John King may be in South Carolina this week gearing up for Saturday's Republican primary, but he's still a Boston-bred boy.
When I caught up with him this week, we chatted about Mitt Romney's taxes, the Willie Horton Effect, Southern BBQ, and - of course - the Patriots.
In some of the recent polling in South Carolina, we see Gov. Mitt Romney at least ten points ahead of his nearest competitor - Newt Gingrich. Could the issue of Romney waiting to release his taxes - and paying a lower rate than many middle-income Americans - make a difference in South Carolina?
I think it has the potential to make a difference. Remember the history of the South Carolina primary. Governor Romney comes in having won New Hampshire and Iowa - and if he wins South Carolina, that might get him awfully close to the nomination.
So, they’re trying to stop him. Is it a surprise that a wealthy man pays lower taxes? Not really. But they’re trying to present it as: "he doesn’t get you."
Gingrich is Romney’s closest competitor, with about a quarter of the vote in South Carolina. What do you make of Gingrich’s chances?
His support is significant. But it doesn’t seem to be growing fast enough to catch Mitt Romney. He’s from Georgia, which is next door. He’s a Southerner. Strong debate performances. An affinity for the South. But it might not be enough.
What does that tell you? People don’t want to go back to the future. More than other candidates, Mitt Romney has decent support in every slice of the Republican Party. He many have a ceiling, but he also has a very strong floor.
You’re in South Carolina right now. Tell me what it feels like there. What’s the energy on the ground?
South Carolina voters feel passionately that they matter. New Hampshire is so proud of being the first primary state, but South Carolina gets their chest puffed out. They view this as a trophy - knowing it’s crucial to the nomination.
In terms of the passion on the ground, you feel less energy from the voters than in past years. It doesn’t mean they’re not listening, though. This just seems like a calmer, more methodical campaign. Republicans want to beat Barack Obama - so they’re very, very serious.
We hear a lot about super PACs, but we’ve seen negative ads in the past - think back to Willie Horton. Are super PACs really so different? Are they changing?
I was the Massachusetts AP guy covering Michael Dukakis. The super PACSs are taking the space of things like Willie Horton. They are taking the place of leaflets that used to appear on people’s cars. But the new ads feel like leaflets hooked up to concert speakers.
We were in a meeting last night, and the TV was on in the corner. We just kept stopping to watch the ads. It’s a bludgeoning. It’s softer during daytime programming. Harder around sports and news. It’s a Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em environment.
You are originally from Massachusetts. How closely are you watching the Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren race?
That may be the most interesting race in the country right now - that and the Patriot’s path to Super Bowl victory.
Look, it’s the Kennedy Senate seat. It will get national attention, and it’ll be even more fascinating if Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face off. Usually Massachusetts is ignored in election years, but this would bring a lot of attention to Massachusetts.
I asked Fox’s Carl Cameron what he was eating on the trail. Got to ask you too.
Barbeque. We had barbeque last night - pulled chicken, mac and cheese, cardiologist included. It’s a “when in Rome” moment. Some people also eat biscuits and gravy for breakfast, but I don’t. I’m not really a breakfast person. I try to work out at the gym.
In the 1988 campaign, I gained 25 pounds. I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again. In '92, thanks to Clinton, I gained a little, but not as much.
You cover the election a lot with your wife, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash. When you go home, are you still talking politics? Or do you leave that for work?
It really depends. On the big days, we talk about it when we first get home. It’s like the Patriots post-game show. We’re both passionate about our work. But then we pivot.
Do your children watch you on TV?
I have older children, and they sometimes roll their eyes at me. But I have a son who’s a freshman at BC, and he’s starting to think this stuff is important. My seven-month old is shown CNN by his grandparents, who claim he recognizes me and does a half-yelp, half-laugh. Then he exercises his better judgment and turns away.
Tonight, John King will moderate the final Republican debate before South Carolina votes on Saturday.
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