universal.

(LAUGHTER)

MORGAN: Yes, I'll agree with that.

MILLSAPS: The second -- the second one, and this is more importantly, is Rick Santorum is not the candidate that he has sold himself to be to the conservative base. He's basically had two chances at basically a head-to-head at Mitt Romney in both Puerto Rico and Illinois. And he's lost miserably. I mean, Puerto Rico was a blowout and Mitt Romney is right at 50 percent in Illinois.

If you remember the first quarter of this ballgame, if we use this analogy, when Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were competing, we always kept Mitt Romney at 30 percent and we would come in at a close second. So I think -- I think that what we're seeing going into half time is that Mitt Romney's time in the sun is over. And you'll see the speaker come back for the third time and press on.

The final thing that we learned this week was while Mitt Romney and Santorum were in Illinois calling each other names and quite frankly using some of Gingrich's better talking points about drilling and energy, a debate started. And it didn't start between candidates in the Republican Party, it was started by the president of the United States who started addressing Speaker Gingrich directly.

And so while the other two candidates in the primary have been cowarding away from any further debate with Newt Gingrich, the president of the United States has started to engage us. And, really, at the end of the day, that's what this race is all about. And as was reported somewhere Newt Gingrich has gotten under his skin. So we look forward to the second half.

MORGAN: I mean it seemed a rather cheerily statement from the speaker tonight, I thought. I mean, as usual, no credit to Mitt Romney for winning. And a lot of sniping. Including the fact that -- and I'll quote him. "Republicans can't nominate a candidate who relies on outspending his opponent 7-1."

I mean I would have thought that's a very good selling point for Mitt Romney is that he's about to face Barack Obama with billions of dollars in a war chest. Don't you need somebody who's gotten infrastructure and equally large sums of cash to take on the president? Isn't that exactly what the Republicans needs? It seems a very strange stick to beat Mitt Romney with, of all the things you could beat with.

MILLSAPS: Well, the problem with that is I think the point that's being made and I can guarantee you he said that very cheerfully when he said it, is that with the reverse role, with Obama having 7-1 money against Romney, he -- Romney is not going to be able to rely solely on slick ads and making up statements about his opponents. He's actually kind of come up with a message that is delivering hope and opportunity and support to America.

And I think the point being made is that, you know, I think -- one of your earlier guests said that Mitt Romney, at this point, has had the most organized, best operated campaign. I may have to disagree with you. A campaign that spends $20 million against one candidate after Florida and still has three opponents in the race, I'm not so sure that's the best-run campaign you can see out there.

The fact that we are still -- we're going into halftime and there's four people in the race and I consider Newt Gingrich a very viable candidate, I -- I doubt the premise that up until this point, Mitt Romney has run the best campaign.

MORGAN: Well, I wish you all the very best with your continued campaign. Thank you very much for joining me.

MILLSAPS: Thank you, Piers. Thanks for having me.

MORGAN: When we come back, I want to ask my superstar political panel what tonight's results will mean for the rest of the race.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: After years of too many apologies and not enough jobs, historic drops and income and historic highs in gas prices, a president who doesn't hesitate to use all the means necessary to force through Obamacare on the American public but leads from behind in the world. It's time to say these words. This word. Enough. We've had enough.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: Mitt Romney winning in Illinois tonight and winning big. Does this mean he has the momentum to stop Santorum and get that nomination? Let's bring in a particularly super duper panel tonight.

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed.com, Amy Holmes from Glenn Beck TV. Carol Roth, author of the "Entrepreneur Equation." Dana Loesch, editor of Bigjournalism.com and Politico's chief White House correspondent Mike Allen.

My god, who have ever had a longer or more illustrious panel in the history of these panels.

Amy, let me start with you. I mean there's no doubt it's a big win for Mitt Romney. A lot of the CNN experts tonight saying this could be a bit of a game-changing night.

AMY HOLMES, NEWS ANCHOR, GLENN BECK'S "THE BLAZE": It could be and it stacks up also with Michigan and Ohio, of getting those central states where -- sorry, Santorum did badly. And if you look at the delegate count, again, you have that inevitability argument that Romney now has more than twice Santorum in the delegate count. And he has more than Santorum and Gingrich put together so it's hard to see how either Santorum or Gingrich could ever catch up.

MORGAN: Ben, he's got all the delegates. H e hasn't got any of the love. Where is the love?

BEN SMITH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, BUZZFEED: I mean, it's just not there. And in fact, what happened in Illinois wasn't so much that people came to love him. The people who date didn't -- don't live in Illinois. It's a very urban, very suburban state. The Tea Partiers, the real social conservatives came out in pretty small numbers and voted against him. And that's -- I mean that's sort of what happened -- what happened. They're just fewer.

HOLMES: Although he did get a majority of people who support the Tea Party and he got somewhat conservative voters and moderates which, by the way, is quite a nice profile of the broader American electorate.

MORGAN: Yes. Mike Allen, let's talk money for a moment. Because obviously, you know, Mitt Romney has got buckets of cash. Newt Gingrich is trying to whack him with it as if somehow it's a weakness, and he's got all this money and he's still only winning by twice as much as every else.

I don't see it that way. I mean, to me, whoever wins the nomination has got to be well-funded enough to take on a rampant president, hasn't it?

MIKE ALLEN, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, POLITICO: No, that's right. The Romney campaign that figures that between them and the national party, they'll have to raise $850 million against Obama. So starting tomorrow the Romney campaign is going to argue that to get the nomination, they would only need to get about half the remaining delegates to get the nomination, to catch them, Rick Santorum would have to get 80 percent of the remaining delegates.

Newt Gingrich, to come back out of this deep cave that he is, would have to get 90 percent of all of the delegates left. So it's a new way the Romney campaign is going to to make this inevitability argument saying that there's no way these other guys can climb out of that hole.

MORGAN: Yes, I mean, Dana, we are talking comeback, a sort of Lazarus proportions here, aren't we? For almost any of them. Having said that, Newt Gingrich was dead in the summer. I man literally, he was about 10 feet under. And then he stormed back.

DANA LOESCH, EDITOR, BIGJOURNALISM.COM: Yes.

MORGAN: I mean it's completely unthinkable that one of these guys could yet make another stunning comeback?

LOESCH: For me, it's too early to call Santorum out because we still have a few more states to go. And look, Louisiana and Wisconsin, and those are going to look like wins for Santorum. I mean he's leading in the polling there. But when I look at Newt Gingrich, it was reported today that he has more debt than he has cash on hand. That's not going to win any campaigns. And it's certainly not going to encourage more people to invest in his campaigns. So, at this point, I think even Lazarus is being generous to Newt Gingrich. I just don't think he can come back from this. MORGAN: Carol, let's just talk about Rick Santorum. He's dropped a few clangors in the last couple of weeks. No question of that. He's been stumbling with phrases which are really grated with people. He's lost a bit of the surge, hasn't he?

CAROL ROTH, AUTHOR, "THE ENTREPRENEUR EQUATION": I think he's lost a lot of momentum. And I don't think he learned anything about these social issues. You know, first it was the birth control issue. This week, it was the porn issue. He's really sort of gotten off message here. And I think that that's taken him back a little bit, put Mitt Romney out front.

But as some of the other panelists said, look, this is a momentum game and we're talking about Romney, and it was a great thumping win, as you say, Piers. But next week, when we get to Louisiana, we're going to be talking about how Santorum won the Louisiana and everyone is going to be back on the Santorum bandwagon then.

MORGAN: I mean it is true. I mean if we -- if we were to replay what we've all been saying since January, we'd all look ridiculous because it's all been, like, fantastic, Santorum, brilliant Romney. Gingrich is back. And, actually, here we are with Mitt Romney, still the store of the narrative. It's pretty similar to how it all began. Mitt Romney should be the runaway frontrunner. But, for some reason, he hasn't got there yet.

HOLMES: Yes, I think we would have seen that through line in terms of the narrative. But I think Carol actually has been quite consistent in her support for Romney.

MORGAN: Annoyingly, yes.

HOLMES: Yes. But as have evangelicals and their support for Santorum, and the moderates in support for Mitt Romney. So what we thought, also, again tonight in Illinois, he won the woman's vote, he won the married women's vote, which is crucial to winning the presidency in November. And again, when you look at that coalition that Mitt Romney has put together, he could very persuasively argue that that is the profile of the American voting public. Center right.

MORGAN: Let's take a little break. I want to come back and talk about women. Women, women, women. That should get you all going.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: Mitt Romney is in (INAUDIBLE) tonight after a big win in Illinois. Let's bring back our star panel, Amy Holmes, Carol Roth, Dana Loesch, Ben Smith and Mike Allen.

Ben, I teased women there. And what I meant was how important is this female vote now for both Rick Santorum and for Mitt Romney? And the reason I ask you is because so much attention that's been on social issues which directly affect women, whether it's abortion, contraception, whatever it may be. A lot of women wondering what the hell is going on with these candidates. SMITH: Well, I mean there are two very different things. In a lot of these Republicans, Rick Santorum is seen as being -- I mean the White House would like to paint him as a lunatic, got issues relating to women. He's done quite well with Republican women. Illinois is a more moderate state so he's losing everybody there.

But across the board, I think Republican women who are pro-life, who are very conservative, have been voting for Santorum. I mean I think what the White House is trying to do is to taint the whole party by association with the social issues Santorum is -- you know, the very devoted to and to kind of tie those to Romney going for the general election.

MORGAN: Mike Allen, I know there's been a mistake, hasn't it, for Rick Santorum to keep beating that drum because he made his point early on? He got hold of the diehard conservatives, but actually, overtime, it begins to grate with people. They're like, come on, nobody cares about abortion and contraception when you've got 9 percent jobless figures in the country. Get back to what is really affecting most Americans.

ALLEN: Right. Women have saved Mitt Romney again and again, going back to Iowa. The Romney campaign is very deliberately focused on women knowing that they're always going to do better with them than Santorum or Gingrich are going to do. And this is just one of the places Santorum blew it. Especially in Michigan. Michigan was where he made the dumb comment about Kennedy where he talked about snobs and college.

If he could have just gotten a couple more points in Michigan, it would have changed the race. Now he's really in a tough place and you can see the confidence of the Romney campaign. With that clip that you played at the top, that's a general election message. He's starting to draw the lines for the fall. Talk about the economy, even though it's better, the country isn't where it should be.

We're going to see -- where as we're going to see Santorum in the next couple days, still on Romney trying to argue with the anniversary of Obama health care, trying to argue that both Obama and Romney are the authors of health care reform. So he's going after Romney where as Romney is going after Obama.

MORGAN: I mean, Dana, if you're Mitt Romney now, you just want to talk about economy, jobs, your track record, bring back the Olympics that you saved for the nation, and so on and so on. You want to keep hitting the stuff that you're good at, don't you?

LOESCH: Right. Well, and you know, I want to make up the point, too, that it's really easy, and especially if you're -- if you're considered the moderate Republican in the primary. It's really easy to be super confident in a state like Illinois. Because this is a very moderate Republican state. And you don't get conservative until you go pretty far south in Illinois and maybe a little bit closer to the metro east towards St. Louis.

But it's really easy to be confident in a state like Illinois. And women voters, that had been flocking to Newt Gingrich, especially after South Carolina, with the whole (INAUDIBLE) with his wife, they were going to Santorum, but then I'm noticing that some more and more conservatives and more and more women are starting to kind of at least, just with the past couple of contests, coalescing just a little bit about Romney.

Now I'm not certain if that's going to be a huge trend just yet. I'm going to watch Louisiana and Wisconsin and see what happens. But, yes, it's definitely the fat lady is warming up. I know a lot of people have said it. But I think we're down to a two-man race now.

MORGAN: Carol, let's see. Your fellow panelists have rightly observed you fancy Mitt Romney from the start of this race. How are you going to get other maybe Republicans actually to come out and fancy him, too, with the same ardent fervor that you do?

ROTH: Well, Piers, first of all, I don't think it even matters. I think you could have curious George up there and everyone in the Republican Party is going to vote for curious George because it's all about beating Obama. So I think that that's -- that that's really the big issue. That that's the driving force here. Everybody is rallying around beating Barack Obama.

The one thing, though, that I do think is going to change this is that when Mitt Romney does become the nominee and he picks a vice presidential candidate, he could have somebody like Marco Rubio that sparks a lot of excitement and then all of a sudden where there's this kind of smoke becomes some fire? And I think that's when people will really start coalescing behind him.

MORGAN: Or of course he could commit suicide and bring in a version of Sarah Palin, which seems like a good idea at the time. And then blows up in his face.

LOESCH: No.

HOLMES: And Piers, that I was just about to applaud you for asking the men about the women's vote and the women about economics.

(LAUGHTER)

MORGAN: Exactly. Well, that's the kind of guy I am.

And our superstar panel, thank you very much. It was bigger than ever. Better than ever. I look forward to having you all back very soon.

Later tonight, I'll be back at my regular -- you can't all say thank you. We'll be here all night. Seriously, there's about 3,000 of you. So we'll just have to leave it there.

We'll be back tonight, oddly, because it's so late now. At 9:00 Eastern. With Starbucks' boss Howard Schultz and filmmaker Kevin Smith. He's always great. That's all for us tonight. Goodnight, everyone.