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John King, USA

Santorum Drops Out; Interview With Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus

Aired April 10, 2012 - 18:00   ET


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. I'm John King.

Two important breaking news stories this hour. We're standing by to hear from Mitt Romney campaigning live this hour in Wilmington, Delaware. It is his first public event since rival Rick Santorum folded his campaign today, cementing the former Massachusetts governor as the Republican presidential nominee.

Just this past hour, a bizarre twist in the Trayvon Martin investigation. The lawyers who had been representing the admitted gunman, George Zimmerman, said they have lost contact with their client and they say he has, against their advice, placed phone calls to reporters and the special prosecutor.


CRAIG SONNER, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: I still believe that he was acting in self-defense that night. Nothing I have said about him or this case has changed in any way. I just can't proceed to represent a client who doesn't stay in contact with me.


KING: More on how this dramatic announcement will impact the Martin investigation in just a few moments.

But back now to a defining day in the race for the White House. Tonight, the only candidate to emerge as a long-term threat to Governor Romney is out of the race. In Pennsylvania this afternoon, just a few hours after bringing his 3-year-old daughter home from the hospital, Rick Santorum called it quits.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We made a decision to get into this race at our kitchen table and against all the odds. And we made a decision over the weekend that while this presidential race for us is over, for me, and we will suspend our campaign effective today, we are not done fighting.


KING: Joined now to break down this story, CNN political reporter Peter Hamby, our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash and national political correspondent Jim Acosta, who was in Gettysburg today for Santorum's big announcement.

Jim, let me start with you, you are in the room, some family considerations, some political considerations. In the end what were the decisive factors that had Senator Santorum say it is time to go?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you mentioned, John, those family considerations were obviously a critical factor in this decision for Rick Santorum, but there were also political considerations as well.

You know, I talked to Hogan Gidley with the Santorum campaign earlier this afternoon and he sort of described a three-legged stool. One of those legs being the Texas primary going to a winner-take-all format, where the delegates would all go to Rick Santorum if he were to win that race. Once that became doubtful that Texas would be a winner-take-all primary, that knocked out one of the legs.

Another one, Newt Gingrich dropping out of the race. They have been wanting that leg to kick for several weeks now and it just wouldn't happen. So, two of the legs on that three-legged stool would not fall for Rick Santorum. He did think that he would win the Pennsylvania primary and that was the third leg. They thought that they would win the Pennsylvania primary and have all of those delegates or at least many of those delegates come into his campaign.

A lot of people are speculating perhaps that was not going to happen for Rick Santorum and that was the reason why he got out of this race. He said -- Hogan Gidley said, no, that is not the case, they never thought for a moment they would lose Pennsylvania, John.

KING: Jim, stand by. Let's continue the conversation.

Dana, you have covered the senator a long time, you know his wife, Karen. The political reality has been clear for a long time. Candidates are stubborn. Candidates are proud. What about the family consideration, spending the weekend with your 3-year-old in the hospital yet again? How did that help them come to the conclusion and face the reality?


I talked to several people close to Senator Santorum this afternoon who said being at home, first of all, letting the adrenaline sort of seep out of him, not being on the campaign trail, and also being in the hospital with your 3-year-old daughter for the second time in a campaign season, it crystallized everything for him. He realized, you know what, this is just not worth it. It is time to get out.

On the other side of it I'm also told some of his old children, who you saw, they were staples on the campaign trail, they weren't so sure. They were really invested. They gave up their lives, temporarily, to help their father and I'm told by people close to them that they weren't so sure it was the right decision to get out. They wanted him to keep fighting. KING: We know, Peter, there is no love lost, and people say that in campaigns. In this campaign, we know it to be true between Senator Santorum and Governor Romney. Senator Santorum has been particularly critical, saying Governor Romney is the worst candidate they could put forward on the health care issue.

But they did have a phone conversation today. I'm told Senator Santorum told Governor Romney he wanted to help, yet in his public statement, he spoke for a long time, never even mentioned him. Proof of the bad blood?

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think so and you are absolutely right. Santorum basically portrayed Governor Romney as a traitor to the conservative cause, and this was his main rationale for staying in the race this entire time.

So there is certainly a good amount of bad blood there and, you know, if they do speak, you know, maybe they will repair things. But we heard from the Santorum campaign today that an endorsement for Mitt Romney is actually not a sure thing.

BASH: Just add to that quickly, I know you reported earlier the two men did speak by phone. I'm told in that conversation, Mitt Romney specifically asked Senator Santorum to sit down for a face-to- face meeting. The two men agreed. The time and place isn't set yet.

KING: Jim, as we wait for that meeting, if you listen to Senator Santorum, he said it was important to beat President Obama this fall. He said it was important to keep the House and try to get the Senate back. But in his words, and especially in his body language, he also seemed to be saying I'm not going anywhere. This is a man who is looking beyond 2012 and that's why it's so important, not necessarily to make friend with Mitt Romney, but to show the party he's a Republican.

ACOSTA: That's right, John.

And at this point, Rick Santorum really saves himself for future things. Had he lost Pennsylvania, that probably would have killed any chance of running for president in the future. Getting out now makes him sort of the Mike Huckabee of 2016, if Mitt Romney does not win this election, Rick Santorum is positioned now as somebody who has won a lot of primaries, somebody who was pretty successful during this campaign without a lot of money, and somebody who will be talked about over the next several years, should Mitt Romney not win in the fall.

That's a pretty good position for Rick Santorum to be in. And had he gotten any closer to that Pennsylvania primary, John, and those polls started tipping in Mitt Romney's direction. Remember, Restore Our Future, that super PAC, was going to come in here, like everybody calls it the Death Star, the Death Star was starting to position itself over Pennsylvania.

Rick Santorum did not want that kind of situation to unfold. After all, he was guy saying has to win Michigan. Mitt Romney has to win Michigan. Had he not won Pennsylvania, that could have been the end of his political career.

HAMBY: John, I'm told real quick that a budget was also a factor in this. Pennsylvania has five media markets, some of them are very expensive. He reported almost $1 million in debt at the end of February. Money was also a factor in this, I'm told.

KING: Peter, Dana, Jim Acosta, thank you for help on this breaking news.

Let's get some more perspective now from a man who was right in the middle of the decision. John Brabender is the longtime adviser to Senator Santorum.

John, it's good to see you.

I want to focus on what comes next. Senator Santorum speaks to Governor Romney. I'm told he said he wanted to help, he understands that reality, but then in his public statement never mentions him. Why not?

JOHN BRABENDER, SENIOR SANTORUM CAMPAIGN ADVISER: First of all, let me back up a little bit.

I happened to talk with Matt Rhoades, the campaign manager for Mitt Romney, last night. We had a great conversation. We expressed that the senator would be getting out and that we do want to help Romney campaign. It was suggested we have the two candidates talk to each other which they did this morning, had a very good conversation.

Governor Romney had suggested they soon get together to talk in ways that Rick Santorum can help. I wouldn't read too much about Rick Santorum not mentioning Mitt Romney in the speech. I think Rick felt it was very, very important for he to have a narrative that shares why he was suspending his campaign and all the good that the campaign did and I think also make it clear that Rick Santorum is still going to be a passionate fighter and a loud voice for conservative causes.

So, right now, the great unifier is Barack Obama. Rick Santorum got into this race because he felt that Barack Obama had to be defeated. He feels -- still feels that strongly and will still be committed to that cause.

KING: So help me understand, how will he -- I assume he will join forces with Governor Romney at some point. How will he convince voters that these statement and others like them are just politics? Let's listen.


SANTORUM: You really believe this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as the president of the United States? You think that's the kind of experience we need, someone who is going to take and look after, as he did, his friends on Wall Street and bail them out at the expense of Main Street America?

Pick any other Republican in the country. He is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.


KING: The Democrats will use those statement. John, how do you make them go away?

BRABENDER: Well, first of all, let's be clear about this. Rick Santorum was saying that there are disagreements that he and Mitt Romney have on critical issues.

And I believe that's one of the reasons that they are going to sit down and to talk about those issues and maybe how they can join forces on them. But Rick has been very clear from day one that he would unify behind whoever the candidate is, the Republican nominee, because they certainly are a much stronger and better hope for America than Barack Obama. He will do that right now with Mitt Romney.

He will certainly plan on helping Mitt Romney defeat Barack Obama and that will be a commitment that he makes.

KING: Mitt Romney might want and need your help, too. You're a smart strategist, you won in a tough state, Pennsylvania, several times.

I want to ask you this. Listen to this. This is something Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council told our Dana Bash today. He obviously was a Santorum guy, a social conservative, abortion opponent, same-sex marriage opponent.

He said: "It is difficult for us to back a candidate our constituents don't believe in and aren't excited about." He is talking about Governor Romney there.

Is Senator Santorum prepared to sit down with Tony Perkins, and more importantly, social conservative voters all around the country, look them in the eye and say be for Romney?

BRABENDER: I think what he is prepared to do is to share how America has blinked under this president, we have lost freedoms, how he has moved it far to the left and that in a second term of Barack Obama, it will even move that much farther to the left.

So, a big part of the narrative going forward is how we have to stop Barack Obama and how Mitt Romney is clearly the man who now can do that and how we have to unify in that process.

KING: Does Rick Santorum believe he should be considered for the vice presidential nomination?

BRABENDER: You know, he got into this race because he felt that he should be the nominee who could then go on and beat Barack Obama and bring and restore to America a lot of the conservative values that the Republicans believe in, bring some of the fiscal discipline that Washington needs and also have the experience to take on Iran, which is a growing threat.

I think he still believes that and I think that as he has said in the past, he is ready to help America in whatever way he can do best.

KING: John Brabender, appreciate your insights tonight and throughout the campaign. We will keep in touch.

You can hear more from John tonight. He will sit down with Piers Morgan at 9:00 Eastern to discuss this big dramatic development in the presidential campaign.

Thanks again, John.

Still to come here, we will look ahead to the general election matchup. Among our guests, the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

And also the breaking news from George Zimmerman's attorneys, they have lost contact with their client.


KING: Standing by live this hour, you see the room right there, Mitt Romney speaking in Wilmington, Delaware, his public event since Rick Santorum decided to exit the race.

And the timing of Santorum's exit from the Republican race is a huge help to Governor Romney. It comes on the very day President Obama hit the road to sharpen his general election focus on the economy and taxes. The president went to Florida promoting what he calls the Buffett rule, the proposal to make sure millionaires pay at least the same percentage of their income in taxes as the middle class does and the president also took issue with Republicans who say he's wrong.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A lot of the folks who were peddling these trickle-down theories, including members of Congress and some people who are running for a certain office right now who shall not be named...


... they're doubling down on these old, broken-down theories, instead of moderating their views even slightly.


KING: Let's frame the fall race on the biggest issue, the economy, taxes, jobs, with the leading Republican strategist Fred Davis and our CNN contributor James Carville, a Democrat who is among the men who helped Bill Clinton win the White House with the slogan it's the economy, stupid.

Fred, want to start with you. Governor Romney got a big boost today. He is about to speak in Wilmington, Delaware. If you were advising him, at this moment, when he needs to heal the wounds in the Republican Party but also has problems I will say to his left with women, with Hispanic voters, what is challenge number one for this candidate on this night?

FRED DAVIS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Oh, I remember another line of James' that went very well, and it was something like I feel your pain.

I think what Romney has to do is convince America that it's not enough to feel their pain, because I'm not sure people are going to believe be can feel their pain, but that he can fix the pain and I think maybe it's time now for competence and actually fix the problem.

KING: It's an interesting point, James, because if you look at the "Washington Post"/ABC News poll on what I will call personal authorities, President Obama thumps Governor Romney, more likable and friendly, Obama 64 to 26 for Romney, more inspiring, Obama wins 55-29 percent.

Understands people's problems, economic problems, which is critical because of the climate in this election year, 49-37. Why? Why? What is Romney doing wrong?

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: First of all, he's had a terrible name in these primaries. He just said one thing after another that reinforces the image of him.

I think Fred is a very smart guy, and I kind of agree with what he says. He can't pull off empathy. That's just not in his skill set. He is just going to have to jump to the next thing and try to convince people he is kind of a turnaround artist or a competent guy.

I mean, that's his avenue to the White House. Anything short of that -- every time he tries to come across as somebody who understands people, feels people, is sort of part of mainstream America, he falls flat and probably not going to be able to pull that off. So I actually agree with what Fred said, and I think that is a smart piece of advice to the Romney people.

KING: If the Romney camp can figure it out, Fred, if you looked at the polling, I just showed some numbers that are pretty damning if you are the Romney campaign, advantage Obama on those things, but if you look at these numbers here -- is Governor Romney speaking? Is that what I'm being hold?

Let's look, Governor Romney beginning to speak. Gentlemen, stand by.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator Santorum has decided not to proceed with his campaign.

And I had the chance to speak with him this morning. We exchanged our thoughts about going forward and we both have a great deal of interest in seeing the country taken in a very different path. He has made an important contribution to the political process, has brought forward issues that he cares very deeply about and has been able to gather a great deal of public support and interest in those issues and in himself. He will continue to have a major role in the Republican Party. And I look forward to his work in helping assure victories for Republicans across the country in November. We got to get that job done.


ROMNEY: Now, the reason that I wanted to meet with these business leaders was to ask them about their enterprises, what the prospects are for them, what they are seeing in the marketplace, but also to get a sense of the administration's policies and the government's policies as they relate to small business.

And as you might expect, those policies have by and large been devastating to small business. And so we spoke about the president's failure to actually encourage small business and also, I would note, to be able to encourage enterprises that are owned by women and to encourage job creation for women more generally.

The other day -- there's been some talk about a war on women. The real war on women has been waged by the Obama administration's failure on the economy.


KING: That is Governor Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, campaigning live in Wilmington, Delaware.

You heard at the beginning there him paying tribute to Rick Santorum. This is the first Romney event since Senator Santorum dropped out.

Let's bring back in Fred Davis, the Republican strategist, James Carville, the Democratic strategist.

Fred, to you first. He said thank you, essentially and applauded the Santorum campaign, and then he shifted to the economy. Again it is more of a programmatic criticism of President Obama. Is that enough?

DAVIS: No, it is not going to be enough.

And I think James would agree. He is going to have to be something different than he has been in the Republican primary. He needs to -- I think his new campaign starts tomorrow. He should have a -- I told somebody earlier today, he should have a nice bottle of wine tonight and then they told me he doesn't drink.

So he won't be having that, but he can have one last nice night, then he starts running as the economic savior of America tomorrow against Barack Obama, and, of course, doesn't really have to worry that much about Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich.

KING: James, for all the criticism of Governor Romney and those earlier poll numbers that are quite favorable to the president, if you look deeper at the "Washington Post"/ABC News poll, on handling the deficit, Governor Romney wins, on handling the economy, Governor Romney wins, on creating jobs, it's essentially a tie, with the president having a slight advantage.

So we have a long way between April and November. If you are looking at those numbers, which are the key issues in the campaign, Governor Romney is in a competitive position, right?

CARVILLE: Well, yes. We are at a tough economic time, but these numbers are actually improving for the president. If we had looked at those numbers six months ago they would have been much worse.

So it is going to be a very, very competitive general election, there is no doubt about that. I have to kind of smile when Romney was praising Rick Santorum after he dumped tens of millions of dollars of negative on him and they were getting ready to unleash about $3 million of negative in Pennsylvania on him.

But that is part of politics, and I understand that, but it's somewhat humorous the tears that he is shedding for Rick Santorum today.

KING: It can be a funny business.

James Carville, Fred Davis, appreciate your time. Sorry we were interrupted by the live event, but we will bring you back and continue this conversation, a competitive general election, as James said. Fred notes, it begins tonight or tomorrow.

Still ahead here, the truth about this fall's election, the race between Governor Romney and President Obama likely to be a lot closer than you might think. The chairman of the Republican Party joins us next to look ahead.


KING: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich all went out of their way today to praise Rick Santorum. But Gingrich and Paul made it clear they are staying in the race until this summer's GOP convention in Tampa.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is with us.

Mr. Chairman, I want to start with your statement. When Senator Santorum bowed out, you issued this statement, saying in part: "Today, Senator Santorum has made a commendable decision. He has decided to put his country, party and desire to defeat President Obama ahead of any personal ambition. I applaud his decision and congratulate him on the campaign he has run."

If it is commendable to get out, is it harmful to stay in?

REINCE PRIEBUS, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Well, I think you have got to look at the math. I think Rick Santorum did that.

(CROSSTALK) KING: But he was well ahead of Speaker Gingrich and he is well ahead of Congressman Paul. Should they look at the math?

PRIEBUS: Well, I think they should all look at the math.

But I also think that what compounded Rick Santorum's decision, which was another piece to this, John, which I think is a very fair piece, but not to dwell on it, but I think, you know, his family situation and his daughter being ill at the same time that he is looking at the math, I think the combination of those two things fueled this.

But that all aside, I think the reality though is that all Americans I think respect a person who, in his pickup truck, started in Iowa and really showed the American people that if you work hard and roll up your sleeves, you can do some pretty great things in this country. I think that's commendable.

KING: And so...

PRIEBUS: And I think that's what he did.

KING: And so what is the flip side? As the leader of the party, we have spoken several times, and I have tried get to you play referee. You have said no, not my job until maybe a certain point.

Are we at that point? Speaker Gingrich today, for example, said do I have to tattoo it on my forehead? I'm going all the way to Tampa.

Helpful? Harmful?

PRIEBUS: I think we have to wait and see, John.

I think, as a technical matter, at the party, obviously, declaring presumptive nominee is a different issue. So, I think you have to let the dust settle here a little bit, John, and we will see what happens in the next couple of weeks.

I think, certainly, this was a big day, not only for Rick Santorum, but it was also a very big day for Governor Romney. And so, certainly, we are getting there, John. I'm not ready to tell you right as I sit here with you that that's where we're at with Governor Romney, but, certainly, a big day for him and Rick Santorum as well.

KING: And when you hear from voices in your party and in the conservative movement, like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, other evangelical Christians, saying we don't know if we can support Romney, we are not excited about him, we don't know if we can trust him, how do you think -- what does Governor Romney have to do and what is the role of Reince Priebus and others in the party organization to try to heal the obvious wounds?

PRIEBUS: Well, I think that our party is going to be absolutely and 100 percent unified behind our nominee, John. And I think that Mr. Perkins and others are going to be behind our nominee, because you look at the direction that Barack Obama has taken this country, I don't think on a referendum on this president, the promises he made and the job he did, that anybody in the conservative movement, in the Republican Party would ever check that box that we need to reelect Barack Obama as the answer to the problems facing this country.

I think time heals some wounds. And I also think that over time, over the next several weeks, I think our party gets completely unified. I'm not there right now to tell you that that is where we are at officially, but I think we will have an absolutely unified party behind our Republican nominee in helping save this country and defeating Barack Obama.

KING: Well, we will continue the conversation. They don't have to necessarily check the Barack Obama box, sir. If they stay home, they could impact the election almost just as much.

PRIEBUS: They are not going to stay home. Nobody is staying home, John.


KING: All right. We will continue the conversation and see if that healing happens.

Mr. Chairman, appreciate your time on this important day.

PRIEBUS: You bet.

KING: We will keep it touch.

And still to come here: this hour's other breaking news in the Trayvon Martin investigation. The lawyers representing the admitted gunman, George Zimmerman, say they have lost contact with their client and they say he has, against their advice, been making phone calls to reporters and even the prosecutor.


KING: In this half hour of JOHN KING USA, this afternoon's bizarre twist in the Trayvon Martin case. The attorneys for George Zimmermann -- he's the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old child -- say their client has cut off contact with them, so they're dropping out of the case.

Also, tonight's "Truth" is about this fall's general election race between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Guess what? It will be a lot closer than 2008.

And look who's back in the public spotlight and telling jokes about his time in the White House.

Breaking news in the Trayvon Martin investigation. Lawyers for the Florida Neighborhood Watchman who admitted he shot and killed Trayvon Martin have quit the case. Just a short time ago, they revealed they have not been in contact with George Zimmermann since Sunday. Zimmermann apparently, though, is picking up the phone for some people, like reporters, and the prosecutor.


CRAIG SONNER, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: We announce today, as of now, we are withdrawing as counsel for Mr. Zimmermann. We have lost contact with him. Up to this point, we've had contact every day. He's gone on his own. I don't -- I'm not sure what he's doing or who he's talking to, but the -- at this point, we are withdrawing as counsel.

HAL UHRIG, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: We heard today that George had contacted the prosecutor's office directly. One of the things every defense attorney tells his client is don't talk to the prosecutors, don't talk to the cops. Frankly, don't talk to anybody until we get control of the situation and do it through counsel. We were a bit astonished.

SONNER: I still believe that he was acting in self-defense that night. Nothing that I've said about him or this case has changed in any way. I just can't proceed to represent a client who doesn't stay in contact with me.

UHRIG: George can't go down to the 7-Eleven and buy a Diet Coke. There's a bounty out on his head. Whether it's believed to be a real threat or not, it's out there. He probably watches more of this every day than he should. He's largely alone. Whether that means he's absolutely alone or not, he's at least emotionally alone. And you might even say emotionally crippled by virtue of the pressure of this case.

SONNER: Because I'm still concerned about his safety, I'm not going to give too much detail. He's in the United States.


KING: Sunny Hostin is a legal contributor for "In Session" on TruTV.

Sunny, this is unusual. I don't think the word "bizarre" does it justice. So what does it mean?

SUNNY HOSTIN, LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR, TRUTV'S "IN SESSION": You know, I think you're right. This is bizarre. And bottom line is look, attorneys are fired every day by their clients. It's a client's absolute right. Attorneys oftentimes withdraw from cases, but they never do it this publicly, John. I don't think I've ever seen this before, and I've been doing this a long time.

And so it's very odd that they would do this publicly, that they would withdraw publicly, and give us so much information about their client.

I mean, they're telling the media and telling the world that their client is emotionally unstable, that he's lost a lot of weight, that he may be suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, that he's emotionally crippled. That tells me that this may, in fact, work against George Zimmermann.

If I'm the prosecutor in this case, and I'm thinking about bringing charges, now I'm concerned. I'm thinking that perhaps this person is a flight risk.

And so they didn't do their former client any favors, in my view, from this very public press conference.

KING: And if you are the prosecutor, and they walk in and say, "George Zimmermann on line three," and he's calling and he does have his attorneys on the line, what do you do?

HOSTIN: You certainly don't speak to him. You know, prosecutors do often want to interview targets of investigations. They do want to get a potential defendant's take, statement, but never, ever without an attorney, because all sorts of legal problems arise from that, whether or not the statement was voluntary, that sort of thing.

And so my understanding is that this very smart, capable, seasoned prosecutor did not speak to George Zimmermann, but it is bizarre that he would directly call the special prosecutor that's investigating his actions.

KING: And they say that he stopped returning their phone calls, he stopped answering their texts. They were careful, saying that they had not even met with him, in part, because they say he's not in Florida. Where is he? This is as close as they would go. Listen.


UHRIG: I will not tell you where George Zimmermann is, because I don't know. For those who are engaged in the late Easter egg hunt looking for his, you can stop looking in Florida. Look much further away than that, which is also a reason why we didn't meet with him.


KING: You mentioned the prosecutor perhaps thinking he's a flight risk. What are the rules? He's not charged with anything. If he wants to, maybe he's with family. He has family here in the Washington area, for example. But if he wants to, can he leave the country?

HOSTIN: Well, he can. He's not charged with anything, and so it's his right to come and go as any of us do.

But again, if you're the prosecutor in this case, you are now very concerned, not only about whether or not he is a flight risk but also about his wellbeing. Is this someone whose safety is at issue you whose physical wellbeing is at issue?

So this is a very, very troubling turn of events here, John. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. KING: This is a case that keeps taking dramatic and sometimes confusing turns. We'll stay on top of it as best we can, Sunny. Appreciate your help. Thanks so much.

Coming up here, Rick Santorum's big announcement and its big impact on the fall campaign. We'll break down the general election matchup, in the Magic Wall.


KING: Tonight's "Truth" is about a big transition day in campaign 2012. This map showing the Republican primary contest, this is Mitt Romney in the west, Rick Santorum in the middle. Look at that, 11 states. Romney up here, Newt Gingrich, two.

This map now is going to give way to this map, as Senator Santorum bows out. We know now Governor Romney is the prohibitive favorite, the all but certain Republican nominee, so we will focus much more on November and not the Republican race.

This is how it played out in 2008: the blue states for President Obama, the red states for John McCain. All the campaigns and all the smart people will tell you these are the likely battlegrounds this fall. Small states like New Hampshire, maybe Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, those were states Obama turned from red to blue. Florida is always a presidential battleground, Ohio, Indiana. Let's put Michigan in there for a minute.

Let's come over this way. Iowa will be one. I'm going to leave those ones like that for that now. Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada. Let's just focus right there. You look at those state right there , these are battlegrounds. So what will happen? Well, we don't know, a long time between now and then.

President Obama has a double-digit lead in all the national polls right now. Forget about them. We know November 2012 will be more competitive than November 2008.

Let's just assign some, for the sake of argument. Mitt Romney thinks he can win in Michigan. I say prove it. The auto bailout should benefit President Obama. Let's leave that one red for now.

Santorum bows out in Pennsylvania. Can Romney win that? George W. Bush tried twice. Let's for now -- Romney campaign might not like it -- let's say that one says in team Obama.

These ones get interesting, President Obama won in Virginia and North Carolina. Let's, for the sake of hypotheticals, say Romney takes North Carolina and Obama. This is part of the Latino problem, part of the young voter problem for the Republicans. I'm going to leave Virginia in the Obama column right now.

Republicans feel confident about Ohio, could be a vice presidential pick from that state. We'll see. And again, for the sake of argument, President Obama was here today for a reason. Let's say Florida goes Republican. Again, the Latino vote could change that, but for the sake of this hypothetical, let's do that.

Where are we? Still some states on the board, 255-242. Indiana, it's hard to get an argument that one won't go back into the Republican column.

Now we come out here. Nevada, highest unemployment by state in the country. Here is why, if you look at this map and you think you have a very competitive race, right, this is why one of Governor Romney's biggest challenge, the greatest length, is to work on women and Latinos. If you look at Nevada, a state he should be able to win in this economy, if he can't get the Latino vote and that one stays there, President Obama is on the cusp.

Colorado, stated a few months ago, Republicans were very confident about, polling there right now shows the president could win it. If it goes blue, Obama might win re-election based on that alone. The Republicans have to win this one.

New Mexico, another state. It's been a swing state of presidential politics. If the Latino vote stays Democratic, there's an Obama re-election. So I'm just going to take these small states, put them back to yellow. Look, these are very small states that could decide the election, like Colorado, Electoral College-wise, New Mexico, even Iowa or New Hampshire could be the swing states in the end.

But if you look at this -- again, change that, the map is a little different. But even if you change that you're in a much more competitive environment than you were four years ago, despite what you see in the national polls today.

So let's size up the big development and talk truth. "New York Times" national political correspondent Jeff Zeleny is with us. Our contributor, the Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile, and veteran Republican strategist Torie Clarke.

Torie, I want to start with the Republicans. This is a gift day for Mitt Romney. Senator Santorum gets out. Yes, Gingrich and Paul are still in. He can start focusing on November. If you look at the polling and you go state by state, women, Latinos, biggest problem, what do you do tomorrow?

TORIE CLARKE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Boy, you start looking at your travel schedule and head exactly to those states. And I think you work really hard, give Santorum a couple of days off and you say to Santorum, "Look, the greater good, more important. I need your help on bringing those hard-core conservatives back under my fold." Because you can't -- you can't lose any of those.

The overwhelming majority of Republicans will rally around and they will support Romney, but they need as many as they possibly can get. And I think Santorum could be very helpful.

KING: You've had this problem on the flip side. You have Democratic nominees who need to repair with the base but then have to reach out to the middle, the more conservative voters in the middle. It's the flip side of what Romney faces now. He's got some wounds on his right, and a lot of mistrust on his right, but he's got to get, I'll call it the middle. He has to get voters who are to the left of his party, some of them Latino, some of them women.

Again, how do you deal with the challenge? I know you're not a Romney fan, but how do you deal with conflicting goals?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, first of all, I am a Romney fan, and I'm glad he is securing the nomination, because I think Romney is a weak nominee. He's someone that we've seen over the past few months has moved farther to the right in order to appeal to very narrow segment of the electorate. And now he must try to, you know, pivot back to the middle to get to the larger pool of voters.

So, in that regard, I do believe that Mitt Romney will have to keep an eye on his conservative base, because after all, they want a champion. They want a leader. Yes, they want to defeat President Obama, but remember a couple months ago, Mitt Romney said he will not set his hair on fire just to appeal to the base. Well, he's going to have to dye it red just to give them a little bit more red meat over the next couple of days so that they can come on board his campaign.

KING: If you look, Jeff, at the challenges, his weaknesses, if you will, he's got the rifts within his own party he has to heal. He's got a gender gap. It's a huge gender gap. Now Democrats traditionally win the women's vote. Republicans traditionally win the men. But it is out of whack right now in favor of the Democrats, the gender gap.

Latino voters, the fastest growing segment of the population, a critical swing vote and a handful, half dozen, maybe even a few more states, do they understand? Do they have a strategic plan to deal with. Again, challenges that are sometimes in conflict with each other?

JEFF ZELENY, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES": I think they next actually what the challenges are and what the problems are. So I think this is, without having to focus on Pennsylvania, the primary on April 24, that gives Governor Romney a lot of latitude during the next couple weeks.

We're going to see him in Florida. We're going to see him try and begin to repair some of these challenges with the Latino voters. I'm guessing he would love to be at the side of Jeb Bush, who endorsed him a couple weeks ago.

So I think this gives him some more room to move here, but going forward, I mean, this is going to be a close election. You look at it on the board right there. The fact of the matter is, the economy is slowing down a little bit more. That worries the Chicago re-election headquarters of the president, the job numbers out last week.

So this is going to be a close race. It's clear what Governor Romney's challenges are. We have not yet seen him in general election mode. We're going to.

KING: Everybody stand by. Good.

CLARKE: Look at the poll that came out today that said, yes, people may like Obama better but trust Romney more on the economy. It's going to be about the economy. It's going to be jobs.

BRAZILE: And his record as governor of Massachusetts, we have a long way before November 6.

KING: A long way to go, but everything today, and you guys stay right put. We'll continue the conversation. We have a long way to go, but everything we know today tells us it's going to be a competitive general election.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" coming up at the top of the hour. Brooke Baldwin is sitting in, in command of the ship. Brooke, you're following the stunning developments, bizarre developments -- I don't know what to call them -- in the Trayvon Martin case.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I think the best word I heard today from Jeff Toobin was wacky. It was the wackiest news conference he'd ever seen. Now we're picking up pretty much where you're leaving off. In case folks are just getting home from work, if you missed this news conference today in Florida, the big news is that George Zimmermann's attorneys are now bowing out. They say they haven't heard from him since Sunday. We're going to look into that. We're going to replay some of the sound. How does this affect the case going forward? Where is George Zimmermann?

Also tonight, we're taking a closer look at a story we were "OUTFRONT" on, on Friday, talking about House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and this $25,000 donation to the super PAC, the super PAC who, by the way, their mission is to oust incumbents, including incumbents of the House majority leader's own party.

Now they're saying, oops, it was a staff mistake. Really? What are Republicans saying on the Hill? We're all over those stories and more at the top of the hour.

Mr. King, back to you.

KING: Say a little more than oops. Looking forward to that one, Brooke. We'll see you in just a few minutes.

Coming up here, we'll continue the political conversation.

Plus, a school bus driver goes limp at the wheel, and a middle schooler sprints into action. You'll see what happens next.

And the former president, George W. Bush, cracks jokes about everything from his reading skills to traffic. His best one-liners, after this.


KING: We continue our conversation about the big break in political news. Rick Santorum bows out. What does it mean for the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney? Jeff Zeleny, Donna Brazile, Torie Clarke are with us.

One of the first problems Governor Romney has is he's still got some wounds, some deep wounds, fissures in the Republican Party. Tony Perkins in the Family Research Council tells our Dana Bash, quote, "It's difficult for us to back a candidate our constituents don't believe in and aren't excited about."

Torie Clarke, in the pieces of the Republican Party, this one is always a hard one. If you have a nominee they don't trust, they don't believe, he was a flip-flopper, how much time can Romney spend there?

CLARKE: They don't trust candidates with names like Bush and Bush and McCain. But here's what's going to happen. The overwhelming majority of them will vote for Romney, assuming he is the nominee. The overwhelming majority will.

Obama has problems on the far left. People are very disappointed that he didn't do all the things he said that he was going to do. The overwhelming majority of them will vote for Obama. So what's going to happen is it will come back to the middle. And for the overwhelming majority of the middle, even the Hispanics and women who are in the middle will say what's happening on the economy? And who do I think has a better chance of making it back?

KING: How difficult is it, Donna, for the incumbent? Because he's running not just against the other guy. He has to defend the three years and nearly four years by the time he gets to election day of his presidency.

Here's what his campaign manager says today: "The more people see of Mitt Romney the less they like him and the less they trust him. While calling himself the ideal candidate for the Tea Party, he's promised to return to the same policies that created the economic crisis and has alienated women, middle-class families and Hispanic Americans."

So both from his right and from his left the same question. Don't trust you.

BRAZILE: Well, you know, I think both candidates will have challenges with their base. With President Obama it was really many people on the left felt that he was continuing many of George W. Bush policies, whether it was the bailout that some people said, "Why are you spending money on that?" The war, of course, the doubling down in Afghanistan. And now that the troops are home -- and then also this willingness to sit down with Republicans and try to meet them half way on the deficit reduction. That really irritated a lot of liberals out there.

Clearly, they will support President Obama or vote Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney has an authenticity problem with his base. They don't know exactly who he is. Is he the Mitt Romney that supported Planned Parenthood or his wife donated to Planned Parenthood in the '90s? Or the Mitt Romney who ran as a social conservative? Seriously social conservative. That's something that he will have to sort out within his Republican family. KING: As they work on all this, and Jeff, assuming they're smart candidates and smart campaigns, and both go after the weakness, and a very close race could come down to how good they are structurally. How good they are on the ground. And the Obama campaign was far superior in 2008. Have the Republicans at large, and then when they incorporate the Romney campaign, have they done that work? Are they ready to compete with Barack Obama who was on the Internet and organizing door to door? Both the new-fashioned and the old-fashioned way?

ZELENY: The answer to that question is no, they're not. Because they haven't been planning on this for a year. It's one of the reasons that the Obama campaign opened its doors for business exactly a year ago, because they had a lot of work to do to sort of reenergize that army.

Republicans will concede that they have to start rebuilding specifically these state parties. We heard a lot about the health of the RNC, but it's the health of the state parties. Ohio has had a massive civil war inside their Republican Party. Other places aren't funded as much.

But at the end of the day, one outside influence or one different influence this year is super PACs. Super PACs are going to do a lot of that stuff on television. But I still remain skeptical that it has to be the state parties that are doing these organizing, registering people to vote, et cetera. And right now Democrats have an advantage on that score.

A close race that old-fashioned stuff. The hard work of politics matters sometimes. Donna, Jeff, Torie, thanks for coming in tonight. Appreciate it.

Lisa Sylvester is with us now with the latest news you need to know right now.

Hey there.


Well, North Korea says it's nearly finished preparations to launch a satellite using its long-range rocket. But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers tells CNN he doesn't have a high degree of confidence in reports the north also is preparing to test a nuclear device. Rogers adds there still are plenty of reasons to worry.


REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I think it will be able to make a good determination if it is, in fact, a nuclear test, as well, that the rocket is dangerous enough. This would give them the ability to strike as far away as the United States and other places. That's why this test is so concerning. Certainly, Japan is concerned. The United States is concerned, and everybody in that peninsula is certainly concerned. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SYLVESTER: And in Syria today we saw no letup in the killing, even though government forces were supposed to begin withdrawing from population centers. Opposition groups report at least 70 deaths. U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan demanded Syrian leaders keep their promise to implement a cease-fire in two days and says he's gravely concerned at the course of events.

And back here in the United States, a 13-year-old boy literally took the wheel yesterday, saving a busload of his schoolmates when their driver lost consciousness.

Take a look at this security camera video. Jeremy Wuitschick pulls the bus over to the side of the road.




SYLVESTER: All 12 students in Bike, Washington, are safe. We are happy to report and the bus driver was taken to the hospital for reports of a possible heart attack.

KING: That is one calm, cool, collected smart hero kid. God bless Jeremy. Good job.

All right, Lisa. Stay with us. Tonight's "Moment You Missed." We don't hear from the former president, George W. Bush, that often, but when we do we are reminded he's a pretty funny guy.

Here's Bush 43 speaking today at an economic forum hosted by his George W. Bush Institute.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I wish they weren't called the Bush tax cuts. If they were called somebody else's tax cuts, they're probably less likely to be raised.

Got to be a staggering for some of the cynics up here. I published a book and now the Bush Institute's publishing a book. They didn't think I could read, much less write a book.

Do I miss the presidency? I really don't. I mean, I enjoyed it. It was an unbelievably interesting experience. It was inconvenient to have to stop at some stop signs -- stop lights coming over here. But I guess I miss that.


KING: Good to see the former president. He also said that though he's going to be careful he doesn't think it's helpful for him to be out there undermining the current president. So Republicans, some Republicans don't want him to be in this campaign because of the controversy but that he's essentially peace, detente, on those issues.

SYLVESTER: Yes. You know what? The first thing off the bat is we haven't seen him in a while or seen much of him at least. So he's looking very well. And I've got to say, those jokes were pretty funny, you know, that self-effacing humor. He still has that charm, I think.

KING: Leave the stress of the White House and gain ten years back to your life.

Lisa, thanks.

That's all for us. We'll see you tomorrow. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.