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JOHN KING, USA

Interview With U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Santorum on the Attack

Aired March 1, 2012 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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

Tonight, charges are filed against the alleged Ohio school shooter, and a hero who stopped the carnage speaks out.

Rick Santorum says rival Mitt Romney failed a critical conservative gut check.

And if your boss opposes abortion or contraception, can he or she make sure your health plan won't cover it?

Remarkable story tonight. We're hearing the first humble words of a hero football coach who helped stop the shooting rampage at Ohio's Chardon High School. Three students died, two others were hurt. It was coach Frank Hall who chased the accused gunman of campus.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRANK HALL, CHARDON HIGH SCHOOL ASSISTANT FOOTBALL COACH: To the victims and their families, I want to say that I'm sorry. My thoughts and prayers are still with you.

To the families of Danny, Demetrius and Russell, I want you to know I was with them. I prayed with them. I wiped their tears, and I know God was with them. I don't know why this happened. I only wish I could have done more.

I'm not a hero. I'm just a football coach and a study hall teacher.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Coach Hall is a hero.

The suspect, T.J. Lane, is facing three counts of aggravated murder among other serious charges.

CNN's Ted Rowlands was at the high school at the students returned for the first time since the attack.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a difficult morning as students along with their parents returned to school for the first time since Monday's shooting.

JEREMY BOLTON, STUDENT: It was pretty emotional, seeing everyone hug and cry, and everyone unite and remembering this hard time.

ROWLANDS: And remembering the three students skilled, 16-year- old Danny Parmertor, 16-Year-old Demetrius Hewlin and 17-year-old Russell King Jr.

Today, the grieving families of Danny Parmertor and Demetrius Hewlin talked publicly about their loss.

PHYLLIS FERGUSON, VICTIM'S MOTHER: Demetrius was energetic and a good young man. Demetrius had donated his organs, and for Demetrius' one life he gets to change eight lives. They took him this morning at five minutes to 8:00 to take his organs. So I'm kind of having a hard time. And this was the last time I got to see him.

DOMINIC PARMERTOR, VICTIM'S BROTHER: My brother was the happiest kid on the planet. He never got mad at anybody. He always just loved to have fun. He was going to change the world.

ROWLANDS: Seventeen-year-old Nick Walczak is the still hospitalized with no feeling in his legs. The teacher Joe Ricci pulled Nick into his classroom after he had been shot.

HOLLY WALCZAK, VICTIM'S MOTHER: He is the one that pulled him from the hallway into a room. He is forever our hero.

ROWLANDS: While none of the victims' family members would talk about the accused gunman, 17-year-old T.J. Lane, Demetrius Hewlin's mother sounded conciliatory.

FERGUSON: You have to forgive because if you don't forgive, you hold that in your heart. Instead of your memory of your child in there, you have got that hatred in your heart. This is for my son. This is for my son.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROWLANDS: T.J. Lane remains in custody. He was charged, John, as you said today three counts of aggravated murder, two counts of attempted aggravated murder and an assault charge. He's due back in court next Tuesday.

KING: And, Ted, on such an emotional day, the students coming back for the first time, what's being done down the road, today, tomorrow and beyond to help the students deal with this tragedy?

ROWLANDS: They have counselors in place for students.

Tomorrow will be the first day where students come to school alone. Today, they came with their parents. But there will be grief counselors there. And the school administrator said today tomorrow will be the first normal day of school but it's not going to be a normal day. It won't be a normal day here for some time.

Their plan here is to heal together and do it for however long it takes.

KING: Ted Rowlands, live for us inside that school tragedy. Ted, thanks so much.

Shifting now to politics and today's long-distance fight between President Obama and Mitt Romney over what you're paying at the gas pump. In New Hampshire, the president brought along a chart showing the country's dependence on foreign oil has gone down every year he's been in the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, if there's one thing I know about New Hampshire, it's that your political bull detector is pretty keen. It's pretty sharp.

(APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: You know that we can't just drill our way to lower gas prices.

There are no quick fixes or silver bullets. If somebody tells you there are, they're not telling you the truth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Across the country in Idaho this afternoon, Governor Romney's answer? Warmed up and ready to go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Today, this president is in New Hampshire, trying to say that he takes credit for the fact that more oil and gas are being produced in America today.

(BOOING)

ROMNEY: Yes. The American people are a little too smart for that. He can't pull the wool over their eyes in that regard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is here.

How does the president try to counter the Republican charges that he's in charge, this is his problem as prices go up especially in an election year?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president today, John, is trying to have it both ways.

First, he argues that there are no simple answers and that as you say the Republicans, well, he says they just want to drill their way out of everything, and that in reality the real answer has to include investing in alternative energy and also improving fuel-efficiency standards which he argues his administration has done.

But as you also noted, he whipped out a chart to show that he solved part of the problem because during his administration, guess what, drilling is up. So he is having it both ways and he's angling for some of the credit, but none of the blame.

KING: But how much of a vulnerability -- when you talk to them candidly, how much of a vulnerability is it? He is in charge. Prices are going up. He as a senator is on the record blaming people in charge for prices going up.

YELLIN: Right. They wouldn't be talking about this as much as they are if it weren't a vulnerability.

And you know voters feel it right away when gas prices go up because they see it when they go to the pump. Republicans will continue to hit the president over delaying a decision on the Keystone pipeline. So that's an ongoing issue for the president.

And while the president's aides argue that the media hypes rising gas prices every time spring comes up, we know that gas prices might continue to rise as the market reflects fears over rising tensions between Iran and Israel. So there's no sign that gas prices will necessarily come down any time in the next few months, John.

KING: Some good economic indicators, high gas prices potentially a little problem heading into the election.

Jess, thanks so much for coming in.

Mitt Romney fighting with the president over gas prices there. He's gotten himself in the Republican primary again by opening his mouth. Romney jumped on today's U.S. Senate vote, that vote killing a Republican effort to exempt employers from providing health insurance coverage for birth control and other procedures that may violate their consciences.

The former Massachusetts governor rushed out a statement, saying -- quote -- "I applaud the senators who took a stand today and voted to defend religious freedom. The Obama administration has directly attacked the First Amendment of our Constitution and individual liberty."

The problem is, Governor Romney's on camera telling the Ohio News Network he was against that birth control measure. Listen closely to the question. You will hear a reference to Senator Rick Santorum, his rival, as well as Romney's answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM HEATH, OHIO NEWS NETWORK: Blunt-Rubio is being debated I believe later this week that deals with banning -- or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception.

Have you taken a position on it? He has said he's for that. And we will talk about personhood in a second. But he's for that. Have you taken a position on it?

ROMNEY: I'm not -- I'm not for the bill.

But, look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, a husband and wife, I'm not going there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, later, not that much later, Governor Romney had a different answer and an explanation.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I simply misunderstood what he was talking about. I thought it was some Ohio legislation where employers were prevented from providing contraceptives. It's why I talked about contraceptives and so forth. So I really misunderstood the question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Campaigning in Georgia today, former Senator Santorum ridiculed Romney's shift.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We saw an insight into the -- what's in the gut of Governor Romney yesterday. When Governor Romney was asked that question, his knee-jerk reaction was, no, I can't be for that.

Well, then after his consultants talked to him, and then he came back, oh, he said, I didn't understand the question.

Well, maybe he did, maybe he didn't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN's Jim Acosta joins us with more. He's live in Seattle tonight.

Jim, this is the kind of controversy the Romney campaign can ill afford, a question about his commitment to a conservative cause.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

Every time it seems Mitt Romney has a big night, gets a lot of momentum behind him, he has one of these episodes where he just has a misstep. Now, the Romney campaign is pushing back on any notion here that this was a flub. They say that this was a totally honest misunderstanding.

They are now trying to clear up what you might call a mis- contraception on the issue going back and forth with reporters and talking about how Mitt Romney clearly misunderstood this question. He is getting a pass, I would say, from Senate Republicans. Roy Blunt, the author of that legislation in question, said today that he thought the question was confusing for Mitt Romney, and so he is getting a pass from Republicans there.

Clearly, the campaign is trying to put this behind them. But every step along the way today, John -- he was in North Dakota, in Idaho -- he was asked by reporters, could you please elaborate on this position that you have?

At one point, he said he could elaborate on the issue of this Blunt amendment, but then he decided not to. He moved on to the next thing.

KING: And, Jim, help us understand their strategy. Everyone talks about how Ohio, maybe Tennessee the biggest Super Tuesday battlegrounds. Why is Mitt Romney out West?

ACOSTA: He's out West because he needs delegates, John.

I think it's pretty clear that on Super Tuesday, he is going to probably lose those Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday. So he wants to win delegates. So he was in North Dakota earlier today, Idaho after that. He's on his way to Washington State right now, which holds its caucuses on Saturday.

Rick Santorum, by the way, also coming to Washington State this evening. And Rick Santorum can win this state, but because of the proportional allocation of these delegates out West, Mitt Romney needs to get as many of these delegates as possible to sort of even things out on Super Tuesday.

And so they're fighting for every delegate that they can get out here, John. We're going to see Mitt Romney having a fund-raiser later on this evening, and then having an event in Washington State, here in Seattle tomorrow morning. But then he's out of here.

He's going back to Ohio later on tomorrow afternoon to hook up with Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, getting back to the importance of Ohio. They don't need to be told by us how important it is. They know it's important. That's why Chris Christie is coming out there tomorrow night, John.

KING: And we will watch them out in Ohio, but all this focus on the small states a reminder of the Clinton-Obama race four years ago, Jim, when the small states did in the end actually matter quite a bit.

Jim Acosta live for us in Seattle tonight, Jim, thank you.

ACOSTA: That's right.

KING: A near accident in Philadelphia's airport today raises some new questions tonight about airport security. A man crashed his jeep through an unmanned gate -- you see the pictures right there -- drove on to a runway just as a plane was coming in.

Now, an alert air traffic controller spotted it and diverted the plane with just seconds to spare.

Listen here. Here's the discussion up in the control tower.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody on niner left, it's going to be a delay. You guys can shut down if you need to. We have got a rogue vehicle driving around on the airport. We're not talking to him. We're not moving anybody until we find this guy.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KING: Now, police chased down the jeep and arrested the driver. You see his picture right there. They say he may have been drunk, may have been high on drugs. They do not consider this to have any relationship at all to potential terrorism.

Coming up, Democrats say Republicans are waging a war on women. Republicans say their proposed conscience clause for health care coverage is critical to people of faith.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: This issue will not go away unless the administration decides to take it away by giving people of faith these First Amendment protections.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We will talk to the president's point person in this debate, the health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The Senate today killed the Republican effort to experiment employers from providing health insurance coverage for birth control and other procedures those employers feel violate their consciences.

Let's talk now to the Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius.

She has the job of implementing the new health care reform law.

Madam Secretary, the administration opposed this amendment. Roy Blunt says he's simply trying to protect the First Amendment rights of employers who might have a moral objection to abortion, a moral objection to contraception or something else.

Why does the administration say bad idea?

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS, U.S. HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY: Well, first of all, John, the Blunt amendment in the Senate went well beyond women's health services and well beyond contraception services. It really would have allowed any employer, for really any reason, not religious employers for a religious reason, but any employer for any moral reason, to deny any health benefit to any employee.

So you really could have had a situation where employers got to pick and choose what coverage options would be available to their employees. If someone felt that they had a moral objection to people delivering children who weren't married, you could deny prenatal coverage and maternity services. You could deny HIV screening. You could turn down someone for a variety of treatments that you felt fell outside of your objections as an employer.

And that's really not the way a health law can operate. So it was any employer for any reason, any coverage, any employee. And I think it would have totally undermined the notion that if you have health insurance, it should be broad and cover the services desperately needed by people in this country.

KING: During the debate today, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, she voted with the Republicans. She voted in favor of this amendment that you say is a bad idea. but I want you to listen here. Even as she did so, she herself raised some questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R), MAINE: The sponsor of this amendment is completely sincere. And I want to make that clear.

But this issue has become a sad example of election year politics. I believe that a good compromise could have been reached and should have been worked out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is there a good compromise to you, Senator Collins -- or, Madam Secretary?

Is there some way, on some issues, I think you'd concede the point, on some issues, there might be a legitimate moral or religious exemption.

Is there a compromise?

SEBELIUS: Well, I think absolutely what the president announced in February and what we'll be working to implement -- and we'll have a proposed rule in the near future, John -- is a strategy which both protects religious freedom, protects the religious objection of employers who, in the area of contraception, feel that it violates their religious tenets and make sure that the millions of women who need family planning services, who rely on contraception, who, 99 percent of women take contraception at some point during their health lives, have access to this very important preventive service benefit.

So having an insurance company directly provide coverage to women so that employers with a religious objection do not pay for the coverage, do not refer people to the coverage, do not have to provide the coverage.

And we will have a similar accommodation for self-insured plans, working with a variety of the strategies that are operational on the ground.

John, we've got 28 states around this country where the state's law mandates that contraception be a part of covered benefits for women. And Catholic institutions, Catholic hospitals have provided that coverage in a variety of strategies.

So I am confident that by August of 2013, which is when this grace period will be implemented, we will have in place a strategy that meets both the goals...

KING: A...

SEBELIUS: -- certainly respecting religious freedom, but also making sure that women's health benefits, for the first time, will include the full package of services that they need. And then women can make a choice whether or not to access those benefits based on her own faith tradition.

KING: Well, let me ask you in -- in closing, about Senator Collins' point about election year politics.

This is one of these, so I have been at this a while. And you're no stranger to the rough and tumble of politics from your days as governor.

SEBELIUS: Yes.

KING: It seems to me that both parties like this fight. The conservatives like to make it. It's a challenge to the mandates, it's a challenge to the president. They're attacking a health care plan they don't like. And I'm getting a lot of e-mails and press releases from Democratic groups saying Republicans are waging a war on women.

Is this one that you caught in the middle -- now that you're in the cabinet and trying to implement this law -- of a fight that both parties seem to like?

SEBELIUS: Well, hopefully, it -- it won't be a fight that will continue. I -- I think there's no question, John, that for too long, insurance plans haven't paid enough attention to women's health benefits. That's why the Institute of Medicine said, you know, we need to make sure that they included domestic violence screening and well women visits and contraception, which is the most commonly taken drug of women 14 to 44.

On the other hand, the president and I feel very strongly that religious liberty is a critical tenet of our democracy. It's part of the -- what this country was founded on. And I think we have a solution that actually has been operational in many parts of the country, in the majority of the country, for years and years and years.

So I'm confident that we can move forward on a robust benefit package that, for the first time, will take full account of what women's health needs are and respect the religious liberty of -- of employers who find objectionable contraception based on religious tenets. And -- and we will make sure that their objections are -- are followed and listened to, but that the women employees of Catholic hospitals and Catholic institutions, whether they be nurses or janitors or nurse aids or teachers, don't have to give up an important health benefit.

KING: I suspect we might be having this conversation again down the road.

But appreciate your time tonight, Secretary Sebelius.

SEBELIUS: Sure. Good to be with you.

KING: Thank you.

And ahead, if you use Google, today's the day your new privacy policy goes into effect. And guess what? Your Web surfing will be tracked.

Plus, the shocking death of the controversial conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart. New details are emerging this hour about just how he died. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

(NEWS BREAK)

KING: Ahead, tomorrow is an important day in Iran, voting day -- what the elections tell us about Iranian ambitions. And will the results give us insight into what the Iranian people really want? A rare live report just ahead from Iran.

Plus, new tonight, survivor stories from the tornado that killed more than a dozen people in the Midwest. We will take you there live in just a moment for the latest.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: In this half hour, raw emotions as tornado survivors pick through the pieces of their homes and marvel they escaped with their lives.

Also, tonight's "Truth" about Mitt Romney's yes and no answer has become the latest flashpoint in the Republican campaign.

And one of the nation's biggest banks tries out some new fees that could go nation-wide.

An enormous storm system that sent deadly tornadoes trashing the Midwest and southeast has now left 13 people dead across Illinois, Kansas, Tennessee and Missouri. Hardest hit city Harrisburg, Illinois, where six of those victims died. We'll go there live in just a moment.

But let me show you something, just give you a little bit of perspective. There's a shopping mall right here. We're going to go live to this mall in just a second. Our Don Lemon is standing by. This is before. Look at the power. Look at the power of that tornado. That is after. This stuff just crumbled, toppled over. You see a truck on its side there. And I mentioned, CNN's Don Lemon is on the ground in Harrisburg tonight.

And Don, we've seen these devastating pictures. I've just shown you the before and after here. Let's listen, before we talk, to a survivor you spoke to earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just look at this and wonder how you ever got out. A bedroom on this side, a bedroom on that side completely destroyed and the bathroom right there in the middle and that's where I was. And how the bathroom got left, good enough for me to survive, only God knows.

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So when you ran out; you had to come around on the street?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. I came out of that bathroom door that's facing on that side. You can see where I busted it to get out. And I crawled -- I crawled over all this stuff and came out to here hollering for anybody.

LEMON: When they started coming out one by one, were you relieved?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, yes. Tears of joy. I didn't want to let none of them go, but I knew I had to let the 5-year-old go, because he need medical attention.

LEMON: You were holding onto him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was holding on tight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Don, that gentleman there I'm sure others you talked to, so much raw emotion. Any estimate just how bad this damage is?

LEMON: Well, we know it's about 2 to 300 homes across the area. And more than 50 businesses. And as you can see, you saw the "before," and you saw the "after" of this. And I think they're still trying to get damage totals as they go from house to house to house. They've done that, you know, gone where they go through and put the "X" on it that. We just saw so much during Katrina and other big tornadoes. They've done that.

But about 2 to 300 homes so far. And again, more than 50 businesses here, John. It's really unbelievable. Just like a half a- a-mile swath through this town.

KING: And you go through that and you walk through the community, and you show these pictures and see the scope of the devastation. The question becomes, what about rebuilding? How long? How much?

LEMON: Well, you know, they're just one day into it. So it's going to be a lot. And they're estimating into the millions, obviously. And the businesses, they don't have estimates yet.

They tried to come through today. We saw if you go this way, this was a video game store. They couldn't even get to all of their merchandise. They came today and had someone with emergency workers crawl in to get to the safe.

Where we're standing now is like a 5,500-square-foot sporting- goods store. So it depends on how much they can recover, John, if they can recover anything from the businesses so that they can know exactly how much they're going to recover, how much it costs to recover. How much the insurance is going to pay them and what have you. So they're still -- they're still working on it. It's going to take some time here. They're still putting tarps on roofs, because they have another weather system coming through tomorrow. So what is still here, they want to protect it.

KING: Still in a state of shock, as well. Don Lemon on the ground in Harrisburg, Illinois. Thanks so much.

Moving on, Iranians will do something tomorrow they haven't done in almost three years. Vote. This time they'll be casting their ballots for parliament. The last time they voted, back in 2009, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won reelection. Protestors questioned those results and bloody demonstrations followed.

CNN's Ivan Watson is live in Tehran, giving us a look inside Iran's election process. Ivan, things seem to be less violent this time around. Is that fair?

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. You have the leader of Iran, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He's calling on them to come out and vote en masse on Friday, John.

A huge publicity campaign here, trying to get people out to vote. And leaders here saying it's more important than ever to have a high voter turnout.

Now, why are they saying that? Because the aftermath of the 2009 vote, when opposition candidates accused the government of rigging the election, and the ensuing street protests against the regime here really challenged the credibility and the legitimacy of the regime.

So at this time you have the ruling government trying to prove to Iranians and to the rest of the world that it can run a free and fair election and that it has legitimacy and the support of the public.

We're not going to see in this election representatives, candidates, from that Green Movement we saw, that opposition pro- reform Green Movement of 2009, John. One of the main reasons is because the main candidates who ran for president? They're under house arrest. And many of their supporters and the campaign managers either were arrested here or have fled into exile -- John. KING: That's a very, very important point to make as we watch the elections. Ivan, what are the major themes in the campaigning? Are you seeing a lot of anti-American sentiment, anti-western sentiment?

WATSON: Absolutely. And that's pretty common for the ruling establishment here in Iran. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying if we get a huge turnout on Friday, that will be a punch in the face of Iran's western rivals.

And Iran is facing some pressure right now. It's got sanctions led by the U.S. and Europe toughening up international trade with Iran's central bank. That is making problems. And then there's an awful lot of disturbing talk of the possibility of war between Israel, the U.S. and Iran. And that's, frankly, frightening people here and driving some of this aggressive talk against the U.S. -- John.

KING: Rare inside look at politics inside Iran. Ivan Watson, thanks so much tonight.

A group of American and British activists finally out of Egypt months -- months -- after the workers were accused of promoting anti- government protests. They'd been held in Cairo ever since a December raid on their offices, and they're still facing fraud charges but headed home tonight.

One of the released is Sam LaHood. He's the son of the transportation secretary, Ray LaHood. Secretary LaHood tonight says, quote, "I'm pleased the court has lifted the travel ban and am looking forward to my son's arrival in the United States. I'd like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers during this time."

In Syria today activists report a blood bath where government forces moved into a key neighborhood in the city of Homs in the 21-day siege. Rebels fighters say they withdrew on purpose so aid can get to the estimated 4,000 civilians who have been trapped by the fighting there. Reuters reports a pair of French journalists are among those who got out safely.

Also today, Britain joined the United States in closing its embassy in Damascus and withdrawing all diplomats from Syria. That done because of safety concerns.

Still ahead here, tonight's "Truth" about what you might call Mitt Romney's John Kerry moment. He was against it before he was for it.

Plus President Obama talks sports with ESPN and makes a very bold prediction.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: OK. Are you for or against the Blunt-Rubio Amendment? Do you even know what it is? Well, Mitt Romney was against it before he was for it. And what he says, it's all a misunderstanding. It's now the latest flashpoint in the GOP campaign. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We saw an insight into what's in the gut of Governor Romney yesterday. When Governor Romney was asked that question, his knee-jerk reaction was, no, I can't be for that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, the amendment was voted down today in the Senate. It would have allowed employers to leave out of their health-insurance coverage any benefits with which they had moral or religious objections. The proposal covered any employer, well beyond the recent dust-up over whether Catholic organizations and other religious institutions should be forced to cover contraception.

Now that gut check that Senator Santorum was talking about, well, this Romney in Ohio.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Blunt-Rubio is being debated, I believe, later this week that deals with banning -- or allowing employers to ban providing female contraception. Have you take a position on it? He's said he was for that. We'll talk about personhood in a second but he's for that. Have you taken a position?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not for the bill. But look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about -- about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, a husband and a wife, I'm not -- I'm not going there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, the conservative backlash was instant. And team Romney was quick to respond, too, asserting the question was confusing. The candidate quickly himself called into a Boston radio program.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I really misunderstood the question. Of course, Roy Blunt, who is my liaison to the Senate, is someone I support. And of course, I support that amendment. I clearly want to have religious exemption from Obama care.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Governor Romney then addressed it again today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: I'm in favor of the Blunt amendment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you elaborate?

ROMNEY: Can I elaborate? Absolutely.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, that elaboration never came. But here's tonight's "Truth."

Even if you give Governor Romney the benefit of the doubt and accept that he misunderstood the question, he should have been more careful. Truth is, his instinct to find every opening to attack Santorum got the better of the governor there. At the mention of contraception, he decided to draw a contrast instead of asking the Ohio reporter to clarify the question.

Again, especially given his problems with social conservatives, a more deliberate approach would have spared him the "against it before he was before it" dust up.

Joining us to talk truth, Romney campaign adviser Kevin Madden; Bush administration Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke; and GOP strategist Nancy Pfotenhauer.

I normally am a gentleman: I do ladies first. But since you -- since you were involved in the Romney campaign, is this one of these cases -- look, I'll give you if you replay that question, I could understand, maybe, why he was a little confused. But he's running for president. He's had a recent series of people questioning things he said. Why wouldn't you stop and say, "What exactly are you asking me? Wait a minute. What are we talking about here?" As opposed to he just wanted to hit Santorum and now he's in a mess.

KEVIN MADDEN, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN ADVISOR: I disagree with you on two points. The first is that he's trying to draw a contrast. I don't think that's right. And the second is that it was just confusing. I think it was more than confusing. The question, the way it was posed, was absolutely inaccurate.

And so I think what you have is a governor who, you're exactly right, could have been, should have been better briefed about the state of what the Blunt bill was and the nature of it being debated. And that's a separate issue.

But the fact is that there's a large market share of information out there about the governor's position on this particular issue. He's made it clear hundreds of times before. But the way that question was asked, in that it said are you for banning contraception, I think the governor was reacting to the topic, not necessarily the specifics of the actual bill. And I think that's why we had this bit of a kerfuffle. I disagree that he was seeking a chance to draw a contrast.

KING: Was he?

NANCY PFOTENHAUER, GOP STRATEGIST: I am just so impressed by kerfuffle. Anyone who can say that and pull it off correctly in a sentence deserves a hat tip. There you go.

KING: It takes up half a tweet if you tweet it.

Was he drawing a contrast? Was he -- how do you handle that? How do you help a candidate say, look, if someone asks you a question with a lot of commas in it you should what?

PFOTENHAUER: I think you stop and say, "Let me -- let me clarify that." But, you know, Romney generally speaking, does a very fine job in interviews. I think it is very -- it's very easy to say he was responding instinctively. And Kevin even you say he was responding to the word "contraceptive," which does make you think that perhaps he was trying to draw a distinction.

But you know, the bottom line that it was -- it's an error that is going to cost him. Because Romney has serious problems with white evangelical voters. And he's going to have serious problems with them moving forward. And this just plays into that narrative, unfortunately.

KING: And you have Senator Santorum saying this is a gut check, and then he's saying essentially you can't trust Romney. And you have Democrats on the other side. I've got about six different state Democratic parties, sending me releases about Governor Romney's quote, unquote "war on women," they call it. And here's one from Colorado. "Mitt Romney stood on the side of women having control over their own health choices. Sadly, he only did so for about 90 minutes before flip-flopping and backtracking." It goes on and on and on.

He's taking it from both ends.

TORIE CLARKE, FORMER PENTAGON SPOKESPERSON: I think it could be as simple as these candidates are running on fumes. Never underestimate the value of a good night's sleep. It may have been as simple as that.

I think he actually handled the mistake fairly well in this incredibly fast-paced environment. But more importantly, any time a Republican candidate spends the bulk of his time talking about contraception and Cadillacs, it is a bad week. These guys have got to start -- they are letting themselves get dragged into this and beat these horses to death.

MADDEN: Right now rather than just judging what we're seeing as the fumes that are on cable talk -- cable television, if you look at the local press out in Ohio right now -- this is where people are going to be rendering judgment -- the governor's message is entirely focused on the economy. And the local coverage is focused on the economy. That's what's going to resonate with voters.

KING: You say that's what's going to resonate with voters. I want to ask you guys quickly about this -- another kerfuffle tonight, and it's about Michigan. We allocated the delegates evenly yesterday based on the results in the state of Michigan. Romney won the five- point vote without a question. We allocated the delegates evenly, based on our own math and based on our own understanding of the Michigan party rules for the at-large delegates, one each. They have a meeting today and Governor Romney gets the edge, and the Santorum campaign is screaming. They're saying that they rewrote the rules, back-room dealing: "this kind of back-room dealing, political thuggery just cannot and should not happen in America."

This was done in the state. Whether the Romney campaign asked for it or not I don't think we have any reason to believe that.

Should Governor Romney maybe say, "Take your delegate back. I don't need this mess"?

MADDEN: Of course not. We're in a delegate hunt right now. We're going to take them any way we can get them.

I think what has to be remembered, though, is that the state party is the one that decides this. And the state party has actually said that what they're going to do is -- and they said this before the actual contest. They said that their intent was to award those two delegates to the person who won statewide. The governor won statewide, and that's why they awarded it to him.

I understand what the Santorum camp is trying to do, but I think it's sort of nonsense to call it news words like thuggery.

KING: We've had a lot of this messiness, though. The caucus states getting the results wrong. Back and forth on it.

Hang on. We're going to continue our conversation about other things, other kerfuffles, in just a moment.

But remember though, this is a reminder to join us Super Tuesday not only in the evening for the results but at noon eastern. We're going to have a live virtual roundtable. Can't beat that, right?

Our election panel will answer questions from CNN iReporters about the presidential election. We'll explore the issues and any kerfuffles that come up, all the issues you care about.

Go to CNN.com/roundtable at noon Eastern. That's Super Tuesday. Believe it or not, just five days from now.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" is coming up at the top of the hour. Erin's with us for a preview, and we're going to look at President Obama's important meeting with the Israeli prime minister.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: That's right. Talk about a kerfuffle. I like hearing -- hearing you say that word. We're going to be talking with Senator Menendez from the foreign relations committee about this, John.

But you know, we've been looking at what U.S. immigration officials have been saying, constantly talking about a red line that Iran cannot cross. Well, Israeli papers today reporting Benjamin Netanyahu wants a clear definition of what have that line is and a clear line of what military action is if Iran crosses it. This is going to be a crucial meeting to see what Barack Obama decides to do or not do. We're going to talk about that top of the hour.

Back to you.

KING: That actually is a very, very important story and very important meeting.

And still ahead here, Bank of America customers face steep fees for basic services. Those charges headed your way.

Plus, this is very important news: Justin Bieber's not a baby anymore. His big milestone when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Let's continue the conversation with Torie Clarke, Nancy Pfotenhauer, Kevin Madden. I want to ask you about the roller-coaster race that we're all living through.

Here's the latest Gallup daily tracking poll: Governor Romney at 35 percent; Santorum at 24 percent; Gingrich at 15 percent; Paul at 11 percent. Thirty-five, 24, 15.

OK, flip. Last week, Santorum was at 34; Romney was at 27; Gingrich held steady at 15; and Paul has held steady. So those two guys are staying put.

But what is going on at the top of this race? Is it all about momentum?

MADDEN: It is -- there is a lot of volatility in this campaign. We've seen it in South Carolina all the way to Florida. Twenty-point swings in positive-negative information about the candidates.

I think also it's very interesting is inside those numbers, there's 40, 50 percent who are willing to change their minds. So that's why, you know, I think with campaigns, organizations, concentrating a message and being very disciplined across these states, that's what's going to make a difference in these next couple of days.

KING: Is it the candidates who have not done a good enough job closing the deal or is it a Republican electorate that hasn't had a leader in a while? I make the case the second half of the Bush second term, they gave up -- a lot of the Republican Party gave up on him. John McCain wasn't their guy, I'm sorry. Four years ago. Is it the voters or is it the candidates or is it both?

PFOTENHAUER: I think it's probably a little bit of both. I think the most unifying factor among the Republican Party is -- is the rejection of Obama. And that's why I think ultimately, no matter how confident the Obama campaign sounds right now, I think they're going to see a very united and a very motivated opposition moving forward.

I have to say, I think -- I think Romney's going to -- will eke it out. I mean, maybe if you were to equate him with a football team you'd say he's got an excellent defense and his offense is like three yards and a pile of dust. But he's going to get there. I really think he will.

KING: Why are -- why are Republicans voters so confused and conflicted?

CLARKE: I think the Republican Party continues to find its identity, and it may not have a completely unified, cohesive identity. You have candidates who are not the strongest consistently over time.

I think we continue to see this roller coaster. I don't see any reason for Newt Gingrich to get out. He's certainly not going to do it without a fight. He's not angling to be vice president or anything else. So they're clearly...

(CROSSTALK)

KING: Only way he would get out is if he lost Georgia next week, right? Will he stay in if he lost his home state?

CLARKE: Why not? Why not? Everyone says that.

(CROSSTALK)

MADDEN: Look. To the point, though, that Nancy also made, independents right now are very volatile. We're seeing swings in those type of voters.

And I think, to Nancy's other point, the person who has -- who has zoomed to the top of this pack every single time has been the candidate that has prosecuted the case the best against Barack Obama. And that's why we've seen it go up -- we've seen it go up and down, because a lot of people have shared that mantel.

(CROSSTALK)

PFOTENHAUER: He's got Vermont. He's got Massachusetts. He's got Virginia. I think he gets Ohio.

KING: Well, we have Washington state this weekend, and then ten states next Tuesday. Fasten your seatbelt.

Kevin, Nancy, Torie, thanks for coming in.

Kate Bolduan is back with more news you need to know right now.

Hey, Kate.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, John. Sounds like a fun panel tonight.

Bank of America is testing out new fees on customers in Georgia, Arizona, and Massachusetts, where a few -- a new basic checking account could cost between 6 and $25 a month. Customers can get out of the fee if they bank online, keep a certain balance, or sign up for credit cards or mortgages. This isn't the first -- this isn't the bank's first attempt at new fees. You'll remember a $5 debit card charge flopped last year.

And plenty of people show off their political preferences with yard signs, bumper stickers, even a T-shirt. Well, now add flip-flops to the list -- or rather "Mitt flops." Two friends, one Republican, one Democrat, came up with the idea of a fashionable way to poke fun at what they see as Romney's flip-flopping beliefs.

But there are competing "Mitt flops" out there, ones with political stances on each foot. Seen right there.

And for teenage girls across the country, it may as well be a national holiday. Today is, yes, Justin Bieber's 18th birthday. And his manager surprised him on "The Ellen Show" with a big-ticket gift, an all-electric Fisker Karma luxury sedan. And also, Bieber is also using his birthday to try to raise money for charity, asking his fans to donate $18 in honor of his 18th birthday.

It's clearly out of my league, because I did have to look up what a Fisker Karma is, John.

KING: I think that costs more than $100,000. But I guess -- I guess he and his manager can afford it.

All right. Don't go anywhere. Tonight's "Moment You May Have Missed," one of President Obama's happier duties, any president, welcoming championship teams to the White House. The one team this president's still waiting for, listen here, he tells ESPN he's willing to wait for this team.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Over the last five years, how many times have you envisioned welcoming the world champion Chicago Bulls to the White House?

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Every year. And it hasn't happened yet. But it will happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It will happen. You're like Joe Namath. You're guaranteeing it.

OBAMA: Well, you know, I've got another five years here and...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Another five years here. I got a "whoa" out of Kevin Madden on that one. He's still here.

BOLDUAN: Doesn't hurt to be an optimist. But looking -- looking at the record, maybe. Who knows?

KING: Who knows? Some will say optimist; some will say presumptuous. That debate will continue.

We'll see you back here tomorrow night.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.