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Violence in Syria Continues; Presidential Polls; Interview With Ohio Senator Rob Portman

Aired April 19, 2012 - 18:00   ET


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

Tonight: President Obama's war council hints at a possible role to stop the Syrian's regime bloody crackdown on its own citizens.

Most polls show a dead heat or a narrow advantage for President Obama. But tonight's "Truth" explores how that translates into a win for Mitt Romney.

And does in vogue mean on the ticket? Did for Sarah Palin four years ago. Just wait until you see which Republican governor is all glammed up this cycle.

We start tonight with new developments in the Secret Service prostitution scandal and growing disgust on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers and agency sources tell CNN expect more Secret Service employees to either resign or be fired soon, and the more details Congress learns about a night of heavy drinking and hiring escorts in Cartagena, Colombia, the more outrage.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: It is a stunning thing, and it's actually disgusting. Those people that are responsible have brought disgrace and it is disgusting.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: People that are here to protect the president, they go to Colombia, have a fight with a prostitute over how much she should be paid? That's either very stupid or total lack of common sense.


KING: You might argue it's both.

Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is on the Hill tonight.

Dana, what more are we learning?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the whole idea of whether or not the rest of the 11 Secret Service members are going to go, that is a big question. I talked to a couple lawmakers that say their sense is the answer is yes, and their sense is because they have been talking to the Secret Service director, but it is an open question exactly when that will happen.

The understanding according to the lawmakers and other sources I'm talking to is they're getting pushback from some of the Secret Service members, saying they don't believe they violated rules or broke code. The other issue is in some cases, the dismissals are delayed because of some conflicting stories.

But the other thing is whether or not it is appropriate for the Secret Service to really be effectively investigating themselves. For the most part, not all lawmakers, but most of them are actually saying yes, it is OK for now, they have confidence the Secret Service can do this the right way.

And this is something we don't see very much around here on Capitol Hill. For the most part, there's a scandal and members of Congress and both parties and both sides of the Capitol they jump on it, they want to have public hearings. This time they're saying not so fast, we will try to get the information first.

And at least one committee they have hired four investigators on their own to dig into what exactly went on here.

KING: Dana, one senior member of one of the committees that could get involved in this is Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland.

Listen to him here.


REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: People have said to me, look, Cummings, if they would try to kill Reagan, I know they will try to do some harm to this president. I hear that all the time.


KING: In that conversation, this fear especially among the Black Caucus members it predates the Colombia debacle. But does the congressman see any connection, any worries that it somehow intensified now?

BASH: He didn't specifically say that, but it is what he was suggesting.

I said right after that just to be blunt, are you talking about the fact you're worried that the president obviously is the first African-American president? He said I am just going to leave it there. But you're right. This has always been a concern.

What Congressman Cummings did say, along these lines is that what his concern is, is that the armor of the Secret Service in his words has been pierced. As you well know, you travel with the Secret Service a lot. So have I. Part of the issue with the Secret Service is that they are a deterrent. Just the idea that the Secret Service is out there could deter some potential people that want to harm the president. His point is if there are people that say I can get my way in there in some way with prostitutes or other ways, then maybe the president could be harmed in the future.

KING: Dana Bash reporting from Capitol Hill on this still continuing new information on this scandal. Dana, thanks.

Turning now to the race to the White House and some new polls that help explain the tougher political tone from the president and White House team in recent days. New numbers from CBS and "The New York Times" show President Obama and Mitt Romney in a dead heat, both at 46 percent nationally.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is here.

Mitt Romney goes through a blistering, a bloody primary campaign, still technically not over. The president has no primary opponent, so he gets to be above the fray, and yet. Why?

BORGER: Look at this. First of all, it is clear that Republicans are starting to coalesce around Mitt Romney. The other thing is the precarious state of the economy, John.

When you look further into the CBS/"New York Times" poll, what's interesting is that voters are split about whether President Obama or Mitt Romney would be a better steward of the economy. And what do they care about? They care about the economy. They like President Obama an awful lot more than they like Mitt Romney.

But in the end, they want somebody they believe can fix their economic problems, and that's what it is going to come down to, and that's why it's close.

KING: And so you get tougher tone from the White House, because at the moment, voters are looking at the Obama record. It's not necessarily all his fault, but the state of the country, the state of the economy, the state of gas prices, so you have likability vs. performance? Is that sort of where we are right now?

BORGER: That's right. The president's likability is way higher than his job approval. That's the key to the Romney campaign.

Because what they're going back to and say, OK, this was candidate Obama in 2008. Here is what he promised he would do for you. And by the way, here is what he hasn't done for you, going back to a state like Ohio, for example. I know you're having Senator Portman on later. Mitt Romney went there today to talk about problems that still remain in that state after President Obama ran in that state and made promises.

KING: I will call this a little fashion history or magazine history lesson here. Four years ago, a few months before she was John McCain's running mate, at a time when not many people in the country knew who she was, hope we can show you here, there is Sarah Palin right on the pages of "Vogue." It was a nice fashion spread standing there in front of an airplane, another picture up in Alaska. Lo and behold, Sarah Palin a few months later is on the Republican ticket. Voila. Fast forward. Look at this from the current issue of "Vogue" magazine. Who is that?

BORGER: Who can that be?

KING: That would be Nikki Haley, that would be the Republican governor of the South Carolina, and someone who some think has an outside shot. Good idea, bad idea?

BORGER: I think what Nikki Haley is trying to do is sell books right now. She has an autobiography out there she has really been flacking. This is clearly going to help her.

It is a high visibility magazine, you want to try and appeal to women voters, women read "Vogue." But I went and I looked at a list of the famous women who have been in "Vogue" who are also politicians. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., for example, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden -- Jill Biden, and on and on.

KING: Not Joe Biden?

BORGER: Not Joe Biden.


BORGER: But I wouldn't say you have to be in "Vogue," but at this point it doesn't hurt.

KING: I'm dying to see how that one plays back home. Let's just say, we will see how that one plays.


BORGER: I didn't say it didn't hurt in South Carolina.


KING: Gloria, thanks.

What does the president's reelection team think of the turn for the worse in his case in the polls?

With us live from Chicago tonight is Stephanie Cutter. She's the president's deputy campaign manager.

Stephanie, have you ever been in "Vogue"?



KING: Not like that, though. Let's turn serious for a minute. When you look at these tightening numbers, I know everyone on your team from top on down says it will be a tough race, that 2012 is not 2008. But when you look at the numbers specifically when it comes to the handling of the economy, who can create jobs, who would be best to deal with gas prices, the issues that are front and center in voters' minds, guess what? The other guy is winning right now, even though he just had a bloody primary campaign. Why?

CUTTER: Well, you said it, John, that this is a contest between likability and job performance.

And the one thing they haven't been exposed to is Mitt Romney's job performance. They don't understand what he did at Bain Capital and they don't understand what happened in Massachusetts where he left government, left the state with higher debt, bigger government, and 47th out of 50th in job creation, with manufacturing jobs leaving the state at twice the rate of any other state in the country.

You know, those are the facts of his job performance. They weren't covered in the primary. They will be covered in the general. Voters will be exposed to it. These polls tell me that there's a lot they don't know about Mitt Romney.

But the fundamentals are really strong. In "The New York Times" poll, 60 percent believe Mitt Romney has no idea what's going on in their lives and they can't relate to him. That's a really important number, and the gender gap, and the gap with Hispanic Americans, that all means something in this race right now.

KING: You mentioned what they don't know about Mitt Romney, whether he can connect to them, and I would agree with you on whether he could connect to them is a key issue in this campaign going forward.

And the Romney campaign sees a deliberate effort by your team, including the president, to sharpen that contrast. The president said the other day, I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth.

Governor Romney took that, whether it was or not, as a shot as his family's wealth and his personal wealth. He said I am not going to apologize. My dad was born poor and amassed his fortune, and then on the trail he said this.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: His failures mean his campaign is not going to be about vision. It is going to be about division. He is going to be focusing on different Americans, and trying to scapegoat other people for his own failures. You will see him attack success day in and day out.


KING: Answer Governor Romney who says any time somebody raises an issue with the president, he blames someone else. CUTTER: Well, John, you know that's not true.

The silver spoon comment, the president has made that comment many times as part of his speeches on the economy and what we need to do to build an economy that is meant to last where everybody gets a fair shot at success, like Mitt Romney. That's what that is meant to mean.

Yesterday in Ohio, talking about what we have done to increase worker training, job training, so people can go on to -- if they lost their job, they can get a new and better job that pays higher wages, the jobs of the future, as opposed to Mitt Romney, who cut worker training in Massachusetts.

We're not begrudging success. We just want everybody to be successful. Mitt Romney is wrong. We're not attacking or dividing. We're just simply pointing out our vision of the economy vs. Mitt Romney's vision of the economy. We don't believe that the economy grows by giving to the top and letting it trickle down. We think it grows from the middle up.

That's a stark difference in this race. That doesn't mean we're dividing anybody or attacking their success. That's just our vision of the economy, and that's actually reflected in the polls. The other number in the "New York Times" poll is who is looking out for me and who is looking out for I need in my life.

And Barack Obama wins that hands down in the "New York Times" poll and in your CNN poll, and consistently, and there's a reason for that. And the reason for that is because Mitt Romney doesn't relate to them, doesn't put forth a vision or policies that will make any difference in their lives.

KING: Stephanie Cutter is the deputy campaign manager for team Obama.

Stephanie, we will see you quite a bit between now and 208 days. I think we are 207 days, 208 days, something.

I have lost count.

CUTTER: And counting.

KING: I have lost count. But I am sure you haven't. Stephanie, thanks. We will see you again soon.

When it comes to being vice president, Marco Rubio says he doesn't want the job, but the Florida senator says he knows who would be perfect as Mitt Romney's running mate. Who? It is a fellow senator. And he joins us next.

Plus, Florida's lieutenant governor needs a review of whether Florida's stand your ground law contributed to the death of Trayvon Martin. I will ask her if she now thinks that law should be tossed out.


KING: Take a look. I have got a newspaper for you here. This is the front page of today's "Chronicle Telegraph" Elyria, Ohio. That's Lorain County, battleground.

Both Mitt Romney and President Obama gave speeches right there in Lorain County within a day of each other. It's a must-win state.

So maybe that's why almost every GOP insider you talk to says Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman would be a great choice to be Mitt Romney's running mate. Portman even got a ringing endorsement today from someone who many conservatives say should get that number two spot.



SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: Now, Senator Rob Portman would be phenomenal choices for vice president. And that's where I would encourage them to look.


KING: So is Romney-Portman the right ticket?

Senator Portman joins me now.

It's nice to see you.


KING: Romney-Portman, does that have a ring to it?

PORTMAN: Rubio has got a better ring, actually.

KING: Oh, OK. And this is what...

PORTMAN: Maybe Ryan.

KING: Is this what we're going to go through?

Or maybe Ryan?



KING: Maybe Ryan?

Now, the...

PORTMAN: Romney...

(CROSSTALK) KING: -- the process has started. A lot of people say, you know, the traditional school was get someone who locks you up a state. And they think Rob Portman would lock you up Ohio. No Republican has won the presidency in the modern age without winning Ohio.

Smart pick, right?

PORTMAN: Well, I will help him in Ohio, as we did in the primary. And I think he's going to win Ohio. And he's going to win because the top issue in Ohio is jobs and the economy. It's true in Lorain County, where, by the way, there is 8. 7 percent unemployment and people are looking around for some leadership.

And so I think Mitt Romney has a good opportunity to win in Ohio. Barack Obama won last go-around. George Bush won...

KING: Would he have...


PORTMAN: ... before that.

KING: -- will he have a better chance with Rob Portman on his ticket?

PORTMAN: I don't think so. I -- I think, you know, honestly, I'm going to -- I'm going to help him all the -- all I can. And, you know, I think the -- the key thing is going to be who's got the better plan?

And when you look at the record of the Obama administration and what Mitt Romney is offering, which is a new way to approach the economy and a new way to get jobs going, I think he's -- he's going to get Independent voters and some moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats who -- who voted for President Obama last time to look to him.

KING: I want to get to some of those proposals in a minute. I just want to ask you a little bit more about this.

Every politician has an ego. Forgive me, you get into elective office, you've got an ego. Yours -- I have known you for a long time -- I would say it's considerably smaller than some of the others that you're around. Now, that's a compliment.

But I want to ask you if this bothers you. We asked a poll, we asked Republican voters and Independents who lean Republican, "Who's your choice to be Mitt Romney's running mate?"

Condoleezza Rice came in first at 26 percent; Senator Santorum at 21. Then there's Governor Christie, Senator Rubio, Congressman Ryan, Governor Jindal, Governor McDonnell.

Congressman, you were an asterisk. You were an asterisk, which is -- that means less than . 5 of 1 percent volunteered Rob Portman. That's got to tee you off a little bit. PORTMAN: No. I -- I think that's -- I think that's consistent with, you know, our -- our approach, which is Ohio and the economy and -- and, you know, so I -- I think that's not surprising. By the way, Condi Rice is another great pick. I have actually talked to her about it. But she said...

KING: And?

PORTMAN: -- she's not interested right now.

KING: And you worked with her in the Bush administration?


KING: Everybody is saying...

PORTMAN: Exactly.

KING: -- wait, wait, wait, wait, everybody says they're not interested. You say you're not interested.

PORTMAN: Maybe not everybody.

KING: I don't think you'd say no if the phone call came.

PORTMAN: Look, I -- I -- I think there's a lot of good choices this time around. Frankly, people vote for the person at the top of the ticket.

KING: Is there a book -- is there a book on what people who are being considered for vice president are supposed to say?

I think there are a lot of good choices...

PORTMAN: I wish there were.

KING: I'm not interested. You wish there were.

All right, let -- let me move on to some of the issues here.

You were the budget chief in the Bush administration.


KING: One of the questions has been, you know, what should happen here to deal with the deficit, to deal with fairness.

I want you to listen to the president of the United States. As you know, he's been pushing what he calls the Buffet Rule...


KING: -- millionaires should pay at least 30 percent.

Here's why.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is an idea that was supported by a strong majority of the American people, including nearly half of Republicans. A majority of millionaires supported it. And Senate Republicans didn't listen. They refused to even let it come up for a vote.


KING: If you look at the polling, the American people are on his side, including a good chunk of Republicans.

Why not?

PORTMAN: Because he has sold it as deficit reduction, which it's not. You just asked a question about the budget.

Guess what?

It has a minimal effect. In fact, it would pay for one week of interest on the national debt, less than . 5 of 1 percent of revenues being raised this year.

So it's not about deficit reduction. He's also sold it, as he did yesterday, as helping to somehow grow the economy.

Well, just the opposite, because what you're doing is you're taxing capital gains income. As you know, John, you know, that's what a lot of wealthier people pay. When you tax capital gains income, you don't help the economy, you hurt the economy, which is why President Kennedy, President Reagan, President Clinton and President Bush all believed we should have a lower rate for capital gains.

Apparently, the president disagrees with that.

But look, it -- it's not going to help on the fiscal condition. It's not going to help on the economy. It's obviously good politics. That's why he's doing it.

But let's talk about, you know, the budget. The president has proposed a budget again this year. Last year he proposed one. We took it to the Senate floor. It lost by a 97-0 vote. Not much leadership there. Not even a Democrat would vote for it.

This year, the same thing. It went to the House floor. It lost by a vote of 414-0. Not a single Democrat or Republican supported it.

So I think what people are looking for is some leadership. And when they understand the fact that this is not leadership, this is about politics, I don't think you'd see those kinds of numbers.

KING: I'm going to ask you, lastly, at a fund-raiser the other day, Governor Romney -- they say he was just kicking around some ideas. This -- these aren't his proposals, he was just sort of thinking out loud. But he said one way you start to deal with the deficit, he said take away the second mortgage. You can only deduct your mortgage interest for one home. You couldn't do your second home.

He says take away the state income tax deduction, the state property tax deduction on your federal returns.

Are those good ideas?

You mentioned the Buffet Rule would only put a dent in. Maybe we need a lot of things to put a dent in. Is that...

PORTMAN: Well, no...

KING: -- fair?

PORTMAN: -- what we need is fundamental tax reform. And I think Romney is absolutely right about that. What -- again, President Obama is doing, he's complicating the code further, obviously, putting another alternative minimum tax in place and saying that we ought not to have low rates on -- on capital investment, which, of course, is bad for the economy.

Instead, let's reform the tax code.

And if we do that, guess what?

It's the wealthier who take the most advantage of those tax loopholes, tax breaks, tax expenditures, as some people call them, some of those Mitt Romney talked about. And that would have a better impact on our economy.


Because you'd actually have pro-growth tax reform, which would generate more economic activity. Economists across the board say that. Which would lead to more revenue.

KING: Senator Portman, appreciate your time tonight.

You could...

PORTMAN: Thanks, John.

KING: -- you could write that handbook.


KING: What -- one of the things...

PORTMAN: ... looking for it.

KING: -- one of the things you were supposed to say.

We'll talk more as the campaign goes on.

PORTMAN: All right, John.

KING: Senator, thank you so much.

PORTMAN: Take care.

KING: Coming up here: the "Truth" why being in a dead heat or even a little behind is at the moment a win for Mitt Romney.

And a small plane loops above the Gulf of Mexico for hours before crashing, the pilot unresponsive -- new questions tonight about just what happened in that cockpit.



KING: Up next: The defendant in the Trayvon Martin case has a bond hearing tomorrow with a new judge presiding. We will get a preview in just a moment.

And later, continued bloodshed in Syria despite what is supposed to be a cease-fire. Is this President Bashar al-Assad's last chance?


KING: This half-hour, the Pentagon says all options are on the table in Syria, hinting at a military role to stop the bloody crackdown. Is it a bluff or a policy shift?

New scrutiny of a Florida law lets you shoot anyone, anywhere if it is in self-defense. The Trayvon Martin case hinges on it. We will ask the lieutenant governor of Florida if stand your ground should be tossed out.

Plus, one of America's most beloved ballparks turns 100. And Fenway Park's birthday includes a Red Sox-Yankees showdown in 1912 uniforms. * KING: ... anyone, anywhere if it's in self-defense. The Trayvon Martin case hinges on it. We'll ask the lieutenant governor of Florida if "stand your ground" should be tossed out

Plus, one of America's most beloved ballparks turns 100. Fenway Park's birthday includes a Red Sox-shaking showdown in 1912 uniforms.

Nine o'clock tomorrow morning in the east, we expect to see Georgia Zimmerman in a Florida courtroom, asking to be released from jail. He's charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Our David Mattingly has been covering this case from the beginning. He's standing by.

David, what do we expect in the courtroom, and is Zimmerman's defense team, are they confident they can get bond? DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, of course, the big question is will George Zimmerman get out of jail tomorrow? There's a couple of things we're watching for.

First of all, all the heavy lifting is going to be on the prosecution tomorrow. It's going to be up to them to convince the judge that George Zimmerman is a flight risk or that he's a danger to the community. They have a lot to do there if they want to prove that.

But if they try to, they could end up showing us evidence that we haven't seen before, so it could be interesting to see what they try to do and what they reveal as they try to do that.

Second of all, the bond itself. If Zimmerman does get the bond and does get out, the question is how high will that bond be. We know that his attorney says that he's indigent, that he's going to need help from the state to pay for his legal defense.

So right now, if he gets a bond, if it's too high, who will pay it to get George Zimmerman out of jail? A lot of questions right now as we just begin with the legal process in this case -- John.

KING: And David, a new judge. The former judge recused herself. Any reason to believe the case could take a different track or a different approach from a new judge?

MATTINGLY: At this point, absolutely not. This new judge everyone is saying that -- how he doesn't play favorites. He's firm; he's fair. All the things you would expect both sides should be saying at this stage of the game. But right now, there are absolutely no objections to the change of judges.

In fact, the judge that did recuse herself, it was said that there was no reason found for her to do that, but she was allowed to anyway.

At this point, you're seeing the judicial system trying to be as open and as transparent as possible as this case, as it's watched by the entire country, moves forward.

KING: David Mattingly, live in San Francisco. David, thanks so much.

George Zimmerman is claiming he shot Trayvon Martin in self- defense and that he had the right to do that under Florida's "stand your ground" law.

Today, Florida Governor Rick Scott formed a 17-member task force to review the controversial law.


GOV. RICK SCOTT (R), FLORIDA: We live in a state where the crime rate is at a 40-year low. I want to keep it that way. We all want to keep it that way. If there are laws that are impacting that where people don't feel comfortable, I want to know about it.


KING: The woman leading that taskforce is Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll. She joins me now live.

Governor Carroll, thank you so much for your time. When you were in the legislature, you voted for this law. Given everything you've heard, the controversy in recent weeks, having second thoughts?

LT. GOV. JENNIFER CARROLL (R), FLORIDA: Well, John, during the time that law came to the legislature for citizens and individuals who wanted to protect themselves, they brought a good argument that this law was something that we needed to put in.

But I want to clarify that stand your ground is a part of the justifiable use of force, which is Florida Statute 776. And there are multiple defenses within that statute.

So we will, with the task force, be looking at the application of the law, how it's been -- the intent of the law, does it need to be tweaked any way, and get public testimony with this task force to find out if it's something that is not interpreted well within the law enforcement or if something has been misapplied with citizens around the state.

But any law that we put into place as a legislative body, it stands a chance to be reviewed to make sure it is the right public policy. The governor and I, our main focus is public safety and protection of citizens' rights.

KING: On the one hand, a lot of people are saying amen, that the governor is moving pretty quickly and putting you in charge of the taskforce.

On the other hand, there are some who would say should you be doing this while this proceeding is unfolding? Might your deliberations somehow affect what the jury hears, what the community hears during the Zimmerman proceedings? Do you have any concern about that at all?

CARROLL: No, we do not, because it's separate and apart from. What we do has nothing to do on bearing on the case for George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Although our thoughts and prayers go out to the family for their loss. And we need to be sure that the public policy we have in place is right for public safety and for the public to feel safe in their doctrine (ph), whether it is in their home or their communities, as well as protecting citizens' rights.

So this task force hopefully will be able to receive information from the case so that data and the information that we're getting is factual data, so we can make a best case, if a change needs to be made to the law, that we bring what we feel from the citizens, plus the testimony from various civic organizations and various groups that need support or not support. Plus, also, too, we have embraced with the University of Florida for them to capture data across the state, looking at all the criminal records and looking at case and investigations with the sheriff, police department, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, with all the information from a couple years prior to the law, and during the law up to the last year as how it's been applied and has it been misabused, and for us to make a proper recommendation based on the facts.

KING: As you know, this case has drawn national, if not international attention. There are some that blame the law, who flat out blame the law, saying that if you didn't have in the back of your mind that I can defend myself, I can carry a weapon, and I can just say I was being attacked, that this wouldn't have happened. What would you say to those people?

CARROLL: Well, you know, unfortunately, the people are going off of the emotion. And of task force cannot go on emotions. We need to collect all of the data, and make sure we have a good, open process for individuals to give their testimony as to what particularly happened to them.

We have individuals on the task force as a cross section of industry. We have civic organization leaders. We have minorities. We have law enforcement officers. We have defense attorney. We have prosecutors. We have retired judges, a judge, retired Supreme Court judge that's on the taskforce, plus the members who crafted the bill, and it is important for us to understand the origin of it, the intent of it, has it been applied throughout the years for the intent when the law was implemented, and make sure that we're not going of emotions but receiving the factual data and information so that we can present the best case to the legislature as to what changes, if necessary, need to be done.

But I tell you, not everyone -- and this is why the University of Florida is involved and collecting the data -- because not everyone who claims a defense of justifiable use of force have been able to get off on that. The ballistics have to come into effect. The investigation from law enforcement have to come into effect to claim that that is a viable justification for an individual utilizing force.

So it is not that people can just walk out their home and start shooting. That's outright murder, and we do not stand for that in the state of Florida.

KING: Lieutenant governor of the state of Florida, Jennifer Carroll, an important responsibility. Governor, we appreciate you coming to us at the beginning of your work. We hope you'll sure come back when you reach a conclusion and come discuss it with us down the road.

CARROLL: Thanks, John.

KING: Thank you. Take care.

The Pentagon now says it's ready to stop in to help stop Syria's bloody crackdown on its own people. There was supposed to be a truce, as you probably know, beginning last week. But the he United Nations says the government is violating that truce, at least on occasion, and still shelling neighborhoods. Activists say 25 people were killed just today.

So the defense secretary, Leon Panetta, says he's not ruling anything out.


LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Our approach must keep all options on the table. All options on the table. While recognizing the limitations of military force, we must be prepared to take whatever action is required.


KING: Bring in our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

Jess, we also heard some tough words from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today, as well as is this just tougher rhetoric or are they really ready to push for tougher action?

JESSICA YELLIN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, this is added pressure, but it's far from the kind of action that you're suggesting.

What Secretary Clinton did today, she's pressing the U.N. to take further steps if the ceasefire pushed by peace envoy Kofi Annan should fail. The steps she's pressing from the U.N. would include an arms embargo, and stepped-up travel and financial sanctions against Syria.

The resolution she would press before the U.N. does include allowing for the possibility of use of force, but here at the White House today, Jay Carney made clear that the White House's position has not changed. They still do not support arming any of the insurgents or the rebels, I should say, in Syria, and they're still are looking at diplomatic options for pressing for Assad to go there -- John.

KING: And so Jessica, this is a tough one, obviously, but if you talk to activists inside Syria, those here in this country trying to help those activists, they say, No. 1, the U.N. sent in a tiny number of observers. That's why we see people still getting killed. And they say -- and let's listen here -- they say this administration keeps talking, but talk, they say, is cheap. Listen.


SUSAN RICE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: The Assad regime is on its last legs. The pressure is increasing. The economy is-- is crumbling.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I am convinced that Assad's days are numbered. I just regret deeply that there will be more killing before he finally goes. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's not a question of when Assad leaves or if Assad leaves. It's a question of when. He has lost legitimacy of his people.


KING: That takes us, Jess, through February and March. Are they worried as we get through, near the end of April, there's a credibility question here?

YELLIN: Well, John, look, they keep pointing out, and that international experts also say this is very different from Syria because, for a lot of reasons, a different ethnic makeup. Any kind of intervention, military intervention could become very messy and protracted.

And so it's not something the U.S. would want to do on its own. So you need to build enormous -- you need to build international support. That's the view that many hold.

But it's especially not something that one would want to do in an election year, and especially with so much tension in the Middle East already, given the state of affairs between Iran and Israel right now. So this one step that the secretary of state has taken today does further build for the possibility of international support, should they want to take further action down the road, but that's as far as they're going right now. It continues to be in the realm of, quote, "more pressure," John.

KING: White House correspondent Jessica Yellin. Jess, thanks.

After a bruising primary season, why is Mitt Romney doing so well against President Obama. Coming up, the truth about the disadvantages of campaigning as president of the United States.


KING: Tonight's "Truth" is a bit of a sour pill for the Obama re-election campaign. Mitt Romney is winning. I know, the polls show a dead heat. Some even show a narrow lead for the president, but a tossup at this point is a win for Romney.

President Obama, after all, didn't have a primary opponent, and he has all the advantages of incumbency, from the Rose Garden, to Air Force One, to taxpayer-financed official events in key battleground states that just so happen to highlight central campaign themes.


OBAMA: In this country, prosperity does not trickle down. Prosperity grows from the bottom up, and it grows from a strong middle class out.

That's how we grow this economy.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Governor Romney, on the other hand, is battle scarred. Dispatching his rivals took months longer and millions more in spending than he hoped. He had to attack right on immigrations [SIC] like immigration -- issues like immigration and contraception. His favorable ratings took a pounding. Yet, he's in a dead heat with the president in the national polls.

Why? Let's be clear. It's not because Governor Romney has been all of a sudden solving all of his many problems. Many conservatives still don't trust him. The gender gap remains a giant advantage for President Obama. Romney is getting crushed among Latino voters. But how then is he winning or, at least, breaking even?

Truth is, incumbency also has its disadvantages. Yes, President Obama can rightly say he inherited a mess, but he's been in office for three years now. Fairly or not, voters direct their economic anxiety at the guy who sits in the Oval Office.

A new Quinnipiac poll out today finds voters give Romney the edge on three critical pocketbook issues. Handling the economy, creating jobs, and dealing with gas prices. Those numbers suggest, at the moment anyway, that team Obama is failing the test that top strategist David Axelrod has explained right here many times before.


DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA STRATEGIST: Ultimately, people are going to make a choice. It's not -- this is not going to be a referendum. It's going to be a choice.


KING: His poll numbers suggest it is at the moment very much a referendum. And it's clear from listening to Governor Romney today, he hopes to keep it that way.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you want to know where his vision leads, open your eyes. Because we've been living it for the last three years. It leads to lost jobs, lost homes, lost dreams. It is time to end that vision and have a vision of growth and jobs and economic vitality.


KING: Now, the president has plenty of time. Plenty of time, mind you, and a big head start on very important election mechanics like voter identification and organizing. But it's no accident both the president and the vice president are getting tougher with Romney, by name of late.


AXELROD: Every time people poll, it's a referendum on the president. For the last six months, it's a choice between two candidates and two perspectives. I am very, very confident about that fight.


KING: Heard him say there, last six months. Well, that six- month benchmark, two weeks away.

Here tonight to talk truth, "TIME" magazine Washington deputy bureau chief, Michael Crowley; Democratic pollster for the president's reelection campaign, Cornell Belcher; and Republican strategist Nancy Pfotenhauer.

Mr. Belcher, to you first, sir. You run the president's numbers. It is true that the horserace numbers are almost meaningless right now, especially national polls. But it's also true that if you look at those, what's the No. 1 issue in the country, the economy. On those issues in the last several weeks, the president's gone back down. Why?

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: Well, first of all, let me push back on all of this, because it's interesting because...

KING: Push back?

BELCHER: Because two days -- I know, it's crazy. Because two days ago you all had a CNN poll that actually had us up, what, nine or ten points. It was a big swing, and people don't swing...

KING: And they said there's an NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll up nationally that has him up 6. Others have it at a dead heat.

If you average them all together, you get a dead heat, maybe slight advantage to the president.

Quite frankly, from a mathematical standpoint, someone is screwing something up. But we're not going to debate that. We're not going to debate that.


BELCHER: Here's what the matter is right now. These are awfully poor indicators of sort of what's going to happen in November. If you look back, sort of a month ago, Dole was actually ahead of -- ahead of Clinton. So they're off indicators.

What you want to look at under -- some of those underlying indicators. Who's fighting for the middle class? In your polling, you had 18 point -- plus 18 points. You know, who's most in contact with the issues? In your polling, he had 12 points. Who's more likeable? I know you want to throw likability out the window, but likeability counts. Americans liked George Bush. They elected George Bush. They're not making the likeability argument in a vacuum. They say this is a guy who's on my side. Therefore, I like him.

KING: I don't throw it out at all. I think you're right in the sense that the personal stuff matters: gets me, the affinity, understands my life matters a lot. And President Obama cleaning Romney's clock on those issues right now.

But on the performance issues, Nancy, he's doing better. Is it a referendum or is it a choice? David Axelrod I think is right in the framing of it. We just don't know yet when it's going to be on the last weekend of our total.

PFOTENHAUER: I would argue that historically, whenever you've got an incumbent battling for re-election, it is a referendum. I've always said incumbents are not defeated by opponents. They defeat themselves. And that's why these numbers in these crucial areas really do matter.

A poll that just came out this week, 74 percent of Americans say the deficit is going to have a major impact on who they choose. The major -- the crown jewel of Obama's legislative career, I guess, has been Obama care, and you've still got a majority of Americans who don't like it. The gender gap that still exists has been cut in half in March.

So I think we're going to see the numbers -- this is going to be a tight race.

KING: Reading polls is a roller coaster, Michael. Just as we've been on the air, the NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll was released. It shows on the -- in the horse race, 49-43, the president's winning by six points. That's a national lead. And we do presidents state by state. But that six-point lead means you're probably going to win the election.

However, they also asked who would handle the economy better? Romney wins 40 to 34 percent. I would argue that number right now is more important, right?

MICHAEL CROWLEY, DEPUTY WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I think it probably is, although you have to go back a long way to find a candidate who, I think by consensus, was less likeable, who won the election. I mean, you can go back to the 1970s, I think, before you start getting to that debate. But so likability, I think, counts.

But in this case the numbers that I'm going to be looking at the most closely are not the poll numbers. They're the jobs numbers, data about incomes in particular.

And I think that that is still not hardened yet. I mean, the jury is still out on what people will think the trajectory of the economy is when we get to the fall. And we had a step back with the last jobs numbers. And it's not clear whether that was a slight blip or we still have good momentum, in which case..


KING: Let me bring these numbers in quick first. Michael is right about how voters perceive the economy. Let's look.

At this point George W. Bush was beating John Kerry 47 to 44. That's a statistical dead heat. Slightly. Bill Clinton was beating Bob Dole 49-35. Remember, the great Ross Perot was involved in that race, as well.

Now we look at incumbents who have lost. George H.W. Bush was actually leading right now back in 1992, and Jimmy Carter was actually leading right now back in 1980. But when you got closer to election day, people felt the economy was going -- or at least not going forward.

BELCHER: Well, this is the narrative that -- this is what's going to be played out from both sides. And quite frankly, the president has a fairly good story to tell. I mean, we have 25 straight months of solid job growth here. We've created more jobs over the last two years than we've created in the previous eight.

And what else are we creating right now? We're creating manufacturing jobs.

You've got to go back to the 1990s to see the level of manufacturing jobs being created in this country right now. When the president starts to tell his story, I think it's a fairly good economic story to tell. And whether or not Americans, when they move off track and double back down on the same policies that got us in this mess.

KING: Do you see the evidence -- do you see -- I would argue right now Governor Romney is benefiting a bit from the fact that people think he's won. That benefits the winner. And because the economic -- people are feeling less happy about the economy. So the president's hurt. Obama is losing because of those things more than Romney is winning. Have you seen any evidence he gets it to take it to the next level?

PFOTENHAUER: I think he does. I mean, I've actually seen an uptick in his game. I think he's gotten much sharper on -- on how he's rebutting things quickly. I think his instincts for a while were shaky. They look a little bit more solid now. He's in the game. You know, and he always steps up, I think, when he's in that arena. That's certainly what we saw back in 2008.

CROWLEY: John, just a hypothesis, but I think that people are so scarred by the economic disaster we just came out of, that when you have small blips, like the job numbers shrink one month, people get spooked. You know, they're -- they're jittery. And I think that may raise the bar for President Obama to have good performance, for people to have confidence and say, OK, we're back now, so that could be a challenge for him.

PFOTENHAUER: I agree. And this has been the slowest, you know, recovery that we've seen coming out of a recession, and that's affected everybody.

BELCHER: Yes, it has. But it would help if Republicans would get on board and help in actually passing legislation for the economy.

KING: Two hundred days, 200 days.

PFOTENHAUER: I said the Senate passing a budget would be useful, too.

KING: Nancy, Cornell, Michael, thanks.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" is coming up at the top of the hour. And Erin, I know you're digging deep on the Secret Service scandal. What do you have tonight?

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: We are. Well, John, as you know, we're learning new information tonight about the names of two of the three Secret Service agents who were removed, in one case resigned, and the other. We have the latest on that.

Plus, one of the first women, one of the first ten women to join the Secret Service, rose to the level of deputy director. What sort of culture is there? Is it a wheels up, rings off, as we've heard? We're going to talk to her about that coming up at the top of the hour.

Back to you.

KING: Erin in just a few minutes. Thanks.

Still ahead here, thousands welcomed the Space Shuttle Discovery to its new permanent home.

And happy birthday, heaven on earth, Fenway Park. Boston baseball fans are celebrating 100 years as the country's greatest stadium.


KING: Welcome back. Here's Mary Snow with the latest news you need to know right now. Hello again.


Let's start with the jobs front. The number of people filing for their first week of unemployment benefits dropped slightly to 386,000 people. But that number is still much higher than economists expected. It's adding to fears that hiring is slowing down.

For the first time ever, the Marine Corps is planning to let women enroll in courses that train infantry combat officers. It's part of a plan to see if women could one day take roles on the front lines. A 1994 policy restricts women from being directly limited in combat, limiting them to support roles in those units.

And Discovery, the oldest and most traveled space shuttle, officially moved into its new home, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Thousands were on hand for that ceremony this morning. Discovery will be on public display at the museum's hangar near Dulles Airport in Virginia. It replaces Enterprise, which is heading to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Quite a sight.

KING: Pretty cool. Got to go out and see that soon. It's just outside of town. Next time you're in Washington maybe we'll go out together and see the new thing. All right.

SNOW: Sounds good.

KING: Stay with me now. You're in New York, so I'm afraid where this conversation might be heading, but tonight's "Moment You Won't Want to Miss." It's a birthday party for baseball lovers and history buffs alike. Boston's Fenway Park, my favorite place on earth, is 100 years old tomorrow.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): It's 1, 2, 3 strikes you're out at the old ball game. UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): It's 1, 2, 3 strikes you're out at the old ball game.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): It's 1, 2, 3 strikes you're out at the old ball game.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): It's 1, 2, 3 strikes you're out at the old ball game.


KING: A little taste outside there. That's the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from today's open house to build up to the centennial celebration when we'll see a good, old-fashioned grudge match between the Red Sox and the Yankees. The same matchup as the first game in Fenway, April 20, 1912, back when the Yankees were the New York Highlanders. Both teams will suit up in 1912 throw-back uniforms. They're beautiful, aren't they? Old wool, I bet. It's a little hot in those.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed, Mary. Don't know how you feel about this. That history repeats itself. The Red Sox beat the Highlanders 7-6 in 11 innings back then.

SNOW: Yes. I hope that doesn't happen again. But you know...

KING: Cut her mike, cut her mike.

SNOW: You know what I'm going to say. New Yorkers have a very fond memory of Fenway: 1986, game six.

KING: Wow, wow. Trashed on my own show. That's just -- that's something else. No respect! No respect. All right.

SNOW: I represent New York, sorry.

KING: Both teams are struggling right now. We'll see how it goes tomorrow. Thanks, Mary.

That's all for us. We'll see you back here tomorrow. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.