Who will win big in the South?

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," March 12, 2012. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


GINGRICH: The biggest issue this fall is going to be dr illing versus algae. It's going to be $2.50 a gallon versus $10 a gallon. It's going to which future do you want for your children and your country?

RICK SANTORUM, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have seen that the president has two-letter energy policy, N-O. And we need a policy that doesn't say no to the development of energy.

RON PAUL, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are challenging the status quo. Other candidates, I do not believe they're challenging the status quo.

MITT ROMNEY, R - PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's a happy birthday on the road and I'm hoping for a real big present tomorrow from Alabama and Mississippi.



BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: Mitt Romney's 65 today. As the candidates get ready for Alabama, Mississippi, and the Hawaii caucuses. We're back with the panel. Liz, Newt Gingrich continues to hammer home the issue of gas prices. And really, to his credit, he was ahead of the game because any national Republican was talking about it as much as he was. Is that going to pay off in Alabama and Mississippi?

LIZ MARLANTES, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: I think it might. I think we might see a good night for Newt tomorrow. The polls have been really all over the map. It's hard to get a real sense of what's gonna happen in these two states based on the polling that's out there now. But we have seen in some of those polls a little bit of movement in the Gingrich's favor. And I think it's possible that he's gonna pull out wins in part because of the gas message.

I would also argue that Romney has really hurt Santorum in both of those states. He has won roughly $3 million worth of negative ads against Santorum. And we have seen Santorum's numbers goes down. This is territory that should be friendly to Santorum. They're heavy on evangelicals. And if he ends up not doing well tomorrow night, I think Romney's attacks will be a big reason why.

BAIER: On the flipside, the Romney campaign is saying we are not supposed to be where we are in Mississippi and Alabama, and there's a chance we could pull out a win in one or two or both.

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: I think the poll have been amazing that they show these three bunched up in these states that are supposed to be completely foreign territory for Romney. As long as Santorum and Gingrich are both in the race, it's great for Mitt Romney. As long as there is not one anti-Romney candidate who can consolidate the Republican vote he is continuing slowly and painfully to rack up the delegates that he's going to need to win this.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: It does help him in the short run. It's an ironic contradiction between Romney's short run and long run interest. In short run he wants to keep Santorum and Gingrich in game. And you are right, if he attacks Santorum with all that money in the south and he drives them down so Gingrich either winning or coming in second and Santorum at the bottom, it helps him.

But in the longer run it prolongs it. Because as long as everybody is in the race, it will go on and it weakens him. It bleeds him of money. He spent I think $19 million in January alone and his negatives are going up, he gets attacked and it prolongs it.

If one of the two loses -- let's assume Gingrich loses the two states in the south. He is essentially out of it, and then it's a one on win with Santorum. It gives him an opportunity to deliver a knockout and to get it over with. And that would be to his advantage in the general election.

So he's got a dilemma. I know his strategy is to keep everybody in the race. But in the long run it prolongs it and I think it weakens him.

BAIER: Liz, it's all about hunting for delegates and getting to that magic 1,144. The Romney campaign is saying that Santorum would need to run the table, 65 percent of the delegates left, Gingrich 70 percent. But what they haven't really talked about is the equation that Romney gets to 1,144. And there is a scenario by which those two remaining candidates and Ron Paul block Mitt Romney from 1,144.

MARLANTES: Absolutely. And Santorum knows that. Santorum now has won enough, he has passed a benchmark where he has won enough support in enough states that he will be eligible to be nominated at the convention. Santorum probably has no path to the right number of delegates, and he knows that. But Mitt Romney doesn't necessarily have that path either. He could and you can make the math work out for him if you state-by-state. But it's also possible to see it not working out, it's possible to see him not quite making that benchmark. And I've talked to some strategists who have seen him -- who have done the math and seen him getting it on the very last day in Utah, having Utah be what puts him over the top. So it's gonna be close. For that reason, Santorum can argue that he has a reason to stick around.

BAIER: Mara, we are coming into a stretch where winner-take-all states factor in. And these are assigned delegates; it's not just floating delegates, as the caucus process is. So you start to see races that have a bigger delegate impact all at once.

LIASSON: Yes. And Utah is one of those winners-take-alls. And I think the Romney camp is hoping that that's the little cherry on the cake at the very end that kind of puts him over the edge. But we have had this prolonged period where they are proportional - that's what the Republican Party thought it wanted. Beware of what you wish for, you just might get it. And they did get it. But when we do get into this phase, as you said, of winner-take-all, then they're gonna start racking them up at a little faster clip.

BAIER: Charles?

KRAUTHAMMER: But I think we ought to note what happened on Saturday, because as Guam goes, so goes the nation.


KRAUTHAMMER: And I think the thrill of the victory that Romney had in the Northern Mariana Islands is something that has yet to dissipate.

Look, Romney's strategy is the tortoise. He has done this all along. And I think it makes sense. He's the least exciting of the candidates. He can accumulate delegates. The problem is, I'm not sure in the end it's going to leave him in a position. He is a lot weaker today, let's say, than he was in late last year. He has no choice, he has to win the nomination. But yet, it's not a strategy that's gonna sustain him. And it certainly is not increasing any excitement on his part.

LIASSON: But Charles, you are saying as if he had some an alternative where he could be winning the hearts and minds of conservatives.

KRAUTHAMMER: His going after Santorum as a way to keep Gingrich alive --

LIASSON: But not going after Santorum wouldn't solve his problem.

KRAUTHAMMER: If he went after him and he knocked him out in one or two big races it would be over.

BAIER: That is it for the panel. But stay tuned to see how sticker shock at the gas pump is hitting people, literally.

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