This is a Rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome to the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, California, here from the majestic Air Force One Pavilion.
I'm Anderson Cooper. Thanks very much for joining us. I'm so honored to be standing next to first lady Nancy Reagan. So nice to see you. Thank you very much for inviting us tonight.
COOPER: It's such an extraordinary facility. You must be very proud of it.
REAGAN: I am. I am.
COOPER: Well, thank you again so much for hosting us tonight.
REAGAN: You're welcome.
COOPER: This is, of course, the final debate before super Tuesday, next week's super Tuesday, when Americans in more than 20 states, including the state of California, will go to the polls.
The traveling press pool, as you can see, is already here. So let's go ahead and meet the candidates.
Governor Mike Huckabee, Congressman Ron Paul, Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney.
As you can see, we have a stirring backdrop for our debate tonight. That is the actual plane that served as Air Force One for President Reagan and six other presidents from 1973 to 2001. The aircraft, known as the Tail Number 27000, was taken apart and reassembled right here, and the pavilion that we're in was built around it. It is decked out just as it would have been during the Reagan presidency, complete inside with President Reagan's favorite jelly beans and his notepad on the conference table.
While the photos are being taken and the photographers are starting to get ready to clear the room, I want to take a moment to thank our debate partner Politico as well as the Los Angeles Times, and of course Mrs. Reagan and everyone here at the Reagan Library and the people of Simi Valley. Over the next hour-and-a-half, we're going to be asking the candidates about a whole range of issues. Of course, I'll be joined in the questioning by Janet Hook, senior political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico. Now, tonight, most of his questions will be coming from viewers who have been voting for questions online at Politico.com. And actually, those viewing at home can still vote on questions during tonight's debate.
The only rules tonight is that there are no rules. We simply ask the candidates to be reasonable in the length of their answer. No chuckles there. Of course, we are also mindful of what Ronald Reagan called the 11th commandment -- don't speak ill of a fellow Republican. However, I've talked to at least one Reagan insider who pointed out there is a difference between speaking ill of a fellow Republican and being tough to a fellow Republican. No one was tougher and more formidable in debates than Ronald Reagan. That said, let's begin.
The first question is actually a question that will go to all of you, but I'll start with Governor Romney.
Ronald Reagan himself asked this question during a debate. During a 1980 debate, he suggested Americans determine who to vote for by asking themselves, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
So tonight, in terms of the economy, are Americans better off than they were eight years ago?
ROMNEY: Well, if you're voting for George Bush, you'd be very interested in knowing the answer to that. If you're voting for Mitt Romney, you'd like to know, "Are you better off in Massachusetts after four years of my term in office?" And the answer would be decidedly yes.
I came into a state which was very much in a deep ditch. It was losing money every month. We had a $3 billion budget gap. We had people losing jobs every single month. During my predecessor's term, we'd lost 160,000 jobs.