CNN CNN


 

Return to Transcripts main page

JOHN KING, USA

Interview With Massachusetts Senator John Kerry; Supreme Court Examines Health Care; President Obama's Reelection Odds Improving

Aired March 28, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


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

Tonight, a rebound for President Obama, his reelection odds improve because more of you think the economy is finally getting better. But the Obama campaign takes no chances, sending Vice President Biden back out to hammer the Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney.

The Supreme Court wraps up three days of high-stakes debate about the Obama health care law. If some parts are overturned, what would Congress do?

Up first tonight, though, some dramatic breaking news. New details of JetBlue Flight 191 and new federal charges against the pilot alleged to have gone on a rampage and screamed about a bomb on board. Captain Clayton Osbon is accused now of interfering with a flight crew and could face up to 20 years in prison. Listen to this outburst captured by passengers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have got Israel. We have got Iraq. We have got Israel. We have got Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN aviation and regulation correspondent Lizzie O'Leary has been poring over this new federal affidavit.

Lizzie, what are we learning?

LIZZIE O'LEARY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There are a lot of details in here that are eyebrow-raising. It sort of walks us through what happened and what was going in the cockpit and in the cabin.

What you realize is that pretty quickly, the first officer had a sense something wasn't quite right. I want to read to you a couple parts of the affidavit and this is after they're already at cruising altitude.

"The first officer became concerned when Osbon said things just don't matter. Osbon yelled over the radio to air traffic control and instructed them to be quiet. Osbon turned off the radios in the aircraft and started dimming his monitors. Osbon sternly admonished the first officer for trying to talk on the radio. The first officer became worried when Osbon said we need to take a leap of faith. Osbon started trying to correlate completely unrelated numbers like different radio frequencies, and talked about sins in Las Vegas."

At some point, Osbon told the first officer, "We are not going to Vegas." And Osbon began giving what the first officer described as a sermon. We know from the FAA and from passenger accounts at this point, essentially the first officer wanted to get the captain out of the cockpit. The captain left the cockpit to go to the bathroom, and the first officer locked the door, changed the code, didn't let him back in and continued flying with an off-duty JetBlue pilot in there with him.

Then the affidavit continues: "Osbon started trying to enter his code. That's to get into the door in order to reenter the cockpit. He banged on the door hard enough that the first officer thought he was coming through the door. The first officer and non-rev captain" -- that's the other guy there with him -- "locked from the cockpit door from the inside and the first officer announced over the P.A. system an order to restrain Osbon. The flight attendants were already trying to stop Osbon from entering his code. Several passengers jumped in to help and brought Osbon down in the forward galley."

One female flight attendant suffered bruised ribs during the struggle, the struggle we know now that several passengers took part in and essentially kept the captain on the floor of this plane until they were able to land it about 15 minutes later.

KING: So these are the new details. This is the criminal case. We obvious still don't know exactly what happened. The airline said it was a medical situation and then turned into a security situation.

What is done essentially to check on the mental abilities and the mental risks and strains and stresses perhaps of pilots?

O'LEARY: Right. This is a question a lot of people have been asking.

It is important to walk through exactly what goes on here. We should say that Captain Osbon is in a medical facility. That is what's going on with him. But overall, commercial air pilots do get tested frequently. They get a medical evaluation once a year. If they are over 40, it's twice a year.

As for mentally evaluations, that's a little bit different. No one is required to give them a specific psychological workup. Essentially the doctor who is doing the physical workup, and they have to be certified by the FAA, says are there any general behavior al concerns that you are concerned about here, but not a separate psychological workup.

KING: A lot of questions and now a federal case this captain faces. Lizzie, thanks so much.

Now to a page-turning day in the 2012 presidential campaign. Our brand-new polling tonight shows a clear rebound for President Obama. His job approval rating back above 51 percent. Look at this, 51 percent of registered voters now approve of Mr. Obama's performance -- 45 percent in our new CNN/ORC survey disapprove.

In a matchup against the two top Republican contenders, the president also in much better shape. He holds double digit leads over both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. Why? Because many of you feel the economy is getting about better. And 31 percent of registered voters now rate economic conditions as good. That's still a sobering number but it is up from just 18 percent two months ago.

KING: The president's numbers are heading up just as a one-time leader of the Republican pack is heading out or almost out of the GOP nomination chase.

Newt Gingrich is laying off staff and cutting back his travel insisting it still leaves him a fighting chance if there is an open Republican Convention. The former House speaker just this past hour appeared at Georgetown University here in the nation's capital.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The greatest frustration I have had since leaving the speakership is the denseness of Washington in resisting new ideas.

It is amazing. So I will -- a couple -- this is your generation's greatest problem. You are inheriting from your parents and your grandparents a bureaucratic mess which is stunningly incompetent following policies that don't work based on facts that are no longer true.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin and national political correspondent Jim Acosta on top of the big campaign developments today.

Let's go to the White House first.

Jess, better poll numbers for the president, but numbers up in March up don't guarantee victory in November. So team Obama turning up the heat. Let's listen to Vice President Biden take after Governor Romney this afternoon in Iowa.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look, Governor Romney's business practices and his policies have clearly benefited the wealthy and most powerful among us, often at the expense of working and middle class families. They actually believe it is the best way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So take us inside the strategy here, Jess. Clearly, they like the new numbers. They have to feel a little better especially about the people feeling a bit better about the economy, but still going to be tough.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, some of these attacks by the vice president were the strongest attacks on Romney to date.

The basic philosophy here is attack the strength. If you recall going back a few months, the Romney campaign was making the case that Mitt Romney was the best man to turn around the country and create jobs. But the Obama campaign systematically went after the case by saying that Mitt Romney over time has outsourced jobs.

Even when -- other Republican candidates picked up that line and continued to eviscerate the case that Mitt Romney is a jobs creator. The Romney campaign switched gears and said because of his track record as a turnaround expert at companies, he can turn around the economy, and so now you hear Vice President Biden going after that strength and saying he is not going to be able to turn around this economy because look at his track record on that.

It is no surprise they are highlighting especially his history with manufacturing companies because the Obama team believes that they have the strongest case to make that they have created jobs in the manufacturing sector, a key area when it comes to blue-collar voters and those are precious votes in swing states, John.

KING: For all the criticism he gets, they also think they have a pretty good blue-collar messenger in the vice president there, Joe Biden.

Jessica Yellin at the White House, Jessica, thanks.

And Jim Acosta joins us now.

Jim, team Gingrich calls this a restructuring but it sure looks like the beginning of the end.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John. It does look like the beginning of the end. The question is when does it end? Newt Gingrich says he is staying in this race in the event that Mitt Romney does not get the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. He is fighting on.

But I had a chance to talk with Patrick Millsaps, who is the chief of staff for the leaner Gingrich campaign. He said two things. He said you just never know what might happen in this campaign. One of these other two contenders could implode. And that means we're right back in the thick of things.

The other thing he said and I thought it was very telling, he said, you are not going to see the former speaker going after Mitt Romney the way we have seen in the months leading up to this point of the campaign. This is really a new Newt Gingrich. We saw a little bit of that earlier this afternoon here at Georgetown. He was talking to some students here. He kind of opened up to the crowd.

He said at one point that he did not run a very good campaign in his mind communicating big ideas. But there was no sign, no sound of Newt Gingrich going after Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. This is certainly the leaner Newt Gingrich and not necessarily the meaner Newt Gingrich. Those days I think are over, John.

KING: Kinder and gentler, Jim, that's what we have from the speaker, at least for now. Jim Acosta, thanks. Our thanks to Jessica Yellin as well.

Let's dig deeper now in the shifting campaign environment. Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here.

Gloria, you see it's pretty simple. People's view of the economy goes up, the president goes up too. I want to go back to these numbers. The president's job approval now above 51 percent. Why? Let's look at this. How do you feel about the economy? Those who say economic conditions in the country are good, 31 percent say that now, 69 percent say poor. That is still kind of bleak. But just look at January, 18 percent say good, 80 percent say poor.

If that numbers keeps progressing better, the president is in much better shape.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely.

As you point out, 31 percent ain't great. But when Barack Obama was inaugurated, I went back and looked, in January 2009, that number was 13 percent. So he is doing very well on that score. Also, our poll shows by the way that more than half Americans blame George W. Bush and the Republicans than they blame the president and the Democrats for the shape of the economy. That is also benefiting the president.

KING: If you assume the president -- there's no question, look at the polling, the president has support, very strong support among Democrats, and let's assume if Governor Romney is the nominee, or whoever the Republican nominee is, they heal the wounds and most Republicans are for them.

Then you have a fight and a comparative election in the middle. Let's look at independents. Choice for president among independents, 55 percent of independents favor President Obama to 40 percent for Governor Romney. Fifteen points, that's a problem for Governor Romney.

Why? We asked people to say, do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of these gentlemen? Among independents, 52 percent have a favorable view of President Obama, 35 percent of Governor Romney. There is evidence that this Republican campaign has taken a toll on Romney among the middle.

BORGER: Exactly.

We have seen this throughout the primaries that Mitt Romney, who was doing pretty well with independent voters before he started getting in these debates and moving to the right, as he had to do, to win over Republican primary voters, was doing all right with independent voters.

During this entire process, since January, he has lost altitude by about 20 points with independent voters. When you put him up against President Obama right now, it doesn't look good. But this is not to say that there isn't a long time between now and the election.

But independent voters are not called swing voters for nothing. So right now, it is with Barack Obama. But it could swing back to Mitt Romney particularly if the economic numbers start heading in the wrong direction.

KING: If the economic numbers change, then everything changes, al this does give, as Romney continues to fight for the Republican nomination, the Obama campaign studies numbers like this and they know exactly who to focus on.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Every day, they study them.

KING: Every day.

Gloria Borger, thanks so much.

In a moment here, the Supreme Court considers whether to scrap all of the health care reform law or maybe just parts of it. Our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, inside the court for three days he joins us to break it down.

But next, Senator John Kerry predicts disaster if the Supreme Court says the health care law is unconstitutional.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: If you get rid of this law, day one, immediately, you add $2 trillion back to the deficit and you wind up with a whole bunch of Americans who are going to be told, sorry, you don't have insurance anymore, even though you have terminal cancer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: As the nine Supreme Court justices prepare to decide the fate of President Barack Obama's overhaul, one of the most influential supporters of the law and of the president tells me he will defend the individual mandate any time anywhere to anyone.

That he is Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. We spoke a bit earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Senator, you were part of writing this bill in the first place. You understand the politics of the moment in this election year on Capitol Hill. If the court strikes down all or part of this law, is there any prayer the Congress would do anything before the November election, or will we have to wait until after?

KERRY: Well, if they did, which I don't believe there is a justification to do, but if they did, I think Congress should move immediately, obviously.

Needless to say, it depends on exactly what might be affected. But, if its breadth is in its entirety, it is going to be very hard to do before the election. But if there is some smaller component, I believe Congress would have an obligation.

KING: You gave an interview with "The Boston Herald" yesterday. You know the history of 2010. The health care issue did not play well for the Democrats in the 2010 elections, especially in those won by Tea Party members.

You told this to "The Boston Herald." "I want this debate about health care in this election, because I think when Americans learn the difference between the benefit of having coverage and how it lowers costs, it is like insuring your house."

Are you sure about that, that you want to fight this out in 2012?

KERRY: I feel very confident about it because I think the evidence -- in Massachusetts, for instance, individual premiums have gone down 50 percent because more people are sharing the risk.

It is fundamental notion of insurance. But in addition to that, there are a host of good things are already beginning to happen as a result of this bill. For instance, hospitals are now paying differently. Patients are being discharged and managed differently between primary care physicians all the way through the system.

All of these things, electronic records, other things are going to reduce the cost of health care. If you got rid of this law, day one, immediately, you add $2 trillion back to the deficit and you wind up with a whole bunch of Americans who are going to be told, sorry, you don't have insurance anymore, even though you have terminal cancer. Sorry, you are not covered even though it is a pregnancy, but that's a preexisting condition.

Kids, who are currently covered until the age of 26, will no longer be covered. Seniors, tens of thousands of seniors will suddenly find they are no longer getting prescription drugs that they get today. There would be a whole upheaval that I think people are only just now beginning to focus on.

KING: As you know, many members of your own party ran from that debate in 2010. Are you confident this time they understand -- to they believe that was a mistake and they should embrace the mandate, they should embrace the federal role, they should embrace a national solution?

KERRY: I think that in 2010, there were a lot of currents at play that are not at play this year. We have seen the extremism of the Tea Party in the House of Representatives that keeps taking our nation to the brink fiscally in its refusal to act normally. You saw the failure of the super committee because people take a pledge to a lobbyist not to raise any revenue even from the wealthiest people in the country.

What the president understood is you cannot reduce the deficit ultimately and deal with America's competitive and fiscal challenge unless you begin to get control of health care costs. This is the beginning of doing that. And I'm prepared to go out and take that argument to anybody in the country any time.

KING: You know the president of the United States was caught in an embarrassing open microphone moment during his nuclear summit in agency the other day telling the Russian president, essentially, back off. If I can win the election, I will have more flexibility on missile defense.

There have been many Republicans stepping forward to criticize the president on that, including your former governor and the likely Republican nominee. Let's listen to Mitt Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Russia is not a friendly character for the world stage. And for this president to be looking for greater flexibility, where he doesn't have to answer to the American people, in his relations with Russia is very, very troubling, very alarming.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Very troubling, very alarming?

KERRY: Everybody knows missile defense has been a serious problem in the relationship.

And if there are ways to accomplish our goals, as well as to meet the needs of other nations, that's exactly what diplomacy and what international relations are about. The president never said and never will give up on his commitment to missile defense. He has been robustly committed to that.

He is the president, who, after all, got it out there. He is the one deploying it now. We are all committed to that deployment. And I don't think his comment represents anything more than the normal banter between people in private discussions which every president, Republican and Democrat alike, has had historically.

KING: You know Governor Romney better than most Democrats in this country and you know the presidential process better or at least as equal to perhaps only a handful of people still alive in this country.

Senator, rate Governor Romney as a candidate so far. KERRY: Well, I'm not -- John, there will be plenty of time to do that as we go down the road. I'm not going to. There is plenty of time to be talking about the politics.

I think the American people are kind of tired. Let's let their nominating process play out. And let's stay focused on the big issues that matter to the country, like jobs, health care, Iran, and our relationships in the world. Those are the things people are focused on.

KING: I will try that one another day.

Mr. Chairman, thanks for your time.

KERRY: You will get it another day.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: Thanks for that, sir.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: Today in Cuba, Pope Benedict celebrated mass for at least a quarter of a million people and he sat down with Fidel Castro. Find out what they discussed.

And what's a losing baseball team worth these days? How about more than any other sports franchise in North America?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

KING: Coming up, we will explain how the health care arguments at the Supreme Court might affect you. If one part of the law, all of the law is struck down, what happens to your coverage?

Plus, North Korea threatens to launch a long-range missile and the United States responds. We will have the details next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: This half-hour, the pope leads mass in Cuba, calling for authentic freedom. That was right before he met with Fidel Castro.

And the president's big health care bill on trial at the Supreme Court, can it survive if one controversial provision is struck down?

Newt Gingrich downsizes his staff, but keeps his White House bid alive. But tonight's "Truth" is about the GOP contest. It is a two- man race and Gingrich isn't one of them.

Let's turn now to the Supreme Court and the future of President Obama's health care overhaul. Today, the justices focused on a potential domino effect. What happens to the Affordable Care Act if they strike down the individual mandate requiring most Americans to get insurance?

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ELENA KAGAN, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE, U.S. SUPREME COURT: And the question is always, does Congress want half a loaf? Is half a loaf better than no loaf?

ANTONIN SCALIA, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE, U.S. SUPREME COURT: My approach would say if you take the heart out of the statute, the statute is gone.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE, U.S. SUPREME COURT: Why wouldn't we say that it's a choice between a wrecking operation, which is what you are requesting, or a salvage job, and the more conservative approach would be salvage, rather than throwing out everything?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, is still with us.

Jeff, if you listen to the justice there, you can hear the tug of war between the conservative justices and not-so-conservative justices. Now what's your biggest take now? Three days of arguments. You heard the domino argument today. What's the big take?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The individual mandate looks doomed. And when you think about how important it is, how central that is to this whole Affordable Care Act scheme, it's a very, very big deal.

But Anthony Kennedy, so often the swing vote, must have asked ten questions today based on the premise of what do we do if we declare that part of the law unconstitutional? And it is not out of the question that they would declare the whole thing unconstitutional. As you saw Justice Scalia repeatedly suggested, and Justice Alito embraced that idea. At times even the chief justice suggested that was the right thing to do. So did Kennedy.

Now, they did not commit in the way they committed about the individual mandate, but the idea that a law of this size, passed after so much pain and agony and attention, would be just thrown out the window is a pretty incredible thought.

KING: And so how much of that is a legal argument? If they just decide the mandate is unconstitutional, the rest of it, most people argue, is it is a legal argument or a political argument, because that's where the money is.

If you take away the mandate, you take away the organizing force in the Bill. You take away the penalty, which is the money.

TOOBIN: The justices would say it's all a legal argument. And what they would say is what -- how much of the rest of the law is intertwined and connected to the rest of the law? And that is not a simple determination to make.

The argument that Scalia was making was "That's not our job to determine how the law is related to each another and what sort of political horse trading went on to get one provision or the other. Throw it out and let Congress start over." That was Scalia's argument, and Kennedy at times seemed sympathetic to that.

KING: In June, we expect a ruling. It's about a big health-care Bill, but this is about much more. Put in context what this ruling will mean for the balance of power between the legislative and the executive, between the judicial and between the federal and the state.

TOOBIN: It's really an enormous issue, because this case is really about does the federal government have the power to put a national solution to a national problem, to deal with millions of people at a time who don't have health insurance, and to improve the health insurance of those who do.

It's not just -- it's not just about health care either, because the commerce clause, which is the part of the Constitution that is at issue, underlies lots that the federal government does. And if it shrinks in its meaning, it will shrink the federal government, probably sooner rather than later.

KING: Fascinating case. Now we have to wait for the decision. We appreciate your help in the last few days. Thanks, Jess, so much.

Now, shifting overseas, the United States is hitting North Korea where it hurts. Today a top Pentagon official revealed, the United States is suspending food aid because of the North Koreans' latest threat to launch a long-range missile.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER LAVOY, ACTING ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: I don't know if we have any confidence on the stability of the missile and where the actual impact will be. A number of countries are potentially affected, South Korea, of course, and Japan, Okinawa, the island of Japan. And the intended impact is probably somewhere close to the Philippines or maybe Indonesia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's take a closer look. CNN has exclusively obtained some digital globe satellite images. Let's take a closer look at exactly what folks are concerned about. Let me bring up the spot right here.

You see the Korean peninsula come out, the demilitarized zone right here. Let's take a look at what we're talking about. This right here is the launch facility. You're going to see pictures. This is from the 17th of March. I'm going to bring you through a picture taken just this week on the 28th.

Look at the launch pad here. You see the launch pad. You see some tracks here in the middle, and you see the tower right here. I'm going to bring you -- show you a different photo at a slightly different angle. But remember what you're seeing, and I can take you back in just a minute and we'll show you some significant changes. Let's pull this all the way down.

No. 1, you can see up here. You can see something up here has changed. There's a crane. If you look very closely, you see a line right there. There's a crane up on top that has been brought out. That crane could place -- the rocket would be placed -- any rocket or satellite would be placed right here. You see a hole in the middle. It mounts on top of that. The exhaust comes out this shoot right here. So there's some work going on right here.

There's obviously a spill over here, and you see some trucks or canisters, as well, something that's going on on the launch pad. Again, I want to clear that and just come back and show you here to give you a sense. You see this here. You don't see the crane extender. Right? You bring this out. Something -- something going on in this site that leads U.S. officials to believe as they study these and give them the intelligence analyst that North Koreas are about to keep their word and launch a satellite from this launch pad.

Let's get some insight now. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, obviously, the Pentagon has more pictures than this. A cause for concern. What now?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, watching it 24-7, as you say, John. What they are now looking for is the actual verified signs that the missile, the rocket, with a satellite on top of it is moving onto the launch pad for final assembly.

The big concern will come, of course, as they begin to see that final fueling up of the missile. That means they're getting closer and closer to launch.

And Peter Lavoy, that defense official whose sound you played right beforehand, put his finger on what the concern is. The North Korean technology is not reliable. Nobody can really predict where this thing might go. And if it falls into any one of those countries in the Asia Pacific Rim, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, it could cause casualties and damage on the ground. This could be a regional crisis. Nobody knows, John.

KING: Barbara will be helping us track this in the days ahead as we watch to see if they carried through with that launch. Barbara, thanks so much.

STARR: Sure.

KING: This just in to CNN. The pope tonight condemned the half- century-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba. His remarks came after the pope met with the former Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. They spoke about a half an hour in the Vatican embassy, after the pope celebrated mass for a crowd of about 300,000 Cubans. CNN's Patrick Oppmann was in Havana tonight.

Patrick, the pope's message to the Cuban people somewhat controversial. What was the reaction to it?

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And it really depended what section of the Cuban population you belonged to, John. For many people I was with in the plaza, Catholics have had a tough, tough road over the years and are finally maybe seeing that light at the end of the tunnel, where they have greater religious freedom. They felt it was a reaffirmation of their faith, focusing that there needed to be greater religious freedom.

For people in the Cuban government, they said there's not going to be any political change here on the island. Essentially, the government here is going to stay as a single party socialist/communist government.

And for people in Miami, John, of course, they wanted the pope to focus more on human rights issues, reach out to the dissident community. That really didn't happen. So the pope did say he prays for everybody, every sector of this island -- John.

KING: And Patrick, how specific was he in condemning the U.S. embargo?

OPPMANN: He was very specific. And that hasn't happened yet. And he went -- really, at the end of his visit as he was leaving, he was in the process of leaving Havana's Jose Martine airport as we speak, flying back. And a lot of people noticed -- noted that, John. Because this is a pretty consistent position of the Cuban exile community from the population here on the island. And it is really a punitive measure.

He had to make public comments about that wall in Cuba. Some of his comments came at the end, as you mentioned, after about a 30- minute meeting today with former leader, Fidel Castro, where they talked about really personal issues, talked about growing old, talked about books.

Some of the more delicate issues, political changes. The pope called for a greater role for the church here in Cuban life. Those issues were brought up yesterday with Fidel Castro's younger brother and current Cuban president, Raul Castro.

KING: Patrick Oppmann live for us in Havana today on the pope's visit. Patrick, thanks so much.

Coming up here, the "Truth" about Newt Gingrich's campaign downsizing. New CNN poll numbers that should have President Obama and his 2012 campaign team smiling.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Officially, there are still four active candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. But tonight's "Truth" is an acknowledgment of today's new math. This is a two-man race, a Romney/Santorum race, and Governor Romney has to be considered the solid frontrunner.

Yes, Ron Paul is still running. But halfway through the primary season, he has no wins and is a very distant fourth in the delegate chase. He is a message candidate. And in some states, he'll be an impact player. But Ron Paul is not a serious contender for the Republican nomination.

And yes, former Speaker, Newt Gingrich, is still running insisting his decision to dramatically curtail his campaigning and slash his staff is part of a long-term plan to be a player if there's an open convention.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (via phone): None of you guys would call a football team or a basketball team and say, "Gee, why doesn't you drop out?" You say, "OK, this is the season. Let's play the season out and see what happens."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Speaker Gingrich clearly hasn't been to a Washington Wizards game lately. But I digress.

He's right: this is his decision. And scaling back is, in essence, keeping the campaign open in case some miracle scenario unfolds.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE DESANTIS, GINGRICH CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: What we're going to have to do is convince delegates between -- in the 60- day period between the last primaries and the convention that Newt is the candidate to defeat Obama and to change Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But unless things change dramatically, what would the argument be? Gingrich has won just two states, isn't likely to win any more. If Governor Romney gets enough delegates to clinch, it's all moot, of course. But even if he doesn't, Romney will win more states, raise more money, get more votes and pose more competitively against President Obama.

Senator Santorum will win more states, raise more money, get more votes, and pose better or equally than Gingrich in matchups against President Obama. "They both just kicked my butt, but I'm a stronger candidate," that's a tough sell.

"Truth" is, Speaker Gingrich has every right to wait and see if the others collapse. It's been a pretty interesting year. But that's not really what this is about.

Maybe you've heard about the new $50 photo op. You contribute 50 bucks. You get a photo with Speaker Gingrich. Guess what? It's smart. He then uses that 50 bucks to apply for federal matching funds. So he's getting $100 a photo. Now, for a few thousand, then, you begin to pay down the campaign debt. If you drop out, the matching funds dry up.

Yes, the speaker can hope for a miracle, but that's why he'll stay in and smile for a while longer.

Here to talk truth, Rick Tyler, senior advisor to a pro-Gingrich super PAC; Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor Donna Brazile; and Utah Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz.

Rick, you know the speaker very well. First, a question for the super PAC. You've been spending a lot of money to support him. Will you continue to do that if he's not out actively campaigning as much in the states?

RICK TYLER, SENIOR ADVISOR, PRO-GINGRICH SUPER PAC: Sure. We have made a commitment to support Newt Gingrich all the way to the convention. He says we're going to march to Tampa, and we're going to march on. And by the way, people send their 50 bucks whether they get a photo or not.

KING: Well, people can send their 50 bucks. But how -- how do you -- look. I give him a lot of credit. He was actually honest. We can actually play it. He was at Georgetown a little bit ago. And you know, he's -- let's talk -- this is Newt Gingrich rating his own campaign. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: This is why I'm running. I haven't done a very good job as a candidate. Because it's -- it is so difficult to communicate big solutions in this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But he also says now he's not -- and you could hear it in his speech. He's going to talk about himself, his ideas about President Obama, not so much criticizing the others in the race. Why?

TYLER: You know, I think in a sense, if Gingrich leaves, his issues leave. I mean, this race, let's face it, has not been something the Republicans can be proud of. It's been a race of politics of personal destruction. That started in Iowa.

Newt, as you remember, wanted to run a positive campaign to put forth positive ideas, how we were going to fix the debt, fix unemployment, how we'd fix the school system and on and on. Mitt Romney decided not to engage in that way.

So remember, he was a headline when he was not. You know, the Republican Party has to essentially decide who it's going to be when it grows up. The convention, there is a plausible scenario for Newt to come out of the convention. It's a challenge, there's no question about it, but it's not impossible. KING: Do you see a plausible scenario, Congressman?

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: I don't. I think if you're in Mitt Romney's position, you certainly wouldn't want to trade places with anybody. Mitt Romney has run a great campaign. He's attracted more than a million votes, in addition to -- you know, more than anybody else. He's got the most delegates. He's raising the most amount of money. He's got all the things moving in his direction. And I think he's got the best message on jobs and the economy. And that's going to be the winning message, come November.

KING: I talked to someone the other day who's had conversations with the former speaker. And he understands the rough and tumble of campaigns. He's mad about all the money dumped on his head by Romney and pro-Romney super PACs. But I'm told that what particularly bothered him is that Governor Romney called him a failed speaker. He's very proud of his time as speaker. Talks about it all the time on the campaign. You can criticize him. Was he a failed speaker?

CHAFFETZ: Well, he certainly walked out a disgrace. And but he's -- he has contributed a lot to the party. He's important to the Republican Party. Taking back the House was a major component.

So I'm not here to just pile on the former speaker, but the time is to coalesce now behind somebody and beat Barack Obama. That is what unites the party.

TYLER: By that -- by that standard, your governor resigned in disgrace from Massachusetts.

CHAFFETZ: He didn't resign.

TYLER: He didn't run for re-election. His poll numbers were less than half and people thought he did a poor or a very bad job.

CHAFFETZ: Not all campaigns just run on poll numbers.

TYLER: And 47 -- and he came in 47th in job creation. So if you want to call Speaker Gingrich's four years of balanced budget, $405 billion worth of debt paid off, 11 million jobs created a disgrace, then I don't know what the problem is (ph).

KING: Let me bring the Democrat into the conversation. Donna's sort of happy to step back for this part. We're going to get to some other things.

But you're an active Bill Clinton supporter during those days. And Speaker Gingrich, they battled like cats and dogs and worse sometimes. They did do some serious business.

I want you to reflect on this. This is what they said in our new poll, favorable opinion of Newt Gingrich -- this is all registered voters, so it's Democrats, Republicans and independents -- 24 percent favorable, 60 percent unfavorable, 16 percent not sure. The campaign has had a toll on him. I assume you, as someone advising any politician, part of this phase of the campaign, is to repair that a bit.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, as someone -- your opponent -- I want to congratulate Mitt Romney for -- I think Governor Romney has done a great job in destroying Newt Gingrich and really Rick Santorum. He's done a fabulous job. He's run a good campaign. It's been a negative campaign. That's reflected in the numbers.

But I think he spent close to $10 million destroying Newt Gingrich, Newt Gingrich that left Capitol Hill is not the one we saw today at Georgetown. In fact, I let my students out early so they can go and listen to the former speaker.

Now I have an opinion about all of this, but I have to tell you something, John. We have 19 states left, 1,000 delegates at stake. I think Newt Gingrich is in this race and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, because they know that there are still some delegates left over on the table. They may not accrue all of them, but there are enough delegates right now to deny Mitt Romney the nomination.

KING: It's always rough and tumble in nomination chases. Then you get to the convention, and you know, whoever wins is the nominee. And there's that moment where the others come out on stage. Will it be that way this year? A lot of people say the bad blood is badder this time.

CHAFFETZ: No. I think the party will unite, because what unites them is they want to defeat and fire Barack Obama. That -- no matter where you are on the Republican side of the spectrum, that does unite people. And I think that is the way our party has done it in the past, and I think that's the way we will do it come August.

KING: Do you see that? Do you see -- you're a Newt guy but do you see after this Governor Romney saying, "Sure, Mr. Speaker have a prime time speech or a big speech" or maybe even Senator Santorum, who's been particularly rough the last 72 hours or 100 hours or so. Governor Romney saying, "Hey, here's a great speaking role, even though you said all these mean things about me."

TYLER: I do think that all the candidates could support whoever the nominee is, even if it is Mitt Romney. And I don't think he'll make the same mistake that was made in '76 of allowing Ronald Reagan to speak at the convention. That's not going to happen.

KING: All right. Everybody stand by. We'll continue the conversation when we come back. Gas prices now less than a dime away from the $4 mark. Some experts still say you might catch a break soon.

Plus, it seems like Mitt Romney has a White House job in mind for Rick Santorum. Really? Here are the two words he used to describe his rival to Jay Leno.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: You want some evidence the long Republican race in the absence of a Democratic challenge is changing our politics? Let's continue our conversation with Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz; our CNN contributor, Democrat Donna Brazile; and former Newt Gingrich staffer and Newt Gingrich -- pro-Newt Gingrich PAC -- there, I get that right? -- Rick Tyler.

Look at these numbers right here. Favorable opinion of the presidential candidates. Do you like these guys? President Obama 56 percent; Governor Romney 37 percent.

Congressman Chaffetz, to you first, because you're a Romney guys. Clearly, this is just a favorable opinion. And if you're in a close election, a competitive election -- let's assume this is going to be close and competitive election -- if you're torn at the end, wouldn't you default to the guy you like? And if that's the case, Governor Romney has got a problem, right?

CHAFFETZ: No. I think in terms of, A, getting the nomination, more people have liked Mitt Romney than anybody else. And when you start focusing on the contrast between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, I think this country is tired of Barack Obama. I think they want a -- they want a change. Gas prices have doubled, millions of people out of their homes, high interest rates, rising interest rates. These are all things that President Obama is going to have to answer for.

And so when it comes down to economy and jobs, the contrast between Mitt Romney and President Obama, I think he wins and wins convincingly.

BRAZILE: We actually welcome that fight.

KING: It's the end -- it's the end of March, not the end of October so we need to be careful, and you need to be careful, in your celebration of these new numbers.

But in our poll tonight -- in our new poll tonight, people do say the economy is getting better. More of them do. We're up to 30 percent instead of 18 percent.

But the likability factor, how much does that matter? This has been a consistent Obama political asset. Even when his job approval number has gone below 50 -- it's back above 50 now -- but even when it has dropped, people say we like him. How much does that matter?

BRAZILE: Well, first of all, John, let's -- let's talk about the policies. People like him because they actually like what he's doing to turn the economy around.

We've gone from losing 22,000 jobs a day, 700,000 jobs a month, to now gaining jobs. Not enough jobs, but still people like what they see. And that's why they are parking their support right now for President Obama.

We know it's an unpredictable year. Nobody is out there celebrating. In fact, the Obama campaign, President Obama team, they're out there working twice as hard as they worked in 2008. And I'm surprised they're working this hard this early. KING: Does the likability matter?

TYLER: I think likeability is important, but I don't think that's Mitt Romney's problem. We have had a Republican Party that was very enthusiastic to defeat Barack Obama, and for all intents and purposes we believed that we were.

Mitt Romney has taken that through a scorched earth campaign. He's won four million out of ten million votes. That's not an impressive record. He's run negative ads, and people are coming out in less and less numbers. The way Newt got the majority in '94 was nine million new people showed up to vote Republican and one million less showed up to vote Democrat. In order to beat Barack Obama and get a majority of the Senate, we have to replicate that.

KING: To your point look at these numbers. Opinion of the political parties. The Democratic Party has a 48 percent favorable rating; unfavorable 45. Pretty even split.

The Republican Party, Congressman, a 35 percent favorable rating. That means a lot of people who vote Republican, don't like the Republican Party.

CHAFFETZ: Well, we've got to focus on jobs and the economy, the solutions that we've offered. We've got to make sure we take that bully pulpit and give that to Mitt Romney so he can go out and create the case and make the argument across the country on why the Republican solutions are so much better.

It's what we're doing in the House of Representatives. And that's what the presidential campaign is all about. That's why Republicans need to coalesce sooner rather than later.

It's not about the individual personalities of Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. It's about winning in November and getting behind the candidate that has the best shot at being -- coalesce behind somebody, and I think that's Mitt Romney.

KING: I think that's what voters do before. People are going to, in fact, coalesce. Rick, Donna, congressman, thanks for coming in. Appreciate it.

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

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

Good evening, everyone.

Across Rhode Island flags are flying at half-staff to honor a National Guard soldier who gave his life to protect a little girl in Afghanistan. Specialist Dennis Weichel pushed her out of the way just before she would have been run over by a heavily armored truck. She is fine, but the truck hit and killed him.

Furious U.S. officials say Syrian forces kept fighting today even though Syria's leaders accepted a peace plan yesterday. An opposition group says at least 26 people died today.

And AAA says a gallon of gas now costs $3.91 on average, less than a dime away from that dreaded $4 mark. You probably know that without me telling you. Prices have been rising for 19 days straight, but some experts say we might catch a break soon because the price of crude oil has been steady this month.

And Prince William and his wife, Katherine, have a new neighbor, Prince Harry. William's 27-year-old younger brother left their father's home and took an apartment in Kensington Palace. Royal watchers say this could be a sign Prince Harry is putting his wild past behind him.

And one Mega Millions ticket with six lucky numbers could be worth a whopping $500 million in Friday's drawing. It's the biggest jackpot in the history of the game after no one won the big prize in last night's drawing. The odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot are one in 176 million.

Just for comparison, the odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime, about one in 10,000. That is not going to stop me, John King, from going out and buying one of those tickets.

KING: But here's the question; here's the question. If you win, do you come to work on Monday?

BOLDUAN: I do. Probably just to do a victory lap.

KING: Oh, ouch. Ouch!

BOLDUAN: I would never, ever quit this show.

KING: I'd work at least through the election. At least.

BOLDUAN: Very good of you.

KING: Don't go anywhere. Finally tonight's "Moment You May Have Missed." Mitt Romney on "The Tonight Show" describing prominent Republicans. He's asked to do this in just one word. At least that was the rule laid out by Jay Leno.

Listen closely to his last answer, describing his rival, Rick Santorum.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY LENO, HOST, NBC'S "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": Nikki Haley?

ROMNEY: Nikki Haley? Energetic.

LENO: Energetic. Donald Trump?

ROMNEY: Huge.

LENO: Huge. Rick Santorum. ROMNEY: Press secretary.

LENO: Press secretary.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You know, I'm stumped. Where did that one come from?

BOLDUAN: I was -- I was thinking about this one. I'm a little bit stumped, too. I think -- I don't know. The only thing I can come up with is probably the most benign answer he could have given, considering how contentious this campaign is and the choice words these two men probably have for each other in private.

So I don't know. Maybe he was just talking to his press secretary before he went on.

It would be a tough thing, though. You know what? You would be very good at that. You're very quick like that.

KING: The staff needs to play a little word association with their candidate to get him a little better at that game.

Kate, we'll see you tomorrow. That's all for us tonight. You have a great night. We'll see you right back tomorrow night. "ERIN BURNETT" starts right now.