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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Sen. John Kerry; Obama, Romney in Final Face- Off; Polls Say Race is a Dead Heat; Debate Mistakes; Reality Check; Prep Time at Lynn University

Aired October 22, 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: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, the potential candidates get ready for their third and final debate. We'll hear from a top adviser to Mitt Romney. I'll also speak live with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, John Kerry, who's been working with President Obama.

The candidates are keeping our fact checkers very busy. They're making some conflicting claims about defense spending. We'll have a reality check.

And in a neck and neck race, could President Obama lose the popular vote yet still win the Electoral College vote?

John King will show us the map.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's debate night in America. CNN's live coverage begins two hours from now. Mitt Romney and President Obama have certainly split the first two encounters. And with polls showing a neck and neck race right now, tonight's foreign policy face-off could be crucial.

That's a strong point for President Obama.

But Governor Romney may be closing the gap in that critically important area. Romney has made his final walkthrough over at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.

CNN's senior Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, is on the scene for us.

Dana is joining us right now.

What's the latest -- Dana?

What's going through this process of the hours just before this debate? DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the main questions is how Mitt Romney is going to present himself as commander-in-chief, given the fact that he's a former governor with no experience in foreign policy officially at all.

And what we're told is that what he's going to try to do is say that his resume as a CEO has prepared him to be a commander-in-chief, that the skill set that one has to be a successful businessman is similar to that that allows somebody to be successful on the world stage.

And I spoke with Dan Senor, who is one of Romney's policy advisers, but also one of the people -- the small group of people who has been inside debate prep day in and day out with him, preparing for this debate.

Here's what he said about this issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN SENOR, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN FOREIGN POLICY ADVISER: In Governor Romney, you have someone who's been a chief executive of a state, who's done -- dealt with turnaround, turnaround -- turning around complicated situations throughout his career, both in the United States and around the world, whether it was failed companies, whether it was a failing Olympics in Salt Lake City.

So this is someone who's decisive, who has a strong world view and has a history of being able to successfully turn around really messy situations and really messy, really complicated organizations.

BASH: So you're saying that there might not be that much of a difference between what he did at Bain Capital and what he could do in the Middle East?

SENOR: I think that chief executives tend to be able to manage really complicated organizations and really complicated problems. And he's -- he's dealt with that throughout his career.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: The other thing that we're told Governor Romney is going to try to do tonight is connect the topic of the debate, foreign policy, to the issue that voters care most about and the issue that's most -- mostly in his wheelhouse, Wolf, and that is the economy, that he is going to say that they are all connected, and that the fact that the U.S. economy has been in such bad shape has hindered the United States on the world stage in more ways than one -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What about his strategy as far as his style tonight, Dana, is concerned?

He was pretty scrappy, in the president's face last week.

What about tonight?

BASH: We're told that inside debate prep, they have been working very hard with him to tone it down, because the point tonight, if he executes it the way they practiced it, is for him to come across to voters as somebody that they can relate to as commander-in-chief. The words that advisers who I've spoken to have used to describe what they hope he comes across as tonight as -- is sober, steady, someone with a calm demeanor.

The question. Though, Wolf, is whether or not he can really pull that off and avoid taking the bait, because one of the weaknesses that Mitt Romney has had in the past -- and people who have worked with him admit this freely -- is that he does tend to get defensive and take the bait when his opponent goes after him, and in a somewhat personal way. So that is going to be the challenge for him tonight, if he does want to come across as very different from last week, is to not take the bait -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm watching it -- I'll be watching it very, very closely, just like you and all of our viewers.

Dana, thank you.

This note, by the way. Coming up, I'll be joined by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, John Kerry. He was the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee. He's played a key role in President Obama's debate preparations. He's actually played Mitt Romney in those debate preparations for the president. That interview coming up.

The debate takes on added importance in a very, very tight race. Look at this. There are five new national surveys out in the past day or so. Adding them up, our poll of polls shows a dead heat -- 47 percent of likely voters favor President Obama, 47 percent favor Mitt Romney.

Joining us now is the moderator of last week's debate, our chief political correspondent and the anchor of CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," Candy Crowley -- Candy, we had a -- we have a tied race, I think, for all practical purpose -- purposes right now. The debate, the final presidential debate is tonight.

So what do both President Obama and Governor Romney need to do tonight?

CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, STATE OF THE UNION: They need to make a best last impression, because this is the biggest audience they're going to have, either one of them, between now and November 6, Election Day. So they -- they have to end this -- well, both of them. I mean this -- the stakes -- you know, 47-47, the stakes are equally high for both of them.

I do think and agree with sort of previously that when people look at commander-in-chief, which is a different title than president, it carries kind of the weight of the Western world with it, in a lot of ways. What people are looking for is kind of that cool hand, you know, on the tiller of the ship of state.

So I think both of them have to watch that kind of in your face, still showing strength, because what people want is strength. But they also want kind of a cool-eyed look at these hot spots around the world.

So I think it will be a really interesting dance between the two of them, as they both try to -- to find that sweet spot where they're both strong, but not as fiery as they were last time around.

BLITZER: What specific traps, Candy, do both of these candidates need to avoid tonight?

CROWLEY: Well, they both need to avoid big mistakes, I think particularly -- well, ei -- either one of them. I mean it's some -- something that's seen as a huge gash -- gaffe, you go back to, say, a Gerald Ford and saying that Poland wasn't under Soviet influence. It was huge. It looked like he, you know, wasn't up to the job, like he didn't understand global affairs.

So they -- they both need to -- to make sure that they've, you know, got it right and they -- and, tonally, that they have it right. They -- they have to avoid -- I think for Mitt Romney, he has to avoid the trap, clearly, that the Obama camp wants, which is to say, fine, this guy's answer to everything is to go to war. We think Iran's getting, you know, trying to develop nuclear weapons, he wants to go to war. He doesn't have another suggestion.

So Mitt Romney has to walk through that kind of Ronald Reagan thing, peace through strength, you know, and push back and say it's not about war, but it's about strength.

And I think for President Obama, I -- I think they know that they are going to come at him and say you've been weak, you've talked about leading from behind.

I mean so they both -- they have to know this. I mean this is not something that comes as some sort of intel from inside the -- their debate preparation. So both of them have to avoid -- it's like Mitt Romney has to avoid looking like too strong and -- and too -- or trigger happy, if you will, because that's how the Obama people want to paint him. And the president needs to look strong and determined and -- and -- and like he does believe in -- in a muscular foreign policy.

So I think they have sort of opposite sides of the coin that each are going to go at the other about.

BLITZER: Last week, you were getting ready to moderate a debate. A little bit different this week, Candy.

We'll look forward to having you...

CROWLEY: That's right.

BLITZER: -- join us for our continuing coverage, obviously, leading up to and after this debate.

Candy, thanks very much.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Wolf. BLITZER: Debate night in America -- the third and final presidential debate will certainly focus in on foreign policy. CNN's live coverage from Boca Raton, Florida begins tonight, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, right after THE SITUATION ROOM.

Should the Obama administration launch direct negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program?

I'll ask Senator John Kerry. He's the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a key member of President Obama's debate team.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A former Democratic presidential nominee control has been helping President Obama with debate preparation.

Joining us now is that senator, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He's been playing Governor Romney in some of those debate preparation rehearsals.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Glad to be with you.

Thank you.

BLITZER: I assume the president's ready tonight, right?

KERRY: Well, everybody obviously hopes so. I think he feels terrific. I think he's looking forward to it. He -- he's looking forward to an opportunity to share with America the accomplishments that he's achieved in foreign policy, his agenda for the next four years, and I think particularly to have a chance to show the difference between a president who's made tough decisions, who's been specific, and a candidate for president who has, frankly, been vague on just about everything, with about six positions on everything.

BLITZER: I -- I know that Iran and its nuclear program will be high on the agenda during the 90 minute debate tonight.

Do you believe the United States should engage in direct, one-on-one, bilateral negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program?

KERRY: Well, I think it's up to the president of the United States what forum he's going to choose or not choose. And right now, he's chosen the P5. That's the forum that he's engaged in, obviously. But he has consistently said that he is open to diplomacy and to negotiation in an effort to try to guarantee that we avoid war, if it's possible.

But make no mistake, the president is prepared to follow through on any military option necessary. Everybody knows this is a president who hasn't hesitated to back up his words with action. And I think Iran has had that message delivered to them at any number of occasions, most recently a few weeks ago in the United Nations. But the president prefers diplomacy over war. War should always be a last resort. I would hope Mr. Romney would prefer diplomacy and prefer discussions.

BLITZER: I know U.S. presidents have long said that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists. But as you know, the Obama administration, like the Bush administration, has included Iran as a state sponsor of terror on the State Department's terror list.

Does it make any difference if you negotiate with a terrorist organization, let's say like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah, which is on the terrorist list, or a state sponsor of terrorism?

KERRY: Well, we don't negotiate with terrorists and we shouldn't negotiate with terrorists. And -- and I think, obviously, we've been very clear about that through the years. But there are times -- even Israel, for instance, with -- who obviously negotiated the release of Shalit, Private Shalit, who obviously have had occasions when they've needed to deal with Egypt or through Egypt with some organization or another. There are ways, in diplomacy, to be able to have back channel and other kinds of conversations.

But nobody is talking about entering into any direct negotiation with a terrorist organization, but a government, a lo -- a -- a state is obviously a different issue. And you have to deal with states. We dealt with China. We dealt with the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and it couldn't have been more clear what the differences between us were, but he sat down with Gorbachev and he negotiated. And that had a profound impact on the spread of nuclear weapons.

So, look, anybody who comes along and just makes categorical pronouncements and pretends that that's sufficient leadership is going to lead America into a very dangerous place. This is a dangerous world we are living in right now, Wolf, and you know that as well as anybody. So, you need somebody with the experience and the knowledge, and frankly, the clarity in their policies.

The president said he would get out of Iraq, he got out of Iraq. He said he's going to get out of Afghanistan. He's withdrawing our troops and he's doing what's necessary to transition the Afghan country and to create a military that can sustain them. He followed through on Libya. He did what was necessary there in a very, very intelligent way where it didn't require American boots on the ground or huge expenditure of our taxpayer money, and we accomplished our goal.

BLITZER: All right.

KERRY: And the president is as close to Israel as any president has ever been in terms of our military and intelligence cooperation. So, you measure real things here, not the bluster of a candidate who's had six positions on everything.

BLITZER: but Let's talk about Libya for a moment, because you know it's going to come up in the course of the debate tonight. The argument has been made -- and I'm sure you've rehearsed this with the president that Romney probably will say, if he doesn't others will say, there were warnings, there were attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi leading up to the killing on the 11th anniversary of 9/11.

The British had pulled out because it was too dangerous. The international Red Cross had pulled out because it was too dangerous. Here's the question, did the president know about all of these threats to the U.S. diplomats in Benghazi?

KERRY: Well, the president is going to speak for himself tonight. And I think it's important for the American people to let him do that. But let me just make it crystal clear. The president issued the appropriate orders, issued the appropriate instructions. The president has followed this as closely as he does on a daily briefing.

I think you're aware of that, Wolf. And the president, I believe, has made the right decisions. This is much more complicated than meets the eye. The president has ordered a thorough independent investigation. Secretary of State Clinton has chosen a very respected diplomat, Tom Pickering, and others to pursue this.

But the president will speak to this very forcefully tonight if people want to try to make a political issue out of it. I think what's tragic is that in a moment of tragedy for the United States of America, when we lose American personnel, the first thing Mitt Romney does is goes out and politicizes it. The first thing he does is hold a press conference without even having the information about it.

The first thing he does is try to make it a political football rather than rally together as America did on many number of occasions. And I think it's frankly -- sorry, go ahead.

BLITZER: We're talking about the politics of this, because Rudy Giuliani was on CNN earlier this morning, and he was blistering in his criticism of the way the president dealt with this leading up to the killing of the ambassador and three others.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUDY GIULIANI, (R) FORMER NEW YORK MAYOR: If the president had been privy to the information beforehand, that there were numerous attacks there, planned attacks, including two on the embassy, one in April, one in June in which a hole was blown in the wall of the embassy. Now, all of a sudden, you get an attack on September 11th and you're scratching your head about it?

I mean, my -- well, if it wasn't a cover-up, then the ineptitude of this administration is startling, then they really can't be trusted to protect us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He basically says the president was either engaged in a cover-up or the ineptitude of this administration is startling. Go ahead and respond to the former New York mayor. KERRY: Well, the former New York mayor is famous for his bluster, and he's famous for criticizing everybody about everything ever since five days and 9/11. And as Joe Biden said a few years ago, you always hear a noun and a verb and 9/11 out of Rudy Giuliani's mouth. But the fact is what he's saying is a lot of malarkey.

He doesn't even know what he's talking about. It's not even an embassy. You just heard him talk about an embassy. I mean, really, I think it's important for people to get their facts together before they start these political attacks at this particular moment. You know, I can remember plenty of occasions when we've had a tragedy somewhere in the world, and I don't see us rushing to make it a political issue in the way that this has been made a political issue.

I think the American people want to know the facts. They're going to hear the facts. They'll see the facts. The facts are that, you know, 30,000 Libyans came out the next day holding up posters of our ambassador, rebelling against the militia that conducted this, if it was a militia, but whoever did it. They undertook to say, we are friends with the United States.

We appreciate what Chris Stevens was trying to accomplish. The parents of Chris Stevens have said their son should not be made a political football. The mother of Sean Smith has similarly said that. I just think it's disgraceful that all the Republicans can do is see a political moment and try to make political hay out of it. I think it's disgraceful.

BLITZER: We're out of time, senator, but do you know who did it?

KERRY: Those facts are being thoroughly vetted by the intelligence community in cooperation with the Libyan government. The president of Libya cited al Qaeda. Other people have cited other groups. That's precisely why you try to figure out -- you know, you aim before you shoot. You need to get the facts and that's precisely what the president is doing.

This administration will thoroughly vet this publicly. Everybody will know what's going on. I personally wrote a letter with all of the members of the foreign relations committee in a bipartisan way asking legitimate questions. But we're not trying to politicize it. We're trying to get the answers. And that's what we deserve.

Not this kind of political attack which doesn't serve our nation, and it certainly doesn't serve the memory of a Chris Stevens who was fighting for democracy over there and who knew what he was doing every single day.

BLITZER: Senator Kerry, thanks for joining us.

KERRY: Thank you.

BLITZER: A really small school hosts, a really big event. An exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how it's getting ready for tonight's presidential debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: If the vote ends up as close as the polls indicate right now, a handful of states could make the difference in this election. In fact, could the president actually lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College count? Our chief national correspondent, John King, is here. He's got the -- look at how close -- it happened in 2000.

It happened a few times in our history. Someone wins the popular vote nationally, but loses the Electoral College.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It has happened four times in our history. And people who run this scenario now think it is more likely that Mitt Romney could win the popular vote but lose the presidency to President Obama, but it's also conceivable that the flip could happen.

The way of Barack Obama could win the popular vote and Mitt Romney could be president. Let's go back to the last time this happened. That would be this year. That would be the year 2000. We had the recount in Florida, 48-48. Technically, he had 47 point something. Al Gore won the popular vote by more than a half million votes, Wolf.

More than a half million votes Al Gore won the popular vote, and you see (INAUDIBLE). As you know, we picked our presidents by the Electoral College. It takes 270 to win. And when the Florida recount ultimately went George W. Bush's way, that made him president of the United States. Even though, if you count all the votes cast from New England all the way over to California, and beyond, Al Gore won.

There's been a huge fight about this, of course, in recent years. Should we abolish the Electoral College? Should there be some sort of release the revision to it, some sort of a regional test, a proportional test? Should the popular vote pick the presidency? Well, this is what we have. We have the Electoral College in this election.

At the moment, a slight advantage to the president. But I just had a long conversation with team Romney. They feel a lot better about this map, Wolf. They do think -- both campaigns think it is conceivable, unlikely, but conceivable that one person wins the popular vote but when you go state by state on the path to 270, somebody else is the next president of the United States. We've got 15 days until we find out.

BLITZER: Are they already thinking about that scenario, John? The planning for that -- in other words, one candidate wins more popular votes nationwide, but the other candidate wins the all-important Electoral College?

KING: If it is -- the answer is yes. Are they thinking about it? Yes. If you pressed them on either campaign, they think somebody will win the national popular vote. That same person will win 207. But they do think it is possible because this election is so close. The president, for example, wins big in California, the Democrats always do, wins big in New York, the Democrats always do. If he wins some other big states, you get the popular vote up, conceivably though, if Governor Romney wins some of these smaller, more rural states, he could be the next president of the United States. If you want to flip that over, Republicans tend to win Texas big. They win a lot of these states out here and the priority is big.

Conceivable Governor Romney gets -- they don't think it will happen, Wolf, but guess what? Because of possible recount issues, if Florida -- in 2000, when this last happened, Florida came down to 537 odd votes. So, both teams have teams of lawyers waiting. They have constitutional arguments made about why the Electoral College is good, why the Electoral College is bad. Let's hope the lawyers don't get deployed. But yes, both campaigns will tell you they're standing by.

BLITZER: Hard to believe, 537 votes out of millions cast in Florida made the difference in who was elected president in 2000. John, don't go too far away. Thank you.

There won't be any more do-overs once tonight's final presidential debate has ended. So, one of the biggest mistakes the candidates must be sure to avoid. Our "Strategy Session," standing by with some answers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right to our "Strategy Session". Joining us two CNN contributors, the Democratic strategist Paul Begala; he's a senior strategist for the Democratic Super PAC, the fund-raising group known as Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action. Also joining us, the former Bush White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer. Guys thanks very much for coming in, guys. We asked both of you to share with us what you thought were the worst moments for President Obama and Governor Romney in the previous two debates. Paul, this is what you said was President Obama's worst moment going back to the first debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I suspect that on Social Security we've got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It's going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and speaker -- Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neal (ph), but it is -- the basic structure is sound.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Paul, why was that his worst moment and what does he need to do tonight to avoid that kind of, in your opinion, mistake?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, look at where we're standing. We're in Florida, also called God's waiting room. I mean there are a lot of seniors here. And the truth is the proper attack on Governor Romney on Social Security is you selected as your running mate a man who called for and voted for and supported partial privatization of Social Security. That's the last thing we needed. If we'd done what your running mate wanted to do, Governor Romney, Social Security would be in terrible shape today because the stock market cratered under Republican economic policies. In other words, you cannot cede (ph) Social Security to Mitt Romney because I think he had -- frankly the president had his facts wrong on that. Romney is vulnerable on Social Security.

BLITZER: And Ari, you thought this was Governor Romney's worst moment. It happened in the second debate. I'll play it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Any investments I have over the last eight years have been managed by a blind trust. And I understand they do include investments outside the United States, including in Chinese companies. Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: Candy --

ROMNEY: Have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: I've got to say --

ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: You know I don't look at my pension. It's not as big as yours, so it doesn't take long.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMNEY: Let me give you some advice.

OBAMA: I don't check it that often.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Ari, why was that Governor Romney's, in your opinion, worst mistake? What does he need to do to avoid it?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It was really stylistic. He said that same line three times in a row. In other words, it wasn't working. What he should have done is said, have you checked your pension? Your pension, Mr. President, is invested in China. By giving the president the floor, Mitt Romney lost the point. So it was one of those -- he gave the president an opening, he gave him a get out of jail free card by the three-time repeat waiting for the president to take the bait. It's what he tried to do to Newt Gingrich with success, but the president didn't take the debate. He did it to Newt in the primaries about have you checked your investment? He didn't do that as well when he tried it on President Obama.

BLITZER: What were their best moments? I'll start with you, Paul.

BEGALA: Well, for President Obama, his best moment by far was the closing shot -- it wasn't just a statement -- that he made in the second debate at Hofstra University where he went back to that 47 percent speech that Governor Romney gave here in Boca Raton behind closed doors to a bunch of millionaires where he seemed to denigrate and insult senior citizens and veterans and retirees and the working poor. And I thought the president nailed him so hard on that. It was just terrific.

BLITZER: What was Governor Romney's best moment according to your analysis, Ari?

FLEISCHER: Well, he zeroed in right on the core of the campaign when he went through the president's record and in a very soft spoken way he said the problem is what you've done in the last four years. Here were your promises. You said you'd cut the deficit in half, you didn't do it. You said unemployment would be below six percent right now. It's not below six percent. He went through a specific litany of presidential promises that were promises broken, every one of which added up to how badly the economy is doing. I thought that was his most effective.

BLITZER: Do you agree with that, Paul?

BEGALA: Actually, I don't. Romney's best moment -- no I don't -- but Romney's best moment -- actually his more difficult challenge is being positive, is getting on the offense positively, not just attacking President Obama. His first -- I think it was the first answer in the first debate where Romney just did -- he was a human power point. He ticked off the five things that he would want to do if he won the job. And to me, that's what this whole deal is. It's just a glorified job interview. And I thought that was Mitt Romney's best moment when he ticked off -- this is exactly what I'll do for you, as if he had a power point presentation to the voters.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Air, what was the -- what was the --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: What was the president's best moment, Ari?

FLEISCHER: Well I think the president's best moment was when he fired up that indignation about we don't do that for political purposes. I think that really got the Democratic base going. That's when Mitt Romney was making the case about the president's of Benghazi and his whole reaction to terrorism and the president took umbrage at it. I don't know that it was convincing for Republicans or independents but it sure helped him with the Democratic base.

BLITZER: Yes, he showed how angry he was simply by using the words --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

BLITZER: -- what Romney was saying was offensive. That word alone obviously coming from the commander in chief is a powerful moment indeed. Guys stand by. We have much more of our "Strategy Session" coming up, including new polls just out today from the critical battleground state of Ohio where this race for the White House couldn't be any tighter.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our "Strategy Session" and our contributors Paul Begala and Ari Fleischer. Very quickly before we move on to some of the polls, first to you Paul, what is the one thing the president desperately needs to do tonight?

BEGALA: He needs to integrate international and domestic issues. Foreign policy is economic policy. He needs to say that and he needs to say I ended combat operations in Iraq and I'm bringing those guys and gals home. I want to stop the combat in Afghanistan and come home and do some nation-building right here in America. That's what his policies would do and I think that's what he ought to say.

BLITZER: Ari, what does Governor Romney desperately need to do tonight?

FLEISCHER: Well I don't think desperate because he's in pretty good shape after these two debates. But if I were Mitt, what I'd want to do especially on foreign policy and on military matters is come across as thoughtful. He wants the American people to say he's judicious. If this man is sitting at that Oval Office, if he has his split (ph) finger on the button, he'll be thoughtful about how he protects our country, not knee-jerk, not cowboy, thoughtful. And the president, of course is going to try to paint him into the you're a militarist, bomb-first direction. Mitt needs to resist that.

BLITZER: Paul, here's the latest polls out of Ohio --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: -- that came out today, the Suffolk University poll, likely voters, Obama, 47, Romney, 47. The CBS/"New York Times"/Quinnipiac University poll, Obama, 50, Romney, 45. Both of these polls have margins of error, four percent in the Suffolk, three percent in Quinnipiac, it looks like pretty tight in Ohio. What are you seeing?

BEGALA: Pretty tight. But you've seen a reliable, stable, narrow Obama lead in Ohio and that's going to continue through. Unless I miss my guess and I am never wrong, Barack Obama wins Ohio. Here's why. For once liberals did something that people could understand. It wasn't a 2,000 page bill. It wasn't a 5,000 page bill. It was saving the auto industry. One out of eight jobs in that state is dependent on autos. Barack Obama saved the auto industry. Mitt Romney famously would not have supported the Obama auto bailout and I think that's what's going to deliver Ohio for Obama.

BLITZER: If he wins Ohio, Ari, I'm sure you agree the rescue of General Motors and Chrysler probably will be the single most important reason.

FLEISCHER: Yes, but we're missing one big factor and that's the president's vulnerability on energy policy. His war against coal is really hurting the president in a significant portion of Ohio and it's not just with the coal miners. It's all of the secondary jobs that have been created as a result of the boom in fracking and in coal and in energy production in Ohio where they have really turned against the president. United Mine Workers won't even endorse the president. So he's got a problem on the other side of the state as well. But you know when you look at those polls, Wolf, the same issue that was prevalent a month ago, two months ago remains. The polls continue to over sample Democrats. I like where Republicans are sitting right now. When you look at Mitt Romney's numbers in Ohio and across the battleground states, I would much rather be Mitt Romney in these closing two weeks than Barack Obama, anytime, any day. It looks like a stronger finish for Governor Romney and turnout again will be essential. Where are the 18 to 29-year-olds? What percentage is the black vote? That's the big task that the president's campaign has to get out --

BLITZER: But Ari, in New Hampshire, it's only got a few electoral votes but look at this. The "Granite State" poll a likely choice for president, 49, Obama, 41, Romney. That's a pretty significant lead --

FLEISCHER: Right --

BLITZER: -- at this point two weeks before the election.

FLEISCHER: And that poll -- and that poll Wolf -- and that poll has a Democratic over sample of seven percentage points. In 2008, the Democrats turned out two percentage points more in New Hampshire. That poll is so far out of whack, I'm not worried about it one bit.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Here's the question --

BEGALA: -- the minutia of the --

FLEISCHER: Actually it's a pretty valid point to make --

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: The poll shows more Democrats because more people are identifying as Democrats because they like what the president is saying --

FLEISCHER: No --

BEGALA: He's going to win New Hampshire --

(CROSSTALK)

FLEISCHER: It defies -- it defies common sense.

BLITZER: All right one quick question --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Hold on, guys.

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: Paul, one quick question --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: One quick question to you before I let both of you go, but you're not going too far. The president's campaign announced he's going to begin a six-state campaign tour over the next couple of days after the debate -- Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, Ohio. Has he given up on North Carolina?

BEGALA: Yes. I know I'm not supposed to say that, Wolf, but I don't -- I worked with -- as you mentioned, the pro-Obama Super PAC, so I'm being paid to help reelect the president. But if you look at where he's going and where he's spending money, yes, it looks like Governor Romney is likely to carry North Carolina. But those other six or seven states, I think all of them -- I haven't seen one poll in those states that show Romney leading or certainly not leading outside the margin of error and I've seen polls that show Obama leading in all of them.

FLEISCHER: Yes, the fascinating thing is what's going to happen in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Is this battlefield going to expand? And on Pennsylvania for Republicans and Michigan have been very tough states since the mid '80s, so it's almost like Lucy and the football. But the Romney people are taking a serious look at especially Michigan. Pennsylvania, who knows?

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I don't know how serious it is because they're not -- the Romney campaign is not spending a lot of money, if any. Some Super PACs might be spending money --

FLEISCHER: Not yet.

BLITZER: -- in Michigan and Pennsylvania --

FLEISCHER: Yes.

BLITZER: -- but as of now they haven't spent --

FLEISCHER: Right.

BLITZER: -- much of a dime in either of those states.

BEGALA: Which is amazing, Romney's going to lose the state he was born in, the state he was governor in --

BLITZER: All right, all right --

BEGALA: One of the states where he has a mansion in California --

FLEISCHER: But he'll still be the president of the United States --

(CROSSTALK) BLITZER: It's "Debate Night in America" and debate night here in THE SITUATION ROOM as well. Guys, thanks very much. The third and final presidential debate will focus on foreign policy. CNN's live coverage from Boca Raton, Florida, begins right after THE SITUATION ROOM 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Each candidate is making claims about what the other would do to America's defense spending. We're trying to sort it all out. We've got a reality check. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Foreign policy will take center stage in tonight's final presidential debate and our expert team of producers, researchers and reporters, they will be watching for when the candidates are or are not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It's an issue already making plenty of waves out there on the campaign trail and our John Berman is standing by. He's got a little reality check for us right now -- John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf. Let's start with defense spending because on the subject of defense President Obama charges that Mitt Romney wants a substantial increase in military spending.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Governor Romney then also wants to spend $2 trillion on additional military programs even though the military is not asking for them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So what are the facts here? Mitt Romney says the Pentagon's base budget which does not include war spending in Afghanistan should be about four percent of our gross domestic product. To give you a sense of what that means, it is scheduled to be about 3.5 percent next year. An independent analysis by the Center for New American Security projects that the Romney plan would add $2.1 trillion over 10 years, although the Romney campaign says that will be largely offset by reduced war spending in Afghanistan. Now, as for whether the military is asking for the money as the president says, Leon Panetta, the current secretary of defense and current Pentagon generals are not asking for an increase though former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs head Mike Mullen (ph) have praised the four percent number. Our verdict here is mostly true with context. The two trillion is over 10 years and you need to understand it does not include increased or reduced spending in war and correct, the current military establishment isn't really asking for the money. So how about the reverse claim on defense spending? Mitt Romney says President Obama is calling for huge defense cuts.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: If the president's re-elected you're going to see about a trillion dollars in cuts to our military, with impact on our veterans. Let me tell you when I'm president I will not cut our military budget. We must defend America's strength.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So the president is calling for some defense cuts but to get to one trillion you have to add about 500 billion in cuts that would happen if the country falls off the physical cliff -- fiscal cliff and reaches no new budget deal. Those cuts are part of the sequestration package the president signed in 2011 and passed by Congress including Paul Ryan. However, neither side says they actually want those cuts. So our verdict here is misleading. There is a way to $1 trillion in cuts but to suggest it's part of the president's plan that's not really fair -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good reality check for us, John. Thanks. John is going to be doing this throughout the night for us. They say it's the biggest thing they've ever done. Up next, an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how such a small university is prepping for it to host tonight's huge debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now a CNN exclusive; our White House correspondent Dan Lothian is over at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida with a behind-the-scenes look at the making of tonight's debate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For Lynn University, this is the Super Bowl of politics.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have your phone lines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the overflow media work space.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the biggest thing we have ever done.

LOTHIAN: The countdown no longer marked in days but hours and Gregory Malfitano (ph), the man who helped make the pitch for the debate then had to make it happen is feeling the pressure.

GREGORY MALFITANO, SENIOR V.P., LYNN UNIV.: Check, check, check, check all day long. And then, verify, verify, verify.

LOTHIAN: After two middle of the night phone calls Malfitano, the senior vice president for administration, is back on the campus for the final meeting with his staff and CNN got an exclusive look behind the scenes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, let's stay with the -- stay with the original plan.

LOTHIAN: It's 8:30 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Center is up and running. Debate hall is functioning. Temps are set. All the gates around campus are locked and secured --

LOTHIAN: By 10:00 a.m., he moves on to a critical closed-door meeting with the Debate Commission and representatives from both campaigns, all sides ironing out last-minute details.

MALFITANO: There's a lot at stake and there's a lot of details. I mean, you know, there are issues where they could be unhappy if things aren't planned right --

LOTHIAN (on camera): Right.

MALFITANO: -- and that would be an unpleasant thing.

LOTHIAN (voice-over): One hour later Malfitano is on the move again rattling off staggering numbers, 70 miles of cable to accommodate the press. More than 1,000 phone lines all snaking out of this room. And behind this door --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No one has seen it.

LOTHIAN: The network powering computers and wireless devices.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is where the brains of the operation are --

LOTHIAN: Inside the debate hall, President Obama and Governor Romney have done their walk-throughs. The cameras are ready.

(on camera): Now there's a lot of equipment jammed into a very tight space. This is where all the networks have their studios. What's different in this debate than the other three is that this is a much smaller auditorium. In fact, they're calling it an intimate setting. And in fact, as late as Sunday afternoon they were bolting down additional chairs, 16 right here in order to accommodate more people.

(voice-over): Janet Brown is the executive director of the Debate Committee.

JANET BROWN, CPD EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: There's a different feel to it. Anything that lets the candidates and the moderator focus on the importance of the conversation with the least distraction by anything else is a good thing.

LOTHIAN: Foreign policy and how both candidates engage face-to-face is the primary focus of the debate but behind the scenes, making it happen is a massive undertaking. Two years in the making, comes down to one night.

(on camera): That's when you'll relax, when it's all over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Maybe tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow --

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: Now, this used to be called the College of Boca Raton but back in 1991 I was a local reporter here. I covered the story when they changed their name to Lynn University. They only had about 800 students back then, so now a little more than 2,100. Still a small school but in a very big spotlight tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Lothian, thank you.