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JOHN KING, USA

Interview With California Congressman Darrell Issa; President Obama Leading in Presidential Polls; Secret Service Scandal

Aired April 16, 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, everyone. I'm John King.

Tonight: your tax dollars and the federal employees who bragged about breaking the rules to waste them. Outrage mounts with every new revelation.

Plus, Mitt Romney says President Obama should start packing. But our brand-new poll tonight suggests the incumbent Democrat has a big early advantage.

And the embarrassing prostitution scandal around President Obama's trip to Colombia. More than 20 Secret Service and military personnel now under investigation.

We begin with significant new and breaking developments in the egregious misconduct allegations against security personnel charged with protecting President Obama during his trip to Colombia for a major international summit. I'm told tonight the expanding investigation now involves more than 20 people, 11 Secret Service personnel and 10 Department of Defense personnel.

Government officials familiar with the case also tell me tonight, all 11 Secret Service personnel had their security clearances revoked effective today. They can get those back if they are cleared. All 11 have also been interviewed at least once by agency investigators.

I'm told those under investigation for among other things bringing prostitutes back to a hotel secured for members of the American delegation were not all together, but had been socializing at several Cartagena nightclubs. The New York Congressman Peter King, who is the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer he's been told 11 women were brought back to the hotel where the Secret Service agents were staying.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PETER KING (R-NY), HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: This is a serious, serious violation of everything the Secret Service stands for. What these 11 agents did put the -- potentially puts any president at risk. Puts themselves at risk. Leaves themselves open to blackmail and to threats.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is here with me.

Jess, as the investigation goes on, they are insisting the president was never at risk. That it's embarrassing. It's humiliating. But that he was never at risk. When you talk about 11 Secret Service agents, now we know 10 members of the military...

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's not ideal, John, to say the very least.

The reason they say he wasn't at risk is because it was several days before the president arrived and because they make the point that even if a housekeeper were to come into their room, they are always careful about hiding anything sensitive materials. They're careful about never leaving out anything that could be compromising.

At the same time I have spoken to a long list of former Secret Service agents today and some current government officials who say the one thing they are taught from day one is never mess with prostitutes because there's always a threat down the line of possible blackmail.

KING: I have known the director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, for some time. I know he meets with every new agent and officer and briefs them and talks about character and the reputation of the agency and their own and specifically raises things like this. But he's the director, highly regarded I'm told by the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano. The question is but. In an election year, in this political climate, is the White House looking for a scapegoat?

YELLIN: The body language right now is, no, at this moment, let the Secret Service do its own investigation and let them handle it for now.

But as you point out, it's an election year. The president has to show leadership. There's a scandal at the General Services Administration. And the director of the Secret Service has been there since 2006. Under his watch, we also saw the Salahi scandal when the Secret Service took the responsibility for letting in the party crashers.

So you know, that does suggest that this has been a longtime director and perhaps something could come down the line.

KING: I covered the White House for eight-and-a-half years. Did a lot of these trips. There is drinking involved, especially when the press and the Secret Service get there a day or two before the president. They are often in these clubs overseas. It was very obvious when prostitutes approached the American delegation. Guys with money. Sometimes the Secret Service, or military, big strapping guys who -- everybody knows who you are is the point I'm trying to get at.

But 11 Secret Service members, 10 members of the military. I did it for eight-and-a-half years. Never heard or saw anything like this.

YELLIN: What was most surprising to me -- and I agree. You get there early. You always see people will go out and there will be some partying. I was surprised they took them back to the staff hotel, because there is always this culture within the Secret Service of protecting that zone of safety.

Even if the president is not there, even if the hotel hasn't been secured yet, an environment that is going to be secured, they're vigilant about making sure that that hotel, even though the president wasn't going there, there was going to be staff, White House staff, perhaps other administration staff there, and that's what was most surprising.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: It may have ruined the careers of some of their friends as well if it turns out that other people knew about it, not directly involved, but knew about it, saw the security breach happening. Other careers could be hurt as well. Jess, thanks. We will stay on top of this.

Today, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs staff admitted to CNN the prostitution scandal was a distraction during the president's regional summit and the chairman apologized.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF CHAIRMAN: We are embarrassed. I can't -- you said how embarrassed is the military? I can speak for myself and my fellow chiefs were embarrassed by what occurred in Colombia, though we're not exactly sure what it is. So we let the boss down because nobody is talking about what went on in Colombia other than this incident.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: General Martin Dempsey answering a question from our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, an extraordinary public apology from the commander in chief's top military adviser. What's happening behind now the scenes? What's the sense of the investigation at the Pentagon?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I have to tell you, John, let's first look at the optics. General Dempsey, of course, the president's top military adviser, saying we let the boss down. Behind the scenes now, a full-blown investigation is under way.

They believe that there are at least five members of the U.S. Army that were involved in this situation and perhaps five more. A preliminary fact-finding investigation began already in Colombia with someone, a military person who was on the ground. An investigating officer is expected to land in Cartagena later today and continue the investigation.

They are going to talk to people. They are going to gather whatever information they can. But one of the things that's so fascinating here is, again, the discussion not directly involved with the president of the United States, only in support of his trip down there. But they will not say what these military people, what their job actually was because anything, of course, to do with presidential security is always top secret.

So we don't even know what these people were doing. And the Pentagon is indicating it may never say publicly what they were doing, what their official jobs were on this trip, John.

KING: Barbara, the same question that's being asked about the Secret Service. Is this a bad couple of days? Bad couple of apples? Maybe as many as 10 in the military? Or is this a sign that perhaps this has happened before and there's a cultural problem, they just never got caught?

STARR: Well, it's the same thing you and Jessica were just talking about.

To be very candid, of course there's drinking in the U.S. military and, of course, people in the U.S. military engage prostitutes. That happens. But it's the question of doing this on a presidential trip. Secretary Panetta made it very clear when he was asked about this that he expects the U.S. military to behave appropriately around the world wherever they go and that this fell far short of standards.

It is the same concern. Alcohol, behavior aside, were they open to the possibility of blackmail? Were they open to being the victims of criminal behavior? Who exactly was in that hotel with them? -- John.

KING: Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon. Barbara, thanks so much.

In a moment, we will ask the Oversight Committee chairman, Darrell Issa, what he's learning about the Secret Service sex scandal and about today's congressional hearing on the GSA spending scandal.

And later, today's move to change judges for the murder trial of the neighborhood watch guard who admits shooting a Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A classic and a feisty drama played out on Capitol Hill this afternoon. Outraged lawmakers confronted the disgraced government officials accused of wasting nearly $1 million of your tax money.

CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash was at today's hearing on the scandal at the General Services Administration, or the GSA.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's one thing for Republicans to criticize Obama officials. But when the committee's top Democrat rips into them, you know it's bad.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: Mr. Neely invited personal friends to the conference, writing, and I quote -- and this is simply incredible,-- quote -- "We'll get you guys a room near us and we'll pick up the room tab. Could be a blast. Why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can? Ain't going to last forever" -- end of quote.

Well, Mr. Neely, it stops now.

BASH: Mr. Neely is Jeff Neely, the GSA official who organized the now infamous lavish 2010 Las Vegas conference costing taxpayers more than $800,000. Thanks to a committee subpoena, he showed up, but wouldn't answer questions.

JEFF NEELY, REGIONAL COMMISSIONER, GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION: Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.

BASH: With cameras rolling, House GOP Chairman Darrell Issa still asked six more questions.

NEELY: Mr. Chairman on the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.

BASH: Neely, whose attorney told the committee he is worried about a criminal probe, was eventually excused.

Other GSA witnesses took a very different approach. Fall on their swords? Hardly. They dove on them.

MARTHA JOHNSON, FORMER GSA ADMINISTRATOR: I am extremely aggrieved by the gal of a handful of people to misuse federal tax dollars, twist contracting rules, and defile the great name of the General Services Administration.

BASH: Martha Johnson was GSA administrator forced to resign two weeks ago. She was briefed 11 months ago on conference excess, including Neely's role, but suggested she need the final report to take disciplinary action.

JOHNSON: I personally apologize to the American people. I will mourn for the rest of my life the loss of my appointment.

BASH: Much of the focus was on the man who left, Jeff Neely. Lawmakers grilled Johnson on why she still gave him a $9,000 bonus.

REP. DAN BURTON (R), INDIANA: And you gave him a $9,000 bonus. It just seems almost unthinkable.

BASH: Despite the apologies, this fiery forum allowed lawmakers to express outrage.

JOHNSON: The senior executives were entitled to bonuses under our -- were entitled to bonuses. I apologize. I did not mean entitlement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, I think you did mean entitlement.

BASH: A central Republican question is whether the White House knew about all this and sat on the information. Under pressure and visibly uncomfortable, the GSA chief of staff revealed he did brief the White House some 11 months ago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now, in that questioning, John, the House chairman, Darrell Issa, got out of the chief of staff there that he told his contact in the White House Counsel's Office about the fact that this report is coming out almost a year ago.

That seems to contradict the timeline that we got as reporters from the White House which said that they didn't know about this inspector general report until last month. I can tell you just to follow up on that, Michael Robertson, the GSA chief of staff, just put out a statement saying he wants to clarify his point and that what he meant was that he just mentioned in passing the existence of this I.G. report to his contact at the White House Counsel's Office.

KING: Dana, you mentioned that often at some of these oversight hearings the Democrats are mute. The Republicans are conducting aggressive oversight of a Democratic association. The Democrats are largely mute or they try to help the White House. In this case, they were so adamant to jump in and share their outrage. Where are we going next?

BASH: Where we're going next is more hearings like this. And to that point, not just in the House where Republicans are in charge but also in the Senate -- two hearings are going to be this week in the Senate, one by the number two Democrat in the Senate. He's holding a hearing. They're going to be trying to focus a little bit more on the fact that the GSA excess spending didn't just occur in the Obama administration.

But Democrats get it that they know that this is very, very bad. This is why people really are mad at Washington. So they want to share in the outrage, not push back against it.

KING: Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

And, as Dana noted, the chairman of the committee today is Darrell Issa of California. He's with us now live.

Let's dig a little deeper.

Mr. Chairman, you asked the question of the GSA chief of staff. Now he's trying to clarify his answer a little bit, saying he mentioned this is passing to the White House 11 months ago. The White House told Dana in her reporting, oh, we just learned about this last month. Smoke or fire?

ISSA: Well, you know, it's a little of both. The real outrage should be that the White House would say they took quick action when, clearly, these political appointees knew about it a long time ago.

If it turns out that people more central to the White House additionally knew, that's troubling. But let's understand the most important thing that you saw on a bipartisan basis today is a recognition that there is huge amounts of waste and excess that is built up in the federal system that needs to be wrung out.

Until we wring that out, we cannot come back with larger and larger budgets asking the American people and for that matter the creditors of our debt to pony up more money. Very clearly, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

KING: And, so, help me. If it's the tip of the iceberg, help me. You have Mr. Neely, who was inviting his friends who knew what he was doing, come in. I'm bad, but what the hell. Let's do it while we can until we get caught. It seemed to be what he was saying.

And he gets a bonus. How does that happen?

ISSA: It happens because you had an administrator, even though she had a private sector background, who seemed to use the word entitlement and mean it.

You know, these bonuses are over 97 percent delivered to these individuals, meaning that a bonus will not be earned, but, in fact, expected. And it's part of the fact that you look at a pay structure within the federal work force, including the one the president said he froze, and what you end up with is what's called step increases plus bonuses.

So the truth is our cost of employing federal workers is rising even after somebody said there was a freeze. Some people say that watching pay freezes in the government is like watching water freeze. It expands.

KING: And you heard Dana say when it gets over to the Senate side, they want to point out that some of this conduct, they may find examples back in the Bush administration.

Give me your honest take. Is this a bureaucratic culture of corruption? Is it any worse, any different with a Democratic president or is this a longtime, festering nightmare?

ISSA: Bureaucracies tend to grow and to brag about their growth based on how many individuals they have and how much money they spend.

There's no question every administration faces the natural growth of a bureaucracy. Some administrations like the Reagan administration famously were able to make cuts. Other administrations don't do so well. This is one that came in, blamed its predecessor and has had three years to scrub these expenses and clearly hasn't.

So there's probably truth to both. The fact is, this is the president's watch. This is my watch. This is the ranking member's watch. And we need to make sure it not only ends here, but that in fact it ends quickly.

KING: This is embarrassing and it's outrageous, what we're talking about.

And I want to shift your attention to something that's embarrassing, outrageous and humiliating -- 11 members of the Secret Service accused of bringing prostitutes back to a hotel in Cartagena, Colombia, 10 members, I'm told now, of the United States military under investigation for similar conduct. What do you know about this, and at what level are you in communication? Is it the director of the Secret Service, is it the secretary of homeland security? Where does this go next?

ISSA: Well, I met with the director today and got his assurances that we'd have an open and transparent policy being able to see what he's doing in the way of discovery and then ultimately corrective action.

This is an organization with a great history, a history of being disciplined. He was shocked at it. I'm shocked at it. The American people are shocked at it. Obviously, if 11 Secret Service agents and 10 or more military personnel were involved, it's wide enough spread that you have to figure this is not the only time there's been this sort of activity.

But, at the same time, this is a nonpartisan organization, our U.S. military and the Secret Service. I think all of us on Capitol Hill need to take an attitude that we need to know what they are doing, watch it, but ultimately let the professionals fix what is broken, and then step forward and say we have seen what they have done, and the American public can have the kind of confidence they need to have in the behavior that could lead to the safety being, you know, adversely affected for protected individuals.

KING: In the conversation with Director Sullivan, what was the most troubling thing, troubling allegation that you heard?

ISSA: Well, I think the most troubling thing from this director, who has headed the agency for quite a while and who in fact is a 30- year veteran himself, is that this is not something he has personally witnessed. He has certainly seen human failures, but the scale of so many people thinking this was OK -- remember, foreign nationals are not allowed into the rooms.

That is a violation even if they weren't prostitutes, just the fact that somebody who you don't know gets into a protected area and could thus have an adverse effect on that individual's ability to protect the president. On top of that, a lot of drinking went on. You put those two together, it's unprofessional behavior that has to be fixed now and in the future.

KING: Mr. Chairman, appreciate your time tonight.

ISSA: Thank you. KING: Take care, sir.

Mitt Romney says President Obama should, in his words, start packing.

But our new polling shows the former Massachusetts governor has a lot of ground to make up first, especially among women. That's coming up.

But, next, an unusually hot day, hot day to run 26 miles.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

KING: The defense in the Trayvon Martin murder trial already wants a new judge, and they may get one. Up next, we will take a look at what's likely behind that switch.

And later, conservative activist Ralph Reed joins us to look over new polls showing Mitt Romney, well, he has a lot of ground to make up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: This half-hour: A new judge could take over the Trayvon Martin case, what it means for the neighborhood watchman now accused of murder.

New CNN polls just out tonight show Mitt Romney's biggest weaknesses and his greatest strength. We're breaking down the numbers showing where the president might be vulnerable.

Plus, the shuttle Discovery mounted on a jumbo jet ready for one last night -- no, not heading to space this time.

The lawyer for the neighborhood watchman who admits to shooting Trayvon Martin wants a new trial judge. Just this afternoon, George Zimmerman's attorney filed papers to get the current judge, Jessica Recksiedler, removed from the case over a possible conflict of interests.

It's because her husband's law partner is Mark NeJame, a CNN analyst who himself was approached by Zimmerman to possibly take on the job of defending him. A new judge could have a huge impact on how the second-degree murder case plays out in the courtroom. Let's talk it over with our legal analyst, Sunny Hostin, live in New York.

Sunny, why is this a big deal?

SUNNY HOSTIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's a big deal, because any time you have a judge that's asked to be recused, and you get a new judge, it sort of changes the color of the case. I think we saw that in the Casey Anthony case. It's really about the judge when it comes down to how a case is tried, the track of the case, the timeliness of the case. Everything comes from the top down. So this is actually very, very important.

I suspect, John, I suspect that we will see a new judge in this case. If there is a conviction in a high-profile case like this, there's just no question that there will be an appeal. And you don't want sort of this appearance of impropriety in terms of a conflict of interest for the judge. So I suspect that one would want to just avoid that altogether.

KING: And so let's take a look at the three most likely options from that area: Judge John Galluzo, the Honorable Kenneth Lester, the honorable Debra Steinberg Nelson. Anything different, anything -- differences among these options that could make a difference?

HOSTIN: Well, they certainly are different from the judge that has been assigned the case. She's a very new judge. She's only been on the bench for a little over a year. These judges are seasoned judges. Judge Galluzo was appointed by Governor Jeb Bush in 2006, about a year after the "stand your ground" law was enacted. Judge Kenneth Lester, 1996. Judge Debra Steinberg Nelson, 1999. Also appointed by Governor Jeb Bush.

Why that is important, John, is because we know Mark O'Mara, the defense attorney, has been an attorney for quite some time and may have appeared in front of these judges. So any attorney in any case, but especially a serious high-profile case like this, will want to appear in front of a judge he or she has appeared in front of and has some sort of rapport.

So I suspect that also went into the asking for this judge to recuse herself. She's sort of an unknown factor. These judges are more known factors, at least to this defense team.

KING: This impacted all the planned bond hearing on Friday?

HOSTIN: I think it's very possible. I mean, let's face it. The bond hearing is set for this Friday. And if there's going to be a new judge, that new judge needs to get up to speed on this case. And so I suspect, if there is a new judge, we may not see that bond hearing happen on Friday.

KING: Sunny Hostin on top of this case. As always, Sunny, thanks. We'll keep in touch.

HOSTIN: Thanks.

KING: Let's shift to politics now. A new CNN polling out tonight has lots of bad news for Mitt Romney. Not only is he trailing President Obama 52 to 43 percent nationally, but a closer look shows Romney has an especially tough challenge in winning over women voters. He trails the president 49 to 46 percent among men.

But here's the big trouble: among women, the president leads 55 percent to 39 percent. You can do the math. That's a 16-point gender gap.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, has been digging into the numbers. There's always a Democrat. I can't even speak. There's always a gender gap with the Democrats, but one that big, you can't win.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: No, you can't win, which is why we're seeing the Romney campaign put out Ann Romney so much lately. Why they are going to start appealing to women on the issue of the economy because women, of course, vote on the economy. They take care of their parents. They're involved in the issue of health-care reform, for example. They take care of their children.

So those are going to be issues you're going to be hearing over and over again. Not going to be so much the cultural issues but the economic issues.

KING: If you look beneath that, if you look at the other news, a clear plan for solving the country's problems: Obama 38, Romney 33. Among independents, 33/31. Those are slightly better for Romney.

BORGER: Well...

KING: It's competitive numbers especially after a bruising primary process where the other guy doesn't have an opponent. That's not bad.

BORGER: Those are the closest numbers you get for Mitt Romney. So what it shows you there, and it's not rocket science, it shows you that the president's vulnerability is, of course, the economy.

If things go well, six months from now, well, you can expect those numbers to be further apart, and Barack Obama will be doing a lot better. But if things start going south, then you'll see independent voters, probably move over to Mitt Romney.

So that is their key opportunity: the economy. Again, not a surprise here.

KING: And the most -- the most striking thing, if you look at it, is Romney is competitive when you ask the policy questions. It's on the empathy, the humanity questions where you see the gap. Look at these. More likable, Obama 56, Romney 27. More in touch with women, Obama 55, Romney 27. More in touch with the middle class, Obama 51, Romney 33. Strong leader, 50 to 34. Stands up for what he believes in, 50 to 29.

BORGER: Right.

KING: On the personal characteristics, understands me, call it humanity, call it empathy, Romney has to change those numbers.

BORGER: Right. And the likeability number is the number that I always, always look at. Here a 29-point difference. Likeability means that people will give President Obama the benefit of the doubt if he makes a mistake or they think he does something that they don't really like. That matters to people. The benefit of the doubt is important when you're running for the presidency. People want to like you. It's a personal vote they cast. Twenty-nine-point deficit there means that Mitt Romney has to start changing his appeal a little bit and open up to the American public. Let them know who he is.

KING: The time to do it, but that's a steep hill to climb.

BORGER: Very hard.

KING: Two hundred days. It's only April. It's not over yet. But advantage Obama in April. We'll see if the numbers shift as we go. You're shaking your head.

BORGER: Long time. Yes, it's a long time. Six months, whatever it is.

KING: Long time.

BORGER: It's a long time.

KING: George H.W. Bush can tell you he had really good numbers right now at this time back in 1992.

BORGER: That's right, that's right.

KING: We'll see how it goes. Gloria, thanks.

The president may have a lead in the polls, but Mitt Romney says he's ready for the fight, challenging critics who say he can't relate to average Americans. Romney says he can fix the economy and pretty tough message for the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Start packing. That's what I'd like to say. Obviously, we have a very different view. The president, I'm sure, wants another four years, but the first years didn't go so well. And I'd say, Mr. President, focus on your policies and ask, did they make it more likely for businesses to start? Did your policies make it more likely for businesses to hire people?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Will Romney's focus on his economic expertise be enough to help him overcome the president's big early lead? Joining me now, Ralph Reed, a veteran strategist and the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Let's get right to it. The poll numbers, the national horse race, pretty tough if you're Governor Romney. The gender gap, very tough if you're Governor Romney right now.

I want to look at what I'll call his under 50 problem. Let me show you the numbers. If you make under $50,000 a year, Obama 56, Romney 36. Among those blue-collar, down-skill voters, advantage Obama. If you're under the age of 50, Obama 56, Romney 37. So younger voters -- a lot of 40-year-olds old there saying, "Thank you, John" -- the younger voters, big advantage. How do you -- you can turn numbers around. And it's only April. He's got a lot of numbers he has to turn around.

RALPH REED, FOUNDER, FAITH AND FREEDOM COALITION: Well, the dynamic of the race is going to change. I mean, at this point, in 1992, "TIME" magazine had Bill Clinton on its cover as a reverse negative. He was upside down. He was trailing the incumbent president, George Bush, by 15 points. At this point in 1980, Reagan was behind Jimmy Carter by seven points. So, you know, elections aren't held in April.

The other thing you have to remember, John, is this was the most contentious, hard-fought, drawn-out nomination battle since 1976.

So what the Romney campaign really needs is two things. No. 1, they need what Lee Atwater used to call defining moments in a campaign. Particularly those that are unscripted, that allow people to see the man that those of us who know Mitt Romney see behind the blue curtain.

In Bill Clinton's case, it was playing the saxophone on "Arsenio Hall." In George W. Bush's case, it was going on "Oprah." Remember he famously kissed her on the cheek, and people saw a different side. He needs some spontaneity and to show his other side.

The second thing that he needs to do is to be able to get this message back on the economy.

KING: You talked about that. You also talk about how you have to learn from the people you just beat.

REED: Right.

KING: It's not officially over yet. You write this essay. It's an interesting essay in yesterday's "Washington Post."

"Santorum and his supporters may have the last laugh. In our time, losing presidential candidates have previewed the ideological trajectory of their parties and often of the nation. Romney would be wise to remember this in his general election campaign."

Now, you made the Reagan example. Reagan lost and then came back and won. He was the future of the party even after losing. What does Romney have to do today and tomorrow to learn that lesson?

REED: Well, the two things that I talked about in the op-ed were, No. 1, Santorum was able to fuse the cultural and the economic messages by pointing out that you can't strengthen the economy without strengthening the family. He often cited a Brookings Institute study which found that, if you had a job, graduated from high school, and waited until you were married to have children, that you only had a 2 percent chance of being in poverty. If you did the opposite of those three things, you had about a 76 percent chance of being in poverty.

Romney can make it clear that poverty and being left behind in our economy isn't just a fiscal or economic issue. It's a cultural and a moral issue.

The second thing that he needs to do is he needs to flesh out his own biography. I talk about the fact that when the night of the Iowa caucuses, Santorum, I think in the best speech he gave the entire campaign, spoke movingly about his Italian immigrant grandfather. Well, the truth is, Romney's family came from nothing. You know, his grandfather was a carpenter, and his father started from nothing. He needs to flesh out that biography and reintroduce himself.

KING: I've known you for almost 20 years. And I've known you as an organizer, someone who identifies people, finds them, keeps in touch with them, and then grabs them by the ear and gets them to the polls.

Obama, without a challenge, has had a year and a lot of money and resources. This is all they're doing. They are finding voters, registering voters, building their list. Are you convinced that Governor Romney and with help of outside organizations, can they catch up to that huge advantage that team Obama has right now in terms of doing the nuts and bolts of winning a general election?

REED: They can. Now, you know, first of all, you have to remember, this is Obama 2.0. This isn't the '08 version of hope and change and there's no blue states or red states. It's the United States.

This is after Obama care, after a stimulus plan that didn't create the number of jobs that he said it would. He's as polarizing a figure as anybody we've had. So there's going to be some intensity. But for Romney to actually win -- and this was the other point I made in the essay, John -- people can't just be voting against Obama. They need to be voting for Romney and his running mate. So the running mate will be important. The convention acceptance speech will be important, and the general election messaging will be important.

KING: Ralph, we'll keep in touch. Appreciate your coming in. Six months to go, 200 days.

Coming up, the search is officially on for Governor Romney's running mate. The truth about some potential No. 2s and maybe a wild card. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: I speak tonight's truth with absolute certainty. Beth Meyers will not pull a Dick Cheney. Myers, if you haven't heard, was just named by Mitt Romney to lead his search for a running mate. And remember, leading the search was Cheney's job for George W. Bush back in 2000, and the rest is, well, history.

Most of you have never heard of Beth Myers. And that's the point. Governor Romney wants a serious, low-key process. And Myers is as serious and low key as they come. Plus, she is as trusted as they come in Romney land. Someone who has earned Governor Romney's trust back to her days as his chief of staff at the Massachusetts state house. So now that the official process is getting started -- we're going to do it here and you should do at home, too -- pay attention to our unofficial list. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, he leads the safe and solid category: service in the House and the Senate in both Bush administrations. And he's popular back home in the state Republicans must carry to win the White House.

Florida's Marco Rubio, well, you might say he leads the young and untested category. Very popular with the party base, but just 15 months into his Senate career.

The Sarah Palin experiment of 2008 makes untested even more of a hurdle this cycle. Governor Romney says nice things about Palin, but top Romney advisers view the Palin pick and the McCain campaign selection process as simply not serious.

Romney was vetted in that process. Just trust his search, now under the direction of Myers, to be more methodical. Much more methodical.

There are other predictables for any early list. Governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell and Mitch Daniels, for example.

There's a good reason to think about a woman. In brand-new CNN polling -- we were just talking about it -- a giant gender gap. A 16- point Obama lead in a head-to-head matchup with Romney among women. My wild card there, the former secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, though she says, she insists she isn't interested. But remember, they all say that. Just ask Dick Cheney.

For more on the veepstakes, we turn now to our great political panel. Michael Crowley, "TIME" magazine's Washington deputy bureau chief; Democratic strategist and our CNN contributor Donna Brazile; and Bay Buchanan, Republican strategist and adviser to the Romney campaign.

Let me start with my Republican friends here. If you're asked right now, if Beth Myers calls you and says, "Bay, we're just starting the process," give me an idea. Who do you think would be the dream veep?

BAY BUCHANAN, ADVISER TO THE ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: There are so many. I'm not going to pick one. You know, I think the key -- what I would tell her is pick someone -- you know, the key -- when you come to vice president, I think the rule is, do no harm. Find someone who's going to do no harm whatsoever and then secondly, someone who is completely and absolutely ready to be president of the United States. Entirely competent and ready to take in. And so the American people feel extremely good that the team is complete and they can rely on the vice president for doing what he needs to do.

KING: To that point, can Mitt Romney, who is a very serious guy, Michael, very methodical, can he look the American people in the eye -- a lot of the party base really wants Marco Rubio. They view him as the next-generation leader. Can you look the American people in the eye, especially after the Palin experiment, and say he's ready to be president?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, WASHINGTON DEPUTY BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME": Well, I think there is a way in which the Palin episode has raised the bar a little bit. People are going to be asking that question. They're going to be looking very closely. They're going to have -- they're going to say are you doing this for political reasons?

You know, in the retelling of this last campaign, there's a lot of sense that Palin was just a way to gin up excitement. So I think that bar might be a little higher.

And -- but I do think that, you know, the more we're talking about people now in some way, I think the less likely we are to see them get picked in the end. Because I do think that what these campaigns are looking for increasingly is the unexpected. It's something exciting. So to some degree people who we talk to death right now I have a feeling might not be there in the final analysis.

KING: Donna, do you think that Marco Rubio is at home right now saying "Miami Herald," "Wall Street Journal," ah, never mind.

Here's something Dan Quayle, who's been through this process, here's something Dan Quayle, the former vice president, says. "You're No. 2, not No. 1. And if you're out there actively campaigning, there's a subliminal message that maybe you won't be that comfortable in the No. 2 position."

So is that something to watch over the next couple weeks and months as Governor Romney looks around for those who are very quiet, saying not me, not me, don't care, not me, don't want it? And those who are out there sort of raising their profile?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I'll never forget when Vice President -- then vice president Al Gore called us into the room and we knew that the vetting had occurred, and pretty much -- pretty much the short list was already available and he came -- I was the first person. I always sat on his left for whatever reason.

And he said, "Well, Donna, what about you?"

And I said, "Joe Lieberman." Because, one, I didn't see -- I knew Joe Lieberman was up to the job of being president. And, secondly, I didn't see him out there campaigning. So I said Joe Lieberman.

But this time around, I suspect that Mitt Romney is going to look for somebody the Tea Party will endorse, embrace and become energized about.

BUCHANAN: John you indicated that is Marco Rubio, you know, ready to be the president? He's only had two years in the Senate. Does that not describe Barack Obama? That's exactly where he was. Only had a couple of years. So when it comes to qualifications, please. Marco Rubio is completely qualified to be president. I don't know that he'll be on the short list. I have no idea. But let's not suggest that that particular person is not ready. KING: There's no question.

BUCHANAN: If indeed, you make the case Barack Obama was.

KING: And he was a speaker of the Florida house. So he has -- he has more legislative experience, probably -- I'd have to go back and do the math. He probably has as much, anyway, as the current president.

My point is if you're Governor Romney, do you want to be engaged in that conversation if you're trying to make up your lead in the polls and everything.

Let's move on to other big issues right here. This is another one. The president and vice president released their taxes last week. Governor Romney, as he's perfectly entitled to do, said he's going to file an extension. We'll get them soon. He did give us the rough numbers.

But to the question the Obama campaign says, release 12 years, at least 12 years. Governor Romney told this to Diane Sawyer. "The president is going to try to do everything possible to divert attention from being pressed upon his record as president and the failure of his economic policies. So he's going to try to make this campaign about the fact that I've been successful and I've made a lot of money."

To a degree he's right. President Obama is an incumbent, and you want to make it about something other than your record or at least the parts of your record that could be trouble to you.

However, in this age can Governor Romney, can he stick with the idea that I'm not going to give you a deep reservoir, maybe six years or eight years, but a deeper reservoir of his tax records?

BUCHANAN: You know, John, IRS doesn't even ask you to keep the records that long, so it's an absurd request. Totally absurd. He may try to put the governor on defense. I don't think he needs to go on the defense. I think he will give them everything he needs to give them and then he's going to run all of the issues.

And if this president and the Democrats think that they're going to be able to tie up Governor Romney over "you only gave three; you should give six," it's ridiculous.

And -- and the reason he's doing it is as Governor said, because his policies have totally failed, and the American people recognize that, so he cannot run on that field. He cannot run on the field of the economy. He has to change the topic.

BRAZILE: He has a great record to run on. I mean, 23 months of consecutive job growth. The fact that he got us out of the big hole that Bush/Cheney put us in and that Mitt Romney will only give us another shovel to dig us further in that hole.

Look, we've had a tradition of people running for president releasing their taxes. It's not about how much money he made. It's something that we all, as Americans, hire him to do a job. What's wrong with showing us your tax returns?

KING: Can he do something between 2 and 12 and satisfy this test?

CROWLEY: I think it's a lose-lose for him. And this is obviously an issue of the Obama campaign. To stay on that, I think on the key substantive question you're seeing right here, the debate each side has a point right now. We don't know which way the economy is headed. And that's why I think the next couple of months will cast the dye for this election. Is the next jobs number going to be worse? What is the trajectory? We're getting better...

KING: How people feel when they go back to school is going to have a lot more to say at the end of the summer than it does right now.

BUCHANAN: The economy is six weeks -- six months out, people start making their mind up just about now.

KING: Bay, Donna and Michael, thank you.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" coming up at the top of the hour. Erin's here with a preview.

Erin, the Senate expected to reject that bill, the so-called Buffett rule, the 30 percent tax on millionaires. Are you surprised?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Not surprised at all. I mean, this is just a political ploy on both sides of sort of epic proportions, John. I have to say one thing. Politically, it's very clear the president is a winner here. Not only was the Buffett rule popular, but now you have Republicans shooting it down, and that gives him even more fire power.

But we actually break down the numbers on whether the Buffett rule actually matters, does anything and has anything to do with fairness or whether that really is all politics. That and a billionaire to answer some of the tough questions about whether he's willing to pay more.

Top of the hour, back to you.

KING: Billionaire answering questions. I'll be there to watch that one. Erin, we'll see you in just a few minutes.

The Shuttle Discovery has one last mission, but this time, it will only fly -- you see it right there -- mounted -- that's pretty cool -- on the back of a jumbo jet. Where it's headed tomorrow morning.

And Hillary Clinton lets loose and grabs a beer during an after- midnight dance party. More pictures of that, an international sensation, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The Space Shuttle Discovery is, of course, retired, but it will take off one last time tomorrow, this time mounted on top of a jumbo jet, headed to a Smithsonian museum in Northern Virginia. Here's CNN's John Zarrella.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): John, really, the exclamation point to the end of the space shuttle era here at the Kennedy Space Center. Behind me you can see Discovery sitting on the back of that 747.

Tomorrow morning at first light, it will leave here. It will fly over launch pad 39-A where it lifted off from so many times, then down the coastline, over the beaches, back up over Kennedy and the visitor complex before flying up the East Coast to Washington, D.C., and Dulles.

Busloads of workers came out here today to say their goodbyes to Discovery. It flew 39 missions, 148 million miles, flown more than any of the other shuttles, and now its permanent home will be at the Smithsonian. Once Discovery is out of here, there is still Endeavour, going to California, and Atlantis, which will stay here at the visitor complex, both of those in buildings being built for them.

But again, John, bittersweet as some of the astronauts who flew on the very last Shuttle Discovery flight told me today, the end of an era, but it is time, they said, to move on -- John.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: John Zarrella there. Pretty cool. Discovery will be right here in our neighborhood.

Here's Lisa Sylvester with the latest news you need to right know.

Hello again.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, John.

U.N. observers are now monitoring the ceasefire in Syria, even as new reports say it's being violated by the Syrian government. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) say the city of Idlib was attacked by helicopters and mortars, and at least 45 people died today. Syria's news agency calls the reports of truce violations hysterically escalated.

And he's got a new heart but not a lot of love for President Obama. Former vice president, Dick Cheney, was quick to criticize the president only three weeks after his heart transplant. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can't think of a time when I felt it was more important for us to defeat an incumbent president than today with respect to Barack Obama. I think he has been an unmitigated disaster.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SYLVESTER: And finally, our congratulations to CNN contributor Sara Ganim, who won one of this year's Pulitzer Prizes. She and members of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper, "The Patriot News," won for breaking and then covering the Penn State sex scandal. She's the second youngest Pulitzer winner ever. Congratulations to her.

KING: Congratulations, Sara. Sara was extraordinarily helpful as that story was unfolding. She's a great young reporter. Good for her. That's a big prize, nice early prize. Top that, Sara. Good luck.

Stay right here Lisa. Finally tonight's "Moment You May Have Missed." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton squeezed in some fun at the Summit of Americas, cutting loose in Colombia -- you see her there -- with some (UNINTELLIGIBLE) her version, anyway, of salsa dancing. Took a few drinks straight from the bottle and danced with her aides Saturday at Cafe Havana. That's pretty cool.

SYLVESTER: I love that. And I think that's going to be great for her image. You go, madam secretary.

KING: She is allowed to have her fun, people. She works hard. She's allowed to have a little bit of fun. That's pretty cool. She can tip. Let's just put it there.

SYLVESTER: And you know what? Everybody has a life outside of the job, so we just happened to see it. So there it is.

KING: There you go. We'll see you tomorrow.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.