Taking the pulse of Republican voters

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," March 14, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


MITT ROMNEY, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So you ask in these prior elections, who as conservatives did you vote? I won the conservative vote. Some who are very conservative may not be in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee, when I face Barack Obama, because, again, what the nation wants is someone who understands the economy, not, if you will, an economic lightweight. I mean, Senator Santorum is a nice guy, but he does not understand how the economy works.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Mitt Romney on "America Live" with Megyn Kelly today, on Fox News Channel, this after Rick Santorum had two wins in the deep South, Alabama and Mississippi, and Mitt Romney winning in Hawaii and American Samoa, picking up a few delegates on the delegate battle back and forth. As we look at some new national polls out, Fox News polls, you can see that the horse race in the GOP presidential nomination, there you see the difference between February and now. It's important to point out that this poll happened before the results last night. So any momentum that may have been gained for Santorum in Alabama or Mississippi with those wins would not be reflected in this poll.

As you take a look at the race for Republican nomination, which candidate would you prefer? Can beat Obama 58 percent, a true conservative, 31 percent. And finally, on GOP voters, what effect has this campaign had on the party and its candidates? Divided and weakened the party and candidates 56 percet, 32 percent energized and strengthened.

We're back with the panel. Susan, what do you make of the fallout from last night and what you're seeing in these numbers?

SUSAN MILLIGAN, U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT: Well, I think, first of all, Santorum was obviously going to do well in these southern states. Romney I think was right in saying he was playing in an away game. But I'm not sure it's a function of who is the genuine conservative here. Santorum really connects with people in a way that Governor Romney doesn't seem to be able to do. I'm from western New York. And so when Santorum talk about being from coal country, I get that. And I get why that would be really appealing to people in the states where he has won.

And so Romney, he does well -- ya know, one of the biggest divides is in income. Romney does well among the wealthier voters. And Santorum aside from just making the social conservatives feel confident that he is an absolute, categorically conservative guy, I also think he just kind of connects with them a little bit better, you know, on the trail.

BAIER: Charles, obviously, a lot of the headlines dealt with the momentum from Alabama and Mississippi, the wins for Santorum. But the Romney campaign points to the delegate pickup of plus six in the delegate hunt. What do you make of the fallout from last night and moving forward? We're going to Missouri caucuses on Saturday, Puerto Rico on Sunday, and then Illinois on Tuesday.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: That's a hell of a way to build up enthusiasm to argue I have got the math, elect me. It doesn't exactly stir the soul. I don't see people swooning in the aisles like Obama in '08. And I also like the high level of civil discourse that the Republicans are engaging in. Romney saying of Santorum he is an economic lightweight. He doesn't know anything about the economy.

Look, I think the voters are right. This is dividing the party and hurting the party. I think the storyline continues. Romney is strong enough to stay ahead consistently. But he is not strong enough to pull away. And that is the story of the campaign.

But I think the poll numbers that we have with Romney holding the lead over Santorum, small lead, six or eight points, will be changed. We have seen these unbelievable swings. After South Carolina, Gingrich, swung from minus 20 to plus 10. So we have seen remarkable swings as a result of the headlines and momentum and a sense of the race changing. So I would expect that Santorum is probably either ahead or even right now.

The interesting result was what happens if Gingrich steps out? And it looks as if Santorum would get the majority of his support, and that would make a Romney-Santorum one-on-one, really close, really neck and neck.

BAIER: That's number five on the polls inside the control room, if Gingrich drops out of this race what it looks like compared to the numbers that we have currently. Steve, that is really a big question. As I talked to Newt Gingrich last night about what the future holds for him, take a listen to this from Santorum and Gingrich.


SANTORUM: I'm not asking Newt Gingrich to do anything. I'll asking conservatives to give us the best chance to nominate a conservative. And I think we've seen it in the past. We nominate moderates in this party, we lose.

NEWT GINGRICH, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Let's see where we are in a few more weeks. There is no urgency. The person who has a challenge is Romney because if he doesn't actually gain this by sheer numbers he won't be the nominee. He is not going to gather extra votes beyond the ones he gets.


BAIER: And here is the poll Charles was referencing. As you see, without Gingrich, there is an uptick for Romney, there is, obviously an uptick for Santorum, and again pointing out that this poll was taken before the results last night. Steve?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, it's very interesting to listen to Gingrich talk about that. That is the only hint, that line there, was the only hint that he was giving really any consideration to potentially getting out. When he says let's see where we are in a couple of weeks. And if you talk to people who are working for him, people who are advising him, they say look that's just not a consideration right now. He is in, he's in for the long haul, and he believes the correct strategy for him right now is a denial strategy. He wants to deny Mitt Romney the opportunity of getting the magic number, 1,144. And he thinks that by staying in they will split the attacks from Romney on the conservative candidates, and do that.

The Santorum campaign just doesn't buy this, they want this to be a two-man race, they think Newt's poll numbers have fallen off a cliff. They're gonna fall further after the results in the South, which they point out states that are close to his native state or at least where he's been living, had been representing in Congress. And that he's got no viable path to the nomination, so they would just as soon see him out. So Gingrich wants to team up with Santorum, and Santorum doesn't want any part of it.

BAIER: That is it for the panel. But stay tuned for a friendly reminder to pay attention while you are conducting an interview.

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