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THE SITUATION ROOM

President Obama in Campaign Mode; Mitt Romney Fights Back; Mississippi Governor Freed Prisoners; Rivals Criticize Romney Over Bain Capital

Aired January 12, 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 front-runner fights back. Mitt Romney answers the attack on his record as a financier, as the Republican hopefuls scramble for votes in the South.

President Obama moves into full campaign mode, rallying Democrats in a series of speeches while party loyalists load up his war chest with lots of cash.

Growing anger at the shocking image which apparently shows U.S. Marines in Afghanistan desecrating the dead. We're going live to Kabul.

And a stroke of a pen frees convicted killers and leaves a victim's family stunned and afraid.

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

The Republican candidates are scrambling to cover as much ground as they can, the South Carolina primary only nine days away and early voting in Florida starting at the same time. It's now make or break for the stragglers in the GOP pack.

Some are trying to cut into Mitt Romney's lead by slamming his record as a financier. Romney is mounting a counteroffensive in Florida today.

CNN's Jim Acosta is joining us now from West Palm Beach with the latest -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, don't let all the Florida sunshine fool you. Mitt Romney is coming under a blizzard of attacks from his GOP rivals over the issue of corporate layoffs, so the GOP front-runner returned to a familiar theme for this campaign, and that is he understands the plight of the unemployed.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Mitt Romney hopes he's found the message to remain his Bain in the neck. And it sounds a lot like I can feel your pain.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Being unemployed for a long period of time means families having a hard time making ends meet. It means that in some cases people having trouble in their marriages, losing faith, becoming depressed.

ACOSTA: Romney's remarks in the upcoming primary state of Florida were almost a rebuttal to a 30-minute attack ad released by a pro-Gingrich super PAC.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was very stressful. And it took a strain on our marriage.

ACOSTA: The film focuses on a Florida washing machine company that went bust after it was bought and sold by Bain Capital, Romney's former private investment firm. The movie accuses Romney and Bain of gutting businesses to make millions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If they would have just left us alone as UniMac, I think UniMac would still be running right now.

ACOSTA: Just days before the primary in South Carolina, another state where other companies were downsized by Bain, Romney said his firm always tried to create jobs. He pointed to some of Bain's success stories like the retail chain Staples.

ROMNEY: And every time that we invested in the business, it was to try and encourage that business to have ongoing life.

ACOSTA: Just as Romney is mounting his Bain counteroffensive, his rivals are pivoting to other attacks. At a town hall, Rick Santorum all but called Romney untrustworthy.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Aren't you looking for someone as president you can trust? What would give you the idea that someone who has changed his position on almost every single issue is someone you can trust?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?

ACOSTA: Newt Gingrich has a new ad up that calls on Republicans to stop Romney's pious baloney that goes to the tune of pop goes the weasel.

NARRATOR: Newt Gingrich's attacks are called foolish, out of bounds and disgusting.

ACOSTA: A pro-Romney super PAC is now spending millions hitting Gingrich back and prominent conservatives have risen to Romney's defense, describing his tenure at Bain as part of the creative destruction of capitalism. That may explain why Rick Perry, who called him a vulture capitalist, is now singing capitalism's praises.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I love capitalism. Free market capitalism in the state of Texas has created over a million jobs. We understand how capitalism needs to work. But this corrupt and fraudulent activity that's been going on in Washington, D.C., between them and Wall Street has to stop.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ACOSTA: Mitt Romney needs no reminder how important South Carolina and Florida are to his presidential ambitions. This is where his last race for the White House ended four years ago. And South Carolina may be nine days from now, Wolf, but Florida comes 10 days after South Carolina.

BLITZER: And the assumption, the working assumption is there will be some Republican candidates with a ticket from South Carolina to Florida, and that is the main reason why Mitt Romney is spending time there right now, spending a lot of money there. Is that right?

ACOSTA: That's right. That's right.

And he will be here tomorrow morning. It was just added to his schedule for tomorrow that he will be tomorrow with some Cuban- American leaders down in Miami. He will be attending a "cafecito," which is a coffee -- a coffee breakfast, if you will, with local prominent Cuban American leaders. So Mitt Romney is paying a lot of attention to South Carolina. But he knows Florida is also very important and that comes right after the state of South Carolina -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim, you will covering that.

Jim, one of our favorite Cuban-Americans himself.

So we assume you will have the inside track, get the inside story for us, Jim, on what's happening tomorrow morning in South Florida. You got it?

ACOSTA: You bet. You got it.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

While Republicans try to collect primary votes in the South, President Obama's campaign has been collecting money, lots of it.

Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin.

Jessica, bottom line, how much did the president's campaign raise?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president's campaign raised $68 million in the final three months of 2011.

That surpassed their goal of $60 million for that quarter. That goes to both the campaign and what's called their victory fund. In total, they raised a whopping $224 million in 2011. In a video to donors made by the campaign's manager, Jim Messina, he pointed out that 200,000 of the donors were brand new, hadn't given in 2008 or 2010, and that 98 percent of their donors gave -- sorry -- 98 percent gave $250 or less.

What you can take from that is they're trying to drive home the point that they, in their argument, have enthusiasm on their side and that not all their donors are so-called fat cats, a lot of them gave little checks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Fair point. How does all of this compare with the Republican presidential candidates?

YELLIN: Well, let's take a look at the candidates who have reported. Not all of them have.

But so we said President Obama has raised $224 million. Mitt Romney's campaign has reported they have raised $56 million, Ron Paul $26 million, and Newt Gingrich $12 million, obviously a very big difference there, not unusual for an incumbent to raise a lot more -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So he's raised more money than all the Republican presidential candidates combined, and he doesn't even have to worry about a Democratic challenger right now.

What does all of this tell us about his reelection strategy?

YELLIN: Well, Wolf, they did, as I mentioned, release a video along with this announcement, and one of the themes they emphasized is -- we had heard a lot about how they're going to raise $1 billion this cycle.

Messina, Jim Messina, the campaign manager said, and this is a direct quote, "The billion dollar figure is completely untrue." And then he went on to say that the Obama campaign has enthusiasm on its side, unlike the Republicans, who don't, and pointed to turnout in Iowa and New Hampshire, and also argued that corporations will be giving to the Republicans and not to the Obama campaign.

So what does all this say? It tells us that they're trying to build a narrative, trying to build a campaign in which the Obama team has grassroots enthusiasm on their side. They're sort of the David in the face of competition from a Republican Goliath that would corporations on their side.

Now, we will watch over time and see if that bears out, but that's the storyline they would like us to follow and they would like to build.

BLITZER: Yes. It sounds like a storyline right now, because in terms of cash, the president has a lot more cash right now than any of his potential Republican challengers, and I said even all of them combined.

Let's see what the super PAC -- those don't include, by the way, the various super PAC numbers going to the Republicans or the Democrats.

(CROSSTALK)

YELLIN: They report on January 31, so we will follow up on that.

BLITZER: We will see how they're doing there, Jessica over at the White House. Let's bring in our chief political correspondent, Candy Crowley, the host of "STATE OF THE UNION."

I know the president, every incumbent president at this stage in a first term, they're saying they're focusing in on their job, they just want to be president. But they're spending a lot of time worrying about getting reelected.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Completely. And, look, what you want to be is above the fray, and you want to be -- I'm sorry.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Hold on one second. Hold on, Candy. We're not hearing you because your microphone is not working. Maybe we can get a handheld mike for you. Hold on one second.

Or I can take my microphone. Here's a little handheld.

OK. Start again from the beginning.

CROWLEY: Every president -- you can take it too far. There was the Rose Garden strategy that didn't work for Jimmy Carter.

But every president likes to be above the fray. I'm too busy, I have got all the work to do for the American people, and this circus out there, I'm just really not paying attention to it.

Well, first of all, he pays people who pay attention to it. He knows what happened in the New Hampshire primary. He knows his likely opponent is Mitt Romney. They have been after Mitt Romney for some time now.

So it's a myth that you can separate policy from politics in an election year. They are one and the same.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Republican presidential politics. Mitt Romney, he's won in Iowa, barely, but he won, won in New Hampshire. Is he convincing some of those Republican skeptics that he's the guy? Are they ready to jump on board his train?

CROWLEY: We saw Peter Hamby reporting yesterday that a Perry fund-raiser aligned with Jim DeMint, who is a big name down there, has jumped over and is now behind Romney.

People want to fund and be on board the train before it leaves the station. The Romney people have lined up endorsements that you can sort of sprinkle out there to kind of give that forward-motion feeling. But, look, you know, South Carolina is it. South Carolina is it in the sense there has to be a strong second coming in, or there isn't going to be a second at all.

BLITZER: Apparently that handheld mike wasn't much better than without any mike at all.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Yes, we're fixing things. Thanks very much, Candy.

His Republican rivals are hammering away at Mitt Romney over what they call Romneycare. How is it different from President Obama's health care reform law? Our own doctor Dr. Sanjay Gupta has been doing a fact-check.

Also, convicted murderers on the loose, set free by the Mississippi governor, now the former governor -- amid the outrage, talk of a nationwide manhunt.

Plus, the disturbing image apparently showing U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban bodies. Officials now say they know who some of these men are. We're going live to Kabul.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A U.S. Marine Corps officials tell CNN two of the four Marines shown in a video urinating on dead bodies in Afghanistan have been identified.

The defense secretary, Leon Panetta, calling the behavior -- and I'm quoting him now -- utterly deplorable, and he reached out to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, by phone, promising a full investigation.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is in Kabul and has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The U.S. Marines endured some of their worst losses in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. Text posted with the video identified a sniper unit recently deployed in northern Helmand, but not much else is clear.

(on camera): The video you're about to see is hard to watch, but listen to how casual, almost cheerful the men sound, as though they're recording a trophy video, rather than evidence of a possible war crime.

(voice-over): There are some clues -- the helmets worn here adapted to suit the sniper rifles they hold, consistent with the claim they're a Marine sniper unit, the dress of the men on the ground likely Afghan, all of it sparking universal condemnation.

LT. GEN. ADRIAN J. BRADSHAW, ISAF: A video recently posted on a public Web site appears to show U.S. military personnel committing a disgusting act with insurgent corpses. Any acts which treat the dead, enemy or friendly, with disrespect are utterly unacceptable, and do not represent the standards we expect of coalition forces.

WALSH: President Hamid Karzai's spokesman called it "simply inhuman and condemnable in the strongest possible terms," calling for severe punishment. The Taliban condemned this barbaric act of American soldiers and called it "an action against every human and ethical value."

For once, rare agreement between with ISAF, the Afghan government, and the Taliban.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And Nick Paton Walsh is joining us now live from Kabul. You know, there's a lot of concern -- I've spoken to U.S. officials. They're worried this could endanger even further -- they're already in danger to begin with -- U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan and indeed elsewhere. What are you hearing over there?

WALSH: We're going to have to see how this percolates through society in the coming days, Wolf. What we've seen today is immediate physical reaction, the presidential palace, ISAF, the Taliban, all having their say in the social media whirl of this. But really, Afghanistan, few television, the Internet even rare, it's going to take days for this information and some misinformation to go through to the people who may form protests, who may express that popular fury that make the fight against the insurgency and the presence of U.S. troops in the ground even more hazardous in the weeks to come -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I know there are more than 90,000 U.S. troops on the ground. By far, the most -- the largest part of the NATO contingent, another 20,000 or 30,000 NATO troops, I think. Have you had a chance to speak with them individually, get random reaction to what's going on?

WALSH: Today, the military here pretty much keeping this close to their chest. Not desperately keen to get out in front of it, but, of course, I can tell you from spending time with troops in the ground here, there will mostly be revolt from this kind of thing. Great tension at the hostility they fear on the ground, and huge fear and loathing, of course, from many troops who patrol these villages where they don't know who's friend or foe.

But at the end of the day, nothing excuses what you see on television.

Now, you got to bear in mind here that in a Muslim society here in Afghanistan, disrespect for dead bodies is pretty much one of the worst things you can do. Culture here demanding their swift bathing and burial and committing (ph) post-mortem. So this really could infuriate many Afghan Muslims -- Wolf.

WOLF: Yes, a lot of us remember how specific the U.S. military was after the killing of bin Laden, making sure he had a proper religious burial at sea, if you will. They didn't want to do anything to give ammunition to al Qaeda, the Taliban or others who were fighting the U.S. in that part of the world.

All right. Nick Paton Walsh on the scene for us in Kabul, thank you very much.

More on the story coming up later.

President Obama, as I mentioned, is now in full campaign mode. He's working for his reelection, he's raising lots of money. We're going to hear what he's actually telling his supporters in his own words. Stand by. He spoke at length in Chicago last night.

And the former first lady, Laura Bush, makes a surprising revelation about whom she wanted to be run for president. And it's not any of the current Republican contenders.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including the latest on the soldier accused of committing the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history.

Lisa, what's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf.

Well, the soldier accused of giving secrets to WikiLeaks is one step closer to a court-martial. The investigating officer says reasonable grounds exist that Private First Class Bradley Manning committed the offenses. If convicted, Manning faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

And warm weather may seem far away, but Home Depot was gearing up for spring. The nation's largest home improvement chain says it's planning to hire 70,000 temporary workers to handle the spring shopping rush. The busy season for Home Depot starts in mid-February or early March. Home Depot says about half the company's seasonal positions last year turned into permanent employment.

And the FDA is halting shipments of orange juice from outside the U.S. after Coca-Cola found traces of an illegal pesticide in juice from Brazil. The fungicide which is legal in Brazil is considered potentially harmful in the U.S. But the FDA is not raising safety concerns because it says only a small amount has been detected. Eleven percent of orange juice consumed in the U.S. comes from Brazil.

And take a look at this, Wolf. That is a picture of a teeny tiny frog sitting on a U.S. dime. Not a quarter, but a dime. It is the world's smallest vertebrate just discovered by a team of researchers in Papua New Guinea. It spends its life living in moist leaves on the floor of tropical wet forests.

And get this -- it is believed to be born directly as a frog without going through a tadpole phase, which makes me wonder, is it truly an amphibian then? But they're just learning more about this tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny frog right now, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very, very impressive, I must say. I'm sure the scientists will be thrilled to study that. Thanks very much, Lisa.

RomneyCare versus ObamaCare. How do they compare? Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta is on call to give us a closer look.

And Laura Bush speaks to she wanted to see run for the presidential nomination in 2012. Guess what? None of the above.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Outside of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney's health care overhaul was perhaps the best-known thing he did as governor. Now, as he runs for president, it's getting a mixed reaction. So, how does it compare to President Obama's national health care plan?

Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, takes a closer look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ObamaCare, we'll get rid of it.

It's bad law, it's bad medicine.

I'll repeal ObamaCare.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): But critics say that plan was, in fact, modeled off Mitt Romney himself 2006 health care plan in Massachusetts.

One economist who helped design the so-called RomneyCare and also served as an adviser for ObamaCare is MIT's Jonathan Gruber.

PROF. JONATHAN GRUBER, MIT: At their core, they're really the same plan. Basically, the basic goal of the Massachusetts plan was to build on what worked with our health insurance system and to fill in the cracks, to cover the uninsured and fix the broken market for individual insurance purchase.

GUPTA: Both laws do share the same core foundation. Most employers are required to provide coverage. Government programs like Medicaid expanded to cover more people. And both plans require individuals to have insurance. It's an individual mandate.

But Romney hates that comparison.

(on camera): Mandate is a seven-letter word, but many people regard it as a four-letter word. This mandate -- I mean, should mandates be a part of reforming health care?

ROMNEY: Well, you're not going to put people in jail for not having insurance. Of course, that's --

GUPTA: But you could penalize them.

ROMNEY: No one is talking about that. But there are various ways to encourage people to get insurance. One is to give everybody a credit, a tax credit that you only get to use if you have insurance.

GUPTA (voice-over): There is another important difference, it's also easier to get free health care under Obama's plan because the income guidelines are lower, and that's primarily paid for with new taxes.

ROMNEY: Do you want more of ObamaCare?

CROWD: No!

ROMNEY: Do you want promises of higher taxes?

CROWD: No!

GUPTA (on camera): You have said he's either lying or at least misleading people. What parts specifically? Was there something you specifically took issue with what the governor said?

GRUBER: First of all, he says, well, I didn't have to raise taxes and Obama did. Well, he didn't have to raise taxes because the federal government paid for his bill. It's really unfair for him to say, "Oh, gee, I didn't have to raise taxes," and ignore the fact that he got a huge subsidy from the federal government to make his bill possible. Clearly, that's not possible at the national level.

ROMNEY: Instead of having the federal government run them and impose on states how they work, I'm going to take those dollars and those programs and give them back to the states and let states craft their own solutions to their own problems.

GUPTA (voice-over): People in Massachusetts love their health care plan, according to Romney. And today, the state says 90 percent have insurance. That's the highest in the nation.

(on camera): So, you would say what happened in Massachusetts was successful, in terms of getting people who didn't have insurance getting them insurance? Is that correct? Did it accomplish its goals?

GRUBER: I think the bills had two goals. It was to get the uninsured insured, and did accomplish that goal. And it was to fix a broken individual insurance market. I cannot emphasize this enough.

GUPTA (voice-over): But Romney insists not every state is like Massachusetts, and his new goal is clear.

ROMNEY: The first on the list is to get rid of is ObamaCare.

GUPTA: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: This will be an issue, no doubt. So, let's discuss in our strategy session right now. Joining us, our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, along with CNN contributor Will Cain, the conservative columnist for theblaze.com.

Will, first to you.

If Romney -- it's still a big "if" -- but if he is the nominee, will he have a hard time going after President Obama and health care because there are these similarities out there?

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Right. Big if. We're not calling it for Romney yet.

But yes, it will be difficult, Wolf. There are basically two options for criticizing ObamaCare. First, it's a philosophical argument that government -- no government should be imposing on citizen what they can and cannot buy or rather what they should or should not buy. That argument is not going to be available to Mitt Romney.

The second argument is one of federalism, that states are constitutionally permitted to and should be little laboratories of democracy, to experiment with things like Romney care. Mitt Romney can and will make that argument. The problem is it will be difficult because it's just not as compelling as the philosophical argument.

BLITZER: What about the argument he'll make and already made, Donna, that there's one thing for states to do what they want to do when it comes to health care. Each individual states has different needs, different populations, they could craft something unique to their state. It's something else for the federal government to impose a specific policy on all 50 states.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, that's clearly the argument that Mitt Romney will make. But as you know, Mitt Romney once defended his Massachusetts health care plan. There are so many similarities, starting with the title, the title one of both bills, the affordable care act.

Look, it has -- this bill, as you well know, Wolf, is designed to not only provide more options, more coverage, but to also ensure that we have an individual mandate so people who can afford to buy health insurance are out there in the market, which will perhaps lower health care costs. I don't know how Mitt Romney plans to campaign against it, when it's clear to me that the Massachusetts model is what was used to, you know, put together their portable care at.

BLITZER: But the argument, Donna, that states - we should leave this up to the states. What about at argument?

BRAZILE: Again, that's an argument he's been trying to make in order to distance himself from the position he once took. But I don't think it's going to work in this season. Look, I'm a big proponent of the tenth amendment as well, but when it comes to, you know, health care in this country. I do believe we need a big federal plan that will ensure that we can lower costs.

But look, both plans have this mandate -- the private sector plan is still in place. I don't understand what the big beef is, but I understand why Mitt Romney wants to run away it, but he's running away from his ten year Bain capital as well, so pretty soon Mitt Romney is going one of the things he run away from. BLITZER: I'm not sure he's running away from Bain capital, what we will talk about that later. Let's talk about Laura Bush right now.

Will, I want you to weigh in Laura Bush gave an interview in the Sarasota Herald-tribune. She said she and her husband, the former president, actually wanted her brother-in-law, his brother, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, to seek the nomination. Husband George W. Bush and I wish he would. We wanted him to this time -- I guess that's the quote. I'm not sure if that's the correct quote on the screen.

In any case, you get the point. Do you think it's too late at this point for Jeb Bush, assuming he wanted to -- there's no indication he does -- to jump in.

CAIN: Yes, I do. I have to say that Laura and George W. Bush aren't alone. For many conservatives, including myself, I would have loved to see Jeb Bush run. Here's a conservative who championed education reform in the swing state of Florida. Who had -- to articulate a message of the conservative vision of America, the American dream to Latinos.

This is a man who wrote a wonderful editorial in "the Wall Street Journal" a few weeks ago describing the stagnant line of economy growth prescribed by the status versus the jagged line little of progress in economic liberty. This is an intellectual principled conservative and a real shame we won't get to see him run for president in 2012.

BLITZER: Would he have been a formidable challenger, Donna? What do you think?

BRAZILE: I think he's a more principled conservative that is Mitt Romney. But look, I think Republicans will have to go to dinner with those serving them right and Jeb Bush us going to have to work to 26 teams. But as you well know, George Herbert Walker Bush, Jeb Bush's father and George W. Bush's father has endorsed Mitt Romney. And I think the Bush family will come around and embrace Mitt Romney if he becomes the nominee as well.

CAIN: You asked would he be more formidable candidate. The answer to the question would be how would people treat his last name? How would voters treat his last name?

BLITZER: Would the American people want another, a third Bush in the White House? Good point. Thanks very much. Don't go away guys. We have more to discuss.

And it's not just the Republicans who are in the campaign trail right now. President Obama is now in full campaign mode, trying to rally supporters. We're going to hear his new message to Democrats. That's coming up.

Plus a hard-learned lesson from a long ago presidential campaign. Details from the Michael Dukakis mistake that Mitt Romney says he doesn't want to make. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama pulled out all the stops to the series of speeches last night rallying the democratic faithful and raising lots of money. The White House says he's busy being president, but the president was in full campaign mode in Chicago last night. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've got a clear choice this year. The question is not whether people are still hurting, the economy is still recovering. Of course folks are still hurting. We've got a long way to go. The question is cha direction does this country move towards?

The Republicans and in congress, the presidential candidates who are running, they have a very specific idea about where they want to take this country. I mean, they've said it. They said they want to reduce the deficit by gutting our investments in education, gutting our investments in research and technology, letting our infrastructure further deteriorate.

The Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail, they want to make Medicare a form of private insurance, where seniors have to shop with a voucher and it may not cover all their costs. I think we can lower the costs of Medicare, but still guarantee the dignified retirement that our seniors have earned. They have earned it.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: They've earned it. When I hear some talk about, this is just an entitlement, these folks earned it. They worked hard. They paid into it. This crowd, they think the best way for America to compete for new jobs and businesses is to follow other countries in a race to the bottom. They figure, well, since China pays really low wages, let's roll back the minimum wage here and bust unions. Since some other countries allow corporations to pollute as much as they want, let's get rid of protections to make sure our air is clean and our water is safe.

I've said before I'm not a perfect man. I'm not a perfect president, but I promise you this, and I've kept this promise, I will always tell you what I believe. I will always tell you where I stand. I will wake up every single day, thinking about how I can make this country better, and I will spend every ounce of energy that I have fighting for you.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: So if you've still got that energy, if you're still fired up, if you are not weary, if you're ready to put on your walking shoes and get to work and knock on some doors and make some phone calls, and talk to your friends and talk to your neighbors and push through the obstacles and keep reaching for that vision that you hold in your hearts, I promise you, change will come. If you're willing to work even harder in this election in the last election, I promise you, change will come. If you stick with me, we're going to finish what we started in 2008. We will remind this country, and we will remind the world just why we are the greatest nation on earth. God bless you, Chicago. I love you. God bless the United States of America. Thank you. Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Full campaign mode I must say. Let's get back to aural strategy session. Once our political contributor, the democratic strategist Donna Brazile along with our CNN contributor, Will Cain of theblaze.com.

You saw 2008. The Barack Obama work in there, work in that crowd. He is going to be a pretty good campaigner, a pretty good folk for Mitt Romney or any Republican challenger. Don't you think, Will?

CAIN: He's a hell of a campaigner, Wolf. I mean, what we just heard there was essential a repurposing. And many people have said this of Harry Truman's 1948 reelection campaign, where he ran against a do- nothing congress. And he incorporated some kind of pop you list inequality elements into that as well.

What I would say is that worked, but barely it was so close, we know the famous image of the newspaper being held up by Truman and said, do we defeats Truman. I think in response listening to that speech you just played, Wolf, what the Republican responsibility will be is we want to cut out the failure. You say we want to cut out education investment, but we want to point out that education spending has tripled over 30 years to very little attainment.

You want to invest in companies in our future? Well, you fail when you invest in companies like Solyndra. You say people of earned Medicare, well I say, people put in $150,000 on average into Medicare and take out 400, the theme then will be we have to cut out the failure, and President Obama will be painted as one of those failures.

BLITZER: Donna, you just got a little flavor of what we can expect in the months to come. What do you think?

BRAZILE: Well, I do think this president is ready to take on his Republican challengers, and he's going to not only paint the picture of a presidency that took on the big challenges after the worst recession since the great depression. And he put America back on the path of economic growth for all Americans.

And he will remind the American people that the Republicans' prescription for the future is to take us back to the past, take us back to trickle-down economics, where there's a bunch of losers and winners in this society, but the growth of the -- what I call inequality of wealth in this society is the gap. And that this president is on a path to closing that gap, so that every American can enjoy the American dream.

I think we're ready for this fight. We just have to wait for the Republicans to sort it out and see if they get behind somebody who is taking positions on every issue over the last ten years of his political career versus a principled conservative a tea party backed Republican, who will at least come to the table arguing the sides of government and not flip-flop all over the place. We will see what happens.

BLITZER: Will, how long will it take for the Republicans to sort it out?

CAIN: Not much longer, I anticipate, Wolf. And I'll say this. Donna says she looks forward to this election, this is actually I think very interesting because I think we do as well. This argument, this one over inequality, this one that I think essentially we're putting capitalism on trial, by the way, it seems like some of these Republicans competitors is starting that for President Obama right now against Mitt Romney.

This is an argument we are ready to have. I have been able to muster very little enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, but I can muster a ton of enthusiasm for defending free markets. And if he's the proxy for that, let's have that debate.

BRAZILE: That debate you may not want. Because there are a lot of Americans today that put off by the Republicans' attempt to just support the wealthiest one percent and not look at the other 99 percent and believe we also deserve a hand - you know, some support as well.

CAIN: Let's have it. Let's have it.

BLITZER: The debate will begin shortly. I think it just did. Alright guys, thanks very much.

Here's a look at some of the other political headlines making news on our CNN political ticker.

Mitt Romney has picked up the endorsement of John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says Romney is conservative enough, and I think that's critical. Newt Gingrich said December that if elected, he would ask Bolton to be his secretary of state. Bolton himself flirted with a run for the White House last year in 2008. He endorsed John McCain over Romney.

The first lady Michelle Obama is now on twitter, just like me. Like the president, most of her tweets will come from her staff. I tweet myself. But she did send out a tweet of her own today, saying and let me read it to you, "hi everyone and thanks for the warm welcome. Look forward to staying in touch with you here," signed mo. Those initials tell her followers that she herself wrote the tweet @mihelleobama. Go ahead. Send her a tweet, if you want.

Mitt Romney is weary of giving rivals the kind of ammunition that helped derailed another presidential campaign a quarter of a century ago. Listen to what he said campaigning in South Carolina today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I wish I could ride one of these here, but my son had a motorcycle, which I would ride on occasion, rarely. And I have a friend that has a nice motorcycle that I've ridden a few times, but I don't have one myself. And throw in a helmet maybe? Dukakis-style?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Romney was referring to the infamous ad showing 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis riding in attack. The spot was designed to portray him as tough but it back-fired. His opponents used it to mock him. I remember that well.

For complete political coverage, be sure to read the ticker on CNNpolitics.com, and check out my blog post today, cnn.com/situation. I write about the president of the United States now in full campaign mode now. Let me know what you think. Send me a tweet @wolfblitzercnn.

A stroke of a pen frees convicted killers and leaves a victim's family stunned, new developments. Those victims are afraid.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he's a barbaric individual that can just senselessly cold-bloodedly shoot someone like that, especially holding his child, his own child.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: State official in Mississippi say bluntly they have no idea where four convicted killers are after being pardoned or freed by the outgoing governor Haley Barbour. CNN's Martin Savidge is joining us now from Jackson Mississippi with more on the outrage, the fear, the reaction.

Martin, what's the very latest?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, all of that, the fear and the outrage continues to grow over the nearly 200 pardons that were granted, but it is the focus on finding those four that has occupied law enforcement.

Last night a judge said that they must begin reporting in daily their whereabouts. But the problem is they don't have to do that until they're served officially with court documents and that hasn't happened. It's a problem.

Listen, I just talked to the attorney general. Here's what he had to say about it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM HOOD, ATTORNEY GENERAL, MISSISSIPPI: There's going to be a national search for some of them. We'll catch them. It's just a matter of time but --

SAVIDGE: Do you know where they are?

HOOD: No. We know where their family, we're in contact with their family, local law enforcement. There's a search going on for them.

SAVIDGE: Because they were part - again according to the department of corrections. They were under no obligation to tell anybody where they were going or what their future plans were.

HOOD: That's right. All we have is to like older addresses and who their family. It's all our people are working on it. That's the problem.

You know, I worked all day yesterday trying to find a method to give the court authority to issue a warrant for their arrest so put out an APB on. Unfortunately at this point we have not found any law that will support that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAVIDGE: That may be the problem for law enforcement. But it is the worst nightmare, Wolf, for the family members of the victims, because they fear there could be some retribution by some of these murders. We talked to some of them. Here's that story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAVIDGE (voice-over): I went for a strange drive with Randy Walker. You're feeling butter flies?

RANDY WALKER, VICTIM: A bit. I don't know why.

SAVIDGE: We ended up at a trailer park. So, how does it feel to be back in the neighborhood?

WALKER: It's a little bit weird.

SAVIDGE: That's probably because this is where he nearly died. July 2nd, 1993, the same trailer park, and that's Randy on the stretcher.

WALKER: I heard the first gunshot. He stepped up to Tammy holding that baby in cradle position and shot her with that baby's head no more than eight inches from where he shot her, just real close. And he came around the end of the bed, put together between my ass, and I turned my head sideways and stood shoot me in the forehead. He shot me in the side. So, that probably saved my life.

DAVID RUTH, FIRST POLICE OFFICER ON SCENE: It was a very, very bloody crime scene. Two people shot in the head, just very horrific.

TIFFANY BREWER, VICTIM'S SISTER: Got to my mom's house and she came up to me and hugged me and she said he killed her, Tiffany. And I knew immediately that it was David Gatlin.

SAVIDGE: David Gatlin shot his estranged wife, Tammy Ellis as she held her 6-week-old son in her arms then shot her friend, Randy Walker. Walker survived. Ellis didn't.

David Ruth was the first officer on the scene and never has forgotten what Gatlin did.

RUTH: I think he's barbaric individual that can just senselessly cold-blooded shoot someone like that, and see specially holding his child, his own child and him leave that child lying on the floor?

WALKER: But Governor Haley Barbour saw Gatlin differently. The confessed workers worked in the governor's mansion, and apparently impressed the governor. Barber called him diligent and dedicated. But that's not all, Barbour also canceled Gatlin's life sentence setting him free.

You heard right. As of early this week, David Gatlin convicted murderer is a free man.

WALKER: A full and unconditional parts.

SAVIDGE: Yes.

WALKER: Which means -- which means he has the same rights that you have, that I have.

SAVIDGE: Including carry a gun.

WALKER: Yes.

SAVIDGE: Do you worry about David Gatlin?

BREWER: Yes.

SAVIDGE: I mean are you afraid that David been?

BREWER: I'm afraid he will come after my family, Randy's family, and like Randy says, finish what he started.

SAVIDGE: She also fears Gatlin will try to contact the son he left in the dead mother's arm, who is now 18, and the family is desperately trying to protect.

So, what the simple swipe of the pen, Barbour has triggered a strange role reversal. Gatlin goes free while the victims say they are now sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in fear.

And it's not just Gatlin, victims say they have the same fears for the dozens and dozens of violent convicted criminals Barbour turned loose in his last days, including other convicted murders.

WALKER: How is the state of Mississippi better off? How's the country better off because all these guys aren't staying in Mississippi. They're going to be all over the United States.

SAVIDGE: Do you feel betrayed?

RUTH: I feel the system worked for the victims and these families. But I feel that the governor at that time let this family down.

SAVIDGE: We tried repeatedly to speak to Barbour about this case, but so far he has not responded to CNN.

BREWER: In my heart, I would like to think he didn't know. Because if he did, we've had a monster for our governor, you know, a non-human being person?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAVIDGE: Once again, Wolf, today we reached out to the former governor Barbour. We asked if he would sit down and talk to us about the pardons, why he did this, what he thinks about, what transpired since, we still have not been given an answer - Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure a lot of people think he has some explaining to do.

Alright Martin, excellent reporting. We'll check back with you. Martin Savidge on the scene for us in Mississippi.

Thousands are killed in Syria's months-long uprising. CNN's Nic Robertson is on the ground in the Syrian capital. He is joining us live.

And trying to engage the Taliban in peace talks. What impact will disturbing images of U.S. Marines decent crating bodies have on that effort? Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Lisa has some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including discouraging news on the job front. What's that, Lisa?

SYLVESTER: Yes, that's right. The labor department says first-time unemployment claims rose more than expected last week. Three hundred ninety nine thousand people filed for initial jobless benefits, up 24,000 from the previous week. Part of the uptick may have been come from seasonal holiday jobs ending. Economists say the labor market is still gradually gaining momentum.

And there are threats and then there's this. An Indiana man faces seven charges after allegedly stealing a car, then threatening to eat the police officers who arrested him, including their families and dogs. Detectives say 39-year-old Paul Brock had a blood alcohol content of more than three times the legal limit. Last we heard he was still in jail.

And wouldn't you love to be this guy? A Chicago man has claimed the million dollar grand prize from the Illinois lottery, and it is the second time he's won the prize in the last decade. Scott says he'll use the winnings to pay bills and send his two children to college. The store that sold the winning ticket will receive a $6,000 bonus, so it's actually the second time that he has won $2 million prizes - Wolf.

BLITZER: Lucky guy. Lisa, thank you.

And you are in THE SITUATION ROOM, happening now. The world demand answers from Syria following the brutal --

END