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Mississippi, Alabama Hold Primaries; Interview with Tim Pawlenty

Aired March 13, 2012 - 19:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, HOST: All right, it's a very big night. In just under an hour, polls will close in two states, Mississippi and Alabama. And we could learn if Mitt Romney can finally get it done, lock up the GOP nomination or whether someone might actually have a sudden death moment tonight.

Is tonight Mitt's night or not? We will ask the co-chair of his campaign, former Governor Tim Pawlenty. Let's go "OUT FRONT."


BURNETT: Good evening, everybody, I'm Erin Burnett and "OUT FRONT" tonight we are counting down. It is game time. I'm talking, of course, about the political game going on, people, tonight. Republican candidates going for the Deep South and we have some big prizes up for grabs, Mississippi and Alabama, the total delegates at stake tonight in those two states is 84.

Now if you are keeping track, more than 8 million votes nationwide have already been cast in 26 primaries and caucuses so far. The horse race over the past few days has been truly tightening in both of the states up for grabs tonight, it is down to the wire. And as I said, we are less than an hour away from those polls closing.

Will it be sudden death for one of the four candidates, because that could go a long way to give this country a little bit clarity, who is in, who might be out of what has been a roller coaster race?

Can Newt Gingrich rise again, as we call it, his triple Lazarus. A strong showing for him tonight, as Rick Santorum a chance of a two- man fight against Mitt Romney, a bad night though could mean he's out of the race.


FORMER REP. NEWT GINGRICH, R-GA., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With Rick and me together, we are really slowing him down and with some help frankly, from Ron Paul, and I think if you look at the country sort of saying -- a majority of them are saying not Romney.


BURNETT: All right. If Rick Santorum has a strong finish, he is going to prove that his appeal runs through the South as well as the Midwest.


FORMER SEN. RICK SANTORUM, R-PA., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need the conservative belt right through the south of America to speak loudly that they want a strong conviction conservative.


BURNETT: And the stakes of course are very, very high for Mitt Romney tonight. If he looks weak in these southern states, which he has not won, with the exception of Florida, which is different from the Deep South, the old story line that he cannot close the deal will be tomorrow's headline yet again. Today, he is focusing on math and the all-important delegate count.


FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If the polls are anywhere near correct we will end up with, I don't know, one-third of the delegates, and if that is the case, well, that inches us closer to that magic number.


BURNETT: All right. So let's get to John King with the latest exit polling data.

And, John, you have been looking at this and very interesting things, evangelicals, who is out today and who isn't?

KING: You mentioned game on when you had two states. We had dead heat polling, essentially really three-way ties almost. So you look at the exit polls, who voted, who did the better turnout operation, what is on the mind of the people voting, you look for clues here. We have to be careful, because the polls are open.

But Romney's positions on the issues -- can Governor Romney win in the South? You just raised the question. He has the most money, he has the most delegates. What he needs is the psychological boost of winning in the base of the party.

Fifty-five percent of the voters in Alabama, they'll say he's not conservative enough. So the question is where do they go? One of the big questions tonight is do we have a split, so let's look, 42 percent for Santorum, and 40 percent for Gingrich.

So you ask, does one of these guys emerge or does that split help Governor Romney? Well, we're going to watch that as the night unfolds. That's one important thing to watch in that.

Romney's position, that's in Alabama. In Mississippi, again, more than half of the voters say he's not conservative enough. Doesn't mean they didn't vote for him. They just say he's not conservative enough. So fascinating dynamic there. So who voted today? Forty-two percent of those voting in the state of Mississippi describe themselves as very conservative, no surprise, it's a Deep South, state, it's a Republican primary. Twenty-seven percent somewhat conservative. That number surprised me a little bit.

Three in 10 voters in the state of Mississippi describe themselves as moderate to liberal. So maybe not as conservative an electorate as you might have thought. That's Mississippi. Let's move over. Again, look at this.

Remember, these are open primaries. They don't have primary party registration. People show up and they vote, 38 percent in Alabama, very conservative; 31 percent somewhat conservative, and 31 percent, moderate to liberal.

These southern states, we may stereotype them, thinking they're very conservative, but especially along the Gulf Coast, retirees from the Midwest and elsewhere. A little different electorate than maybe we thought.

One last thing: again, these people are not registered so we asked in the exit polls what are you? Eighty percent in Mississippi said they were Republican, 17 percent independent, only 4 percent Democrats. That's in Mississippi, 80 percent.

And now look at the number in Alabama, only two-thirds identify themselves as Republicans. So that is an interesting difference -- these are neighboring states (inaudible) 28 percent in Alabama say they're independents.

BURNETT: Now what does that tell you, as you've been trying to gauge enthusiasm? And I know everyone's talked about the enthusiasm gap in the particular primary, but when you see independents coming out, does that show more enthusiasm or is it tough to make that -- ?

KING: I think part of this is that people don't trust the parties any more, so I bet, you know, a lot of the people have voted Republican in every election, probably all their adult lives. But they just call themselves independents now, because they don't want to be part of the institutions.

They don't like the banks or the political parties -- sometimes they don't like us, sorry, but you voters, you know this from covering the financial issues.

People are mad so they identify themselves as independents, but they are conservatives. That's one thing. I do think one of the big questions tonight is 15 years ago, there were no organized state Republican parties at the county level in Alabama and Mississippi.

They sent Republicans to Washington, but at the state level it was mostly Democrats. Now you have Republicans everywhere, county commissioner, congressional races, so they have organizations. Governor Romney has a lot of the local endorsements. Does that help him? He has the governor of Mississippi, does that help him organizationally in a state where most people say, well, he is from Massachusetts, he's more moderate, he is a Mormon --

BURNETT: He says cheesy grits.

KING: He says cheesy grits. Does that help him? Does he actually benefit -- the question is whole race has been passion. Can Gingrich and Santorum get the passion vote, versus Romney's organization vote? I think these are two great states to watch it play out tonight.

BURNETT: All right. Well, this is going to be amazing and fascinating results, at least so far from what John is able to tell you from the exit polls, more information, of course, is coming in and as it does, we will share it with you as we count down to those polls closing.

Well, Mitt Romney took a shot at his chief rival, Rick Santorum today, slamming the attack ads that his super PAC has been rolling out.


ROMNEY: Senator Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign and is trying, in some way to boost his prospects, and frankly misrepresenting the truth is not a good way of doing that.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, THE SITUATION ROOM: Why do you think he is at the desperate end of his campaign?

ROMNEY: Well, I mean, he is far behind in the delegate count, he is far behind in the popular vote count, if you look at the math and how many delegates he would have to win to become the nominee, it is a difficult road for him, and so at this stage, he is looking for some way to try and gain ground.


BURNETT: Well, Wolf Blitzer is here with me now, and interesting, Wolf, you got him to talk about some of the other candidates, which he had been loath to do, really, until you talked to him tonight.


BLITZER: Yes, a lot of times they like their aides, their supporters to take the high road and they will be, you know, sort of -- try to look presidential, go after President Obama without necessarily getting into the mud, but, you know, I asked him a sensitive question about Rick Santorum's super PAC, the pro-Rick Santorum super PAC, really blasting him saying he left a billion dollars in debt when was finishing up as governor of Massachusetts.

So he let Santorum have it by saying he's at the desperate end of his campaign and whatever he said. But that is what happens in politics.

BURNETT: That certainly seems (inaudible), at least from the analyst you have done --

BLITZER: Well, it could be the desperate end. This is going to continue. Could be the desperate end for Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, if he does not win one of these two southern states tonight, his campaign presumably will be in a lot of trouble.

But Santorum will go on, next Tuesday there's Illinois and they're already advertising, they're getting ready for a huge primary a week from today in Illinois.

BURNETT: Yes, I was looking at those numbers, as usual Mitt Romney putting in with the super PAC millions and millions of dollars. He predicted to you, though, that he's going to win, I think, what, a third of the delegates tonight.


BLITZER: Yes, that's what he's -- he probably will given the proportional nature of distributing delegates.

BURNETT: Is that enough?

BLITZER: Well, he's way ahead, and he has double the delegates so far that Santorum, and a lot more than Gingrich and Ron Paul, obviously, he's way, way behind. He has yet to win any of these primaries or caucuses.

So methodically, that will keep -- that will keep Mitt Romney going and going and going.

He would like to win them all, obviously, but in the old days, when it was winner take all, you could do that if you win a state. But now the Republicans have followed the Democrats' lead and they're doing a lot more proportionality.

BURNETT: And I know you have had a chance to talk to him a couple of times. What's your impression of where he stood tonight? I mean, is he just unbelievably frustrated with --

BLITZER: You mean Romney?

BURNETT: -- Mitt Romney, with his inability to, quote-unquote, "get it done," it's done, it's over, stamp on it.

BLITZER: He would have liked to have gotten it done, but I think he's pretty confident. And I know his advisers, and his key strategies, they're pretty confident. They see this. They think it's going to happen.

A lot of them say it's going to happen, it may take a few more weeks. A few -- maybe even a month or two. But they know it's going to happen, if you speak to them, they are very, very confident, they're looking at the numbers and they're looking at the money. And remember, you know, it's not just the super PAC money. You could raise a lot -- if you have a billionaire giving you $10 million or whatever, that goes to a super PAC, but there are restrictions how that money can be used.

It can be used in attack ads, but it can't be used in day to day campaign operations, paying your staff, for example, and I don't think either Santorum or Newt Gingrich, for that matter, want to go into debt, personal debt if they don't think they are going to win.

BURNETT: All right. Well, we will see, we always follow the money, and sometimes it will get you that answer a lot more times than many think. All right.

Well, thanks very much to Wolf Blitzer, of course, spoke to Mitt Romney earlier tonight, and we are just about 50 minutes away from the closing of the polls in those two key states. As we count down, former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty is going to join us, obviously supports Mitt Romney, but we will ask him, well, a serious question. Does the GOP have a God problem?

And then the current president: is a poll showing a drop in his approval rating an anomaly or is it a worrisome trend?



BURNETT: All right. We are live tonight from the CNN Election Center and we are just about 45 minutes away from the polls closing in Alabama and Mississippi, and this is a three-way dead heat. We will see how it plays out tonight, 84 total delegates up for grabs in these states, and a lot riding on tonight's results. For Rick Santorum, it could be an indicator of how viable he is as a national candidate.

Jim Acosta is at Santorum's campaign headquarters in Lafayette, Louisiana. Jim, obviously the pressure on for Santorum to prove it is not the heartland of the country where he does well, but the Deep South. How confident is his campaign feeling tonight?

JIM ACOSTA, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I would say that they are more cautious than confident tonight, Erin. You know, the Santorum campaign is really looking at two bad scenarios that could come into play later on this evening when the votes come in, and that is Romney winning both of these states tonight, or Gingrich winning both of these states tonight.

That would be a huge momentum drag for Rick Santorum, it would also deny him the opportunity to really gain on Mitt Romney in that delegate count, and that is desperately what he needs to do this evening. That is why earlier today, Rick Santorum, when he was on a conservative talk show radio program basically called on Newt Gingrich to get out of this race.

But Erin, one thing that I'll be watching tonight is how the evangelical vote plays out for Rick Santorum. Keep in mind, he did better than expected in Oklahoma and Tennessee, where the evangelical vote was really a major factor in both of those contests, and that bodes well for him in both Mississippi and Alabama.

BURNETT: All right. Well, we're going to see. We will talk to Tim Pawlenty about how the evangelicals and the conservatives may have cast their votes today in a moment. Let's got to Joe Johns now at the Gingrich headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama.

Joe, what is the feeling there and is the Gingrich camp still saying it is make or break?

JOE JOHNS, CNN REPORTER: You know, Erin, they're kind of moving away from that make or break language we heard about a week ago and it is interesting. Newt Gingrich has said much more recently that, as far as he is concerned, if it is close, everybody in the race in Mississippi and Alabama moves on.

And he has also said very recently, like today, that he still plans to go all of the way to the Republican convention.

Now, the one thing, though, that I also think that you have to say is that Newt Gingrich has to say that, he has to say that he is going to keep going. He has been warned by some of the supporters not to talk down his own campaign. The bottom line, however, is that if he does not do well in these two states -- and very well -- the calls, in all likelihood, will increase for Newt Gingrich to get out of the race, Erin.

BURNETT: And Joe, I'm curious, we have been calling it sort of the triple Lazarus, you know, the Biblical hat trick for Gingrich to rise up for the third time, but from what you have been seeing in the crowds, the number of people, the enthusiasm of people for Newt Gingrich, how likely is it that he can do it?

JOHNS: Well, you know, this is the South, this is his strength, but the question is whether he's just a regional candidate and won't do well in some other places. The numbers, for example, out of Illinois suggest that he's not doing very well there at all.

They did just put out a memo, the Gingrich campaign did, setting up a scenario whereby Gingrich actually does better in the second half of the primary season than he has done in the first half of the primary season, and they make the point that we are not even to the halfway point, it does not even occur until Louisiana, at the end of March.

Still though, if you read closely through that memo, they make some claims that they don't support with a lot of facts as to why state by state Newt Gingrich is going to do better going forward. So, it is a very open question.

You don't want to count him out completely simply because he has done it a couple of times before. Nonetheless, it looks very hard, very rough for Newt Gingrich going forward, if he does not do well tonight. BURNETT: We will see how tonight is, and whether there is some sort of a major announcement from Newt Gingrich after tonight, of course, that is a real possibility depending how it goes.

Well, Mitt Romney has also been downplaying expectations today, they've all been doing it. I guess that's what happens when it's a three-way tie.

He has been telling reporters he expects to walk away with a third of the delegates. Polls show the Massachusetts governor is running quite strong in the South, even though he compared campaigning in the region to playing in an away game. Our Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is a cochairman for Mitt Romney, and just a few months ago, of course, he was also a candidate in this race.

Governor, good to talk to you again, sir. I appreciate your taking the time tonight. Mitt Romney, what is a win, in your view, for him tonight?

FORMER GOV. TIM PAWLENTY, R-MINNESOTA: Well, I think a very noteworthy development tonight could be Mitt Romney winning or doing very well in one or both of these states, Erin. I think if you dial back the discussion a few weeks, people were saying it was going to be very challenging for him, that he didn't have a chance. It was going to be very difficult for him.

And now, it looks like he could be tied or very close to the top or maybe even come out on top. And if that were to happen, even in one of those states, I think it would be a breakthrough moment in this campaign, and a campaign that he's already done very well.

And one other quick thing. The resilience of Mitt Romney is starting to show through. When he was way behind in Florida, he came back and beat Newt Gingrich. When he was behind in Ohio, he came back and beat Rick Santorum. The same in Michigan and some other places.

So you see now one other characteristic we should be talking about, and that is the resilience and strength of Mitt Romney.

BURNETT: Well, I mean he certainly could be cast as the Energizer bunny. I don't think anyone would deny that. But the problem, of course, has seemed to be his inability to energize voters. Have -- do that -- does that surprise you, as someone who knows him well, co-chairing his campaign? Are you somewhat disappointed that it has taken this long?

PAWLENTY: Well, a couple of things. First of all, it's very competitive. And so nobody is going to coronate you for the nomination. You've got to go out and earn it. And there's formidable competitors that have been added and aren't quitting. So you've got to battle it out.

But I want to push back, Erin, a little bit on your premise that, you know, he hasn't been exciting voters. You look at that turnout in Ohio, it was at a near historic -- at least modern historic high. Mitt Romney did very well across all Republican and more broad demographic groups in places like Florida and Nevada, where they have bigger primaries, more diverse states and the like.

And he's the only candidate, by the way, who's been consistently either tied or beating Barack Obama in national polls. So this idea that somehow he's not doing well or not connecting, I just don't buy it.

And then lastly, of course, somebody who's, you know, the more entertaining candidate is going to perhaps get some more attention. But you also need not just the entertainer in chief, you need somebody who can actually be president. And in Mitt Romney, you've got an experienced, knowledgeable, electable candidate who can also be president.

BURNETT: Governor, and I hear your points. But it does seem the Republican Party has a -- has a real issue and potentially a bigger split or, you know, more existential question coming its way.

But you look at the exit polls tonight, Alabama and Mississippi, 55 percent of the people in Alabama, Mitt Romney is not conservative enough; 52 percent of them in Mississippi. It does seem, it is -- the numbers show it. We've seen it in every state. The truly conservative base of your party does not seem to be supporting Mitt Romney.

PAWLENTY: Well, I would encourage you, Erin, to, before you make a final judgment about that, to look at the results tonight, because if it turns out that Mitt wins one or both of those states, your premise could be undermined immediately.

I mean if Mitt Romney does well in those Southern states tonight, the script gets rewritten. I mean that's a breakthrough moment and really defies what your question just suggested.

BURNETT: All right. Well, Governor Pawlenty, thank you very much. It certainly would be a breakthrough moment and it is going to be a big moment. The polls close in just about 40 minutes' time. It's going to be a very, very important night for the candidates running for the Republican nomination.

And ahead on OUT FRONT, a stunning number, how much money Mitt Romney's super PAC has spent this year, and which party has a bigger problem with women voters.


BURNETT: So, sadly every election season in recent memory has them, the negative campaign ads, but this primary season has really been the nastiest of all of the nasties, the super PACs in particular have been on the attack. We have a sampling -- I love to do this every night we have these primaries and caucuses to see exactly who is being the most negative.

Take a look at this ad from a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich, it is called "Winning Our Future."


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I really don't know I can trust him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He doesn't have the strength to stand up against Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Newt Gingrich can beat Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I want somebody that will fight for our beliefs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are looking at $5 and $6 gas. Romney is not the type to pump his own gas.


BURNETT: As you can see, obviously pretty negative there on Mr. Romney. Mr. Romney though, of course, as we know, the governor has played plenty of his own negative ads. And here is one of his.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Barack Obama and his liberal allies attack Mitt Romney, why? Obama knows he will beat Rick Santorum. Santorum says he is the principal conservative, but that's not how he voted.


BURNETT: Well, obviously, pretty negative, now, this is the fun part This brings us to tonight's number, which is $1,948,730 -- that is how much the Mitt Romney's super PAC, Restore Our Future, has spent on ads just in Mississippi and Alabama alone, and these are just on broadcast ads, so on ABC, NBC, CBS or FOX, and the numbers you see here are the super PAC combined with the candidate spending on those sorts of ads.

When you compare those super PAC to super PAC, Mitt Romney's pro -- the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, has spent two times more than Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum's super PACs combined just in these two states. That is a pretty stunning number.

OUT FRONT, we have the OUT FRONT Five, and we are learning more about the soldier who allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians. And John King, back at the wall, because he has new exit poll information coming in as we are just over 30 minutes away from the key closing of those polls tonight.


BURNETT: All right. We are counting down to the polls closing in a half hour until they close. It's going be a very big night for the Republican primary season.

We've got five other stories we want to focus on right now though, the OUTFRONT 5. First, President Obama said publicly today he was, quote, "heartbroken" by the killing of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier. Meanwhile, two military officials tell our Barbara Starr they are investigating whether alcohol was a factor in the shooting. The early morning rampage left 16 dead including three women and nine children.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the still unnamed soldier could face the death penalty.

Number two, a nuclear expert tells CNN that after studying satellite images, he's identified the exact building where possible tests -- nuclear-related explosive tests happened in Iran. The building is on the Parchin military complex, south of Tehran. David Albright looks at commercial satellite images provided by Digital Globe Satellite Company. Iran said last week it would allow inspectors into Parchin, but has not yet given a date.

Number three, the Obama administration today announced it will join the European Union and Japan in challenging China's trade restrictions on rare earth minerals. China produces about 97 percent of the rare minerals. When they get refine, they are used for things like cell phones and flat screen TVs. President Obama says these materials are vital for American manufacturing.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: China would simply let the market work on its own, we'd have no objections. But their policies currently are preventing that from happening, and they go against the very rules that China agree to follow. Being able to manufacture advance batteries ands hybrid cars in America is too important for us to stand by and do nothing.


BURNETT: The problem is, the president isn't being totally forthright on this issue. Rare earth minerals, frankly, aren't that rare. We have plenty of them in the United States. The problem is that mining them can cause significant environmental damage and because many of them are found in radioactive substances, workers can get hurt. Mining them is a nasty process. The biggest mine in the United States which recently reopened was shut about a decade ago due to radioactive discharge.

So, sure, China is trying to control the rare earth market, and that may not be a good thing. But while President Obama and many others on both sides of the aisle want China to export more of the refined minerals. Right now, it's Chinese workers and China's environment taking the hit, others countries may not want to.

Number four, it was a very bid day for the markets today. The NASDAQ closing above 3,000 for the first time in 12 years. The Dow closing higher by more than 200. Federal Reserve said the company is getting a little bit better, but they're going to keep interest rates low. That's a good combo for now. Another reason: 15 of the 19 biggest banks in the country passed new stress test, which showed they'd be able to handle another 21 percent drop in housing prices and unemployment at 13 percent. Maybe some pressure on those banks tomorrow though.

It has been 222 days since the United States has lost its top credit rating, and what are we doing to get it back? Well, the consumer helping a little bit, at least for now. Retail sales up more than a percent in February -- the biggest single gain in five months.

All right. We are now less than 30 minutes away from closing of the polls and we do have some new exit poll information just coming out as we count down to that. John King has that for us.

So, John, what is the latest?

KING: Erin, these two states are dead heats, we're looking at everything -- how the evangelical vote go.

Here's what one of the big questions heading into the South, will Governor Romney's Mormon faith matter? The governor of Alabama talking just a little while ago. He said he thinks there's a subtle group of voters who won't for Governor Romney because he's a Mormon.

So, we asked these questions in the exit polls. This is the state of Alabama, if the religious beliefs of the candidates matter? More than four in 10 voters say they matter a great deal. Again, this is in the state of Alabama.

Let's take a look. Any evidence of discrimination against Governor Romney? Forty-seven percent of those who said that the religious beliefs matter a great deal voted for Santorum, 33 percent voted for Speaker Gingrich, just 15 percent voted for Governor Romney.

There's some evidence that Governor Romney does better than that among most groups. There's some evidence here that some people had some issue with the Mormon faith.

Let's move on and look, the same question in the state of Mississippi. Again, about the same number -- 45 percent say it matters a great deal -- let's take a look and see. Governor Romney in Mississippi, though, 38 percent, Romney gets 30 percent, he ranked second. So, a very different finding in two neighboring states on the question of how much did religious beliefs matter and then who did you vote for?

Now, here's a big question we asked. We said, regardless of who you voted for, who is most likely to defeat Obama? In Alabama, 46 percent believed Governor Romney was the strongest general election candidate. Again, that doesn't mean 46 percent voted for him. It just means they think he's a stronger candidate. That's Alabama.

Over in Mississippi, an even greater number. More than half of the voters in Mississippi say Governor Romney would be most likely to defeat President Obama. That's the answer to the question. It doesn't mean that's who they voted for in the state of Mississippi. The other thing we're looking for in both of these both states, who voted today? It's fascinating. In Alabama, you have a 50-50 split on the gender question. Fifty percent of the electorate men, 50 percent in Alabama women. That's Alabama.

So, how was it in Mississippi? Well, look at this -- the neighboring states, 50 percent women, 50 percent men.

So, an even split, if you will, in the battle of the sexes in the Republican primary of both cases today.

Now, we ask a further breakdown, vote by marital status and gender. Thirty-five percent of those voting in Alabama today, Erin, were married women. So that's a little bit more of a third of the electorate there.

Let's take a peek of how they did. Governor Romney winning among married women in Alabama, 40 percent to 36 percent for Senator Santorum. Speaker Gingrich running at distant third, Congressman Paul at 6 percent. That's a pretty good chunk of married women. That should help. We have seen this gender gap in other places. Senator Santorum relatively close to Governor Romney there in Alabama among married women.

And let's check the same stat over in the state of Mississippi. Again, 15 percent, remember the 50-50 split among men with 40 percent married, 9 percent unmarried. Among women, 35 percent married, 15 percent unmarried.

Let's take a look at the stat in the state of Mississippi, and again, Governor Romney leads, Senator Santorum second, Speaker Gingrich not as far behind in third place here. All among the many questions we're going to answer tonight, Erin, when you have a race so such in a pre-election polling, we'll spend all night on this looking at the gender gap, looking at how different genders vote, look it by income.

But this is an interesting one for Governor Romney in both Mississippi and Alabama winning among married women.

BURNETT: Very interesting statistic and it could be important because we all know women voters could be the swing vote to watch in the general election as well this year.

The latest "New York Times"/CBS poll is pretty amazing. I'm wondering what's going on with this poll in general, but it said that the president's approval rating among women dropped 12 percentage points, into mid-February, to 41 percent.

Now, part of the slide could be a result of the debate over the president's birth control mandate, and there is a new ad out today from a liberal group that is trying to capitalize on the controversy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A woman impregnated through rape should accept that horribly created gift, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given you, and make the best of a bad situation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Judging from their comments, the GOP must have a serious problem with women.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And until the Republicans get over their issues --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We, women, have got a serious problem with the Republican Party.

NARRATOR: The political action is responsible for the content of this advertisement.


BURNETT: Obviously, that predominantly pointed out Rick Santorum.

Paul Begala, Mary Matalin, Erick Erickson and Hilary Rosen join me now and they're going to be here four our coverage as we countdown to the polls closing and result. It could be a long night, as it has often been, everyone.

But let's talk about the women. Let me start with you, Erick.

Are you surprised to see Mitt Romney doing so well in both Alabama and Mississippi, two Deep Southern states, among married women?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, not really, actually, because when you look on the campaign trail, who's had their spouse out there more than any other? Mitt Romney. And Ann Romney is very relatable. I think she resonates well. She resonates well with men. She resonates well with women.

And you know, for all the talk about the candidates beating up Mitt Romney -- Romney has in the past few weeks really focused on jobs much more than the other two candidates who have been sidetracked trying to make their case against Romney and haven't done so well.

BURNETT: Hilary, it is amazing. Ann Romney seems to be the most strong thing, the most likable thing about Mitt Romney. I mean, is that really could be --

HILARY ROSEN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, he's the first one who says that actually. And that's to his credit.

You know, the interesting thing -- I mean, in most respects what's happened now for the GOP primary for women is that these are bad choices, and they are voting on things other than issues that have historically been about women.

You know, nothing has energized the women's base more than the Republicans sort of hijacking the primary away from the economy, which is what people care about, to talk about contraception, and birth control and, you know, discrimination and health coverage, and all of the things that women feel like we have moved past in year 2012. We don't want those discussions in our politics. We don't want those opinions in our leaders.

And Mitt Romney is actually doubling down just as much on everything that Rick Santorum has conservatively said. So, I think this is a big issue against the Republicans. It doesn't really matter who they voted for today.

BURNETT: Mary, I'm curious as to your view, though, on what this means for the president. If Mitt Romney ends up doing well among Republican women, how concerned should the president be about assuming that this poll is right, and it's obviously a pretty dramatic poll, but a 12 percentage drop of 47 percent approval rating for women for the president -- that's got to be concerning?

MARY MATALIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, two points. Every single poll, including that one, show when you ask a woman, like when you ask they will vote like a majority of the people, that this is a religious liberty issue -- should the government force religious institutions to violate their faith? It's not a contraception issue.

And then the second point is, women are people, too. A prominent woman activist in Mississippi just said as has been the case everywhere else, the economy is the number one issue, and 91 percent of the budgets, family budgets, are prepared by women. It costs $96 a week for gas and $3 a week for birth control.

So, women are voting like everybody else, on the economy. Nobody wants to ban contraception. Nobody wants to get into the social issues right now, including the voters.


ROSEN: Catholic institution, then they want to ban it.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: The point of fact is Senator Santorum has said states should have a right to outlaw contraception. He said Griswold versus Connecticut decided in 1964 --


BEGALA: So, he doesn't say he would outlaw it, but he said states can and should. Mississippi will.

If you -- believe me, if you repeal Roe versus -- I mean, not Roe, if you repeal Griswold, Mississippi, maybe Louisiana where you live, Mary, several states will do it tomorrow.


BEGALA: You hide and watch.

MATALIN: You are so retro. ERICKSON: That is ridiculous. When you say that 90 percent or 99, whatever statistics you people derive from these liberal institutions that 99 percent of women take birth control, my God, there's no legislator in Mississippi would go home at night if you brought them. It's ridiculous to suggest it.

BEGALA: Keep in mind, this is Mississippi and Alabama, right, where half, half of the Republican primary voters in Mississippi believe that the president of the United States is a Muslim, so they are either --


MATALIN: Oh, here we go. Let's stereotype something else.

ROSEN: It's not stereotyping. They are self-identifying.

BEGALA: What do you have to have it in Arabic? I mean, come on.

ERICKSON: No. I mean, because when you delve into that polling you're talking about, the PPP polling, which was designed, number one, for a Democratic group by a Democratic polling firms, in which design to elicit from Republicans who don't like Barack Obama just to generally attack them. That's what they do.

BEGALA: Lets' doubles it. Let's say it's off by 50 percent. So, a quarter of all Republicans in Mississippi think -- and Alabama think that the president of the United States is a Muslim.

MATALIN: This is why Mississippi will never vote for a Democrat, because they continue to call them stupid. You know why --

BEGALA: Not stupid. They're ignorant or prejudice. There's a big difference, by the way.

MATALIN: You hear that Mississippi?

ROSEN: Well, the issue here is --

BURNETT: Final word, Hilary.

ROSEN: Yes. The issue isn't whether Mississippi or whether it's Alabama, I don't think that Barack -- those are not swing states. We have 14 battleground states in this country that are going to decide this election.

BEGALA: That's right.

ROSEN: Women are going to make up a part of that. They want to hear about the economy. That's not what they are hearing from the Republican candidates and that's why the president is leading in the battleground states.

MATALIN: They don't want the government ban religious institutions. You will lose that fight.

BURNETT: All right. Thanks very much to all of you.

ROSEN: I don't think so.

BURNETT: We appreciate it.

That's interesting one. Especially, Mary, you know, you are being a Democrat and a Southern here, and you are kind of stuck on both sides of them.

MATALIN: I love it. Bring it on.

BURNETT: Ahead: is Romney really the only choice the GOP has they want a shot at defeating President Obama?


BURNETT: We are less than 15 minutes away from the polls closing in Alabama and Mississippi and it is going to be one heck of a night yet again.

Mitt Romney predicts he's going to win a third of the delegates tonight. If he goes on the win the nomination, is he the one to beat President Obama?

Gloria Borger and David Gergen are here.

Could Rick Santorum do it? Or is Mitt Romney the only guy who --


BURNETT: That's right.

GERGEN: Theoretically.

BURNETT: OK. What about realistically?

GERGEN: But realistically, I think that Mitt Romney has the best shot, and the polls are bearing it out for now the last two the three or four weeks and Mitt Romney has run consistently better against the president than any of the other candidates?

BURNETT: Does anybody get out tonight, Gloria?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I don't think anybody gets out tonight. I think they all live for another day. They put out public rationale for why they live for another day. Even if Newt Gingrich were not to win one of these Southern states, they put out a public rationale and they call them internal memos and they distribute it to the entire media population.

So, I do not think that anybody gets out tonight, but if Mitt Romney wins one of these states, I think that you have to say that he is more than well on the way to getting the nomination, because this is the one big psychological hole he had, could he win a Southern state. BURNETT: You can't get a headline tomorrow of Mitt couldn't seal the deal then.

BORGER: Right.

GERGEN: That's right. If Mitt Romney wins one, by definition, Santorum or Gingrich has to lose two, and that person can go on, but the person in the press will be dead man walking.

BURNETT: What about, though, Newt Gingrich --you know, Wolf pointed out, you can't use super PAC to pay your staff. Campaign starts to have problems raising money. All of a sudden, it's the math. It's how much money you have. You're a dead man walking, if he doesn't well tonight.

BORGER: Super PACs have been funding these campaigns, which is why they have is gone so long as they have quite frankly, because there's no incentive to get out. But at the certain point, you do have to pay your staff, you do also have to have some kind of credibility with the voters.

And if you look at the exit polls, the Republican voters want somebody who can beat Barack Obama. If you have not proven that you have the organization or the votes, and they want somebody who's electable, you suddenly become less credible to the voters.

GERGEN: Yes, the governor of Mississippi said it well today when he's endorsed Romney. And he said, look, one of the conservative states in the country, and if you can't beat Mitt Romney in the most conservative states in the country, what argument do you have about why you're the conservative choice?

BURNETT: And that is the bottom line. And, of course, we are now just about 12 minutes away, 11 minutes away from the polls closing. It is going to be a very big night, again a nail-biter. We're going to take a break and CNN's election coverage with the polls closing and will there be a call starts right after this break.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The presidential race has been won by Governor Ronald Reagan of California.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Governor Clinton is now President Bill Clinton.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is too close to call.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Here is, George W. Bush reelected.

Barack Obama, president-elect of the United States. ANNOUNCER: This is CNN.


BLITZER: Right now, the Republican presidential candidates are in a Southern brawl.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're standing by for results that could rattle the GOP race once again.


NARRATOR: Tonight on new fight for the Deep South with jabs at Mitt Romney's weak spot.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm learning to say y'all and I like grits and strange things are happening to me.

NARRATOR: Two rivals jump at another chance to try to trip up the front-runner.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Unlike one of my competitors, I have had grits before.

NARRATOR: And knock each other out.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'd like if everybody drops out. That's not the way it works.

NARRATOR: Will all four candidates be standing after three new contests in Alabama, Mississippi and Hawaii?

It's America's choice.

Mitt Romney is the clear leader in the delegate race but he's still a long way from claiming the nomination.

ROMNEY: We're counting up the delegates for the convention and it looks good. We're counting down the days until November and that looks even better.

NARRATOR: Rick Santorum is giving Mitt Romney a run for his money after cutting into the Super Tuesday win.

SANTORUM: We have won in the West, the Midwest and South and we're ready to win across this country.

NARRATOR: Newt Gingrich, with proven appeal in the South, thinks this could be his night.

GINGRICH: If we win Alabama and we win Mississippi on Tuesday, for about the ninth time, the news media will suddenly be reporting a totally new race.

NARRATOR: The Republicans competing in two red states and on President Obama's home turf. When will they finally be able to focus on their ultimate goal?

REP. RON PAUL (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I never think it's do or die for anything. Everybody's still in the race.

NARRATOR: GOP concerns are growing, as the race keeps going and the candidates charge into battle again.



BLITZER: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer at the CNN election center.

In just a few minutes, all polling places close in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries -- new tests of the presidential candidates, right in the heart of the Republican country. Eighty-four delegates are at stake in those two states.

A little more than four hours from now, caucuses get under way in Hawaii. Seventeen delegates are at stake there.

The U.S. territory of American Samoa is also holding its caucuses. Those begin at 11:00 p.m. Eastern. That contest and the one in Hawaii won't be decided until very early in the morning Eastern Time. Nine delegates, by the way, are at stake in American Samoa.

Right now, CNN ballot cameras are strategically positioned in Alabama and Mississippi to bring you the results from those contests before anyone else.

We have the most crews and in the most locations including our correspondents covering the campaigns. Candy Crowley, Jim Acosta, Joe Johns, they are all standing by.

Let's go over to Candy. She's watching what's going on, as far as Mitt Romney the front-runner is concerned -- Candy.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, there is no event this evening for the Mitt Romney campaign. He will be watching in the privacy of a hotel room in New York City. But don't take that to mean they don't think they will do well tonight. In fact, they really are hoping to pick up at least one state and say no matter what happens, they'll be picking up delegates in all four of the contests tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Candy, stand by.

Jim Acosta is over at Rick Santorum headquarters at least in this night in Lafayette, Louisiana.

What's going on?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Rick Santorum is on his ideological home turf in Mississippi and Alabama -- the voters as culturally conservative as he is. And Santorum aides told me their internal numbers show they are doing well in Alabama. They see a Southern split as a good night for them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Jim, thank you.

Joe Johns is over at Newt Gingrich headquarters, at least on this night, in Birmingham, Alabama -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Newt Gingrich really needs a win here in Alabama, as he does in Mississippi. But his opponents are certainly making it very hard for him. This is a guy who is supposed to have the best political connections in the south of the candidates in the race.

He's also supposed to have the best connection to the voters. We'll see. It may come down to who's the most electable conservative -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Stand by as well.

Of course, Anderson Cooper is watching all of this. He's with us very step of the way -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, Wolf, let's take a look at where the GOP race stands right now as we countdown to the top of the hour and end of voting in Alabama and Mississippi. Mitt Romney has won 16 contests so far, Rick Santorum has won eight, newt Gingrich has won two and Ron Paul has not won any caucuses or primaries.

CNN estimates Mitt Romney has 459 delegates to date, Santorum has 203, Gingrich, 118, Ron Paul, 66. Remember, 1,144 delegates are needed to actually clinch the nomination.

Erin Burnett is keeping tabs on campaign money and ads and how they have been influencing tonight's battlegrounds.

Erin, what are you watching (ph) for?

BURNETT: All right. Well, Anderson, of course, a lot has been negative as you know, as it continues to be because of the role of super PACs. As you've seen, this funding season go on and on and on, it has been super PACs funding the lion's share of the ads.

Look at Alabama and Mississippi. Mitt Romney, the big spender, $142,000 of his own campaign money, not that much more than Newt Gingrich but when you add in super PACs, as usual, you see that big spending gap in favor of Mitt Romney, outspending his competitors combined using his super PACs by 2.3 to one, Anderson.

COOPER: Our analysts and our CNN contributors are standing by to give us their perspective on the vote and the stakes tonight. We have Gloria Borger and David Gergen, as always, working their sources hard, along with "The Best Political Team" right here in the election center.

Let's check in with John King with new exit poll information -- John. KING: Anderson, first, a quick look at the map. You see the dark red, that's Romney. The purple is Santorum. The question: who can win these Southern prices?

Speaker Gingrich has South Carolina and Georgia. He's hoping to extend the Southern sweep.

Senator Santorum desperately needs to win it.

Romney could win down here, though. It would change the dynamic of the race.

So, what are we learning from the exit poll tonight. Let's take a very quick look that we'll dig in throughout the night.

As we have seen in every state, the economy is issue one in both Mississippi and the state of Alabama. More than half of the voters, nearly six in 10 in both states say the economy is issue number one.

Here's something that might surprise you. These are conservative Southern states, right? Yet, three in 10 voters say they're moderate to liberal; 27 percent, somewhat conservative, 42 percent very conservative.

Move over to Alabama, roughly about the same -- 31 percent, 31 percent and 38 percent.

Let's take one sneak peek at our exit poll. Thirty-eight percent in Alabama say they're very conservative. How did they vote? Santorum led, Gingrich second, Wolf, Romney was third among very conservative voters in Alabama.

BLITZER: All right. John, we're going to be going through a lot of the numbers over the next few hours. We're watching what's going on very, very carefully -- within a matter of only seconds. The polls in both Alabama and Mississippi will be closed.