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THE SITUATION ROOM

Tim Pawlenty Endorses Mitt Romney; GOP Presidential Debate; Major Political Upset Possible in New York; President: "No Games, No Politics, No Delays;" What A Difference A Month Makes; Is This Rick Perry's Night?; Rick Perry Enjoys Perks as Texas Governor from Wealthy Donors; Older Unemployed Face Extreme Difficulty in Finding Work

Aired September 12, 2011 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much.

Happening now, the GOP battle for the White House. It's heating up here in Tampa, Florida. We're just three hours away from hearing eight presidential candidates go head-to-head. They'll join me in CNN's first ever Tea Party Republican presidential debate.

Can the Texas governor, Rick Perry, maintain his growing lead in the polls, despite a highly controversial stance on Social Security?

Or will Mitt Romney come from behind and once again seize the top spot?

Is it too late for early star in the race, Michelle Bachmann?

The best political team on television standing by with complete coverage and analysis.

Meanwhile, in Washington, President Obama scrambling to defeat them all and save the ailing economy before time runs out. But there are new signs in Congress his blueprint for recovery could be dead on arrival.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Tampa.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're just three hours away from what's going to be a critical -- potentially make or break moment for some of the Republican candidates hoping to be the next president of the United States.

Meanwhile, the current president, President Barack Obama, is doing everything he can to keep that from happening. And it's all riding on issue number one -- jobs and the economy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On Thursday, I told Congress that I'll be sending them a bill called the American Jobs Act. Well, here it is. This is

(APPLAUSE) OBAMA: -- this is a bill that will put people back to work all across the country. This is a bill that will help our economy in a moment of national crisis. This is a bill that is based on ideas from both Democrats and Republicans. And this is the bill that Congress needs to pass -- no games, no politics, no delays. I'm sending this bill to Congress today and they ought to pass it immediately.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let's bring in our White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar -- Brianna, you have a copy of the bill, which has now been delivered to the House floor.

So give us the headlines.

What's in it?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the headline is really how the president proposes to pay for his jobs plan. And the answer to that is tax increases. The bulk of paying for the $450 billion plan would come from limiting itemized deductions that wealthier Americans take. We're talking about individuals who make $200,000 or more or families that make $250,000 or more. There are also tax increases that you would see affecting hedge fund managers, oil and gas companies, as well as corporate jet owners. And that may sound familiar to you, because the White House proposed that during the debt ceiling battle. As you'll recall, it was a nonstarter with Republicans.

And, also, Wolf, the big thing here, the itemized deductions, limiting that, that's something that has even gotten resistance from moderate Democrats here recently in Congress. But the White House is arguing that things are different now. Times are tough and choices need to be made -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The president says he's going to go to, quote, "every corner of the country, Brianna, to push this legislation.

But at least based on what we're hearing so far, he's stressing the key battleground states, states that he needs if he is going to be reelected.

KEILAR: That's right, Wolf. When you look at his schedule, I was in Richmond, where -- in Virginia, where he spoke on Friday, the first stop for pushing his jobs plan. He spoke today in the Rose Garden. Tomorrow, he will be in Ohio. Then on Wednesday, he'll in North Carolina. All important swing states that he won in 2008, and, of course, is counting on in 2012.

So today, during the briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was pressed on this, about how this wasn't just sort of campaigning.

And here's what Carney said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You're absolutely right. It is a campaign. The president is campaigning for growth and jobs. He is out there...

(LAUGHTER)

CARNEY: He is out there campaigning for growth and jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Not for the next election?

CARNEY: And he is campaigning to have the American Jobs Act passed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: So a little laughter there, Wolf, you can see.

But Carney was asked, will he be going to non-swing states?

And Carney said, yes, he will. Of course, at this point, it's still to be determined on the president's schedule, as he pushes this bill that, Wolf, that even Democratic sources I talked to in Congress admit they don't think will pass.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens.

All right, Brianna.

Thanks very much.

I'm sure he'll show up in some of those non-controversial states that Democrats always carry, like, say, New York, California. But a lot of times when he does that, it's designed, in part, at least, to do some political fundraising at the same time. A lot of money in those states.

Brianna Keilar is at the White House.

Meanwhile, the president's plan isn't yet getting a warm welcome from Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. The House majority leader, Eric Cantor, is stressing his party back certain items in the bill, like tax breaks, but will oppose the administration's request for any new federal spending, calling it, quote, "unacceptable for the American people."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the House speaker, John Boehner, is calling the White House's proposal to pay for the $447 billion jobs plan -- the bill now, I should say -- Boehner is calling it "unacceptable."

Meanwhile, here in Tampa, a united Republican front against President Obama. But there is now a dramatic shift in who is and is not shaping up to be the candidate to beat the president of the United States.

Look at these latest CNN/ORC Poll numbers. Back in July, Michelle Bachmann was considered the shining star in the race. She, at that point, was getting 12 percent support, just behind Mitt Romney and Texas governor, Rick Perry, who wasn't technically in the race at that time.

But now, look at this. Just a few weeks later, her support has plummeted to just 4 percent, while Perry has surged to the front of the pack with 30 percent support.

Our Brian Todd is standing by.

He's got more on this part of the story -- Brian, what else are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Michelle Bachmann is under a lot of pressure these days, has to perform well in tonight's debate. Analysts say she has to come out more aggressively against Perry and Mitt Romney. But she's got ground to make up on others in this race, as well, after a disastrous month.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MICHELLE BACHMANN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Iowa, you've done it, Iowa. Thank you.

TODD: (voice-over): What a difference a month makes. In mid-August, Michelle Bachmann's energizing win in the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa created real buzz, making her a top tier Republican presidential contender. But Rick Perry jumped into the race that same day.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: It's time to get America working again.

TODD: And for Bachmann, it's been a steady decline since that. Perry and Mitt Romney are barely visible to her. She's trailing Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who is not even in the race.

CNN contributor John Avalon says a crowded field of far right candidates, led by Perry, has absorbed Bachmann's base.

JOHN AVALON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: They have overlapping bases of support -- conservative populist, Evangelicals, Tea Partiers.

But Rick Perry has something important that Michelle Bachmann doesn't, when you're at president, executive experience. And he's been able to come in and suck up all her oxygen. Her campaign is in some degree of disarray.

TODD: Earlier this month, Bachmann's campaign manager, Ed Rollins, stepped aside to take an advisor role. Her deputy campaign manager quit outright. Politico's Alex Burns has covered Bachmann in Iowa and New Hampshire.

(on camera): What happened inside her campaign that you know of that really led to this demise?

ALEX BURNS, POLITICO: Well, I think have you've seen, over time, Michelle Bachmann, as a member of Congress, as a -- a state legislator in Minnesota, someone who has gone through staff at a pretty rapid rate. So, on the one hand, it isn't not that surprising to see Michelle Bachmann changing out the faces from time to time.

TODD: (voice-over): Her campaign spokeswoman says Bachmann treats everyone with the utmost respect and courtesy and says there were no personality clashes.

(on camera): But there are also questions about whether Bachmann, who was successful in an early debate, may have lost some of her mojo. Observers point out she looked restrained in the last GOP debate, letting Perry and Romney go at it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: His predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: That's not clear.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TODD: While at the same time, she struggled to get attention on her own.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Better health care.

Thank you.

BACHMANN: John...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wait just one minute.

BACHMANN: John?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to go to Governor Huntsman, if I could, because...

TODD: But the fact is, Bachmann wasn't called on until about 20 minutes into that debate. And her aides say, you can't answer questions that you're not asked.

(voice-over): How can she turn it all around?

It may depend on the first vote that really matters.

AVLON: She's got to stay strong in Iowa. That had been the base of her support, social conservatives in Iowa. So she's got to really double down there. And -- and it will be interesting to whether she tries to punch back at Perry in order to regain some credibility.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: Bachmann's campaign spokeswoman tells us they're confident moving forward. They've got a long-term strategy in place. And they're putting in a strong ground game in Iowa. But she says while Bachmann may take on Romney and Perry a little more strongly on the issues, don't expect her to attack them full bore. Her spokeswoman says it's just not in her nature to go out and take people out at the knees -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, what are you hearing about letter chances, if, for example, Sarah Palin, even at this late moment, were to -- were to get into this race?

TODD: Analysts say that's going to hurt Bachmann even more if it happens. They say that like Rick Perry, Sarah Palin has overlapping constituencies with Michelle Bachmann. All three appeal to the Tea Partiers and to far right conservatives. Palin would chip away at Perry's votes, they say. But she's probably going to hurt Bachmann even more.

BLITZER: Brian Todd, good analysis, as usual.

Thank you.

So this this going to be Rick Perry's night here in Tampa?

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, is joining us now.

She's on the scene -- what do you expect, Gloria, these Republican candidates to do, say, on Social Security, which has emerged as such a critical issue?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they're going to hammer away at Rick Perry. As you know, in the last day, he called Social Security a Ponzi scheme. And Mitt Romney has been losing altitude in our polls and in everybody else's polls. And herein the state of Florida, he's been circulating these fliers, Wolf, which talk about Rick Perry.

It sounds like it would be distributed by a Democrat: "Rick Perry, reckless and wrong on Social Security. Rick Perry, how can we trust anyone who wants to kill Social Security?"

This is coming from Mitt Romney.

Now, I spoke with someone close to the Rick Perry campaign today who said, bring it on, we want to have an opportunity to explain what we want to do with Social Security. He wrote a piece in "USA Today," Wolf. And in it, he said -- and I'm quoting here -- "For younger workers, we must consider reforms to make Social Security financially viable."

So not killing it, but saving it and reforming it. So it's a little bit of a nuanced change. And you can believe me that no matter what you ask, they're going to attack him on it.

BLITZER: I think it's a lot more than a nuanced change, what he wrote in "USA Today"...

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: -- and what he wrote in his book, for example, on Social Security. But that's another issue.

As far as Perry is concerned, though, in our new poll...

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: -- there are some new numbers in a potential match-up with the president that might be very encouraging for him.

BORGER: It -- it is. And the question we asked was this, Wolf: "Just your best guess, regardless of who you support" -- and that's important -- "which Republican candidate do you think is most likely to win the Republican nomination for president?"

It's Perry, 41, Romney 28. And there are the also-rans.

So suddenly this takes away the inevitability argument or the inevitability that seemed to surround Mitt Romney.

Remember that happened with Hillary Clinton not too long ago?

And also, the electability argument.

This shift in the field really says to me that people may be settling on a candidate. And what they want most of all is someone who can bring it to Barack Obama, somebody who can fight, somebody they will -- they believe will stand up for what he believes.

So, in a way, when you talk about these Social Security arguments, in Rick Perry, what they're seeing is somebody who will not back down. And whether or not they agree with him or disagree with him, Republican primary voters like that in a candidate.

BLITZER: I assume the Perry team believes that Mitt Romney is their major challenger right now, based on the polls.

BORGER: It's funny, when you talk to them, they're like, oh, Mitt Romney, sure. They believe right now, their major challenger is Rick Perry. That, right now, he's got to introduce himself to the American people.

Romney is Romney. People know what he is. He's been around. He ran for president once in 2008. So they're saying, you know what, right now, these debates, like the one tonight, it's up to us to look the at American people and tell them what we are about. We'll fend off the charges from the rest, but this is our introduction to the American public.

BLITZER: We'll see how feisty they want to get tonight, these candidates, the eight Republican candidates.

BORGER: We'll see.

BLITZER: Gloria is going to be with us throughout the night.

We're only a few hours -- a little bit more than two-and-a-half hours away from the start of the first ever CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential debate right here in Tampa, at Florida State Fairgrounds. 8:00 p.m. Eastern, it all starts. I'll be moderating. Please be sure to tune in. You can also follow along on Twitter. Don't forget, hash tag cnnteaparty if you do anything on Twitter.

Meanwhile, a change of heart in the Republican race for the White House. Look at this, the former presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty, now endorsing Mitt Romney.

But why him?

Why not one of the candidates?

You're going to find out. My interview with the former Minnesota governor, that's coming up.

Plus, just as the president's jobs plan reaches Capitol Hill, the country's largest bank announces it's slashing thousands of jobs. And it's not alone.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, we are getting ready for the debate here, the Republican presidential debate, the CNN Tea Party debate. You are looking at live pictures from inside. I'll be moderating the debate, you see, in two hours to and 42 minutes. It will all begin. Stand by for that.

Meanwhile, Jack Cafferty is here and he has the "Cafferty File." I have to tell you, Jack, lots of excitement here in Tampa where these eight Republican presidential candidates, one of whom will be the Republican nominee. One of them might be the next president of the United States. You never know.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: One of whom could ultimately wind up as number two on a ticket with whoever the number one lines up being. A lot on the line from Michele Bachmann tonight after winning the Iowa straw poll. She's kind of dropped out of sight. We will talk about that in the next hour.

Rick Perry, the anointed front-runner at least at this hour would have us believe he is a country boy at heart, a down home country cornpone that can relate to the plight of the ordinary American. There's another side to the Texas governor. "Politico" reports that for years, Perry, who makes $150,000 a year as governor, has enjoyed additional lavish perks and travel mostly funded by wealthy supporters. Imagine that.

Texas donors have paid for the governor and his family to travel around the world sometimes on private jets, paid for them to stay at luxury hotels, resorts, vacation in Colorado ski towns, and attend tons of sporting events and concerts. Rick Perry has also accepted a wide range of very expensive gifts, including 22 pairs of cowboy boots, some of them costing $500 a pair. Somebody else even pays his cable TV Bill. Taxpayers pay his rent, $8,500 a month for Perry's 4,600 square foot mansion in Austin. The governor and his family have been living in the five bedroom seven bath mansion since 2007 while the governor's mansion undergoes repair. Four years? What sort of repairs are those, do you imagine?

It's all copacetic down there in the lone star state which has some of the loosest ethics and campaign rules in the country. Nonetheless, it is tough to imagine supporters aren't buying influence when they lavish those perks on the governor. Of course they are. Some donors have wound up with appointments to state commissions, million dollar state grants to businesses they are involved in.

Perry's camp insists it is all on the up and up. A spokeswoman told "Politico" the governor fully discloses all gifts and travel in his financial disclosure statements. But that don't make it cricket.

Here's the question -- does Rick Perry's lavish lifestyle, mostly paid for mostly by taxpayers and wealthy friends and donors, match his downhome, awe shucks country boy image? Go to CNN.com/CaffertyFile and post a comment on my blog on go to THE SITUATION ROOM Facebook page. He has a pet pretty good act going there, Wolf.

BLITZER: You're going to get a lot of comments, Jack. Get ready for this and for the debate at 8:00 p.m. tonight. Jack Cafferty will be back, with your e-mail shortly.

Meanwhile, Bank of America says it will eliminate 30,000 jobs over the next few years. The cuts are part after plan to save the bank $5 billion. As companies trim their head count, competition in the job mark set getting even tougher. That can be especially challenging for older unemployed workers. CNN's Athena Jones explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A rainy morning, a moving truck and two friends. Joy Harriman never imagined it would come to this.

JOY HARRIMAN, UNEMPLOYED WORKER: This is the worst. We are home free after this one gets in the truck.

JONES: Packing up her Maryland home to start a new job in Philadelphia.

HARRIMAN: I never thought in a million years I would be unemployed because I have a lot of skill for my job and I thought I would be employed until I retired.

JONES: And 61-year-old Harriman used to work in commercial real estate but was let go in November.

HARRIMAN: My company told me in the past they retained all their managers until they got other buildings to manage. But because of the economy they weren't able do that. JONES: She struggled for months to find another position that would pay her enough to keep her townhouse. She began casting her net wider and wider until she landed a job a two-hour train ride way.

HARRIMAN: So when I got this offer in Philly I just jumped at it.

JONES: Harriman was out of work for 10 months, but many have been unemployed longer. According to the Pew Charitable trust, some 30 percent of the nation's unemployed have been jobless for a year or more. That's 4.5 million people.

INGRID SCHROEDER, PER ECONOMIC POLICY GROUP: These are rates not seen since the end of World War II.

JONES: And while the jobless rate for those 55 and older is lower than the national average at 6.6 percent, older workers are likely to remain unemployed for longer than their younger counterparts.

SCHROEDER: As matter of fact, 40 percent of those workers who are 55 and older who are unemployed have been unemployed for a year or longer.

JEAN SETZFAND, V.P., FINANCIAL SECURITY, AARP: The longer people stay out of the workforce the harder it is for them to get back in. And many older workers may confront concerns their salary requirements are higher or that they don't have an up-to-date skill set.

HARRIMAN: But I think that is something for older workers to keep in mind when they go into the workforce but don't use that as a way to be defensive, and/or stop you from looking.

JONES: Harriman is one of the lucky ones. Now she is hoping to make enough to hold on to her townhome, rent in Philadelphia, and save for retirement.

HARRIMAN: I never anticipated at the end of my career that I would be living in a new city.

JONES: Athena Jones, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: A big announcement from Tim Pawlenty. The former Minnesota governor, the former Republican presidential candidate says he will endorse Mitt Romney for president. But would the former presidential candidate consider being Romney's running mate? I'll ask him in my interview with Tim Pawlenty coming up.

And the outcome of a special election in New York state could spell trouble for the president in 2012. We will tell you how after the break. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're just a little more than two and a half hours away from the CNN Tea Party, or Republican presidential debate. It's the first ever CNN Tea Party presidential debate. I will be moderating here in Tampa Florida. The stakes couldn't be higher for the two top contenders in the race, at least according to the polls, Texas governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, each of whom landed critical endorsements today, Perry, from the Louisiana Republican governor Bobby Jindal, and Romney from a once fierce rival.

Joining us here in Tampa, the former governor of Minnesota, the former Republican presidential candidate, Tim Pawlenty. Governor thanks very much for coming in.

TIM PAWLENTY, (R) FORMER MINNESOTA GOVERNOR: Glad to be with you. Are you nervous tonight? You're the moderator.

BLITZER: I'm not that nervous. But I'm excited. Are you feeling badly you're not going to be up on the stage?

PAWLENTY: I wish I could be. But I feel very excited and honored to make the announcement I did today, which is to endorse Governor Romney for president so I feel good about that. I wish I could be in the debate. But now it's on to supporting his campaign.

BLITZER: You have to move on and maybe you will be vice president one of these days, but we will talk about that later. I was pretty surprised when I heard you were formally endorsing Mitt Romney for president because you and Mitt Romney had a little thing going on over there. Obama-ney-care, if you remember. Now all of a sudden you are now supporting him.

PAWLENTY: What happened is this. When I look at this field of candidates, most of whom I know, I like, they are my friends, I respect them. But I know this, the next president of the United States has to lead at a historic level on the jobs and economy, and Mitt Romney's experience in business and growing jobs, in getting the economy moving again is unmatched this this field. So I am convinced he is the right person to lead this country out of its jobs and economic doldrums.

BLITZER: But when you were raining you campaigned about his healthcare plan in Massachusetts, branding in Obam-ney-care as you remember. What happened? All of a sudden you forgave him about that?

PAWLENTY: Well, what happened is this, Mitt has said to me and to the nation -- look, he tried some things at the state level that thought were right for Massachusetts. But he is absolutely committed to repealing Obamacare. He said one of the first things he will do as president is to issue an executive order waving Obamacare for the states to opt out of it if they care to. So I'm convinced and he indicated he will repeal Obamacare and that's good enough for me.

BLITZER: But he stands by the mandates in Massachusetts. He stands by what he did that there. Is that OK with you?

PAWLENTY: For him he points out important things. There are no cuts in Medicare, so he didn't cut health care like Barack Obama did for senior citizens. He didn't raise taxes like Barack Obama did and some other differences as well. But the important thing is he and I agree that it is a mistake to bring that nationally, and he is committed to repealing it.

BLITZER: Why is he better than Governor Rick Perry?

PAWLENTY: I think one of the differentiating strengths of Governor Romney is this -- he has a deep and unquestioned and nation-leading experience in private sector job growth, starting businesses, growing businesses, running businesses, and of course, providing jobs, is the key to the quality of life for our fellow Americans. He just is unmatched in that category.

BLITZER: You saw our new poll on -- the CNN/ORC poll, "Which Republican candidate has the best chance of beating Obama?" Which is what you want, obviously. Rick Perry, 42 percent. Romney, 26 percent.

That's a pretty big split.

PAWLENTY: Well, these polls, as you know, are just snapshots at one moment in time. But I believe as this campaign unfolds, what people will see is Mitt Romney is the most knowledgeable, most capable, and most electable candidate in this race. I don't have any doubt about that, Wolf, and I think you will see those numbers change in the coming months.

BLITZER: And what's the worst part about Rick Perry?

PAWLENTY: I don't know that there's a worst part about Rick Perry.

BLITZER: His position on Social Security?

PAWLENTY: Well, Governor Romney and Governor Perry have different views of that. Governor Romany's view of that I think is the better view, which is let's fix it, let's reform it, let's get it on a better path. But he doesn't want to abolish it or call it a failure.

BLITZER: Yes, but the fact that Rick Perry calls it a Ponzi scheme, is something that's basically going to hurt him in the general election, would you say, or even in a Republican contest?

PAWLENTY: Well, what I would say is Mitt Romney has got the better idea, which is let's fix it, let's get it reformed, let's get it back on stable and solid footing. But this idea of saying we're going to abolish it or calling it a failure, I don't think that's the wise path.

BLITZER: What about you? I mean, a lot of people -- when I immediately heard that you were endorsing Mitt Romney at this point, I said, well, maybe Tim Pawlenty wants to be his running mate if he does get the Republican nomination. Are you interested in that?

PAWLENTY: No. I've been down, as you may remember, this vice president road with John McCain. It's not something I'm even going to consider, Wolf. I'm supporting Mitt Romney because I believe he's going to be the best president. BLITZER: But if he were to come to you at some point, if he got the nomination, let's say, Mitt Romney, and say, Governor, I need you to help me on this ticket, the country needs you, it's hard to say no.

PAWLENTY: As good of an interviewer as you are, I'm not going open that door. I'm going to say I'm not interested in that. That's not something I'm even going to consider, Wolf. So let's just set that aside. I'm working for Governor Romney because I believe he'll be the best president, and I'm sure as he thinks about vice presidential options, he'll have a lot of great choices, but one of them won't be me.

BLITZER: You do have another fellow Minnesotan running for president for the Republican nomination right now, Michele Bachmann. You didn't like her?

PAWLENTY: It's not that I don't like her. I know her and respect her, but when you look at the skills and experience needed to lead this country towards more job growth, more economic opportunity, which we desperately need, and you look at the skills and experience in the private sector that we need in the next president, Mitt Romney uniquely stands above this field on those measures.

BLITZER: And when you say you're going to go work for him, you're going to go out there and campaign actively?

PAWLENTY: Well, I will. I'm going to be the co-chair of his campaign, ceremoniously, and I'll be as active as possible. And I'm proud to support him. So I'm sure I will be doing some campaigning for him, but I have got other things I've got to do in life, too.

BLITZER: We'll be hearing a lot from you, I'm sure. Governor, thanks very much for coming in.

PAWLENTY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good luck.

PAWLENTY: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it. Good luck tonight to you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: By the way, Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor who endorsed Rick Perry today, is going to be a guest on "JOHN KING USA." That comes up right after THE SITUATION ROOM, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, for our North American viewers.

The White House is defending its decision to beef up security over the 9/11 weekend. You're going to find out why officials say those precautions -- and there were enormous precautions -- were warranted. What's going on?

And there's a massive traffic backup that's expected to slow down tens of thousands of commuters for months. We're going to tell you where it is.

That, and a lot more, coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Don't forget 8:00 p.m. Eastern, later tonight, I'll be moderating the CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential debate, a first of its kind, taking questions not only from me, but from also Tea Party supporters not only in Tampa, but also in Phoenix, in Portsmouth, Virginia, as well as Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Tea Party Republican presidential debate here on CNN, 8:00 p.m. Eastern. I hope you'll watch.

Meanwhile, Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Lisa, there's chaos in Kenya after a deadly pipeline explosion. What's going on?

SYLVESTER: Yes, Wolf, this is a really sad story.

At least 75 people, many of them children, are dead. And the toll could reach 100 in Nairobi.

Police have evacuated the packed slum flattened in the explosion which may have been caused by someone siphoning fuel. Deadly accidents are common in the slum, where many build their shanties right on top of the pipeline.

The White House says the extra safety precautions for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 were absolutely warranted. Spokesman Jay Carney says the specific, credible terror threat aimed at Washington and New York City was just that, and he rejected the idea that it could be chalked up to "useless chatter."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We are obviously relieved that the anniversary of 9/11, the 10-year anniversary, went off without an incident, because we knew, based on information that was gathered in Osama bin Laden's compound, that al Qaeda remained very interested in that specific date, and in significant dates in general. But we don't suddenly stop our vigilance the day after. The vigilance continues. And on that issue in particular, the work continues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SYLVESTER: The U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights says 2,600 people have died in Syria since the beginning of political protests in March. Meanwhile, a new report says Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could be ready to hold parliamentary elections by the end of the year.

And hours of delays for tens of thousands of drivers who commute between Indiana and Kentucky. Officials suddenly closed I-64's Sherman Minton Bridge Friday after inspectors found cracks in the steel support beams. The bridge remains closed. Estate leaders say the fix will likely take months.

And not a great commute for the folks there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: They've got to fix that. Those breaks are not necessarily good if all those cars are going over. You don't want a disaster, so they've got to be prudent, to be sure.

All right, Lisa. Thank you.

A field of eight Republican presidential candidates. What do they need to do tonight to stand out in the crowd? We're going to talk about it in our "Strategy Session." Stand by for that.

Plus, you may remember this controversial picture of the former Democratic congressman, Anthony Weiner. We're going to tell you how it's now affecting the 2012 presidential race.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's talk about the Republican presidential debate tonight here in Tampa in our "Strategy Session." Joining us are two CNN political contributors, the Democratic strategist, James Carville, and the Republican strategist, Alex Castellanos. He's here with me in Tampa.

James, first to you. Is there any one thing you are going to be looking for in tonight's debate?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I mean, look, honestly, we're really looking at Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. I mean, to be fair, every candidate out there is working hard and everything else, but this is where the focus of the debate is going to be.

I think we're going to want to see how this sort of Social Security thing evolves. You know, we're going to see how Romney handles his 59-point economic plan, what Perry does. Does Perry stay in the position he's been in, which has been pretty hard right? Does he try to soften?

Does Romney go sort of against that? Does he portray himself -- I they he's still (ph) an electable candidate -- is Romney's message. All these questions we're going to know at the end of the two hours tonight. It's going to be a good night, a big night.

BLITZER: It certainly will be.

Alex, is there anything special you're going to be looking at?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Oh, I think so. You know, Rick Perry has had a good initial outing. And I think one thing we've learned about Rick Perry over the years is he is very consistent. We have seen who he is. We're going to see more of that tonight. He seems to -- you know, if you say hello to him sometimes, he will attack you. He's a pretty rough political player, so I think we're going to see Rick Perry as that same strong, centered, conservative guy. But everybody else is going to try to bite at his heels tonight. This is going to be a catch Rick Perry night.

Right now, these CNN numbers, which are I think really important numbers, are saying that it's not a two-man race, that Rick Perry is pulling way from the field. We'll see how that evolves over the month once he's in the spotlight, but right now Rick Perry is the man to catch.

BLITZER: But let's not forget -- and James, you know this well -- these are national numbers for Republicans --

CARVILLE: Right.

BLITZER: -- not Iowa, not New Hampshire, and not South Carolina, not Florida. National numbers.

If you believe the national numbers, Alex, you'll remember Rudy Giuliani would have been president of the United States.

CASTELLANOS: It's early.

BLITZER: Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been president of the United States.

James, good ahead.

CARVILLE: Well, I think there is something to this. And our numbers showed us, as do all of the other good polls that are out there. And, you know, he got in and went right into the lead, and is staying there. And a lot of the, you know, people on cable television, or editorial writers, thought that Romney had such a good first debate, but they're not the ones that nominate the Republicans, the Republicans do.

And it is pretty -- Perry's numbers can't be just discounted. I mean, they don't mean everything, but they mean something.

BLITZER: What does Mitt Romney, James, need to do tonight?

CARVILLE: You know, I actually think the more I think about it, I think Perry got the best of the sort of Social Security debate, because it looks like Romney is defending government. I mean, I think more important than Perry moderating his position on Social Security, I think if I'm Romney, I say, you know, Rick brought up an important thing and spoke out on this. Now, I don't think we should, blah, blah, blah, blah.

But I think if he goes too hard on the side of pro-Social Security side, that's going to be telling these conservatives that he's the kind of pro-government guy. Romany's whole message is, I'm the electable guy. Perry will make you feel great in March, I'll make you feel good in November. I don't know if he can carry that with these conservatives. I really don't. And these polling numbers, I really do believe -- I wouldn't be surprised if Romney won, but they mean something. And if I'm Romney, I'm worried about them.

BLITZER: What does Romney need to do tonight?

CASTELLANOS: Well, I think he needs to drop the electability argument, because when the other guy is ahead of you in the polls, and is performing better against Obama, the electability argument is just not going to work.

BLITZER: So how tough should he be tonight?

CASTELLANOS: So he's going to be plenty tough, but he's going to have plenty of other people biting at Perry's heels. And they're not going to attack Perry from the left like James, I think astutely, pointed out, they're going to attack Perry from the right.

BLITZER: Like Michele Bachmann, you mean?

CASTELLANOS: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Santorum. Everybody is going to go at Perry tonight. It's going to be Whac-A-Mole Perry tonight. But they're going to attack him from the right.

They're going to attack him on immigration. They're going to attack him on the health care mandate that Perry imposed on 12-year-old girls in Texas with the HPV anti-cancer vaccine.

That's Perry's health care mandate, compared to Romney's. So you're going to see people go tough on Perry on that.

One thing that happens in these debates is the candidates tend to get small. They tend to pick at each other on issues, and they forget they are running for president of the United States. It's a big job, and they have to convince this audience tonight, in this room, but also across America, that they can be as big as Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan, that they can lead this country to a better place, because right now, that's America's biggest fear, we're a country in decline.

BLITZER: James, quickly, because we have discussed this over these past several weeks, Sarah Palin, she's not in the debate. She's not running, at least not now, but her shadow still sort of hangs over to a certain degree. Is it too late, for all practical purposes, for her, even with 100 percent name recognition, for her to jump into this contest?

CARVILLE: No, it's not too late. And I actually suspect that she will.

And she's not going to run the campaign where she goes and gives an interview to Wolf Blitzer and CNN, and sits down with "The Des Moines Register" head board (ph) and puts out a schedule. She's going to do things the Sarah Palin way, which is a way that none of us are familiar with. But I suspect that she is going to get in there. So I think that these candidates are getting a lot of attention, and they've got something to say, and I think she wants to get in the middle of this little scuffle here. I really do.

CASTELLANOS: If she does, James, she's going to make Mitt Romney a very happy guy. She would split that conservative vote with Perry, it would be a big obstacle for him.

I doubt she runs. I think Sarah Palin believes it's important to beat Barack Obama, and I don't think she thinks she can do it.

BLITZER: Let's see if she does or she doesn't.

Guys -- James, Alex -- thanks very much.

CARVILLE: You bet.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is standing by with your e-mail.

Later, President Obama sends his jobs plan to Congress. They're reviewing it right now. Will Republicans reject his call to pass the measure right away? We're going to go live to Congress.

Stand by. Lots of news happening on this important day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Remember, we're just a little bit more than two hours away from the CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential debate. They're getting the set ready. I'll be monitoring that debate in two hours and eight minutes.

Jack Cafferty is here with us right now though. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: What do you think? Is Palin going to get into this thing, do you think?

BLITZER: I don't know. You heard James Carville think she will. Who knows?

CAFFERTY: Well, it will make for an interesting show if she does.

The question this hour has to do with Rick Perry, who probably hopes she doesn't get in. He has a very lavish lifestyle down there in Texas, paid for mostly by taxpayers and wealthy friends and donors. Does that lifestyle match his down-home, aw-shucks, country boy image?

George in Michigan writes, "Just another ego at work. I look for the 'what you see is what you get' type, but Mr. Perry is too slippery to qualify. Where's Harry Truman when you really need him? Maybe he has come back as Ron Paul."

James writes from Texas City, Texas -- got a lot of mail from Texas -- "As someone who has followed pistol-packing Perry throughout his career, I can tell you quite honestly that this buffoon is a card- carrying, full-blown fraud. He actually makes W. look good. Well, almost.

"And remember, the governor of Texas has much less power and authority than most governors. Having lived here for 15 years -- originally, I was from California -- I'd venture the collective IQ of the state of Texas, only slightly above a carrot."

We also got some nasty e-mail.

Joy on Facebook, "Another fake cowboy from Texas, just what the country needs."

Michael in Virginia writes, "Die-hard Perry supporters like rich people and his funders like politicians who stay bought. This won't hurt him at all. Indeed, new stories like this will be evidence of persecution by the mainstream media, so they might in fact work in his favor."

J.D. writes, "Ask people from his hometown in Texas. They pretty much think that he's a fraud. Even his former Boy Scout leader says he wouldn't vote for the guy."

Greg in Arkansas writes, "The perception is that Rick Perry is a southern gentleman, sipping iced tea on the front porch. But in reality, there's a whole lot of suffering going on behind the barn. Voters need to beware. Look deep at this man and his record, because the front porch just ain't big enough for everyone."

Billy in Texas writes, "Texans would elect a prairie dog if you hung a Republican label around its neck."

And Jimmy writes, "Sure it does, Jack. What's wrong with being a rich cowboy? Let me tell you this, it's much better than being a poor cowboy."

Can't hardly argue with that.

If you want to read more on this, go to my blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page.

It's going to get more fun as the days go by, I think, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I think you're right, Jack. Thank you.

Meanwhile, another major blow to the economy. Just as President Obama's plan arrives on Capitol Hill, Bank of America planning to slash tens of thousands of jobs, and they're not alone.

Plus, that special congressional election in New York State that could spell potentially some real trouble for President Obama and Democrats.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: For the first time in almost a century, the New York congressional seat that was occupied by Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner could go to a Republican. And that could be a bad sign for President Obama's re-election efforts and for the Democrats in general.

Let's go to New York right now. CNN's Mary Snow is watching this race tomorrow.

What are you seeing there, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Democrats, Wolf, are clearly nervous. It wasn't ever expected that this race would be so tight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RUDY GIULIANI (R), FMR. PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm for Bob Turner. I hope that he gets elected.

SNOW (voice-over): Congressional candidate Bob Turner campaigning in what he calls enemy territory with fellow Republican and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. This is a heavily-Democratic district. Former congressman Anthony Weiner won seven terms here before a sex scandal forced his resignation in June.

Democrat David Weprin is hoping to replace him and was leading the polls. But a Siena Research Institute poll now has Weprin six points behind his Republican challenger. Weprin has made preserving Social Security and Medicare a focus of his campaign. He says the race is not a referendum on President Obama's policies, but says this --

(on camera): Do you think it has anything to do with the high unemployment rate?

DAVID WEPRIN (D), NEW YORK CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: It definitely has to do with the high unemployment rate. It definitely has to do with what happened in Washington, the gridlock.

SNOW (voice-over): Weprin blames the frustration on the Tea Party movement and paints his Republican challenger as part of the problem.

Turner insists the race is not about him.

BOB TURNER (R), NEW YORK CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Oh, it is about the Obama administration primarily. It got bigger than Mr. Weprin or me. Although the overriding issue is the jobs and the economy, this is turning into some kind of a referendum.

SNOW: And Turner has made Israel an issue. He has criticized Weprin, an orthodox Jew, for not being critical enough of President Obama's support for a future Palestinian state based on borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East War. And the Republican candidate won the endorsement of former Democratic mayor Ed Koch.

When asked about the race, White House spokesman Jay Carney had this to say --

CARNEY: I will simply point you to a statement that the prime minister of Israel made just the other day about the historic level of assistance and cooperation and friendship that President Barack Obama has shown Israel.

SNOW: But Siena pollster Steven Greenberg says Israel isn't the overwhelming theme.