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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

Crunch Time in Iowa; Interview with Former Gov. Bill Richardson; Debt Ceiling

Aired December 28, 2011 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: A standoff in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran threatens to block one of the world's most important choke points and America says no. Erin asks the prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Almatoom (ph) about Iran and unrest in the region during an exclusive interview.

And the "Bottom Line" on the GOP campaign, we're just six days away from the Iowa caucus. Santorum is up, Gingrich way down.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening, I'm Ali Velshi sitting in for Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight Newt sinking and Santorum surging. A brand new poll just out of Iowa and it has some stunning new numbers.

The former frontrunner, Newt Gingrich plunging from his top slot down to fourth place, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum doing just the opposite. He surged from single digits into third place. Mitt Romney now leads the pack with 25 percent and there's another new poll out of New Hampshire where the nation's second contest in the race for the GOP nominee will be held one week later on January the 10th.

Mitt Romney dominating his opposition there. He's at 44 percent. Rivals Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich trailing 17 percent and 16 percent respectively. Let's go right to political correspondent Joe Johns. He's on the ground in Iowa.

Joe, this is a bit of a shocker, Santorum rising as much as he has. He was out there with Representative Steve King on that hunting trip. Steve King did not endorse him on that trip. It made people wonder. We're so close. This is a guy who's been to every county in the state and he still couldn't get that endorsement. What has done this for Rick Santorum?

JOE JOHNS, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Ali, I've got to tell you, a lot of people here thought Santorum was simply underperforming in the state in the polls for a long time. Like you said he has been to every county. He's spent more time here I think than any other candidate who has been running for president. He also talks and speaks to the issues that so many evangelicals and social conservatives in the state really concern themselves with. So it was probably not surprising that Rick Santorum at last was going to get his day in the sun here in Iowa, if you will. It's a huge jump going from five percent in one poll all the way up to 16 percent in another poll which really suggests that of all these candidates and the way the polls have gone up and down, Rick Santorum may be surging at exactly the right time for a guy running for president, Ali.

VELSHI: It's still a game of small numbers, though, 43 percent of Iowans polled who say they might participate in these caucuses say they could change their mind, which means is Santorum gaining from the undecided? He is gaining from Newt Gingrich's losses and what about that 43 percent? That's a bigger number better than anybody is polling right now.

JOHNS: Right. And if you think about the sort of arc of the Iowa caucus's race, again and again and again you've seen conservatives come up and you've seen them go down as people started looking at their baggage, their electability, a variety of other questions, their backgrounds, their personal histories.

Rick Santorum is a guy who basically hasn't gotten his shot yet and OK, so who's the big loser here? It's pretty clear that Newt Gingrich has just sunk pretty dramatically in the polls. No doubt that has at least a little bit to do with the fact that he's just been attacked over and over again by Mitt Romney, by Ron Paul, by others. He's really been quite a target and a lot of people who watch the ads and watch the polls very carefully say the ads may have something to do with Gingrich's drop in the polls --

VELSHI: Right. But we've seen -- Joe, we've seen every one of these candidates who has hit close to the top spot then the media shines the light on them, as the media is supposed to do, and they take that hit. This is something that has not happened to Santorum. It's not happened to Jon Huntsman in this race.

JOHNS: That's very true. It certainly hasn't happened to Rick Santorum, but I have to tell you, he's something of a known quantity, too.

VELSHI: Right.

JOHNS: He's spent quite a while in the United States Senate. People know him very well. They know his record. And a lot of people have dug around trying to find skeletons in his closet and I don't think they found a whole lot of them. So Jon Huntsman hasn't spent a lot of time frankly here in Iowa at all, his moment likely to be in New Hampshire. That is a place of course where Mitt Romney appears to be doing great right now --

VELSHI: Right. I mean Huntsman will probably have his best performance in New Hampshire, but Romney is so dominating things in that state. All right, Joe, good discussion. We're going to be having a lot of them over the course of the next few days. Joe Johns and the best political team on television in Iowa. Let's go to John Avlon, CNN contributor, and Kiki McLean, Democratic strategist, Rich Galen joins us as well. He's a Republican strategist. Kiki, I feel bad for you. What have you got to contribute to this discussion? Watching all of this happen around you, I mean Iowa is the hottest place for a Democrat the last time around. You know John made a point -- I'm going to put it to you first, Kiki, but John made a point earlier where he said the conservatives in Iowa self-select in many cases in these -- in their participation in these caucuses so you've got an extra dose of conservative in this thing --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

VELSHI: So Santorum with a good showing here really bears very little relationship to the country.

KIKI MCLEAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes. It's interesting. There are three or four things I would tell people to pay attention to over the next six days. The first is that I had the benefit of working for President Richard Gephardt 24 years ago when a Democrat he won the Iowa caucuses. The other thing that's interesting to pay attention to is you don't hear a conversation about new participants the way you did for Barack Obama in 2008.

Are there a lot of new people that are going to flood those church basements and school cafeterias? At the company where I work, at Porte Novella (ph), the other thing we've been paying attention to, our analytic team has been combing social media to see where that intensity is and they are really seeing it in the conversations about Gingrich.

VELSHI: Yes.

MCLEAN: And the attacks on him and from the Paul people. You don't see Santorum with an online presence quite with the level of intensity that you do from Ron Paul's people.

VELSHI: Yes.

MCLEAN: And so take your polling, measure that with a little bit of analytics --

VELSHI: Yes.

MCLEAN: -- what's going on with social media and don't forget Barack Obama had tremendous intensity in social media and in the digital world last time. Then the last thing I'd remind you is that that bounce into New Hampshire President Buchanan and don't forget President Huckabee out of those Iowa caucuses last time.

VELSHI: Right.

MCLEAN: So this isn't necessarily -- and the final thing I would say is this isn't necessarily about who wins and the numbers that day.

VELSHI: Yes. MCLEAN: It's who wins in the trend.

VELSHI: All right. Let me --

MCLEAN: -- Bill Clinton did in New Hampshire.

VELSHI: Let me ask you this, Rich. If I were Kiki's people, if I were democrats, I would send a thousand volunteers out there to help Newt Gingrich right now because if Romney walks away with this and then catches onto New Hampshire where he has got a commanding lead, this poses bigger problems for Barack Obama than if Newt Gingrich were the nominee.

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well that is true. But as Kiki said, this is the (INAUDIBLE) or you said earlier to --

VELSHI: Yes.

GALEN: -- Joe that this is the terror of small numbers and this is one data point. You have to be a little careful when these sorts of shifts happen this dramatically, it may kind of make your -- make you stop and wait. "The Des Moines Register" will have its final poll in Sunday's paper. That means they will release it Saturday night and we'll see if those numbers match up with these numbers. But if you're the Gingrich people you've got to say, oh man, this is going to be tough. And if I were advising Newt, which I am not, I would say you know what, let's waive to New Hampshire. We'll go there for the debates and we're going to camp out in South Carolina and we will do battle with Santorum in South Carolina. Winner goes on, loser goes home.

VELSHI: John, let me ask you something. It's very interesting what Kiki said about there's no magic of these Independents or non- committed voters. There's no magic in fiscal conservatives supporting Mitt Romney. They actually I think like Jon Huntsman more in some cases, but they don't figure he's got a chance. There's no magic in social conservatives choosing between Michele Bachmann and Santorum and figuring maybe Santorum's got the momentum. What about that 43 percent of people who say they are going to caucus who haven't got a choice, who haven't made a choice yet?

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Ali, there isn't magic, but there is momentum and momentum can matter a great deal when you're six days out from a caucus. Remember caucuses tend to be low turnout, high intensity elections and they skew overwhelmingly conservative. Eighty-eight percent of caucus-goers identify as conservatives.

What's fascinating about this poll is the surge for Santorum, because social conservatives, the people looking for that conservative alternative to Romney, with Gingrich's numbers cut in half now, saying OK, maybe it's Santorum's turn. He's been to (INAUDIBLE) counties. The other thing that really strikes me is that Mitt Romney remains stuck at that glass ceiling of 25 percent and playing it out, whatever happens in the primaries and the momentum game out of Iowa, if other candidates start coalescing, that 75 percent of the party that seems to want someone other than Mitt Romney -- VELSHI: Yes.

AVLON: -- that's where things could get interesting.

VELSHI: Where does that go --

GALEN: Let me remind you --

VELSHI: Yes.

GALEN: Let me remind you that four years ago President Obama who actually became President Obama won the Iowa caucuses with just under I think 38 percent of the vote. So 60-something percent of Iowan Democrats wanted somebody else but yet he got to raise his hand on January 20th --

VELSHI: Let me ask you this, Kiki.

MCLEAN: Yes.

VELSHI: This -- Mitt Romney was on "THE SITUATION ROOM" with Wolf Blitzer earlier today. He responded to Newt Gingrich's you know complaints about him of too many attack ads. Listen to what Romney said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you're going to get in a campaign like this, you've got to have broad shoulders and if you can't take on the negative that's part of a primary you're sure as heck not going to be ready for what's going to come from Barack Obama. If you can't handle the heat in this kitchen, wait until Barack Obama's hell's kitchen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: What do you think, Kiki? Does that sound presidential? Sounds like he's staying above the fray?

MCLEAN: I don't think anybody really attaches high levels of personal negativity from Barack Obama. But Mitt Romney said something that is very important and that is when you see the level of negativity going on, which is not unnatural in the last week --

VELSHI: Right.

MCLEAN: -- going into an Iowa caucus, but what you see here is the sheer volume demonstrates frankly the level of vulnerability that all of these Republican candidates have. Gingrich has a laundry list of issues. You've got people like Rick Perry. Nobody even talks about him except that he's changing his position --

VELSHI: Right.

MCLEAN: -- on the issue of choice. You have Mitt Romney who can't break that ceiling and by the way, why won't he put out his tax returns now? So I mean what it's demonstrating is the litany of really --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He didn't say --

(CROSSTALK)

MCLEAN: -- political vulnerabilities they have --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kiki wait. That's not fair.

MCLEAN: -- that I think could really come out in a general election.

(CROSSTALK)

VELSHI: Right. I don't think anybody is going to be surprised to find out --

GALEN: He didn't say he wouldn't do it. He said he'll do it. He may do it and if nobody else has put out their tax returns either --

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: -- he said all things in their time. I listened to the whole interview --

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: He didn't say he wouldn't do it.

(CROSSTALK)

VELSHI: Let me tell you --

GALEN: By the way, John Kerry who never released his --

VELSHI: None of us are going to be all that surprised to find out that Mitt Romney is a very, very wealthy man.

(CROSSTALK)

VELSHI: Kiki McLean, thanks very much. Kiki McLean is a Democratic strategist. Rich Galen is a Republican strategist and John Avlon is a CNN contributor.

Still OUTFRONT a young girl in Indiana is murdered and dismembered by the man who was supposed to be baby sitting her. We learn more disturbing details about the crime and the suspect.

Then the autopsy results of a family of five killed in a tragic Christmas Day fire. What we've learned about their final minutes and a funeral marks the official end of Kim Jong-il's rein. The tears were flowing. Pure grief or fear over their future and you'll never believe some of Kim Jong-il's accomplishments. Did he really invent the hamburger? We're going to take a look back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: The funeral for the late North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il was held today in Pyongyang. The event like most secretive -- most events in the secret (ph) of state was elaborate and it was highly choreographed. Mourners gathered to watch the late leader's flower-covered hearse made its way through the capital snowy streets.

Another vehicle -- you can see it there -- bearing a giant portrait of the dead dictator led the way, very heavy military presence. Kim's son -- there he is -- the expected successor -- Kim Jong-un walked alongside the black car carrying his father's casket on top, not inside. The crowds lined the streets and they wailed as the procession went by.

Now some question whether these cries are a product of true grief or whether they stem from a place of fear as uncertain future and uncertain future lies ahead for one of the world's most repressed societies. With me is one of a handful of people who knows a bit about this. Governor Bill Richardson has spent a lot of time in the country. He's had an inside look into the North Korean leadership. Governor Richardson, good to see you, thank you for being with us.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Nice to be with you. Thank you.

VELSHI: You know our reporter, Paula Hancocks, was covering this from South Korea, but looking at the video -- we all see the same video -- it's all provided by the North Koreans -- said that there did seem to be a difference between the people up close, up front, like anywhere else mourning and wailing the way they are and the people in the distance who seemed to be onlookers, who seemed to be looking at the whole thing. In other words, was this outcry -- you've been there -- are these people devastated as they look that Kim Jong-il has passed?

RICHARDSON: Well, it's all very choreographed. I do think there is a lot of grief there. It's a funeral procession that basically is based on the cult (ph) of personality. Kim Jong-un (ph), the youngest son, is now the leader. That's the message that is being conveyed. The root of the funeral through Kim il's son (ph), the grandfather, the father of the country, then Kim's father, and now I think what is interesting is leading the funeral procession is a signal that Kim Jong-un (ph) is now the leader. What was interesting was the uncle was right behind him.

VELSHI: Right.

RICHARDSON: He is now vice chair of the National Defense Commission. So it shows that he's kind of going to be a mentor, maybe a regent, kind of help guide Kim Jong-un in his early days. But now that the ceremony is over, now that the funeral is over, tomorrow the last funeral event, now you will see the consolidation of power by the military through Kim Jong-un or you might see some disruption. But I think the odds are that Kim Jong-un for the next period of time will be the anointed leader. VELSHI: Well let's -- you know this is one of those weird conundrums we have in the world where you know these repressive leaders are there and then when they are gone you have equal measure fear that they will be a vacuum and there'll be in-fighting and it'll lead to instability versus hope that the new leader might be more opened to the outside world. Where do you think this falls?

RICHARDSON: Well, there are some good signs. The good sign is that the new leader, Kim Jong-un, did meet with South Korean leaders, two women leaders that came to pay condolences. He was very proper. And, secondly, he did convey to them the need for South Korean investment in North Korea. So he's already acting as a leader.

Those are two initial good signs. But what you want to watch in the next few days is the North Korean military leadership, the Socialist Worker Party (ph). Those are the two entities that have the power in North Korea especially the military. But it looks like they are anointing Kim Jong-un, the young man. They are getting behind him.

I think the message of the ceremony, the funeral, is unity, the cult (ph) to personality continues and it's very, very, very closely, tightly held. So even somebody like myself, who has been there eight times --

VELSHI: Yes.

RICHARDSON: -- you've got to watch these clues and the clues are that the young man is stepping into the most powerful position for now.

VELSHI: We'll watch it very closely and hopefully you will help us interpret it as we get more signals. Governor Bill Richardson, always a pleasure to see you.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

VELSHI: You know when a world leader dies, we put together a tribute package celebrating the achievements of their life. Unfortunately it's been very difficult to sift through what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to the claims made by and about Kim Jong-il, so please while watching this, keep in mind some of these things might not be true.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(MUSIC)

(KIM JONG-IL'S ACHIEVEMENTS?)

He was walking at just three weeks and talking at eight weeks. He wrote 1,500 books in three years and six full operas in two years. He improved the scripts and guided the production of many North Korean movies. He owned more than 20,000 video tapes and shot 11 holes-in- one the first time he went golfing. He coached the North Korean soccer team at the World Cup using an invisible telephone. He invented the invisible telephone.

(PHOTO NOT AVAILABLE)

(IT'S INVISIBLE)

He developed a wonder drug to make short people taller and a super drink that multiplies brain cells and stops aging. He invented the hamburger and never went to the bathroom. His birth was heralded with a double rainbow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Double rainbow all the way across the sky.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: OUTFRONT next Erin's exclusive interview with the prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed (ph). They discuss Dubai, Iran, and the future of the Middle East.

And the Obama administration asks Congress to raise the country's debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion, there's nothing funny about that and America's new favorite comedian, Arlen Specter?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: The Obama administration is asking Congress to raise the country's debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion. Let's bring in CNN's congressional correspondent Dana Bash who joins us from Washington. Dana, this wasn't entirely unexpected. Is the administration going to face the same kind of obstacles it saw this past summer in getting it approved?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ali, the short answer is no. There's almost no doubt that the debt ceiling will be raised and that that will happen without the nail biting political drama we saw over the summer. Because at the end of that debt debacle, fair to say it was a debacle --

VELSHI: Yes.

BASH: -- members of Congress effectively scripted this out so that the debt ceiling will go up with no economic disruption and in a way that spares these politicians in both parties the political pain of effectively voting for more spending in an election year. Because what the law says is that if the Treasury Department determines that the U.S. is within $100 billion of the debt limit, the president has to ask Congress for an increase, but here's the catch.

Congress only has to disapprove of that and has 15 days to do it. And guess what Ali, Congress isn't here. Even if they were here they probably wouldn't have the votes in the Senate, but Congress is not here.

VELSHI: Now despite the fact that this has been prearranged, to some degree, has there been a GOP reaction to this request? Because you would think it would at least present an opportunity for those people who voted against it last time to be able to say, this is just more of the same nonsense.

BASH: Exactly and there are definitely a lot of Republicans, despite the fact that this was scripted, that are not very happy about not having the opportunity to have this debate on the floor of the House and the Senate to rail against spending. And (INAUDIBLE) talk to you say that they're not happy because this is kind of a power play by the president.

He could have easily waited to make this request so that Congress is in town, but that the Obama administration knows full well that Congress is not here. You may hear a demand from Republicans for the Senate Democratic leader to call the Senate back in for the House to do the same, but I was told that that's unlikely. But this is campaign candy --

VELSHI: Yes, yes.

BASH: -- for those Republicans out in Iowa who are railing against President Obama as a liberal spender.

VELSHI: Right. It will be one more example that they will use. Dana great to see you as always, thanks so much.

BASH: You too, Ali.

VELSHI: Dana Bash.

Disturbing details about the final moments of the family killed in a Christmas Day house fire. We have the autopsy results.

Then Iran's plan to block the world's most strategically important oil choke point, the Strait of Hormuz, now is this a real threat or is this military posturing?

And Erin's exclusive interview with the prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed (ph), she asks him about Iran OUTFRONT next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: The U.S. has a warning for Iran -- it's pretty simple -- don't try it. Iran is threatening to block tankers trying to pass through one of the world's most strategically important choke points. You see it there, the right of your screen, the Strait of Hormuz.

Angered by possible sanctions, Iran is backing up its threat by staging naval maneuvers in the area. That as the U.S. Navy issues its own warning to Tehran to tread carefully. Quote, "Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community; any disruption will not be tolerated."

We should note that both Iran and the United States patrol that particular area.

To put a bigger perspective on the story, I want to bring in retired U.S. Army General James Marks. General Marks, good to talk to you.

GEN. JAMES MARKS (RET), U.S. ARMY: Hey, Ali. How are you?

VELSHI: What do you make of this Navy statement, the U.S. Navy statement? I mean, you've seen this many times before, this saber rattling with Iran about the Strait of Hormuz. It's not new.

MARKS: No, it's not new at all. And the U.S. Central Command owns that piece of terrain, that piece of geography, as they say. And the subordinate to that is the U.S. Fifth Fleet. And the Fifth Fleet has been headquartered in Bahrain for years. They know that, that Strait of Hormuz, intimately.

And part of their mission set is to ensure freedom of movement. And that's what the Navy does and sea lines of communications all over the world. And very specifically, this very narrow choke point is mission number one for them to ensure that 40 percent of the oil supply and demand that passes through the strait will continue uninterrupted.

VELSHI: Right. The issue is, for folks who don't know, it really is a choke point. I mean, a lot of oil for the Middle East gets send off in pipelines. But a lot of it gets loaded into ships and gets sent through that Strait of Hormuz, which is now small enough, it's narrow enough that a big gun on either could disrupt a ship.

The U.S. is there. There's never been -- there's never been an attack on a ship there. But the U.S. has always said that it is ready if there's an attempted disruption. What would that look like?

MARKS: Well, first, let's make sure that we're straight on the numbers. Ninety percent of the oil that's produced in the region passes through the strait.

VELSHI: Right. So, that's about 15 percent or 16 percent of the, I guess, world's oil passes through there.

MARKS: It's 40 percent of the world's oil. So, it's a huge -- without getting into numbers.

VELSHI: Sure.

MARKS: It's a huge monster amount of oil.

It absolutely would disrupt international markets instantaneously if it was blockaded. Now, to the point of blockade versus disruption, Iran can disrupt the flow of oil or anything that's passing through the Strait of Hormuz. They can do that from the air. They can do that with surface to surface missiles.

They don't have the ability to establish a blockade. A blockade is extremely restrictive.

VELSHI: Right. MARKS: It would require actions from the air, subsurface, surface lane of mines, subsurface mine activity -- and every one of those actions would be surveilled and picked up by the United States intelligence community instantaneously, which means, they, the Iranians, would never get in a position to fully institute a blockade.

VELSHI: Could they set a tanker on fire?

MARKS: Oh, sure. But you blow right by it and say, really unfortunate to be on that tanker while it's on fire.

VELSHI: Right.

MARKS: It's not going to disrupt the whole passage. The strait is 34 miles.

VELSHI: Right.

MARKS: But it has three islands. And it has two miles of passageway for inward and outward-bound shipping.

VELSHI: Right.

MARKS: Include a two-mile buffer zone. So there's plenty of room to get all of those tanks through. So, to set a tanker on fire would really have a negligible effect.

VELSHI: I mean, look, it will probably have an effect in markets, if somebody saw -- you know, everything has an effect on oil markets these days.

MARKS: In fact, Ali, the fact that the Iranians made the statement, spike the price of oil today. It's metered down a little bit. But absolutely, activities like that would affect the markets.

VELSHI: All right. But you don't think that anything could happen that couldn't be brought under control by United States patrolling that are almost instantaneously.

MARKS: True statement on your part. Absolutely. They wouldn't let that happen.

VELSHI: General Marks, always a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for joining us.

MARKS: Thanks, Ali, very much.

VELSHI: Opposition against the Syrian President Bashar al- Assad's regime continues in the flashpoint city of Homs. This amateur video shows what looks like Arab League monitors in orange vest. They are taking cover during heavy gunfire.

Now, the firefight coming on the same day that the head of the Arab League team said that what the monitors have seen so far in Homs was messy, there was nothing particularly frightening about it. As you just saw, violence is growing in Syria. Recent scenes out of Cairo show Egypt in disarray. But there are few countries in the Middle East which have escaped significant unrest in the Arab Spring. And one of them is the United Arab Emirates.

Erin Burnett has spent a lot of time in the Middle East and in the UAE. And recently, she spent a day with the prime minister of the UAE, the ruler of Dubai.

There he is. His name is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, that man that expats refer to as Sheikh Mo. Locals call, "His Highness".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": A perfect December day to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the youngest countries in the world. This is the United Arab Emirates -- and the man who built its crowned jewel, Dubai, is still at the helm.

A dream of skyscrapers where 40 years ago, there were literally sand dunes, tents, and small ports. Now, the world's tallest building rises from the desert -- the center of the city, and the backdrop for the rich and famous, including Tom Cruise and his stunt move for the latest movie, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," where he dangled from 153 stories in the air.

In the year of the Arab Spring, this city is a haven for people seeking escape.

Judy Essa (ph) is a student from Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Living here alone. I never felt unsafe, I've never felt like uncomfortable of living here.

BURNETT: Even the ruler still walks without a security detail. Dubai is diverse. Eighty-five percent of the people who live here are expats and people from 200 countries pass through. So far, though, there's been no suicide bomber in this city.

(on camera): Are you worried that extremists, someone would want to target with a terrorist act, because you got -- people can drink in the bars, women can wear bikinis in the Middle East?

HH SHEIKH MOHAMMED BIN RASHID AL MAKTOUM, RULER OF DUBAI: That has not been a problem for us. You know, they are living together and have an interest to come here so they work and sent home some money from here. So, they don't want to disturb that, you know?

BURNETT (voice-over): The sheikh begins his day at his horse ranch, about an hour's drive from Dubai.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: And the horse and the falcon and the dog is part of our life.

BURNETT: In the summer, it's about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. But on a December day we visited, it was about 80 -- perfect weather to watch Emirati governing in action.

It's called majlis, when the Emiratis have a chance to directly petition their ruler for everything, from more land to liver transplants.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: Anybody, we got the majlis, where everybody can come to their ruler and say, well, I didn't get that or that, or this department or this ministry didn't give me my right.

BURNETT (on camera): And they directly ask you? You didn't do this, or I want that and then you have to answer to the individual person?

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: Yes. And they would complain about that one ministry. So, I get hold of them and said why.

BURNETT (voice-over): He tells us he likes to sleep in the desert alone every 10 days like a Bedouin. But he is a royal. And in a country sitting on 10 percent of the world's oil, that means transportation is a $20 million helicopter. The ride takes 25 minutes to Abu Dhabi, the political capital of the Emirates, a city literally perched on top of the country's oil.

Abu Dhabi rakes in $9 billion a month in cash, money used to prop Dubai up after its real estate crash -- a crash that left some of the famous manmade islands empty. Now, real estate prices are 26 percent lower than just two years ago, and one of two homes are now empty.

According to expert (INAUDIBLE), he has spent the last decade living and working in Dubai.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clearly they need support and they needed support in 2009 when Abu Dhabi stepped in and bailed them out.

BURNETT: That bailout meant a loss of Dubai Sheik Mohammed. Even the name of the Burj Dubai became the Burj Khalifa, named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Mohammed's cabinet meetings are in Abu Dhabi. The one we sat in on was about the budget which is now posted online, a move to transparency that resonates with some students in the midst of revolution, like Egypt.

Monica Ishak (ph) is Egyptian and a senior at the American University of Dubai.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Emirates should be a role model for our countries with the way it's ruled.

BURNETT: But it's not that simple.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, Dubai has been the front-runner in terms of freedom of the press in the region, and especially relative to Abu Dhabi, it's known to be far more open.

But since 2008, 2009 financial crisis, we have seen some missteps. There has been somewhat of a clamp down in the media. You know, the transparency has been somewhat questionable. Investors have wanted more access and more data that hasn't really been there. So, they are concerned.

BURNETT (on camera): People will say, the press isn't totally free.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: As long as they don't say something wrong about a person or what authorities, they can say anything they want. As I told you, we are not perfect. We are still learning.

BURNETT: Do you think that democracy is a good thing?

SHEIK MOHAMMED: We have our own democracy. You cannot transport your democracy to us.

BURNETT: Your son Hamdan will rule after you, father to son. Will that continue forever, do you think?

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: As long as the people want that.

BURNETT (voice-over): Still, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, some say Dubai sheikh and the rulers in Abu Dhabi are using money to prevent unrest.

(on camera): Salaries for government workers, I know you recently doubled that.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: Yes.

BURNETT: And some say it's because you were worried about unrest in the UAE from the Arab Spring. Is there any truth in that?

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: No. It's not because of the Arab Spring. We did it before the Arab Spring started and we did it before that. If you look at the last 10 years, you will see we have doubled a few times.

BURNETT (voice-over): Whatever the motivation, and our many visits here, the young and most of the expats are pro-government.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to thank his highness for what he has done for us, for everything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In one word, Sheikh Mohammed is a visionary.

BURNETT: Albeit with a vision of freedom that is different than the West. Here you can go to jail if you don't pay your mortgage. But the sheikh is not embarrassed about his reputation.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: Well, you know, you don't put in jail everybody that comes here.

BURNETT: Sheikh Mohammed is focused on one thing, building a city on a hill and the part of the world where hills are few and far between. (on camera): How much farther do you want to go?

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: To be number one.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VELSHI: Another issue Erin and the sheikh talked is Iran. Erin reported that while it's often overlooked, Iranians owned about 20 percent of Dubai's property. And Iranian money helped build Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed admitted to Erin that U.S. sanctions on Iran are not good for Dubai but he also told her he doesn't believe Iran will develop a nuclear weapon.

Let's check in with Anderson Cooper with a look at what's ahead tonight on "A.C. 360" -- Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "A.C. 360": Ali, we're covering a story you just touched on, digging deeper on Syria, just ahead on the program, take a look at this video. It's life in Homs, Syria. People throwing bread across the street, they can't walk across the street because of snipers -- a sniper that you hear actually shooting.

You can't cross the street for fear of being shot. We're going to speak with a journalist who took this video.

Also tonight, keeping them honest, a man sent by the Arab League to assess the violence in Syria, he's a Sudanese general accused of being involved in the genocide in Darfur. That does that make any sense? We're going to speak with Fouad Ajami about that.

Also tonight, the choreography, the funeral of the dictator really just a stunning scene in North Korea, almost competitive grieving. We'll talk with our panel about how mourners fear punishment by the oppressive regime for not demonstrating they are sufficiently distraught images today from this funeral, just really shocking. We're going to show you the most interesting moments.

Those stories, also remarkable turn of political turn of events in Iowa, and tonight's "Ridiculist," the countdown of the year's best "Ridiculist" at the top of the hour, Ali.

VELSHI: Again, competing grieving, that's a good way to put it. Really look like people were trying to outdo the person next them to show how sad they were that Kim Jong Il was gone.

All right. Anderson, we look forward to it. We'll see you later on tonight.

COOPER: Thanks, Ali.

VELSHI: Well, a family of five killed in a house fire on Christmas Day. We've got the disturbing details about their final moments.

And the latest developments in the murder of a 9-year-old Indiana girl and the man arrested for the crime when he murdered and dismembered her, and he was already wanted for violating his parole.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: Autopsy results are in for the five family members killed in a tragic Christmas day fire in Stamford, Connecticut. The grandfather, Lomer Johnson, died of blunt force head and neck trauma after falling through the roof rafters while trying to save one of his grandchildren. That's him in the Santa Claus outfit.

Johnson also died of smoke inhalation as did his wife and three grandchildren. The children's mother, New York ad executive, Madonna Badger, and a friend, escaped the deadly blaze. Fire officials say the fire was caused by fireplace embers placed in the back of the $1.7 million home.

Joining us from Westport, Connecticut, is Robert Goulston. He's a reporter for our affiliate station WFSB.

Robert, thanks for joining us.

The news today is the autopsy results. What else unfolded? The blunt-force trauma clearly from the fall and they've ruled out foul play?

ROBERT GOULSTON, REPORTER, WFSB (via telephone): Ali, yes, there is no foul play being investigated. Sources telling us that the fact that even that they put these ashes in an area that didn't properly discard them does not rise to the negligent levels. So they are not pursing that in any way.

But there are still questions going on right now about whether they should have been in certain parts of that home. This was huge home. As you said, it was a $1.7 million home and there was a major section of it being renovated.

So they were not allowed to be actually living in that space, so they are looking into that and they are looking into a few other things, including whether the smoke detection system was enabled at that point.

VELSHI: Let me just ask you this. Is -- the house -- there was some issue about permits because there was construction being done on this house. That's what the concern was, right?

GOULSTON: Exactly, yes. They were allowed to be in the house and they were allowed to live in certain parts of it. It was a massive house. But the second floor was being completely renovated.

So, right now, they are trying to figure out if they were living in that section, if people were living in that section of the house. And if so, that was not a safe area to be sleeping.

And also, as part of the renovation, they were putting into this new smoke detection system. And according to the building inspector yesterday at a major news conference, that was not connected. They do not believe that it was connected, but they are not able to be sure about that because the damage to the house was so significant. I mean, this fire more or less devoured this house.

VELSHI: Right. And they've already taken down the house because it was so unsafe.

Let me ask you this, Robert, where are they getting their information from? Investigators. Have they been able to interview the mother and her friend?

GOULSTON: They talked to Mrs. Badger the morning after she came out of the house. Of course, you can only imagine, she just lost her family in one fell swoop. They were able to talk to her preliminarily.

They were able to talk to her preliminary there. They are now working to get more information out of her, also her friend Michael Borcina, who is actually the one who was also doing all of the contract work on the house. He just was released from the hospital today.

They have not been able to do those follow-up interviews. They're giving her time to grieve, of course. Of course, she lost her three young daughters and her own parents.

VELSHI: Robert, thanks very much for bringing us up to speed on such a tragic story. Robert Goulston with our affiliate WFSB.

The father of missing mom Michelle Parker is now calling on police to wrap up the search for his daughter. Bob Parker and his wife told affiliate WESH that police aren't looking hard enough in the right place.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB PARKER, MICHELLE PARKER'S FATHER: Search Lake Connelly. I mean, that's where her phone was found.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Being the phone was in that vicinity, common sense makes you feel they should focus on searching there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Police say finding Michelle is their top priority. The mother of three disappeared more than a month ago, just hours after appearing on the TV show, "The People's Court," with her ex-fiance, Dale Smith. Smith is currently the prime suspect in the case.

A $30,000 reward is already helping in the search for a missing toddler, Ayla Reynolds. Police say the reward was offered two days ago. They've got about 100 new leads. The 20-month-old was last seen 11 days ago when her father put her to bed in their Waterville home. The $30,000 reward is believed to be the largest ever offered for a missing person in Maine.

We're learning more today about the family friend who has admitted to murdering and dismembering a 9-year-old girl that he was supposed to be baby-sitting. It turns out Michael Plumadore was wanted in Florida for violating probation. The Florida Department of Corrections said Plumadore was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer, firefighter or EMS worker, back in 2000. He had been sentenced to a year of supervision and ordered to take an anger management class. But instead of serving his time, he disappeared.

Now, Plumadore faces murder charges in Indiana in the death of a Aliahna Lemmon and is being held without bond.

Allen County Indiana sheriff Ken Fries joins me now on the phone.

Sheriff, thanks very much for joining us. We know that Plumadore has already confessed to striking Aliahna over the head with a brick, dismembering her body, and storing some of her body parts in his freezer.

What more have you learned about this?

SHERIFF KEN FRIES (via telephone): Well, Ali, you know, the concern now about the fact we have a trial coming up, so we can't say much more than what has been released from the probable hearing yesterday. Formal charges will be read on Friday. And at that time, I'm sure more information will be forthcoming. But we have to be concerned about making sure that we don't release too much that could jeopardize the trial.

VELSHI: Sure. Are you able to tell us about a motive?

FRIES: We can't really discuss the motive. You can't discuss too much more than has been done. The investigation is continuing, is on-going.

VELSHI: All right. Now, this man was watching Aliahna and her sisters. Do you know where the sisters were at the time she was allegedly killed?

FRIES: We can't really discuss that. We do have an idea where they were. You have to remember, this is a small home, it's a trailer home. And we do know the siblings were there in the area.

VELSHI: How is the family doing?

FRIES: The family seems to be dealing with this, I guess, as anyone would expect them to.

VELSHI: I guess, I mean -- I don't know how you balance the sense of relief that you solve the case and you found the suspect, but what a tragic end for this little girl.

FRIES: Yes. It is a horrible emotional roller coaster, we had been searching since the 23rd for this little 9-year-old girl. As time marched on, we certainly hope began to wane that we would find her alive.

VELSHI: All right. Well, it's shaken the community. Sheriff, thanks for joining us. We appreciate talking to you.

FRIES: You're welcome.

Well, let's talk about the comedy stylings of Arlen Specter. It happened and we've got the tape.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: A couple of comedians are in hot water over things they tweeted this week.

First up, the host of HBO's "Real Time," Bill Maher. Following a 40-14 Broncos' loss to the Buffalo Bills on Christmas Eve, Maher he tweeted this, "Wow, Jesus just blanked Tim Tebow bad and on Christmas Eve. Somewhere in hell, Satan is Tebowing, saying to Hitler saying, hey, Buffalo's killing them."

As you can imagine, Christian groups are pretty angry. And according to "The L.A. Times," they are now calling for a boycott of all HBO shows.

But Maher is not the only comedian making people angry. Actor and comedian Denis Leary offended Islamic groups this week when his production company tweeted a link to this video.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARTOON CHARACTER: Considered converting to Islam? I converted when I went to prison.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: A Charlie Brown Christmas spoof features Charlie Brown coping with doubts about his Christianity by converting to Islam and building a flawed bomb. Despite the fact that it's from Comedy Central, it's a special that's almost 7 years old, critics called it jaw-droppingly Islamophobic.

So far, neither Maher nor Leary have apologized, nor it seems do they plan to.

Well, we go from political comedians to comedy from politicians. Former Senator Arlen Specter tried his hand at standup last night using material he says he got from his political experience. He performed a mostly sex-filled set at an open mic in Philly.

Yes, we can't show you most of the set. Here are some of the more TV appropriate highlights.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And this guy, (INAUDIBLE) Arlen Specter.

ARLEN SPECTER, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Congress tells a joke, it becomes a law. Whenever Congress passes a law, it turns out to be a joke.

(INAUDIBLE) 65th birthday, I said, Bill, congratulations on 65. How do you feel? He said I feel like a teenager, but problem is I can't find one.

Herman Cain -- I feel sorry for Herman Cain, (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Who knew Arlen Specter and the dirty jokes.

All right. That does it for me. Brooke Baldwin will be in for Erin tomorrow night.

But, first, the man that will ring in the New Year for CNN. "ANDERSON COOPER 360" starts right now.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: A standoff in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran threatens to block one of the world's most important choke points and America says no. Erin asks the prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Almatoom (ph) about Iran and unrest in the region during an exclusive interview.

And the "Bottom Line" on the GOP campaign, we're just six days away from the Iowa caucus. Santorum is up, Gingrich way down.

Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening, I'm Ali Velshi sitting in for Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight Newt sinking and Santorum surging. A brand new poll just out of Iowa and it has some stunning new numbers.

The former frontrunner, Newt Gingrich plunging from his top slot down to fourth place, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum doing just the opposite. He surged from single digits into third place. Mitt Romney now leads the pack with 25 percent and there's another new poll out of New Hampshire where the nation's second contest in the race for the GOP nominee will be held one week later on January the 10th.

Mitt Romney dominating his opposition there. He's at 44 percent. Rivals Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich trailing 17 percent and 16 percent respectively. Let's go right to political correspondent Joe Johns. He's on the ground in Iowa.

Joe, this is a bit of a shocker, Santorum rising as much as he has. He was out there with Representative Steve King on that hunting trip. Steve King did not endorse him on that trip. It made people wonder. We're so close. This is a guy who's been to every county in the state and he still couldn't get that endorsement. What has done this for Rick Santorum?

JOE JOHNS, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Ali, I've got to tell you, a lot of people here thought Santorum was simply underperforming in the state in the polls for a long time. Like you said he has been to every county. He's spent more time here I think than any other candidate who has been running for president. He also talks and speaks to the issues that so many evangelicals and social conservatives in the state really concern themselves with.

So it was probably not surprising that Rick Santorum at last was going to get his day in the sun here in Iowa, if you will. It's a huge jump going from five percent in one poll all the way up to 16 percent in another poll which really suggests that of all these candidates and the way the polls have gone up and down, Rick Santorum may be surging at exactly the right time for a guy running for president, Ali.

VELSHI: It's still a game of small numbers, though, 43 percent of Iowans polled who say they might participate in these caucuses say they could change their mind, which means is Santorum gaining from the undecided? He is gaining from Newt Gingrich's losses and what about that 43 percent? That's a bigger number better than anybody is polling right now.

JOHNS: Right. And if you think about the sort of arc of the Iowa caucus's race, again and again and again you've seen conservatives come up and you've seen them go down as people started looking at their baggage, their electability, a variety of other questions, their backgrounds, their personal histories.

Rick Santorum is a guy who basically hasn't gotten his shot yet and OK, so who's the big loser here? It's pretty clear that Newt Gingrich has just sunk pretty dramatically in the polls. No doubt that has at least a little bit to do with the fact that he's just been attacked over and over again by Mitt Romney, by Ron Paul, by others. He's really been quite a target and a lot of people who watch the ads and watch the polls very carefully say the ads may have something to do with Gingrich's drop in the polls --

VELSHI: Right. But we've seen -- Joe, we've seen every one of these candidates who has hit close to the top spot then the media shines the light on them, as the media is supposed to do, and they take that hit. This is something that has not happened to Santorum. It's not happened to Jon Huntsman in this race.

JOHNS: That's very true. It certainly hasn't happened to Rick Santorum, but I have to tell you, he's something of a known quantity, too.

VELSHI: Right.

JOHNS: He's spent quite a while in the United States Senate. People know him very well. They know his record. And a lot of people have dug around trying to find skeletons in his closet and I don't think they found a whole lot of them. So Jon Huntsman hasn't spent a lot of time frankly here in Iowa at all, his moment likely to be in New Hampshire. That is a place of course where Mitt Romney appears to be doing great right now --

VELSHI: Right. I mean Huntsman will probably have his best performance in New Hampshire, but Romney is so dominating things in that state. All right, Joe, good discussion. We're going to be having a lot of them over the course of the next few days. Joe Johns and the best political team on television in Iowa.

Let's go to John Avlon, CNN contributor, and Kiki McLean, Democratic strategist, Rich Galen joins us as well. He's a Republican strategist. Kiki, I feel bad for you. What have you got to contribute to this discussion? Watching all of this happen around you, I mean Iowa is the hottest place for a Democrat the last time around. You know John made a point -- I'm going to put it to you first, Kiki, but John made a point earlier where he said the conservatives in Iowa self-select in many cases in these -- in their participation in these caucuses so you've got an extra dose of conservative in this thing --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

VELSHI: So Santorum with a good showing here really bears very little relationship to the country.

KIKI MCLEAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes. It's interesting. There are three or four things I would tell people to pay attention to over the next six days. The first is that I had the benefit of working for President Richard Gephardt 24 years ago when a Democrat he won the Iowa caucuses. The other thing that's interesting to pay attention to is you don't hear a conversation about new participants the way you did for Barack Obama in 2008.

Are there a lot of new people that are going to flood those church basements and school cafeterias? At the company where I work, at Porte Novella (ph), the other thing we've been paying attention to, our analytic team has been combing social media to see where that intensity is and they are really seeing it in the conversations about Gingrich.

VELSHI: Yes.

MCLEAN: And the attacks on him and from the Paul people. You don't see Santorum with an online presence quite with the level of intensity that you do from Ron Paul's people.

VELSHI: Yes.

MCLEAN: And so take your polling, measure that with a little bit of analytics --

VELSHI: Yes.

MCLEAN: -- what's going on with social media and don't forget Barack Obama had tremendous intensity in social media and in the digital world last time. Then the last thing I'd remind you is that that bounce into New Hampshire President Buchanan and don't forget President Huckabee out of those Iowa caucuses last time.

VELSHI: Right.

MCLEAN: So this isn't necessarily -- and the final thing I would say is this isn't necessarily about who wins and the numbers that day.

VELSHI: Yes.

MCLEAN: It's who wins in the trend.

VELSHI: All right. Let me --

MCLEAN: -- Bill Clinton did in New Hampshire.

VELSHI: Let me ask you this, Rich. If I were Kiki's people, if I were democrats, I would send a thousand volunteers out there to help Newt Gingrich right now because if Romney walks away with this and then catches onto New Hampshire where he has got a commanding lead, this poses bigger problems for Barack Obama than if Newt Gingrich were the nominee.

RICH GALEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well that is true. But as Kiki said, this is the (INAUDIBLE) or you said earlier to --

VELSHI: Yes.

GALEN: -- Joe that this is the terror of small numbers and this is one data point. You have to be a little careful when these sorts of shifts happen this dramatically, it may kind of make your -- make you stop and wait. "The Des Moines Register" will have its final poll in Sunday's paper. That means they will release it Saturday night and we'll see if those numbers match up with these numbers. But if you're the Gingrich people you've got to say, oh man, this is going to be tough. And if I were advising Newt, which I am not, I would say you know what, let's waive to New Hampshire. We'll go there for the debates and we're going to camp out in South Carolina and we will do battle with Santorum in South Carolina. Winner goes on, loser goes home.

VELSHI: John, let me ask you something. It's very interesting what Kiki said about there's no magic of these Independents or non- committed voters. There's no magic in fiscal conservatives supporting Mitt Romney. They actually I think like Jon Huntsman more in some cases, but they don't figure he's got a chance. There's no magic in social conservatives choosing between Michele Bachmann and Santorum and figuring maybe Santorum's got the momentum. What about that 43 percent of people who say they are going to caucus who haven't got a choice, who haven't made a choice yet? JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Ali, there isn't magic, but there is momentum and momentum can matter a great deal when you're six days out from a caucus. Remember caucuses tend to be low turnout, high intensity elections and they skew overwhelmingly conservative. Eighty-eight percent of caucus-goers identify as conservatives.

What's fascinating about this poll is the surge for Santorum, because social conservatives, the people looking for that conservative alternative to Romney, with Gingrich's numbers cut in half now, saying OK, maybe it's Santorum's turn. He's been to (INAUDIBLE) counties. The other thing that really strikes me is that Mitt Romney remains stuck at that glass ceiling of 25 percent and playing it out, whatever happens in the primaries and the momentum game out of Iowa, if other candidates start coalescing, that 75 percent of the party that seems to want someone other than Mitt Romney --

VELSHI: Yes.

AVLON: -- that's where things could get interesting.

VELSHI: Where does that go --

GALEN: Let me remind you --

VELSHI: Yes.

GALEN: Let me remind you that four years ago President Obama who actually became President Obama won the Iowa caucuses with just under I think 38 percent of the vote. So 60-something percent of Iowan Democrats wanted somebody else but yet he got to raise his hand on January 20th --

VELSHI: Let me ask you this, Kiki.

MCLEAN: Yes.

VELSHI: This -- Mitt Romney was on "THE SITUATION ROOM" with Wolf Blitzer earlier today. He responded to Newt Gingrich's you know complaints about him of too many attack ads. Listen to what Romney said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you're going to get in a campaign like this, you've got to have broad shoulders and if you can't take on the negative that's part of a primary you're sure as heck not going to be ready for what's going to come from Barack Obama. If you can't handle the heat in this kitchen, wait until Barack Obama's hell's kitchen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: What do you think, Kiki? Does that sound presidential? Sounds like he's staying above the fray?

MCLEAN: I don't think anybody really attaches high levels of personal negativity from Barack Obama. But Mitt Romney said something that is very important and that is when you see the level of negativity going on, which is not unnatural in the last week --

VELSHI: Right.

MCLEAN: -- going into an Iowa caucus, but what you see here is the sheer volume demonstrates frankly the level of vulnerability that all of these Republican candidates have. Gingrich has a laundry list of issues. You've got people like Rick Perry. Nobody even talks about him except that he's changing his position --

VELSHI: Right.

MCLEAN: -- on the issue of choice. You have Mitt Romney who can't break that ceiling and by the way, why won't he put out his tax returns now? So I mean what it's demonstrating is the litany of really --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He didn't say --

(CROSSTALK)

MCLEAN: -- political vulnerabilities they have --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kiki wait. That's not fair.

MCLEAN: -- that I think could really come out in a general election.

(CROSSTALK)

VELSHI: Right. I don't think anybody is going to be surprised to find out --

GALEN: He didn't say he wouldn't do it. He said he'll do it. He may do it and if nobody else has put out their tax returns either --

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: -- he said all things in their time. I listened to the whole interview --

(CROSSTALK)

GALEN: He didn't say he wouldn't do it.

(CROSSTALK)

VELSHI: Let me tell you --

GALEN: By the way, John Kerry who never released his --

VELSHI: None of us are going to be all that surprised to find out that Mitt Romney is a very, very wealthy man.

(CROSSTALK)

VELSHI: Kiki McLean, thanks very much. Kiki McLean is a Democratic strategist. Rich Galen is a Republican strategist and John Avlon is a CNN contributor.

Still OUTFRONT a young girl in Indiana is murdered and dismembered by the man who was supposed to be baby sitting her. We learn more disturbing details about the crime and the suspect.

Then the autopsy results of a family of five killed in a tragic Christmas Day fire. What we've learned about their final minutes and a funeral marks the official end of Kim Jong-il's rein. The tears were flowing. Pure grief or fear over their future and you'll never believe some of Kim Jong-il's accomplishments. Did he really invent the hamburger? We're going to take a look back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: The funeral for the late North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il was held today in Pyongyang. The event like most secretive -- most events in the secret (ph) of state was elaborate and it was highly choreographed. Mourners gathered to watch the late leader's flower-covered hearse made its way through the capital snowy streets.

Another vehicle -- you can see it there -- bearing a giant portrait of the dead dictator led the way, very heavy military presence. Kim's son -- there he is -- the expected successor -- Kim Jong-un walked alongside the black car carrying his father's casket on top, not inside. The crowds lined the streets and they wailed as the procession went by.

Now some question whether these cries are a product of true grief or whether they stem from a place of fear as uncertain future and uncertain future lies ahead for one of the world's most repressed societies. With me is one of a handful of people who knows a bit about this. Governor Bill Richardson has spent a lot of time in the country. He's had an inside look into the North Korean leadership. Governor Richardson, good to see you, thank you for being with us.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: Nice to be with you. Thank you.

VELSHI: You know our reporter, Paula Hancocks, was covering this from South Korea, but looking at the video -- we all see the same video -- it's all provided by the North Koreans -- said that there did seem to be a difference between the people up close, up front, like anywhere else mourning and wailing the way they are and the people in the distance who seemed to be onlookers, who seemed to be looking at the whole thing. In other words, was this outcry -- you've been there -- are these people devastated as they look that Kim Jong-il has passed?

RICHARDSON: Well, it's all very choreographed. I do think there is a lot of grief there. It's a funeral procession that basically is based on the cult of personality. Kim Jong-un, the youngest son, is now the leader. That's the message that is being conveyed. The root of the funeral through Kim Il Sung, the grandfather, the father of the country, then Kim's father, and now I think what is interesting is leading the funeral procession is a signal that Kim Jong-un is now the leader. What was interesting was the uncle was right behind him.

VELSHI: Right.

RICHARDSON: He is now vice chair of the National Defense Commission. So it shows that he's kind of going to be a mentor, maybe a regent, kind of help guide Kim Jong-un in his early days. But now that the ceremony is over, now that the funeral is over, tomorrow the last funeral event, now you will see the consolidation of power by the military through Kim Jong-un or you might see some disruption. But I think the odds are that Kim Jong-un for the next period of time will be the anointed leader.

VELSHI: Well let's -- you know this is one of those weird conundrums we have in the world where you know these repressive leaders are there and then when they are gone you have equal measure fear that they will be a vacuum and there'll be in-fighting and it'll lead to instability versus hope that the new leader might be more opened to the outside world. Where do you think this falls?

RICHARDSON: Well, there are some good signs. The good sign is that the new leader, Kim Jong-un, did meet with South Korean leaders, two women leaders that came to pay condolences. He was very proper. And, secondly, he did convey to them the need for South Korean investment in North Korea. So he's already acting as a leader.

Those are two initial good signs. But what you want to watch in the next few days is the North Korean military leadership, the Socialist Worker Party. Those are the two entities that have the power in North Korea especially the military. But it looks like they are anointing Kim Jong-un, the young man. They are getting behind him.

I think the message of the ceremony, the funeral, is unity, the cult of personality continues and it's very, very, very closely, tightly held. So even somebody like myself, who has been there eight times --

VELSHI: Yes.

RICHARDSON: -- you've got to watch these clues and the clues are that the young man is stepping into the most powerful position for now.

VELSHI: We'll watch it very closely and hopefully you will help us interpret it as we get more signals. Governor Bill Richardson, always a pleasure to see you.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

VELSHI: You know when a world leader dies, we put together a tribute package celebrating the achievements of their life. Unfortunately it's been very difficult to sift through what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to the claims made by and about Kim Jong-il, so please while watching this, keep in mind some of these things might not be true.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(MUSIC)

(KIM JONG-IL'S ACHIEVEMENTS?)

He was walking at just three weeks and talking at eight weeks. He wrote 1,500 books in three years and six full operas in two years. He improved the scripts and guided the production of many North Korean movies. He owned more than 20,000 video tapes and shot 11 holes-in- one the first time he went golfing. He coached the North Korean soccer team at the World Cup using an invisible telephone. He invented the invisible telephone.

(PHOTO NOT AVAILABLE)

(IT'S INVISIBLE)

He developed a wonder drug to make short people taller and a super drink that multiplies brain cells and stops aging. He invented the hamburger and never went to the bathroom. His birth was heralded with a double rainbow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Double rainbow all the way across the sky.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: OUTFRONT next Erin's exclusive interview with the prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed (ph). They discuss Dubai, Iran, and the future of the Middle East.

And the Obama administration asks Congress to raise the country's debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion, there's nothing funny about that and America's new favorite comedian, Arlen Specter?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: The Obama administration is asking Congress to raise the country's debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion. Let's bring in CNN's congressional correspondent Dana Bash who joins us from Washington. Dana, this wasn't entirely unexpected. Is the administration going to face the same kind of obstacles it saw this past summer in getting it approved?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ali, the short answer is no. There's almost no doubt that the debt ceiling will be raised and that that will happen without the nail biting political drama we saw over the summer. Because at the end of that debt debacle, fair to say it was a debacle --

VELSHI: Yes.

BASH: -- members of Congress effectively scripted this out so that the debt ceiling will go up with no economic disruption and in a way that spares these politicians in both parties the political pain of effectively voting for more spending in an election year. Because what the law says is that if the Treasury Department determines that the U.S. is within $100 billion of the debt limit, the president has to ask Congress for an increase, but here's the catch.

Congress only has to disapprove of that and has 15 days to do it. And guess what Ali, Congress isn't here. Even if they were here they probably wouldn't have the votes in the Senate, but Congress is not here.

VELSHI: Now despite the fact that this has been prearranged, to some degree, has there been a GOP reaction to this request? Because you would think it would at least present an opportunity for those people who voted against it last time to be able to say, this is just more of the same nonsense.

BASH: Exactly and there are definitely a lot of Republicans, despite the fact that this was scripted, that are not very happy about not having the opportunity to have this debate on the floor of the House and the Senate to rail against spending. And (INAUDIBLE) talk to you say that they're not happy because this is kind of a power play by the president.

He could have easily waited to make this request so that Congress is in town, but that the Obama administration knows full well that Congress is not here. You may hear a demand from Republicans for the Senate Democratic leader to call the Senate back in for the House to do the same, but I was told that that's unlikely. But this is campaign candy --

VELSHI: Yes, yes.

BASH: -- for those Republicans out in Iowa who are railing against President Obama as a liberal spender.

VELSHI: Right. It will be one more example that they will use. Dana great to see you as always, thanks so much.

BASH: You too, Ali.

VELSHI: Dana Bash.

Disturbing details about the final moments of the family killed in a Christmas Day house fire. We have the autopsy results.

Then Iran's plan to block the world's most strategically important oil choke point, the Strait of Hormuz, now is this a real threat or is this military posturing?

And Erin's exclusive interview with the prime minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed (ph), she asks him about Iran OUTFRONT next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: The U.S. has a warning for Iran -- it's pretty simple -- don't try it. Iran is threatening to block tankers trying to pass through one of the world's most strategically important choke points. You see it there, the right of your screen, the Strait of Hormuz.

Angered by possible sanctions, Iran is backing up its threat by staging naval maneuvers in the area. That as the U.S. Navy issues its own warning to Tehran to tread carefully. Quote, "Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community; any disruption will not be tolerated."

We should note that both Iran and the United States patrol that particular area.

To put a bigger perspective on the story, I want to bring in retired U.S. Army General James Marks.

General Marks, good to talk to you.

GEN. JAMES MARKS (RET), U.S. ARMY: Hey, Ali. How are you?

VELSHI: What do you make of this Navy statement, the U.S. Navy statement? I mean, you've seen this many times before, this saber rattling with Iran about the Strait of Hormuz. It's not new.

MARKS: No, it's not new at all. And the U.S. Central Command owns that piece of terrain, that piece of geography, as they say. And the subordinate to that is the U.S. Fifth Fleet. And the Fifth Fleet has been headquartered in Bahrain for years. They know that, that Strait of Hormuz, intimately.

And part of their mission set is to ensure freedom of movement. And that's what the Navy does and sea lines of communications all over the world. And very specifically, this very narrow choke point is mission number one for them to ensure that 40 percent of the oil supply and demand that passes through the strait will continue uninterrupted.

VELSHI: Right. The issue is, for folks who don't know, it really is a choke point. I mean, a lot of oil for the Middle East gets send off in pipelines. But a lot of it gets loaded into ships and gets sent through that Strait of Hormuz, which is now small enough, it's narrow enough that a big gun on either could disrupt a ship.

The U.S. is there. There's never been -- there's never been an attack on a ship there. But the U.S. has always said that it is ready if there's an attempted disruption. What would that look like?

MARKS: Well, first, let's make sure that we're straight on the numbers. Ninety percent of the oil that's produced in the region passes through the strait.

VELSHI: Right. So, that's about 15 percent or 16 percent of the, I guess, world's oil passes through there.

MARKS: It's 40 percent of the world's oil. So, it's a huge -- without getting into numbers.

VELSHI: Sure.

MARKS: It's a huge monster amount of oil.

It absolutely would disrupt international markets instantaneously if it was blockaded. Now, to the point of blockade versus disruption, Iran can disrupt the flow of oil or anything that's passing through the Strait of Hormuz. They can do that from the air. They can do that with surface to surface missiles.

They don't have the ability to establish a blockade. A blockade is extremely restrictive.

VELSHI: Right.

MARKS: It would require actions from the air, subsurface, surface lane of mines, subsurface mine activity -- and every one of those actions would be surveilled and picked up by the United States intelligence community instantaneously, which means, they, the Iranians, would never get in a position to fully institute a blockade.

VELSHI: Could they set a tanker on fire?

MARKS: Oh, sure. But you blow right by it and say, really unfortunate to be on that tanker while it's on fire.

VELSHI: Right.

MARKS: It's not going to disrupt the whole passage. The strait is 34 miles.

VELSHI: Right.

MARKS: But it has three islands. And it has two miles of passageway for inward and outward-bound shipping.

VELSHI: Right.

MARKS: Include a two-mile buffer zone. So there's plenty of room to get all of those tanks through. So, to set a tanker on fire would really have a negligible effect.

VELSHI: I mean, look, it will probably have an effect in markets, if somebody saw -- you know, everything has an effect on oil markets these days.

MARKS: In fact, Ali, the fact that the Iranians made the statement, spike the price of oil today. It's metered down a little bit. But absolutely, activities like that would affect the markets.

VELSHI: All right. But you don't think that anything could happen that couldn't be brought under control by United States patrolling that are almost instantaneously.

MARKS: True statement on your part. Absolutely. They wouldn't let that happen.

VELSHI: General Marks, always a pleasure talking to you. Thanks for joining us.

MARKS: Thanks, Ali, very much.

VELSHI: Opposition against the Syrian President Bashar al- Assad's regime continues in the flashpoint city of Homs. This amateur video shows what looks like Arab League monitors in orange vest. They are taking cover during heavy gunfire.

Now, the firefight coming on the same day that the head of the Arab League team said that what the monitors have seen so far in Homs was messy, there was nothing particularly frightening about it.

As you just saw, violence is growing in Syria. Recent scenes out of Cairo show Egypt in disarray. But there are few countries in the Middle East which have escaped significant unrest in the Arab Spring. And one of them is the United Arab Emirates.

Erin Burnett has spent a lot of time in the Middle East and in the UAE. And recently, she spent a day with the prime minister of the UAE, the ruler of Dubai.

There he is. His name is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, that man that expats refer to as Sheikh Mo. Locals call, "His Highness".

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": A perfect December day to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of the youngest countries in the world. This is the United Arab Emirates -- and the man who built its crowned jewel, Dubai, is still at the helm.

A dream of skyscrapers where 40 years ago, there were literally sand dunes, tents, and small ports. Now, the world's tallest building rises from the desert -- the center of the city, and the backdrop for the rich and famous, including Tom Cruise and his stunt move for the latest movie, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," where he dangled from 153 stories in the air.

In the year of the Arab Spring, this city is a haven for people seeking escape.

Judy Essa (ph) is a student from Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Living here alone. I never felt unsafe, I've never felt like uncomfortable of living here.

BURNETT: Even the ruler still walks without a security detail. Dubai is diverse. Eighty-five percent of the people who live here are expats and people from 200 countries pass through. So far, though, there's been no suicide bomber in this city.

(on camera): Are you worried that extremists, someone would want to target with a terrorist act, because you got -- people can drink in the bars, women can wear bikinis in the Middle East? HH SHEIKH MOHAMMED BIN RASHID AL MAKTOUM, RULER OF DUBAI: That has not been a problem for us. You know, they are living together and have an interest to come here so they work and sent home some money from here. So, they don't want to disturb that, you know?

BURNETT (voice-over): The sheikh begins his day at his horse ranch, about an hour's drive from Dubai.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: And the horse and the falcon and the dog is part of our life.

BURNETT: In the summer, it's about 120 degrees Fahrenheit. But on a December day we visited, it was about 80 -- perfect weather to watch Emirati governing in action.

It's called majlis, when the Emiratis have a chance to directly petition their ruler for everything, from more land to liver transplants.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: Anybody, we got the majlis, where everybody can come to their ruler and say, well, I didn't get that or that, or this department or this ministry didn't give me my right.

BURNETT (on camera): And they directly ask you? You didn't do this, or I want that and then you have to answer to the individual person?

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: Yes. And they would complain about that one ministry. So, I get hold of them and said why.

BURNETT (voice-over): He tells us he likes to sleep in the desert alone every 10 days like a Bedouin. But he is a royal. And in a country sitting on 10 percent of the world's oil, that means transportation is a $20 million helicopter. The ride takes 25 minutes to Abu Dhabi, the political capital of the Emirates, a city literally perched on top of the country's oil.

Abu Dhabi rakes in $9 billion a month in cash, money used to prop Dubai up after its real estate crash -- a crash that left some of the famous manmade islands empty. Now, real estate prices are 26 percent lower than just two years ago, and one of two homes are now empty.

According to expert (INAUDIBLE), he has spent the last decade living and working in Dubai.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clearly they need support and they needed support in 2009 when Abu Dhabi stepped in and bailed them out.

BURNETT: That bailout meant a loss of Dubai Sheik Mohammed. Even the name of the Burj Dubai became the Burj Khalifa, named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Mohammed's cabinet meetings are in Abu Dhabi. The one we sat in on was about the budget which is now posted online, a move to transparency that resonates with some students in the midst of revolution, like Egypt. Monica Ishak (ph) is Egyptian and a senior at the American University of Dubai.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Emirates should be a role model for our countries with the way it's ruled.

BURNETT: But it's not that simple.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, Dubai has been the front-runner in terms of freedom of the press in the region, and especially relative to Abu Dhabi, it's known to be far more open.

But since 2008, 2009 financial crisis, we have seen some missteps. There has been somewhat of a clamp down in the media. You know, the transparency has been somewhat questionable. Investors have wanted more access and more data that hasn't really been there. So, they are concerned.

BURNETT (on camera): People will say, the press isn't totally free.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: As long as they don't say something wrong about a person or what authorities, they can say anything they want. As I told you, we are not perfect. We are still learning.

BURNETT: Do you think that democracy is a good thing?

SHEIK MOHAMMED: We have our own democracy. You cannot transport your democracy to us.

BURNETT: Your son Hamdan will rule after you, father to son. Will that continue forever, do you think?

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: As long as the people want that.

BURNETT (voice-over): Still, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, some say Dubai sheikh and the rulers in Abu Dhabi are using money to prevent unrest.

(on camera): Salaries for government workers, I know you recently doubled that.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: Yes.

BURNETT: And some say it's because you were worried about unrest in the UAE from the Arab Spring. Is there any truth in that?

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: No. It's not because of the Arab Spring. We did it before the Arab Spring started and we did it before that. If you look at the last 10 years, you will see we have doubled a few times.

BURNETT (voice-over): Whatever the motivation, and our many visits here, the young and most of the expats are pro-government.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to thank his highness for what he has done for us, for everything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In one word, Sheikh Mohammed is a visionary.

BURNETT: Albeit with a vision of freedom that is different than the West. Here you can go to jail if you don't pay your mortgage. But the sheikh is not embarrassed about his reputation.

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: Well, you know, you don't put in jail everybody that comes here.

BURNETT: Sheikh Mohammed is focused on one thing, building a city on a hill and the part of the world where hills are few and far between.

(on camera): How much farther do you want to go?

SHEIKH MOHAMMED: To be number one.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VELSHI: Another issue Erin and the sheikh talked is Iran. Erin reported that while it's often overlooked, Iranians owned about 20 percent of Dubai's property. And Iranian money helped build Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed admitted to Erin that U.S. sanctions on Iran are not good for Dubai but he also told her he doesn't believe Iran will develop a nuclear weapon.

Let's check in with Anderson Cooper with a look at what's ahead tonight on "A.C. 360" -- Anderson.

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "A.C. 360": Ali, we're covering a story you just touched on, digging deeper on Syria, just ahead on the program, take a look at this video. It's life in Homs, Syria. People throwing bread across the street, they can't walk across the street because of snipers -- a sniper that you hear actually shooting.

You can't cross the street for fear of being shot. We're going to speak with a journalist who took this video.

Also tonight, keeping them honest, a man sent by the Arab League to assess the violence in Syria, he's a Sudanese general accused of being involved in the genocide in Darfur. That does that make any sense? We're going to speak with Fouad Ajami about that.

Also tonight, the choreography, the funeral of the dictator really just a stunning scene in North Korea, almost competitive grieving. We'll talk with our panel about how mourners fear punishment by the oppressive regime for not demonstrating they are sufficiently distraught images today from this funeral, just really shocking. We're going to show you the most interesting moments.

Those stories, also remarkable turn of political turn of events in Iowa, and tonight's "Ridiculist," the countdown of the year's best "Ridiculist" at the top of the hour, Ali. VELSHI: Again, competing grieving, that's a good way to put it. Really look like people were trying to outdo the person next them to show how sad they were that Kim Jong Il was gone.

All right. Anderson, we look forward to it. We'll see you later on tonight.

COOPER: Thanks, Ali.

VELSHI: Well, a family of five killed in a house fire on Christmas Day. We've got the disturbing details about their final moments.

And the latest developments in the murder of a 9-year-old Indiana girl and the man arrested for the crime when he murdered and dismembered her, and he was already wanted for violating his parole.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: Autopsy results are in for the five family members killed in a tragic Christmas day fire in Stamford, Connecticut. The grandfather, Lomer Johnson, died of blunt force head and neck trauma after falling through the roof rafters while trying to save one of his grandchildren. That's him in the Santa Claus outfit.

Johnson also died of smoke inhalation as did his wife and three grandchildren. The children's mother, New York ad executive, Madonna Badger, and a friend, escaped the deadly blaze. Fire officials say the fire was caused by fireplace embers placed in the back of the $1.7 million home.

Joining us from Westport, Connecticut, is Robert Goulston. He's a reporter for our affiliate station WFSB.

Robert, thanks for joining us.

The news today is the autopsy results. What else unfolded? The blunt-force trauma clearly from the fall and they've ruled out foul play?

ROBERT GOULSTON, REPORTER, WFSB (via telephone): Ali, yes, there is no foul play being investigated. Sources telling us that the fact that even that they put these ashes in an area that didn't properly discard them does not rise to the negligent levels. So they are not pursing that in any way.

But there are still questions going on right now about whether they should have been in certain parts of that home. This was huge home. As you said, it was a $1.7 million home and there was a major section of it being renovated.

So they were not allowed to be actually living in that space, so they are looking into that and they are looking into a few other things, including whether the smoke detection system was enabled at that point. VELSHI: Let me just ask you this. Is -- the house -- there was some issue about permits because there was construction being done on this house. That's what the concern was, right?

GOULSTON: Exactly, yes. They were allowed to be in the house and they were allowed to live in certain parts of it. It was a massive house. But the second floor was being completely renovated.

So, right now, they are trying to figure out if they were living in that section, if people were living in that section of the house. And if so, that was not a safe area to be sleeping.

And also, as part of the renovation, they were putting into this new smoke detection system. And according to the building inspector yesterday at a major news conference, that was not connected. They do not believe that it was connected, but they are not able to be sure about that because the damage to the house was so significant. I mean, this fire more or less devoured this house.

VELSHI: Right. And they've already taken down the house because it was so unsafe.

Let me ask you this, Robert, where are they getting their information from? Investigators. Have they been able to interview the mother and her friend?

GOULSTON: They talked to Mrs. Badger the morning after she came out of the house. Of course, you can only imagine, she just lost her family in one fell swoop. They were able to talk to her preliminarily.

They were able to talk to her preliminary there. They are now working to get more information out of her, also her friend Michael Borcina, who is actually the one who was also doing all of the contract work on the house. He just was released from the hospital today.

They have not been able to do those follow-up interviews. They're giving her time to grieve, of course. Of course, she lost her three young daughters and her own parents.

VELSHI: Robert, thanks very much for bringing us up to speed on such a tragic story. Robert Goulston with our affiliate WFSB.

The father of missing mom Michelle Parker is now calling on police to wrap up the search for his daughter. Bob Parker and his wife told affiliate WESH that police aren't looking hard enough in the right place.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB PARKER, MICHELLE PARKER'S FATHER: Search Lake Connelly. I mean, that's where her phone was found.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Being the phone was in that vicinity, common sense makes you feel they should focus on searching there. (END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Police say finding Michelle is their top priority. The mother of three disappeared more than a month ago, just hours after appearing on the TV show, "The People's Court," with her ex-fiance, Dale Smith. Smith is currently the prime suspect in the case.

A $30,000 reward is already helping in the search for a missing toddler, Ayla Reynolds. Police say the reward was offered two days ago. They've got about 100 new leads. The 20-month-old was last seen 11 days ago when her father put her to bed in their Waterville home. The $30,000 reward is believed to be the largest ever offered for a missing person in Maine.

We're learning more today about the family friend who has admitted to murdering and dismembering a 9-year-old girl that he was supposed to be baby-sitting. It turns out Michael Plumadore was wanted in Florida for violating probation. The Florida Department of Corrections said Plumadore was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer, firefighter or EMS worker, back in 2000. He had been sentenced to a year of supervision and ordered to take an anger management class. But instead of serving his time, he disappeared.

Now, Plumadore faces murder charges in Indiana in the death of a Aliahna Lemmon and is being held without bond.

Allen County Indiana sheriff Ken Fries joins me now on the phone.

Sheriff, thanks very much for joining us. We know that Plumadore has already confessed to striking Aliahna over the head with a brick, dismembering her body, and storing some of her body parts in his freezer.

What more have you learned about this?

SHERIFF KEN FRIES (via telephone): Well, Ali, you know, the concern now about the fact we have a trial coming up, so we can't say much more than what has been released from the probable hearing yesterday. Formal charges will be read on Friday. And at that time, I'm sure more information will be forthcoming. But we have to be concerned about making sure that we don't release too much that could jeopardize the trial.

VELSHI: Sure. Are you able to tell us about a motive?

FRIES: We can't really discuss the motive. You can't discuss too much more than has been done. The investigation is continuing, is on-going.

VELSHI: All right. Now, this man was watching Aliahna and her sisters. Do you know where the sisters were at the time she was allegedly killed?

FRIES: We can't really discuss that. We do have an idea where they were. You have to remember, this is a small home, it's a trailer home. And we do know the siblings were there in the area. VELSHI: How is the family doing?

FRIES: The family seems to be dealing with this, I guess, as anyone would expect them to.

VELSHI: I guess, I mean -- I don't know how you balance the sense of relief that you solve the case and you found the suspect, but what a tragic end for this little girl.

FRIES: Yes. It is a horrible emotional roller coaster, we had been searching since the 23rd for this little 9-year-old girl. As time marched on, we certainly hope began to wane that we would find her alive.

VELSHI: All right. Well, it's shaken the community. Sheriff, thanks for joining us. We appreciate talking to you.

FRIES: You're welcome.

Well, let's talk about the comedy stylings of Arlen Specter. It happened and we've got the tape.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: A couple of comedians are in hot water over things they tweeted this week.

First up, the host of HBO's "Real Time," Bill Maher. Following a 40-14 Broncos' loss to the Buffalo Bills on Christmas Eve, Maher he tweeted this, "Wow, Jesus just blanked Tim Tebow bad and on Christmas Eve. Somewhere in hell, Satan is Tebowing, saying to Hitler saying, hey, Buffalo's killing them."

As you can imagine, Christian groups are pretty angry. And according to "The L.A. Times," they are now calling for a boycott of all HBO shows.

But Maher is not the only comedian making people angry. Actor and comedian Denis Leary offended Islamic groups this week when his production company tweeted a link to this video.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARTOON CHARACTER: Considered converting to Islam? I converted when I went to prison.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: A Charlie Brown Christmas spoof features Charlie Brown coping with doubts about his Christianity by converting to Islam and building a flawed bomb. Despite the fact that it's from Comedy Central, it's a special that's almost 7 years old, critics called it jaw-droppingly Islamophobic.

So far, neither Maher nor Leary have apologized, nor it seems do they plan to. Well, we go from political comedians to comedy from politicians. Former Senator Arlen Specter tried his hand at standup last night using material he says he got from his political experience. He performed a mostly sex-filled set at an open mike in Philly.

Yes, we can't show you most of the set. Here are some of the more TV appropriate highlights.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And this guy, (INAUDIBLE) Arlen Specter.

ARLEN SPECTER, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Congress tells a joke, it becomes a law. Whenever Congress passes a law, it turns out to be a joke.

(INAUDIBLE) 65th birthday, I said, Bill, congratulations on 65. How do you feel? He said I feel like a teenager, but problem is I can't find one.

Herman Cain -- I feel sorry for Herman Cain, (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Who knew Arlen Specter and the dirty jokes.

All right. That does it for me. Brooke Baldwin will be in for Erin tomorrow night.

But, first, the man that will ring in the New Year for CNN. "ANDERSON COOPER 360" starts right now.