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Romney's Verbal Gaffe; President Obama Details New Housing Plan; Afghan War to Wind Down Next Year; Afghan War To Wind Down Next Year; No "Safety Net" For Mitt Romney; Who's Funding The Super PACs

Aired February 1, 2012 - 16:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Mitt Romney glitter- bombed out on the campaign trail and struggling to explain words he almost certainly wishes could take back -- details of the damage control from his latest verbal gaffe.

Also, President Obama details another plan to help struggling American homeowners. Can this one success where his other plans failed?

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

A new front in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, Nevada, which holds its caucuses this coming Saturday. Mitt Romney is there along with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. But instead of being able to relish his victory, a huge victory in the Florida primary last night, Romney and his team are now in full damage control mode after something Romney said right here on CNN.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is in Las Vegas with us. She's watching what's going on.

What's going on with Mitt Romney, Dana?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I think we have all had something like this happen to us. You say something, it doesn't quite come out like you mean it, but when you're the front-runner in a presidential campaign, you can't afford to be the one who trips yourself up.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): Making the morning show rounds to capitalize on his big Florida win, Mitt Romney inadvertently handed opponents an eight-word gift on CNN.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not concerned about the very poor.

BASH: To be clear, that "made for a bumper sticker" line was only part of what Romney told Soledad O'Brien on CNN's "STARTING POINT." Here is the full context.

ROMNEY: I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I will fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich. They're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 percent, 99 percent of Americans who right now are struggling. And I will continue to that mistake across the nation.

BASH: The problem for Romney, saying "I'm not concerned about the very poor" is any context feeds into the out-of-touch rich guy narrative woven by GOP competitors and Democrats.

On the blogosphere, conservatives cringed and the Obama campaign quickly compiled a list of GOP quotes. The conservative "Weekly Standard" calling it the most stunningly stupid remark of his campaign. "The National Review" asked, what is wrong with this guy? And on conservative radio, Rush Limbaugh said he comes across as the prototypical rich Republican.

CNN is told the Romney camp recognized right away they had a potential problem on their hands, that what they call a very pro- middle class message could get what one adviser called lost and distorted by opponents. Romney himself even talked to reporters on his plane and tried to clean it up.

ROMNEY: You've got to take the whole sentence, all right, as opposed to saying, and then change it just a little bit, because then it sounds very different. I've said throughout the campaign my focus, my concern, my energy is going to be devoted to helping middle income people, all right? We have a safety net for the poor in, and if there are holes in it, I will work to repair that. And if there are people that are falling through the cracks I want to fix that.

BASH: Multiple GOP strategists tell CNN they worry, because this isn't the first Romney verbal gaffe of this kind, easily taken out of context. Remember this?

ROMNEY: I like being able to fire people.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: You may have noticed in that piece Mitt Romney when he was speaking had a little bit of a sparkle in his hair. It wasn't a new kind of product, Wolf. It was because he was glitter-bombed not once, but twice while he was speaking in Minnesota just a short while ago.

And he basically made -- he had an event that many, many people have had before him, and he tried to make light of it. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: There's the guy. Wave your hand over here who threw the glitter. There he goes. Hi there. How are you? Hi there. How are you? Good to see you. There we go. Oh, I have got glitter in my hair. That's not all that's in my hair. I'll tell you that. I glue it on every morning, whether I need to or not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: But in all seriousness, back to the remark Mitt Romney made this morning, Wolf, I have talked to several Republicans, those who support Mitt Romney (AUDIO GAP) verbal gaffe, and one Republican who is advising the Romney campaign said that they definitely are going to have to work a lot harder to put what his focus is, which is helping middle class Americans, they say, into proper context.

The good news though for Romney is he's on his way here to Nevada. And this is very good territory for him. There is a high Mormon population here, which should give him a pretty good vote in the caucuses on Saturday and last time around, four years ago, he didn't obviously get the nomination and this is one the few states where he did pretty well.

BLITZER: Some of viewers probably don't know what glitter-bombed means. Dana, explain it to them .

BASH: Thank you.

Glitter-bomb is basically what we see happening across the country as part -- many times as part of the Occupy movement. In this particular case, it was Occupy Minneapolis that did it. I have actually seen it with Rick Santorum and other candidates, that people get close enough to the candidate, close enough to the person who they are trying to make their message about, and they throw glitter. It looks like confetti, but they throw glitter. And this one obviously got pretty close, not once, but twice to Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: It's an act of protest, obviously.

Thanks very much, Dana, in Las Vegas.

Let's get some more on what's going on in the Republican race for the White House. Our chief political correspondent Candy Crowley is joining us. She's the host of "STATE OF THE UNION," which airs Sunday mornings 9:00 a.m. Eastern.

Mitt Romney, Candy, is coming off a huge win in Florida last night and he's trying to keep expectation, I assume, down a bit. What does he need to do in the next few weeks?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, he needs to stop saying things that might trip him up. He doesn't need a day when he's explaining a perfectly explicable, but awkwardly phrased message.

So he needs to not trip himself up. But he also needs to do a little bit of what he did in his speech last night in Florida, which is go at President Obama as hard as he can. We saw that Romney had a resurgence in Florida from those two debates when he showed some muscle, when he went after Gingrich, when he went after the president, but at the same time he has to still keep Newt Gingrich's -- driving Newt Gingrich's positives down and his negatives up.

So there's a time and a place for everything. Last night they clearly thought here's a big nationwide audience. We will go after the president, show that Mitt Romney can go toe to toe with the president, because when we look at those polls, you know what we see, electability. That's one of the primary concern of a lot of these Republicans, and it's where Mitt Romney scores best. He needs to underscore that as much as he can.

BLITZER: Newt Gingrich, let's talk about him for a second. He says he's staying in this until the very end, the convention at the end of August in Tampa, if necessary. How does he plan on trying to turn this around following the huge setback he suffered in Florida?

CROWLEY: Look, he has to first of all, keep some of those rich friends who are willing to put money into those outside groups so that they can help on the airwaves. It only gets more expensive as we go on.

At the same time, there's this big sort of lull in there. We have had debate after debate after debate, and it is what fueled the Gingrich campaign when it was low on money. There isn't a debate now until the 22nd of February. Somehow, Newt Gingrich needs to get on the air. Now, you can do that on local TV, but he also needs to penetrate to a broader audience as he moves state after state after state.

The thing is what gets him on the most is when he makes those really aggressive statements that then his opponents say, see, he's unstable. So he has to find that sweet spot in there where he's aggressively pursuing Mitt Romney, so that he can take advantage of some free media, because he has resources, but he does not have the resources of Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: He certainly doesn't. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, both of them told me last night they're in this until the end, they're staying in, they're not going anywhere. What is the latest on that front?

CROWLEY: Well, both of them I think -- everybody's signaled what they're trying to do here.

What Rick Santorum wants to do is to be standing there when Newt Gingrich implodes. He wants to be the conservative alternative to Newt Gingrich without the baggage. And so you see him now in his ads out west going after Newt Gingrich as not a conservative, trying to, again, sort of go at his nearest opponent, which is Newt Gingrich.

Ron Paul, you know, pretty much, Wolf, Ron Paul will have the wherewithal to go all the way to the convention. Whether he believes in his heart whether that he can actually turn this into a nomination win, I would suspect he doesn't, but he does know that there are places he can win.

I asked him last Sunday where do you think you will have a breakthrough moment? He said, maybe Maine. I feel pretty good about Maine. So he needs a breakthrough moment. He needs to win one. He hasn't won one yet, but that doesn't mean he can't go all the way to the convention, because we're now in this place where they apportion out these delegates, not as much winner take all as it was in Florida, so Ron Paul can continue to pick up these delegates and then have some real power when he gets to the convention if he wants. BLITZER: Which he wants to do. There's no doubt about that. Candy, thanks very much. The Nevada caucus is this Saturday. The Maine caucuses wind up a week from Saturday.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Three marriages and two divorces later, it turns out Newt Gingrich might have a real problem with women. Go figure.

As part of the beating he took in Florida last night, Gingrich was abandoned in large part by women voters.

Exit polls in the Sunshine State showed Romney got 52 percent of Republican women voters, compared to only 28 percent for Gingrich -- that's a 24-point difference. It was also a big turnaround from South Carolina, where Gingrich won the women's vote.

Florida exit polls also showed that Romney led Gingrich among married women by more than 20 points. But among male voters, Gingrich only trailed Romney by only five points. Appears to be a bit of a gender gap, doesn't it?

It's no secret that Gingrich has been saddled with this personal baggage from the beginning of the campaign.

And he's been quick to own up to it, and he says that he's done things in the past that he regrets, that it's all in the past now. He talks about making peace with God and likes to describe himself these days as a 68-year-old grandfather.

But at the end of the day, maybe women voters just can't make peace with an adulterer who left his first wife, who was being treated for cancer, for his second wife, and then left his second wife, who was fighting multiple sclerosis, for his third wife.

It actually looked like these issues might come crashing down on Newt Gingrich before the South Carolina primary, when his second ex- wife told ABC News he had asked her for an open marriage. But in the end, South Carolina voters brushed it off.

But now that the women voters in Florida have spoken out loud and clear, it remains to be seen if women in the rest of the country will give Newt Gingrich a pass.

Here's the question: Does Newt Gingrich have a problem with women?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on our blog or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack, thank you.

Meanwhile: a new plan to help with the housing crisis across the country. Details of what President Obama wants to do to help millions and millions of Americans with their mortgages.

Also, why some U.S. Catholic Church leaders are now outraged at the president. Will their anger cost him Catholic votes?

And look who is bursting into song out on the campaign trail again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Home mortgage rates are at historic lows right now, but millions and millions of Americans simply can't refinance because they owe more than their homes are worth.

President Obama says he wants to change that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are actions we can take right now to provide some relief to folks who have been responsible, have done the right thing and are making their payments on time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's get some details from our chief business correspondent Ali Velshi.

Ali, what is the president now proposing, and can it really make a difference?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's the thing. You would think that people who have had trouble with their mortgages, the one great thing about the economic environment now is that mortgage rates, as you started by saying, are as low as anybody can ever remember them being. But those very people who need that break the most have not been able to take advantage of it, because if you are under water in your house, meaning your house is worth more than -- you owe more than your house is worth, you haven't been able to take advantage of it.

So, now, the president is proposing a plan that goes further than the previous two plans that have been in place for the last three years. This one allows people who have mortgages not held by Fannie or Freddie, but just by a private bank, to be refinanced, even if you're under water and allows people to go down from rates that might be above 6 percent down to this prevailing rate of about 4.25 percent. So the average saving would be somewhere between $200, $300 a month for the average family, about $3,000 a year, and would costs the banks and/or the government $5 billion to $10 billion.

That's where the tricky part comes in because the White House wants this plan to go through, it has to be passed by Congress, but they've got to get the money from somewhere.

President Obama, in the State of the Union, sort of suggested a tax on banks, a levy, very small one that would help pay for this. He also wants banks to take a haircut, which means write down some of the loans so that these -- you know, if you're over by 40 percent in your mortgage, maybe you're only over by 20 percent, it makes it manageable.

So, it goes further than the previous plans did, Wolf.

BLITZER: And this is the latest in a string of programs, as you know, that the president has championed --

VELSHI: Yes.

BLITZER: -- to help rescue housing for so many millions of Americans. None of them really has worked all that great so far. So, a lot of skeptics are saying why should this one be any different?

VELSHI: Right. And so, in the past, they've introduced programs that were designed to help between 8 million to 9 million people. One of them was called HAMP, the Home Affordable Mortgage Program. It was designed to help about 4 million people, probably helped about 910,000 people. That was in February of 2009.

The next month, March of 2009, they introduced HARP, which is the Home Affordable Refinance Programs, also supposed to help about 5 million, ended up helping less than a million.

But here's the argument the government puts forward: before those plans, the banks were not doing anything on their own to refinance mortgages. They didn't have the staff to do it. They didn't have the systems. They caused them to actually refinance more homes on their own outside of these programs. So, the numbers aren't as dismal as the ones I just showed you.

But the idea is this one spreads to more people, more people should qualify for it. And those savings of about $3,000 a year, the hope is the people are not paying that money toward their mortgages, they're somehow paying that toward the economy somewhere else, spending it, maybe even creating jobs. I mean, $3,000 would be a big stimulus if you gave every family that much money. That's the hope that the government has. And not only will more people qualify, but they'll actually end up stimulating the economy in the process -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And speaking of the economy, American Airlines announcing plans to cut 13,000 jobs. What's going on?

VELSHI: Yes, it's huge. American Airlines declared bankruptcy in November, went into bankruptcy protection. As you know, that allows them the ability to restructure certain contracts that they'd otherwise be held to. So, they are going out there and telling a lot of their staff that they cannot continue unless they are able to cut a lot of jobs. Most of them are maintenance jobs. There are some management jobs. Some crew, some piloting jobs.

The other thing is they want to pass on the responsibility for their underfunded pension to the government. The government which does take over unfunded pensions from companies that go bankrupt has said American hasn't provided us enough information to show us they have to do this.

So, this is all in the works right now. They're still talking to their unions. But 13,000 jobs, it looks like, they want to cut -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Ali, thanks very much.

You may expect rowdy behavior at sporting events, certainly, we always do. But what happened today in a soccer stadium in Egypt is certainly unlike anything we have seen before. We're going to have the story from that soccer stadium coming up.

And the Catholic Church is not happy with President Obama now. We're going to tell you why. New information is coming in.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including one of the worst sporting event tragedies of all time.

Lisa, what happened?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDETN: Yes, that's right, Wolf.

At least 73 people are dead, and at least 1,000 injured from a soccer riot in Egypt. The country's deputy health minister says the fighting occurred in the stadium at northeastern city of Port Said. Egyptian armed forces have been deployed to prevent any further incidents. And we will go live to Egypt with more details at the top of our next hour.

And important news for women on birth control. The drug company Pfizer is recalling a million packs of birth control pills after discovering that some of them contain the wrong amount the ingredients. The tablets also may be out of sequence, which needs to be corrected for the pills to be effective. They includes certain lots of Lo/Ovral and Norgestrel tablets, along with generic, all marketed by Akrimax Pharmaceuticals.

And what a difference two years can make. Chrysler Group, which had to be bailed out by the government in 2009, is reporting its first annual profits since 2005. The maker of brand such as Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep says it earned $183 million last year, that's a gain of over $80 million from the previous year -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good news on that front. Thanks very much for that, Lisa.

Mitt Romney's campaign is reeling a bit from an unfortunate remark he made about the poor today, right here on CNN. But it's just the latest of the series of some verbal gaffes he's made. We're going to talk about that and a lot more. That's coming up in our strategy session.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer.

Here are some of the stories we're working on for our next hour:

Mitt Romney heads to Minnesota, home of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Will she endorse him or someone else? The former presidential candidate will join us live.

Planned Parenthood loses funding. Was political pressure a factor? Stay tuned for the answer.

And a new tape reveals the chaos following President Kennedy's death. The gut-wrenching audio is coming up.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We got some breaking news that we're working on. Apparently, the end of the U.S./NATO combat mission in Afghanistan, a decade-long war that's cost the U.S. dearly in both blood and treasure, now the Obama administration making a major decision to step up the end of what's called combat operation in Afghanistan.

Let's go straight to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, the U.S. is supposed to have major combat operations in Afghanistan through the end of 2014, another three years. But they're no saying it's going to stop a year and a half early. What's going on?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arriving in Europe this evening for a NATO meeting, told reporters that the decision is now U.S. and NATO combat operations in Afghanistan will start wrapping up mid-2013, next year, and be wrapped up by the end of 2013. That is now the goal. That is the decision that Panetta is announcing.

There had been a lot of hints about this, but it hadn't been made official until the defense secretary said it. It was expected it might come out later this year. The 2014 date, that is when all U.S. and NATO troops will be out of Afghanistan. That is when they say that the training even will be done in large part for Afghan forces, though it may go on for some time after that.

So the key question now: will Afghan forces really be able to deal with the Taliban, be able to deal with the insurgency by the end of next year, but for the 89,000 U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan and their families, certainly welcome news after more than a decade of combat in that very trouble part of the world -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It comes at a time when France says it's getting ready to pull its troops out. Other NATO allies want to get out. A lot of the troops -- a lot of the countries see no great future for maintaining a major military presence in Afghanistan.

Is this also in part money-related? It costs U.S. taxpayers $2 billion a week to maintain that large military presence in Afghanistan, more than $100 billion a year. Is this a way to save money?

STARR: Well, I suppose it's up to the White House to decide if that's part of their calculus. I think it's very clear that the large land wars that the U.S. has had for the last decade have essentially drained much of the defense budget.

The U.S. in very tough economic shape and a lot of budget cuts coming in the U.S. military so certainly they want to do what they can, but it was clear things we are headed in this direction. The Karzai government certainly doesn't want foreign troops on its soil indefinitely.

The U.S. had made it clear it wasn't going to stay forever and really one of the points you just made, Wolf, very key to all of this, the European allies already under tremendous and economic and financial pressure in their countries, in their home capitals, have made it very clear they cannot sustain this, and that certainly was an additional driver -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure there's going to be a lot of criticism on this decision, not only from the right, from Republicans who will say it's cutting and running and betraying the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

But I suspect from the left, who will say, you know, just get out right away, why even spend another year and a half there and waste all that money? That would be the argument. We'll see the fallout.

This is going to be a huge political issue, no doubt about that. Barbara, we're going to go live to Afghanistan in the next hour and get reaction from there on the ground. Barbara Starr reporting for us.

Other important news we're following. This is a big day after the big win in Florida for Mitt Romney. He's taking heat for a controversial comment he made it about poor people earlier in the day. Listen to the conversation he had this morning with CNN's Soledad O'Brien.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, HOST, CNN'S "STARTING POINT": Let me ask a final question, and there's a poll that came out of Pew that says understanding the needs of average Americans, and President Obama rates at 55 percent in this polling.

You come in at 39 percent, and the conservative writer, Kathleen Parker wrote about, you know, it's that Romney can't connect with the people, as has been -- it isn't that Romney can't connect with the people as has been pronounced repeatedly, it's that the people cannot can't with him.

This also explains why Newt Gingrich can attract support against all reason. How do you fix that?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You know, just let people get to know you better. The nice thing about what happened here in Florida is I got a chance to go across the state, meet with people, they heard what I'm concerned about. They understand how I will be able to make things better.

I think people want someone who doesn't just throw an incendiary bomb from time to time, but someone who knows what it takes to improve their lives, to get home values rising again, to get jobs again in this country, to make sure that when soldiers come home they have a job waiting for them.

To make sure people who are retired don't have to worry about what will happen at the end of the week. This is a time people are worried, they're frightened. They want someone who they have confidence in. I believe I will be able to instil that confidence in the American people.

And by the way, I'm in this race, because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich. They're doing just fine.

I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling, and I'll continue to take that message across the nation.

O'BRIEN: All right, I said last question, but I've got to ask you, you just said I'm not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net. I think there are lots of very poor Americans who are struggling who would say that sounds odd. Can you explain that?

ROMNEY: Well, you had to finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I'm not concerned about them that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them. The challenge right now, We will hear from the Democratic Party, the plight of the poor.

And there's no question, it's not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor, but my campaign is focused on middle income Americans. My campaign -- you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich. That's not my focus. You can focus on the very poor. That's not my focus. My focus is on middle income Americans, retires living on Social Security, people who can't find work, folks that have kids that are getting ready to go to college.

These are the people who have been most badly hurt during the Obama years. We have a very ample safety net. We can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. We have food stamps. We have Medicaid. We have housing vouchers.

We have programs to help the poor, but the middle-income Americans, they are the folks that are really struggling right and they need someone who can help get this economy going for them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's discuss those controversial comments in our "Strategy Session." Joining us the Democratic strategist, Jamal Simmons of govote.com, and Republican strategist, Alice Stewart, the former spokeswoman for Michele Bachmann.

Michele Bachmann, by the way, is going to join us live in the next hour. Let me start with you, Jamal, what do you think? Did he explain adequately what he meant by those controversial comments?

JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: No, he didn't at all. The problem for Mitt Romney on this is he's got both a political problem and he's got a substance problem.

On the substance, the Republicans actually do want to stride the safety net. If you look at what the Paul Ryan budget, which Mitt Romney supports, by some estimates it got $750 billion on programs that are not Medicaid/Medicare, Social Security targeted toward the poor.

That's a problem for him. And it's true among governors in some of these states also and politically it includes a sound bite that the gives campaign ad makers very rich material.

Right now, Mitt Romney would have trouble getting out of YouTube video let alone a Google search. The guy has a lot of trouble on his hands.

BLITZER: Alice, what do you think? Because later on the day, aboard his aircraft, he went and spoke to reporters and he tried to explain what he was suggesting that there are all these programs out there to help poor people whether food stamps or Medicaid or Head Start or whatever, but if they need some repair, they'll work on it, but he really wants to focus on helping the middle class.

ALICE STEWART, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, he certainly is doing everything he can to focus on the middle class, and he said that from the very beginning of the campaign, that's what he's focused on.

But he's certainly not doing that at the expense of the lower income or upper-income Americans. He's made it clear that his focus on the middle class. One distinction between Mitt Romney and President Obama is that Mitt Romney has ideas and plans in place to turn the economy around, create jobs, put people back to work.

And doing that, that will help Americans of all income levels, lower, middle and upper income levels. It's interesting Jamal talks about how out of touch that Mitt Romney is on the heels of President Obama in the Google interview just a few days ago where he was telling the woman who was pouring her heart out to him about her husband being unemployed. He said, well, that's interesting. To me that sounds a bit out of touch.

SIMMONS: Wait a minute. Is this the same woman that he then tried to help her husband get a job? I'm not sure exactly how I follow with Alison's statement. The problem with Mitt Romney is also about children who grew up in poor families. One would think that Republicans would be incredibly focused on helping those children get into the middle class and not just get mired in the poverty they may find themselves in today.

It's all around a bad statement and these are the kind of things I think that this gives people pause about Mitt Romney actually becoming president.

BLITZER: I suspect, Alice it's not going to hurt Mitt Romney so much in the Republican primaries and caucuses although all these statements when taken not completely in context, sometimes out of context, will in fact hurt him in a general election if he winds up getting the Republican presidential nomination, including some of these statements?

I'll play a few of them. You know the Democrats are getting ready to bombard him if he gets the nomination with these clips.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I like being able to fire people and provide services to me. I'll tell you what, 10,000 bucks?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It sort of makes him look like he's out of touch with real folks out there. I suspect you agree with that, Alice.

STEWART: Well, let me just say, learning from experience in '08 with Governor Huckabee and this year with Michele Bachmann, whenever you're the frontrunner, you have the target on your back. Anything and everything can and will be used against you on the network television of your choice.

And that's exactly what Romney is experiencing. Sure, does he need to be more careful about what he says? He definitely does, but if you take the full context of exactly what he says, he's stressing the point that he is focused on helping the people in middle-income levels of America.

He does not want to do that at the expense of upper or lower income levels. He plans to do that with his job creation package and plans to turn the economy around. Let me just say this, with a favorability rating of 75 percent coming out of exit polls in Florida and garnering the most votes last night.

Let me say he certainly connected with the people of Florida. The most recent CNN poll with President Obama, with a 51 percent disapproval rating, let me say it appears that Governor Romney had a bit better connection with the American people.

SIMMONS: You know, Wolf, I worked for Al Gore in 2000. He actually never said that he invented the internet, but everybody interpreted something he said to mean that, and for the next 10 years, everyone has talked about Al Gore saying and jokes about it, him inventing the internet. We actually have Mitt Romney on tape saying these things. I don't know that he'll be able to sidestep it.

BLITZER: I remember that 2000 comment from Al Gore, since it was in response to a question I asked him in which he made the controversial remarks about the internet and it dogged him throughout that campaign, has ever since.

And you're right, he didn't say I invented the internet. He said something a lot less specific, but that's how it was interpreted. It plagued him a lot down the road. That's what happens when you're not precise in your language. It can happen to any politician. Guys, thanks very, very much.

Catholic Church leaders are outraged that a new rule by the Obama administration. We're going to show you what all the uproar is about.

Plus, "Super PAC" donors revealed. Who's giving the huge donations, millions and millions of dollars to fund all those negative ads?

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BLITZER: Newt Gingrich has just now blasted Mitt Romney for those controversial comments he made about the poor with CNN's Soledad O'Brien this morning. A powerful condemnation of Mitt Romney from Newt Gingrich just moments ago. We're going to cue up the sound bite for you. You're going to want to hear this. Stand by. We'll get it ready for you in a moment.

Meanwhile, Super PACs are playing a huge role in this presidential campaign. They are the ones behind many of the negative ads that are shaping the Republican primary battles.

And now we're learning where there's six and seven-figure donations are coming from. CNN's Lisa Sylvester is going in depth on this story for us. Lisa, what are you finding out?

SYLVESTER: Yes, that's right, Wolf. You know, the Federal Election Commission just released the campaign fundraising numbers. We're all pouring over the records and the story here really is the rise of soft money after the Supreme Court decision Citizens United.

Super PACs, unlike regular Political Action Committees can raise unlimited sum of money with very few restrictions. When it comes to "Super PAC" money, one candidate clearly came out on top.

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SYLVESTER (voice-over): The pro-Romney Super PAC, "Restore Our Future" took in the largest haul more than $10 million in the last quarter of 2011. Romney's ties to Wall Street are evident in the campaign donations.

Big checks written by his former colleagues at Bain Capital. Romney also is supported by household names like Bill Marriot, the chairman of the hotel chain who wrote a $500,000 check to Romney's Super PAC.

The pro-Obama Super PAC, "Priorities USA Action" took in a much smaller amount, about $850,000 in the fourth quarter. Keep in mind, though, the president doesn't have a primary challenger and his "Super PAC" isn't burning through cash like those of his potential Republican opponents.

Topping the president's list of big donors, Jeffrey Catsenberg, CEO of Dream Works Animation who last year wrote a $2 million check to the president's Super PAC. "Winning Our Future," a Super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich only got started in mid-December.

But it still took in $2 million aided by a generous donation from billionaire, Harold Simmons, who wrote a $500,000 check to the Super PAC, about a total of the quarter of the total raised. Bill Allison is with the "Sunlight Foundation," a group that advocates transparency in government.

He says this election cycle, there's a lot of soft money in the system.

BILL ALLISON, SUNLIGHT FOUNDATION: What we're seeing this time is a very few well-heeled donors by giving money to Super PACs can really fuel a candidate and keep them going long before they would have had to drop out in the past.

SYLVESTER: But the money going to the Super PACs that might only be a drop in the bucket to what political non-profit groups can raise. Like Super PACs, these political nonprofits known as 501-C4s can raise unlimited sums of money.

But they don't have to disclose the names of donors or file reports with the Federal Election Commission, and they can give money to a candidate's "Super PAC."

BOB BIERSACK, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: We think it's important for people to be able to know who is doing what to whom, who is supporting these campaigns or these organizations in different ways.

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SYLVESTER: We are also learning just how strong the Romney fundraising operation really is. The Center for Responsive Politics, they crunched the numbers and they found that by the end of 2011, Romney had raised more than Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul combined -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's a lot of money and certainly money talks in politics. Lisa, thanks very much. A new Obama administration rule could wind up costing the president Catholic votes in November.

It already has church leaders outraged. We have details, new information coming in on the controversy.

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BLITZER: All right, this just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Only moments ago, Newt Gingrich slamming his rival, Mitt Romney, over those controversial remarks Romney made right here on CNN, when he said and I'm quoting him now, "I'm not concerned about the very poor." He then put it in context. We ran that whole clip earlier. Now only moments ago, Newt Gingrich reacting.

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NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He said this morning what his concerns were, and he said, quote, "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I'll fix it."

Then he went on to say in response to a follow-up question, quote, "We will hear from the Democratic Party the plight of the poor. You can focus on the very poor. That's not my focus."

Now, let me say something here. I am fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other.

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BLITZER: That's just the start of what Newt Gingrich had to say. Much more of his remarks and full analysis coming up in our next hour.

Meanwhile, church and state are on a collision course and the fallout could have major implications for President Obama's re- election effort. The issue right now -- contraception.

Our White House correspondent, Briana Keilar has more on what's going on. Brianna, what's going on between the president and the Catholic Church?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's no surprise that Catholic leaders don't like this new government rule. It would require employers, including religious employers, to provide contraceptive measures like birth control.

But the real question is what do Catholic Americans, there's millions of them, what do they think about this? It's an especially important question, because so many of them provided support to President Obama in 2008.

Some folks with their finger on the pulse of the Catholic rank- and-file think this could hurt President Obama.

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KEILAR (voice-over): Catholic leaders took to their pull pits railing against a new government policy. It forces employers including religiously affiliated schools and hospitals to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives.

CARDINAL DONALD WUERL, ARCHBISHOP OF WASHINGTON: Our Catholic institutions that serve this nation well are being told you who fund thinks things offensive, you must pay for them.

KEILAR: Some congregants are firmly against the new rule.

CARLENE MARTENS, CATHOLIC WORSHIPER: I don't believe that we should have to provide contraception and abortions.

KEILAR: While many Catholics do not oppose the use of contraception, church leaders like Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington say this is an issue of religious freedom.

WUERL: We have never experienced this in our country. It's a violation of the basket rights of conscience and religious liberty. You need to know that and begin to speak up.

KEILAR: That argument may be working. Steve Schneck is a professor at the Catholic University and has advised the Obama administration in the past. He calls the contraception decision a political misstep.

STEVE SCHNECK, CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY: I'm seeing in the pews something waking up, maybe a little bit of a sense of catholic solidarity, which I think could carry over into the political activities.

KEILAR: There are 70 million Catholics in the U.S., 54 percent of those who voted in 2008 went for President Obama, an important majority, when you consider where many of them live.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're located in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, Florida, which are, of course, you know, critical states for whoever wants to be the president of the United States, so that vote really matters.

KEILAR: In 2009 with a speech at Notre Dame, President Obama extended an olive branch to Catholics.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree this heart-wrenching decision for any woman, is not made casually. It has both moral and spiritual dimensions. So let us work together, let's honor of the conscience of those who disagree with abortion and draft a sensible clause.

KEILAR: But now the goodwill the president accumulated may be in jeopardy, Schneck says especially for the way the Obama administration rolled out the new policy.

Three days before tens of thousands of protesters, many of them Catholic, came to Washington for the annual march for life on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of Roe versus Wade.

SCHNECK: There's nothing like opposition to rally the troops. I suspect that will happen here.

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KEILAR: Now, Wolf, this rule change goes into effect this summer. Religious groups or employers are given an extra year to comply. While you have White House officials like Press Secretary Jay Carney say this strikes an appropriate balance.

One religious leader that we spoke says this just gives them an extra year to violate their conscience, so you can see the struggle between the two sides here.

BLITZER: It's going to be a big political fight, no doubt about that. Thanks very much. Brianna.

Mitt Romney heads to Minnesota, home of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Will she endorse him? The former candidate will join me live. Jack Cafferty answers your e-mail.

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BLITZER: Jack Cafferty is back with the "Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Question is, does Newt Gingrich have a problem with women? Exit polls yesterday in Florida primary showed almost twice as many women voted for Mitt Romney.

Mac in Michigan writes, "I can't speak for the other 120 million or so women he hasn't had an affair with yet, but the one I'm married to doesn't like snakes, spiders and lizards and she thinks that a Newt is at least two out of those three."

Bob in New York writes, "Wrong question, Jack. Newt doesn't have a problem with women. He marries, them, dumps them when they get sick and has affairs with other women while he's married. The right question is whether women have a problem with Newt Gingrich."

Annie in Atlanta writes, "He does with this woman and it's not just the adulterer in him that makes my skin crawl. I find his divisive hateful rhetoric compounded by a blown-up sense of self- importance to be repulsive. I think of it as an ick factor."

Don in St. Louis writes, "We sweat the petty stuff too much in this country. A federal government completely out of control, monumental debt that threatens our financial stability, millions of people out of work, let's get the country back on track and we can consider the trivialities.

If Newt or any other candidate can work to fix the truly important issues in the country, but carries a few marital anomalies, I'm OK with that."

Nick in Texas writes, "We ought to let his ex-wives answer that question. The man has no respect for women. He has proven that more than once. So he better not count on women to give him that push he needs. Actually he needs a shove right out of the GOP race. I don't want to call him a pig because you might not read my letter, but you know what? He's a pig."

Lloyd in North Carolina writes South Carolina women are more accepting of open marriage than Florida women. They're used to husbands that go on long hikes on the Appalachian trail."

If you want to read more about this, got some great e-mails, go to my blog, cnn.com/caffertyfile or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack.