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John King, USA

New Hampshire Republican Debate; Syrian Crackdown; Trial in Bahrain

Aired June 13, 2011 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thank you, Wolf. We'll see you in a couple of minutes and good evening tonight from Manchester, New Hampshire, where we're preparing for a very big event tonight, the first major event of the 2012 presidential campaign, a debate between seven Republican presidential contenders. At stake tonight, early momentum and a fascinating contest to lead the Republican Party, a party still in transition stinging from its presidential defeat back in 2008 yet resurgent in Congress and in State Capitols across America because of its dramatic 2010 rebound.

Now the struggling economy is the biggest issue, of course, and as the candidates take aim at President Obama tonight, we will also explore their differences and test their priorities as they try to juggle the sometimes-competing priorities of job creation and deficit reduction. The former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney is by far the front-runner here in the first in the nation primary state of New Hampshire and as such well he's expecting to be a frequent target of his Republican rivals as Governor Romney takes part in his first debate of this cycle.

Another big question tonight -- can the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also taking part in his first debate, survive the mass resignations of just about his entire national and state level campaign staff and one more question. Will the Tea Party have as much influence in 2012 as it did in 2010, a movement favorite, the Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota makes her presidential debut right here tonight on the campus of St. Anselm College.

President Obama has the luxury of not having a major primary challenge, but the Democratic incumbent knows his economic record will be center stage in our debate tonight and throughout the 2012 cycle. The president was out today looking to remind voters the economy was already in a ditch when he took office.


BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wake up every single morning thinking about how can I make sure that anybody who wants a job is able to get a job and that's what I think about when I go to bed at night. And I am absolutely confident about America's prospects for the 21st Century but we do have some challenges and these challenges predated the financial crisis that we had in 2008. If you look at what happened between 2001 and 2008, job growth was slow even when the economy was growing at a pretty good clip.


KING: The challenge for Republicans and we may have some live photos of them arriving as we do. I think we can see Governor Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota arriving here. The challenge for Republicans tonight is to make the case that their way, lower taxes and less regulation is the path back to prosperity. Let's assess the field and the stakes for tonight's debate beginning with two very influential conservative voices.

The New Hampshire State Republican Party Chairman Jack Kimball is with me here in Manchester and our CNN contributor Erick Erickson who is the editor in chief of is with us from Atlanta. Mr. Chairman, let me start with you. Simple question -- what is the biggest question, the biggest thing at stake tonight in New Hampshire with this first debate?

JACK KIMBALL, CHMN., New Hampshire REPUBLICAN PARTY: Well I think there's going to be two major questions. One is definitely going to be the spending issue. The deficit issue across the country looms very large. And foreign policy needs to enter the fray tonight, too. I think that that's going to be interesting and I think all the candidates with respect to the fiscal issues are pretty consistent on those and the conservative Republican side. But you're going to hear some differences --

KING: Governor Romney have the most to lose by nature of being -- having a pretty good lead here?

KIMBALL: I think you know he's the perceived front-runner but I think that this is a pretty wide open race.

KING: Erick Erickson, when you look at the race nationally, obviously Iowa comes first, New Hampshire comes right after. But you look at the race right now, what is your biggest question, the biggest thing at stake tonight?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think the biggest question is who is going to become the anti-Romney. I think Tim Pawlenty if he acts quick possibly can unless Rick Perry or Sarah Palin get in, it will be really a rivalry I think right now between Pawlenty and Bachmann to try to be the voice against Romney, how hard they go after each other versus how hard they go after Romney or the president tonight is something I want to watch.

KING: Well how hard they go after each other is an interesting question because candidates often say things in one-on-one interviews with journalists, maybe at a small house party, maybe in the comfort of a TV studio for a Sunday show, then they get a little shy when they're up on stage and that other candidate is just a few inches away. Yesterday on FOX News Sunday, Mr. Chairman and Erick, Governor Pawlenty used the term Obamneycare linking the Massachusetts state health care plan to the very unpopular (INAUDIBLE) Republicans Obama national health care plan. This morning here in New Hampshire he said he probably wouldn't use that term in a debate tonight. Listen to Governor Pawlenty explaining his debate strategy.


TIM PAWLENTY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: During the debate I'll certainly respond to any of the questions that come up but the point wasn't to take a swipe at Mitt Romney. I was responding to a question about the similarities or differences between Obamacare and what happened in Massachusetts.


KING: Erik Erickson, help me out here. If you're in a Republican primary and you call it Obamneycare, that's not a swipe.

ERICKSON: That's news to me. I took it as a swipe. I thought it was a very creative one. You know here's the problem for people like Pawlenty. I mean campaign 101, you have time, talent and treasure, you can get more money. You can get more talent, but you can't get more time. We're less than seven months to Iowa. If he goes really negative against Romney it drives up his negatives as well, so he has got to subtly begin to position himself as the anti- Romney. He can't just come out throwing punches without hurting himself.

KING: The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, very popular among conservatives, growing appeal nationally. He's a guest on our "PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT" program after the debate tonight. They taped that interview. I want you to listen here. Governor Christie repeatedly says he is not going to run, but he also gives voice to something you hear from a lot of grassroots conservatives, that they're not necessarily all that thrilled yet with this field.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: A lot of those folks impress me personally but none of them have emerged in my mind yet as a best option. When one of them do, I'll say it publicly but I'm not ready to do that yet because I don't think any of them have yet distinguished themselves to say this is the best person, not only to take on Barack Obama but more importantly, to lead our nation in the next four years after this election.


KING: Mr. Chairman, you talked to grassroots Republicans here every day. Is that common? You do pick up some (INAUDIBLE) we'll see how these guys are.

KIMBALL: No, you know basically I don't agree. I think we have a very strong field. One thing do I agree with Chris Christie on (INAUDIBLE) we got to see these folks emerge and one of the things that's important for me and a lot of the folks in New Hampshire -- and they do come out of the tea parties -- is the fire in the belly. It is very important I think for them to take off the gloves, not and go at each other but President Obama. Barack Obama is the one. There's plenty of ammunition and that should be their focus. KING: Chairman Kimball, we'll se you inside the hall in just a few minutes. Erick Erickson, appreciate your time tonight. You know it is interesting when you talk to voters here. Governor Romney is without a doubt the New Hampshire front-runner but the voters seem more settled on what the big issues are than they are settled on a final candidate choice just yet. Here's a sample from a conversation just this morning with two Republicans who were having coffee at the Red Arrow Diner (ph) in Milford, New Hampshire.


KING: You're a Romney guy. He's the front-runner here. You think he's going to be a target in the debate tonight?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. They'll beat up on him.

KING: And why are you for him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because he's a businessman.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think there's a good candidate out there -- a Republican candidate out there now.

KING: There's not a good candidate out there.


KING: You have these seven candidates tonight, there's nobody out there that you'd say I want that person.


KING: What are you looking for?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How much business they know and what they're going to do with the unemployment, the seniors.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Help the housing market. You know help our housing values go up, you know like that. Help the economy.


KING: The economy, the economy, the economy. Let's continue the conversation with my colleagues Wolf Blitzer, the anchor of "THE SITUATION ROOM", Jessica Yellin, our national political correspondent. You have been here before, the early debate of the season. What are you most looking for as these candidates, case of Governor Romney trying to defend his lead? Most of the others are still trying to introduce themselves.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": I want to see how tough they get on Romney right now. I remember Ronald Reagan used to say, you know one of his commandments, 11th commandment, thou shall not speak ill of fellow Republicans. I suspect they're not going to heed that commandment tonight. They're -- a lot of them are going to go after Romney and obviously they'll all go after President Obama. That goes without saying.

KING: And if you look, Jess, at the national poll numbers. These are the candidates, Republicans' choice for voters of the candidates in the debate tonight, Romney 33 percent, so if you take Palin and Giuliani off the table, Romney has a big national lead, 33 percent, Ron Paul at nine percent, Newt Gingrich at seven percent, everyone else in single digits.

And if you look just here in New Hampshire -- and this is why this debate is so interesting -- in New Hampshire the first primary state, Romney 35 percent, Speaker Gingrich at 16, Ron Paul at 13, Herman Cain at 10 percent, again, a big gap between Romney and the rest. There's a lot of time. However, does he get the kick-me sign tonight?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Definitely. I mean look, it's his to lose (INAUDIBLE) and everyone else has to stand out tonight and introduce themselves. It is a bit of a debutante ball for the rest of them. They have to show who they are, make themselves likable and show that the homecoming queen ain't exactly what everybody thinks they are. And as one Pawlenty adviser said, look, 45 percent of Americans, 45 percent of Republican voters say health care reform is a leading issue for them. It's fair game.

KING: It is an interesting way the campaign works out though. Iowa tends to be where social conservative issues are more prominent. Here in New Hampshire not only do you have a more libertarian history and tradition, independents can also come in and vote in their primary, so these candidates in trying to appeal to the New Hampshire electorate tonight, Wolf, also have to remember that around the country a lot of people are seeing them for the first time.


BLITZER: Yes, because as important as New Hampshire is, and we love New Hampshire, people all over the country are going to be watching in South Carolina, in Iowa, in Florida, and all the early -- Michigan. They're going to be watching, so the folks on that stage tonight -- and you're going to be moderating this debate -- they're not just addressing New Hampshire voters. They're addressing the whole nation right now. It's critical. One other thing that I'm going to be looking at closely, a man you and I covered back in the 90's, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker. Can he make a comeback after virtually his entire staff walks?

KING: A critical night for the speaker to prove to Republicans, to fund-raisers, to organizers and activists that he can withstand those mass resignations and stay in. But I'll also say it's an interesting (INAUDIBLE) Michelle Bachmann. She's a huge favorite of grassroots conservatives, a huge favorite among Tea Party people. She's is in the House of Representatives. I mean no disrespect, when you're in the House of Representatives you have a challenge to say I'm a president. I'm not just a movement leader. I can be a president.

YELLIN: And she's had her share of gaffes to be honest. And her challenge will be to show that unscripted without knowing what questions will come her way, she is holding her own and will speak forcefully and authoritatively without factual errors about these issues and she's very popular. She has to pass the credibility measure.

KING: You say credibility measure. What happens to somebody like Herman Cain who comes from nowhere? He's a businessman. A lot of people like that because he hasn't been in politics and they're tired of the politicians and the talking points and the promises that they think never get delivered on, but as you start rising in the polls, people start looking at you a little differently. They're asking those same questions. Can he be a president?

BLITZER: He's impressive. You know I had a chance to spend some time with him the other day. We were on the same shuttle flight between Washington and New York. I had him on my show last weekend. You know he's tough. He knows what he's talking about and he's got a following. For someone who was a radio talk show host, the CEO of "Godfather's Pizza", all of a sudden to be up there at what 10 percent among Republican voters, that's pretty cool.

YELLIN: He's entertaining. You know he connects well --

KING: He does connect -- that's very important. He connects well. People -- they find him more authentic and believable and I think because is he not a politician. We'll see how Mr. Cain does tonight.

I'm going to take my leave and head into the debate hall now to get ready for the big event but Wolf is going to be here to steer the ship for the rest of the hour and a bit later, you won't want to miss this -- hearing top Obama political strategist David Axelrod rate the Republican contenders.

And up next tonight, Syria's military says it has restored quote, "security and tranquility" but ask Syrian refugees and you get a very different story. Please stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back to the special edition of JOHN KING, USA. I'm Wolf Blitzer. Right now John is getting ready to moderate tonight's first New Hampshire presidential debate which you will see only here on CNN. Before we focus in exclusively on the political story, there are more important developments unfolding right now that you need to know about from the Middle East.

Tonight, both the United States and Syria are pointing to a hoax in order to build international support. The hoax is that a U.S.-born man who's been studying at a university in Scotland is behind the so- called "Gay Girl of Damascus" blog. There is no such woman even though it was widely reported including here on CNN that she was taken into custody last week. Syria's government says it proves much of the international reporting about conditions in Syria are lies. The U.S. government disagrees.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MARK TONER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: I think it speaks to the appalling human rights situation in Syria that so many people saw this story, heard about this story, took it to be credible.


KING: Tonight Syria's military says it has restored security and tranquility in a northwestern city where it insists armed terrorist groups carried out a massacre. But while Syrian state television showed images of what have it claims are mass graves, Syrian refugees are telling CNN's Arwa Damon a much different story.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Syrian state TV is again blaming armed gangs for those bodies that were found inside that mass grave saying that they were part of the 120 who it claimed had been killed when they were ambushed in Jisr al Shugur (ph). But residents of that area that we have been talking to have been vowing that there were no weapons within their range, no armed gangs and they are saying that those casualties that were caused, the bodies in those graves, were in fact killed when Syrian security forces turned on one another.

Those who were refusing to fight on the demonstrators clashing intensely when individuals who continued to be loyal with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Of course all of this is unfolding as an even greater number of refugees continue to stream into Turkey with now the fifth refugee camp being set up for them inside Turkey.

We've been speaking to them, asking them about their experience, the first thing they say is that it was simply too horrific to put into words. We have now heard numerous accounts from residents claiming that Syrian security forces torched their farmland, killed their livestock, destroyed their homes, literally driving them out of their villages and towns with just the clothes on their backs.

In fact, Amnesty International is saying that the Syrian regime appears to be implementing a scorched earth policy and in asking these refugees, they say that they absolutely have no idea when they will be able to go home -- Wolf.


BLITZER: Human rights activists are watching an important trial that started today in Bahrain, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. The case involves dozens of doctors and nurses who may have been tortured to obtain information now being used against them. Let's check in with our senior international correspondent Nic Robertson. He's on the scene for us in Bahrain right now. What's the latest? What's going on, Nic?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I was in the military court today to see these doctors and nurses brought before the judge, 11 of them, 11 male doctors and five or six female doctors. The male doctors looked pathetic because their hair had been shaven short. You can see that they all looked tired. They looked stressed.

They looked nervous, anguished. You can see they haven't seen the sunshine for quite some time as well. That's why they look rather pathetic. But one of them challenged the judge saying that the confessions they had been forced to sign had been given under torture. And we heard in the courtroom there, I heard several of the lawyers said that their defendants, the doctors they were representing, had been tortured, too, and they asked the judge to allow the doctors to be visited by a civilian doctor and that these confessions that they've signed under torture shouldn't be admissible in the court.

The prosecutor challenged that, said that these were not obtained under torture. The judge told the doctors that they would be heard all in due course and said they could be seen by a military doctor which was not what they were asking for at all. So and this was a case where human rights groups have said that the torture that these doctors talk about matches the torture that they've witnessed on other people who have been in detention of security forces here -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The Bahraini government, what do they allege these doctors did?

ROBERTSON: Well they say that they were using the hospital as a base of operations, that they were a national security threat because over time they were allowing the hospital to be used by certain media organizations and specifically they pointed the finger at Iranian news organizations. All the doctors -- almost all the doctors in question here are Shia doctors. They say it was an essentially Shia revolt against the minority Sunni government led by the Sunni royal family here.

And they've been alleged that there were weapons found in the hospital as well. We were in the hospital, albeit not for the whole period. But we didn't see that. We did hear the doctors talking about the figures and types of injuries they were seeing. And what human rights activists are saying that while the government wouldn't give out figures of the injured during those very violent clashes and protests earlier this year, the doctors in the hospital were providing information, types of injuries, types of weapons used, numbers of casualties, and this human rights activists say showed the human rights violations by the government, and that's why they say the government is cracking down on the doctors. The government is saying that this is -- that the doctors broke the law and this is a natural course of punishment for them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll continue to watch this trial with you, Nic. Nic thanks very much.

And stay with us for tonight's first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate. In just a little bit, President Obama's top political strategist also goes through the top Republican strengths and weaknesses. You're looking at live pictures from inside the hall here at St. Anselm College. We're going here. The debate starting in a little bit more than a half-an-hour from now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Welcome back to New Hampshire and a special edition of JOHN KING, USA. John's getting ready to moderate tonight's first Republican presidential debate here in New Hampshire. Let's check in with CNN's Joe Johns. He's back in Washington for the news you need to know right now -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf. Democratic sources tell CNN Congressman Anthony Weiner is on the fence about resigning. He's also described as in a state of despair because of the scandal over his sending lewd photos to a number of women.

President Obama weighed in on the scandal during an interview with NBC News today saying quote, "I can tell you if that was me I would resign."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today asked the nations of the African Union to do more than just call for a cease-fire in Libya.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I also urge you to suspend the operations of Gadhafi's embassies in your countries, to expel pro- Gadhafi diplomats, and to increase contact and support for the Transitional National Council.


JOHNS: Firefighters say a massive fire in eastern Arizona is only 10 percent contained and will very soon rank as the largest fire in state history. It's burned an area larger than the city of Houston.

The Transportation Department today revealed airline passengers forked over some $5,700,000 in fees last year. If you paid a baggage fee or a reservation change fee that is your money, Wolf, and that certainly is a lot of money.

BLITZER: Yes, a few hundred dollars of that is my money, I'm sure. Some of that is yours as well, Joe. Thank you.

Up next what President Obama's top strategist thinks about each one of the participants in tonight's major debate.


BLITZER: Welcome back to St. Anselm College here in Manchester, New Hampshire.

They've just asked everyone in the debate hall to take their seats, all members of the audience.

Republicans aren't the only people who will be tuning in though for tonight's big debate. Members of President Obama's re-election team will certainly be watching very, very closely before heading here to New Hampshire to moderate the debate tonight.

CNN's John King sat down with the president's top political strategist, David Axelrod, and asked him to rate the contenders.


JOHN KING, HOST, "JOHN KING, USA": Seven Republicans on stage, the first big debate in the Republican presidential primary.

Let's discuss the Republican race for president with the man who will be running the Democratic incumbent's campaign. David Axelrod is with us.

First, you know, you ran on hope and change in 2008. I want you to listen here to a few snippets from the prospective and already running Republican candidates. A little bit of deja vu.


SARAH PALIN (R), FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: Americans are ready for true change, change to get our country back on the right track.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm the guy that wants to change Washington.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: For the sake of our children, we need to have a change in course.

TIM PAWLENTY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In 2012, we'll change America again and this time, it will be for the better.


KING: So, how does an incumbent who can't run on change? What is your -- I asked you this a couple months ago. You didn't have an answer for me. What's the bumper sticker?


KING: What's the slogan?

AXELROD: Listen. Hope and change were sentiments of our campaign in 2008. They continue to be that, but the campaign wasn't about two words. The campaign was about this fundamental struggle that the vast majority of Americans were facing, middle class Americans who were working harder, seeing their paychecks shrink, costs going up, and who were losing their sense of economic security -- and that's been exacerbated by a very, very deep recession. But the goal remains the same.

And the question's not going to be about slogans and bumper stickers. It's going to be about where we stand and our opponents stand.

KING: Now, I'm going to ask you, David Axelrod. Yes, you're the president's top strategist. To the degree you can, take that hat off and just and veteran Democratic strategist and assess for me, in a sense or two for each of them, the strengths and the weaknesses in your view of the Republican candidates who will be at our debate.

Let me start with Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

AXELROD: I think that she obviously has tremendous appeal to the grassroots of the Republican Party. She raised a fantastic amount of money last year for her congressional race. So, she's got a following.

I think she's got great appeal in the state of Iowa, which is where this process begins. And if she wins there, she could go far in the process.

KING: You see her as a president?

AXELROD: Well, I think the voters will decide that. That's what campaigns are for.

KING: Herman Cain. He's an outsider. He's a businessman. He hasn't held office. And he's not getting some traction among the grassroots Republicans.

AXELROD: Yes, I don't know him very well. I've seen him on television and so on. I do think it's hard to make that leap because experience does matter. I understand his argument is that it's better not to be someone who has any experience in public life. But we'll see if people buy that.

KING: Speaker Gingrich?

AXELROD: Well, it's interesting to hear him say that he wants -- he's running because he's the guy who can change Washington. He's been such an interesting and sometimes polarizing figure in this town for the last 20 years.

And I think what people are looking for is actually leaders who will rise above those kinds of partisan divisions and the fierce partisan warfare at all times and look for places where we can agree. We're never going to agree on all things, but we ought to find places where we can agree to move the country forward. And if your posture is we're not going to be able to work together on anything, well, we're not going to -- we're not going to go very far.

KING: One of the guys who in 2008 challenged the Republican field and will be back doing it again, he thinks differently on a lot of issues, the libertarian, Republican Congressman Ron Paul. What do you think of him?

AXELROD: Well, he's an interesting guy. I will say this -- he has -- he has distinctive views and he's been consistent in those views and he, too, has a following.

KING: Very careful there. You're being very diplomatic, secretary of state, now political strategist here. How about Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota?

AXELROD: Well, you know, again, he is new to the national scene. I did hear his speech on the economy.

KING: Tough indictment of the president.

AXELROD: It was. But you know, there was a question of standing, can you -- can you leave your state with a $6.2 billion deficit and then moralize about fiscal responsibility? And I think, you know, everyone who runs for president learns that they have to end up confronting their own -- their own statements, their own record and so on.

And a lot of these candidates are new to the American people, but the American people -- I can tell you, we went through a two-year primary process. This president was scrutinized, more perhaps than any candidate ever had been. And you have to be prepared to go through that process.

So, you know, it's not really what people say on the first few days that counts, it's how they wear over time. And I think, you know, questions like that are going to be ones that he's going to have to answer.

KING: Somebody who was through the process last time and is you could say the front runner this time, the former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, also somebody who on the issue of the economy, very tough indictment on the president, and someone who, if you look at some of new national polling, runs ahead or roughly equal with the president -- unique among the Republicans this far out.

AXELROD: Well, I do think that the experience of having run before matters and, you know, he's been running for president for, what, six, seven years now. So, that's a lot of experience and a lot of contacts generated, familiarity and that's all rebounds to his benefit.

There, too, though, it's not what you say, it's what you've done -- and when he was governor of Massachusetts, Massachusetts was 47th in the nation in job creation. I don't know that that qualifies you as an oracle on how to revive the economy. And so, he'll have to explain why that was and why Massachusetts lagged the nation when he was governor in job creation.

KING: And our last --

AXELROD: And it's doing -- the state is doing quite well under Governor Patrick today, I might add.

KING: You might add that. Under a Democratic friend of the president, you might add that.

Lastly, we've done this alphabetically. That's how we pick the former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who when he announced this week, criticized the president on economics, and on domestic policy, but also said that the president had presided over what he called the collapse of the moral sector.

AXELROD: Well, you know, I -- he has to go and present that case to the American people. I think the American people look at this president and they see a guy with very strong personal values, a good father, good family man, someone who's caring, and I don't think that they think that at all.

Now, there may be some small faction within the Republican Party that will respond to that and that may be his plan. But as a matter of winning in a national election, I don't see that as a very constructive or successful message.

KING: We're just raising the curtain on this Republican race with this debate. But does David Axelrod sit at the headquarters in Chicago at this point and think, "I'm fairly certain I'm going to be running against X"?

AXELROD: I think, John, there's more uncertainty about this Republican race than there has been in my experience. And you've been around about as long as I have. And because, generally, the Republican Party has been a hierarchical party and the guy who's in the queue moves up. And that was true with Bush, with Dole, with McCain. By that count, Romney should be the nominee.

But I don't think anybody's certain. The Tea Party has introduced some uncertainty in that process and it will be very interesting. It will be a good time to be a journalist.

KING: I hope you're watching.

AXELROD: Will do.

KING: Thanks. All right.

AXELROD: Good to be with you.


BLITZER: We're only minutes away from tonight's first Republican debate here in N Hampshire. Up next, we're taking a closer look inside the hall. We'll preview what to look for from each of tonight's contenders. Stay with us.


BLITZER: The seven Republicans taking part in tonight's first New Hampshire debate are here at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire as the debate moderator, CNN's John King, is getting ready to pose tough questions.

Joining us during these final few minutes before the debate starts, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and our senior political analyst, David Gergen.

Among those seven, Gloria, who do you suspect might be the most nervous right to you?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it might be Newt Gingrich -- to tell you the truth -- because he's the only one who's really got to come back this early in the campaign, because he had his campaign staff quit last week, he has to prove that, in fact, he has a campaign, and that he intends to continue, and that he has something to say. So, I would say Newt.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Essentially, Rick Davis, as you know, an executive in CNN, pointed out to me earlier tonight -- he lives in Atlanta. He says Newt has never been on stage like this before. He's never been in a debate like this before. So, he may be nervous.

But I would also think Tim Pawlenty might be a little nervous tonight.

BLITZER: Tim Pawlenty.

GERGEN: He's the one who's got to show some real muscle tonight. He's -- if he wants to become the alternative to Mitt Romney, this is an evening in which he has to shine.

BLITZER: Because I think Mitt Romney might be the most nervous tonight, because he's the front-runner. Everybody is going to be going after him and he's going to have to defend himself in the face of potentially of six proponents.

BORGER: But, you know, sometimes it is easier to be light when the other people are swatting at you and you are pushing back at them -- and if you do it with humor or you explain your position. The other people look bad, and that's where Tim Pawlenty has to be a little careful here.

GERGEN: And he also -- Mitt Romney has been around the track, you know?


GERGEN: He's -- he can handle now. He's seen all of this before. For a lot of these people, you know, it's the first time out and you're nervous first time out.

BLITZER: There are some memorable moments in these debates here in New Hampshire. Ronald Reagan, as all of us remember, had a few memorable moments in these debates and it helped him.

So what happens here tonight could have a very significant impact in shaping attitudes going ahead.

BORGER: Yes, people really don't know who most of these candidates are and I think they're going to get a good look for the first time. I mean, how many people know who Michele Bachmann is, for example?

BLITZER: In Minnesota they might not, but not necessarily --

BORGER: Some of the best would-be candidates like, or would-be candidates, like Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani are not on the stage tonight. GERGEN: Wolf, I would have said six or eight weeks ago that people weren't paying too much attention. But now that Barack Obama looks like he might be vulnerable and looks like he might be taken, this nomination is worth a lot, there are some 300 reporters here tonight.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, these are live pictures you're seeing from the floor. There will be seven candidates up there momentarily. We'll watch it all unfold. The New Hampshire Republican presidential debate -- only a few minutes away.

Stay with us.


BLITZER: Only a few minutes away from tonight's first New Hampshire Republican presidential debate here at St. Anselm College in Manchester. We're waiting for the candidates, all seven of them, to be introduced on the stage momentarily.

Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here, our senior political analyst David Gergen is here.

Once they introduce the candidates, I want to listen to that, Gloria. But, you know, as we await what's going to happen tonight, we -- I have no doubt that the economy and jobs, that will dominate this debate.

BORGER: Right. And I think you have to assume while a lot of these candidates are going to be trying to give it to Mitt Romney because he's the front-runner, their main target tonight is going to be Barack Obama because, obviously, the jobs news hasn't been good lately. The president had the unfortunate phrase of saying this is just a bump in the road, the bad economy. And I think the president and the president's advisers are going to take a lot of heat.

BLITZER: We'll play a clip from Mitt Romney, because he goes after the president on a new video he put out on that "bumps in the road" comment.

BORGER: Right.

BLITZER: But that's going to be mild compared to some of the -- some of the stuff we will hear from these Republicans as far as the president is concerned tonight.

GERGEN: I think they're all going to try to hang this economy around the president's neck, obviously. And the real question is, will they also go after Romney? More important, are they going to offer anything positive of their own? What will they have to say?

You know, Pawlenty put a speech out there that a lot of folks say (INAUDIBLE) 5 percent growth over 10 years? That's never happened in American history, modern American history.

But, you know, what is Mitt Romney going to do about the deficits? He hasn't been very clear about that.

BLITZER: He's going to have to do some explaining, as they say. He's going to have to come up with a real plan.

And Medicare is going to be a huge issue as well given the controversy surrounding Paul Ryan's proposals.

BORGER: Right. Medicare is going to be a huge issue. Look, Newt Gingrich called that budget right wing social engineering.

BLITZER: He's got to deep trouble for saying it.

BORGER: So, he has to explain what he meant by that because that budget has become the "Holy Grail" for Republicans. But it's very unpopular out in the country right now.

GERGEN: Right here in the state of New Hampshire, the "Boston Globe" poll showed very --

BLITZER: Hold on a second because I want to go to the hall right now. They're about to introduce the seven Republicans. Let's listen in.


KING: Next up is Governor Tim Pawlenty.


PAWLENTY: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it. Thank you.

KING: Congressman Ron Paul of Texas.


KING: Former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.


KING: The former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich of Georgia.


KING: The congresswoman from Minnesota, Michele Bachmann.


KING: And the former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum.


KING: Say hello to the seven candidates here tonight.

BLITZER: All right. So, there's the formal introduction. The crowd is excited obviously here at St. Anselm College. Momentarily, this debate will formally begin. The photo ops, though, and the photographers there are taking pictures -- all seven of these candidates.

As we watch this -- Gloria is still here and David is still here as well -- you know, I think the initial round, the first few questions, will set the stage, Gloria, for what could happen over the course of two hours.

BORGER: Yes. And I have to guess that the first few questions are going to be about the economy and how these Republicans are going to say they would manage the economy better than Barack Obama. And as David was saying earlier, we don't have a lot of detail on the plans, and the plans we do have some detail on don't seem to add up.

BLITZER: You know, what the Democrats are now saying -- they put out a long memo and I spoke to Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary, who was here just a little while ago. He's in New Hampshire.

They make the point -- and you're going to hear a lot of this -- if you like the way president Bush left the economy back in the end of 2008, re-elect these Republicans right now because you'll get that in spades.

GERGEN: I'm not sure that's going to get a lot of traction, Wolf. I think in the first year or two, you could really hang the economy around Bush. And I think that was a legitimate argument.

But, now, I think a growing number of Americans feel this is the Obama economy, and what they were looking forward from Robert Gibbs and from other Democrats, what are your plans to get us out of this?


GERGEN: How do we move forward?

BORGER: And I think what you're going to hear from the Democrats is taking looking at some of the governors like Mitt Romney, Pawlenty, they're going to say -- what was the economy like in your state when you were running things? Tim Pawlenty, you left with a large deficit, right? So --

BLITZER: Let me play that little clip -- the new Mitt Romney video going after the president, what he said just a little while ago. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's always bumps on the road to recovery.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm an American, not a bump in the road.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm an American, not a bump in the road.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: Yes, David, they're referring to what the president said when he said there are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery. So, Romney is hitting him hard on that.

GERGEN: It was a politically inept response at the time when so many people --

BLITZER: By the president, you mean?

GERGEN: By the president and his team to call this just a bump in the road. It left this opening, and Mitt Romney seized it and I think was actually smart to get that ad out on just a few hours before the debate.

But, again, what would Mitt Romney do? What would Tim Pawlenty do? I think that's what we want to hear tonight. Not just the anti- Obama rally.

BORGER: It's very clear that Mitt Romney wants to be the one running against Barack Obama now. I just got an e-mail from the Romney campaign, all in caps, no joke, picking up on something the president said today about the failed stimulus package, that it wasn't as shovel-ready as they hoped in certain instances. And so, the Romney campaign sends out a big e-mail to all the press saying this is not a joke.

So, it's very clear Romney is already wanting to make this a two- man race.

BLITZER: And I think the White House and the Obama campaign, they're obviously worried a lot about a potential Romney nomination or even a Tim Pawlenty nomination because they have respective records. But you know what else what is scaring them a bit? If Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who's created a lot of jobs in Texas since the economic collapse, if he's the nominee. And I'm hearing at least that there's a good chance he might run.

GERGEN: Well, there do seem to be growing prospects he would run, and he would be a wildcard in the race. He's very effective on the stump and he does stir the evangelical vote, as you know. And I think he's got the kind of energy that he could conceivably run as the alternative to Romney. That's what people are going to be fighting over, this other --

BLITZER: Are we assuming, Gloria, that Sarah Palin is not going to run?

BORGER: It depends on which day you ask me.

I'm generally assuming that she's not going to run. I know she's running out of time, if she wants to get into the race. I think you can't just expect that a campaign will somehow materialize out of the grassroots and you'll be able to take it to the White House. So, I think decision time is pretty close.

BLITZER: Although she does have 100 percent name recognition already.

GERGEN: I'm a Monday through Sunday person believing she's not going to run.


GERGEN: I don't. Gloria and I --

BORGER: I think you're probably right. Yes.

GERGEN: I think she's making way too much money. And I think she's having a really good time, and I don't think she wants to go through the discipline and the possible just likely disappointment.

BLITZER: And what about Rudy Giuliani? Because he's been coming up here to New Hampshire every few weeks or so.

BORGER: I heard that he's been asking people if he should run. And a lot of people are telling him, no, you can't run because it's very hard to see how he can get the nomination given what kind of moderate Republican he is -- and given the Tea Party contingent right now.

And also, I'm told, he wants to wait and see what issues are the key issues. If it's the economy, that's not for Rudy Giuliani. If terrorism and foreign policy, might be. But --

GERGEN: Well, the one surprise to me in the recent CNN poll was how well he played in that poll.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, he's got a lot of name recognition.

GERGEN: He's got name recognition.

BLITZER: These early polls, name recognition is very important.

GERGEN: I agree with you. That's right.

Btu if he could -- again, the question is, who can emerges as an alternative to Romney? And that point, you can get some momentum going for people think Romney is not going to win or they don't like him it for whatever reason.

But I -- the most important thing right now is Romney seems to be pulling ahead of the pack, and, you know, he seems more likely as a nominee today than he did six months ago.

BLITZER: Are you absolutely, positively convinced that Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, who is very popular in Florida, will not run this time?

BORGER: Yes, I am.

GERGEN: I've talked to him several times. I do. And I've talked to his friends who do not -- BLIZER: There are a lot of Republicans who are dreaming, you know, even though a third Bush in the White House might not necessarily sound all that --

GERGEN: But as the Bush years fade, he looks better. And I think he is gong to run in 2016. But his closest friends tell me he's not going to do it now.

BORGER: Can I just tell you that in our CNN poll, what Republicans want is -- more than anything -- is somebody, seven out of 10 wants somebody who can beat Barack Obama.

And so, they're going to be looking at this debate tonight trying to see the person that they believe could stand up against Barack Obama in a debate, on the economy, on foreign policy, and can appeal to those independent voters of which you have so many in the state of New Hampshire. And they will be able to vote in that Republican primary, don't forget. So, that's very important.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to have a lot to digest after this two-hour debate. It's going to be fascinating. We'll all be together back on "ANDERSON COOPER 360" at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, right after the debate.

Remember, this is but the first of several debates. CNN will have more debates in September and in November. A lot more is coming up.

All of our coverage continuing here. The Republican presidential debate live from Manchester begins now.