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Pressure on House GOP To Blink; Paul Gets Testy in CNN Interview; North Korea Issues Military Orders; Space Station Crew Launches From Kazakhstan; Interview With Rick Santorum; New Claims Of Violence In Syria; Iraq to Kurds: Hand Over Wanted Vice President

Aired December 21, 2011 - 17:00   ET



Happening now, tough decisions for House Republican under fire, accused of possibly handing the election to President Obama. This hour, the growing pressure on the House speaker, John Boehner, to blink in the standoff over extending the payroll tax cut.

Plus, you're going to find out why Ron Paul's interview with CNN's Gloria Borger got testy at the very end, even though the Republican presidential candidate was having a pretty good day in Iowa today.

And I'll speak with Rick Santorum on the heels of an important endorsement for his presidential campaign. But he don't make any promises to getting a leading social conservative to his side.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


While many Republicans are stewing today over the payroll tax cut standoff, President Obama, as you just saw, went shopping. There is growing fear within the Republican Party that House Republicans may have given him an early Christmas present by refusing to agree to a compromise Senate plan to prevent tax hikes on January 1st.

Our senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is covering the fallout -- Dana, so what happens now?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is still anyone's guess. President Obama himself weighed in today, Wolf. He try -- he called the House speaker and the Senate majority leader, trying to find a way out of this impasse. No word yet on any effect of that.

But, meanwhile, the -- there's frustration that is mounting big time, Wolf, among Senate Republicans. I talked to several aides today who said that they simply think that the House Republicans have put them in a lose-lose situation, allowing Democrats to get the upper hand on being the party for tax cuts and Republicans being against tax relief. In the words of one Senate Republican leadership source, that is, quote, "inexcusable."


BASH (voice-over): A House GOP photo-op intended to pressure Democrats to back down in the payroll tax cut standoff and negotiate.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We're here. We're ready to work.

BASH: House Democrats staged their own made for TV moment, demanding a vote on the Senate passed two month payroll tax cut extension.

Republicans ignored it.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- December 23...

HOYER: Mr. Speaker.



HOYER: Mr. Speaker...


HOYER: Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask for unanimous consent that we bring up the bill to extend the tax cut for 160 million Americans.

BASH: The bigger problem for the House GOP is increasing anger from fellow Republicans in the Senate. They see this stalemate as a growing political debacle for their own party. Most Senate Republicans voted for a two month extension to the payroll tax cut. And multiple Senate GOP sources tell CNN frustration with House Republicans is mounting.

"The House Republicans have painted themselves into a corner," a Senate GOP leadership aide told CNN. "They're on their own."

One central problem, say Senate GOP aides, is the message. Democrats are talking about keeping taxes low. Republicans are talking process.

BOEHNER: There are two chambers of the Congress. We have the House and the Senate. The House produced a bill, exactly what the president asked for. The Senate only produced a two month bill. The process is to sit down and revolve those differences.

BASH: "The Wall Street Journal," usually a reliable voice of support for Republicans, wrote a scathing editorial Wednesday, torching House Republicans for a misguided strategy both on policy and politics. "The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play."

Republican Senator Bob Corker said "The Wall Street Journal" has it right.


SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: Just get it over with and move on, because now it's been framed as a tax increase, which it's not.

BASH: Meanwhile, members of Congress have left town. Walk around Capitol Hill and you'd never know there's a standoff threatening to drive up people's taxes. The halls are virtually empty.


BASH: Now, Wolf, despite this mounting pressure on House Republicans to give in, I talked to a well-placed House Republican source who suggests that they are going to take it down to the wire, that that won't happen any time soon. This source told me not to expect House Republicans to even entertain an end game until next week. That is, of course, just days before people's taxes would be slated to go up. That would be on January 1st -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So neither side is likely to blink before Christmas. But between Christmas and New Year's, there could be some major blinking going on, is that what you're hearing?

BASH: That's what I'm hearing. And all -- if people would be betting right now, the bets would be on the House Republicans being the ones to cave in because of this -- particularly this pressure from not just "The Wall Street Journal," but their fellow Republicans in the Senate and elsewhere saying it's time to just end this.

BLITZER: All right. Let's get the blinking underway and see what happens. At stake for 160 million Americans, a tax increase if they don't.

Dana, thank you.

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are wagging their fingers at Congress for the way the payroll tax fight has played out. Like the rest of us, they certainly read "The Wall Street Journal" editorial today, suggesting this fiasco could win the election in November 2012 for President Obama.

Listen to their remarks out there on the campaign trail today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: As you know, I happen to support the idea of extending the payroll tax holiday. I don't think this is going to change the economy, but it's certainly going to help a lot of people in tough times in this Obama economy. This is the last time to raise taxes. We -- we don't want to raise taxes in a time like this.



NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is an example of people why are sick of Washington and sick of Congress. You know, they can't -- they can't figure out how to pass the one year extension, so the Senate leaves town. I mean it is -- it is an absurd dereliction of duty. And it's game playing.


BLITZER: Newt Gingrich softened his tone a little bit later, the former House speaker saying he doesn't want to micromanage or second- guess Congress.

We're also seeing more movement in the volatile Republican presidential race, with less than two weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses. Ron Paul shoots to the top of the pack with 28 percent support in a new poll of likely GOP caucus goers. Paul is just 3 points ahead of Newt Gingrich, within the poll sampling error. Mitt Romney gets 18 percent in the Iowa state poll and Rick Perry, 11 percent.

Ron Paul under tougher scrutiny now that his poll numbers are climbing. Iowans are buzzing about the real possibility that Ron Paul might actually pull an upset win on January 3rd.

Our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, spoke with Ron Paul just a little while ago -- I understand, Gloria, the interview got a little contentious. We've been asking about some news we -- you've been -- we had seen and have been asking about some newsletters that appeared under his name back in the '80s and '90s.

Gloria, today, you had a chance to press him on whether he was aware of some of those very controversial statements about issues like race.


BLITZER: What did he tell you?

BORGER: Well, Wolf, I know you've asked him about these newsletters. And today, I pressed him about whether he had actually read any of those newsletters that went out under his name.

Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. RON PAUL (R), TEXAS: Not all the time. Well -- well, on occasion, yes.

BORGER: And did you ever object when you read them and...

PAUL: Well, you know, we -- we talked about this twice yesterday at CNN.

Why don't you go back and look at what I said yesterday on CNN and what I've said for 20 something years.

It was 22 years ago?

I didn't write them. I disavow them. That's it.

BORGER: But you made money off of them?

PAUL: I was still practicing medicine. That was probably why I wasn't a very good publisher, because I had to make a living.

BORGER: But there are reports that you made almost a million dollars off of them in -- in 1993.

PAUL: No. Who -- I'd like to share -- see that money.

BORGER: So you read them, but you didn't do anything about it at the time?

PAUL: I never read that stuff. I never -- I've never read it. I came -- I was probably aware of it 10 years after it was written. And it's been going on 20 years, that people have pestered me about this. And CNN does it every single time. So when...

BORGER: Well, it's a legitimate...

PAUL: -- are you going to wear yourself out?

BORGER: I mean wouldn't you say it's a -- no, but, you know...

PAUL: When are you going to do that?

BORGER: Is it legitimate?

I mean is a legitimate question to ask that something...

PAUL: Yes, it is. And when you get the an...

BORGER: Went out and it was your name?

PAUL: And when you get the answer, it's legitimate that you sort of take the answers I give. You know what the answer is, I -- I didn't read -- write them. I didn't read them at the time. And I disavow them. That is the answer.

BORGER: Well, it's just a question -- I mean it's legitimate. It's -- it's legitimate. These things are pretty incendiary, you know, the race -- I...

PAUL: That's because of people like you.

BORGER: No, no, no, no. Come on.


BORGER: Some of the stuff was very incendiary. And, you know, saying that in -- in 1993, the Israelis were responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center and that kind of stuff.

All right.

PAUL: Good-bye.

BORGER: All right. All right.

Thank you, Congressman.

I appreciate your answer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you doing, sir?

BORGER: I appreciate your answering the questions and you understand it's our job to ask them.



BLITZER: It seems like Ron Paul got tired of talking about it, Gloria. It's a...


BLITZER: -- it's a tough series of questions you asked him, but you obviously had to ask him.

BORGER: Well, I did have to ask them. He clearly thinks it's irrelevant. He thinks it's been asked and answer, that these newsletters went out over 20 years ago. And he said he had nothing to -- nothing to do with them. So it's clearly a question he'd rather not be asked.

BLITZER: Gloria, you also pressed him on the negative advertising he's been airing in Iowa, and a lot of it aimed at Newt Gingrich. He's accusing Newt Gingrich of, quote, "serial hypocrisy."

Gingrich has vowed to go positive and stay above it all.

What did Ron Paul have to say about that?

BORGER: Well, he says that he doesn't consider his ads negative at all. He says he's just taking on Newt Gingrich on the issues.

Listen to what he had to say. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BORGER: You're running a lot of negative ads, particularly against Newt Gingrich, calling -- accusing him of serial hypocrisy, which is a personal charge.

Would you be willing to stop running those ads?


BORGER: Why not?

PAUL: Because I don't consider them attacking him unfairly. I mean, it just points out the position he's been on. That's my job, to show what my opponents do. They flip-flop around and they change position. And if the media won't do it, I should do it.

BORGER: What about this notion of super PACs, these outsiders coming into -- into Iowa, spending millions of dollars on behalf of certain candidates?

Do you -- do you like the idea of that?

PAUL: No, but I don't want to put -- write a law that says people aren't allowed to spend the money the way they want. What I want to do is eliminate the environment, I want to eliminate the auction. The government has a big auction. They steal money and then they pass it out and they give the incentive.

So regulating expenditures in campaigning is like regulating lobbyists. I don't want the regulations because people have a right to petition their government. The problem is, big government having too much power, too much control and too much to auction off, and, therefore, the incentives are too great.


BORGER: Wolf, it's clear that he doesn't like the idea of these super PACs, that he believes they're run by the special interests, which he also doesn't like. But as a libertarian, he's conflicted, because he doesn't want the government to regulate this kind of political spending.

BLITZER: What's the Ron Paul message, Gloria, that clearly is resonating with a lot of folks in Iowa?

BORGER: You know, we were -- we were in an event with him today in Mount Pleasant. He had a full house, about 200 people here. And he got a standing ovation, Wolf, because the message the people like that Ron Paul delivers is that government spending has gone out of control, that we ought to stop spending overseas, we ought to focus on reducing our debt and that big government is not the answer to our problems. And people here applauded him again and again when he gave that answer to their questions.

BLITZER: Good stuff. Gloria, thanks very much.

Gloria has been reporting all week from Iowa. And you can see more of her interview, by the way, with Ron Paul later tonight on "A.C. 360," 8:00 p.m. Eastern. And please be sure to join all of us in the CNN Election Center for the first votes in the Republican presidential contest on January 3rd. Anything can still happen. Our coverage of the Iowa caucuses begins January 3rd, 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

We're learning that North Korea's new leader delivered important orders to the military before his father's death was announced.

Plus, Michelle Bachmann takes aim at North Korea's nuclear program and manages to insult the biggest shopping chain in the world.

And a new demand by the Iraqi prime minister, as the country's power sharing agreement may with at the risk of falling apart.


BLITZER: To the nuclear stronghold of North Korea just days after the death of the iron fisted leader, Kim Jong-il, there are now reports his son and successor, Kim Jong-un, issued orders for all military units to return to their bases before his father's death was announced, a potential sign of efforts to prevent attempted defections.

Meanwhile, just over the border in China, a rare glimpse in what life is like inside the reclusive country from someone terrified to tell us his story. Here's CNN Stan Grant.


STAN GRANT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This man does not want to be identified. He's afraid even to talk. "There are many North Korean spies here," he said. "Many, many. There are hundreds of spies." We'll call him Mr. Lee, a North Korean living on the China side of the border in Dandong. He says he risks death just being seen talking to us.

North Koreans don't speak openly, he says. If anyone knows I'm talking, I would be sent to prison, and there's no mercy there. I'd be shot dead. As we persevere, he opens up a little more. Painting a picture of a harsh life across the border where people are starving, aid is scarce and the only factories operating are for making military weapons.

Right now, he says, he fears a desperate country with the potential power vacuum that could so easily lash out. Before Kim Jong-il died, he was preparing the country for war, he says, and to hand (ph) now to Kim Jong-un. Other North Koreans here are in mourning, weeping openly for the death of the leader. Flowers continue to be delivered to the North Korean consulate building. Korean businesses and restaurants normally flourishing have closed their doors.

It's closed.

Dandong is separated from North Korea by the other river, about a kilometer less than a mile across. Cross border trade flourishes here, China props up the destitute North Korean economy. Dandong is a bustling small Chinese city. Tall buildings, noise, and traffic. On the other side, emptiness and silence. Alone disuse Ferris wheel, a symbol of a powerless (ph) world.

From this pedestrian bridge, we can walk right to the edge of the border. So close, it's so utterly different.

(on-camera) This is the end of the line. This is about as far as the bridge goes. It stops right here. Where this side of the line, I'm in China. If we step out from this bridge here, I enter North Korea.

(voice-over) Mr. Lee knows too well what happens there. A regime obsessed with pumping money into its military, while desperately poor people go hungry, he says. "Pig feet. That's all we can eat. Corn. No one can get full on that," he says. "There is no food, not even food from China. It's been blocked for three years."

Even if you have money, he says, there is nothing to buy. Any goods are traded for what little food remains. Mr. Lee is well off by his country man's standards. He has relatives on the China side who run businesses. It's a lifeline for his family back home. Mr. Lee is able to work here on a limited visa, but he crosses back and forth just to keep his family alive.

"I can not go back. I have to. I have a son and daughter," he says. If I don't go back, they can't survive. He has shed no tears for Kim Jong-il and harbors no great hope for the so-called great successor, Kim Jong-un. But still, he lives in fear of what the North Korean regime can do.

Spied upon, afraid to speak out, as much a prisoner of the Hermit Kingdom as those whose lives are trapped in its borders.

Stan Grant, CNN, Dandong, on the China, North Korea border.


BLITZER: I had my own rare glimpse inside North Korea exactly a year ago. You may remember I traveled there with the delegation, including the former New Mexico governor, Bill Richardson, and much of it was like nothing I had ever seen. Take a look at this.


BLITZER (voice-over): One of the first things you can't help but notice, the propaganda murals everywhere. Huge pictures of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son, the current leader, Kim Jong-il. All over the place. Almost at every corner. But we don't see any pictures of the new heir apparent, Kim Jong-il's youngest son, Kim Jong-un. As we drive into the capital, we see some impressive looking buildings, including the national sports stadium and ice skating rink, but it's already getting late in the day.

(on-camera) The hotel was a nice hotel. It was very clean. It was not very occupied, I should say. The lobby was lovely. The restaurant was nice. The rooms were sort of plain. Nothing too elaborate. Maybe 1960s or 1970s kind of Holiday Inn in the Midwest some place.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My initial thoughts were wow! This is another trip to North Korea, but again, as usual, we don't know what we're getting into.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I sensed not just from the North Koreans but from the South Koreans and from the Chinese as well that something was very light -- like something possibly dangerous was going to happen.

BLITZER: I was having trouble sleeping that first night. I wound up waking up at 4:00 a.m. and turned on the TV. No picture. Just some fuzz on the screen. And I said, oh, it looks like we're going to war. They've cut off communications with the outside world. I went in the lobby to see what was going on. I see a guy and I said no TV.

He takes me outside and he shows me this big satellite dish, and there was snow coming down. A lot of snow coming down. The snow was filling up the satellite dish, and he said that's why there was no TV. And I was really relieved and I said, what a false alarm that is.


BLITZER: On Friday, 5:00 p.m. eastern right here in the SITUATION ROOM, we'll have a special edition. You'll be able to see the documentary, "Six Days in North Korea," chronicling my extraordinary assignment there. Coming up, Friday, 5:00 p.m. eastern.

A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan dies of an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound. Up next, why eight of his fellow servicemen are now being charged in his death?

Plus, Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum, says he's, quote, "for income and equality." Does he believe some Americans work harder than others? His comments causing some controversy. We'll discuss that and a whole lot more. That's coming up.


BLITZER: Eight U.S. soldiers being charged in the death of the fellow serviceman in Afghanistan. Mary Snow is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. What happened here, Mary?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, 19-year-old Danny Chen apparently died of a self-inflicted gun shot wound in October after complaining to his family about being harassed because he was Asian- American. Now, the army says charges include now (INAUDIBLE) involuntary manslaughter, but it is not addressing the harassment allegation. Chen's family says until they see the autopsy results themselves, they cannot confirm or deny it was suicide.

A new crew is headed for the International Space Station. This hour, Soyuz rocket blasted off from Kazakhstan carrying a Russian cosmonaut as well as astronauts from Europe and the U.S. The group will join members (ph) already aboard the space station and are expected to arrive Friday morning.

Japanese officials have unveiled a new plan to decommission the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the country's devastating earthquake and tsunami. The process is expected to take 30 to 40 years. About 80,000 residents were displaced by radioactive particles viewing from the flat (ph). More than 15,000 people were killed in the earthquake and tsunami -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thank you.

Rick Santorum is the only Republican presidential candidate who served in the Senate. I'll ask him if his former colleagues were duped by House Republican leaders in the fight over the payroll tax cut.

Also, new allegations of genocide in Syria. Is the White House reaction tough enough?

And Iraq's prime minister demands the country's wanted vice president be brought to justice. Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Getting down to the wire right now for Republican candidates before the first presidential votes are cast in Iowa. Some fear a risky stalemate in Congress could hurt the Republicans' chances though of reclaiming the White House.

Let's discuss what's going on with Republican presidential candidate, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum. He's joining us right now.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in. And let me get right to the issue of the moment here in Washington. Are you with House Republicans or Senate Republicans when it comes to extending the payroll tax cut for middle class American families?

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes, my feeling is that there either is a Social Security trust fund that is used to pay Social Security benefits or there isn't. As someone who's been on the butt end of many attacks that Republicans don't care about Social Security, that Republicans are the ones who are trying to gut Social Security, Republicans are the ones that want to make sure that -- are not going to be there to stand up and make sure that it's properly funded, and then we see Democrats out there trying to cut the payroll tax -- in other words, cut the funding for Social Security and say that if you don't do that, then you're not for middle income Americans, well, I thought Social Security was for middle income Americans.

This is the kind of gamesmanship that gets played here. You're either for a Social Security system that is separate, that is funded through payroll taxes, and benefits are paid out of it, or Social Security and the taxes for that is just like everything else in the federal government. It's fungible, it can be used for tax cuts, it can be used for other purposes, it can be used for Social Security, it can be used for something else.

You can't play this game that President Obama is playing that Social Security is this sacrosanct program, and at the same time, use funds from Social Security to pay for something else. In this case, tax cuts.

BLITZER: Well, let me just interrupt and ask the question then. I take it you're not with John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. You wouldn't vote to extend the payroll tax cut for another year.

SANTORUM: No. No, I wouldn't.

Look, I believe in the Social Security system. We've got to fix the Social Security system so it's there and it's solvent, and it's there for future generations.

And we have -- so many years I have heard, well, we're talking the Social Security tax dollars and we're spending on other things. Here we are, sinking Social Security tax dollars and spending it on other things. In this case, a tax cut for the American consumer.

Now, that's a good thing to spend it on, but it either is a Social Security trust fund, it either is money to pay for Social Security benefits, and it's levied for that purposes, or it's not. And in this case, you see the president advocating and pushing to undermine the stability of the Social Security system, and I'm against that.

BLITZER: It's not just the president. It's most of the Republicans in the Senate. And the Republicans in the House say basically, under difference circumstances for a year, they want to see 160 million Americans continue to have this tax cut. They don't want a tax hike on 160 million Americans.

But am I hearing you correctly, Senator? You're saying you do want to increase taxes January 1st for 160 million Americans?

SANTORUM: I want to keep the tax -- the taxes leveled on Social Security right now -- the taxes leveled do not pay the benefits. There is more money being paid out in Social Security benefits than there is coming in to Social Security trust fund dollars.

The whole point of the Social Security system is to keep benefits and taxes and an equilibrium so we do not have a system that is short of money. That's what the objective and as always been the objective of the Social Security system. That is not what's going on right now. I am for tax cuts. I'd be very happy to come back and talk to the president about how we're going to provide tax relief for millions of Americans. But I'm not -- I've never been for a Social Security tax cut, because it undermines our ability to pay Social Security benefits.

BLITZER: All right. So I just wanted to make sure I fully understood. I think you're in the same place where Michele Bachmann is right now.


BLITZER: She says she won't vote to extend this payroll tax cut --


BLITZER: -- under any circumstances, and she offers similar reasoning as you do as well. So let's move on to some of the other stuff.

You caused a bit of a stir by saying this -- and I'll put it up on the screen, because I want you to clarify what you mean by this. This was in "The Des Moines Register."

"I'm for income inequality. I think some people should make more than other people because some people work harder and have better ideas and take more risks, and they should be rewarded for it. I have no problem with income inequality."

Some have said that a guy who is working in a steel mill is working really hard, but is not making as much as someone who is sitting in office, perhaps not working as hard as the person in the steel mill. So go ahead, explain what you meant by that.

SANTORUM: Well, Wolf, are you for income equality, that everybody makes the same?

BLITZER: No, I'm not for that, but I want you to explain what you mean by working harder.

SANTORUM: Well, but I think it's the same thing. I mean, the fact of the matter is that I believe that there should be income inequality in America, that some people -- I mean, we have a meritocracy. Some people make more than other people, and our economy rewards certain things more than it rewards other things. That's exactly how the economy works.

This is the difference between those who believe in the quality of result, as opposed to equality of opportunity. There are people who bring more to the table.

You have -- for example, let's take Major League Baseball. You've got folks making $30 million a year. You've got other people making $500,000 a year. Why? Because the guy making $30 million a year, he works just as hard as the guy making $500,000 a year, but he gets paid more. Why? Because he has more value to the team. And you have people in a company that add more value because they work -- two sales people can work just as hard, but one does a better job. One has better ideas. One is more accomplished. And should he get paid more? Yes, because he's more successful.

They work equally as hard, but the person who succeeds, the person who does a better job, should be paid more. That's all I'm saying. That's just common sense. That's what at least I hope most Americans believe in.

BLITZER: Yes, I think it's good explanation. I'm glad you made it. There was a little confusion when you suggested it, but you did a good job explaining it.


BLITZER: Let's talk about Ron Paul for a moment.

SANTORUM: All right.

BLITZER: This new poll in Iowa has him leading right now 28 percent. Gingrich, 25. Romney 18. Perry, 11. Bachmann, 7. You're down at 5.

What is Ron Paul bringing to this race that's exciting a lot of the potential caucus-goers in Iowa?

SANTORUM: A lot of money. He's been running -- I've been here in Iowa for two weeks, and there isn't a commercial break that passes that Ron Paul doesn't have an ad. And, of course, he has a loyal following. He's got a very good grassroots organization, and really nobody's talking about it.

All the negative ads from Governor Perry and from Mitt Romney have been focused on Newt Gingrich. I think the point is that this ad -- this poll was taken as a lot of these others polls were taken before the last debate, and I think both Michele Bachmann and I did a pretty good job of showing how dangerous Ron Paul would be as a nominee for our party, where he would be in a position where he'd be to the left.

In fact, far to the left of President Obama on the issue of national security, and would, in a sense, require America to go into a fetal position by gutting our defense, pulling our commitments around the world, retrenching to a point that would have America look like we did in 1789, when the Constitution was enacted, as opposed to America today.

That's not the -- that's not a particularly popular opinion in America among conservatives and among those who would likely vote for the Republican nominee. It would be a great thing if he were running as a liberal Democrat, but he's not. He's running as a Republican.

I think more people who see the clear contrast of someone like myself, who has been out there, who understands the threats that face this country, someone who has a clear idea of how we can make America safer -- and it isn't by gutting our Defense Department and making us a third-rate power in the world.

BLITZER: Let me just -- we have a limited amount of time. I want you to clarify. You got a huge endorsement yesterday from a major Evangelical leader in Iowa, Bob Vander Plaats of the Family Leader. It's a personal endorsement.

Now, there are all these reports coming out that at one point, he wanted you to drop out of the race so Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry could get that vote. Another suggestion that he was asking you to raise a million dollars for him and his organization, or whatever.

Clarify what's going on from your perspective, because there's a lot of confusion, Senator, as you well know.

SANTORUM: Yes. All I can tell you is that there are a lot of conservatives, not just him, but a lot of folks who are very concerned that between Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and myself, that we're going to split the conservative vote and someone like a Gingrich or a Romney or now even a Paul could end up winning the Iowa caucuses, and we could be left with someone who's not particularly conservative as the standard bearer of the party.

And there were a lot of conversations. Several people called me and said, would you consider maybe getting out and supporting someone else? And we're going to call the others and do the same.

My response to that is let the people of Iowa vote. This race isn't going to be over after one caucus. This is a long process.

Let the people decide who the best person to carry the conservative banner is. I believe that they are going to select me, and I feel very confident about that. But you know what? If it's somebody else, that's fine.

We have to trust the voters instead of some deal being made between the candidates. I rejected that, and thankfully, so did all the other candidates reject that. It's just people -- good intention as it was -- and I think it was good intention because they're concerned about their issues being front and center in this debate, but it was just not a proper idea.

BLITZER: Well, ,thanks very much for clarifying that, Senator.

Always good to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Good luck out in Iowa.

SANTORUM: Thank you very much. Merry Christmas to everybody, everybody listening. Have a great week.

BLITZER: And Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you and your family as well. Thanks very much, Senator, for that.

Mercury and other hazardous pollutants in our air. The Environmental Protection Agency finalized some new rules today. We have details coming up.


BLITZER: Syria's major opposition group is now pleading with the United Nations Security Council to protect civilians from "acts of genocide." The U.N. now estimates more than 5,000 people have been killed this year in Syria.

Let's bring in our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

Jessica, a lot of people are asking, is the United States leading from behind when it comes to Syria or leading out front?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, today, Wolf, the U.S. has put out a very strongly-worded statement condemning the violence in Syria, and also it's leader, Bashar al-Assad. And sources here tell me that the intent of this is to press other nations in the region to step up and push Syria, to hold them accountable in essence. Here's a part of that statement.

It says, "Time and again, the Assad regime has demonstrated that it does not deserve to rule Syria. It's time for the suffering and killing to stop. It's time for the immediate and full implementation of all terms of the Arab League agreement" -- it goes on to explain what that means -- "including the full withdrawal of security forces, the release of political prisoners, and unfettered access by monitors and international media to all parts of Syria."

Now, whether this means leading from behind or front is up to you to decide, because the administration doesn't itself embrace that term, at least not publicly. But they did say in this statement that they will pursue additional steps if Syria does not abandon violence. And I'm told the steps that they will consider pursuing are building out sanctions with other nations, pressing for action at the Security Council, and denying certain things to Syria such as arms -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Military action?

YELLIN: Military action is not under discussion here at all. At least not at this time -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica, thanks very much.

Let's go to Iraq right now, where the country's vice president is a wanted man. Tariq al-Hashemi is holed up in Iraq's autonomous region in the northern part of the country, in Kurdistan. He's denying charges he organized a death squad targeting government officials. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, warned Kurdish leaders to hand him over, or else.


NOURI AL-MALIKI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): It is the duty of all parts of a federal state to hand over a wanted individual. Therefore, we ask our brothers in the Kurdistan regional government to take responsibility and hand over the accused to the judiciary, especially because they have seen the case. Not handing him over or allowing him to flee to another country could cause problems. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And Arwa Damon is joining us once again from Baghdad.

Arwa, an incredibly sensitive moment right now. Over the weekend, U.S. troops pull out of Iraq. Some 17,000 Americans are still there, half contractors, security personnel, if you will. The other half, diplomatic personnel and their support staff.

But you told me earlier in the day that you got wind that the CIA director, General David Petraeus, made a secret visit to Iraq. First of all, tell us what you've heard, because I've since confirmed he has now back safe and sound here in Washington.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, according to sources in Iraq, the visit actually took place on the very same night that Iraqi state television broadcast those alleged confessions that appear to be implicating the vice president in these attacks. Of course, those confessions have since led to the vice president having an arrest warrant issued for him, him having to flee up to the Kurdish north.

But according to these Iraqi sources, Petraeus met with the speaker of parliament, he met with the finance minister. Both of these men, senior members of the Iraqiya bloc. That is the vice president's bloc. He also met with the prime minister, and then went to meet with the Kurdish leadership in the northern part of the country.

But call anyone here about this visit, and they will shut down entirely because of how sensitive it is. First of all, the U.S. does not want to be seen as meddling in Iraqi politics. And this breakdown of the Iraqi government comes less than a week after President Obama gave Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a glowing review when he presented him in Washington.

BLITZER: Like you, Arwa, I'm very concerned about what's going on Iraq right now. How close is that Shiite-led government? It does have some Sunni representatives, as you know. How close is the whole situation over there to unraveling?

DAMON: Well, it's dangerously close, Wolf, although that being said, it would not be the first time that the Iraqi political process has been at the edge of an abyss and somehow managed to dial itself back. But the great concern about what is happening right now is that if there is not some sort of a political resolution -- because at the end of the day, this is not necessarily about the judicial system or justice. This still remains fundamentally about politics and political power.

Unless some sort of a political deal is not brokered that is going to appease all sides, the country very well could move towards a civil war. There are senior politicians here who are warning that this could potentially be the beginning of the end, and the problem is that the standoff as each day goes by appears to be becoming even more polarized. The prime minister is in his corner; Iraqiya is in their corner; and now the Kurds are being drawn into all of this. BLITZER: What a situation unfolding.

Arwa Damon in Baghdad for us.

Thanks very, very much.

Check out my SITUATION ROOM blog on this very subject. I wrote it earlier in the day, "General Petraeus' Secret Mission to Iraq."

You might not expect to hear the names "Wal-Mart" and "North Korea" in the same sentence, but just ahead, the White House presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's controversial new comments, why some Republicans think it could get her into new political trouble.


BLITZER: The Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann prides herself as being tough and blunt, but her new attempt to draw a line in the sand against North Korea's new leader potentially may have backfired a little bit.

Brian Todd has got this story for us.

What happened here?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, ,Wolf, not hard to sound tough and blunt when you're talking about North Korea. But when you compare that regime to an all-American brand that employs hundreds of thousands of people in the heartland, you might have a political problem.



TODD (voice-over): She's counting on a big push in Iowa to get back into the GOP race. Getting picked up on the daily news cycle may be part of that, and that means coming up with clever, pithy sound bites.

So here's what Michele Bachmann came up with this week --

BACHMANN: With the death of Kim Jong-il, we know that North Korea has effectively acted as the Wal-Mart of missile delivery systems.

TODD: It wasn't Bachmann's first use of an odd "Wal-Mart" reference to make a political point. Back in July, 2008, on the House floor, she said this about the group Planned Parenthood --

BACHMANN: They are the Wal-Mart of big abortion. They're the big box retailer.

TODD: We called and e-mailed Wal-Mart several times, seeking its reaction to Bachmann's comments. The retail discount giant never responded.

Republican strategist John Feehery doesn't think Bachmann's slamming Wal-Mart intentionally, but he calls the comments stupid.

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: When trying to craft a clever sound bite, you need to be careful that you don't unintentionally alienate somebody. It seems that what Bachmann is doing is alienating an important part of her political base, which is the Wal-Mart voter.

TODD: Not so, says the Bachmann campaign. A spokeswoman says, "She was referring to the fact that North Korea is distributing weapons as efficiently and cost-effective as Wal-Mart."

Wal-Mart's not Bachmann's only corporate metaphor. In April, she said this about LensCrafters and Planned Parenthood, which sometimes helps women get abortions --

BACHMANN: The executive director of Planned Parenthood in Illinois said they want to become the LensCrafters of big abortion in Illinois.

TODD: Actually, the Planned Parenthood CEO had really said in a print interview, "I like to think of Planned Parenthood as the LensCrafters of family planning." He was talking about making planning services more accessible.

But you'd think Bachmann knew that, because she had said this in that House floor speech in 2008 --

BACHMANN: And he said, "I'd like to think of Planned Parenthood as the LensCrafters of family planning."


TODD: When she mistranslated that this past April, LensCrafters hit back at Bachmann, telling a newspaper she was using the company's name without its knowledge or permission. A company official said LensCrafters contacted Bachmann's office and ask that she stop making those comparisons. A Bachmann spokeswoman said at the time she would stop. No word on whether she's going to stop using the name "Wal- Mart" in her speeches.

BLITZER: There's always a balance you've got to have in attacking corporate America, if you will.

TODD: That's right. I mean, you've got to be careful about that. You might just want to attack corporate America as the overarching enemy of the people. Just say "corporate America," maybe avoid talking about specific brands, because that could alienate a lot of people.

BLITZER: Good advice, Brian. Thanks very much.

The best of the videos, that's coming up next.


BLITZER: A nice shot of the White House right now.

Meanwhile, they're the videos that apparently you watched most this year.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The thing about YouTube videos is that some you get --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da, da.

MOOS: And some seem like gibberish. For instance, in this year's "Top 10 Most Viewed Videos" --

(on camera): -- the number five spot went to a very annoying cat. The number 10 spot went to a very adorable cat --

(voice-over): -- a mother cat hugging its kitten while the two of them take a catnap.

The number nine video was Volkswagen's Super Bowl commercial called "The Force."

Number eight was a cute 11-year-old Canadian singing Lady Gaga's hit --

MARIA ARAGON, INVITED TO SING WITH LADY GAGA (singing): Baby, you were born this way

MOOS: Lady Gaga was so impressed, she invited Maria Aragon (ph) to sing a duet in concert.

LADY GAGA, SINGER (singing): Baby, I was born this way

ARAGON (singing): Baby, I was born this way.

MOOS: Number seven was a dance comedy video. YouTube is the place if you want people to

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): -- forget me now

MOOS: At least 56 million people looked at the twin talking babies who seemed to understand each other perfectly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Da, da, da, da, da.

MOOS: Adults enjoyed adding subtitles and nominating them for best foreign language film.

Comedy music videos were popular.


MOOS: And we might as well acknowledge that number one video that got over 180 million views.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): It's Friday, Friday -- MOOS: OK. That's enough acknowledgement.

(on camera): But it's the video that came in at number two that's number one in my heart. And since it's my story, that's the one we're going to concentrate on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know what the meat drawer is, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. What was in there?

MOOS: There is just something riveting about the talking dog being teased.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know that bacon that's like maple, it's got maple flavor?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The maple kind, yeah. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So I took that out and I thought --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- I know who would like that. Me. So I ate it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It looks like he's getting his hopes up, and then they're dashed. And then he gets his hopes up again and then they're dashed again.

MOOS: Former ad agency guy Canadian Andrew Grantham (ph) now makes a living creating and voicing talking animals. People submit thousands of videos, and he adds the dialogue.


MOOS: Andrew wouldn't say now hutch his advertising partnership with YouTube pays, but Clark the dog now has a Facebook fan page with a joke bacon tree and a bacon T-shirt.

And if you're wondering --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're kidding me?

MOOS: -- what he really said in dog speak --


MOOS: -- Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: Leave it to Jeanne. I love the Canadians, too. Grew up in Buffalo, right on the border.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The news continues next on CNN.