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Taliban Threaten "American Beheadings"; Obama: "As if Our Own Citizens Were Murdered"; Gas Prices Crushing President Obama?; More Arrests In Phone Hacking Scandal; Researchers: Dementia Can Be Reversed

Aired March 13, 2012 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S THE SITUATION ROOM: And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, vicious calls for American heads in Afghanistan. We're going live to Kabul, where escalating fallout from that deadly shooting massacre is exploding right now in the streets.

Also, the former Massachusetts governor fights to prove he's the true Southern gentleman in the Republican battle for the White House. Just ahead, my interview with the frontrunner, Mitt Romney.

And the Tide could be turning on the black market.

Why are so many thieves suddenly stealing laundry detergent?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos all straight ahead. I' I'm Wolf Blitzer in the CNN Election Center.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But first to Afghanistan, where the Taliban are now threatening -- threatening to behead Americans anywhere in the country. It's a steep price to pay for the lives of 16 Afghan civilians, allegedly taken by a U.S. soldier.

Let's get straight to our Sara Sidner.

She's in Kabul, where protesters have been flooding the streets -- Sara, you've talked with the Taliban representatives.

What are they saying about this threat of beheading American troops?

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I woke up this morning, Wolf, to an e-mail from the Taliban. And they said in that e-mail that they couldn't do anything else but take revenge for the killings by an -- a U.S. soldier, who is accused in killing 16 people, including nine women and three children. It went on to say that it would -- they would go after, particularly, any American anywhere here in Afghanistan. So a very strong threat from the Taliban. They didn't just mention U.S. forces or NATO allies, they said any American anywhere in the country.

Now, I want to give you some idea of what also happened today. Some violence has erupted and the Taliban is being blamed for it.

BLITZER: Sara, let's talk about that violence. It was in the same village where the massacre took place, is that right?

SIDNER: That is correct. And there is some video that has come out now from the village. There were two villages where this massacre took place. This is one of them. Basically, there was a group of high level Afghan officials, including two brothers of President Hamid Karzai.

Now if you'll listen here, you can hear the sounds of gunfire. I'm going to be quiet so you can hear that a bit now.

(VIDEO CLIP)

SIDNER: You hear people talking, crouching behind a large mud wall. There are even villagers there begging the soldier there...

(VIDEO CLIP)

SIDNER: -- there you're hearing the sounds of gunshots. You've -- you have these villagers begging the Afghan soldiers there to give them arms so that they can defend themselves and their families. The Taliban taking responsibility for this.

And this is an area that has already suffered because it is one of the villages where the massacre took place and many people were killed.

The group that was there from the Afghan government was investigating this massacre.

Now, hundreds of miles away, in Jalalabad, in Eastern Afghanistan, the first protests that we're really seeing that has bubbled up in the country, we saw hundreds of people out in the streets in Jalalabad. They were chanting, "Down with America! Down with Obama!" in response to Sunday's massacre.

But that did not turn violent. There was no damage or anything like that, just protests going on that blocked the road for some time. But that has now been cleared -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara Sidner on the scene for us.

Thank you.

Sara, be careful over there.

The president is taking his outrage over the massacre a step further today. And it's raising new questions about the legal implications for the alleged shooter.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is following this part of the story -- Chris, what are you seeing?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we've now learned that the military has determined there is probable cause to keep this soldier detained further. But a U.S. official says there is growing concern in the military that public statements may be used by a defense attorney to claim this suspect cannot get a fair trial.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): This was no mere apology. President Barack Obama bluntly described the massacre in Afghanistan as murder.

OBAMA: What I've made to President Karzai, when I spoke to him, is that the United States takes this as seriously as if it was our own citizens and our own children who were murdered.

LAWRENCE: White House officials tried to put the comment in context, explaining that investigators are still examining what happened.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: So I wouldn't go beyond that. And I think that -- that, you know, he was not going beyond that. The -- but it is a fact that these Afghan civilians, innocent civilians were killed.

LAWRENCE: Army investigators are collecting shell casings from the scene and interviewing the soldier's team and Afghan villagers who witnessed the attack. Traveling overseas, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta himself said the death penalty is a possibility.

LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Obviously, we were all deeply shocked and saddened by the event that occurred there.

LAWRENCE: But a look at somewhat similar cases reveals how rare capital punishment is. Former soldier Steve Green got life in prison for raping an Iraqi teenager and murdering her family during his tour of duty. The commander of an Army kill team who murdered Afghan civilians and took body parts as trophies could be released from prison in 10 years. And there's another mitigating factor in this current case -- the soldier in custody was injured during his last deployment in Iraq.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MAJORITY LEADER: And has traumatic brain injury. And he was returned back to duty. And that's one of the things the Pentagon is looking into.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

LAWRENCE: Now, the bodies of the victims were buried quickly, according to Islamic tradition. And it's highly unlikely they would be exhumed.

But an official tells CNN that because the victims were shot at close range in their homes, many of these high-powered bullets passed through the bodies and embedded themselves in the walls. He thinks ballistics will not be a problem. So right now, the suspect is being held in Kandahar, although these legal proceedings are likely to last well beyond his tour of duty, so it's likely at some point, he'll be brought back home to the United States -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a story. Chris Lawrence, thanks very much.

No -- no information yet about a possible motive in this investigation that's underway, is there -- Chris?

LAWRENCE: Well, my colleague, Barbara Starr, reported on -- on your program not too long ago, about a half an hour ago, that there is now some evidence and some suspicion that alcohol was found in this area. Now, the toxicology reports aren't back yet. They still have to wait on that. But that could be some factor in this.

But as to a pure motive, not yet -- Wolf.

BLITZER: OK, thanks very much.

Thanks very much for that, Chris Lawrence.

We'll stay on top of this story.

More on this story also coming up later.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty right now.

He's got The Cafferty File -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: How much is enough?

The United States has been in Afghanistan for more than 10 years. President Obama insists we will remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014.

Why?

What's going to be accomplished by staying in that Godforsaken hellhole for another 20 months that hasn't been accomplished in 10- and-a-half years?

Events are beginning to conspire against the U.S. mission there. We had pictures of U.S. Marines urinating on dead bodies. We had the accidental burning of the copies of the Koran, which further inflamed the hatred of the American presence there. And now we have a U.S. soldier allegedly massacring 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children.

The Taliban are threatening to begin beheading U.S. soldiers in response to this latest outrage.

Yet the Obama White House is out with a statement insisting that none of this will deter us from our my mission.

Which is what, exactly?

I have no idea what the hell we're still doing there anymore.

Isn't Osama bin Laden dead?

The Karzai government is a puppet regime barely friendly to our government and the rest of the country hates our guts -- not unlike the way we might feel if an army of occupation had taken up residence here in the United States and begun desecrating our dead, burning our bibles and massacring our women and children.

Not to be cynical, but it's my nature. The one thing that might hasten our departure from Afghanistan is if President Obama's reelection campaign is in trouble come Labor Day. Suddenly, with a second term in doubt, my guess is he might decide to move up the timetable for bringing our troops home.

Hey, whatever it takes. I don't know about you, I've had a belly full of Afghanistan.

Here's the question -- in light of recent events, what's the point of staying in Afghanistan?

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

BLITZER: You know, Jack, I also write about this on my blog today, our SITUATION ROOM blog post. You know, it's -- it's really amazing when you think about not only the lives and the tragedy over these 10 years, but how much money American taxpayers have spent -- hundreds of billions of dollars. And if the timetable, the current timetable continues, until the end of 2014, which is almost three years, $2 billion a week, $100 billion a year. That's $300 billion in taxpayer money that will go into this.

And a lot of people are asking, will that really make much of a difference, if the U.S. leaves in three months or three years?

CAFFERTY: And why don't the American people have anything to say about what we're doing?

We have no voice in any of this stuff anymore. They go into Iraq. They go into Afghanistan. They might go into Iran. We've got nothing. They just -- we just are kept in the dark and the government does whatever the hell it feels like doing, or preferably what it's being told to do by the people who pay the politicians' bills. Remember that warning from Dwight Eisenhower about the military industrial complex?

It's got this country by the throat.

BLITZER: All right, Jack.

Thanks very much.

Jack makes some excellent points there.

Mitt Romney gets slammed by his Republican opponents. I'm going to speak to the frontrunner. That's coming up this hour. We'll get his response to some of the latest attacks and a lot more.

And Syria faces a rebellion that's cost thousands of lives. Despite the mayhem, the government is about to make a move that some people find ridiculous.

And a new study says dementia can be delayed, stopped and sometimes even reversed. We have the details.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: In the Deep South, it isn't just Afghanistan the Republican presidential contenders are slamming the president on ahead of tonight's contests. They're also blaming him for the huge pain Americans are feeling right now at the gas pump. And it could become a major stumbling block in his battle for reelection.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, has some details of what's going on.

What is going on -- Jessica?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, you'll remember in 2008, then Candidate Obama campaigned against high gas prices. He did follow through on many of his promises, pushing for alternative energy and more fuel-efficiency.

But right now, it just doesn't seem to matter. Voters blame the occupant of the Oval Office when the price at the pump skyrockets.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): These candidates know rising prices at the pump can be kryptonite for an incumbent president.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe your energy speeches have been so patently incoherent that they are indefensible.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have a president who is 100 percent against anything that will create more energy independence.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: These gasoline prices are really crushing a lot of people.

YELLIN: A "New York Times"/CBS News poll indicates they could be crushing the president. It shows 41 percent of Americans now approve of the job the president is doing.

That's plummeted nine points in a point, despite comparatively good news on the jobs front and a rising stock market. The polls suggest gas prices are partly to blame. Over the last four weeks, the average price of a gallon of gas has risen 30 cents according to AAA. Independent experts say the rising because -- AMY MYERS JAFFEY, RICE UNIVERSITY: The conflict with Iran, the expected closures of refineries in the state of Pennsylvania, some refinery closures in Europe, and the fact that we're in a very tight oil market with turmoil in the Middle East.

YELLIN: Still, the "New York Times" poll shows 54 percent of Americans believe a president can do a lot to control gas prices. In other words, they want more. To combat this impression, the White House has been trotting out charts and giving speeches to show oil production is up and consumption is down, but clearly it's not enough. So this week, the White House brought in local reporters from key swing states, Florida.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As long as the gas prices are going up, people are going to feel like I'm not doing enough.

YELLIN: Ohio.

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think the American people understand that we don't have a silver bullet when it comes to gas prices.

YELLIN: It's a line you could hear from the president for many months to come.

JAFFEY: I think it's very unlikely that we're going to get relief with the pump. The summer could actually get worse, not better.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (on-camera): Now, Wolf, something to keep in mind about that "New York Times"/CBS poll, though the president's approval has plummeted, he is still either tied or beating each of the Republican candidates running for president. And there are some other factors that could be fueling his falling numbers.

Keep in mind the tensions with Iran, those have risen in the last month, and uncertainty in the Middle East, in general. Also, maybe those attacks from the Republican candidates and their Super PACs are taking a toll. -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Still a long, long time between now and November, and we don't yet know who the Republican nominee is going to be, Jessica, as you know. Thanks very much.

Syria's president announces parliamentary elections, and the state department responds with some tough words. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. Lisa, what's going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Bashar al- Assad is scheduling the elections for May 7th. It will be the first vote under the new constitution approved in February. Government officials say it shows his al-Assad's commitment to reform, but opponents say they'll boycott and claim the results will be fixed. A state department spokeswoman says, quote, "it's ridiculous to hold elections in the midst of the violence."

The former editor of the "News of the World" has been arrested again in the wake of the British tabloid phone hacking scandal. Rebekah Brooks, her husband, and four others were detained today on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Dozens of current and former employees of the tabloid have been arrested, but no one has been charged.

And a new study says dementia can be delayed, stopped, and sometimes, even reversed. Researchers say it all comes down to lifestyle. As with heart disease, they say dementia that develops later in life is usually the result of a combination of factors, including diabetes, obesity and stress. This does not apply to Alzheimer's, an estimated 20 percent of all dementia cases.

And steak lovers, beware. Too much of it may shorten your life. According to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the more red meat you ear, the higher the risk of dying at an early age. That's mainly because it's high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Researchers found eating just one serving of red meat a day increases your risk of dying by 13 percent.

Processed red meat increases that risk by 20 percent. I don't know about you, Wolf, but I like the occasional steak and burger. So, not --

BLITZER: Keyword, occasional.

SYLVESTER: That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much.

Thousands of dollars worth of one product is being stolen across the country. These thieves aren't taking jewelry, they're not taking electronics. They're taking, get this, laundry detergent. Why? We have details.

And we're only minutes away from getting our first look at exit polls from Alabama and Mississippi. Stay with us. My interview with Mitt Romney coming up as well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: If you had to guess what shoplifters like to steal, you might go with cigarettes or electronics, but police increasingly say the target for many thieves is Tide detergent. CNNs Brian Todd is explaining what's going on right now. Brian, what's going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this could be a reflection of today's economy or just a crime wave, but thefts of Tide detergent, which is not cheap, had been reported by several retailers and police departments. How serious is it? We're told that theft rings are hauling the stuff away by the cartful and putting it on the black market. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): You're looking at surveillance footage of a major heist. He's not stealing cash or jewelry, but detergent. Patrick Costanzo (ph) in St. Paul, Minnesota pleaded guilty to charges that he stole as much as $6,000 worth of detergent and other items over several visits to Wal-Mart. It's not isolated. This Safeway in Bowie, Maryland was a favorite target.

Police tell us one alleged theft ring shown here on surveillance stole several thousand dollars worth of Tide detergent in recent months. Why tide? At between $10 and $20 a bottle, a full cart like this is worth hundreds. Police say it can easily be resold on the black market for less than retail price. And --

(on-camera) In some cases, they're trading the stuff directly for drugs?

LT. BRADLEY PYLE, PRINCE GEORGE'S CO., MD POLICE: Yes, yes. Drug dealers are finally realizing I can take this $10 a rock and I can have you go out and try to steal something and get 10 bucks for it, get my $10 from you. Or, I can tell you I want five bottles of Tide, instead. Now, once they get win here and steal those five bottles of Tide, then they can turn around and give them to me.

Now, I take them down to the dirty store down the road, and I sell them for $6 apiece. So, they're telling on the rocks now, you owe (ph) me $30.

TODD (voice-over): Police in Prince George's County, Maryland say they've arrested 18 people in one ring for stealing detergent. How could they get away with such bulk?

CRAIG MUCKLE, SAFEWAY, INC.,: It's very easy to not know what's going on.

TODD (on-camera): Why? Why is it so easy to not see it?

MUCKLE: Well, because you're engaging your own activities. If you're here with your children, you, oftentimes, managing your kids.

TODD: Police and store officials say the thieves were so organized, they acted almost like NASCAR pit crews, staging unattended carts in the aisles, having lookouts all around, then they move through the aisles quickly, grab the Tide, pile it up in their carts, maybe throw their jackets so nobody can see, then they'd be out the door before anyone would notice.

TODD (voice-over): Now, some retailers like CVS are placing security devices on Tide that trigger alarms.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (on-camera): In Prince George's County, police tell us they expect to make more arrested members of that one ring very soon. They've devoted several undercover detectives to taking it down. I had a conversation with some of those detectives today, Wolf. It's fascinating how they operate in these cases.

BLITZER: Well, a quick question, Brian. When the thieves take the detergent, where do they sell it first?

TODD: I was told by some of those detectives that they'll often take it to small mom and pop stores who will buy it for less than retail price. Those stores will sell some of it themselves, then we're told some of those small store owners will ship it overseas to be sold, so they're kind of in on the deal themselves. This just keeps cycling back and forth, and it's hard to catch up with them sometimes.

BLITZER: Yes. Who would have thought? All right. Thanks, Brian. Thanks very much.

Soon polls will be closing in Alabama and Mississippi. Will Mitt Romney walk away with a win or two? He's live here in the SITUATION ROOM in just a few minutes.

And we're getting new exit polls coming into the SITUATION ROOM as well. We'll break down what voters are telling us. Stand by for that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. These numbers are just coming into the SITUATION ROOM. The first exit polls out of Mississippi and Alabama. Let's bring in John King. He's crunching the numbers for us as he does all the time. We're getting some trends. What do we see?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Fascinating to see just who voted and what's on their mind as they vote. Wolf, when just come through and show you during these two big southern states, Mississippi and Alabama, one of our big questions is who is voting? Look at this. That's a high number. 81 percent. Eight in 10 voters. This in Mississippi today said yes to the question are you a White born-again evangelical Christian? That's a pretty high number. Very important constituency.

One of the big questions for Governor Romney is can he wrap up votes here? One of the bog questions heading in with Santorum and Gingrich split this constituency. So, we're going to be careful. We don't want to get too deep into the polling right now, because the poll is still open, but that is a high number among the highest we have seen in any state, eight in 10 in Mississippi.

We go over just next door in Alabama, eight points lower, 73 percent, but still more than seven in 10 voters today, and this the Alabama Republican presidential primary identify themselves as evangelicals, a little more than a quarter --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Surprised in Mississippi and Alabama.

KING: It is an interesting point. BLITZER: Yes.

KING: The composition of the electorate. So then these voters are also asked -- this is Mississippi again, first, do the religious beliefs of the candidates matter to you? Do you care if they share your religious beliefs for example? Almost half, 45 percent. Again this is Mississippi, said it matters a great deal. Thirty-two percent said it mattered somewhat. You see the smaller numbers here, add them up, about 20 percent, not much or not at all.

It's an idea how much do the religious beliefs of the candidates -- this is one of the ways we can explore, does Governor Romney's Mormon faith help or hurt in the Deep South. In the past said -- some have said it would hurt. It's a fascinating thing to look at as the night plays out.

Again next door in Alabama, roughly the same numbers. Forty-four percent in Alabama say the religious beliefs of the candidates matter a great deal.

And Wolf, one other thing we want to look at here, you bring this over, both of these states do not have -- they're open primaries. They don't have party registrations so who showed up to vote today? Eight in 10 of the voters in Mississippi identify themselves as Republicans. This is a state, they just had a gubernatorial election, for example, the governor has endorsed Governor Romney.

They're trying to build -- 15 years ago, the Democrats had the best organizations in these southern states. Now it tends to be the Republicans. Eight in 10 in Mississippi identify themselves as Republicans. Look at this difference. Again this is the neighboring state, Alabama, 66, two-thirds of the voters identify themselves as Republicans. A much larger independent constituency here.

Now I just want to show one snapshot. We're not going to dig too deep into this data right now because the polls are still open, but we've been asking, if you look at the polls heading into this, what, dead heats in Alabama, dead heats in Mississippi, two-thirds of the electoral identify themselves as Republicans. And look at this. This is about as close as you can get, 34 percent to 31 percent to 31 percent. So you have a very tight race among the key group, the Republicans in the state of Alabama, Senator Santorum leading very slightly though. As the pollsters would say, that's a dead heat.

BLITZER: Yes. This is a dead heat among Republicans. Those who say they are Republicans.

All right. We got more numbers coming in through the night. This is going to be a fascinating night, John. Thank you.

Potentially no one says more to gain or lose in tonight's southern contests than the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich.

Let's bring in our senior correspondent Joe Johns. He's standing by with the latest in Birmingham, Alabama.

What's going on, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is the ballroom where we expect to see Newt Gingrich later this evening in Birmingham, Alabama.

Birmingham has had some very interesting weather today. A lot of rain this morning, so much so that the former speaker even had to cancel an appearance at a local zoo, so much rain. Then in the afternoon it cleared up. So that always raises the question whether turnout will have been very different in the morning than in the afternoon.

The big question, of course, as you said, for Newt Gingrich, is just how critical is it for him? He's sort of been trying to back away a little bit from that assertion that it's make-or-break for him, suggesting that if it's close, everybody who ran here will move on. So that said, we have seen some really interesting buzz surrounding Newt Gingrich over the last 24 hours, including a sort of back-and- forth feud with the White House spokesman over Newt Gingrich's proposal to install $2.50 gas if he were president. Of course, the White House spokesman saying that's a lie. Newt Gingrich responded we had a back and forth that went just about 24 hours. Let's listen to some of it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want to take this moment to respond to the president and to his press secretary, and say, first of all, Mr. President, I would be happy to debate you anywhere in the country anytime on energy.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

I believe your energy speeches have been so patently incoherent that they are indefensible. I would be glad to meet you at an oil rig somewhere, I'd be glad to meet you at a refinery, I'd be glad to meet you at a gas station. I'd even be willing to go to a university campus where you'll feel comfortable. But I --

(LAUGHTER)

And I would be happy in advance to agree that you can use a teleprompter.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: But it's a fallacy, as I said yesterday, to suggest that there is some three-point plan or five-point plan out there that could magically if you wave a wand reduce the price that Americans are paying for a gallon of gas.

I said yesterday that anybody who said that would be a liar, and I shouldn't have gone in motivation. I should have said that anybody who says that doesn't know what he's talking about.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JOHNS: Gingrich also attracted some attention today by suggesting that he and Rick Santorum might team up against Mitt Romney, actually to defeat Mitt Romney, which is something some conservatives have wanted to hear again and again over the course of this campaign.

It wasn't all good news, though, for Newt Gingrich today. The governor of the state of Alabama, Robert Bentley, saying on a radio program that he was going to vote -- or had actually already voted for Rick Santorum, but he didn't go as far as to give Rick Santorum an endorsement. So it's very dynamic here in the state of Alabama and I think in Mississippi as well, Wolf, and in fact very exciting politics. Back to you.

BLITZER: All right, Joe, thanks very much.

As we wait for the polls to close, Governor Mitt Romney is standing by live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're going to talk about Afghanistan, the economy and other subjects. Stand by, my interview with the Republican presidential frontrunner, that's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The first polls in tonight's southern contests set to close just a little bit more than an hour from now. One person sure to be keeping a very close eye on the results, the Republican presidential frontrunner, the former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney. He's joining us now.

Governor, thanks very much. I know you have a limited amount of time. Let's get right to Afghanistan because the situation there seems to be going from bad to worse. Even Newt Gingrich said this. He says, "I think it's going to be substantially worse, not better. And I think that we are risking -- we are risking young men and women in a mission that may frankly not be doable."

Is it time to start getting out of Afghanistan much more quickly than President Obama has in mind which is -- he wants everyone out by the end of 2014?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, it's certainly time on a regular basis to review our mission there and to see what progress we're making. And not to make decisions based upon some -- actions by a crazed gunman. We don't determine our foreign policy based on something of that nature, but of course from time to time we have to assess what the process is there.

I'm very disappointed that the president has not, over the last year or two, talked about what's happening in Afghanistan, what progress is being made, what setbacks there, describing a timetable that makes sense or describing why his timetable makes sense or not as the case may be.

My own view is, we have to listen to the commanders on the ground, hear what they have to say. We're going to hear input from General Allen in just a few days. Let's hear -- let's hear their reports and see what prospects we have for having a successful mission of turning over as soon as possible the responsibility for the security of Afghanistan to the security troops there.

BLITZER: So do you agree or disagree with Gingrich that the mission may not be, in his word, doable?

ROMNEY: Well, yes, there is no certainly in a matter of foreign policy of this nature, of course, and one recognizes that, as one goes into a conflict, but one over time collects information to see what progress is occurring, what setbacks are occurring. But you don't make it an abrupt shift in policy because of the actions of one crazed deranged person. But, of course, you assess your prospects over time, again, given the input of the people closest to the -- to the action.

But at this stage, to say we're going to throw in the towel without getting the input of General Allen, or actually making trips to Afghanistan and meeting with leaders there, and meeting with our commanders there and troops there, that wouldn't make a lot of sense. I'm more deliberate when it comes to the lives of our sons and daughters and the mission of the United States of America.

BLITZER: The super PAC that supports Rick Santorum has come out with a very tough commercial or very tough attack ad against you. I want to play a little clip and then we'll get your response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mitt created Romney-care, the blueprint for Obama-care. And just like Obama, Romney left Massachusetts $1 billion in debt.

Who can win? Rick Santorum.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. I'm going to give you a chance to respond to Rick Santorum's super PAC.

ROMNEY: Well, you know, it's been interesting. The Fact Check has looked at Rick Santorum's claims over the last several ads, and the things he said, and I think in almost each every case, they've said that Rick Santorum's attacks have been baseless and wrong. I think they have something called Pinocchios. They gave him four Pinnochios or something like that.

I'm not going to get into discussing various ads, but obviously we left Massachusetts with over a $2 billion rainy day fund and a balanced budget. So I'm afraid his conclusions are exactly wrong. But, you know, 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.

BLITZER: Why do you think he's at a desperate end of his campaign?

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

I understand that, but I would hope that you'd use truth as one of the pillars of your strategy as opposed to trying to come up with one attack after another that frankly has been determined by those who take a careful look from the outside to be inaccurate.

BLITZER: One of the criticisms you've leveled against Senator Santorum when he was a sitting U.S. senator was he repeatedly voted to raise the nation's debt ceiling. Here's the question to you. If you're elected president of the United States, will you make a commitment not to raise the nation's debt ceiling anymore?

ROMNEY: Well, I made it very clear when this last question came up about raising the debt ceiling that I would not have raised that debt ceiling without getting an agreement to cut cap and balance the budget. And I continue to believe that that's the right course. And if I'm president, I will cut, cap and get American on track to have a balanced budget. That's what we have to do.

And if we don't do those things, we should say look, we're not going to raise the debt ceiling, we're not going to keep on opening our children's future to politicians that want to spend away that future by borrowing from the Chinese and others. So my view is very simple and straightforward. My plan is to get America on track for a balanced budget by cutting and capping federal spending.

BLITZER: So do I understand that to mean that's a commitment that no more increases in the nation's debt ceiling, if you're president?

ROMNEY: Any increases in the debt ceiling are going to have to be accompanied by compensating cuts in federal spending and making sure that we get ourselves on track to having a balanced budget.

BLITZER: Governor, thanks very much. I know we have a limited amount of time. Appreciate your spending a few moments with us. I appreciate it very much.

ROMNEY: Thanks, Wolf. Good to be with you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

All right. We just heard from Mitt Romney. Just ahead our political team considers what he have to say about his run for the White House.

Also, running for president may seem punishing, but it's nothing compared to what we call pizza roulette. We're going to explain.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. Let's break down what we just heard from Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney. Joining us now, our senior political analyst David Gergen and our chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, the anchor of "STATE OF THE UNION." On Afghanistan, Candy, I thought what he said was, you know what, I would need to study it more. He did not take a firm position that this is open-ended or ready to pull out. He wants to talk to the commanders.

CANDY CROWLEY, ANCHOR, CNN STATE OF THE UNION: That he took a firm position that this one, as he put it, should not derail what the mission is. It should not -- you know, you just don't have something like this happen and then pull out. It differentiates him from Newt Gingrich. It stays consistent with what he's said in the past, which is you've got to consult with the folks on the ground. And, you know, I actually thought it was a pretty solid answer because it's a -- more and more we're seeing Republicans go time to get out, time to get out. And he didn't say that.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, but what's interesting is, there is now the start to be -- starting to be a rush for the exits. You know, with the Obama administration --

BLITZER: But Newt Gingrich says it's not doable anymore, may not be doable the mission, that's something.

GERGEN: Exactly, and Rick Santorum is beginning to talk as if we ought not to be there, but even within the White House as we learned today there are these, you know, strong forces now to accelerate withdrawal. And it's the commanders on the ground that Mitt Romney talked about who are the ones resisting to faster --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: We have General Allen here in THE SITUATION ROOM yesterday, solid operation, things are going along, making progress.

GERGEN: And he stuck with it.

BLITZER: Yes.

GERGEN: He's stuck with --

BLITZER: He stuck with it.

GERGEN: Yes.

BLITZER: Santorum, he called him right now, he's in a desperate situation.

CROWLEY: Which is funny because early today Santorum said that Romney was desperate, so it all depends on your perspective. Listen, they feel, and I think you saw a very confident Mitt Romney in this interview. He came across, you know, really calm, very -- and looked, you know, had the American flag and all that, but he really was on his game in that interview.

And I think it's because they truly believe they've got it, that they are -- that they're going to run this through, and they're not going to come out go, it's over, it's over, time for you to get out, but they truly believe that.

GERGEN: Yes, and Candy and I were talking about, Wolf, together watching it and said to each other, you know, as he's more confident, he's also starting to look more presidential. And I think he thinks it's going to be a closer race than we thought three weeks ago. When it looked like everybody in Washington was basically beginning to say, you know, maybe there's not going to be contest. Obama is going to run away with this. We had polls this week that showed, wait a minute, guys, this could be a very close race.

BLITZER: Yes. This was -- a lot of time between now and November. A lot can happen in the jobs front, the economy front, the national security front. This is wide open right now. Let no one thing it's over by any means.

Did you hear that he made a commitment that if he were president, and he might be president, of the United States that he would never again raise the debt ceiling? Did you hear a commitment, Candy?

CROWLEY: No. I heard --

BLITZER: What did you hear?

CROWLEY: I heard I won't raise the debt ceiling unless there are corresponding cuts. He didn't even say they had to be the same but he just said -- which is the -- has been the standard Republican position mostly about the debt in the last, what, you know, 14, 18 months. But --

BLITZER: But he's been very critical of Santorum when Santorum was senator and was voting to raise debt ceiling.

GERGEN: Yes, he had. But I did think he had that exception. We won't raise it unless we get this commitment. But you know, Wolf, as Secretary Geithner has been making clear, we may burst this debt ceiling here in the fall. It could be to Mitt the most important problem on the new president's desk come January.

BLITZER: But if -- they're going to have to make some major cuts this time, if they're going to get any of these Republicans to go along, don't you think?

GERGEN: We're going to have one heck of a battle in Washington after these elections are over. The lame duck session of some 60 days is going to bring huge problems. But they may all get postponed by that lame duck Congress over into the desk of the next president. Especially if it's Mitt Romney.

BLITZER: Very quickly, what's the most important thing you're looking for in Alabama and Mississippi other than who wins?

(LAUGHTER)

CROWLEY: Listen, you know, we always look at the demographic. And we know that Mitt Romney has had trouble. And we just saw with those exit polls how many people self-identified as born-again evangelicals. So if you just look at those numbers, you'd say, whoa, this looks like it might be a tough night for Mitt Romney. If he does well this begins to answer at least one of the questions about him.

GERGEN: But tonight we're also looking at who loses and by how much. Because if anybody winds up third in both of them, whether it's Gingrich or Santorum, it's very difficult to see how that individual goes forward.

BLITZER: I mean Gingrich has to one of these states.

GERGEN: He has to win one of them.

BLITZER: Don't you think?

GERGEN: I think that's right.

BLITZER: In order to continue realistically?

CROWLEY: Yes, I think the pressure is on Mitt -- is on Newt Gingrich to win at least one of them.

BLITZER: Yes.

CROWLEY: And the pressure is on Mitt Romney to do well.

GERGEN: I agree with that.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Thanks very much.

GERGEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: And don't go too far away because it's going to be a fun night. Let's go to Jack for the "Cafferty File." Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Question this hour, we got a lot of response to this. In light of recent events what's the point of staying in Afghanistan.

Larry writes, "Afghanistan is the keystone between Pakistan and Iran. It's also the other border with Iran opposite of Israel. It's a strategic military country. The neo-cons already have the next war planned."

David writes, "The point? There is no point. I just came from serving in that country. There is nothing there."

Daniel writes, "Unless you're prepared to stay for 30 years we ought to leave immediately. The 2014 pullout date is political, nothing more."

Andre writes, "Point of staying? To gain forgiveness. The euro nations in this event are not representative of America's character."

Stephanie on Facebook, "There isn't one. This guy snapping and shooting innocent people is proof enough that sending and resending our troops there takes a severe mental toll on them. It's not healthy and obviously it's not helping the people there or helping us."

Jerry in Wisconsin writes, "We'll be out within the next six months. Obama will time this to take the maximum political advantage. What a resume to take into November. We got Osama bin Laden, save the auto industry and ended two wars."

And Linda writes from Arizona, "We're not finished helping the Afghan people yet, Jack. I know that they're grateful, and I'm certain if we're there long enough we can do even more to build their democracy and then they'll finally become as civilized as we are."

If you want to read more on the subject, like I said, we got a ton of mail, he tried to say. Go to the blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM's Facebook page.

People getting fed up with this nonsense, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I think you're right. And certainly the polls underscore that, Jack. Thank you.

Just about everyone has a favorite pizza topping. Some diners at a pizza joint enjoy a little shock and surprise with their pies and the drama is all over the Internet. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The odds are in your favor but you'll be tortured if you lose. Still people are putting their tongues on the line to play pizza roulette.

Here's CNN's Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Who would want a pizza that makes you feel like this?

Pizza from hell. Literally a pizza chain called Hell. And their latest offering is Pizza Roulette. Only one of the eight slices is laced with one of the hottest chilies known to man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. That's it.

MOOS: The lucky slice gets a couple of drops of something called Blair's 3:00 a.m. reserve which contacts extracts from chilies like the ghost pepper which does this to a person.

Mama Mia. Imagine that in your pizza.

The idea is for a group to buy a pizza and see who gets the doctored slice. Only this guy played pizza roulette all by himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm playing pizza roulette by myself and it was just the first piece. It's so hot.

MOOS: Hell pizza comes in a box that can be turned into a coffin. The chain started in New Zealand which is where the Pizza Roulette marketing gimmick has been introduced. The compulsion to ingest something you know will make you miserable has inspired something called the "Cinnamon Challenge" on the Web. People are trying to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon.

Not even Mary Poppins can make this go down. Like the cinnamon challenge has been put to music.

This guy. Planned to sing his way through the cinnamon challenge. Do we really have to say, don't try this at home? The stuff blocks your passages.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you put it in water you see how it stays clumped.

MOOS: Doctors say it can cause broncho spasms that you could even end up on a ventilator.

KRISTIN KLINGSHIRN, "THE BART SHOW": Yes, I couldn't stop throwing up. I had to go to the urgent treatment center, get a shot of Benadryl, Cortisone, Fenegrin, it was a nightmare.

MOOS (on camera): The next thing you know they'll combine the cinnamon challenge with pizza roulette.

(Voice-over): Hold the pepperoni. Pile on the cinnamon. But skip the bravado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A shout out to my girl.

MOOS: Shout out to his girl? He shouted like a girl.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. The news continues next on CNN.