Return to Transcripts main page


Interview with Tony Blinken; Interview with Ambassadors from Baltic States; Interview with Charlie Crist

Aired March 9, 2014 - 09:00   ET


CANDY CROWLEY, HOST: Putin stays put.


CROWLEY (voice-over): Today, your move, Mr. President.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If this violation of international law continues, the resolve of the United States and our allies and the international community will remain firm.

CROWLEY: Remaining firm. About what? We talk to Tony Blinken, deputy national security adviser at the White House.

And, the neighborhood watch. Russia's move into Crimea sets off alarm bells in the former Soviet bloc. Ambassadors from the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania join us.

And then --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No matter what they say, it is not a sin to reach across the aisle.

CROWLEY: He could be his own bipartisan caucus. The former Republican governor of Florida who wants to be the next Democratic governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, sits down for party talk.

Plus, conservative activists host what amounts to 2016's first Republican cattle call.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You want to lose elections? Stand for nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's time for a little rebellion on the battlefield of ideas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.

CROWLEY: And the winner is -- this guy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business.

CROWLEY: Our political panel reviews the Rand Paul verdict and weighs the implications.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

CROWLEY (on-camera): Good morning from Washington. I'm Candy Crowley. First this morning, breaking news on that Malaysia Airlines jet missing in the South China Sea. New evidence suggests the flight may have turned back before vanishing off the southern coast of Vietnam. We also now know that two people who boarded the flight using stolen passports appear to have bought their tickets together.

CNN's Jim Clancy joins me now from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. Jim, you just attended a news conference. Give me an update on this second full day of searching.

JIM CLANCY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Frustrating. That's the only word for it, Candy. As we look across the faces of the Malaysian authorities, they are frustrated. The media who had packed the room, who have been attending press briefings almost every two hours at some points during the day because Malaysian officials thought there was going to be some kind of a breakthrough in locating the wreckage of this airliner. But nothing has been found.

It is starkly disappointing to everyone. You talk there about the aircraft turning around. Radar records show that for an instant, they could see the plane turning around. But no explanation why the pilot or co-pilot didn't radio the control -- aviation control and tell them they planned to change their flight course. All of these unanswered questions remain. And tonight, those are weighing heavily on the family members who have been told to prepare for the worst -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Jim, its a's hugely tragic and really curious so about these passports. We're told that Interpol had flagged at least one of them as stolen. How did they get through security?

CLANCY: That is the important question right now. Some say the Malaysian Airlines -- or the Malaysian authorities did not check the Interpol database, and therefore, could not have known that the passport was stolen. But it's a fairly routine, a fairly easy procedure. And as a result of that, we heard today from the director general of the Department for Civil Aviation here that they're going to have an investigation.

And, yes, some people could lose their jobs or worse as a result of it. But at the same time, Candy, while that raised the specter of foul play, of possible terrorism here, that isn't necessarily the case, because criminals board flights every day. People on forged passports trying to make it across international borders to get to the European Union or some other location do it every single day. We don't have any answers. We have only questions tonight -- Candy.

CROWLEY: Yes. And some of them sort of scary. Jim Clancy, thank you so much, with us from Kuala Lumpur.

President Obama is spending the weekend with his family in Key Largo, Florida and that's where we find his deputy national security advisor, Tony Blinken. Tony, thank you for joining us. I want to start out by a breaking news story and that, of course, is that missing Malaysian airliner. We are now learning that two of the passengers aboard apparently were using stolen passports from different countries. Both of them stolen many months ago in Southeast Asia. We are also learning that their tickets appear to have been bought together. Does this raise alarm bells in terms of terrorism?

BLINKEN: Candy, first of all, our hearts go out to the people who have lost loved ones in this accident. There were three American citizens on-board. Many Chinese, many Taiwanese. It is too soon to tell what happened, why it happened, but what we've done is this. We've made available the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board, and other experts to aid in the investigation to figure out what happened.

But right now, it's just too early to tell what the cause was. I've seen these reports about the passports. We're looking into that, but we don't have anything that we can confirm at this point.

CROWLEY: Sure. As the deputy national security advisor, though, is there something in that story, whether you can confirm it or not -- CNN certainly is reporting it as are many others. Is there something in that that raises alarm bells to you?

BLINKEN: Well, look, the reports certainly raise questions and concerns and that's exactly why we're looking into them. But right now, it would be premature to speculate. We just don't have the facts yet.

CROWLEY: OK. Let me move you on now to Crimea. It seems to me that for more than a week now, what we have is Putin staying put and the president and the west saying you can't take over Crimea, you need to leave Crimea, and he hasn't budged. Is there anything that has changed so far as you can tell under western pressure?

BLINKEN: Oh, I think a lot's changed. First of all, the president has mobilized the international community in support of Ukraine to isolate Russia for its actions in Ukraine and to re-assure our allies and partners and that is having a clear effect. In terms of the support for Ukraine, we've mobilized the international community to build an economic support package, we put in short-term assistance of our own and we hope Congress will pass the loan guarantee that we proposed.

The international community, the European partners, have done the same. With regard to Russia, in coordination with our allies, we've imposed significant sanctions on Russia and that's already exerting a cost. We've seen Russian markets go down substantially. The ruble go down and investors sitting on the fence. So, Russia is paying a price for this. The question now is whether they will take the off-ramp that the president and our partners around Europe have proposed. There is a way out of this that can take into account Russia's interests and concerns but restores Ukraine's sovereignty. That's what we're working on.

CROWLEY: But at the moment, do you see signs that any of that has affected Putin's mindset? I know the president has had lengthy phone call recently with him and from outside appearances, at any rate, it looks as though Putin has made the decision that Crimea is more important to him than anything the west might be able to do economically.

BLINKEN: It's not a done deal. I think the door is clearly open to resolving this diplomatically. Secretary Kerry is engaged with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov. European leaders are also engaged with Putin as has been the president. He has the choice to make. He can choose to continue to pursue this path, and that's going to result in increasing isolation for Russia, increasing economic costs, and undermining Russia's power and influence.

Or, again, there's a very clear off-ramp that would involve getting international inspectors in to verify any concerns Russia may have about the treatment of ethnic minorities, getting the two countries, Russia and Ukraine talking directly, and that's what we're working on, and then tracking toward elections on May 25th.

To the extent that Russia has concerns about the so-called legitimacy of the government, the way to resolve that is through the elections the government has also set (ph). That's the choice for Russia. In the days ahead, we'll be working hard to encourage to make the right choice.

CROWLEY: Sure. The question is, and then what? Because he does not seem so far to be susceptible to this kind of strong-arming. If you say -- and we've heard Secretary Kerry apparently told his counterpart in Russia, you know, that diplomatic window would close if you move to annex Crimea. Well, what if he does? Then what? When a diplomatic window is closed, what is there left to do that's -- that is real?

BLINKEN: Well, first of all, if there is an annexation of Crimea, if there's a referendum that moves Crimea from Ukraine to Russia, we won't recognize it nor will most of the world. Second, the pressure that we already exerted in coordination with our partners and allies will go up. The president made it very clear in announcing our sanctions, as did the Europeans the other day, that this was a first step.

And we put in place a very flexible and very tough mechanism to increase the pressure, to increase the sanctions, depending on events, depending on what happens going forward. And so, if Russia makes the wrong choice going forward, we have the ability to exert significant pressure on Russia as do our partners. But again, the hope is that Russia won't make that choice. There's a way to resolve this in a way that takes into account Russia's concerns, but also critically restores Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

CROWLEY: There is some discussion and some disagreement is there not in the west among western European nations and the U.S. as to how far to take those sanctions, is there not? I mean, certainly, a lot of these European countries depend heavily on Russian money that comes in for a variety of reasons, not to mention Russian gas. So is there a unanimity among all European nations that might have to be involved in further sanctions? BLINKEN: In fact, Candy, there's tremendous coordination and solidarity led by the president. This weekend, he was on the phone with Chancellor Merkel of Germany, President Hollande of France, Prime Minister Cameron of Britain, the Italian Prime Minister Renzi, the three Baltic leaders from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

And there is tremendous solidarity going forward both on what we've done to date and what we would need to do if Russia continues on the course that it's on. So, I think you'd see if there are further steps in the direction of annexing Crimea a very strong coordinated international response.

CROWLEY: And I want to read you something from Senator Chris Coons. He's a Democrat from Delaware. I'm not sure if you know him or not, but nonetheless, he's a Democrat. And here's what he had to say about the situation. "As Putin takes increasingly aggressive steps by deploying troops and armored carriers and overflights of jets in Crimea, in Ukrainian territory, the U.S. needs to be thoughtful, less rhetoric, more action. I, frankly, think this is partly a result of our perceived weakness because of our actions in Syria."

This is something that last part, particularly, that critics have suggested across the board, certainly, a lot of Republicans, but as I mentioned Senator Coons is a Democrat saying that Putin sensed weakness in the president. Your reaction.

BLINKEN: Oh, I think Putin is seeing exactly the opposite. What Putin is seeing is the president mobilizing the international community, both in support of Ukraine and Isolate Russia for its actions in Ukraine. And Russia is paying a clear cost for that. That's what Putin is seeing. Putin is not acting out of a position of strength. He's acting out of a position of weakness. Understand what's happened here. This has gone on for several months now. A country that had a government that the Russians supported and that was taking aggressive action against its own people has left.

A government that is more oriented toward the west has come in and that's what Putin was afraid of. And as a result, what we've seen now is the international community mobilized against the actions he's taken as a result of the president's leadership. So, I think what you're seeing is the United States leading in this effort and the president doing the leading. The notion that this is somehow a result of Syria makes very little sense to me. This is about Ukraine. This is about --


CROWLEY: The suggestion is that the president looked weak in Syria. He's look weak in other places and Putin took advantage of that.

BLINKEN: Well, you know, history really doesn't bear that out. Russians went into Georgia and took over territories there under the Bush administration when there were hundreds of thousands of American troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And of course, that didn't stop the Russians from going in. That's because this is not about what we do or we say in the first instance. It's about Russia and its perceived interests.

And we have made very clear now that there's a choice that Russia has to make and a cost it will pay if it continues down this path. I think the impact again of what we've already done in terms of the pressure on Russia has been significant. It will grow stronger. But, it's also the responsible thing to do to figure out if we can resolve this in a diplomatic way and that's why we've offered a path forward that would take into account Russia's concerns.

We've said -- we've long said that we respect and understand its ties to Ukraine, but it cannot change the status quo through the use of force.

CROWLEY: Tony Blinken, deputy national security adviser to the president, thank you so much.

BLINKEN: Thanks very much for having me, Candy.

CROWLEY: President Obama spoke yesterday with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania assuring diplomatic and security assistance if Russia asserts authority in other former Soviet states. Next up, a trio of Baltic ambassadors to the United States.


CROWLEY: Joining me now, three Baltic ambassadors to the United States who are wearily watching what's happening in Ukraine. Welcome to Latvian ambassador, Andris Razans, Estonian ambassador, Marina Kaljurand, and Lithuanian ambassador, Zygimantas Pavilionis. Thank you so much for being here, all of you.

I think the basic question is when you look at the map and one behind you, any map, your proximity to Russia is right next door. You're in the neighborhood. What is your level of anxiety about what's happening in Ukraine?

ZYGIMANTAS PAVILIONIS, LITHUANIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Well, I would maybe start with some kind of broader perspective. Now, I think we are at the crossroad of the history. For one side to have the world kind of lessons learned with democracies, human rights, international organizations, you know, everything that we have created and we enjoyed. On the other hand, we have the world of kind of never again with Putin, Stalin, with occupations, disrespect of human dignities, you know?

Everything that Mr. Putin and his KGB cronies represents today. So, we, the Baltics, we are the countries who transited from that bad wall to the good wall. So, we had had a moral right to ask, what do we do with people like Mr. Putin, you know, who is trying to use the old resources of his country to promote that world of never again.

Usually, if we are successful, we are bringing those people to justice if not by trying to stop them with all the means possible until they reach us in the Baltics, in Moldova, in Georgia, or maybe, in (INAUDIBLE) monumental (INAUDIBLE). So, one day, you wake up and said -- those self-defense units without insignia with the Russian plates (ph) defending it.

CROWLEY: Is that the fear? Do you fear are we next? I mean, what's that level of fear?

MARINA KALJURAND, ESTONIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Geographically, we're next. But I think mentally and from a security point of view, a lot has changed in the recent 20, 23 years. Today, we're part of NATO. We're part of EU, so the security for the Baltic States is absolutely different. And, it's not a problem for the Baltics. It's much more global.

The whole Europe is seeing what Mr. Putin is doing. Its international community is following that, and of course, we're not happy about that.

ANDIS RAZANS, LATVIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE U.S.: Of course, geographically, they're pretty close to the region. Very close to Russia geographically. And also, historically, our people had experienced something similar back in the second world war time and cold war time, occupation of Latvian and Baltic States. Definitely, people remember that. And because of that, of course, when it was (ph) say tragedy today -- Ukraine, it worries people. But, world has changed since. We're again independent (ph). And we think we're part of western world and part of NATO --

CROWLEY: Part of NATO which is a mutual defense --

RAZANS: Exactly. But it doesn't mean that we can become complacent.

PAVILIONIS: I wouldn't be so romantic, you know? Well, with all the nice talks and statements from our side and warnings, you know, political, economic sanctions, army side runs it. You know, just yesterday, we have 70 trucks crossed the Crimean border. They have a military build-up there. They are preparing for military operation in eastern parts of Ukraine.

They have military buildup around the Baltic States. You know, and they -- what is very interesting they lie -- you know, they lie and they directly look into your eyes. So, it means that they do not recognize that they have a problem. They advance. So, what do we do with that? It's serious.

KALJURAND: -- is right saying that we don't see the escalation today, but at the same time, we, the Baltics, are around the table with like-minded countries, with other countries who share our views, which means that we can share our historic experience, what we have and we'll listen to. That's extremely important. CROWLEY: Do you feel reassured by what the United States and other western states have said to you since this happened? What's been the nature of those conversation?

PAVILIONIS: Yes and no. But, you know, I would say just for the sake of debate, you know, one thing if you have North Korea and another thing if you have big country. Powerful country turning like North Korea with missiles, with armies, this is serious. You know, that can make a huge impact on our Euro-Atlantic family. So, that's why I think our response should be stronger than any usual cases.

RAZANS: We are neighbors, but we are not triplets. We have different opinions.

CROWLEY: Exactly.

RAZANS: Different -- we feel reassured especially last few weeks there have been very direct communication between United States and my government at all possible levels. We have some very practical steps taken by U.S. government NATO as well, but still, there are many things that might be still done when it comes to reassurance and definitely the reassurance to central Europeans, reassurance to Baltic countries, I think, is kind of package that should be really developed --

PAVILIONIS: I just want to kind of continue but not on so much defensive term. We are kind of -- that's our weakness. We are always reacting. We are defense, you know, trying to reassure each other. Actually, we have to have a vision of what we really want Russia to be, what we really want Ukraine to be, Georgia. You know, we once failed with membership action plan in NATO for Georgia and Ukraine and now we pay.

You know, we don't have a clarity (ph) -- on membership perspective for European union for Ukraine. And again, you know, another point, you know, with -- the point that somebody discussed in Congress, we have to advance with our strategies just to kind of --

CROWLEY: Sit and react is the wrong -- so when you look at what's happened in Crimea, which basically Putin moved his folks in and there he sits and they have no amount of we're going to have sanctions seem to have moved him. What do you think his long-term plan is? What does he want?

PAVILIONIS: I think he's weak. He's frightened and the only way for him, you know, to stay in power is to have a war. You know, we saw it 400 years --

CROWLEY: With whom?

PAVILIONIS: With neighbors, of course.

CROWLEY: With Ukraine and with --



PAVILIONIS: So, he would let -- I don't see psychologically why should he actually stop. His popularity is rising. Well, of course, his economy is going down, but look at North Korea, you know? Those people, you know, who are stealing money from their own nation, they like it. KALJURAND: I'd like to make a clear line. One part is maybe he might progress with relations to Ukraine, with relations with Georgia, Moldova, which hasn't been mentioned yet, but it's a very certain line between. Those countries I mentioned and NATO and the EU countries.

CROWLEY: You have the -- of NATO --

KALJURAND: Absolutely. That's the common security.

CROWLEY: But what moves him, though? Certainly, the talk has yet to make a dent in Mr. Putin. What moves him out of Crimea?

PAVILIONIS: I think personal sanctions. You now, if just bunch of people controlling the wealth of their own country in their own pockets, they're stealing it. You know, if you attack the assets of those people directly, if you attack the nice -- lands, you know, skiings (ph) in Austria and nice dinings in London, they will feel it because the world is interconnected.

CROWLEY: I'm going to give you the last word. I mean, putting sanctions on the elite?

RAZANS: I think that's absolutely clear that that might be an instrument that might help pulling out Russian troops from Crimea. It is difficult to say what moves the Russian government today. I haven't had a chance to talk to them, but what I clearly see, that the tragedy that unfolds in Ukraine is really going to develop -- I was thinking it's part of the past. I was thinking it's part of second world war history.

It's part of cold war history and I think we should do everything to make sure that these things simply do not go through in our century. And, I think that plenty of instruments are available at our disposal to make sure that tragedies do not repeat.

CROWLEY: Let's hope it stops here and we see some movement back. I want to thank the three of you for coming in and giving us your perspective, which is certainly very helpful.

KALJURAND: Thank you.

PAVILIONIS: All three of us, we have to thank U.S. for leadership in this critical moment.

CROWLEY: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

We also extended invitations to the Russian ambassadors to the U.S. and the U.N. as well as Foreign Minister Lavrov. All declined. We will continue to try. When we return, former Florida governor, Charlie Crist, lost his job in politics when he embraced President Obama's policies. He's running again now, this time, as a Democrat. He's still not afraid to be seen with President Obama. Charlie Crist is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CROWLEY: Joining me now, Charlie Crist, former Republican governor of Florida. Author of "The Party's Over, How the Extreme Right Hijacked the GOP and I Became a Democrat." In fact you became a Democrat who is running for your old job as governor.

CRIST: I am.

CROWLEY: I want to talk to you first -

CRIST: I brought you the book, by the way.

CROWLEY: Thank you very much.


CROWLEY: I appreciate it.

CRIST: It was great to see you last night.

CROWLEY: It was nice to see you but it's not going to work, okay?


CRIST: What's that?

CROWLEY: (INAUDIBLE) but it's not going to work.

CRIST: It's not going to work?

CROWLEY: The charm offensive. Listen let me talk to you about President Obama because we are at a point in the mid-term that we see a lot of Democrats who actually don't want the president either in their state or in their district because of the Affordable Care Act has not gone as well as it might have and they have angry constituents.

You on the other hand are embracing it. Is it you are fully embraced - you think that nothing about Obamacare has irreparably harmed Floridians in any way?

CRIST: No, I don't think so at all. I think it has been great. And I know the roll out was difficult. I'm sure the president feels that way it too. I had an opportunity to visit with him Friday in Miami. He and Michelle were there, the first lady. And, you know, I just know that he has a compassionate heart, he cares about people. People getting health care is like a civil right. I mean people need to have shelter. They need food. They need water and they need health care and they deserve it. We're the richest country in the world. We ought it provide it and God bless him for doing it. CROWLEY: In the end you did see about 300,000 Floridians did lose the health care they currently had. They may have signed up by now. They've found alternatives, et cetera. But they had insurance that they like but it didn't fit under the restrictions -- or the qualities of what Obamacare wanted in an insurance policy. You also have this Medicare Advantage where it may see some cuts. We're not sure how that will work out but certainly in Florida there is real fear that seniors who are using the Medicare Advantage plan will in fact see their list of doctors shrink. None of that -- you don't think any of that will happen? What are you worried about?

CRIST: I don't -- I don't think that will happen and I think that people on the other side are using that as a fear tactic and it is wrong. And I think what's important to remember is --

CROWLEY: But they did lose their -- some did lose their insurance that they had. I mean that's a fact.

CRIST: That's why we have the Affordable Care Act. Exactly why is to make sure that they don't lose it in the future, that they have someplace that they can go. They can get health care and that it's more affordable than what they may have had before. That's the whole idea and that's why I think at the end of the day this is going to be a very popular program because it is doing the right thing for the people of our country and my state.

CROWLEY: So why are so many Democrats kind of arm-lengthening (ph) this?

CRIST: I don't know. They ought to strengthen up. The president is a smart guy and he's doing the right thing. And God bless him for it.

CROWLEY: I want to show you the straw poll results. Your former party had a gathering of conservative activists in the party and they had a straw poll at the end of it. And you see here Rand Paul, 31 percent. Followed by Ted Cruz, 11 percent. And on down the line Chris Christie at 9 percent. Your old rival, Marco Rubio at 6 percent. What does that -- look at that and tell me what that tells you about where the Republican Party is now.

CRIST: Split up. I mean, you know, it's interesting to me. When you have what was it in four responses to the State of the Union message that the president gave from the Republican side? I mean it's fractured. It's divided. You know, I don't think they know exactly what they want to do and it is sad. I mean, you know, Jeb Bush said it best, this is a party now that's perceived as being anti-women, anti-minority, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-education, anti- environment. I mean pretty soon there's nobody left.

CROWLEY: You have in Chris Christie someone who is not unlike you. He is a governor of a state. He had a badly timed hug with President Obama at one point. He's taken some flak from the right. Do you think the Republican Party where it is now could nominate and elect a Chris Christie? CRIST: I don't think it is that likely. I mean, you know, you saw the numbers we just looked at and it's clear to me that what's happening in today's Republican Party, at least the leadership in the party -- I want to stress that. My mom and dad are still Republicans. I love them to death and they're wonderful people, and rational. But the leadership of the party really has gone astray and it really is the reason that I became a Democrat. I feel much more comfortable, I feel at home as a Democrat. It is a compassionate party of people.

CROWLEY: You know, the Democrats -- it looks as though the Democrats at least I think the last I saw, maybe 50/50 chance percent the Democrats are going to lose control of the Senate and the Republicans will maintain control of the House which leads to the specter of president Obama having an all-Democratic -- all-Republican Congress in his final two years in office. What are Democrats on the hill doing wrong that it looks as though they may have to seek control on the other side of congress?

CRIST: I think they are he's over thinking. What I mean by that is this president is leading and leading well. I know the numbers aren't great right now but I know in his heart and in his soul he's doing what he thinks is right and that takes courage and strength. He's getting gray like me. But I think that what they need to do is support him. Support him and support him strongly. He deserves it and that will bring them home and unify them and I think that will make November very, very good for Democrats.

CROWLEY: Finally, as I mentioned, you are looking at a race, you may get some primary challenges but you would like to take on Governor Scott. The recent numbers in Florida we took a look (INAUDIBLE), unemployment is way down since the governor took office. Housing prices are on the upswing. What's wrong with the Florida economy, assuming this will be an economic election as it will be in some states?

CRIST: That's a great question. I'm running against a man in Rick Scott whose company paid the largest fine for fraud in the history of the United States of America at the time.

CROWLEY: Right. But since he's been here -- I understand that but I wanted you to sort of look at the state's economy which is - seems to be doing pretty well. CRIST: Yes. Well it could be doing a lot better. We could have accepted Medicaid funds so that a million of my fellow Floridians would be getting coverage and their health care that they deserve. They're not getting it today.

That's $51 billion that would have come back to Florida over the next 10 years that we deserve. We could have accepted high-speed rail. Another $2.4 billion coming back to my fellow Floridians who sent it up here to Washington. That's the right thing to do. Would have created tens of thousands of jobs more than we have, you know. He won't support the minimum wage. $10.10 is the right thing do, as the president has said. You know, no working individual should have to be in poverty. And it strikes me that we can do a lot better, be more innovative, bring more industry -


CROWLEY: Can I get you in a yes or no to get you to tell me whether you think the economy is better than it was when the governor took office?

CRIST: I think it is, yes. You can. And I'm always comfortable telling the truth but that turnaround started at the end of my term. And one of the reasons is I accepted the stimulus money, saved thousands of teachers jobs, law enforcement officers, firefighters, it was the right thing to do when President Obama said, I want to help you, and I said yes as a Republican to a Democratic president. Not because it was political, but because it was right.

CROWLEY: Former Florida governor Charlie Crist, who is looking for a turnaround from another party. Thanks for joining us this morning. Appreciate it.

CRIST: My pleasure, Candy, thank you.

CROWLEY: We have reached out to Governor Rick Scott and hope to setup an interview with him soon as well. But when we return, conservatives rally the faithful and furnish their credentials. It's the opening shot of the Republican presidential primaries. Our panel is next.


CROWLEY: Joining me around the table, Ben Ferguson, CNN commentator and syndicated radio host. A.B. Stoddard, associate editor for "The Hill" newspaper, and CNN political commentator Donna Brazile. Thanks, all.

I want to show again the results of the CPAC poll, straw poll. We all know this is not scientific, but nonetheless these are folks who -- conservative folks who attended. Rand Paul, 31 percent. Pretty good little win (ph). Ted Cruz was up from last year, 11 percent. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon from Johns Hopkins that got so much attention last year. Chris Christie at nine, and on down the line. So interpret these results for me.

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE HILL": Well, I think everyone knew Rand Paul was going to win. Just like his dad. It is a group stacked with young libertarians who are the most active and influential and the straw poll pretty much was going to go to Rand Paul as it did last year. Interestingly (ph) Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, was number two last year and now scoring way down at 6 percent. He's hoping to make a comeback as the bridge between the establishment and this insurgent tea party wing. He is not a libertarian. So while we knew Rand Paul would win, I thought it was actually remarkable that he won by 20 percentage points over Ted Cruz.

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm not surprised because 46 percent of all the votes that were cast in the straw poll were for people the age of 26 or under. So Rand Paul is incredibly popular with young people. They had a mass amount of young people there that were specifically there to vote for him. (CROSSTALK)

Well I think it means something if you win it. It doesn't mean that you're not going to have a shot at it if you don't. Because when you have 46 percent under the age of 26, 25, 24, you are talking a lot of college Republicans, you're talking a lot of conservative group kids. And so they were able to come in there. Same thing with Ben Carson. He had a large group of people trying to draft him to run for president. They showed up to vote for him and that's why did he did so well.

CROWLEY: And Donna, when you look at numbers it's one thing. But I can tell you when you talk to folks, especially young folks, Rand Paul has a certain appeal. Now they have - we haven't gone to (ph) the microscopic part where everybody things (INAUDIBLE) he has ever said and all of that kind of stuff. But young people seem attracted to him. Why is that?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well first of all, I agree with my colleagues here that it is not always a good predictor in terms of who will be president of the United States. But for young people, I think, his positions on -- from civil liberties, on Edward Snowden and the NSA spying, to Rand Paul trying to figure out his message on -- even civil rights issues, going down -- going back home to Kentucky to testify on behalf of people who have committed a crime and now are seeking to get their voting rights back. He's a hybrid in many ways, but in other ways he's a traditional conservative. And I think because he represents this new lineage of Republicans, I think young people are looking for somebody -


FERGUSON: It's that libertarian X factor that I think that so many people like because he's not afraid to fight that awkward battle which establishment Republicans I think are afraid of sometimes. He's more than willing to go out there, as he said, and say what's on your cell phone is none of the government's business and that's the type of thing that -

CROWLEY: I think he's unpredictable. And I think, you know, the idea of someone that you're not - you know, who can sue the administration over the NSA surveillance one day and then go have lunch with Eric Holder at the justice department to discuss the felon (ph) and voting issue. I want to move you on to one other subject that caught everybody's attention (INAUDIBLE) and that's the Ukraine, because it has become a Republican way to, again, go at President Obama saying if he hadn't been so weak in Syria, if we hadn't shown weakness across the world Putin wouldn't be so embolden. A direct tie to that. Is that a (INAUDIBLE) talking point for 2014 or can they overplay that?

BRAZILE: They're misreading history. You didn't hear these voices in 2008 when Putin invaded Russia. You're hearing it now because President Obama and criticizing President Obama has become the default position of the Republicans. I mean, I'm sure they don't blame Obamacare on the invasion. That's the reason why. But the truth is, is that President Obama is rallying the world to impose strong sanctions to keep Putin within the line. But this is just another way of criticizing President Obama because there's nothing else they want to do. FERGUSON: I disagree. I think rallying the world on sanction is exactly what Vladimir Putin would hope would happen because it means nothing to him right now. And I think as soon as we punted to his leadership on Syria, which is a major issue where we said, there was a red line for the United States of America. I root for Obama on international issues because it has consequences for all Americans and free (ph) people around the world. And when he said that's your red line, then Russia steps in says, we'll be the one to lead in Syria, I think that is when Putin knew, checkmate.


BRAZILE: To see the stock market go down, to see the ruble go down against the dollar...


...he doesn't want a weak economy. Because a weak economy will invite the same kind of protests and the same --

FERGUSON: Why is he doing it? He knew those things were going to happen. So I think he's going to risk it.

BRAZILE: He was reacting to the Ukraine people ousting his (ph) puppet. That's why he reacted.

FERGUSON: It was --

BRAZILE: And took over that resort country. That resort part.

STODDARD: I don't think that President Obama is keeping Putin in line. And there's very much a fear that because of his occupation of 20 percent of Georgia, where he's remained since 2008, and now this, that in three years he'll just pick another spot and move on in. That said, politically the Republicans are very divided, Candy, as you know particularly on national security. The only issue that unites them at all actually is Obamacare and opposition to it. So what you're hearing is about a lot of complaints about what I think was a debacle, which was President Obama's handling of the Syria debate. However no one is recommending anything that President Obama is not doing. There's not a Republican idea right now that he's not using. So they don't want to bring this up as a mid-term issue because it just divides them.

FERGUSON: I think it's the -- I think it's the X factor of when the president was talking about (INAUDIBLE) last year was the lost year. Well that lost year in foreign policy, whether it be Benghazi, whether it be Libya, whether it be dealing with the issues now, he lost people like Putin from respecting him and fearing him. And you've got to have fear of America. You have to.

CROWLEY: (INAUDIBLE) I fear I have to go but you can talk first next time. I promise you. (CROSSTALK) CROWLEY: Ben Ferguson, A.B. Stoddard, Donna Brazile, good to see all of you. When we return, an update on that missing Malaysia airlines jet.


CROWLEY: Thank you for watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Candy Crowley in Washington. If you missed any part of today's show find us on iTunes, just search STATE OF THE UNION.

Fareed Zakaria, "GPS," is next after a check of the headlines.