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THE SITUATION ROOM

Romney Doubles Down on Controversial Remarks; New Presidential Poll Numbers

Aired September 19, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: two brutal days under fire. Now Mitt Romney launches a counteroffensive.

New polls on the impact of the -- quote -- "47 percent" comment.

Plus, Jesus talking about his wife. A scrap of an ancient text revives an ancient debate.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

They are words that put knots in the stomachs of many Republicans, their presidential nominee writing out Obama supporters at dependent victims. But forget about an apology. Despite widespread criticism, Mitt Romney is grabbing his remarks, running with them, and trying to turn the tables using the president's own words of a long time ago.

CNN national political Jim Acosta is traveling with the campaign in Miami.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Elections are about always choices, but I think the choice is in more stock relief than most elections.

This is how America works. It does not work by a government saying become dependent on government.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The GOP nominee is now weaving his controversial riff on government dependency into his campaign speeches, like the one he gave at this fund-raiser in Atlanta.

ROMNEY: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.

All right, there are 47 percent who are with him who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.

ACOSTA: Less than two days after explaining his remarks in this secret footage leak to "Mother Jones" as inelegant, Romney published an op-ed in "USA Today" saying, "Under President Obama, we have a stagnant economy that fosters government dependency."

Add to that the comments made by then-state Senator Obama in 1998 leaked to The Drudge Report.

BARACK OBAMA (D), ILLINOIS STATE SENATOR: Because I actually believe in redistribution.

ACOSTA: And the GOP is trying to get back in business.

Take the new Web video tying the remarks to what the Romney campaign considers to be a history of anti-business rhetoric from the president and new lines of attack from the top.

ROMNEY: This idea of redistribution follows from the idea that if you have a business, you didn't build it. Someone else did that. It's the same concept.

ACOSTA: And bottom of the ticket.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: President Obama said that he believes in redistribution.

(BOOING)

RYAN: Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: If we win on November 6...

ACOSTA: The Romney campaign had been all over the map on the hidden camera video. In local TV interviews, Paul Ryan seemed to say Romney used a poor choice of words.

RYAN: He was obviously inarticulate in making this point. And the point we're trying to make here is under the Obama economy, government dependency is up and economic stagnation is up.

ACOSTA: Still, some in the GOP are piling on.

In "The Wall Street Journal," columnist Peggy Noonan wrote, "There is a broad and growing feeling now among Republicans that this thing is slipping out of Romney's hands."

Democratic leaders took to the Senate floor in the hopes of making the tape stick.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MAJORITY WHIP: We remember the highlights. "Corporations are people, my friend," he said. "I like being able to fire people."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (on camera): And Romney has more damage control to do after saying in that hidden camera video that he might have an easier time being elected president as a Latino. He's campaigning in Florida, where he will be reaching out to, who else, but Hispanic voters -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now Romney has some more damage control to do on another front. After initially saying in that hidden camera video that he might have an easier time being elected president were he Latino, he is campaigning in Florida, where he is reaching out to who else but Hispanic voters right now.

He is getting ready to do a candidate's forum with the Spanish- language TV station Univision and then later on this evening, he will be here in Miami at this event that I'm standing at. Right now, you can see the sign over my head. (SPEAKING SPANISH) That means "Together With Romney."

He will have his son Craig with him at his side. Craig, by the way, speaks fluent Spanish -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we will be watching, obviously.

Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.

We're also getting a first look at what Romney's remarks could cost him on Election Day. The "USA Today"/Gallup poll conducted last night finds 20 percent of registered voters saying they are more likely to vote for Romney based on what he said, but 36 percent say they're less likely to vote for him, 43 percent say the remarks make no difference.

Among critical independent voters, 15 percent say they're more likely to vote for Romney; 29 percent less likely, and 53 percent say his comments make no difference.

If those numbers don't give the Romney campaign some pause, our brand-new CNN poll numbers from a critical battleground state should.

Our chief national correspondent, John King, is joining us now from Sterling Heights in Michigan. That's just north of Detroit.

John, how is all of this playing out in Michigan?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, of late, Nevada has had the unwelcome distinction of being the state with the highest unemployment rate.

But, before Nevada, for months and months and months, it was Michigan that had that dubious distinction. That, the high unemployment rate and plus strong local roots gave Mitt Romney hope he might be able to turn the state from blue to red, or at least from blue to competitive. But our brand-new poll numbers suggest, Wolf, the governor might have to look elsewhere.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): It is the defining question and a statement Romney was counting on as a fall battleground. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who do you think would do a better job of improving the economy, the Republicans or Democrats?

KING: Romney was born and raised here and his father was governor and an auto industry CEO. But so far, all signs point to Michigan and its 16 electoral votes staying blue, in the president's column.

A new CNN/ORC International poll shows the president with an eight-point lead statewide among likely voters and a 13-point edge in the critical Detroit suburbs of Macomb and Oakland counties.

BARBARA VANSYCKEL, MACOMB COUNTY GOP CHAIRWOMAN: He's pretty down to earth when you meet him. I don't think he comes across as much that way when you see him on television.

KING: Macomb County GOP Chairwoman Barbara VanSyckel still holds out hope, but concedes time is getting tight.

VANSYCKEL: The philosophies are different enough, but people also want to vote for someone they like. For some reason, they don't seem to connect with Romney the way they do with Obama.

KING: It's not that Michigan is booming. Hardly. The unemployment rate is 9 percent, but that's down from 11.3 percent when President Obama took office. And again, while hardly gangbusters, manufacturing employment is up 57,500 jobs during the Obama presidency, 34,000 of those in the auto industry.

JOE CEFALI, UNION CHRYSLER WORKER: You feel rejuvenated. You feel, yes, we have a future.

KING: Joe Cefali was laid off in 2009 as Chrysler teetered on the work of collapse. He was looking for work in Texas and Tennessee when help came from Washington.

(on camera): You think that you're working today because of President Obama?

CEFALI: Yes. If he didn't come through and give that vote, say, hey, yes, we have got to save Chrysler, we have got to save GM, we have got to do this, all of Sterling Heights would have been gone, would have been dead.

KING (voice-over): A pro-Romney super PAC this week is making one more push here. But the Romney campaign isn't spending any money. And the candidate himself hasn't visited in a month.

ROMNEY: I love being home.

KING: Barring some sudden shift, even top Romney allies here expect the focus to be elsewhere.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KING: If you look deep into our new poll, the two candidates, Governor Romney and President Obama, are splitting the vote in the suburbs and splitting the vote among who describe themselves as independents, but President Obama has a big lead among women and significantly a 13-point lead among union households here in Michigan.

That union household a bit of solid evidence that the auto bailout is helping the president and especially in counties like this, where the car factories are big.

BLITZER: Yes, it will probably wind up helping him in Ohio as well. But we will see. John, thanks very, very much.

Other big news we're following today, including the release of that final report on that Fast and Furious controversy.

We got all the information, Kate. What is going on?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All the information is finally out, a report many people had been waiting to see.

At least two people are now leaving the Justice Department in the wake of that long-awaited report on the controversial gunrunning program known as Fast and Furious. It put guns in the hands of Mexican drug cartels. Two of the weapons were then later linked to the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Congress has been looking into this, and so has the inspector general of the Justice Department.

CNN crime and justice correspondent Joe Johns has all of the details on this long-awaited report.

Joe, what does the report say?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: The premise of Operation Fast and Furious was almost cinematic. It was supposed to be a sting involving about 2,000 firearms. This new report shows some of the agents on the ground thought they were on to something so big it could make their careers. But that's not how it turned out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): It's the closest thing so far to a definitive account of an investigation that almost everybody agrees was a terrible idea, allowing firearms to slip south of the border to try to catch the cartels that were doing the gunrunning in Mexico.

Larry Alt is one of the ATF agents who blew the whistle.

LARRY ALT, ATF SPECIAL AGENT: I found it egregious that we were observing the transfer of firearms to persons that we knew were ultimately transferring these guns to persons in Mexico and we were not taking an enforcement action .

JOHNS: A report from the Justice Department's inspector general said Operation Fast and Furious and related matters revealed a series of misguided strategies, tactics, errors in judgment and management failures that permeated ATF headquarters and the Phoenix field division and at the headquarters of the Department of Justice.

It referred 14 people for possible disciplinary action, but did not recommend anyone for criminal prosecution. And almost within an hour of the report's release, two of the highest-ranking individuals named in the report were out, former ATF Director Kenneth Melson and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein.

It also found no evidence that Attorney General Eric Holder knew anything about Operation Fast and Furious prior to January 2011.

I asked Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz if this meant Holder had been exonerated. Holder was cited with contempt of Congress for failing to turn over documents in the matter.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: No. This is his organization. He should take some personal responsibility to this. To suggest that everything he said was right and that everything Congress did was wrong is -- would be a mischaracterization of what has moved forward here.

JOHNS: Holder issued a statement saying -- quote -- "It is unfortunate that some were so quick to make baseless accusations before they possessed the facts about these operations, accusations that turned out to be without foundation and that have caused a great deal of unnecessary harm and confusion."

Still, Larry Alt wants to see those responsible held accountable.

ALT: But certainly I would say that the persons responsible for this case, both at the field level, the division level, and at the headquarters level, and as far as it went into the Department of Justice should be held accountable for any decision that they made that allowed these guns to go on the street unmonitored.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: There is a hearing on Capitol Hill tomorrow. The Justice Department's inspector general is expected to testify about his new report. Democrats and Republicans are both claiming they have been vindicated -- Kate.

BOLDUAN: Yes, and it seems like this will be the closest thing anyone will have for an answer to all of the questions surrounding this horribly botched operation.

Joe Johns all over it. Thank you so much, Joe.

BLITZER: An ominous sign in Afghanistan, NATO suspends patrols with Afghan security forces after a series of deadly attacks. We will talk about what this means with Fareed Zakaria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, this just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

The White House says President Obama held a videoconference today with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, among other topics, the violence against NATO and U.S. troops by Afghan security forces. The comes after the head of NATO forces announced that he is severely limiting joint patrols by his troops with the Afghan military.

The order by the American General John Allen follows a series of insider attacks, deadly ones, by uniformed Afghanis that have left more than 50 NATO troops dead this year alone.

And Fareed Zakaria is joining us right now from New York.

Fareed, it's pretty shocking to me that there are about 80,000 troops in Afghanistan. They are supposed to stay, at least a large number of them, for at least another two years, until the end of 2014, but no longer do we trust Afghan military personnel or police so that U.S. forces, NATO forces can go out on joint patrols with them because the U.S. is afraid they will kill American troops. This is outrageous.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: Wolf, it's a breakdown of the entire strategy that we have put into place ever since really General Petraeus announced the counterinsurgency doctrine about 10 years ago or eight years ago, because the heart of counterinsurgency is build trust among the locals, the locals know the land better, they know the people better.

So when you try to figure out who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, what areas you need to secure, how you secure them, that's all done with the help of and through the locals. If you can't trust the locals, if you can't trust the people who will be your guides, what are we doing there?

I think what we really need to be asking ourselves is have we expanded the Afghan army and police force way too fast in the search for the exits? And if that's the case, we need to stop that expansion, we need to weed out the bad elements. But as long as we're there, we have to do joint patrols with locals. I don't quite understand how this would work.

BLITZER: Here is a line you wrote in your column in "The Washington Post" the other day, and let me read it to you and let you explain what is going on here.

It involves the U.S., Israel, and Iran. "Israel's rhetoric over the past year had seemed to me designed to force the international community into action and the United States into hyper-action."

You go on to write, "We should have a national debate before the United States finds itself going to war in the Middle East again on autopilot."

What is your major concern here, Fareed?

ZAKARIA: My major concern, Wolf, is that in order to assure the Israelis and this Israeli government, I should say, to be very clear -- because many Israelis feel very differently -- but in order to assure the current Israeli government that we are taking every effort we can, we are locking ourselves into certain almost guarantees of action.

If the Iranians do this, we will certainly not allow them to acquire a nuclear weapon. We will be vigilant. All options are on the table. The more such statements you make, frankly, the less room you leave yourself to maneuver.

And we might find ourselves in a situation where in order to take care of Israel's concerns, we lock ourselves into a kind of train to war where we don't really have an easy exit. I think that if we are going to strike Iran, we should recognize that this is a major, major military adventure or mission.

It is in effect the third Middle Eastern war we will be starting. It could have very large repercussions. Iran is three times the size of Iraq with three times the population. We need to be very clear that we're doing this understanding all of that, rather than almost as I say on autopilot, because we have put into place certain guarantees that we have made to the international community, certain threats we have made to the Iranians.

There's a line in international relations theory that Thomas Schelling uses. He says two things are very expensive in international politics, promises when they succeed and threats when they fail.

My fear is that we're putting in place promises and threats without being conscious of them.

BLITZER: And it's certainly worthy of a major national debate, as you point out, before another war begins.

Fareed, thanks very much, as usual.

ZAKARIA: My pleasure, Wolf.

BLITZER: And please be sure to watch Fareed Zakaria's special, "Global Lessons: Putting America to Work." It airs this Sunday night 8:00 p.m. Eastern only here on CNN.

BOLDUAN: Still ahead: the rich getting richer. We will tell you where Bill Gates comes in on "Forbes"' new list of the wealthiest Americans.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BOLDUAN: Jesus married? Good question. An ancient scrap of papyrus reignites one of history's biggest debates.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: He wants to cut USA aid to Libya, Egypt, and Pakistan. Senator Rand Paul is joining us to explain why.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Four billion dollars a year in aid to Pakistan, Libya, and Libya. Now one U.S. lawmaker is demanding justice in return.

BOLDUAN: That's absolutely right.

And Congress is expected this week to accomplish a rare achievement, if you can call it that, avoiding yet another government shutdown. The House easily passed a six-month stopgap spending measure last week. The Senate is expected to follow suit, so lawmakers can go home and focus on campaigning ahead of the election.

But, to Wolf's point, one senator is threatening to hold that up, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. And here's why. He's demanding a vote the pull U.S. aid from Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt. Listen here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: My position is not one penny more for Libya or Egypt, or Pakistan until they act like our allies. So some say we have to keep sending it, fine. Let's send it when they act like our allies. Let's send it when they start behaving like civilized nations and come to their senses.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: That kind of talk sent off a wave of some pretty tough criticism coming from both sides of the isle.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The arrogance of suggesting that we're going to judge whether or not they're civilized today or tomorrow because a mob, or a bunch of militants take matters into their own hands, would just be, you know, so self-defeating, narrow effort you could possibly conceive of.

It would have a profoundly negative impact that could contribute to even more violence, not stem it, if that were our reaction.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: And if we turn our backs now on the millions of people in Libya, and Egypt, and Syria, and other countries across the Middle East, people who share so many of our values and interests, people who are the true authors of the Arab Spring, we will hand our common enemies, the terrorists and extremists, the very victory that they seek.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And Senator Rand Paul is joining us from Capitol Hill right now to talk about his bill. Go ahead and respond to Senator McCain, Senator Kerry, because obviously, they're united against you, Senator.

PAUL: Well, the interesting thing is they may not realize it yet, but they do partially agree with me. Today, Senator Kerry said in the foreign relations committee that Iraq, which is letting Iran fly over Iraq to supply Syria, maybe their aid should be contingent on them not allowing these fly-overs by Iran. So obviously, he is saying that the behavior of a country should have something to do with whether they receive our aid.

And particularly with Pakistan, he may agree or not agree, but the American public agrees with me that we shouldn't send money to a country that tortures and then is incarcerating the man who helped us get bin Laden. He's in jail for the rest of his life. That's not the true behavior of a true ally, and I think their aid should be contingent on them acting like an ally.

BOLDUAN: And, Senator, listen to what -- something Fran Townsend, the former homeland security advisor to President George W. Bush, what she told us last week as we asked her just -- about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's a fraction, frankly, of the U.S. budget, but it's a huge return on investment when you're trying to convince people that what the United States engages in is not an assault on Islam. You're trying to sort of establish a credibility with the people of those countries. You want to continue humanitarian aid.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: So what do you say to that? I mean, she says that's a huge return on investment when you're trying to establish credibility in those -- in those countries. Does she not have a fair point?

PAUL: Well, you know, it's a pretty consistent argument up here from those who don't care about deficits to say, "Well, it's just $30 billion." They say that about every $30 billion in the budget, and so it goes on and on and on.

But the other question is do you think you can bribe people and make them your friends? England is truly our friend, but we don't have to bribe them with money. Or France or Germany. Many of these countries that we've given money to, the money has been stolen. Look at Mubarak. His family, his kids and his wife and himself stole billions of dollars of our money. And yet, is Egypt really our ally? The president can't even answer that question. Are they our ally or are they not our ally?

Look at Mobutu in the Congo. Stole billions of our dollars. His country has no running water and electricity, and yet, he's got money to travel to Europe with his wife and buy shoes and hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars, spent on European shopping sprees.

Mugabe in Zimbabwe, same thing. They steal our money, they cash our check, and they snicker and turn aside and laugh at us. And I say no more. We've got trillion-dollar deficits. We can't do it any more.

BLITZER: You -- you and I have had this conversation over the years. Senator, your dad and I have had this conversation. Is it fair to say you've opposed all foreign aid to all countries for a long time? Not just these three?

PAUL: I've been pretty consistent that I think foreign aid is a bad idea. I think it's a bad idea to borrow money from China to send it to -- back to China, often.

But really, the whole concept, I think, is flawed. It doesn't mean we don't have to engage. The other side always says, "Oh, you want to disengage?" I want to have relations with Pakistan. In fact, I think Pakistan is really one of the most worrisome areas in the world right now, more worrisome than Iran, to tell you the truth. So I want to be engaged with Pakistan. I just don't think bribing them works.

BOLDUAN: Senator, one I think, important note that we should remind our viewers of is that, regardless of the filibuster threat, this -- this two-term spending measure, that you threatened to hold up, so it's going to happen. It's going to go through. Either, it's going to go through tomorrow or the Senate's going to have to stay in, and it's going to get passed on Sunday. So are you creating that gridlock that you came to Washington to stop and change?

PAUL: No, I'm fighting for the things I believe in, and the voters of Kentucky believe in, that we don't have money to keep wasting. And I think I'm very close to getting a vote on this.

So what you'll find is that, if you stand up, and the other side respects this. I've had several conversations with Senator Harry Reed. I don't think he agrees with me on this, but I think we have mutual respect and admiration for the fact that you can come up here, fight for things you truly, passionately believe in and then ultimately there will be a compromise.

I am willing to compromise, and part of getting this vote will mean that I will have to compromise and allow something I don't want to happen will happen, but there will be a give and take. And I think I have a very good chance right now, I think better than 90 percent chance that I'll have this vote.

BLITZER: One quick political question. The firestorm that's erupted over Mitt Romney's comments back in a fundraiser in Florida last May about this 47 percent who don't pay federal income tax, that they're victims, if you will. What -- do you agree with Mitt Romney on this issue? Because a few other of your Republicans, colleagues including Scott Brown of Massachusetts, they've run away from him as quickly as they can on this issue.

PAUL: I think some people look at this superficially, but if you look at it as to the difference between President Obama and Governor Romney, it's really about vision. President Obama thinks that you can grow the economy by hiring more government workers, more people who will become dependent on government.

Governor Romney knows that those people are in the wagon. They're not bad people. I mean, we all know someone who's been unemployed. I have family members who are schoolteachers. They're not bad people. But they are something that the private sector has to grow in order to hire government workers.

But your economy doesn't recover, and this is a fundamental problem that Mr. Obama misunderstands about our country. You cannot grow the economy by growing government and hiring more government workers. You have to grow the private sector so you can hire government workers.

BLITZER: So I can put you down as agreeing with Mitt Romney on those controversial words?

PAUL: Well, I would say that it illustrates the difference between the two candidates. You know, that really, I think Governor Romney really believes in the private sector, believes that we have to grow the government, the private sector.

I think President Obama believes the opposite, that we grow the government sector, and I think that's completely wrong.

BLITZER: Well, we won't get into a debate on that, but I think the president does want to grow the private sector, as well. Obviously, he strived to do his best and hasn't necessarily succeeded across the board, but he would like to see that private sector, private jobs, manufacturing jobs grow, as well. Different strategies on how to do it, but we'll leave that conversation for more down the road.

Senator, as usual, thanks very much. And please pass along our best to your dad, as well.

PAUL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, we'll have more of Mitt Romney's words and their impact on Capitol Hill.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Some Republican lawmakers are seeking cover from the fall-out from Mitt Romney's disparaging remarks about President Obama's supporters. And Romney portrayed them as dependent victims of government handouts.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is up on Capitol Hill. Dana, what's the latest?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I had conversations with so many Republican lawmakers here, and it was really stunning to me how many of them started their sentence with -- with what Mitt Romney thought Romney he was saying, or at least what he tried to say was, dot, dot, dot. They're trying to clarify what he said. And it really put them in an awkward position. And for those who are in trouble in their own races, it made them very nervous.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SEN. DEAN HELLER (R), NEVADA: There is no...

BASH (voice-over): Nevada's Dean Heller is one of the few Republican senators in a tough race this election year. He jumped at the chance to distance himself from Mitt Romney's now infamous caught- on-tape comments disparaging and dismissing 40 percent of the electorate.

"I don't write anybody off," said Heller. "I have five brothers and sisters. My father was an auto mechanic. My mother was a school cook. I have a very different view of the world," the Republican senator explained at a Capitol hallway where cameras are forbidden.

"One of the responsibilities of the federal government is a safety net. I believe in a safety net. I believe that's one of the responsibilities of the federal government," said Heller.

Other GOP lawmakers were even more candid. Maine's Susan Collins told CNN, Romney's comments were, quote, "unfortunate" and "unhelpful." "It clearly isn't helpful, and it's surprising that as disciplined a candidate would make those kinds of comments," said Collins, who went on to say she did think Romney can recover.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham says he thinks Romney has a bigger problem: he's spending too much time fundraising in safe states like Utah, not spending retail campaigning in swing states. "If I were Mitt Romney, no person in Virginia could go very long without meeting me," said Graham.

The unrelenting Democrats are downright giddy.

SEN. HARRY REID (R-NV), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: We have a long line of people who are running from Romney as if the Olympics were still on.

BASH: The House's No. 2 Democrat predicted the 47-percent controversy will help Democrats in swing districts. And the Democratic Campaign Committee is blasting out e-mails and press releases, trying to tie GOP candidates around the country to Romney's comments.

A fair number of Republicans, mostly those in safe seats, are defending at least the spirit of Romney's point.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: The idea is that, look, we have too many people who are on government dependence. We've got to move them off of it.

BASH: But perhaps the most telling moment of the day was the Senate Republican leader who almost always answers reporters' questions here, left this press conference early, and other GOP leaders...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you very much.

BASH: ... they didn't stick around for any potentially awkward questions on Romney either. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: Now GOP strategists who were involved in trying to retake control of the Senate for Republicans in November say that their goal all along, and their hope, was for Romney to at least stay competitive with President Obama, that's the top of the ticket for Republicans to continue to do well in their Senate races.

And I spoke with one top GOP source who said at this point what they're looking at is an open question about whether or not this is the beginning of a downward spiral for the Romney campaign, or if it is, quote, "just a rough patch" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll find out soon. The election is only 48 days away. Thank very much for that, Dana.

BOLDUAN: You can always expect Harry Reid to give a very giddy remark when this comes -- when things come to this.

Still coming up, a biblical mystery heating up because of the words on this ancient scrap. Is it proof Jesus had a wife? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: An ancient scrap of papyrus is reviving an equally ancient debate, was Jesus married?

BOLDUAN: A lot of people are talking about this. Experts have been carefully examining the remnant, which contains text saying that Jesus referred to, quote, "my wife." CNN's Lisa Sylvester has been looking into this, looking into -- I want to call it a controversy, but it's not. It's getting a lot of buzz.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly is, and this is going to be keeping scholars busy for a while. Experts who have examined it say it doesn't appear to be a forgery, but there is still a lot more tests to be done and academic scrutiny, but nonetheless, it is adding to the intrigue: did Jesus have a wife?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER (voice-over): It is a fragment, a faded piece of papyrus with this phrase: "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" It's written in the ancient Egyptian Coptic language. Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King did the translation.

KAREN KING, HARVARD DIVINITY SCHOOL PROFESSOR: When I first saw this fragment, it was actually through a photograph. And I couldn't believe it. Once we finally came to the decision that it said "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" it was really an astonishing moment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This new fragment actually has Jesus saying "my wife."

SYLVESTER: These findings are being presented in a new documentary on the Smithsonian Channel, what is being called "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife."

The fragment is an intriguing element to a question that has been debated for centuries: was Jesus, in fact, married? If so, was his wife Mary Magdalene? Earlier writings from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John make no reference to Jesus having a wife.

(on camera) What we are talking about was written on a scrap of paper no bigger than this business card, and what's missing in all of this is context.

REV. TOM REESE, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Very few words are legible on it: "Jesus," "disciples," "wife." But, you know, the question arises immediately, is this the same Jesus they're talking about? There were a lot of Jesuses running around in the Middle East.

HELLEN MARDAGA, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF NEW TESTAMENT: Although it is authentic, it is not canonical, which means that it is not inspired words of God, because it's not part of the canon. Not part of the 27 books of the New Testament.

SYLVESTER: Where did it come from? The papyrus belongs to a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous. A preliminary examination by experts determined it looks to be consistent with the period between the second and fourth centuries. And the rest of the supposed gospel, what happened to it? King, based on the condition, says it may have been discarded, with only this piece salvaged from a garbage heap.

This fragment, mysterious as it is, doesn't offer a definitive conclusion, says King.

KING: This fragment, this new piece of papyrus evidence, does not prove that he was married. Nor does it prove he's not married. We have -- the earliest reliable historical tradition is completely silent on that, so we're in the same position we were before it was found. We don't know if he was married or not.

SYLVESTER: Perhaps a phenomenal new clue or perhaps just a scrap of ancient text.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: All of this comes as the church looks at present-day issues like should priests be allowed to marry? Should women be allowed to serve as priests? There was a lot of fascination, because we know so much about the birth, teachings and later life of Jesus, but there are periods in the middle that still remain a mystery -- Wolf.

BLITZER: These scholars will be studying this forever.

SYLVESTER: And this happened years ago. We're literally talking centuries ago. So to try to piece together what happened, that -- that's the challenge.

BOLDUAN: One and a half by three? SYLVESTER: It's the size -- right, it's the size of a business card that we're talking about. And we don't -- and that's a scrap from what is supposedly a whole gospel, the whole book.

BLITZER: Let the debate continue.

All right. Popcorn at the sound of your voice. It turns out there's more to the Popinator than meets the eye.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BOLDUAN: Florida's a popular place to retire, but one retiree is heading west instead. Space Shuttle Endeavour left the Sunshine State this morning riding atop a 747 for a three-day journey to its new home in California.

On Friday, it will fly over much of the state before landing in Los Angeles, where it will be carefully paraded through city streets to the California Science Center, where it will go on permanent display.

We may watch that video over and over again. I absolutely love seeing that piggy-back ride that it takes.

BLITZER: That's what they do.

BOLDUAN: What they do. I know.

BLITZER: The space shuttles...

BOLDUAN: Now they're going to become very large museum pieces.

BLITZER: ... they're gone for now.

BOLDUAN: They're gone for now.

BLITZER: You can file this one under "if it sounds too good to be true, it is." CNN's Jeanne Moos has the real story behind the Popinator.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is our duty to expose the Popinator.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hold on one second, OK? Thanks.

Pop. Yes.

MOOS: Forget grubby, greasy hands, stuffing your face with popcorn. The Popinator launches kernels on command.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Popinator is a fully automated, voice- activated, popcorn-launching machine that is triggered by the word, "Pop."

MOOS (on camera): Now, which of those words are actually true?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Popinator uses a binaural microphone system.

MOOS (voice-over): It's able to decipher the word, "Pop," and locate where the sound originates to find your mouth. Nah, not really. Nevertheless, it is still...

JAMES PERCELAY, CO-FOUNDER, THINKMODO: The iPhone of popcorn delivery systems.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pop.

MOOS: The Popinator video has taken the Web by storm. And taken in TV anchors, even Pee Wee Herman, a guy who knows a thing or two about automated food, tweeted, "The future of popcorn is here."

Actually, it's more like the future of viral marketing. The cofounders of Thinkmodo dreamed up the Popinator to promote the popcorn maker Popcorn Indiana. The only existing prototype actually fires, not on voice command, but by remote control.

(on camera) Pop.

(voice-over) But the video's become such a sensation...

PERCELAY: Not only people want the machine, but companies are calling to see if they can license it to mass produce it.

MOOS: But there's talk of actually mass producing a voice- activated version. We'll believe it when we see it.

Engineers spent a couple of months designing the Popinator. Catching the kernels in the video required repeated takes.

PERCELAY: In some case, it took three. In some cases, it took 15.

MOOS: It took me...

(ON CAMERA) Pop.

(VOICE-OVER) ... more than that.

(ON CAMERA) Pop.

(VOICE-OVER) Over my head.

(ON CAMERA) Pop.

(VOICE-OVER) Bouncing off my teeth.

(ON CAMERA) Pop. Mmm.

You know who's not going to appreciate the Popinator?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cleaning service.

MOOS: The cleaning service. Pop.

(VOICE-OVER) Imagine the fun at staff meetings.

(ON CAMERA) Facilities, we have a popcorn emergency. Well, a thing called the Popinator happened.

(VOICE-OVER) Though there are some places even Facilities can't clean.

Jeanne Moos, CNN...

(ON CAMERA) Pop.

(VOICE-OVER) With hair...

(ON CAMERA) Whoops. There you go.

(VOICE-OVER) ... rather than a kernel of truth in my mouth.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: So you go to the movies with the Popinator. You're watching a very serious film, and you hear some guy saying, "Pop. Pop."

BOLDUAN: Like an air gun going off. That would go into the category of "please silence your phones and please silence your Popinators, too."

BLITZER: There's nothing like the Popinator. I don't even know. It only sends you one little kernel at a time. One little piece of popcorn.

BOLDUAN: Portion control.

BLITZER: You want to eat. You know, you want to take a handful.

BOLDUAN: I have always thought -- I agree with you, but I have always thought that I also think they should give us hand wipes attached to the popcorn bag because again, you're like...

BLITZER: But they have napkins.

BOLDUAN: I know. OK.

BLITZER: But you probably have those little wipes in your purse.

BOLDUAN: Right. Now you're showing everyone what a germophobe I am.

BLITZER: That's it for us. Thanks very much for watching. Remember, you can also follow what's going on right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can tweet me, @WolfBlitzer. You can tweet Kate.

BOLDUAN: At Kate Bolduan. Tell us what you -- if you can...

BLITZER: Happy to tweet or retweet, whatever.

Till tomorrow, thanks very much. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.