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THE SITUATION ROOM

Debate Fallout; Romney Takes Victory Lap; Interview With Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

Aired October 4, 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: President Obama trying to bounce back, what my sources are telling me.

We're awaiting Mitt Romney live this hour, taking a victory lap and hoping to build on his debate momentum.

And the squawk about Big Bird's cameo in the Obama/Romney face- off.

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

Let's begin this hour with what my sources are telling me about the president of the United States. I'm told he is upset today. They say he knows he lost his first debate with Mitt Romney.

And as I watched the president last night, I kept wondering why he was ignoring some of his strongest attack lines against Romney on taxes, for example, his Cayman Island and Swiss bank accounts, for example, his record at Bain Capital. Why didn't the president go after Romney's remark on the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes, just as he's done on the campaign trail?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We certainly can't go very far with a leader who writes off half the nation as a bunch of victims.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Instead, the president surprisingly dragged Donald Trump into the debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Under Governor Romney's definition, there are a whole bunch of millionaires and billionaires who are a small business. Donald Trump is a small business. And I know Donald Trump doesn't like to think of himself as small anything.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Back in 2007 and 2008, I moderated Democratic presidential debates. I saw a different Barack Obama at the time. He wasn't necessarily a fabulous debater, but he was very solid and he went after his opponents when he had to.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You talked about Ronald Reagan being a transformative political leader. I did not mention his name.

OBAMA: Your husband did.

CLINTON: Well, I'm here, he's not.

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: OK. Well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Last night, the president's most heated exchange may have been with the moderator, Jim Lehrer, instead of Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: The last point I would make before...

JIM LEHRER, MODERATOR: Two minutes -- two minutes is up, sir.

OBAMA: No, I think -- I had five seconds before you interrupted me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The president's debate preparation team, I believe, did not serve him well. But they have a chance to get it right over the next two presidential debates.

This is still a very, very close race and a lot could happen in the four-and-a-half weeks until the election.

By the way, you can already see a difference in the president today. He came out swinging in front of a massive crowd in Wisconsin, just a little while ago.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jessica Yellin, is traveling with the president.

Jessica, we saw a very different President Obama today than we saw last night.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we sure did.

Today, it was do-over Obama, using some of the comebacks he missed last night. We heard it first in Denver at his morning rally and, again, this afternoon at a second rally here in Madison, Wisconsin, with the message I bet the president wishes he had delivered last night. Let's listen to some of it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I got on the stage, I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. But I know it couldn't have been Mitt Romney, because the real Mitt Romney has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy, and yet the fellow on the stage last night who looked like Mitt Romney said he didn't know anything about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

YELLIN: I'm told, first of all, the theme is by both the president and his aides that Mitt Romney is full of dishonesty, he's full distortion. You have heard all the spin.

But I'm told by multiple people that the president, his team did not expect the governor to come out as forcefully, as aggressively, sort of dialing back on some of the themes of his campaign to date on both taxes and on Medicare, Wolf.

BLITZER: Are they saying that he's going to be doing something dramatically differently going forward, for example, the next two presidential debates?

YELLIN: What they're saying publicly is that he will adjust. That's their phrase, he will adjust.

Some of the ways you could see him adjust are, first of all, the president has valued and his team value his likability more than anything else, that that is his biggest winning asset. So, there is a sort of do no harm mentality going in.

So, you saw him be very, very hesitant to attack in any way. I think in the next debate, I wouldn't be surprised if you see him more willing to lean into it and go on the attack, at least defend himself and his own policies and point out when he thinks Romney is not being fully honest.

And, also, there was a quality where he wanted to talk beyond the debate and look straight into the camera and talk to the audience at home, rather than engaging Romney more directly. And, again, I think you will see him engage more directly in the next debate. If there is one thing we know about the president, he is very competitive. He likes to win and I think you will see a change in style in the next debate.

BLITZER: I'm not always sure that they knew he was in a split screen. We were watching him, even when Romney was speaking, saw all of those facial expressions that didn't help him either.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead. YELLIN: I find that hard to believe after the Gore 2000 experience with Al Gore sighing and how the split-screen really did a disservice to Al Gore. I find it hard to believe that any sophisticated political operation would not prepare for that.

BLITZER: Yes.

YELLIN: But maybe the president just didn't want to think about it. He doesn't like to take style advice. It's not his kind of thing, but after last night, I bet he will.

BLITZER: I was always told somebody attacks you, you attack right back. But that's another story.

All right, Jessica, thanks very much.

Kate Bolduan is here. She's watching what is going on, especially Mitt Romney. He has a different challenge today than the president.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I would say so, and he wants to get as much out of this debate victory as humanly possible. He and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have a rally in the battleground state of Virginia later this hour that we're keeping our eye out for.

Our national political correspondent Jim Acosta is traveling with Governor Romney.

Hey, there, Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Kate.

Yes, you can tell that the Romney campaign is in the mood to celebrate. This rally that they're about to have here in Virginia is starting to sound like a party. Trace Adkins, the country music star, will be out on stage in just a few minutes to warm up this crowd for the GOP ticket.

But today was really the debate after the debate, not over just why Mitt Romney did so well against President Obama, but whether or not the GOP nominee's words were accurate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Mitt Romney took his victory lap after the first presidential debate, receiving a sustained standing ovation during a surprise visit to a conference of conservatives in Denver.

ROMNEY: I saw the president's vision as trickle down government and I don't think that's what America believes in.

I see instead a prosperity that comes through freedom.

ACOSTA: It didn't take long after the debate was finished for the Romney campaign to turn the spin room into the win room.

(on camera): Are you declaring victory?

ERIC FEHRNSTROM, SENIOR ROMNEY CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Jim, if this was a boxing match, the referee would have called it.

ACOSTA (voice-over): After taking some knocks from some in the GOP for spending too much time in debate prep and not enough at rallies in swing states, the Romney campaign felt vindicated, although Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom pushed back on the notion that the Republican contender was more ready than the president. FEHRNSTROM: Well, look, you know, I think at the end of the day both the president and Governor Romney probably put in an equal amount of time preparing for this debate.

ACOSTA: Just two days after the president joked his own advisers were pushing him to do more debate prep.

OBAMA: They're making me do my homework.

ACOSTA: Obama campaign manager Jim Messina suggested Romney had an advantage going into the debate.

JIM MESSINA, OBAMA CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Governor Romney's prepared more for this debate than any president in modern American political history. They have been preparing since July. He took out an entire week. When you're president, you can't take do that.

ROMNEY: We don't need to have a board of 15 people telling us what kinds of treatments we should have.

ACOSTA: The RNC released a new Web video called "The Smirk," seizing on the president's sometimes uncomfortable body language. Romney can only look to the Obama campaign's own Web video to see the president already has a new line of attack.

NARRATOR: If we can't trust him here, how could we ever trust him here?

ACOSTA: Democrats are already labeling some of Romney's statements, like this one on health care, outright lies.

ROMNEY: Preexisting conditions are covered under my plan.

OBAMA: Well, actually, Governor, that isn't what your plan does.

ACOSTA: On Romney's campaign plane, senior adviser Ed Gillespie says it's the president who has his facts wrong.

ED GILLESPIE, FORMER REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: You can't trust the Obama campaign's ads. The Obama is just wrong. They have been flat out repudiated in terms of their assertions and their statements.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, as for those comments from Ed Gillespie, he was coming back to the back of the plane, Wolf and Kate. As the plane was landing here in Virginia, we were told by the flight attendant that we all had to sit down, as well as the Romney campaign staff, because we were coming in for a landing here in Virginia. But the fact that they came to the back of the plane to talk about the president's ad and to talk about what had gone on today, I think is a sign, Wolf, that they felt that they had to respond to what the Obama campaign was putting out today in terms of that ad and what the president was saying earlier today at that event.

One other thing that Ed Gillespie said. He said look for Mitt Romney to go after the president on taxes. Wolf, that could be a sign, and, Kate, that could be a sign that they're going to be seizing on some comments that Vice President Joe Biden made earlier today when he said, yes, he and the president will be raising taxes by a trillion dollars.

Now, he did say that that would be on wealthier Americans, but the Romney campaign and the RNC shortened that to just the part where Biden says raising taxes by a trillion dollars.

So, there's a sign that I think the Romney campaign, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will be going after that in just a few moments from now, Wolf and Kate.

BOLDUAN: We will be keeping an eye on that. Jim Acosta in Virginia for us, thank you so much.

As Jim mentioned, we will be standing by to hear from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan in the battleground state of Virginia. We will go to their campaign event live when it happens.

BLITZER: We earlier heard from the president at that huge rally he had at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

BOLDUAN: Huge crowd, yes.

BLITZER: A lot of harsh words are flying around after the presidential debate. We will hear from an Obama ally who calls the president's strategy last night disastrous.

And we will also hear from a Romney adviser. He is responding to the Obama's campaign charge that Romney misled debate watchers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Many of the president's allies are now openly acknowledging that his first debate appearance fell flat last night.

They're also arguing that Mitt Romney fooled voters in the debate.

And the independent senator from Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders, is joining us now.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: My pleasure.

BLITZER: You are a very blunt guy. You and always tell us what's on your mind. How do you think the president did in the debate last night?

SANDERS: Poorly, no question about it. I think he was listless.

But on the other hand, while clearly Romney won from a performance point of view, from a policy point of view, from an honesty point of view, Romney was a failure as well.

BOLDUAN: But, Senator, so much is being made about the performance last night and this initial reaction today. What do you think was the problem with President Obama last night? Was it a problem of preparation or do you think he's off his game?

SANDERS: Well, Kate, let me just say this.

I think these guys are not auditioning for the "American Idol." They're not singers. We're not electing great singers and actors. We are electing people who presumably are going to give us policy to protect the middle class and working families of this country.

If you look at the policies that Romney is talking about, first of all, they are a disaster for the middle class. Second of all, what he did last night has totally transformed his campaign from what he has been saying for the last year-and-a-half, what he's been telling us forever.

And this speaks to his Etch A Sketch, is that he is going to lower taxes for the wealthiest people in the country. He supports the Ryan budget transforming Medicare away from where it is right now into a voucher program, massive cuts in Medicaid, education and virtually every program that working people depend upon.

Also, he's going to increase defense spending. Yesterday, last night, he suddenly became a raving moderate. Oh, he's not going to cut -- he's not going to cut Medicaid. He is not going to cut education. He is not going to give tax breaks to the wealthy if it adds to the deficit.

That is total hypocrisy because that is what he has been talking about for the last year-and-a-half.

BLITZER: And that's why so many liberals, so many Democrats, so many of the president's supporters are very concerned because the president had numerous opportunities to make some of those points that you just made.

Instead, we got something very different. Let me play a few clips of what the president said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Governor Romney and I both agree that our corporate tax rate is too high. We both agree that we have to boost American energy production and it appears we have some agreement that a marketplace to work has to have some regulation. I suspect that on Social Security we have got a somewhat similar position.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You understand what he was trying to do there? Because I got a bit confused.

SANDERS: Yes, I do. Well, I think you're right, Wolf.

And I think that is a disastrous approach. The truth of the matter is, Mitt Romney right now is the head of a right-wing extremist party called the Republican Party. Wasn't always that case. That's what they are today. And if the president cannot differentiate himself clearly from right-wing extremism, we have got a lot of problems as a nation and he has got a lot of problems as a candidate running for reelection.

In terms of Social Security, in terms of Social Security, it is absurd for the president to say that he and Romney are coming down in the same way. Social Security today has a $2.7 trillion surplus. Social Security hasn't contributed one nickel to the deficit, can pay out benefits for the next 21 years.

The president should be saying now what he said four years ago. He is not going to cut Social Security, while Romney and Ryan certainly are.

BOLDUAN: Now, Senator, one thing that I think is puzzling Democrats and supporters of the president as well today is both men had a chance at closing arguments last night. That was one of the things that they know was coming their direction. Listen in part to what President Obama had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Four years ago, I said that I'm not a perfect man and I wouldn't be a perfect president. And that's probably a promise that Governor Romney thinks I have kept.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Why specifically point out the flaws? Was that a good choice?

SANDERS: Well, I think not.

I mean, I think -- here's what I think the position of the president should be. Look, everybody knows the economy is in a lot of trouble today. We all know that. Everybody knows that the rich are getting much richer, the middle class is shrinking, poverty is much -- that is the simple truth.

But what he should remind people over and over again is that Romney's proposals, Romney's policies are exactly what George W. Bush's were. And at the end of the Bush era, when Obama was coming in, we were losing 700,000 jobs a month as a result of the deregulation of Wall Street, and Romney wants more deregulation.

Not only was the American financial system on the verge of collapse. So was the entire world, heading us into a tremendous recession -- depression, not a recession, a depression. That's where we were four years ago.

We are not in great shape now. But the idea of going back to Bush's policy, more deregulation, more tax breaks for the rich, cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, more unfettered free trade, so that we continue to lose decent-paying jobs, manufacturing jobs in this country, that is a prescription for disaster. The president should say, sorry, we were there for eight years, it failed, we are going to move in a very different direction.

BOLDUAN: All points though that he had an opportunity to, but not make last night, Wolf.

BLITZER: He did have some good opportunities. He never even mentioned, as you know, the 47 percent comment that Mitt Romney had made at that closed-door fund-raiser back in May down in Florida.

Here's the bottom line question. Who deserves the blame for that performance last night? Would you blame the president himself or his aides and advisers who supposedly were preparing him for this first debate?

SANDERS: Hey, Wolf, you know, all of us in public life like to blame our staff when things go bad.

But you know what? At the end of the day, it's the president. It's the United States senator. It's the congressperson. We have to take responsibility. The president should have gone in there swinging, differentiating what a progressive policy position is, as opposed to an a extreme right one, put Romney on the defensive.

How dare you give tax breaks to the richest people in this country when we have the most unfair distribution of wealth and income of any major country on Earth? How dare you throw children off of Medicaid, when we got 50 million people without any health insurance today? Put him on the defensive, instead of saying, oh, I agree with you on this, I agree with you on that.

So, you have got to take responsibility, and the responsibility is with the president.

BLITZER: Senator Sanders, we will see if he follows your advice in the next debate and the one after that. We will stay in close touch with you.

Thanks very much for joining us.

SANDERS: My pleasure. Thank you.

BLITZER: And we're going to get the Republican take on the debate, and that's coming up this hour. We will be joined by a senior Romney campaign adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom. BOLDUAN: Right. We absolutely will.

And also still ahead, the president claims Mitt Romney supports a $5 trillion tax cut. Romney says it isn't so. We will have a reality check on that on their debate just up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Looking at live pictures right now, Mitt Romney getting ready to speak before a crowd in Virginia. We're going to have live coverage coming up.

Stay with us for that.

In the meantime, a reality check now on one of the sharper exchanges during the first presidential debate last night. At issue, tax cuts, $5 trillion worth.

Our own Tom Foreman is taking a look into the claims and the counterclaims.

Tom, what do you see?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is one of the places where the president really lit up. He went after Mitt Romney over his plan to spur the economy by cutting taxes 20 percent.

The president said this is just a formula for economic disaster. His claim, if you cut $5 trillion in taxes, the middle class will wind up paying. Romney says, no way.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Governor Romney's central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut -- on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts -- that's another trillion dollars -- and $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for.

ROMNEY: I won't put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. That's part one. So there's no economist that can say Mitt Romney's tax plan adds $5 trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FOREMAN: Let's break this down.

The president bases his claim on the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. It's nonpartisan, although a lot of people would say it leans a little bit left and it could be a very tough job to get done, what Mr. Romney says, according to their analysis, especially when you consider Romney's wish list.

He wants to pay for this by closing loopholes but no attacks on sacred cows like, for example, mortgage interest exemptions for homeowners out there and he wants no increase in the deficit and no increase in middle-class taxes, just to name a few things.

Their analysts say Romney might be able to get some of that, but even if the economy really started growing because of this tax cut, it's hard to imagine that he could make all of that work all at once.

Now, another group, the right-leaning conservative American Enterprise Institute, says its analysts say they do see a way that this could work out. But the fundamental problem, really, is that Mitt Romney has not released enough details of his plan for anyone to make a complete assessment.

So, what's going on here? Well, President Obama is essentially buying into the doomsday scenario saying if nothing works, yes, it could add up to a fiscal mess and the middle-class voters could be left with the bill. Governor Romney on the other hand is buying into the converse idea that everything will just go right and the economy will take off and everyone will enjoy the ride.

All indications are that the truth lies somewhere between those two scenarios and an awful lot of details that we still just don't have, Wolf?.

BLITZER: Is this kind of vague plan kind of common for candidates out there, Tom?

FOREMAN: Oh, sure.

They do this sort of thing all the time and one thing I should point out here there are legitimate concerns that Mr. Romney is not giving here. Could turn out the president is right once we get those details.

But all we have to do is think back to the last election when Barack Obama was running and he talked about health care reform. The big headline was, we're going to insure 30 million uninsured people out there, but there were a lot of details lacking early on, too, and a lot of people saying the devil is in the details.

Those, indeed, had to be sorted out over a long period of time. This is sort of the messy process of running for office and winning or not -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Tom, good explanation. Thanks very much, obviously, complicated, but important.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom is standing by to join us live. He is going to respond to this latest back and forth over tax cuts for the rich. Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Obama campaign is out with a new ad, hitting Mitt Romney on the issue of tax breaks for the rich.

BOLDUAN: The spot challenges Romney's debate claim that he doesn't support a $5 trillion tax cut. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why won't Romney level with us about his tax plan, which gives the wealthy huge new tax break? Because according to experts, he'd have to raise taxes on the middle class or increase the deficit to pay for it. If we can't trust him here, how could we ever trust him here?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in the Romney campaign senior adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom. Eric, thanks very much for coming in.

ERIC FEHRNSTROM, SENIOR ADVISOR, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. I know it's a very happy day. Let's go through some of the issues that have come up on this day. This issue of this $5 trillion tax cut. Explain how Romney would pay for this if he got it approved.

FEHRNSTROM: Well, this is one of the big difference between the two candidates, Wolf, on taxes. Governor Romney won't raise taxes; Barack Obama will. Our fear is that's going to plunge this weak economy into yet another recession.

You heard the governor explain last night during the debate that he wants to lower rates for everyone. Those rate reductions will be offset so that we don't add to the deficit and we don't have to increase taxes for the middle class. In fact, for the middle class, what the governor is proposing is a tax break, because he would allow them to save and invest tax free.

But this is one of the big differences between these two candidates. Mitt Romney has a pro-growth tax reform plan to create jobs, get this economy moving. You heard the president has no plans whatsoever.

BLITZER: But the Democrats keep pointing out you're being very vague; you're not being very specific in the so-called offsets. How do you pay for $5 trillion in tax cuts without raising the deficit?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, you know what, Wolf, I'm reminded of what happened in 1986, the last time the Congress and the president, Reagan at the time undertook major tax reform.

The president didn't come forward with a plan, a take it or leave it plan that he presented to the Congress. Instead, he articulated some broad principles that he said would guide him in his negotiations with congressional leaders, and those negotiations led to, as I said, major tax reform. That created a major economic expansion in this country.

Those are the same principles that Governor Romney would follow, if he's elected as president. BLITZER: All right. So, he's not going to spell out all the deductions, the eliminations of loopholes or tax credits or all that. He's going to wait for the negotiations to begin, if he becomes president. Is that what you're saying?

FEHRNSTROM: Those will all be worked out in consultation with Congress. I think what's important, though, is the governor's own statement that his plan will not increase the deficit, and it will not increase taxes for the middle class. In fact, he wants to lower taxes for the middle class by allowing them to save and invest tax rate.

BOLDUAN: And many people are looking forward to eventually finding out some more detail on that.

But Eric, you know that President Obama was out on -- back on the campaign trail today, really hammering Governor Romney. He says it was a different man on the debate stage debating him last night. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The man on stage last night. He does not want to be held accountable for the real Mitt Romney's decisions and what he's been saying for the last year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: He's -- he's basically calling him a liar. I mean, even Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the campaign says that they're highlighting that Mitt Romney is hiding his plans, not that he's changing his positions. How do you respond to that?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think the president and his campaign team is in full damage control mode. I've heard the campaign and their supporters blame the president's poor performance on everything from the moderator to the altitude in Denver.

Look, I think people had a chance last night to see not only the real Mitt Romney, but also the real Barack Obama. Mitt Romney came to that debate; he talked about his specific proposals to lower tax rates so that we could create more jobs. He talked about transforming Medicaid into a block grant program, giving it to the states, letting them run it more efficiently. He talked about making our entitlement programs more affordable, exactly how he would do that and how he would also preserve them for future workers. And he talked about specific cuts that he would undertake to reduce the deficit.

The president gave us nothing but empty platitudes, and more revealing, he had no vision for where he wanted to take the country. I think the bottom line is that the president's policies are not working, and neither are millions of Americans and that's why it's time for a change.

BLITZER: One of the sensitive issues that came up was health care reform. You heard Mitt Romney repeatedly say he wants to eliminate Obama care or he wants a new proposal; let the states deal with it the way he dealt with it in Massachusetts. Let me play this little clip for you, because it's generating some commotion out there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, I want you to explain, Eric, how are they covered under his plan if he wants the states to decide how to deal with health care, how to deal with pre-existing conditions. Let's say Massachusetts wants it, but Utah doesn't.

FEHRNSTROM: Well, the governor is a federalist when it comes to health care, Wolf. The plan we put in place here in Massachusetts works for the people of Massachusetts. By the way, we got that done without raising taxes and without cutting care to seniors. That's something that the president had to do in order to finance Obama care.

So, the governor will repeal Obama care, and he will return to the states the power to control their own health-care futures.

Look, what works in Massachusetts may not work in Texas. It was wrong for the president to take the broad outlines of the Massachusetts plan and impose it as a dictate from Washington on every state in the nation. So we'll leave it to the states to decide.

The governor believes that those who have continuous coverage should not be dropped, if they change plans and have a pre-existing condition. But states are well situated to manage these issues. We did it in Massachusetts, and they can do it in other states, as well.

BLITZER: I want to be precise, though. Will he mandate each state to honor the pre-existing conditions or will that be flexible -- he'll give the states flexibility to deal with that?

FEHRNSTROM: We'll give the state initiatives and money so that they can manage these decisions on their own. But, of course, we'd like them -- to see them continue that pre-existing band for those who have continuous coverage.

BOLDUAN: Eric, if you take a look back, John Kerry after the first debate back in '04, he had a four-point bounce following that first presidential debate. But by the end of the third debate, he was back right where he started. So what is the plan? How are you going to keep any momentum that you are gaining off of the debate performance last night?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, our supporters are incredibly energized, and I think this is going to mean an uptick in our voter-to-voter contacts around the country. I think you're going to see more people going door-to-door mobilizing support for Governor Romney. I think you're going to see more people writing checks.

We feel terrific about the way that the first debate went, but we're also mindful of the fact that there are two more debates to go, and a lot can happen between now and November 6.

But we're confident that the question voters are going to be asking themselves when they go into the voting booths on November 6 is, do you want another four years like the last four years? And on that basis, we think Mitt Romney is going to win this election.

BLITZER: Eric Fehrnstrom from the Romney campaign, thanks very much for coming in.

FEHRNSTROM: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank Kate, too.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Eric.

He can't hear us.

FEHRNSTROM: Thank you, Kate.

BLITZER: Just want to make sure he's polite.

All right, thanks. Thanks very much.

A new danger, by the way, for Americans right now as the secret mission begins to investigate the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right, this just coming in. CNN has learned U.S. Special Operation forces are in Libya and in nearby countries that are helping collect intelligence about who took part in that September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the killing of the American ambassador and three other Americans. Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, is standing by.

What are you learning, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, think of this as very small, very elite, very secret. Small numbers of U.S. Special Operations forces working with intelligence operatives and other members of the federal government; working in Libya, working in nearby countries, going in and out of Libya, perhaps, to gather the intelligence they need about what happened there. Looking at intercepts, imagery, drone feeds, satellite imagery, all of it.

We talked a couple days ago about assembling target folders; enough intelligence to begin to develop a target list if, if President Obama were to ask for it. The military doesn't hang around waiting for the president to ask, they get busy. That is what they are doing now. Very small, very discreet.

BLITZER: We also learned today, Barbara, today that the FBI finally, after all these weeks, actually got into Benghazi for the first time since the attack. What do we know about what happened once they got there? STARR: We don't know what they found, what they were looking for, in particular, other than potential evidence perhaps left at the scene after all this time.

But here's what's interesting, Wolf. They were accompanied by a U.S. military security team. The security situation in that area is still so dire, they had to go with armed U.S. military troops. Again, discreetly, quietly, but they needed military force behind them to assure their security when they went there.

And we also now know, Wolf, that the Pentagon is conducting its own security review. What did it know about the threat in the region before the attack? What security measures? Was it possibly asked for assistance from the State Department to help improve security at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, at the consulate in Benghazi? What did the Pentagon know about the threat? What did it do to try and help? That is now an internal review being conducted here at the Department of Defense -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, thanks for staying on top of this story. We'll stay on top of it, as well.

Throughout the day we've been watching the Obama's campaign evolving response to the president's performance last night in the debate. CNN's Erin Burnett is speaking with top campaign officials at the top of the hour, as well.

Erin, give us a little sense of what's going on.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Interesting, Wolf, you used the word "evolving." It's become such a loaded word politically these days.

Yes, we are going to be joined by Stephanie Cutter. She is the deputy campaign manager, of course, for the president, to find out her take on his performance and what the campaign is going to do about it.

I was with a focus group last night, and even at the end, when some decided they were going to vote for the president, some were going to vote for Governor Romney, it was unbelievable the dial test on things like trustworthiness, likability, strength, character for Mitt Romney all surged. They did not plunge for the president, but did surge for Mitt Romney. So we're going to talk to her about that.

Plus, you know, Wolf, everyone has been talking today about the money surge. Some top Republican surrogates have been trying to tweet out about how much money they have been raising and how it started last night during the actual debate. And we're going to be joined by the top two super PACs, one for the president, one for Governor Romney, and talk about the money flow, what happened today. So that's all coming up at the top of the hour.

BLITZER: Looking forward to it, as we always are. Erin, thank you.

BURNETT: See you soon, Wolf. BOLDUAN: We're waiting for Mitt Romney to take the stage in Virginia, Fishersville, Virginia. You can see a very excited, pumped- up crowd waiting to see him after that big debate last night. Stay with us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: USA! USA!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: USA! USA!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: USA! USA!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ladies and gentlemen, we only have 33 days...

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This afternoon, President Obama told a crowd in Wisconsin that Mitt Romney wants to take it easy on Wall Street but crack down on "Sesame Street." Good line.

Romney's debate comment about cutting funding for public broadcasting, even though he loves Big Bird, got a lot of people's attention, including our own Jeanne Moos.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BIG BIRD, VOICED BY CAROLL SPINNEY (singing): Glad to be the way I am.

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He's gone from being a happy-go-lucky bird...

BIG BIRD (singing): I'm happy to be me.

MOOS: ... to the unemployment line, all because of a couple of Mitt Romney lines.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. But I'm not going to -- I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.

MOOS: Let the mockery begin: "Obama got bin Laden. I'll get Big Bird!"

"You tell that so-and-so Romney, anybody who bleeps with Big Bird bleeps with me."

Big Bird even extended his middle finger at the candidate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's going to kill the one that we know and all love? Big Bird?

MOOS: Big Bird started his own parody Twitter account, reacted by crying. He showed up in a debate split screen.

ROMNEY: I like PBS. I love Big Bird.

MOOS: His reaction was a scream.

ROMNEY: I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.

BIG BIRD: (SCREAMING)

MOOS: His response included a message.

BIG BIRD (singing): F-U-M-I-T-T.

MOOS: The message spelled out for Mitt.

BIG BIRD (singing): F-U-M-I-T-T.

MOOS (on camera): This isn't the first time Mitt Romney has threatened Big Bird. He's a serial Big Bird stalker.

ROMNEY: I like watching Big Bird. I like watching Big Bird and Bert and Ernie.

I like PBS. I like watching Big Bird.

I like Big Bird and Bert and Ernie for my grandkids to watch.

MOOS: One Big Bird fan gave President Obama flack for not sticking up for Big Bird.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All he had to say was, "This guy wants to get rid of Big Bird. He got rid of your jobs, now he wants to get rid of Big Bird's job."

MOOS: The day after the debate, the president joined in.

OBAMA: Thank goodness somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. We didn't know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit.

MOOS: To be clear, cutting PBS funding might not directly endanger Big Bird, since "Sesame Street" gets most of its money from corporate funding and donations.

Still, Mitt Romney was depicted making Big Bird Thanksgiving dinner. "If Romney wins, I die."

Governor Romney offered some hope.

ROMNEY: I'm not going to kill Big Bird, I promise. But I'm going to -- but there are going to be -- there are going to be advertisements on PBS to help pay for Big Bird.

Big Bird is going to have to get used to Kellogg cornflakes.

MOOS: Maybe this is what it would have sounded like...

ROMNEY: I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. BIG BIRD: Oh, that's too bad.

MOOS: ... if Big Bird had joined the debate.

ROMNEY: I like PBS.

BIG BIRD: Oh!

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN...

ROMNEY: I love Big Bird.

BIG BIRD: Really?

MOOS: ... New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN: Of all the things he's going to take flack for, Big Bird.

BLITZER: I love Big Bird.

BOLDUAN: You do love Big Bird?

BLITZER: Of course I do.

BOLDUAN: Apparently I'm dressing like Big Bird today, so...

BLITZER: I like the yellow.

BOLDUAN: Channeling Big Bird, apparently.

All right. Much more news ahead, including the latest on the tensions between Syria and Turkey. We'll be watching that. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Turkish artillery fire raining down on Syria. Kate Bolduan is still with us, watching this and some of the other top stories.

BOLDUAN: Yes, I want to bring our viewers up to date on this one. It's the second day in a row Turkey is shelling Syrian military positions. And now the Turkish parliament has cleared the way for possible troop deployments. CNN's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is a peacefully assembled anti-war demonstration in downtown Istanbul. Thousands of people gathering, mostly from opposition parties, leftist parties chanting "no to war." And also criticizing the government and Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What's striking is they've managed to gather this less than 36 hours after Syrian artillery killed five Turkish civilians in the Turkish border town of Acakale (ph).

Scenes of grief in that town early in the morning on Thursday, as those people were buried at an emotional funeral. Meanwhile, Turkish artillery has been shelling across the border since Wednesday afternoon and evening and in the early pre-dawn hours on Thursday, as well.

Meanwhile, the Turkish parliament gathered for an emergency session, and they voted in favor of a new resolution that would authorize Turkish government to conduct cross-border military operations into Syria.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN: Ivan Watson in the middle of it all. Thank you, Ivan.

A source tells CNN Mexican authorities are questioning two men about a shooting that killed a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona Tuesday. Thirty-year-old Nicholas Ivie died, and another agent was injured when they came under fire after responding to a border sensor. Ivey is the 14th Border Patrol agent killed in the line of duty since 2008.

And it was a flawless launch at Florida's Cape Canaveral. A Delta 4 rocket -- I'm sure you're familiar -- carrying a new global positioning satellite into orbit. It's part of a next-generation GPS network that will total 24 satellites, offering greater accuracy and stronger signals than the current generation.

And here in Washington, scary moments outside the Commerce Department today. This worker was left dangling from his safety line -- you see him right there -- after the scaffolding from which he was working failed. Shocked tourists looked on as fire crews eventually reached the man and lowered him, thankfully, to safety. And everyone is OK. But those were some tense moments.

BLITZER: Yes. Here in Washington, D.C., stuff like that happens in the nation's capital.

BOLDUAN: I know. Who -- who knew things were not working in Washington?

BLITZER: Yes. You know what? We were hoping that Mitt Romney would be speaking this hour, but he hasn't started speaking yet.

BOLDUAN: Hasn't started speaking yet.

BLITZER: That's why we obviously -- we'll be taking his speech live. But...

BOLDUAN: And maybe starting right now they're going to get a performance from Trace Adkins.

BLITZER: Let me listen to that music for a second.

(MUSIC) BLITZER: Trace Adkins. You're like him; you're moving along. You're going to Nashville pretty soon, right?

BOLDUAN: I am actually going to Nashville.

BLITZER: You're not going to be here tomorrow.

BOLDUAN: I will not be here tomorrow. You can handle it without me.

BLITZER: Maybe you'll be back in Nashville.

BOLDUAN: We'll see. I like Trace Adkins.

BLITZER: Enjoy.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Remember, you can always follow what's going on in THE SITUATION ROOM on Twitter. You can tweet me, @WolfBlitzer. Tweet Kate, @KateBolduan. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.