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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Republicans Debate in South Carolina; Interview With Republican Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich; Interview With Republican Presidential Candidate Rick Santorum

Aired January 19, 2012 - 22:00   ET

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


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome back to this special edition of 360 here at the North Carleton Coliseum. I'm Anderson Cooper.

What a night. Electric right off the bat. The four remaining Republican candidates for president have just finished a very fiery debate. There was an awkward moment from Mitt Romney on his taxes, sharp exchanges as well between Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Governor Romney over their respective accomplishments.

A tough back and forth over illegal immigration, and Speaker Gingrich angrily denying he asked his second wife for an open marriage. That was the fiery start of this debate.

The candidates right now are -- well, with their family members, soon will be greeting supporters here on the stage and in this auditorium. Rick Santorum will be joining us shortly. Newt Gingrich is going to be joining us shortly as well.

Less than 36 hours to go right now until South Carolinians vote. Tonight, they got perhaps their last best chance to size up who is best to take on President Obama.

First, though, some of the highlights of this key debate before this crucial primary. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich. He -- he handles it very, very well. And that's really one of the issues here, folks.

A month ago, he was saying that oh I'm -- it's inevitable that I'm going to win the election and it's -- I'm destined to do it. I don't want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and figuring out what is he -- worrying about what he's going to say next. And that's -- that's what I think we're seeing here.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people, doing big things. And we need leadership prepared to take on big projects.

The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested, because they would like to attack any Republican. They're attacking the governor. They're attacking me. I'm sure they'll presently get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul.

JOHN MARCOUX, RETIRED STOCK TRADER: Gentlemen, when will you release your tax returns specifically?

GINGRICH: An hour ago.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Mr. Speaker posted his online an hour ago. We know that.

Congressman Paul -- we'll come down the line.

Congressman Paul, I want to start with you.

We reached out to your campaign this week, and they said you would not release your tax returns. Why?

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I hadn't thought it through. I don't have an intention of doing it, but for a different reason. I would probably be embarrassed to put my financial statement up against their income. And I don't want to be embarrassed because I don't have a greater income.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KING: Back in 1967, your father set a groundbreaking -- what was then a groundbreaking standard in American politics. He released his tax return. He released them for not one year, but for 12 years. And when he did that, he said this: "One year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show."

When you release yours, will you follow your father's example?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Maybe.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: You know, I don't know how many years I will release. I will take a look at what the -- what our documents are and I will release multiple years. I don't know how many years, and -- but I will be happy to do that.

Let me tell you, I know there are some who are very anxious to see if they can't make it more difficult for a campaign to be successful. I know the Democrats want to go after the fact that I have been successful. I -- I'm not going to apologize for being successful.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: I want to make sure that I beat President Obama. And every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks. As has been done in the past, if I'm the nominee, I will put these out at one time so we have one discussion of all of this. I -- I obviously pay all full taxes. I'm honest in my dealings with people. People understand that. My taxes are carefully managed and I pay a lot of taxes. I have been very successful and when I have our -- our taxes ready for this year, I will release them.

GINGRICH: Look, he's got to decide and the people of South Carolina have to decide. But if there's anything in there that is going to help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination. And if there's nothing in there -- if there's nothing in there, why not release it?

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Governor Romney tells a very nice story about what his plan is now. It wasn't his plan when he was in a position to do a plan. When he was governor of Massachusetts, he put forth Romneycare, which was not a bottom-up free market system. It was a government-run health care system that was the basis of Obamacare, and it has been an abject failure.

And he has stood by it.

ROMNEY: So much of what the senator said was wrong. Let me mention a few of the things. First of all, the system and my state is not a government-run system. Is it perfect? Absolutely not.

GINGRICH: What he said, which I found mildly amazing, was that he thought I would have a hard time debating Barack Obama over health care.

I would be quite happy to have a three-hour Lincoln/Douglas style debate with Barack Obama. I would let him use a teleprompter. I will just rely on knowledge. We'll do fine.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: And I'm joined by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

First of all, how did you think it went for you tonight?

GINGRICH: Well, I thought it was a terrific debate for all of us.

I thought the audience was really appreciative. I thought John did a great job. It was direct. It was tough. You could see the differences. And I personally felt pretty good about it. I think -- I wanted to keep it at a pretty big level, and stay on big themes and really talk about what America needs to do.

COOPER: Senator Santorum attacked you, saying, essentially, he's more stable, that you say things, you don't know what you're going to say, he's more reliable, that you're too risky. That's his message.

GINGRICH: Look, everybody has to have a message. I was speaker of the House for four years. We balanced the budget for four straight years. We reformed welfare. I have been a senior teacher in the military for 23 years. I have written 24 books. I have made seven movies.

I don't know what stability is. I work very hard. I'm very intense. We need aggressive leadership to change Washington, and that's essentially what I'm going to offer. If you want an aggressive leader who will seek to change Washington, I probably have the experience to do it.

COOPER: You released your tax returns during the debate. Your campaign did. What did you make of Governor Romney's answer on whether or not he would release his?

GINGRICH: Well, he has got to make his own decision, but I think the voters are going to ask the question.

What you don't want to do is end up in September with a nominee who suddenly has something blow up, and now it's too late. And I think -- I felt that we owed it to the people of South Carolina. We got it out as quick as we could. We promised it a couple days ago.

I think he would be well-advised to put it out tomorrow. I don't see how he's going to get through Florida and not release it, because either there's nothing in there, in which case why isn't he releasing it, or there's something that he thinks Obama can beat him up with, in which case doesn't he owe it to Republican voters to tell them in advance, so they know what the risk is?

COOPER: How critical now moving forward -- if you don't come in first place in South Carolina, you're still in this?

GINGRICH: Well, Karl Rove actually had an impact on me, because he said the other day, if you add up the conservative candidates, they are clearly going to be a majority over Romney by a big margin.

And as we're shrinking -- and, as you know, two of the candidates dropped out this week -- you begin to ultimately get down to a conservative vs. a moderate or a liberal. And in the Republican Party, I think the moderate has a very hard time winning a two-way race.

So, I hope to win Saturday. The most recent polls are very encouraging. We have lot of momentum. The speaker of the House, Bobby Harrell, just endorsed me. General Livingston, who is a key player here, just endorsed me. Sheriff Metts (ph) the most popular person in one of the key counties, just endorsed me.

So, we have a lot of momentum going. I think we can win on Saturday. If we do, it's a whole new ball game in Florida. I think there's no possibility that Romney will get a big enough vote to be bigger than Santorum and me combined.

COOPER: Governor Romney has spent already a lot of money in Florida. GINGRICH: He does.

COOPER: Have you -- what is your campaign like in Florida? Do you have enough people there?

(CROSSTALK)

GINGRICH: First of all, we have -- the campaign manager for Marco Rubio is now running our campaign. He's a terrific leader.

My daughter also lives in Key Biscayne. We just went down there for a day-and-a-half. A terrific response in the Cuban response, terrific response. Bill McCollum, the former attorney general, is our campaign chairman statewide. Great response in Orlando.

We have, I think, already 5,000 or 6,000 volunteers. But there's no question Governor Romney will always have more money. He's the Wall Street candidate. His top-10 donors are all major Wall Street institutions.

So he's always going to come in earlier. He came here with a lot more money. But we made adjustments after Iowa. And I think we're now in a position where we understand how to deal directly with Governor Romney's style in his campaigns.

And so he can outspend us two or three to one, and that's not enough. He would have to get up to six or eight to one, I think, to begin to really have an effect now.

COOPER: Speaker Gingrich, I appreciate your time. Thank you. Good night.

GINGRICH: Thanks. Good to see you.

COOPER: Let's go over to Gloria Borger.

I believe she is with Senator Rick Santorum -- Gloria.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I am, Anderson. Thanks a lot.

And, Senator Santorum, this is the toughest I think I have ever heard you in any of these debates. You did not leave anything in the locker room, particularly when it comes to your former colleague Newt Gingrich.

And you said it's worrisome -- I'm -- there's this worrisome moment that something is going to pop with Newt Gingrich.

What do you mean by that?

SANTORUM: Look, like I said, I love Newt. And he's been a great intellectual leader for the Republican Party.

But there's a difference between being an idea guy who can be glib in debates, and someone who is going to be the steady hand, someone who is going to be a disciplined campaigner, someone who is going to go out and be able to make President Obama the issue, instead of waiting -- instead of being that uncertainty of you being the issue in the campaign because of things that you say today that may not necessarily be consistent with what you said the day before or the next day.

And the other thing is, as I have said before, look, we're looking for someone who is going to be the chief executive officer, the commander in chief of this country. And that means someone who can execute a plan. Newt Gingrich was given a leadership position in the Congress. And in three years, conservatives tried to throw him out, and, in four years, they did.

When I was in the United States Senate, I was elected to leadership. And I was the conservative voice. I made things happen. I pushed the agenda. I fought for the tough things. And I stood up what I believed in. That's just a fundamental difference between not just two leadership styles, but in effectiveness in doing the kind of leadership that a president is required to do.

BORGER: Do you think Gingrich would be erratic as a president -- forget about the candidacy, but as president of the United States?

SANTORUM: Go back and -- you saw the Romney commercial that is on the air right now. And just interview the folks that had to work with him.

He is a brilliant man, and he's constantly coming up with a lot of ideas. The problem is, he constantly comes up with a lot of ideas, and he's not focused to be able to execute the ideas and surround himself with the disciplined -- people disciplined to be able to do that.

That's why what happened, happened in the House of Representatives. That's why there was this revolution within the ranks from conservatives against Newt.

BORGER: And do you think that Mitt Romney -- even though he challenged Newt Gingrich tonight and said, you know, don't challenge my integrity on the question of abortion, for example, do you think Mitt Romney could be trusted to be reliable?

SANTORUM: Here's the problem.

The problem with Governor Romney is there is not just the abortion issue. There's a pattern of a whole series of issues in which Governor Romney was on one side of the issue, and when it became politically advantageous to come on the other side, depending on the race that he was running, he ended up on the other side.

BORGER: So you don't think it was because of his -- people are allowed to change their opinions and convictions.

SANTORUM: Absolutely.

And I'm not questioning his convictions on abortion. If it was the only thing he had ever changed his mind on, then it would be something that it would very easy to understand.

But the problem is that we have a whole laundry list of things that Governor Romney has taken one position on in one race and another position in another race, depending on where he was running or who he was running against.

And that -- that just leads to timidity on his part and uncertainty and a lack of clear contrast between what we need in a presidential candidate, someone who has strong, bold convictions, someone who has the courage of those convictions to fight and even lose a race because you stood up for what you believe in.

I hear this all the time from people who say, are you willing to lose to do what is right? I said, I have already lost to do what is right. You have no question that I will go out there and do my best to try to bring the American people together and do big things. And that's my objective.

BORGER: OK.

Senator Santorum, thanks so very much for coming to us after this debate. We appreciate it.

SANTORUM: My pleasure.

BORGER: And back to you, Anderson.

COOPER: Gloria, thanks.

We have got a full political panel to put things in perspective tonight. We are going to be focus on through all the way to the 11:00 hour, not just the debate, also Rick Perry's departure from the race today and his endorsement of Newt Gingrich.

John King is going to join us, David Gergen, Ari Fleischer, Donna Brazile, Erick Erickson. We're going to check in with all of them next.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Hey, we're back, South Carolina's North Charleston Coliseum, after a vital debate on a momentous political day with big movement in the polls, one candidate's departure, allegations from another candidate's ex-wife, and more, a lot to talk about.

Joining us, chief national correspondent John King, who moderated tonight's fiery debate, CNN political analyst David Gergen, former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Gloria Borger, and Erick Erickson, who I believe is somewhere in the audience, editor in chief of RedState.com.

I got to start with the start of this debate.

John King, you asked the question which has been in all of the headlines, has been all over, statements made by Newt Gingrich's ex- wife. Speaker Gingrich blasted you, blasted the media, did ultimately actually answer the question, made some news with his answer.

I want to play what he actually said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period said the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested because they would like to attack any Republican. They're attacking the governor. They're attacking me. I'm sure they'll presently get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Speaker Gingrich got a standing ovation in this auditorium for saying it was basically a completely inappropriate question.

KING: And he also scored points in the Monday night debate by attacking Juan Williams' questions.

I had a question with the speaker after. Look, you have moderated these debates. This one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't. It's a story that is making the rounds on the campaign. Is it an issue I'm happy came up in the last 48 hours of the South Carolina primary? Of course not.

Is it an issue that voters in the state are talking about today? Is it an issue that he several times before the debate spot talked about in a very calm manner? It is.

COOPER: Right. He talked about it today earlier in a much different manner.

You knew -- how much of this was debate theatrics on his part? Did you know he was going to have that response?

KING: I knew he was going to challenge the question. I don't read minds. I don't want to judgment about the speaker's response. I have been covering politics for 25 years. I understood that if I asked the question, he was not going to be happy with it and he was going to turn on me. Knew that coming in.

Again, you make the judgment call. Is it an issue in the debate? It might not be a great issue. It might not be an issue we would like to talk about, but it's an issue in the debate. Some of the candidates are talking about it. Voters are talking about it in the state.

It was my judgment, my decision, and mine alone. If we're going to deal with it, let's deal with it up front. Let's not try to sneak it into the middle of the debate somewhere. And people at home either agree with that or disagree with that. You make a decision, you ask the question, and this is politics. This is politics. He's trying to promote himself, promote an agenda. Of course he's going to attack us. I don't take it personally. We had a nice conversation afterwards. I have had a long relationship with the speaker. We don't always get along with him. I get how the business works.

KING: Panelists, what do you all think?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Let me just talk about this.

This is one of the most explosive moments we have seen in debate history.

COOPER: In debate history?

GERGEN: Debate history.

It was also one of the harshest attacks we have had on the press that I can remember in a long, long time. It was very personal in the beginning. As a political matter, I think Gingrich saw a fast ball coming, and in front of this audience, he smacked it right out of the park.

I think there is a reasonable chance, after talking to people here tonight, that he could win South Carolina based on that answer.

COOPER: I have heard a lot of people online saying that tonight who have been live-blogging it.

BERGEN: But I want to say one other thing.

As a journalistic matter, John had a duty to ask that question. It was the elephant in the room. After all, his wife is accusing him of hypocrisy, being a man of family values who had this private life that was in conflict with what he was preaching, and a man who went after Bill Clinton on a similar set of issues.

He would distinguish it because Clinton was a sitting president. But, nonetheless,, for a lot of voters, there is hypocrisy in that. So it was the elephant in the room.

And John King is known by most of the people here as one of the most fairest people in country. I think he did the right thing. I think he asked the right question. We had the explosion. We move on.

BORGER: Anderson, there's a short-term issue here, which is that I do think that Newt Gingrich's answer, attacking John, attacking the media played well in the room and might very play well in South Carolina.

But there's a longer-term issue. And that's with women voters. He said his wife, the story is false. Newt Gingrich polls in this state twice as well with men as he does with women. I think in the long-term, say if Newt Gingrich wins South Carolina, goes on to do very well and continues, this could become an issue for women voters, obviously.

COOPER: Ari?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Anderson, I think it's not the elephant in the room.

The elephant in the room is the United States economy. It's the same that is in the room that is out of the room. It's spending. It's the economy. It's jobs. And that's why I think the audience reacted particularly for the first question off the bat.

I think that it's something that has to be aired. And then Newt did knock it out of the park. But what Gloria is saying, there is also an element to that too. Newt does have a gender gap. Newt does have a problem. Even though people booed, and I think, frankly it does tip the undecided toward Newt, there is a broader issue about Newt's electability, and this is one of the factors that plays into it when it comes to Newt's character.

COOPER: Well, Rick Santorum also raised the other question about, is he too risky? Does he say things that are unpredictable. We will get to that later.

But, Donna, on this...

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But there's no question that he wasn't the only uncomfortable candidate up on the stage tonight.

Mitt Romney had an opportunity to finally answer some questions about the economy, about Bain Capital, about job creation, and of course his own tax returns, and he decided to pivot by basically saying that I don't want to release my taxes because the Democrats might pick through it.

I also felt that Mitt Romney was a little bit uncomfortable tonight as well.

COOPER: I was interested though, when John followed up on the ex-wife question and getting Gingrich's response, Santorum did seem to try to say that it was a valid thing for people to think about.

Very interesting to see Mitt Romney's response, which was -- which played well in this crowd, which was, let's move on. That's not -- we should not be talking about.

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: When a room boos like that, you know it's time to move on.

COOPER: Right.

FLEISCHER: Mitt knows how to read a room.

COOPER: Right. I wondered if Romney -- that was going to be Romney's response prior to the entire audience standing up and cheering.

BORGER: Right. But later on in the debate, it was interesting because Romney challenged Newt for challenging his integrity on the question of the abortion issue. So it was as if Romney was giving it to him in a funny way, but not directly on the wife.

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: Are we all agreed here that it was the right question to ask and it had to be asked?

BRAZILE: Oh, of course.

GERGEN: I just want to be clear.

FLEISCHER: I don't it was the right sequence to ask it, with all due respect...

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: I do think that there's a prioritization to federal issues in a presidential campaign. And it is an issue.

GERGEN: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Although, just to push back on that, those are things which have been talked about. This is something which is new, it's in the news, it's timely. I think that's probably part of the thinking.

KING: Look, this is a debatable question. Everything we do in our lives is debatable.

We're in the public domain. And some people at home think fair question. Some people at home think are outraged. We accept that when we take these jobs.

My point -- it's my old AP wire guy's training. It was the newest thing in the debate. It was something people were talking about. It's the lead of many newscasts across the country today, for better or worse, and I know a lot of people at home think for worse. And I understand that and I respect their opinions.

My opinion was, this was dominating the campaign day. It's what everyone was talking about. Let's deal with it first. And if it's not an issue, we will move on and get to the other issues quickly.

I understand and respect those who disagree. We had a conversation about it. And it was my judgment let's deal with it.

FLEISCHER: But, John, here is the bigger issue. You say it was dominating the campaign today. It's true, but it dominated for politicos. And this is where there is a separation between a lot of the people and the country like us who live and breathe all of this stuff every day. The country doesn't worry as much as what dominates the day and say, that's what journalists should focus on. They say, what are the biggest issues of our time?

KING: Well, I knew we would talk about the other issues.

Remember, the Gingrich campaign put out a statement last night from his daughters. He talked about this earlier in the day. So, we had a conversation about this.

And, again, I respect people who disagree. I have been at this for 26 years. You know me. You know me. Democrat and Republican, we don't always agree. You have both kicked me from time to time. But I have tried in the 26 years to be fair, including covering Speaker Gingrich in some pretty controversial times in his life. He knows that. We had a nice conversation afterwards.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: And I understand how the process works. And we move on.

BORGER: I would argue Newt would have responded that way whether it was the first question or the fifth question.

BRAZILE: And it was a win-win for Newt right now at this moment. It will be a losing issue for the Republicans if he becomes the nominee.

GERGEN: Yes, but it's interesting. If he wins South Carolina, it keeps the race going. And that's why it was pivotal.

COOPER: Right. And we're going to talk about that.

We have got to take a quick break. We're going to look at other key moments in this fascinating debate, another moment when Senator Santorum challenged Speaker Gingrich's ability to focus on any one problem long enough to solve it.

We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Hey, welcome back to this special edition of 360, less than 36 hours before South Carolina's primary.

There so many key moments tonight for just about all the candidates.

We're here with the entire panel, Gloria Borger, Donna Brazile, Ari Fleischer, David Gergen, John King. Also, Erick Erickson, editor in chief at RedState.com, is here.

Erick, you weren't part of the previous conversation. Your thoughts on tonight's debate? ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I was really surprised how forceful Gingrich -- I guess I shouldn't have been. He was very forceful coming out at the beginning.

I think Gingrich probably locked in all of the momentum he got out of Monday's debate with that first question. There were two questions tonight that have been in the news all week. One was his marriage. The other was Mitt Romney's taxes.

Compare how those two guys answered those questions. Mitt Romney kind of flailed around tonight. He knew the attack was coming. Newt Gingrich knew the attack was coming and he made it an attack on the media, made it an all-around attack, had the crowd applauding. And the crowd booed Mitt Romney on the tax issue.

COOPER: Erick, do you think that moment, that fiery moment of the debate, do you think that maybe won it for Newt Gingrich in South Carolina?

ERICKSON: Yes, I think that locked in Newt Gingrich's win in South Carolina, the reason being because every candidate had good points tonight. There were good peaks and good valleys for all of the candidates.

Rick Santorum probably gave out the best attack on Newt Gingrich leveled. It's the one everyone behind the scenes has been whispering about on his instability. And yet Gingrich had a good comeback and then closed well after Mitt Romney's flub on taxes.

All people are going to talk about are taxes, immigration, and Newt Gingrich's open. And that benefits Newt Gingrich.

COOPER: Let's show that moment where Rick Santorum raised questions was Newt Gingrich's -- I guess his stability, really, or riskiness. Let's play that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich. He -- he handles it very, very well.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SANTORUM: And that's really one of the issues here, folks. I mean, a month ago, he was saying that, "Oh, I'm -- it's inevitable that I'm going to win the election. And it's I'm destined to do it."

I don't want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and figuring out what is he -- worrying about what he's going to say next.

And that's -- that's what I think we're seeing here.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

SANTORUM: For him to suggest that -- that someone who was tied for first and eventually won the Iowa caucuses and finished with twice as many votes as he did and finished ahead of him in New Hampshire, in spite of the fact that he spent an enormous amount more money in both those places, plus had the most important endorsement in the state, "The Manchester Union Leader," and I was 10 points behind him a week before the election, and then finished ahead of him.

So I was 2-0 coming into South Carolina, and I should get out of the race?

These are -- there are not -- there are not cogent thoughts.

GINGRICH: I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things. And we need leadership prepared to take on big projects.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

BORGER: There you are.

GERGEN: Newt Gingrich knows how to answer a question and turn it his way, which is what he did with the first answer and what he did with that.

But it's also true that Rick Santorum did exactly what Erick said. And that is, he started giving voice to what is being whispered about. And the word that you hear so often is a word that Gloria used.

In your interview with Santorum, you said, are you saying he's erratic, erratic.

BORGER: Right.

GERGEN: That's the word.

And in the Cold War...

BORGER: He said yes.

GERGEN: He said, yes, basically.

And in the Cold War, that was almost the single most important characteristic that could defeat a candidate. If you said he was erratic and he was going to have his finger on the button, forget it.

Whether in this environment, that goes that far or not, but it is a very loaded issue.

KING: Well, look, Speaker Gingrich is where he is in this race because of a consistently strong series of debate performances.

GERGEN: Yes.

KING: And he's very good when people attack him. He's a very good rebuttal. This is -- it's his history, and he's good at it.

But the debate about Speaker Gingrich now, he rose up earlier, remember? Then he slipped down. Now he's back up. He's been the old Newt, the new Newt. And he is very, very gifted politically in how he handles this. He says that, OK, I did some things back then, but -- then he goes through where he has been. Governor Romney has an ad up saying I'm a reliable leader to bring out some old House colleagues.

They say Newt was sort of combustible, unpredictable, erratic, when he was the speaker of the House. I remember in those days. There were a lot of his friends and deputies who sometimes scratched their heads about what he was doing and what he was up to.

However, he comes back with, we won that majority, didn't we? We made Bill Clinton negotiate a balanced budget and welfare reform, didn't we.

So he's a very smart debater. If he wins South Carolina, comes out of here strong, even if he's second place in South Carolina, trust me: this will continue.

COOPER: Do you all think he will win South Carolina?

FLEISCHER: I think this is moving too strongly in his direction right now. You could feel it coming earlier in the week. This is a southern state. Newt is a southern politician. Mitt Romney is not exactly a fit in South Carolina. The fact that Romney is doing so well is a reflection on how Mitt has run a good campaign. Well, this is -- this is a weak (ph) state.

COOPER: Donna, I saw you were saying you think he will.

BRAZILE: I think 2010. I do believe this is one of those states where you don't really need an organization in place. I think Newt Gingrich can win this state simply by the momentum that he's generated in the debates and the fact that he is from a neighboring state.

BORGER: You know, it's sort of interesting on this sort of -- the grandiosity. So in my BlackBerry like three minutes after Rick Santorum spoke about Newt Gingrich's grandiosity came an e-mail from the Romney campaign, where it said a selection of Speaker Gingrich's thoughts over the years.

And about -- and the first quote was, of course, Gingrich on Gingrich: "I think I am a transformational figure," which those of us who covered Newt Gingrich when he became speaker know that he always spoke of himself in the third person as a transformational figure. And that's exactly what Rick Santorum was trying to bring out tonight, that actually, people tried to overthrow him when he was speaker of the House and throw him out of -- throw him out of...

COOPER: It showed the Romney campaign is very organized. Their candidate on this day...

BORGER: Didn't do it.

COOPER: ... was this a bad night for him?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, putting it in baseball terms, Mitt Romney is a doubles hitter. He hit more doubles tonight, but he's not hitting enough doubles to win South Carolina.

Rick Santorum had his best night yet.

BORGER: Yes.

FLEISCHER: Hit a triple.

Newt swings for the fences, and he connected tonight. Also, when he swings, he can have some spectacular whiffs. And we don't know from day to day if he's going to hit one or strike out.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: But you know, you saw the angry Newt some of the time, and then you saw the sort of smiling, jovial Newt, and it was interesting, because you saw the whole range tonight in the debate, starting with the anger at John.

COOPER: We've got to take another quick break. David Gergen has a big thought. Grandiose.

BORGER: Grandiose.

COOPER: We'll hear more from our panel in a moment. A lot more amazing moments from this debate. Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Let's take a closer look at some of the claims made on the stage tonight here in North Charleston. We're "Keeping Them Honest," starting with a statement from Rick Santorum. Tom Foreman joins us with that -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Anderson.

When they weren't picking each other apart out here, the Republicans went after the White House, and one of the sharpest attacks came from Rick Santorum on President Obama on both his relationship to the military and the social programs. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The president of the United States can't cut one penny out of the social welfare system. He wants to cut a trillion dollars out of our military and hit our veterans, and that's disgusting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: There you go. Can't cut one penny. That's what he had to say. But let's take a look at some of the facts that are involved. In truth, when you look at what the president has done, he's actually had some circumstances where he has proposed $585 billion in cuts, including big cuts for Medicare, cuts in Medicaid, and other health programs, $42 billion from federal worker benefits. I guess it depends on what you're defining as welfare programs or social benefit programs, whatever you want to call it there. So the fact is, he has proposed many cuts there.

Beyond that, though, let's go to this question of the military, which I think really matters in this case. If you look at the military, what we see is that the president, in fact, has been talking about military cuts, but half of those cuts are automatic, because remember, the who super committee thing in the fall? If they couldn't come to a deal, there were going to be automatic cuts? Those cuts are due. That's not really on the president's plate so much. It's on all of Congress's plate.

Some of these are related to the scale-down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the cuts are there. And, by the way, Veterans Administration funding was up under President Bush and it's up under President Obama.

The bottom line of all this, Anderson, is when you look at all this, you have to say that we're going to give it a rating of false.

COOPER: All right, Tom. We'll continue to check in with you.

There were a lot of riveting moments tonight. The audience played a role in a number of them, including this one. A tough question on taxes for Mitt Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Mr. Speaker, you talk about all the things you did with Ronald Reagan and the Reagan revolution and the jobs created during the Reagan years and so forth.

I mean, I looked in the Reagan diary. You're mentioned once in Ronald Reagan's diary, and it's a diary -- he says you had an idea in a meeting of young Congressman, and it wasn't a very good idea, and he dismissed it. That's the entire mention.

I mean, he mentions George Bush 100 times. He even mentions my dad once.

So I -- there's a sense that Washington is pulling the strings in America, but you know what? The free people of America are pursuing their dreams and taking risks and going to school and working hard. Those are the people that make America strong, not Washington.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The truth is, you did very well under the rules that we created to make it easier for entrepreneurs to go out and do things. You would have been much poorer had Jimmy Carter remained president.

ROMNEY: Let me just... UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quickly.

ROMNEY: Let me just tell you, Mr. Speaker, you were a speaker four years. I was in business 25 years. So you're not going to get credit for my 25 years, No. 1.

No. 2, I don't recall -- I don't recall a single day saying, "Oh, thank heavens. Washington is there for me. Thank heavens." I said, "Please get out of my way. Let me start a business and put Americans to work."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: When I called for it, it wasn't there, so...

Obviously, that was not the correct exchange that we're looking for. John, since you actually moderated, you can tell us what it was. You had an interesting question to Governor Romney about releasing his tax returns. And you used his father's quote about releasing his own taxes.

KING: George Romney was unprecedented at the time, if you go back and read the clips from the 1960s. You have to go back to the microfiche to read them. But George Romney, before, in '67 -- before the campaign, he was running for the Republican nomination in '68, said -- he was asked about his taxes. And he waited a while. And then when he released his taxes, he released 12 years. And he said, because if you -- he said if you released one year, it could be for show.

Meaning, if you know you're going to release them, you could change and adjust your finances, so the one year you've released might not be the same as, say, the last 8 or ten years of your life.

COOPER: We have the -- we have the exchange here. Let's watch it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You mentioned the Democratic attacks. I want to actually go back in history a little bit. Back in 1967, your father set a ground-breaking -- what was then a ground-breaking standard in American politics. He released his tax returns. He released them for not one year but for 12 years. When he did that, he said this: "One year could be a fluke, perhaps done for show."

When you release yours, will you follow your father's example?

ROMNEY: Maybe. I don't know many years I'll release. I'll take a look at what the -- what our documents are. And I'll release them, multiple years. I don't know how many years. And -- but I'll be happy to that.

Let me tell you, I know there are some who are very anxious to see if they can't make it more difficult for a campaign to be difficult. I know the Democrats want to go after the fact that I've been successful. I'm not going to apologize for being successful. And I'm not -- I'm not suggesting that these people are doing that, but I know the Democrats will go after me on this basis. That's why I want to release these things all at the same time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So a lot of the audience not happy with his answer, but high tried to pivot it basically and kind of put it against the White House.

BRAZILE: Well, look, Newt Gingrich released his taxes today: $3.1 million in income, $900,000 in taxes, 31 percent tax rate. Mitt Romney runs the risk of being branded as Mr. 1 Percent. He was noncommittal tonight about releasing his multiple tax returns.

FLEISCHER: I think what's going on here, as a PR guy, if I were advising him, I'd say don't put out a single piece of paper until you can explain every line on every single piece of paper. Because the worst thing to do is respond under pressure, put it out, and then say, "I don't have answers to every question you're going to get."

So he needs to organize, get his team, look at everything, get the right tax attorneys look at everything, and make sure there's an answer to all these questions. And when you have (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that resent them, those attorneys are big ones.

They're going to do it well. I think they're going to do it cautiously. And then we'll have this conversation.

GERGEN: But I agree and disagree. The remarkable thing is he's had -- I think he's been a very steady performer in these debates. He almost uniformly has had a good debate.

But in the last two debates, when it comes to his own personal wealth and personal taxes, he keeps stumbling. Long before he releases it, he needs a firm sense of what he's planning to do. He keeps morphing. Every few minutes. He kept morphing. He started out "maybe I'll release one. Now I'll release one." Now it's multiple.

KING: It's not a surprise this is an issue. He knew this in 2008. He knew it coming into the race this time. That he's right, that it's the Democrats and the White House and the Obama campaign that for months have been pushing this issue. His problem is some of his Republican rivals have adopted it when he came out of New Hampshire with the win. And they were looking for new ways to stop him here. You had Governor Perry, Senator Santorum, Speaker Gingrich.

So if you talked to any of the campaigns, why has the polling changed, why is Gingrich getting momentum, why is Romney coming down in the last three, four, five, six days to South Carolina. They say his answers on this question are a driving force in it.

COOPER: I'm sorry.

BORGER: When you talk to people in the Romney campaign and you say, then why does he -- why can't he just give a straight answer to this? You get a couple things.

One is that he's just uncomfortable talking about his personal wealth, and he doesn't do it very well, because if he wants to represent the middle class, "Well, here I am, a child of wealth, who made even more money," he hasn't found the right way to talk about that.

And the second reason, which I also think plays into the south, is that when you see his tax returns, you will see that he's given an awful lot of money to the Mormon Church. Now, some people would think that's a great thing. You give money to your church. You're a wealthy man.

COOPER: It reinforces the religion issue.

BORGER: It does.

COOPER: Erick, what do you think of this. Is this an issue, you think, which is having an impact in South Carolina, the tax issue?

ERICKSON: I think it's having a huge issue. When we started out on Monday night, where he had a really bad stumble in the debate on this question that he should have known about since 2006.

And then we had a week of reports with one key phrase that he's going to have trouble with, called Cayman Islands. Most Americans don't have bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. And he can explain it. He said he paid the taxes. That's all well and good.

Then he comes in tonight and his answer is maybe to the question asked. That's a Jon Huntsman-level bad joke from a debate stage. It fell flat, and the audience booed. He's going to have to answer to this. And I think Newt Gingrich is right, that it's better to have this come out now than August.

BRAZILE: But he also made fun the other day of earning 374 -- what was it, $374,000 in speaker fees? Now, I don't want to play footsie, you know, with Ari here, but that's a lot of money.

FLEISCHER: Where are you going with this? Are you going to give me that one?

COOPER: He was saying it's not a lot of money.

(CROSSTALK)

GERGEN: But it's -- something bigger is happening in the whole campaign conversation. And that is this started out to be a campaign about jobs, and gradually it's turning into the question of inequality, as opposed to jobs. And Romney is letting it slip away there, and Obama is driving that. Some people, liberal friends in the press -- it's a big shift in the conversation.

KING: Very happy at the Chicago headquarters of the Obama Reelect that this issue is a drip, drip, drip, drip. Now, some say, well, does it take it away until November. They like this. COOPER: I guess the question is, is this race about to change depending on what happens in South Carolina? Is this thing about to become something else entirely? We'll talk about that. We're going to take a quick break.

Up next, more of the question of how people perceive Governor Romney. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: The speaker's rendition of history going back to 1978, his involvement in Washington, is in my view, a perfect example of why we need to send to Washington someone who has not lived in Washington, but somebody who has lived in the real streets of America, working in the private sector, who has led a business, who started a business, who helped lead the Olympics, who helped lead a state. We need to have someone outside of Washington go to Washington.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: That was Governor Romney talking about real-world experience with questions being asked about how well he connects with real people.

Let's bring in our panel again, John King, David Gergen, Ari Fleischer, Donna Brazile, Gloria Borger, and Erick Erickson.

Erick, the whole debate over Bain Capital, is that one that is still resonating here in South Carolina?

ERICKSON: You know, I think it is to a degree, and the degree is, you know, even if the evangelical are meeting in Texas this past weekend, the issue came up, and a lot of people wanted to defend capitalism, but they kind of understand, a lot of the preachers in the room, how do you make money when you lose and how do you make money when you win at the same time?

And then it goes to -- the entry tonight, we want someone who grew up in the streets of America. And, you know, I mean, I scratched my head and said which one of your five houses in the streets of America? Is Martha's Vineyard really the streets of America?

KING: Erick is not a Romney fan.

ERICKSON: I'm not a Romney fan.

FLEISCHER: It leaves a lot of people with that question.

KING: He has been, the reason, I think, when he stumbles in the debate that it's even more surprising because he has been such a good consistent debater over the course of this campaign, and he has corrected mistakes very quickly in this campaign.

There is something about the last week, something about the tax question. We don't read minds. We don't understand the strategy. And they had a couple of week period when Gingrich first served, Romney campaign's seemed off the track a little bit, and they were complaining about the coverage and things like that, but they got back into it pretty good. They got out of New Hampshire with a head of steam.

And there's just something. And the campaign directors will probably get it. I try not to ponder. People say, there's something going on in that campaign that has been a little off right now.

GERGEN: He's having a hard time with the language he uses, too. Going back to the debate, when he -- the $10,000 bet, taking $374,000 and saying, "Well, I earned this fee, but it wasn't really very much." You know, and it's sort of -- it's sort of disconnected from the middle class.

And so I think, you know, historically, as John pointed out earlier, we have elected a lot of rich people to office, but those are people who have connected with the middle class. They had an emotional connection, and that's somehow...

COOPER: Let's look at where the race goes now. I mean, what -- let's just play this out here. There have been a lot of talks -- I don't know, two weeks ago, which seems like a lifetime that, you know, it could be over after South Carolina. It certainly -- does it feel that way tonight to you?

BORGER: No.

FLEISCHER: To use the baseball expression we started with here, I think we're into the fourth inning with too many players on the field, maybe three. So people thought maybe the game would be over here after three races, three innings, and Romney would win it. If he wins in South Carolina, that's the likelihood. I don't think that's going to happen.

COOPER: But both Gingrich and Santorum -- both Gingrich and Santorum want to be the last conservative in the race. And they're both -- seem to be refusing to give up the idea.

BORGER: And that's why Santorum was pretty much going after Newt Gingrich tonight, to try and say, "Look, I'm the -- I'm the real conservative here."

The Romney campaign believes that it is the only campaign with the staying power and the organization and the money to get the requisite number of delegates to go the long haul and finally get the nominations. So their feeling is, "If we go through a blitz in South Carolina, i.e., we lose, we -- and they will call it a blitz -- we will continue through, and we are the only ones who are built that way and can do it."

KING: And they early got on the air in Florida, just in case.

COOPER: They were the only ones on the air. KING: They believe they have the most resources and that, even if Gingrich wins here, that he'll raise some money. It won't be enough to counter that.

They believe, and again, this is the very -- the last few years. Not just the last few weeks in this campaign. Our politics in this country have been very, very volatile. I think predictions are crazy in this environment.

If he wins South Carolina, he's a prohibitive favorite. Gingrich and Santorum will stay in and look into to be a stumble, look for a one-on-one shot. That happened. It happened to McCain, Huckabee, then Romney. They find out, because the establishment if he keeps winning, will stop -- will stop, will clamp the money down for the other candidates. But after Florida, the schedule does benefit Romney. Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Michigan.

BRAZILE: It also -- it benefits Ron Paul, because you have a lot of caucus states.

KING: We haven't talked about Ron Paul. He's in for the long haul.

GERGEN: But the big thing was, a week ago, we all thought that Mitt Romney was going to wrap this up here in South Carolina. This goes on as unpredictable, and Gingrich does Lazarus one better. He comes back from the dead twice.

FLEISCHER: People focus on his for a short time.

COOPER: We've got to take a quick break. Here's a real teaser: Erick Erickson tweeted today, quote, "One day I hope to tell the story of what happened in these last three days, but not now." We'll ask him what he meant by that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: We're back with our panel: John King, David Gergen, Ari Fleischer, Donna Brazile, Gloria Borger, and Erick Erickson.

Brian Ross over at ABC News, who did the interview with Marianne Gingrich, just tweeted. He said, "Just spoke with Marianne Gingrich, who says, quote, 'My story is the truth. If he had really changed, he could have stepped up tonight and said he was sorry.'"

Do you think this continues beyond tomorrow -- I mean, beyond tonight, this story?

FLEISCHER: I think it continues quietly for people who think that what you do in private is a reflection of how you would be in public. I don't think it continues a big act of public debate, but I would say people take into account when they vote. I know people do.

GERGEN: Oh, I think it's going to go on, because he said tonight she's lying, and she says, "No, I'm not." That invites the press to come pursue it, and it's going to have continuing repercussions. And Gloria's point about -- yes, there are a lot of issues like that.

COOPER: Erick Erickson, so this tweet you said about you'd some day like to figure out what happened in the last three days, what did you mean by it?

ERICKSON: Well, you know, Anderson, I'm wearing the same tie tonight I wore a couple months ago when I announced Rick Perry's candidacy from stage in Charleston. And in the last three days have seen firsthand the turmoil behind the scenes of the Perry campaign as it somehow fell into a role of lots of people calling me these last few days.

COOPER: Erick, in terms of this race, what's going to happen here on Saturday? And has your mind changed? What do you think will happen?

ERICKSON: I think that Newt Gingrich has strong momentum to go into Saturday. He picked up a very key endorsement, the speaker of the House of Representatives, who has a strong grassroots organization in every county in South Carolina.

COOPER: I've got to wrap it up there. You're all going to be pleased I didn't ask you for your predictions. So thank you to all the panel.

Thanks for watching 360. We're going to be in Charleston again tomorrow night. Thanks everyone here. If you missed any of tonight's debate, you can see it -- all of it, starting just about now. See you tomorrow.