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Rick Perry Remarks at Liberty University; Economy Becomes Job #1; GOP Wins House Seats in New York, Nevada; Obama Stumps for His Jobs Plan; Perry Courts Evangelical Voters; Taliban Siege on U.S. Embassy Ends; Iran Court Considers Bail for Hikers; USDA Gets Tougher on E. Coli; New TSA Screening for Children; Gordon Goes for Fifth Sprint Cup Title; Iconic J. Crew Brand Hot Again

Aired September 14, 2011 - 10:00   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, this hour, the economy becomes issue one on the campaign trail. Republican contenders hit the road along with the man they're trying to replace. President Obama's talking jobs in North Carolina. Republican John Huntsman meets with students in New Hampshire, and front-runner Rick Perry reaches out to evangelicals at Liberty University.

And for Democrats, the stakes are even higher after this week's loss of two congressional seats. That's Republican Bob Turner that you're going to see in a minute celebrating a huge upset in a Democratic stronghold of New York City.

Last night, he won the seat of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced lawmaker whose sexting scandal went public. Now Turner's win in New York is not the only victory that Republicans are celebrating though.

Just the day before, Amodei won a House seat in Nevada to keep in Republican hands. He easily defeated Democrat Kate Marshall in the special election. Many people say that these Republican victories may be a sign of just how unhappy voters are with Obama and its -- his administration's handling of the economy.

All right, we're breaking down all the angles with the Best Political Team on television. Let's go ahead and start in North Carolina with White House correspondent Brianna Keilar. Brianna, you're actually traveling with the president.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're following the president, Kyra. And you can tell it's noisy where I am. I'm at N.C. State where the president will speak at about 1:00 p.m. to a crowd of thousands here pushing his jobs plan.

His first stop here in North Carolina is going to be not too far from here. He'll be touring a manufacturing small business, and the whole point of that is to tout one element and really the biggest element of his jobs plan, which is an extension of a payroll tax cut to employers.

The idea, the White House says, to put more money in their pockets and allow them to hire more people. This is actually one element of his jobs plan that House Republicans have indicated they're amenable to. They would be open to it.

They talked about really kind of looking at the certain parts that they have common ground with on the president. Perhaps breaking off that piece and passing it. We heard yesterday, Kyra, from the White House, from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, that the president wouldn't veto an element of this bill if he got it piecemeal.

But he's going to keep going back to Congress, pushing for more. That's what he'll be pushing for today, Kyra. He wants Congress to take up this entire bill and pass it soon. Although, you know, sources on the Hill concede it's very unlikely that it would pass Congress in its entirety.

PHILLIPS: All right. Brianna Keilar, thanks so much.

President Obama is choosing states where he needs to get the most political bang for his buck. New polling results showed just how skeptical the public has become. Deputy political director Paul Steinhauser joining us from Washington. He's got the numbers. Paul --

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN DEPUTY POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Good morning, Kyra. Yes, brand new numbers from CNN and ORC, this was conducted over the weekend after the president's primetime speech on Thursday night on jobs.

Check this out. Do you approve or disapprove of how President Obama's handling his duties in the White House? A 43 percent approval, pretty much where it's been and 55 percent disapproval, Kyra, that is an all- time high now in CNN/ORC polling.

Also the numbers indicate that his numbers on being a decisive and strong leader are dropping among the American public, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right and what about the numbers with regard to the economy?

STEINHAUSER: Yes, with the economy, look at it right there. Has the president's policies made the economy better or worse or not? You see there, only 9 percent say what the president's doing his programs that made the economy better, 39 percent say it's prevented it from getting worse, about half the public says, yes, he's doing all right.

But another 52 percent right there, you take the 37 percent who said he made it worse and 15 percent who said he's had no effect. So kind of a mixed message there, but as troubling as those numbers are for the president, go to the next one, who will do a better job on the economy. Who do you trust more to fix the economy?

And you can see that President Obama does do better than congressional Republicans, 46 percent say they trust the president to deal with the economy. Only 37 percent say Republicans in Congress. Kyra --

PHILLIPS: All right, Paul. Thanks.

This hour, Republican front-runner Rick Perry is due to speak at Liberty University, the nation's largest Evangelical college. Political reporter Peter Hamby is nearby in Richmond, Virginia.

So Peter, this comes after Perry's conservative credentials came under fire, shall we say, at Monday's CNN Tea Party debate. So how much does he have to sell himself?

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: You're absolutely right, Kyra. His social conservative credentials were topic number one, it turns out at the debate when we thought it was going to be about Social Security.

Some candidates to his right, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, sort of opened some wounds, questioning his record on illegal immigration, his decision to push for an HPV vaccine that would be mandated for schoolgirls in Texas.

So Perry is in Lynchburg today speaking at Liberty, the school founded by Evangelical Jerry Falwell Sr. And he will talk about his socially conservative credentials to the crowd. But he's going to be here in Richmond later this afternoon.

Kind of has a different mission, Kyra, because here in Richmond, he's speaking to a Republican Party fundraiser. Don't forget that Virginia is turning into a central battleground state, if not the central battleground state of the 2012 election.

It's a purple state. So the questions about Rick Perry are his electability in a general election. Is he too conservative for empty independent voters, mainstream Republicans? He's going to have perhaps a different message here in Richmond later. Kyra --

PHILLIPS: All right, we'll talk to you after that. Peter, thanks.

Now let's head overseas to Afghanistan this morning. The Taliban siege on the U.S. embassy is over after almost a full day of street warfare. Coalition forces were being told to kill the last of the militants.

Suzanne Malveaux still in Kabul for us. So Suzanne, you had the chance to go inside that building where the insurgents were holed up. What exactly did you learn?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, it was kind of surprising when we first arrived because after 19 hours of the siege, we did not expect the first thing that we would see is a body coming out of the building, but that is exactly what we saw.

Afghan police taking away the last of the insurgents, six that were killed inside of that building and essentially more information, details behind this plot. There were six people showed up in a vehicle, five of them jump out of the vehicle.

They're wearing burqas disguised as women so that they would not have to be searched or go through the checkpoint. They then take the burqas off, they're brandishing weapons. They go into this building. This is a construction site, a building that was abandoned three years ago. And there are six police officers inside who were guarding this building. So they went up to the second floor. That is where we saw a TV, bedding, that type of thing. The terrorists took out the first police officer, shot him and then threw him over the ledge.

They then went from floor to floor to floor to floor. That is when you had Afghan police and army that were shooting into the building. You had helicopters, as well, shooting into the building. And these terrorists fighting back, shooting back.

We went to the top floor, Kyra. That is where most of the action took place. Two of the insurgents had been killed. Four remained late into the night, early into the morning. We saw there hundreds and hundreds of bullet holes, shell casings, even blood on the walls.

And rain spattering, if you will, on the floor. That is where the final insurgent was killed in a very big, big gun battle. We also, if we can look at the pictures, saw how all of this happened. This was a construction site, so it was completely open on the 12th floor.

You could get a real sense of how these terrorists were able to see the U.S. embassy and to see the NATO compound just a half mile away and to continue this firefight for nearly 19 hours.

PHILLIPS: And it all comes when Afghan security forces are going to have to take over that country as U.S. forces leave. Suzanne Malveaux in Kabul, thanks.

Well, there's more confusion whether Iran is going to release two American hikers jailed for spying in Iran. CNN's Max Foster is following that story for us out of London.

So Max, the hikers' lawyer says bail has been set, but Iran's court seems to contradict that. So what's going on?

MAX FOSTER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, we're wondering if the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has jumped the gun somehow saying that these hikers will be released. Now we've got the statement from the court saying no agreement has been reached on bail.

The hikers' lawyer say there has been an agreement on bail. They say no decision has been made at all on their release and actually the court is saying no other source is entitled to provide news about this case apart from the presiding judge.

So, Kyra, some confusion within Iran about what's going to happen now, but the president is a powerful man. We'll see whether his words come true. If they do, they should be home by the end of the week, but you do need the courts to approve it.

PHILLIPS: All right, now we talked to about this yesterday, Max. And I understand you were able to gain more insight possibly into why Ahmadinejad decided to do this right now.

FOSTER: Well, the real decider in Iran is the supreme leader and he's really going to decide whether or not these hikers go. It's interesting that if you consider a year ago, Sara Shourd, one of the other hikers was released just before the U.N. general assembly where Ahmadinejad was attending.

He's about to attend it again so some suggestion that the hikers will be released to give him some positive currency at those talks this time around, as well. Let's just hear an expert talking about this because he's got a good perspective.


KARIM SADJADPOUR, CARNEGIE ENDOWNMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE: Over the last several months within Iran, Ahmadinejad has been pretty emasculated domestically. And I think this is a move by the supreme leader who had to OK the release of these hostages to show to the world that Ahmadinejad still has some power, still has some clout. Because I think it's in his interests that the world continues to focus Ahmadinejad.


FOSTER: So the president made this commitment, Kyra. The Ayatollah looks like he should back him up. We'll see whether or not he does and those hikers get released.

PHILLIPS: Max Foster out of London. Max, thanks.

Coming up, a massive wildfire burning in Minnesota. We're going to tell you why it's becoming a problem for all the people living hundreds of miles away.

And $20 billion, that's what Wal-Mart's going to be spending to help boost women's businesses around. Alison Kosik has more just ahead.


PHILLIPS: The USDA is taking a tough new approach on E. coli. The Department announced it will begin testing for six additional, but relatively rare strains of bacteria. Strains that in some cases were previously allowed because the amounts were small. The Center for Science and the public interest says that the USDA should do the same for salmonella.

Checking stories cross country now, a fast-moving wildfire in Minnesota grew nearly tenfold yesterday. The smoke from it started impacting neighboring states. It's so bad in Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Brewers baseball team even closed the roof on its stadium as air quality warnings were issued in Illinois.

The NTSB is now recommending that commercial truck drivers be banned from using either handheld or hands-free mobile phones while behind the wheel. This comes after an accident last year when a truck driver distracted by his phone crossed a median and smashed into a van killing 11 people.

And 14-year-old Lexi Peters of suburban Buffalo will appear in E.A. Sports NHL '12 video game. The new female player icon is a likeness of her after she complained about the guys only virtual player choices.

Alison Kosik at the New York Stock Exchange following the world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, making this big push to appeal to women, right?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Wal-Mart's putting its money where its mouth is launching an initiative to support women. Wal-Mart is planning to spend $20 billion to buy more products from women-owned businesses.

To train women in factories that are Wal-Mart suppliers, and pushing suppliers to use more women on their Wal-Mart accounts. The hope is that they reach these goals within five years. Kyra --

PHILLIPS: All right. Wal-Mart was in the news earlier this year because of a huge sex discrimination lawsuit. We actually covered that. So how much of this is in response to that?

KOSIK: Wal-Mart is claiming this is not related to the lawsuit at all. It says it started this whole big initiative years ago. But the timing is, should I say, just a little bit questionable.

If you ask me, it seems like an olive branch, trying to shore up their image. Also you think about it, it's not such a bad marketing idea. Think about it -- women do the family shopping.

So I think you know what, it's a good idea to keep them on the company's good side. Billions of dollars are in play here when they go shopping at Wal-Mart. Kyra --

PHILLIPS: All right, are we in for a third straight good day?

KOSIK: I'm not going to put my money on that. Right now, we're trading a bit mixed. The Dow down 13, yes. You know, those fears about the European debt crisis, they're easing a bit. But you know what happened? U.S. retail sales, they came in weak. Sales in August actually flatlined in August.

And that was back-to-school month when everybody expected an increase in sales. Remember, August was a nut so month with the S&P downgrade of the U.S. credit rating, the big market sell-off that followed.

So that hurt sales. Hurt confidence. So yes, you didn't see Americans really go on big shopping sprees last month. That's why we see the Dow now down 33 points. Kyra --

PHILLIPS: All right, Alison, thanks.

Coming up, Casey Anthony's lawyer heads to Aruba not for vacation, but another high-profile case.

And you might expect empty shelves like these following a really good black Friday. This wasn't any average Tuesday. We'll explain why.


PHILLIPS: He got Casey Anthony off scot-free. Now Attorney Jose Baez is in Aruba working for Gary Giordano. Giordano is the American guy suspected in his friend's disappearance last month.

He says Robyn Gardner was swept out to sea while they were snorkelling. His family hired Jose Baez. According to Giordano's Aruban lawyer, Baez will serve as a consultant on the case. He could also take care of any legal proceedings here in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Casey Anthony's parents breaking their silence for the first time since their daughter was cleared of murder charges in July. George and Cindy Anthony appearing on "The Dr. Phil" show yesterday.

Admitting that their daughter continued to lie after their granddaughter, Caylee, went missing. Cindy, confiding in Dr. Phil, about the rage she felt toward Casey when the case first broke out.


CINDY ANTHONY, CASEY ANTHONY'S MOTHER: I just screamed at her, I said, "what the hell are you talking about?" I said, "what do you mean you haven't seen Caylee?" And that's when I just screamed at her, and I -- I wanted to go choke her or hit her. I just went over there and punched the bed as hard as I could to get my anger out.


PHILLIPS: Another portion of the Dr. Phil's interview airs today.

He was deep in debt when he died, but since then Michael Jackson's made enough money to pay down a big chunk of that and provide for his kids. "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT" host A.J. Hammer here with the details we're learning today. Hi, A.J.

A.J. HAMMER, HOST, "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT": Hi, there, Kyra. Yes, we kind of saw this coming. The finances are really fascinating here. Now according to some published reports, Michael Jackson owed more than $400 million at the time of his death.

But since he died, his estate's done very well. The executors publicly claimed they made more than $310 million through the end of last year, and they've used that to pay off about $160 million in debt so far.

Obviously, there's still a lot to be paid au but the sectors want -- paid off. But the executors do want to set aside $30 million in a trust fund for his mother and kids.

The executors and Katherine Jackson also want to sell the family's current home in California and move to another place. The executors will have to get permission to do this from an L.A. superior court judge.

That should be decided by the end of the month. Of course, Kyra, that is exactly when the trial of Michael's Dr. Conrad Murray will be getting underway in L.A.

PHILLIPS: Well, it also looks like Madonna had a public relations stumble at the Toronto film festival, what happened?

HAMMER: Well, it looks that way. At least, she's being accused of some rather over-the-top diva behavior. There were reports flying around that Madonna security staff told volunteers and staffers at the festival to turn and face the wall as she went by so she wouldn't have to make eye contact.

That kind of thing just doesn't really fly particularly at a festival that really relies on its volunteers to kind of pull everything together. A spokesperson for the festival told "The Toronto Globe and Mail" that sort of thing flies in the face of what we stand for.

Madonna's rep wrote back and released a statement to the paper denying that Madonna ever asked for that kind of treatment. The same it said Madonna was appreciative of the work staff had done, and Madonna didn't do it.

We are still trying to figure out who and why anyone would ask the volunteers to turn away from Madonna. She has never and would never ask anyone to ever do that. This, of course, comes on the heels of Madonna's open mic gaffe at the Venice Film Festival where she was pretty rude about a fan's gift of hydrangeas. She remarked, Kyra, "I absolutely loathe hydrangeas." And it was caught on tape.

PHILLIPS: A.J., a shame. You know, just a fan trying to show some love. That's all. Thanks, A.J.

Well, if you want information on everything breaking in the entertainment world, A.J.'s got it this evening on "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT" at 11:00 p.m. on HLN.

Just weeks after the space shuttle program was officially retired, NASA officials are unveiling a new challenge this hour. They are revealing details on an initiative to shoot astronauts farther into space than ever before.

John Zarrella joining us from Miami with a closer look.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, they're in the process of the news conference right now. Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, and Bill Nelson, two senators instrumental in pushing NASA forward and getting everyone in line to do this.

In fact, the much-awaited, perhaps some would say overdue announcement of the next generation rocket, the one that will replace space shuttle and take astronauts perhaps to asteroids eventually to Mars. The $18 billion project spread out over the next five years until that first vehicle flies.

They did unveil at this news conference an image, a sketch of it and it will look to some degree very much like a space shuttle. It's going to have a giant external tank in the middle, liquid fuel. On the side, there will be two boosters like a space shuttle. They may be solid. They may be liquid boosters. So in essence they may go back more to an Apollo era kind of technology. And an Orion capsule, which they already are working on would be on the top of this rocket.

So, you know, ultimately, Kyra, this announcement could be, could be as big as the announcement of the shuttle program's creation or perhaps the announcement of humans going to the moon back, you know, when Kennedy made his announcement.

But we're going to have to wait and see. The money's there now and NASA's hoping that this will be the beginning of a new era in space exploration. Kyra --

PHILLIPS: You know we'll be following it. You'll be on top of it that's for sure. John, thanks.

Well, the victory -- a victory for the GOP. A little-known Republican wins a seat in Congress and he did it in a heavily Democratic district. So is it a sign of things to come in 2012? Our "Political Buzz" weighs in.

Let's check the markets, shall we? We'll have an opportunity, Dow Jones Industrials in negative territory. We had a two-day upswing. It doesn't look so good today we're down.


PHILLIPS: Checking top stories now. A House seat that had been Democratic for years now belongs to the Republicans. Bob Turner won yesterday's special election in New York. He replaces Anthony Weiner who resigned over a sexting scandal.

The TSA rolling out new screening procedures for children. Kids 12 and under will be allowed to keep their shoes on and will be allowed multiple passes through screening machines if needed.

And Dish Network subscribers lost many of their channels yesterday. The company has a satellite problem and says all service should be back up today.

All right, "Political Buzz," your rapid fire look at the best political topics of the day. Three questions, 30 seconds on the clock. And playing today, Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona, talk show host, Dana Loesch, and Joh Avlon, a senior political columnist with "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast."

All right, guys, first question. Republican Bob Turner, we just mentioned replaced disgraced New York Democrat Anthony Weiner after the sexting scandal. There was a huge upset. So what does this say about 2012 for Obama? Maria?

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think there's a huge lesson here for Democrat, Kyra. And that is, do not send pictures of your private parts on Twitter. So I think really that is the only thing that we can get out of this. Voters don't want to see picture of your junk so just don't do it. Other than that, Kyra, I really don't think that there's anything else to gather from this. Look, in 2006, Republicans swept every competitive special election and lost the House.

In 2010, Democrats swept every competitive special election and lost the House. Democrats are ready for 2012 with strong challengers who are going to go up against Republicans who want to cut Medicare, cut Social Security -- protect loopholes for the wealthy and protect middle-class families, and that's I think the challenge we're ready to win.

PHILLIPS: I think John's smiling over the word "junk." All right, Dana, you weigh in.

DANA LOESCH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I think that there's a tide coming in, and this administration would do best to not only look at the polls, which this morning I decided to look over the past six months of polling and watch as the president's approval rating just tanked. Watch as the approval rating of Democratic Congress just absolutely tanked.

I mean, let's look at Wisconsin, let's look at the results that we saw with the midterm elections. This is a huge bell weather race. There hasn't been a Republican in the seat since 1922 and when you have lost the urban Jewish vote as a friend of mine from this area just told me last night that's huge. And it would be really good for the administration to take note of this.


JOHN AVLON, SR. POLITICAL COLUMNIST, NEWSWEEK, THE DAILY BEAST: Republicans are saying this is basically the end of the Obama administration. Democrats are saying there's nothing to see here. They're both overstating it because they're putting it through their partisan prison.

Look, losing a seat your party held for 90 years is never a good thing. But this is a special election. It is a local election driven by a lot of local factors in the wake of a disgraced former incumbent. So you got to see it in perspective.

You know, President Obama's declining in the poll numbers, yes. Democrats and Republicans in Congress doing even worse. The special election had to do with local issues more than national.

PHILLIPS: All right. Let's talk about something happening right now, you guys. Rick Perry is at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. So how much will Evangelicals matter for the -- for the GOP candidates? Dana?

LOESCH: I think Evangelicals will always matter in every election. But I think it's important to note that right now we're in a period where the top concern, especially if you look at all the exit polling data of the midterm elections, is jobs. It's all about the economy. The economy is going to make or break who wins in this election. And I think social issues, they're important, as well. But I tell you what, the thing that affects our national security, the thing that affects us locally that affects Americans being able to put bread on the table is the economy. And if we don't have that, we're not going to have anything else. So that's the chief concern.


MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: So quickly on poll numbers since I know Dana loves to talk about them and the economy, Republicans' poll numbers are much worse than President Obama. So that's one thing they need to worry about.

And in the last CNN poll that just came out, majorities of voters trust Obama much more on the economy than they do the GOP.

LOESCH: No, no, no --

CARDONA: So Evangelicals definitely are critical to the Republican base, and I think it is also something that they need to watch out for because in order to kowtow to that base, they're going to be saying things that is going to very tough than to get support from mainstream, rational Americans in the general election.


AVLON: Well, there's an element of truth to that. Look, Evangelicals of course are hugely important to the Republican base and key to winning the primary. They're also an important part of the general -- constituency. But this is the tension here. I mean a lot of Tea Party supporters identify themselves as libertarians.

But of course social conservatives are the base of the Republican Party. Rick Perry has been able to so far have the support of Tea Party and Evangelicals. That's why he's in first place in this Republican primary.

PHILLIPS: All right, guys, your buzzer meter, you got 20 seconds each on this one. Rapper Lil Wayne tells "Vibe" magazine that GOP disrespect for the president is more about his race than his policies. So do you think that he has a point here? And how seriously do you take Lil Wayne as a pundit? Dana?

LOESCH: Well, he just got out of jail, didn't he? I guess he thinks that the National Black Conservative Movement, is -- they're all racist, too, or I guess he's sexist for disagreeing with me.

But really quick, Kyra, this is indicative of Hollywood. Harvey Weinstein just the other day read a statement at the Toronto Film Festival where he invited Tea Partiers out to Iowa for the premiere of his film "Butter." And he said that he wants to educate people about the Constitution and women's rights.

So as the co-founder of the St. Louis Tea Party, I accept Harvey Weinstein's invitation. I would do a lot to educate him about the Constitution.


CARDONA: Look, I definitely think that there is an element of truth that there are some people out there who do have a problem with this president's race. I mean let's just put that out there.

I would never paint everybody who's against this president as a racist, but there is a small element to that. Whether we can take Lil Wayne as a serious pundit, no. Dana is right. He did just get out of prison and he talked about being a venereal disease on one of his songs so no.

PHILLIPS: Oh, boy. John.

AVLON: That's -- yes. Yes. I mean, first of all, I'd pay good money to see Dana debate with Harvey Weinstein. Second of all, I mean, you take Lil Wayne --


LOESCH: All Mr. Weinstein has to do is e-mail.


AVALON: Well, look, you know, whenever we get into this sort of celebrities (INAUDIBLE) in politics, you know, it's -- Lil Wayne, Snooki, it's a distraction. It's interesting, I guess. But it's totally irrelevant. You know, on the issue of race and the presidency, race has always been a fundamental fault line in American politics. But Lil Wayne I don't think is particularly representative.

PHILLIPS: Thanks, guys.

Well, Rick Perry right now is speaking at Liberty University. It's the nation's largest evangelical university. We just talked about that with our panel. We're actually going to go listen to it right after a quick break.


PHILLIPS: Rick Perry speaking at Liberty University right now founded by Jerry Falwell. He wanted to wrap up or sum up beliefs of students there. Mostly social conservatives. Let's take a listen to what he has to say.

GOV. RICK PERRY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My goodness, you know, I --


PERRY: When I wasn't -- when I wasn't going to church or to school, you usually found me obviously on the farm helping my mom and dad on that dry land cotton farm, and -- for me, indoor plumbing was a bit of a luxury until I was about 5 years old. And I didn't worry about the latest fashions. My mother sewed most of my clothes. And I didn't know that we weren't wealthy in a material sense. I knew that we were rich in a lot of things that really matter, in a spiritual way, but it was Texas A&M that broadened that perspective for me as much as -- I should say as much as an all-male military institution could do in the late '60s and early '70s.

But it wasn't until I flew around the world as a pilot in the United States Air Force and I learned about a world that was incredibly more diverse and complex in paint creek or college station in 1972. For the first time in my life, I met oppressed people who didn't take freedom for granted because it didn't exist where they lived.

I saw rulers treat people like subjects and who thought very little about the basic conditions or quality of life of those people that they ruled over. I learned what a grand privilege it is to be an American.

As students of this most unique university whose very name speaks to the desire of every human, so Liberty, I hope you will reflect on the blessings it is to live in America. Our founding fathers were the first among the nations to declare our rights are endowed by our creator. That among them are life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And while liberty may be the gift of god its preservation requires the sacrifice of man. I'm mindful today that we are free because generations of Americans have been brave. There is no greater force for freedom than the men and women of the United States Military.


PERRY: 47,092 of our fellow Americans have given the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq. Another 2,711 have done the same in Afghanistan. That's more than 7500 families who sent their loved ones off, waved them goodbye, hugged and kissed them for the last time, and never saw them again.

A great many of those who perished were approximately your age. Young men and women whose entire future was in front of, but they sacrificed their dreams to pursuit -- preserve yours.

We're the beneficiaries of their courage and their sacrifice and because of what they gave, I simply ask you to make the most of the freedom that they sacrificed for. That you redeem their sacrifice by living lives worthy of it.

You are the generation that grew up in the shadow of 9/11. Many of you were children the day that those towers and the Pentagon were struck. You've grown up fast, you know the presence of evil is real in this fallen world.

Our response cannot be to isolate ourselves within our borders but to engage our allies in the quest to build these enduring alliances around the globe for freedom. And we must do what Ronald Reagan did at the Apex of the Cold War which is to speak past the oppressors and the illegitimate rulers and directly to their people.

The ones who live behind the wall of oppression while yearning to be free. The Arab Spring began when a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire over the oppression of the authorities. And regardless of tribe or tongue, people desire to be free.

America must continue to be the world's leading advocate for freedom. Speaking the truth to adversaries and dictators in keeping with our democratic values. You are blessed --

PHILLIPS: Rick Perry speaking at Liberty University, the nation's largest Evangelical university founded by Jerry Falwell.

Some of the GOP candidates are beginning to question whether Perry is conservative enough for Republican voters. We're following the speech there for you.

Well, this is a year to remember for Jeff Gordon. He's in the hunt for his fifth Sprint Cup championship. He's going to join us live to talk about racing and the drive to end hunger.


PHILLIPS: So from the White House to the Congo to women on the track, we're talking about it all with Jeff Gordon, number 24. He's in the hunt for another Sprint Cup championship, but he's made a little pit stop here to talk with us this morning.

Jeff, good to see you.


PHILLIPS: Well, tell me about the White House. What was it like meeting the president?

GORDON: It was incredible. You know, any time you get the opportunity to go to the White House and, you know, be honored by the president and, you know, get a chance to meet him and, of course, most of it was about honoring Jimmy Johnson, the championship.

But this was the second time I've had a chance to go to the White House and, you know, it's a special occasion. Doesn't matter whether you're Republican or Democrat, you know, it's being able to go and support, you know, your president and to know that he's in his group are supporting NASCAR races is fantastic.

PHILLIPS: So does he like NASCAR? Does he watch NASCAR?

GORDON: Well, he did say that he thought his wife was a better driver than he was.


PHILLIPS: Did you offer him a little lesson or two?

GORDON: Absolutely. We'd love to have him come to a race. And he -- or Michelle, or both of them, that would be great.

PHILLIPS: Well, what are the chances of that? Did you ask him? Because as you know, it's a very -- the conservatives love NASCAR. And you know President Bush came out at the Daytona 500.

Do you think he would do it? Did he give you any sign that he would?

GORDON: Didn't hear any signs of whether he would. Certainly we invited him. And, you know, your interaction with him is brief. He's a very busy guy. And a lot going on. So, you know, it was just a pleasure just to even get that quick moment.

PHILLIPS: Now when he was elected, you actually -- I saw a quote from you, you said he was a symbol of hope. Do you think he's lived up to that?

GORDON: Well, I think being the president is the toughest job that there is. So much responsibility, expectations. You know, I think that he's working hard to do the best job that he can. I do believe in that.

PHILLIPS: Are you going to vote for him?


GORDON: You're not going to get me on that.

PHILLIPS: I'm not? You're not going to tell me? If you had to vote today, you would vote for --

GORDON: Yes, you're not going to get me on that.


PHILLIPS: All right. I'll keep thinking of three other ways to get to that question. All right. We'll move on then to Drive to End Hunger, something you will talk about. You went to the Congo. You said it changed your life, why?

GORDON: It did. You know when you go into a developing country like the DRC and you see, you know, the struggles that are going on there with the citizens of the Congo and even all the way through the government, you know, there's -- a tremendous amount of encouragement by the people and how strong-willed they are and how, you know, they get through day to day, but it certainly makes you want to do all that you can to try to support them and help them.

And you know, it made me look at the world a whole different way as I came back to the U.S. and how I look at my children and how I approach philanthropy. And we're very fortunate that, you know, this year we have a cause-driven sponsorship in Drive to End Hunger through the AARP Foundation.

And I love being able to represent them and being able to go out there and, you know, help them raise more awareness and funding for those who are 50 and over that are dealing with hunger issues. There's about nine million people in America that are dealing with that.

PHILLIPS: Meanwhile, you're getting ready for the chase this weekend. For NASCAR fans that don't know what that's all about, tell them why they should be excited.

GORDON: Well, I'm certainly excited. We have an incredible race team this year. A lot of momentum, a lot of confidence in what we're doing. But yet this year, this chase for the Sprint -- NASCAR Sprint Cup is wide open. We're starting in Chicago this weekend on Sunday. So tune in at 1:00 on ESPN.

But I think any -- there's probably -- you know any of these 12 drivers and teams that are in the chase this year can win this championship. And it's going to be exciting to see how it unfolds and hopefully we can keep the Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet team moving forward the way we have these last several weeks.

PHILLIPS: Well, we'll be watching. So Jeff, are you voting for Obama?

GORDON: Am I what?


PHILLIPS: I said --

GORDON: I didn't hear you -- you're breaking up. I didn't hear you.

PHILLIPS: That's what I thought, we're having a bad connection.

Jeff Gordon, number 24, we'll be watching this weekend. Thanks for stopping by.

GORDON: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: All right. Well, coming up, you know the Cardigans, but do you know the story behind the brand or the unorthodox man who made it nationally recognized as a label? Our Alina Cho has that unique inside look to the world of J. Crew.


PHILLIPS: It's a brand that even the first lady wears, J. Crew. Hundreds of stores across the country, more than $1 billion in sales and now plans to expand.

Alina Cho takes us behind the scenes.


MICKEY DREXLER, CEO, J. CREW: Can I have your attention, please?

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Meet America's merchant prince.

DREXLER: If anyone can just bring in better sellers -- CHO: He is Mickey Drexler, CEO of J. Crew. When he speaks --

DREXLER: Things that are new, any trend --

CHO: The racks come rolling in.

DREXLER: Show me. Bring them in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The green is doing half of the sales. This is the number-one style.

CHO: Why the intercom?

DREXLER: Why the intercom? Just why you don't see any walls here, because I think most organizations have -- are fortress oriented.

CHO: Not at J. Crew where Drexler's mantra is no profit, no fun. Once a catalog company for college kids, a decade ago J. Crew was in a slump. That's until Drexler came aboard nine years ago, picked up after being abruptly fired from the GAP.

(On camera): Who was your biggest competitor?

DREXLER: You know, I could say anyone with a sewing machine.

CHO (voice-over): He's been credited with inventing casual Fridays by changing the way Americans dress. Elevating J. Crew to affordable luxury.

(On camera): I mean they really are the iconic American brand, aren't they?

CINDI LEIVE, EDITOR IN CHIEF, GLAMOUR: J. Crew has made itself into something magical. I mean I know women who can afford anything in the world, and they would literally go through the J. Crew catalog and just order those outfits right off the page.

JENNA LYONS, PRESIDENT, J. CREW: He wanted to talk about Italian cashmere. He wanted to talk about our Italian shoes, he wanted to talk about quality. We've been having those conversations.

CHO (voice-over): It worked. Under Drexler, J. Crew's sales have tripled to $1.8 billion. With the first family's seal of approval.

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": I want to ask but your wardrobe. I'm guessing about 60 grand?


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: Actually, this is a J. Crew ensemble.

LENO: Really? Wow.


CHO (on camera): You call her an act of god? DREXLER: Yes. You know, look, you can't argue with that kind of publicity.

CHO (voice-over): The secret, a big splash of color. J. Crew's signature.

DREXLER: When you buy something like this, you're competing with 50 other retailers and half of them have it on sale.

CHO (on camera): So that's why you've got this?

DREXLER: We've got this. Look, color is a competitive advantage for us.

CHO (voice-over): He created crew cuts for kids, bridal, jewelry, and everywhere there's sparkle. Two hundred, 33 stores nationwide. They're in Canada and have their sights set on China, too.

This season for the first time, J. Crew presented its latest collection under the fashion tents. Six-foot-tall Jenna Lyons is the resident cool girl. J. Crew's president.

LYONS: I sort of joke that I'm like the road signs. Don't do, that let's do more of that. Stay here, no, stop. And you know, it's maybe just a little bit of that that keeps everything coming out the tunnel at the other end.

CHO: Kooky color combo, a touch of the unexpected.

LYONS: I wore these. I loved them. And here they are back again. But then you have to wear this with a sequined skirt. You know it's not about this was like, you know, a kilt.

CHO: Drexler's philosophy is quite simple and all American, just like J. Crew.

DREXLER: Do it, do it right. Pay close attention to the product. And over time you will win.


PHILLIPS: You can get an exclusive look at runway shows, fashions, and trends on a special coming up, it's called "Backstage Pass." And it will be with Alina Cho. It airs this Saturday, September 17th, 2:30.


PHILLIPS: Stories making news later today. 12:30 Eastern, Texas Governor Rick Perry speaking at the Virginia Republican Party's grassroots luncheon. And later that hour President Obama is set to speak at a North Carolina manufacturing plant as he pushes his new jobs bill.

And at 4:00 Eastern, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected to discuss the bill as he hosts his first town hall on Twitter. Our Suzanne Malveaux, still in war-torn country of Afghanistan. Yes.

TJ Holmes, CNN ANCHOR: We'll be speaking with her in just a second, but I'll keep the seat warm for the time being.

PHILLIPS: TJ is in. You're taking care of business for us. Good to see you.

HOLMES: All right. Good to see you, Kyra.