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Republican Primary in Illinois

Aired March 20, 2012 - 20:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're waiting for real numbers. Let's pause for a second and see what we can report.

All right. Here we go. We can't make a projection yet. But these are the exit polls. The early rounds of the exit polls. We're going to be getting more exit polls coming in. But you can see right now 45 percent of those who emerged from the polls in Illinois, in this CNN exit poll, said they were -- they had just voted for Mitt Romney, 35 percent for Rick Santorum, 12 percent for Newt Gingrich, 8 percent for Ron Paul.

A 10-point difference in these exit polls, but remember. This is still the early exit polls. Very soon we're going to be getting some more numbers. We're not yet able to make a projection based on these first round, second round of these exit polls. We're getting more.

Let me walk over to John King and explain to our viewers what's going on right now.

John, no projection yet. But it seems, at least according to the early exit polls information, the new numbers in the exit polls are still coming in. It looks like it's going to be a very good night for Mitt Romney.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Every reason to believe that Governor Romney will win the state of Illinois. But if you've been with us through past primary nights, often the last wave, people who were just voting now, who just finished voting, talking to the exit polls now. Often Senator Santorum does better in that last wave. And often Senator Santorum has overperformed his last poll numbers. So we just want to wait to be safe. We're cautious.

BLITZER: That's right. We're being cautious.

KING: We're cautious here. We'd rather get it right than get it wrong. But we can tell some things if we look at the electorate today. The most important candidate quality, and we've seen this in some other states, nearly 4 in 10 voters today say beating President Obama is the most important candidate quality.

And if you look here, among those voters, a decent chunk of the electorate. Look at that. That's a wow. Governor Romney getting 75 percent to 16 percent. Among those who say their number one priority today was picking a candidate who can win in November.

BLITZER: It's electability.

KING: Electability in November. Now who's the true conservative? Let's see others. Only 20 percent of the electorates said this. But that's important as well. Here you see, that's Senator Santorum's strength. But it's a smaller slice of the electorate. And Governor Romney actually running fourth on that issue. Speaker Gingrich and Congressman Paul coming in ahead of him.

So that's one way to look at this electorate. Let's come over and look a little bit more here. This is among all voters. Regardless of who you voted for. Who do you think is most likely to beat Obama? So even people who didn't vote for Mitt Romney today -- but we don't expect him to get 60 percent of the vote in Illinois -- think he's the strongest candidate in the fall. That seems to be a consensus.

Here's another issue here. Fifty-nine percent say no. Not white born-again evangelicals. If we flip this up last week in Mississippi that number was above 80 percent, in Alabama it was in the 70s. Those states more favorable to Senator Santorum who runs very well among born-again Christians. Those who say they're not born-again Christians you see a big Romney lead here, nearly 2-1, 52 to 27 percent there. And among those who are evangelical Christians, again, 4 in 10 voters there. Senator Santorum with a comfortable lead but Governor Romney holding his own among that constituency. Senator Santorum would have liked for that to be a bigger margin.

BLITZER: Can we assume that Illinois will be a good suggestive point what happens in Wisconsin in a few weeks?

KING: Sure. Illinois has more bigger cities. More of the population. It's located -- most of the population, more than 40 percent, close to 50 percent. It is right in the loop around Chicago. So Wisconsin population is spread out a little bit. But the Milwaukee area, still very important for Governor Romney.

If we've gone state by state through this state, whether you're going to Ohio, even in the southern states, Governor Romney tends to do well in the urban areas and the close-in suburbs, and breaks even or does OK in the exurbs. And then Senator Santorum has done well in the far -- the smaller rural communities.

The big question, the big going forward, is -- this one more look -- a glimpse of the electorate here. A pretty diverse ideologically electorate in the state of Illinois right here. But what if the other things, Wolf, and come over here. I just want to pull up the state of Illinois in case any of the results start to come in. We're popping up here. As the results come in, they will --

BLITZER: So far zero -- zero actual votes have come in.

KING: So far zero. And look, this corner right here -- touch that, make sure it keys in. This corner right here is critical to Governor Romney. He could lose the rest of the state, I'm not saying he will, if he could lose the rest of the state if he ran up big margins here. Because this is where the people are and this is the key to his campaign. If you look right here, Chicago proper, mostly Democratic, home of the Obama campaign re-election headquarters. But --

BLITZER: Look at this, 23.3 percent of the population.


KING: Of the state population. If you just come right out here, these are probably the most important areas for Governor Romney. The Cook County suburbs, the closest in-suburbs.

BLITZER: So between Chicago and the Cook suburbs you're talking 40-plus percentage of the -entire - of the entire state.

KING: Forty-plus percent, then you come here to DuPage County, then you're over 7 percent. And if you move back up here Lake County is about 5 percent. So that area right there, this is the Romney campaign right here. Not only to run up the margin, but there's several of the districts in this area here where Senator Santorum does not have delegates on the ballot. This is an interesting state. You not only click for your candidate but you also vote directly for delegates as well. Fifty-four delegates at stake tonight. If Governor Romney matches that exit poll number, if he performs as well up here as we believe he will, he'll pick up two-thirds, maybe more of the delegates which will be the biggest prize tonight.

BLITZER: And, Anderson, this explains why most of the money that the pro-Romney -- super PAC and the Romney campaign spent millions of dollars in advertising, was in the Chicago media market. Because almost 50 percent of the people in Illinois, the voters in Illinois, are in that Chicago and the suburban Chicago area.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, and again, within this hour we may be very able to call this race. We'll obviously bring that to you as soon as we can. We also anticipate to hear from Rick Santorum possibly within this hour. Also waiting to hear from Governor Romney as well. There's other news to tell you about.

I want to bring in our panel, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile joins us tonight, as well as Paul Begala, conservatives Erick Erickson of, and Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Also here in New York Gloria Borger and David Gergen.

It's interesting, Erick Erickson, I mean, when you look at that figure that John King has from the exit polls, 75 percent of people who say electability is the number one issue, they all go for Mitt Romney. You haven't been a fan of Mitt Romney. But that's a pretty telling argument and a hard thing for Rick Santorum supporters to fight against.

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, very much. And he's been fighting it around the nation. Not very successfully, by the way. My caution has always been that if you look at the exits in 2004, a lot of Democrats went for John Kerry because they thought he was the most electable. At the same time Rick Santorum hasn't sold himself to Republican -- independents who lean Republican. He hasn't sold himself to suburban Republicans outside of core conservatives and evangelicals. He hasn't done a very good job.

And, you know, David Gergen was right when he said Santorum has had a very bad week and can't control himself on social issues. I'm not afraid to talk about social issues either. But I know that most voters looking at the exits consistently. Even in the south they're concerned about the economy and jobs.

COOPER: Paul Begala, did it make sense to you that Rick Santorum spent so much time in Puerto Rico?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: No. Candidly no, it didn't. I mean I -- but you know, these things, they're very dynamic, they're very difficult. Sometimes you go to a candidate and say, look let's not try there. Puerto Rico is overwhelmingly Catholic like Senator Santorum, like Speaker Gingrich, is a Catholic. But he got creamed there. He got a nice tan, I guess. But otherwise he was wasting his time. And he walked in, as Erick pointed out, as Gergen said earlier, walked into issues that voters are not dialed in on. And that's always a mistake.

COOPER: Donna Brazile, in terms of what the voters want, Rick Santorum, as I said earlier, has done well among evangelicals, among rural voters, among very conservatives. But he really has not been able to make inroads with suburban voters who, as Gloria said, are going to be very important in this election.

DONNA BRAZILE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Now that's because their number one focus, Anderson, is the economy. Rick Santorum continues to try to, you know, talk about issues that really most people want to just talk in the bedroom. He wants to take it to the kitchen table and they want to talk about gas prices, they want to talk about jobs. They want to talk about manufacturing. They want to talk about agriculture. They're not interested in bringing bedroom issues into the kitchen.

COOPER: Ralph Reed, what are you going to be watching tonight?

RALPH REED, FOUNDER, CHRISTIAN COALITION: Well, I'm watching really beyond the geography that John King already went through, Anderson, which is how well Romney and Santorum do in those color counties. Especially Lake, DuPage, suburban Cook. But also what happens in places like Champaign or Varna and southern Illinois. If Santorum's going to make a run tonight, it's going to have to be down state.

The second thing I'm going to be looking at is the core constituencies of the party, Anderson. Specifically Tea Party voters who are about six out of 10 voters tonight. And according to the early exit polls, and we should stress, this is early. They're actually going to Mitt Romney by a 10-point margin. Even the ones who are strongly supportive of the Tea Party. Romney is winning by five points. That's very good news for the Romney campaign.

The other core constituency I'm looking at tonight, of course, is evangelicals who are going to be 41 percent of the vote tonight, according to the early exits that, by the way, is identical to what it was four years ago. And Santorum is maintaining his advantage tonight, but he's doing so with a smaller margin. He's winning by about nine points or as in places like Ohio and Michigan he was winning that vote by 15.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm curious, Ralph -- this is David Gergen -- about what the overlap is between evangelicals and Tea Party. Are there many who are both? And if so which way do they seem to lean?

REED: It's a great question, David. And we've looked at that in some earlier polling. And about two-thirds of self-identified Tea Party members are social conservatives. Now that doesn't mean that they're involved in the Tea Party movement for those reasons. They're involved primarily because of spending, deficits, government overreach, and Obamacare.

But they are social conservatives. About two-thirds of them. And among self-identified evangelicals, about half identify themselves as Tea Party members or activists. So there's a huge amount of overlap between those two constituencies.

GERGEN: And do they tend to be -- with the overlap, do they tend to be moved by the social issues more or by the economic issues that Romney has been stressing? And is that message getting through for the Tea Party? Is that what you were suggesting? It sounded to me like that what you were concluding.

REED: You know, I think the salient point about all voters this cycle, including Republicans primary voters, including self-identified evangelicals, is if you disaggregate the data, they're voting on economy, jobs, Obamacare and spending just like everybody else. If for example -- I haven't looked at tonight. But if you looked at Ohio and Michigan, when you ask voters how many were voting on social issues like abortion and how many were voting on the economy, it was about 55 percent economy and only 14 percent abortion.

So, again, that isn't to indicate that these issues aren't important to people. They're very important to people and they've been a booster rocket for Santorum. Remember this guy was an asterisk in the polls with no money and no endorsements going into Iowa. So it's extraordinary what he's done, but I think the economic message is going to be paramount.

COOPER: Everyone, just stick around. I want to check in now with Jim Acosta who's with the Santorum campaign in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Jim, what are you hearing from the campaign tonight?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John Brabender, chief strategist for the Santorum campaign, came in here just a few moments ago, Anderson, was talking to reporters. And it's interesting to hear the conversation that you're talking about because I think -- I have a feeling what the Santorum campaign would like to say if they could weigh in, and that is, that they're looking at these returns come in from Chicago and the rest of Illinois. They're looking at the exit polls.

And Brabender said, look, we expected Mitt Romney to do well on those moderate color counties around Chicago. Just as he did well, the Santorum campaign says in Massachusetts. Those words moderate and Massachusetts came up quite a bit when Brabender was talking to reporters a few moments ago.

And I think you're going to hear more of that later tonight. This banner that is hanging over my shoulder, Anderson, we have not seen very much in this campaign. It's sort of a new banner tonight. It reads, in one word, "Freedom." Just yesterday we heard Rick Santorum out on the campaign trail going after Mitt Romney accusing him of abandoning freedom and going after health care reform with that individual mandate in Massachusetts.

We're hearing from the Santorum campaign tonight that Rick Santorum will return to that theme and hammer Mitt Romney on the issue of the individual mandate. Painting him as that Massachusetts moderate that they expected to do well outside of Chicago and parts of Illinois.

This may not be their night, but they see other nights for them coming up like Louisiana and when this -- when this primary battle comes to Pennsylvania next month -- Anderson.

COOPER: Right. Let's also check in with Candy Crowley. She's at the Romney headquarters in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Illinois.

They've got to be feeling pretty good tonight -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: They do. Look, they've seen the polls. They do expect to win here as much as you can expect anything in this campaign. What they like is a big win, a convincing win. One of those wins where we all go wow, he really won a big one. Maybe double digits. Why? Because the message coming from the Romney campaign that has not yet taken hold -- but we have heard him talk about it on various election nights when he's won, which is this is over we now -- doesn't say it quite that bluntly.

But let's all get together now because really let's keep our eyes on the prize. And that's November. And we want to win then. So we all have to come together. They feel that a big win here would, first of all, brush off Alabama and Mississippi, and might inoculate him for Louisiana coming up on Saturday. It's a big state. It's a diverse state.

They would like a wow kind of win to kind of solidify him, put him on (INAUDIBLE) firm to say this is the frontrunner. This is all but over. Let's move it on. So they want -- they want not just momentum out of here. They want some big momentum out of here.

COOPER: And I anticipate hearing from Rick Santorum probably within this hour. A lot of talk, probably not so much talk about Illinois, but a lot of talk about Louisiana which, as Candy said, is coming up on Saturday which Rick Santorum is expected to do well.

We've got to take a quick break. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @Andersoncooper. I'm tweeting tonight throughout the hour. We're also live at 10:00 tonight. Our continuing coverage.

Santorum says he's in this race until the convention and he's got strategy to win it. Does it actually stand a chance, that strategy? We'll talk to his spokeswoman, also next. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Special AC 360 coverage tonight as primary results begin coming in the state of Illinois. Fifty-four delegates up for grabs. The polls going in seem to be trending in Mitt Romney's favor. But now the real votes are being counted. Our exit polling suggest that Mitt Romney is leading. The race is still not ready to be called. We'll let you know as soon as it is.

Alice Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Santorum campaign, she joins us now.

Alice, thanks for being with us. A few days ago the senator said if we're able to come out of Illinois with a big win, he guaranteed that he'd win the nomination. Mitt Romney may have won the primary tonight, won it pretty convincingly, so does that mean he's guaranteed the nomination, Mitt Romney is?

ALICE STEWART, SPOKESWOMAN FOR RICK SANTORUM: Absolutely not. As you know, Anderson, we're a far cry from anyone reaching that -- the magic number. And all three candidates have made it clear they're going to stay in it until someone reaches 1144 delegates. You know there's more than 60 delegates up for grabs here in Illinois. And we're confident that we're going to get anywhere between, you know, two dozen to possibly 30 delegates tonight.

And that's what it's all about. It's about getting as many delegates as you possibly can in as many as states as you possibly can, and that's what Rick has been doing. We're going to do that tonight. And we're looking in good shape to do it in the states that are next on the primary calendar.

COOPER: But your candidate, Santorum, wasn't able to feel a full slate of candidates -- of delegates so he's not even eligible for 10 out of the 54 or so delegates who are available. And I want to ask you about some exit polling that John King was showing us. Seventy- five percent of those who say that electability is the key issue, they even say they're voting for Mitt Romney. That's a hard thing for your candidate to overcome, isn't it?

STEWART: Well, sure, it is. But you also have to consider the fact that, you know, with Mitt Romney with the tremendous financial advantage he has and the name ID and the length of time he's been running for president, he shouldn't even be in this spot. He should be running away with it. But he's up against the ropes. He outspent us in the Chicago area 21-1. That's unheard of. And it all goes to show the fact that he's not running away. And his message is not resonating with the people of Illinois and in other states where he's not running away with it.

Rick, what we did consciously in Illinois is we focused on the more areas outside of the larger cities. We focused on reaching out to the conservative voters. And that's what we did. And we're going to get the delegates to show for that tonight.

COOPER: There are some critics of your candidate who say that you candidate shouldn't be in this positioned. Last week, the race was too close to call in Illinois and Senator Santorum went to spend a few days campaigning in Puerto Rico, got no delegates out of Puerto Rico, and in the meantime Mitt Romney doubled or tripled his Illinois lead depending on the poll. In hindsight, was it a mistake to leave the state?

STEWART: Well, in terms of the decision on how we decide where we're going to go and how are we going to campaign, you know -- you know, we don't want to play armchair quarterback. Rick went down to Puerto Rico and was proud of the work that he did in reaching out to the folks down there. But the focus tonight is on Illinois. And we worked hard to go out to the areas, reach out to the conservative voters. And they resonate with him. Folks here in Illinois, a lot of them, don't connect with Mitt Romney. He's out of touch with the people. He has demonstrated that time and time again.

And what this is about tonight, this is about the candidate. It's about Rick Santorum's message to the people of Illinois and the states coming up. They see him as the candidate that has been consistent on the issues. He's been true to his vision of limited government.

COOPER: Right.

STEWART: Smaller spending, and certainly reining in the size of government. And people here in Illinois appreciate that.

COOPER: Alice Stewart, appreciate your time tonight.

More now on the Santorum delegate strategy. Let's look at that and then numerical realities. And let's just talk with reality here. Let's bring back Wolf Blitzer and John King. Guys?

BLITZER: All right. Thanks, Anderson. Because I want John to walk us through 1144, 1,144 delegates, the magic number. Romney is on his way a lot better than Gingrich, Santorum and Ron Paul, but he's not there yet.

KING: It's a long way to get there. No, he's not even quite to the halfway mark. And so the question is, you know, the Santorum campaign, the Gingrich campaign, they say not only can we block them, they say they can get them. Well, for Santorum to clinch, to get to 1144, you see where he is, he'd have to win 70 percent of the remaining delegates, Wolf. He's only won 20 percent of the delegates so far. So that's a hard thing to see. Let's just go -- first let's just go through tonight. If Romney wins tonight by the proportions that looks like he's going to win, this is an early guestimate, but he'll pick up delegates. Santorum will pick up delegates. But Romney stretches his lead. Now what I'm going to do here --

BLITZER: And the irony and the interesting thing about Illinois, even if Santorum were, and he probably won't get more of the popular vote because he didn't get on the ballots in four congressional districts, he's going to lose the delegate count in Illinois no matter what.

KING: He leaves 10 on the table to start the night.


KING: No matter what happens, he's left 10 on the table to start the night. Ten of the 54 delegates with be allocated tonight.

I'm going to fast forward all the way to the end. OK? If this goes all the way through under this scenario we've given Santorum Louisiana. We've given him Texas. We've given him Arkansas. We've given him his home state of Pennsylvania. Under this scenario, you see right here, Governor Romney clinches and clinches quite handily. But to be generous to the Santorum campaign, let's say they can win North Carolina. Let's say they can win West Virginia. And let's say they can win Indiana.

Let's even say they can win Wisconsin. Just gave him four more states. Now Romney supporters are saying no, no, no. This is a hypothetical, just to test their math. Gave him those four states, Romney still wins, Wolf.

BLITZER: Still has 1,190.

KING: Right. Right.

BLITZER: And you need 1,144. Santorum only comes up with 574.

KING: And so Santorum -- to block Romney Santorum would not only have to do everything I just showed you, which won't be easy, he would have to also take away one of the big winner-take-all. We don't expect Santorum to win Montana, we don't expect him to win Montana, we don't expect him to win South Dakota. So no more small gains, if you will, out there.

How would he do it? He would have to in June -- take away California. It's a winner-take-all and even under that scenario look at that. Even under the scenario where I've been generous, that doesn't get him there. Maybe he has to win California and New Jersey. Is that possible? Yes. Is it probable based on everything we've seen so far? No. Especially, as Alice Stewart -- they're complaining about Romney's cash advantage in a big media heavy state like New Jersey. We have to advertise in New York.


KING: In a huge media state like California, resources matter. So I'm being incredibly generous here. Most people today would say well, that's hard to believe and that's hard to believe. And unless this -- even if the Santorum campaign can change all that, they can't change those big winner-take-alls, New Jersey and California, that gets Romney there. Can he be stopped? Yes. If he wins Illinois tonight by a big margin, that hill to stop him gets even steeper.

BLITZER: And even -- no matter what happens in Louisiana this coming -- this coming Saturday. And when you say it's unlikely Santorum could win Utah because of the large Mormon population you just assume they're going to vote for a fellow Mormon.

KING: And because look at the map. Whatever Romney is doing so well out in the west, even if you just come back to today, that's been one of his greatest areas of strength out in the Mountain West.

BLITZER: Anderson, we're still unable, at least yet, to make a projection. We're getting closer. We're waiting some real numbers to come in. I think they're going to be coming in momentarily. Once we get real numbers, official numbers, we'll have a better sense of what's going on. So stand by.

COOPER: All right, Wolf. Thanks very much.

Rick Santorum already looking ahead to Pennsylvania. That's where his group is tonight. His home state. We're waiting to hear from him. We're going to bring that to you live as our special 360 primary coverage continues.


COOPER: Hey, welcome back to our 360 coverage of the primary results in Illinois. Wolf Blitzer just starting now to get some actual votes in, some results. Let's go to him -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's only 1 percent of that -- of the vote in Illinois in so far, Anderson, but let's put up the numbers that we have. So far you can see Mitt Romney taking his considerable lead and it's still very, very early. There you see it right there. Fifty-four percent for Mitt Romney, 29 percent for Rick Santorum, 10 percent for Ron Paul, only 6 percent so far for Newt Gingrich.

It's a lead of about a thousand votes, 2109 votes for Mitt Romney, 1,126 votes for Santorum. But as I said, it's very, very early. We still have not been able to make a projection. You saw in the exit polls and we're getting some new numbers in the exit polls coming in very soon. We'll be able to update you on that. But right now, right now, we're unable to make a projection.

But take a look at this. You can see some of these numbers that -- right there. You can see more numbers coming in, 2 percent. Right now Mitt Romney with 54 percent, 27 percent for Rick Santorum, 12 percent for Ron Paul, 6 percent for Newt Gingrich. But you see, about a 4,000 vote gap now between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. The numbers coming in slowly but surely but pretty soon they'll be coming in very quickly. But it's a very, very impressive lead so far with 2 percent of the vote.

Anderson, and right now Mitt Romney, as expected, doing well. But there are still more ballots that have to be counted.

COOPER: Right. And obviously, Wolf, the Romney campaign would like nothing more than a convincing huge double-digit win like that. We'll obviously continue to follow it.

There are reportedly some problems in 25 counties with the ballots themselves.

CNN's Shannon Travis is at the Election Commission Office in Wheaton, Illinois. Some details.

Shannon, what are you hearing?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL PRODUCER: Yes, we're trying to get to the bottom of it, Anderson. But here's what we're hearing so far and I got this information from Bob Czar. He is the chairman of the DuPage County Election Commission. Basically there's a problem with the ballot. Some of the ballots estimated possibly about a thousand being cut 1/30th of an inch a little bit too wide. So they're not exactly fitting into the ballot machines properly.

Now Bob told me that in his county, in DuPage County, he took care of the problem by reprinting some of the ballots earlier today and send them off so that they do actually fit. He can't vouch for what other county chairman are doing in their ballots. But as you mentioned, we've heard these reports that we haven't been able to confirm that some of these ballots are being cut down to size, again, Bob explained that that is not happening in this county, DuPage, where we're at right now. But from what he's understanding about a thousand possible ballots that were affected in this way.


TRAVIS: And again, in this county that some of the ballots were reprinted earlier today -- Anderson.

COOPER: OK. Shannon, appreciate it. We'll stay on top of it.

Mitt Romney obviously is looking for a big win in Illinois. Polls had him with a 14-point lead going into this race. Exit polls show him leading as the ballots are being counted.

We're waiting to hear from Rick Santorum. He is expected to speak shortly. Let's go back to our panel. Donna Brazile, Paul Begala, Erick Erickson, Ralph Reid, Gloria Borger and David Gergen. I mean, do you think that's a big deal this whole ballot side -- David Gergen, Gloria?

BORGER: In a victory that could be large, probably not. But, of course, you know you want everybody to be able to vote and vote fairly. So it could be challenged, I'm sure. But in the grand keep of things, if this is a substantial victory for Mitt Romney, you know, probably not.

COOPER: David, how much does tonight really matter? I mean, in a general election, Illinois tends to go Democratic.

GERGEN: It does but within the dynamics of this race, it does matter. If Mitt Romney were to lose this race tonight, it would be a big, big blow for him.

But our two numbers that jump out of the early voting patterns. One is 54 percent for Romney. If you break 50 percent, that's a whopping victory.

He really gets a lot of credibility coming out of that. But the other number is the Newt Gingrich number, 6 percent. I mean, what?

BORGER: He doesn't exist in this race.

GERGEN: Yes, he's just faded. After losing those two southern races, Mississippi and Louisiana, that was really hard for him. It was a lot for him.

COOPER: Paul Begala and Donna Brazile, if Newt Gingrich comes in fourth place, is there still an argument for him to stay in the race?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: The only argument, Anderson, is the one that he's likely to have with his "Super PAC" strongest supporters, Mr. Adelson of Nevada. It doesn't look like much for rationale if these poll numbers hold.

David's right. This is embarrassing performance for Speaker Gingrich. It does also kind of blow a bit of a whole in the theory that I and others kind of had that this presence of Gingrich was somehow siphoning off votes away from Santorum.

It may well be that Newt is becoming such a nonfactor and Santorum had such a bad week anyway, he couldn't capitalize on it anyway. Maybe some of those Gingrich voters maybe going to Romney anyway.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Anderson, I just wanted to mention about ballot designers. You know, since 2000, we spent more than $3 billion to properly design ballots across the country.

States were given grants to ensure that they could come up with ballots that would fit in ballot boxes. I'm surprised that Illinois is having this trouble and the Republicans didn't find this out early on.

But this is -- this was a close race, of course, those ballots and somehow another disenfranchising voters, that could spell trouble down the road.

COOPER: Is that like a flashback for you, Donna right now?

BRAZILE: You know, the Republicans have given me more Florida moments this cycle than I've had in the previous two. But hopefully, they'll figure out how to count these ballots.

BORGER: Can I say something about Newt Gingrich in this race? I think it's going to come down to Louisiana next week for him. If he doesn't win Louisiana, I don't see the rationale to stay in the race.

COOPER: The Gingrich campaign can't keep saying Louisiana is only the halfway point.

BORGER: Well, it may be the end point. We'll see. He's got to win something and Louisiana seems most likely. The second thing tonight in terms of Mitt Romney what's interesting to me is the Romney campaign has always wanted Newt Gingrich to stay in.

On the theory that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum would split the most conservative votes. We may be turning a corner tonight in which the Romney campaign would like Newt Gingrich to get out of the race.

Because Gallup has shown or has said that the Gingrich vote would be split evenly between Santorum and Romney. In that case, the Romney people say, look, this is about getting to 1,144. At this point if Newt gets out, it's fine with us, which is a big difference.

GERGEN: It's also true, Gloria, that this is one of the first states in which Santorum has had a true one-on-one shot at Mitt Romney. And to have his numbers this far behind on a true one on one in a major industrial state is -- I think is a psychological blow here.

BORGER: Here's the reason why. You have about a quarter of the voters that are independents and Romney has won half of those independent voters. That's good news for the Romney campaign because they've been losing ground with independents during this process. But they seem to have brought them in, in this open primary, which is good for them.

COOPER: We're anticipating hearing from Rick Santorum possibly within this hour. Erick Erickson, Ralph Reid, if you were Rick Santorum and you're anticipating losing tonight in Illinois, would you come out and speak before the results so that you don't have to dwell on the negativity?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think if I were Rick Santorum I'd go and speak and start talking about Louisiana. Head down to Louisiana as he did on the gulf coast. Won Mississippi and Alabama surprisingly to the extent of Mississippi and he spoke from Louisiana.

He probably needs to head back down there. You know, to Gloria's point on Newt Gingrich, I'm getting the sense just talking to some of the folks behind the scenes with Gingrich that they see the writing on the wall and it's just getting the candidate to make up his mind.

It's no longer a factor for Gingrich. I was talking to a Republican in Washington, D.C. who has been reading these comments in the "Washington Post" and elsewhere about some Republican saying, you know what, just let Santorum have it and lose so we can move past this.

We have to have a conservative candidate nonsense and you've got to lot of people saying, you know, do we really want to go down with the Santorum ship? There's some concern there.

COOPER: Gingrich has already -- I mean, he's running up a debt I saw a couple articles that his finances are not in good shape.

ERICKSON: No, he's not. His campaign is running out of money. I think people forget we talk about the "Super PAC" so much. The "Super PAC" money can't go day to day for the Gingrich campaign. It can't pay the staff. It can't pay the ancillary expenses of the staff or the campaign.

So his campaign itself, it doesn't have money to keep going on. I'm not sure the campaign has a pulse at this point. Frankly, looking at the numbers I think the inevitable is happening. Mitt Romney is going to be the nominee and that money's going to dry up anyway.

COOPER: Let's take a quick break. Up next, you're going to hear from the spokeswoman for Mitt Romney's campaign. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Mitt Romney may widen his delegate lead tonight. He's piling up votes in the early counting tonight in Illinois. Let's check in with Wolf about some more votes -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Anderson, he's doing really well, 7 percent of the vote now in and the numbers are coming in rather quickly. Take a look at this.

Romney with 55 percent, Santorum 27 percent, Ron Paul 10 percent, Newt Gingrich fourth place so far 7 percent. But 33,500 for Romney, 16,900 for Santorum.

John King is here. He's doing well where we expected him to be doing well where the people are in Chicago and the counties surrounding Chicago.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: People might be saying if you got 7 percent of the vote and a big lead that why can't you make a projection? We're just being extra cautious. We want to wait for a little more of the rural vote to come in, but you're exactly right.

Let me start even down here. Governor Romney tends to win in Erberist now Peuria is a small city, small city --

BLITZER: Hold on. John, I want to interrupt you for a second. Because I think we're getting ready for some announcement, some news to make right now.

We can now project that Mitt Romney is the winner of the Illinois primary based on the exit poll information, the new numbers coming in as well as the actual official numbers that we've already been counted. We project Mitt Romney wins in Illinois, a huge win. Looks like it's developing very, very impressively for the former Massachusetts governor. Not a huge surprise. Obviously, the polls showed he was doing well.

But what may be a surprise, John King, is how well he is doing right now as we say he's got 55 percent with 7 percent of the vote in. It looks like could narrow a bit, but it's still very impressive.

KING: Yes, a note of caution, when you see him up that high, people say if he finishes above 50 that would be a huge victory. Bit of a dose of skepticism, we've got nothing from the rural part of the state.

This is where we expect Senator Santorum to do quite well. But you mentioned, Governor Romney is winning where he needs to win especially up here in the Chicago area and the close suburbs.

This is the Cook County suburbs, the color counties. Right around downtown Chicago, 54 percent to 29 percent, 7 percent of the vote in. That's the margin Governor Romney needs. Right in urban Chicago itself, if you look at this --

BLITZER: Half the vote is already in.

KING: It's not a lot of turn out. If Santorum closes the gap, it would be because turnout is down in the urban areas. That's about half of the vote in. If you poll out here, you come up to Lake County, a very important area for Republicans, 53 percent of the vote.

Governor Romney again with the two to one lead essentially in that area there. Again, the turnouts not so great. That's half the vote there. Pull out here. If turnout is not so great here, the only question is, is it much higher when you come down to these rural counties.

And you see what's happening here only 8 percent of the vote in, but Senator Santorum winning. It's a safe projection based on Romney winning in the larger areas and winning by huge margins in the Chicago area and the circling suburbs.

BLITZER: Yes, having won in Michigan and Ohio and now in Illinois. Anderson, a very important win for Mitt Romney. It's going to help him. He's going to get a lot more delegates in Illinois as well.

More delegates than Santorum because Santorum failed to get on the ballots in 19 congressional districts total in Illinois. So it's a good night for Mitt Romney.

COOPER: No doubt about it. We anticipate hearing from Rick Santorum in a bit. A spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, she joins me now.

Andrea, first of all, do you know when your candidate is going to be speaking? Is it going to be in this hour? ANDREA SAUL, ROMNEY SPOKESWOMAN: I hope it's within the next hour. I haven't spoken with the campaign since I've been sitting here, but I would assume, you know, between 9:00 or 9:30 you'll see him out there speaking.

COOPER: This is a very good win for Governor Romney tonight. Once again, it looks like a majority of working class voters supported Senator Santorum. I know the governor said he had a problem reaching these voters that he needed to work on this approach. What's gone wrong in terms of reaching those voters?

SAUL: Well, I think what you also see is that Governor Romney won around people who say he understands American's problems the most. Working class people, his policies will help them the most. What we've seen is that Governor Romney has done so well in many of these contests against a large swath of voters.

COOPER: But why do you think he's not reaching out to those voters in the way he would like or what can you do about that?

SAUL: Well, he's reaching a lot of different voters. We have 1.2 million more votes going into tonight than our next closest competitor, which is Senator Santorum. He is reaching out to these voters.

He is resonating or we wouldn't be that far ahead. And what you see is Governor Romney won with Tea Party voters. He won with Catholics. So there are a lot of groups within the Republican Party and Governor Romney has won their votes and we're excited that it looks like we're going to have a good night tonight.

COOPER: Illinois was a close race until you flooded the zone basically. Your campaign far outspent the rest of the field put together. What do you say to rival campaigns who basically said look, the governor is buying these wins. He's outspending us 7-1 and in some markets 20-1.

SAUL: Well first off, you know, fundraising is part of a campaign. So is organization. That's like a basketball team complaining that they lost to another team because their players were too tall. It's just ridiculous.

So, you know, having an organization and being able to be well funded especially when the nominee is going to go up against the best funded candidate, the incumbent president with President Obama. He said he's going to have a billion dollars to spend.

This is all part of the game. And again, people that are donating to our campaign support Governor Romney. They're putting their money where their mouth is. We have over 100,000 voters who donated less than $180 on average.

So we have a lot of people we can go back to, continue to fund raise and we're spending our money frugally to make sure that have the resources needed to go on.

COOPER: Andrea Saul, appreciate your time tonight. Thank you.

SAUL: Thank you.

COOPER: Let's bring back our panel, Donna Brazile, Paul Begala, Erick Erickson, Ralph Reed, Gloria Borger, David Gergen. Ralph, what do you make of what you just heard? Does -- who does Romney have a problem to reach out to? Who does he need to get who he doesn't currently have?

RALPH REED, FOUNDER, CHRISTIAN COALITION: Well, what Romney's got to do, Anderson, is what every frontrunner in the Republican Party's had to do for basically 30 years. If you look at how this vote is breaking out tonight in Illinois, I mean, in a way it's sort of Groundhog Day.

You know, we not only saw this in Michigan and in Ohio and some of the southern states, but we saw it four years ago with McCain. And we saw it when dole was being challenged by Forbes and Graham. What happened is those making under $50,000 a year, those who identify themselves as very conservative, those who identify as Evangelicals.

If you will, that one-third of the ideological core part of this party is kind of slow to come to the front. So what Romney's got to do is he's got to keep making his case to them on values, on taxes, on spending, and on health care.

He's got to make it clear to them that if he's elected he's not just going to check the boxes. He's not just going to do what he needs to do to clear the bar. That he's going to fight for their public policy views and for their values.

But in the end, Anderson, Republicans have a strong royalist streak. What happened in the Democratic Party four years ago would not happen in the Republican Party or at least it hasn't happened since 1964.

The person with the most money, the most endorsements, and the strongest organization has won this primary pretty much in the modern era since the rise of the primary. That's the direction that this race is going.

COOPER: Ralph, do you see Gingrich dropping out soon?

REED: I don't know. I think Newt has certainly earned the right given his service to this party to make his decision on his own timetable. Obviously, if they don't get more money at the "Super PAC," it's going to get tougher going ahead.

COOPER: Erick Erickson, do you think he's going to drop out soon?

ERICKSON: It wouldn't surprise me if he dropped at this point. His campaign really is on life support as far as fundraising for the campaign itself goes. I'm not sure the Sheldon Adelson, he's a smart businessman. Does he going to want to keep pouring money into the "Super PAC?" I'm not sure the "Super PAC" has done all it can do to help Gingrich? Not to be critical of the "Super PAC," but I'm not just sure that it's have the impact that they expected it to have.

So it wouldn't surprise me whether it's before or after Louisiana, I'm not sure, but I think the writing's on the wall. Frankly, I think the writing is on the wall that this comes down to Mitt Romney, not only is he the frontrunner, but he's the nominee.

This is the first big win he's had where we haven't really premised it by saying, yes, but I mean, this is a clear win for Mitt Romney tonight in a state with blue collar voters, with industrial voters, and suburban voters.

COOPER: David -- Gloria, do you think Gingrich drops out?

BORGER: Well, it depends what you mean by dropping out also. Yes, think after Louisiana, if he doesn't win Louisiana, I think it's over. But does it mean that he just kind of suspends his campaign and lets it hang around until the convention or does it mean he drops out and endorses Rick Santorum?

Because I would have a hard time seeing Newt Gingrich endorsing Mitt Romney at this point. There's a lot of personal animosity. Yes, there's bad blood so it's a question of what Gingrich would do and if he would work for someone like Rick Santorum.

GERGEN: I'm not sure it matters at this point. He's become less of a factor than he was. Ever since the debates ended, he's had less of an influence.

BORGER: That's why Romney people don't really care anymore.

GERGEN: Exactly and I think -- even if he were to endorse Santorum. There was a time early on it would have made a big difference. Now I'm not so sure it matters that much.

COOPER: I want to thank our panel. As Republicans battle it out in the president's home turf, the Obama campaign is also kicked into high gear. We're going to speak to President Obama's campaign press secretary next. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Breaking news right now. CNN is projecting Mitt Romney as the winner of the Republican primary in President Obama's home state of Illinois.

Ben Labolt is press secretary for the Obama 2012 campaign. He joins us now from Chicago. Ben, obviously what looks like a big win right now for Governor Romney.

In terms of electability, 75 percent of exit polls of people who say electability is the number one issue who can beat President Obama, they say they voted for Mitt Romney. Is he the candidate that worries your campaign the most?

BEN LABOLT, PRESS SECRETARY, OBAMA 2012 CAMPAIGN: Well, there's a number that I'm very focused on right now. It's that only 21 percent of Illinois Republicans strongly support Mitt Romney. I think that speaks to the significant trust deficit that he has with voters.

Not only among Republicans right now, but would face in a general election from independents and Democrats. That's because he's completely reinvented himself and what he stands for each time he runs for office to try to please that political audience. I think you're seeing that in the Republican primary electorate play out right now.

COOPER: Do you anticipate Newt Gingrich basically dropping out soon?

LABOLT: We'll leave that to Republicans. The president's focused every day on creating jobs and restoring economic security for the middle class. It's clear that the Republicans are in a race for delegates at this point.

It's taking an impact on their party and their standing. Karl Rove said this week that the primary brought out some of the worst moments for Republicans. Barbara Bush said it was one of the worst campaigns that she remembered.

And I think that Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been in a race to the right. They're embracing Tea Party economic policies. Mitt Romney said this week he would get rid of Planned Parenthood.

He heard from concerned women voters across the state of Illinois about where they were going to get preventive treatment if they did that.

So the question is -- if he takes that funding away, where do they get their preventative treatment? There was an op-ed from a woman in the "Chicago Tribune" today who said she wouldn't have been able to have her child had the funding for Planned Parenthood had been taken away. Because she needed the preventative services and she needed services for a condition that could have rendered her sterile.

COOPER: President Obama has come under criticism for reversing his position on "Super PACs". He's now encouraging people to donate money to a pro President Obama "Super PAC." Isn't he vulnerable to the argument that he's flip-flopped on that?

LABOLT: Listen. The president has been strongly critical of the Citizens United decision. He supported legislation before Congress to ensure that all political organizations would disclose their donors.

And Republicans held that up. We have to recognize we're in a fund raising landscape after the Citizens United decision in which corporations' special interest can spend unlimited money against the president.

And we can't allow that to go unanswered. We can't unilaterally disarm. He certainly supports reform, but it's going to take a willing partner on the other side to pass those reforms.

COOPER: Ben Labolt, we appreciate your time. Thanks. We have more coverage ahead. We're going to have Piers Morgan on at 9:00 Eastern Time. We'll have another live edition of "360" at 10:00. We'll be right back.