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THE SITUATION ROOM

Final Iowa Push; Arrests Made in Los Angeles Arsons; Why Iowa Carries a Lot of Weight; Interview with Iowa Congressman Steve King; Romney A True Conservative?; Obama Campaign Gears Up In Iowa; Romney's Secret Weapon; Snipers Still A Threat In Syria; Three Molotov Cocktail Attacks in NYC; NASA Orbiters Circling Moon

Aired January 2, 2012 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S THE SITUATION ROOM: Happening now: the first contest of the GOP campaign just a day away. And it's a last chance for candidates to make an impact on Iowa caucus goers.

After playing it safe, Mitt Romney is not playing to win in Iowa. And we will look at how just might pull it off.

In a final frantic burst of activity, Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum all appear at campaign events in our next hour. We will go there live as these rallies unfold.

After nearly a dozen arson cases just overnight and more than 50 cars set ablaze since Friday, Los Angeles police announce arrests.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're counting down the hours now to the first voting of the 2012 presidential campaign, 28 hours to be precise, until Iowa Republicans gather at more than 1,700 locations for their party caucuses and start picking their favorites. The candidates have spent millions of dollars, logged many thousands of miles in this long Iowa marathon. Now it's a sprint as they dash across the state today looking for the last few votes.

Mitt Romney is at the head of the pack trying to hold back Ron Paul and a hard-charging Rick Santorum.

Let's go live to CNN's Joe Johns. He's joining us from Marion, Iowa, right now with the latest -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Mitt Romney is pushing across the state, traveling hundreds of miles, certainly one of the busiest days of his entire campaign. He is trying to get his supporters to go out and caucus for him.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): On the final day of campaigning, energy is everything in Iowa. You watch for loud applause, size of crowds, signs of enthusiasm. The Romney campaign projects confidence here, but they are careful not to predict the win. In fact, officially, they say they never planned to win Iowa, which will be the excuse if they don't.

ANN ROMNEY, WIFE OF MITT ROMNEY: I sense a feeling, a coalescing, a momentum or whatever it is you want to call it people around mitt. I think people are starting to figure out that this is the guy that is going to beat Barack Obama.

JOHNS: In Davenport, the cautious candidate didn't stray from his cautious ways. Other candidates were taking questions, mixing it up. Romney was playing it safe. Speaking of his wife, he might as well have been talking about himself lately.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And she was marvelous. They asked her tough questions and she did exactly what you're supposed to do. She didn't answer them.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNS: What the head-on camera, the one facing the candidate did not show at this moment, was empty space in the room.

M. ROMNEY: This county did good things for me last time around. I need you to get out and do that again with even more votes. Get out and vote and vote and vote.

JOHNS: Usually, advance people get paid to make sure guys like Romney give speeches in smaller rooms, where it's easier to pack in the people, making it look more well-attended. Maybe that's all this was, a mixup, though there was a day four years ago in Iowa With Mitt Romney heading into the caucuses facing a social conservative Mike Huckabee. Huckabee would win and Romney would not recover.

This campaign would rather not see history repeat itself with the current surging conservative, Rick Santorum. When the Romney road show got to Dubuque this day, it was a much larger crowd and smaller space, different energy, and more of the stump speech, playing it safe.

M. ROMNEY: I believe it an opportunity nation, a merit society.

JOHNS: Romney actually made a reference to the campaign four years ago but said nothing about the loss. It was another joke about his wife, Ann.

M. ROMNEY: I'm standing here, she's standing there, and suddenly her half of the stage collapsed in Dubuque at the Best Western Hotel. She went down to the ground, landed on her backside. And I said, how are you honey? A little later she said, well, I fell on da butt in Dubuque.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: Romney actually did do a media availability in Atlantic, Iowa, yesterday in which he poked fun at Rick Santorum for endorsing him in the last campaign for president. After Romney's event here in Marion, Iowa, he goes on to one more stop that occurs around 9:45 Eastern time, pretty late night, Wolf.

BLITZER: It seems to me, Joe, and I don't know if you agree, that Ann Romney is emerging as a real asset. I had a chance to meet with both of them last week.

Are we seeing more of her out on the campaign trail before the Iowa caucuses?

JOHNS: We certainly are.

And she goes pretty far to help soften up his image, if you will. He always had that problem of being a little bit stiff. The word that has been used in the media so many times is robotic. She certainly helps that because she is very spontaneous, a very light touch and seen by many as a real asset to the Romney campaign.

BLITZER: Yes, certainly is, and very nice person, I must say as well.

All right, thanks very much, Joe. We will get back to you.

Not too long ago, Newt Gingrich looked like he was jet-powered as he jumped to the front of the pack, but he quickly fizzled and fell back to earth after he became the target of some nasty, nasty campaign ads. Much of the negative tone in Iowa is the work of free spending super PACs as they are called.

Brian Todd has been taking a closer look into these super PACs.

Brian, what are you finding out?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, every campaign benefits from the so-called super PACs but there is one supporting Mitt Romney that has raised more, spent more and launched more negative ads than any other.

And in the process, it has torpedoed Newt Gingrich from the lead.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): His warp speed slide from the top of the polls has been the story in Iowa. And Newt Gingrich's fall has coincided with an onslaught of negative ads like this one.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I made a big mistake in the spring.

NARRATOR: Haven't we had enough mistakes? Restore Our Future is responsible for the content of this message.

TODD: Restore Our Future, a so-called super PAC, a political action committee that supports Mitt Romney. It spent more than $3 million on ads in Iowa, many of them blistering Gingrich.

Super PACs like this can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of a candidate and all the candidates are benefiting. Even though campaign rules say super PACs have to be independent from the campaigns and the candidates aren't allowed to communicate with them, in reality:

(on camera): How close are the relationships between the super PACs, like Restore Our Future, and campaigns like Romneys?

SHEILA KRUMHOLZ, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: Technically super PACs are unaffiliated with the campaigns. They're not authorized by the campaigns. However, in reality, they are very much an extension of the campaigns. They're run by the former senior advisers.

TODD (voice-over): Gingrich calls Restore Our Future a phony super PAC, saying this to Romney.

GINGRICH: That's your staff and that's your organization. Those are your millionaire friends paying for it.

TODD: We called and e-mailed Romney's campaign for response. We didn't hear back.

(on camera): Contacted by CNN an official at Restore Our Future, which is run out of this building in Washington, wouldn't comment on Gingrich's criticism, wouldn't discuss strategy. But at least two people who are on the board of that super PAC are former Romney campaign advisers.

(voice-over): As for its donors, federal disclosure records show hotel magnates J.W. and Richard Marriott each gave at least $450,000 to Restore Our Future this election cycle. Hedge fund manager John Paulson was among the big donors, giving million dollars. We tried to contact them, but possibly due to the federal holiday, we didn't hear back.

The tactics used by the super PACs are legal and analysts say they work.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This television ad attack on Newt Gingrich has had a huge effect on this race. There is no question that it enormously eroded his support here in Iowa after he had surged nationally.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Analysts say because of the results from the negative ads in Iowa this is only going to intensify. Restore Our Future already is using negative ads against Gingrich in South Carolina, which holds its primary on January 21. They have had that ad out for almost a week now.

BLITZER: Brian, even though these super PACs have to show their donors, they have ways of skirting around that as well, don't they?

TODD: That's right. Sheila Krumholz from that watchdog group Center For Responsive Politics says they can take donations from corporations, they can be shell corporations that they are taking money from. You will never really know who the people are behind that. Again, all of it is legal. It's the campaign finance laws that were changed by the Supreme Court decision a couple years ago that really paved way for all of this.

BLITZER: It's amazing. If you think these super PACs were active in this lead-up to Iowa and beyond, wait until the general election starts.

It will be nasty, indeed. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Iowa seems like it was an afterthought for Mitt Romney. Without the social conservative or evangelical of some of his rivals, he focused on his home turf of New Hampshire, but now Iowa victory seems within his grasp.

Let's discus what is going on with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. She is here at the CNN Election Center as well.

Could Romney go all the way and win in Iowa?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, Wolf, we never thought we would say yes, that's a real possibility, given the fact he spent so much money there in 2008 and did not win.

But I do believe if you look at the polls and you get a sense of what is going on in Iowa that it is very possible. The key to it really is the evangelical vote. Back in 2008, when Mike Huckabee won, he really brought out evangelical voters and consolidated them. So he had a solid victory.

There is no Mike Huckabee this time. Evangelical voters are split. A lot of them going for Rick Santorum right now, but they are split between Perry and Santorum and some even for Ron Paul. And so what you see with Mitt Romney is, as long as they are split, he is doing very well.

Another thing, the issue set. Social issues are not very much on the front-runner in Iowa. This time, it is much more about the economy, who can manage well, who can be a good businessman, and who can beat Barack Obama. Those are things, they work well for Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: And the volatility in this contest, I don't remember a time where we have seen so many surge to the top only to collapse.

BORGER: It is an unsettled field. That is now a cliche already. We have had, what, eight front-runners.

I think what's interesting about this particular primary is that it has been very much about the debates. In fact, Wolf, you could say that all the debates we have had and other networks have had have essentially been the first primaries, that the candidates are already beginning to kind of winnow out.

People look, for example, at Rick Perry, who was supposed to be a top-tier candidate, saw his bad performance in some of those debates, and they haven't really given him much of a second chance. So Iowa, while the first votes are being cast, they are the same as the rest of the country. They have been looking at this field. It's been up and down and up and down.

BLITZER: Just a day from now, we will have the first votes of the 2012 election about to take place, real votes, not just straw polls, real votes.

BORGER: Right. And people nationally have been paying almost as much attention as the people in Iowa. The good thing for everybody nationally is they don't have to see all those negative ads.

BLITZER: I was there. I saw them all. You were there. You saw them as well.

BORGER: Me, too.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

BORGER: Sure.

BLITZER: From Iowa to the White House, how the candidates up to parlay a caucus victory into a nomination and a ticket to the Oval Office.

Plus, the Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King, his backing could put a candidate over the top tomorrow night, so why isn't he endorsing anyone? I will ask him. He is standing by to join us live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All eyes are on Iowa ahead of tomorrow's caucuses.

And that may also be the case next November, when the electoral votes are being tallied. For a relatively small state, Iowa can certainly make a big, big impact.

Let's bring in John King for a closer look.

People think it is going to be over on Tuesday. Not necessarily, because November is not that far down the road.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Only a Republican contest tomorrow, Wolf, but President Obama has his team in Iowa. Why?

In the last 13 presidential elections, Iowa has gone seven times for the Republicans and six times for the Democrats. It's the ultimate swing state, important tomorrow for the Republicans, but maybe just as important come the general election. That's November.

Let's go through a little scenario. This is a hypothetical, but watch this. This is the map from 2008. The electoral votes have changed a little bit because of the 2010 census. Some states have more now and some states have less. Blue is Obama 2008. Red is McCain. Let's go through some states that just about everybody concedes are in play this year. Iowa, for example, let's call that a toss-up for now. Then the Republican race goes to New Hampshire. That's considered a toss-up as well. The fourth state on the Republican calendar, Florida. Everyone says that's a toss-up.

Ohio -- Ohio is a big state for Republicans normally. Obama carried it last time. Let's make that, Indiana as well. The president turned that. He turned North Carolina from red to blue last time. Most people think very competitive this year.

Now, let's move this way. Colorado, another one of the nine red states, Bush 2004, Obama 2008. That will be in play. Nevada has the highest unemployment in the country. So, everyone believes that will be in play.

I could do more. But let's just view these as some the toss-up states in 2012.

Now, let's have a little exercise. Assume -- remember, this is a hypothetical -- assume for the sake of argument the Republicans take back Ohio and the Republicans take back Florida. The Republicans expect to get Indiana. We'll see how it plays out but they expect to get that one back. President Obama just carried that.

Now, let's see Virginia and North Carolina. Let's say -- for the sake of argument -- the president keeps Virginia but loses North Carolina. Now look, where are we? Two hundred sixty, 253. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the White House.

So, again, this is just an exercise now, but let's assume Republicans take back Colorado, that it goes back to its roots -- 262, 260. Look at that.

Nevada, again, high unemployment. President is in deep trouble here. But Latino population could be key in Nevada. Let's give that one to President Obama.

Now, we have New Hampshire and Iowa left. The first two states on the Republican. Let's do this again, this is just a hypothetical, Democrats. But if the Republicans can take New Hampshire back, 266 to 266. What state could decide the presidential election next November? Where we begin tomorrow with the Republican caucuses in Iowa.

If President Obama could keep it, he would win. If Republicans can get it back, they could win the race.

Why do we focus on Iowa? Why do we keep yellow right now? It's a next November toss-up. Again, in last 13 presidential elections, Wolf, this is the ultimate swing state. Seven wins for Republicans, six for Democrats -- a big important state to kick us off tomorrow and a very big state for the next 11 months.

BLITZER: And it certainly helps to explain, John, why the president is going to be speaking to a lot of Democrats in Iowa tomorrow.

KING: Amen. They understand that this could come down -- they understand that for all of the big states, we'll focus on Florida, we'll focus on Ohio, we'll focus on some of the big industrial. Pennsylvania will be in play this time. Everyone agrees.

When you go through the map, if you have a close election next November, it is the Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, some of smaller states, that could be decisive, including this one right here, Iowa, four electoral votes, very important as we find out who the Republican front-runner will be, we're going to be, a lot of time in Iowa, Wolf, between now and next November.

BLITZER: We certainly are. John King at the magic wall for us, he's going to spend a lot of time there -- thank you.

Here's a look at some of the other political headlines making news on the CNN Political Ticker. Almost two out of three Iowa insiders see Mitt Romney winning tomorrow's caucuses. CNN surveyed dozen of state GOP officials, activists and insiders. Sixty-three percent are predicting a Romney victory, 27 percent think Ron Paul will win. Six percent of the political pros say the race in Iowa is just too close to call.

Jon Huntsman is pumping more of his own money into his White House bid. The former Utah governor says he'll match donations to his campaign dollar for dollar through midnight Wednesday. Huntsman has already loaned his campaign more than $2 million and is banking almost all of it on next week's New Hampshire primary.

Rick Santorum's fundraising is soaring, along with his poll numbers. A senior adviser tells CNN daily contributions to Santorum's campaign are up as much as 400 percent from only 10 days ago. A CNN/"TIME"/ORC poll shows Santorum coming in third among likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers.

For complete political coverage, be sure to go to CNN.com/ticker. Good place to go.

A check of the day's other top stories is next.

Then, it's not just Republicans taking Iowa by storm. The Obama campaign is up and running there as well. We are going inside their game plan.

Plus -- Mitt Romney's wife, Ann. Is she his secret weapon? We'll talk about that and more on our strategy session. Paul Begala and Alex Castellanos, they are both standing by live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

Lisa, another story underscoring the risks of celebratory gunfire.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That's right, Wolf.

Well, there is a west Florida boy who is in critical condition today with a bullet lodged in his head. Authorities say the 12-year- old was sitting in his front yard early New Year's morning watching fireworks when he suddenly fell, bleeding from his nose and eyes. Doctors say a gunshot went through the top of his head. Police believe celebratory gunfire, possibly from miles away, hit them.

And for several same-sex couples in Honolulu, New Year's Day took on added meaning. They became the first into Hawaii's history to enter into civil union. Hawaii and Delaware are the latest of five states that recognize same sex unions. Six other states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.

And your chance to become a millionaire. Well, it's going to cost you twice as much. The price of a powerball lottery ticket will double to $2 beginning January 15th. But the jackpot will start twice as high, at $40 million. Powerball is available in 42 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Officials say tickets for mega millions game will remain $1.

And scientists say a substantial number of hybrid sharks may be an indication the animals are interbreeding to adapt to climate change. Australian researchers they have found 57 sharks that are a cross between the Australian black tip shark and the common black tip shark. The smaller Australian back tip favors tropical waters, while the larger, common black tip is found in subtropical and temperate waters.

That's all the news there, Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa, I know you are as excited, as excited as I am, by our new -- it's New Year. We have a new look here in THE SITUATION ROOM, new graphics, new video open. Let me play a little bit of this.

(MUSIC)

BLITZER: It's a lot of excitement going on in 2012.

SYLVESTER: I love it and I'm feeling (ph) it.

BLITZER: We are kicking off with some new graphics.

SYLVESTER: Yes, it's definitely -- it's very hip. Very exciting. So, something for our viewers can certainly pass the word, tweet it. Let people know we got a new image and new look right here for 2012, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. You know, we've celebrated -- we've been on the air in THE SITUATION ROOM now for more than six years. So, it's about time we updated the look. I love our viewers to tell me what they think. Tweet me @WolfBlitzerCNN and I'll get your thoughts. See what you think.

Lisa, thank you.

He's viewed as kingmaker in Iowa politics. So, why is Congressman Steve King still not ready to crown any of the Republican candidates? I'll ask him. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Our powerful new open. I think you'll like that.

Steve King is certainly kingmaker, potentially at least, in tomorrow's Iowa caucuses. The influential Republican congressman has met with all of the candidates. He even went hunting with Rick Santorum. But at this, the 11th hour, he is still not endorsing anyone.

Congressman Steve King is joining us now live from Des Moines.

Congressman, thanks very much.

I know -- just to be on the safe side, between now and the Iowa caucuses tomorrow night, you're not going to endorse anyone, is that right?

REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: You know, I haven't made a decision, but I will say that each hour that goes by, it gets harder to do. And so, at this point, it's less likely than it was an hour ago.

BLITZER: But it is still possible between now and 7:00 p.m. your time, 8:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night, we will hear you say, I like X, Y or Z?

KING: You know, it wouldn't be possible by design because if by design, I had to make a decision on September or October, if I got to this last minute, and I had some secret decisions I had made, I would have made that decision at the beginning of the news cycle this morning. I'm not there. So, each hour that goes by is just less likely. There are a good number of reasons for it and none of them have to do with anything except respect for all the candidates.

BLITZER: Can we assume, Congressman, that whoever does win the Iowa caucuses tomorrow night, whoever the Republicans of your state select will be your candidate and you will endorse the winner of the Iowa caucuses?

KING: Yu know, I don't know if that will necessarily be the case. It's very, very likely the case. But I think we're going to have to hear from the other states, too. I'd like to get this nomination process done. You can know this, that I will be for the nominee enthusiastically and I will go wherever I need to go to help elect a Republican president.

BLITZER: Well, why wouldn't you be for the candidate that the people, the Republicans at least, the caucusgoers, that they want the most? Why wouldn't you go with the Republican selected at the Iowa caucuses?

KING: Well, you know, none of us are really bound by that. This is a strong recommendation that will come from Iowa tomorrow night. And there will be two or three tickets probably pounce for New Hampshire. So, it comes as a strong recommendation after having vetted all these candidates. And you know, Iowans got to know these candidates personally.

And so it is possible that, you know, we could be three votes from -- or say two votes from a three-way tie and that would make it difficult to endorse the leader.

BLITZER: Is there one candidate that -- but is there one candidate you feel uncomfortable with?

KING: Well, you know, I have been I think fairly vocal on this. First, I want to thank Ron Paul for all he brought to this debate, sound money, the constitutionalism, the fiscal responsibility. He energized young people on the campuses.

He and I disagree on foreign policy and I'm troubled by the idea that a candidate for the presidency would move all of our military back to the shores of the United States.

I that I would be a colossal mistake that we could never rectify in a subsequent administration so that does trouble me, yes, Wolf.

BLITZER: So I assume now you wouldn't be able -- if he won the Iowa caucuses, which is obviously possible based on late-minute polling that we're seeing, he is one Republican you couldn't necessarily endorse.

What surprises me, Congressman, I know how close you have been with Michele Bachmann legislatively in Washington over the years. What happened?

A, what happened to her after the straw poll in August which she won, the Ames straw poll. Why haven't you been more assertive in helping her because it seems on most of the issues, the two of you are very much eye to eye?

KING: Well, we do see eye to eye on issue after issue and we work very closely together. A, part of your question, what happened with Michele was winning the straw poll here in Iowa. She didn't get the bump that she had earned.

It was the timing of the Rick Perry campaign that came in exactly at the beginning of the voting in the Iowa straw poll when he announced his candidacy in South Carolina. The next day Rick Perry came to Iowa to the very same building in Waterloo where Michele Bachmann announced her presidency campaign.

And Rick Perry went to the top of the charts right away. That took Michele Bachmann's bump away and that was a disappointment for her and a large disappointment for her. We hadn't -- there were a lot of things going on campaign wise where it was hard it maintain communications.

Some of the stuff, we didn't talk as often as we should have. But in the end, I'm looking at this big picture and I said that as good of a friend she is, as much as I like and respect her, as close as we are together, I wasn't ready yet to say, this is -- this isn't about friendship, this is about the next president of the United States.

She has done a fantastic job here. She has opened doors, especially for women, but for strong conservatives all across this country for all time. I haven't come to the conviction.

It doesn't mean it is a plus or minus on Michele Bachmann, that doesn't exist across the board to the candidates. I like them. I respect them. I could build a perfect candidate out of their proponents of these candidates that are going to be vying for the nod tomorrow night.

BLITZER: Is Mitt Romney a true conservative?

KING: He's been -- you know, there are questions like that that come out. I will say this. He's had some positions that changed more than five years ago. Over the last five years, he's been a consistent conservative. He has a good policy, a good solid position on immigration, for example.

That there are more questions about that last time he was here in Iowa. He is a consummate manager and executive in both the private and government sector. So he brings a lot to the table from a competency standpoint.

And his core convictions are -- have been, I think, articulated well here in the state. There still remains a bit of an uneasiness with that. But I will say he's been a consistent conservative the last four or five years here in Iowa and across the country.

BLITZER: I was there in Iowa last week. You have a great state thee, Congressman. Folks are really delightful. Everybody was so, so nice. Glad to visit. And good luck tomorrow night. We will be watching, of course, and we will check in with you, if we can.

KING: Wolf, thank you very much. I just appreciate the coverage that you have all given us here in Iowa. We hopefully we rolled out the red carpet as much as we can and the focus that's here, Iowans feel very, very privileged to have this kind of a voice.

To make a recommendation to the rest of the country and I think they will show up in good numbers tomorrow night and I think they'll send a good message to New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond. Thank you very much.

BLITZER: As I keep saying, history is about to unfold. The first votes of the 2012 presidential election season will happen in Iowa tomorrow. We will be watching history unfold. Thanks very much, Congressman. Republicans certainly eyeing Iowa's caucuses tomorrow, but the Obama campaign already on the ground using the caucus to prepare for a fierce general election fight.

Plus, the Mitt Romney ad featuring his wife, Ann. What does it tell us about the Republican race? Paul Begala and Alex Castellanos, they are standing by live. We'll talk about that and a lot more in our "Strategy Session."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're counting down the Republican caucuses in Iowa tomorrow. President Obama, the Democrats are gearing up for a big campaign effort of their own in that crucial state.

Let's go live to our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin. She's joining us from Des Moines. Jessica, what's going on?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, the Republicans are going after President Obama big time ahead of the big event Tuesday night. Did you know there's a Democratic caucus on Tuesday as well?

There is and there may be just one candidate to support, but the organizers behind Team Obama are aggressively organizing around it and that's because they are looking ahead to November 6th.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): In Iowa's Republican caucuses, President Obama is a favorite target on the stump --

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: For the president's staff to announce he's now going to govern without Congress, that means he's not going to govern.

YELLIN: And over the air waves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- community organizer. As a law professor, maybe now you will see the problem.

YELLIN: Democrats estimate in this state alone, Republicans "Super PACs" have spent $7.4 million on ads many attack the president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pat Walters with the Obama grass roots team.

YELLIN: So the Obama campaign is up and running.

PAT WALTERS, OBAMA IOWA CAMPAIGN VOLUNTEER: There are some people that don't even know there is a Democratic caucus. When they learn, they are more than willing to come out.

YELLIN: They say they are using the caucus as an organizing tool to prepare for a fierce general election fight.

LYNNE LAGRONE, OBAMA IOWA CAMPAIGN VOLUNTEER: We have been bombarded with ads by the Republican side and people tend to forget that there are two sides to this.

YELLIN: The Republicans have a contest. The Obama campaign boast they have a larger presence in the state with eight offices across Iowa, 20 paid staffers and more phone calls than you would care to hear about. Tom Miller has been the states' attorney general for almost 30 years.

TOM MILLER (D), IOWA ATTORNEY GENERAL: On Wednesday, they all pack up and go to New Hampshire and elsewhere where as our organization that's been here since April will stay here, keep working and keep organizing. We will have, by far, the strongest organization to many presidential candidate in Iowa come Wednesday morning.

YELLIN: This state first made President Obama a contender in 2008 and the campaign plans to fight head winds to win here again in November.

(on camera): But how important is this state for November?

SUE DVORSKY, CHAIRWOMAN, IOWA DEMOCRATIC PARYT: Crucial. Every list I see, there are some lists as short as six and there are some as long as 12. Battle ground states, we're on it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now, Wolf, the Republican candidates here attack the president every day, but the hot attack today came from Newt Gingrich. You heard a piece of it at the top of that package that just played.

Essentially, they're going after -- he was going after the president for a report saying that President Obama has given up on working with Congress in 2012.

While the administration and Obama campaign are hitting back on that attack, saying, no, the president does plan to work with Congress in 2012 where he can.

And where he can't, where Congress refuses to work with him, he will continue to pushing the we can't wait agenda, those executive action items where the president can push his own agenda without Congress and despite the gridlock -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I assume the president recharged his batteries on vacation in Hawaii. He's on his way back pretty soon to Washington because it is going to be really nonstop for him between now and November. I assume that's the case, isn't it Jessica?

YELLIN: It'll be nonstop. Both with travel, planning the state of union, which is the big focus coming up to whereat end of January and of course, he has to work with Congress right away on extending payroll tax cut for a full year, which is the first item of business when he gets back -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica, thanks very, very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper right now on our "Strategy Session." Joining us, a pair of CNN contributors, the Republican strategist, Alex Castellanos and the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala.

First to you, Alex. Are the Iowa Republicans really being energized in the process the way the Iowa Democrats right now aren't?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think the Republicans are certainly being energized. I was talking to a campaign operative today who had a rally for his candidate and he said, look, my relatives were there.

My parents were there. They are undecided, but they are still going to all these rallies. He's trying to get him to vote for his candidate. The point is, Wolf, sometimes you look at surveys and say an undecided 41 percent.

Now in Iowa say they're still making up their minds. Sometimes it means uninterested. I'm being told, no, they are energized. They are waiting to see the movie end before they decide how to vote.

BLITZER: Realistically, Paul, in Iowa, which the president carried four years ago, is it doable this time around?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely, a classic toss-up state. I think Yellin's report is accurate. If there are six swing states, Iowa is one of them. If there is 12, Iowa is one of them.

I checked with the local Democrats here. They pointed out is the largest political organization in Iowa by any presidential candidate is Barack Obama's. It's bigger than any of the Republicans.

They have held over 1,200 volunteer training sessions all across the state. They made 300,000 calls in to volunteers for a candidate who's unopposed in my party. I think the Republicans seem actually disappointed with their field.

The Democrats are very energized by the Republican field. Not only do they love President Obama, but they love seeing this train wreck of the Republican primary. It's energizing my party as much as Alex's.

CASTELLANOS: I think it's actually working the other way around that Republicans are energized by one of the great leaders of the Republican Party, Barack Obama, who Republicans all agree no matter, which candidate they're going to end up supporting, Republicans are ready for a change.

When you look at Romney, the frontrunner here Iowa now, the main reason voters are supporting him is electability. They think he can beat Barack Obama.

BLITZER: And look at this new ad poll. I want you to watch closely. Watch this new Romney campaign video.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: We appreciate all of you coming out this morning so early and being here and caring. I think we all care right now. People are all concerned about our country. I believe in him.

I believe he has the experience. I've seen him in every situation. I've seen him as a husband, as a father, as a governor, and as a successful businessman. Everything he does, he does well.

And he does it with his heart and his commitment. If there is ever a time that this country needs someone like Mitt Romney, it's now.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This election is about more than just replacing a president. It's about saving a vision of America.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: You know, when I saw that video in its entirety, Paul, it reminded me of the videos you see at a convention, like the Republican National Convention that's coming up. It may be premature but that's the impression I got. What did you think?

BEGALA: Well, it sounds like the Romney campaign is getting r research that suggests voters think that their candidate has the heart after pink slip, but he has a great wife.

Mrs. Romney is the one with the real personality. She's impressive. I hear great reports from her on the stump. She's terrific in these ads and videos.

So sometimes when you lack an asset, like in the case of Mitt Romney like personality, warmth, compassion, you can import it. He is seriously over married. She is as good a political spouse as I've seen, very impressive.

BLITZER: She is impressive. Go ahead, Alex.

CASTELLANOS: No, I just got a chance last campaign, I worked for the Romney campaign last time and certainly Romney has a personality of a CEO and people love his accomplishments. He knows how to run an economy. He knows how to create jobs.

Companies like Staples, turned around in the impossible situations like the Olympics during 9/11, but they don't know the guy. And you know, a woman like Ann Romney is not married to a block of ice.

She is married to a guy who's raised a great family. They're a wonderful couple and it is important because I think family tells you something about values. It tells you what a guy believes in and Mitt Romney, one thing we know, it's faith and family are very important to him.

They are the core of his conservative principles. So I think that's a message. They are trying to own the word family. They should because it is kind of who they are.

BLITZER: Is he different this time, Alex, than he was four years ago? CASTELLANOS: You know, I have seen him run a better campaign and I've seen him run as a better candidate. I think he is more comfortable out there on the campaign trail.

Plus this election is in his wheel house. You know, last election, it was about Iraq. It was about an economic meltdown. It was about a little bit of everything.

This election we know what it is about. It's a country that's bleeding jobs. A government that's spending money we don't have. That's Mitt Romney's wheel house.

That's why I think voters in Iowa will tell you who is the most electable candidate against Barack Obama and they say it's Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: You know, I just read your piece that you posted on "The Daily Beast." This jumped out of me, Paul, the reason the cream of the GOP crop is sitting out 2012 is not because they are worried they can't beat Obama straight up.

It is because they are worried their base is so crazy they will be dragged so far to the right in the primaries that Obama will capture the center of the general election and make it impossible for them to win. Go ahead and explain what you have in mind.

BEGALA: Well, it is always the tension in a party. Between the true believers and those moderates you need to win and Republicans have decided that they will let the inmates run the asylum.

So they can't just saying with let's look at EP regulations for example, on the environment. They're saying, let's abolish the Environment Protection Agency all together. They can't say, look, I'm pro life on abortion. I'm not pro choice.

They have to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Rick Santorum doesn't even approve of contraception and things that the government should have the right to tell married couples they can't use contraception.

These are positions that are so far outside the mainstream on a whole host of issues. It's just going to cripple them in the general election. I mean, it is good for Democrats, but it is not good for Republicans when your extreme is driving the train.

BLITZER: Stand by, guys. We will talk over the next 24 hours. Alex, hold your thought for now. We are going to have much more with these guys throughout our coverage.

Meanwhile, a check of the day's other top stories is coming up next then. After a nearly a dozen suspected arson cases just overnight and more than 50 cars set ablaze since Friday. Los Angeles police announce arrest.

And Ron and Rand Paul, they take some time out for a father-son interview with our own Dana Bash. And where does Ron Paul go from here? I'll speak about that and a lot more with James Carville and Ari Fleischer.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, there's no let-up in the violence in Syria.

SYLVESTER: Yes, that's right, Wolf. The Arab League says snipers are still a threat even though government tanks have withdrawn from residential areas.

This video purports to show an Arab League monitor saying he witnessed sniper fire. CNN cannot independently verify the reports. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's government insists it's cracking on armed terrorists not anti-government protesters.

New York police are investigating three attacks involving Molotov cocktails in Queens. An Islamic center and a private home were targeted. There was some damage, but no injuries. It's unclear whether a fourth incident, a house fire was related to the others. Governor Andrew Coumo condemned the attacks as being, quote, "against everything we stand for as New Yorkers and Americans."

And now orbiters are now in place as planned. Scientists hope these orbiters will help map the gravitational field of the moon in an effort to understand its formation. A spacecraft launched back in September.>

Rick Santorum is getting support from a former boss. "News Corporation's CEO and Chairman, Rupert Murdoch. He is now on Twitter and used one of his first tweets to praise Santorum, writing, quote, "Good to see Santorum surging in Iowa regardless of policies. All debate shows principle, consistency and humility like no other." Santorum is a former contributor to "News Corp's Fox News -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Lisa, stand by.

Meanwhile, new developments at an arson spree that's been terrorizing the Los Angeles area. We're learning new details of an arrest.

Coming up in our next hour, Democrats are linking Mitt Romney to massive layoffs through his own firm. We're going to talk about that and much more with the head of the Democratic National Committee. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz will join us live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A possible break in the case of dozens arson attacks in the Los Angeles area. Police have now arrested a man in connection with more 50 fires in the last three days. CNN's Casey Wian has the latest for us.

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, when we arrived at the Los Angeles Fire Department's command center just before 1:00 in the morning, an arson investigator told us everything was quiet. That quickly changed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WIAN (voice-over): Just after 1 a.m. Monday, Los Angeles fire crews and arson investigators responded to nearly a dozen car fires in the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and West Hollywood.

On day four of L.A.'s arson spree, the number of cars set on fire exceeded 50. Some of the blazes spread to structures, including apartments, residents were terrified.

MAYOR JOHN DURAN, WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA: It is this mute form of urban terrorism that we are seeing in our community.

WIAN: Sunday, a task force of local and federal officials released this surveillance video of a man emerging from an underground parking garage in Hollywood announcing they wanted to speak with him.

CAPT. JAMIE MOORE, LOS ANGELES FIRE DEPARTMENT: The task forces work together seamlessly around the clock and currently reviewing more than 100 clues mapping out the sequence of the fires that occurred. Interviewing hundreds of witnesses and canvassing 53 fire scenes as part of this active investigation.

WIAN: Monday morning a man resembling the one on the tape was spotted by sheriff's deputy. Fire officials say the man was driving a van similar to the one spotted near suspected arson sites. He was taken into custody for questioning then the arson spree stopped.

CECCO SECCI, LOS ANGELES FIRE DEPARTMENT: We have not had any additional fires within the last two to three hours.

WIAN (on camera): What inference can we draw from that, do you think?

SECCI: Again, it's too early and that would be purely speculative.

WIAN (voice-over): As he sat smiling in the back of a patrol car, investigators examined the van and eventually placed him under arrest. He was expected to be booked on arson charges later in the day.

The "Los Angeles Times" reports that the man may have had a dispute with immigration officials over an issue involving a relative. One fire fighter was injured during the four-day spree. No civilians were hurt. Authorities say they will continue excess patrols Monday night.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WIAN: The arson spree has caused at least $2 million in damage according to Los Angeles mayor and frayed nerves throughout several Los Angeles communities -- Wolf.