• With: Steve Hayes, Jeff Zeleny, Sam Youngman

    This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," January 16, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

    (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

    RON PAUL, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is not complicated. It's looking to what made America great, and that is our individual freedoms and property rights and contract rights and sound money.

    NEWT GINGRICH, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If every conservative votes for me, we will win on Saturday by a huge margin. It is that simple.

    RICK SANTORUM, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's interesting some of these (INAUDIBLE) Governor Perry talks about being he's the most electable. Well, then why does he finish behind me in the first two contests?

    ROMNEY: They called him a community organizer. I don't think this is the community he was planning on organizing but it is working. We are coming together because of that guy.

    RICK PERRY, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Do you think if we change a Democrat insider with a Republican insider we're going to get a big change in Washington, D.C.?

    (END VIDEOTAPE)

    BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Some of the sights and sounds from the campaign trail. We have a second panel tonight. Let's bring them in -- Sam Youngman, national political correspondent for Reuters, Jeff Zeleny, national political correspondent for the New York Times, and Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard. I would be remiss if I didn't start saying my condolences on your Green Bay Packers loss.

    STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Brutal loss. Congratulations to the Giants. They played well. They could be tough, they could go for a while.

    BAIER: We'll start there. Jeff, can you paint a picture where another candidate, not Mitt Romney takes this nomination, where you stand right now looking at the polls you're looking at sitting here ahead of this debate tonight.

    JEFF ZELENY, NEW YORK TIMES: It's really hard to imagine that. A lot of things would have to fall in place, things that I can't even think of really at this time.

    But South Carolina is a different story. The South Carolina primary, I don't think we should get ahead of ourselves. Over the next five days, a lot of voters here I talked to across the state are in fact undecided. And they want to, sort of, give someone else a chance. So at the end of the day, the advantages that the Romney campaign have are incredibly overwhelming from Florida and even beyond Florida. The whole month of February is chock full of contests. He's the only one out there, with the exception of Ron Paul who is organizing as well, but it's really hard to get your mind around the fact that someone else could slow him, or stop him.

    BAIER: But Sam, tonight starts that last stand?

    SAM YOUNGMAN, REUTERS: That is exactly right. This is it. There is no tomorrow for a lot of these candidates. Every passing day, the idea that Mitt Romney is the inevitable nominee hardens. That idea hardens and becomes more and more true every day and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Rick Perry wants to say in this race, if Rick Santorum wants to emerge as the anti-Romney, if any of these guys -- if Newt Gingrich wants to really right his ship and try to be the anti-Romney it starts tonight. There is no waiting, because, again, tomorrow is another day where that conventional wisdom hardens.

    BAIER: Ya know Steve, to hear Jerry point out the very conservative numbers in New Hampshire, voters who were conservative chose Romney, it was New Hampshire. But there are increasingly indications from polling that he is doing OK in the conservative circles.

    HAYES: Sure it's true in some of the national polls, and it's true in Iowa. It's less true here. That point Jerry made is good one. I don't know if it's anomaly based on what we saw in the Fox poll or it says something bigger about him having trouble, but a lot of the polls seem to be going in the other direction, showing that conservatives are if they are not enthusiastic about a Romney nomination, getting behind a Romney nomination, coming towards Mitt Romney, saying this may not have been the guy I wanted initially. There may have been other candidates I wanted to run, but they didn't run. I'm not yet being knocked over by either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. So I am going to support Mitt Romney.

    BAIER: It is getting pointed on the trail Jeff. This is a Romney super PAC ad and Senator Santorum's response to it.

    (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

    UNITENTIFIED FEMALE: Santorum voted to raise debt lime five times, increasing spending and debt by $3 trillion. And he even voted to let convicted felons vote. So how will Santorum beat Obama? Obama knows he can't.

    RICK SANTORUM, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Unfortunately you see the politics of negativity, not surprisingly when a candidate is challenged, and particularly Governor Romney is challenged. He has a long track record of sending out his henchmen or his super PAC (INAUDIBLE)

    (END VIDEO CLIP)

    BAIER: He was kind of muted there, but on Laura Ingraham's radio show he essentially said today that Romney is peddling lies out there. I mean it's kind of pointed on the trail.

    JEFF ZELENY: It is pointed without a question, but what's happening to Rick Santorum is exactly what happened to Newt Gingrich in Iowa and he is feeling that. But I was out for him for a few days over the weekend, and he -- I thought he had an interesting response for the earmark thing. He said everyone in South Carolina loved and respected Strom Thurmond. And look around, everything is named after Strom Thurmond all those are earmarks. He was trying to make it not quite as scary of a thing the word earmarks.

    But on the one hand, it's a sign of Senator Santorum's potential rise. But on the other hand is just, the Romney allies are just trying to squat him like a bug, in case he happens to emerge. But the voting for felons is probably the harshest thing in there - that is, I think, has some residence here in South Carolina.

    BAIER: Same question to other panelists now, Sam, about the conservatives and that whole meeting in Texas. I mean is there a sense that is moving any needles here?

    YOUNGMAN: You know, I haven't seen it yet here in South Carolina, but I think that is because that vote continues to be divided between Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. But I think what you're going to see is a lot of conservatives doing what Jon Huntsman did today. He is almost a typical Republican voter in that he finally looked at the scoreboard, he looked at the bank statement on his campaign and he said, ya know what, forget it. This is the guy. It's time to just rally around this guy. I am not in love with him but he will do. And I think a lot of Republicans are gonna start to get that same feeling.

    BAIER: Steve, what do you make of the timing of that announcement?

    HAYES: Yeah, I thought it was peculiar. You would think that he would have done that after New Hampshire. I mean third place --

    BAIER: Ticket to ride.

    (CROSSTALK)

    HAYES: Thinking of the ticket to ride and thinking it is really a ticket to nowhere. It doesn't get him anywhere. Why would he choose to do this now? And I thought the timing on it was odd.

    But it's interesting, I mean the Huntsman candidacy in some ways tells us things. It was interesting to listen to his refrain, constantly was talk about this trust deficit between the elected officials in the country and the electorate. And then you look at what Jon Huntsman's candidacy was. He was a guy who worked for President Obama, and then he went and tried to run against him. He was a guy who said he wouldn't engage in negative attacks but launched his campaign with his top advisor calling Republicans cranks. And then most recently, he was a guy who last week said President Obama was unelectable -- I mean Mitt Romney was unelectable. And then this week, says he is the most electable candidate in the race.

    So I think if you want to know why there is a trust deficit that could explain it. People in the country don't like politicians talking out of both sides of their mouth.

    BAIER: On paper Governor Huntsman should have done better.

    ZELENY: Without question on paper he should have, because he is the governor of Utah. To me he wasn't branded properly from the very beginning in all this. He was trying to sort of be this new vessel for the Republican Party. But the old Jon Huntsman would have been much better for this moment than the new Jon Huntsman, and it just didn't work.

    And I never got the sense that he loved doing this. I was out there a lot with him on the road. I never got the sense that he really wanted to be president. You see Mitt Romney and you know that he absolutely wants to do this. I didn't get that sense from Gov. Huntsman.