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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Decision Day in Iowa; Arrest in Los Angeles Arson Spree; L.A. Arson Suspect Arrested; "Occupy Octopus" Tails Rose Parade

Aired January 3, 2012 - 05:00   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning to you, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

We are bringing you the news from A to Z. Yesterday was our first day. Today, we're kind of feeling comfortable.

BANFIELD: Old hat. Old hat.

Five a.m. in the East. And, boy, we had very busy -- shall we say very busy day for today. Because it's the big day.

SAMBOLIN: It is indeed. It's decision day in Iowa.

Will Romney hold on to win this? What about that Santorum surge? We're going to talk about that.

Candidates are saying that. And voters hear the final pitches before the first real test of 2012.

BANFIELD: Yes. And we were getting you up to speed on those bizarre fires. Now, look at this man with the ponytail. He's been arrested.

This is the worst string of fires in that city since the riots of '92. And get this -- there may be immigration beef allegedly involved with this arrest. Lots more to tell you about that. That's coming up.

SAMBOLIN: He looked like he was kind of smirking in that video as well.

BANFIELD: Didn't he?

SAMBOLIN: A man accused of killing a park ranger at Mt. Rainier, he is found dead face down in a waterfall. Apparently, the exposure to all the cold there. So, the mountain is shut down as the rangers now regroup and mourn the loss of one of their own.

BANFIELD: Well, and you know what? We don't worry so much that the sniper is out there because the FBI has shut down the search. They pretty much figure they've got the guy. And he's dead. So, hopefully, the threat is over there.

Also, who did you feel it this morning when you woke up or did you have to shovel it? It has been a serious cold day in the Midwest. It's just basically slamming us this weather. It's actually moving into the East as well. A couple feet of snow in some places in the Great Lakes and down in the Appalachians as well.

So, if you woke up to se this or feel it, you're not alone. There's strength in numbers.

SAMBOLIN: Terrible. Did you feel that cold blast of air this morning?

BANFIELD: And look at Ms. Z (ph).

SAMBOLIN: Warm in here.

BANFIELD: Look at Ms. Z. She's sleeveless.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, it's nice and toasty warm in here.

BANFIELD: In studio on caucus day.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, let's start here first. It is decision day in Iowa. We've heard from the candidates. Now, it's time to hear from the people.

After hundreds of town hall, dozens of bus tours, the candidates are making final pitch for your vote. Mitt Romney confident but hedging, he's careful not to sound overconfident, however.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'd love to be number one. Anybody would be. But coming in second or third is fine if we're all close together. It would give all three of us as a real new boost as we go into New Hampshire, and as we go into South Carolina and Florida. So, my guess is if the polls are right, three folks are going to have some supercharge coming out of Iowa.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Did you hear Newt Gingrich admit that he cannot win Iowa? He's confident he'll do well in the South a little later this month. And he insists Romney's campaign is fatally flawed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He can't attract any conservatives. In a party that is basically conservative, that bodes pretty badly for his long-term prospects. So, I think I'll actually leave here strategically in better position than Governor Romney.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: That was on Piers Morgan last night.

So, Iowa has been a wild ride. Bachmann led in June, Cain in October, Gingrich and Paul both front-runners in December. Now, it looks like Romney is on top.

So, joining us live from Iowa, we have Erick Erickson, editor in chief of RedState.com, and live from San Diego, Ruben Navarrette, syndicated columnist, "Washington Post" writer.

Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us.

So, I think it's an understatement to say this is an unsettled field. There had been about seven head changes in the last six months. But Romney has been holding pretty steady here, 24 percent, 25 percent. Has he reached his ceiling or can he actually get this conservative base back on board with him?

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I think he will probably go up in the polls a little bit after this. People are going to begin to consolidate. But he really is quite remarkable. And, by the way, the Des Moines River is starting to freeze over. That's how cold it is here.

And while he's campaigning around the state, you've got to remember, Romney has been campaigning since 2006. He's going from an average of 23 percent in the polls to an average of 23 percent of the polls.

SAMBOLIN: But do we think that he can increase his conservative base? Because at the end of the day, that's what he's going to need going forward.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I don't think he can.

ERICKSON: He will be able to increase it some.

SAMBOLIN: I'm sorry -- Ruben?

NAVARRETTE: I was going to say, I don't think he can. I think that the problem is going to be if you don't like Romney to begin with, it's very hard for you to warm up to him just because he's the de facto nominee or even if he has the best chance to beat Obama.

People I think, particularly in Iowa, they're charged very serious. And they're going to choose the candidate they want, not necessarily the candidate who is long-term electable. That's why he can't breakout to the ceiling. It is startling to see 3/4 of the party not warm up to Romney. And the experts are telling us that, oh, don't worry, they'll come around.

I don't think they will. They don't seem to embrace his candidacy. That's not going to change.

SAMBOLIN: So, let's talk about who is in first, second and third? A lot of people are saying out there, actually, when you read -- when you read this morning, they're thinking this could perhaps be a three-way tie. Do you gentlemen agree?

ERICKSON: Yes, I think for a little bit, it is going to be a three-way tie. The interesting is, as Mary Matalin was saying last night, and I'm hearing the same, that the Santorum surge has stalled out fairly completely around Iowa. It was big for a few days and the crowds aren't coming in the droves that they were. A lot of people coming are undecided. They're not necessarily there for Santorum.

It looks like it could be a three-way tie which opens up the lead a little bit to people like Perry and to Gingrich and to Bachmann if they don't drop out going to the South Carolina. They can still in until Florida because, remember, there are only going to be 10 delegates in the next two weeks who were picked between Iowa and New Hampshire. You got another 75 picked in South Carolina and Florida.

SAMBOLIN: Ruben, let's talk a little about Santorum because a lot of folks are saying that this surge cannot last, that he has very little money. That he has virtually no national infrastructure and no clear path to his nomination, that he cannot even afford a rental car.

So, how can he continue this momentum?

NAVARRETTE: Right, because I think all of that will change if he finishes first or second coming out of Iowa. The checks will come in. The fundraiser will be there. People will be enthusiastic about him.

I'm not sure he's the best candidate. But I know he's caught fire and I think that that's very important this close to the election. It's momentum that carries people through. It's enthusiasm that gets them out in the Iowa cold to go out there and caucus.

So, I think it's really his to lose in that regard. He's peaking at just the right moment.

And also, it's very telling that Mitt Romney seems so enthusiastic about these three tickets coming out of Iowa being Romney, Paul and Santorum because he's not afraid frankly of either Romney or Santorum. Maybe he should be.

SAMBOLIN: So, Erick, let's focus a little bit here before we go on Newt Gingrich. Of course, he is saying that he's not going to win Iowa. Do you think that he's discouraging his base support? Was that a huge mistake he made?

ERICKSON: You know, I think it was. He didn't necessarily have to say he was going to win. He didn't have to say anything about his position other than "I'm going to do quite well" is what he should have said.

Look, if he comes in behind Rick Perry, there are going to be huge calls for him to consider getting out. None of them are going to get out until South Carolina, I don't think. But the longer they stay in, the more it helps Mitt Romney. Romney profits from the confusion here. He profits from the rise of Santorum.

And these other guys, some of them like Mitt Romney. But Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry don't. They're going to have to decide, do we want to risk Mitt Romney or are we going to make a deal and decide one of us needs o to go.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Ruben Navarrette and Erick Erickson, we're going to talk much more to you this morning. Thanks for joining us now.

ERICKSON: Thank you.

BANFIELD: All right. Let's go check to Los Angeles. We've been talking about the really bizarre fire spree, over 50 fires that had sparked in that area.

And now, they're not burning anymore and there's this brand new video that we can show you from an overnight arrest. The man in the ponytail has been brought in. He's 24-year-old Harry Burkhart.

They believe they may have their guy if you believe what they are actually saying to reporters on the scene, that they've got some evidence that came from his van. He's been charged with a single count of arson. Remember, I told you there were over 50 fires, 53 fires to be exact in just four days.

You can see some of the video that we've been showing you over the last couple days. Most of those fires were breaking out in carports, cars, particularly ones that were underneath apartment buildings. And that's what caused the disastrous video you're seeing right now.

The sources are telling "The L.A. Times" that this suspect, Mr. Burkhart, is apparently a native of Germany. This may have an immigration connection as well.

Our CNN reporter, Casey Wian, is on the scene in Los Angeles.

Casey, I think it's pretty telling no matter what they had said, the officials on the ground in Los Angeles, about thinking they have their guy. It's pretty telling that all the fires stopped the minute they took him in.

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. As we were discussing yesterday about this time, there had just been a rash of 11 fires near West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles and into the San Fernando Valley. And then about 3:00 in the morning local time, they did arrest this suspect and the fires stopped and we have another quiet night tonight at least so far, Ashleigh.

What authorities are saying, they're crediting a lot of different fires to being able to arrest this suspect. They say the key tip came from U.S. State Department because of that connection regarding an alleged immigration dispute with this suspect's mother. Also, they're talking about surveillance video that was released over the weekend of the man emerging from the underground parking garage here in Hollywood. And they're also crediting tips from the public who were very alert because so many members of the public were afraid of this arsonist who was going around setting fires to, as you mentioned, more than 50 cars.

In the words of one L.A. city councilman, , the city's four-day nightmare is now over, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: I'm fascinated. You say that the State Department got involved in this and that's where that immigration information came from. I have a feeling we're going to hear a lot more about that.

But, Casey, before we do that, I could not believe it when I heard the deputy who made this arrest is a part-time guy. He's actually a lawyer who moonlights as a deputy. He was vigilant and he actually spotted the van.

What else do we know about this -- I suppose we could call him a hero at this point?

WIAN: Well, that's what local officials, that's exactly what local officials are calling him. His name is Shervin Lalezary. He's a full-time attorney in the Los Angeles area. He also has been working as a short period of time as a reserve deputy for $1 a year. Sheriff Lee Baca joked yesterday that maybe he'll get a raise to $2 a year now that he's caught this suspect, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: I love stories like this. I mean, this is terrific that this guy was, you know, on the ball when he was patrolling.

One really quick question for you about evidence, because one of charge of arson so far, 53 fires. Does anybody know yet what exactly might have been in that van that Mr. Burkhart was caught in? Because it sounds to me like what they're saying is they got the guy and they feel like what they found in the van is the definitive connection.

WIAN: Well, that's what they're saying. In a news conference last night, they said they found fire sticks in the van. Now, they say that he's only been charged with one count of arson at this point, but they expect more charges to be filed as this investigation continues. They're still poring over the scenes. For now, he's being held without bail, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Casey, fire sticks, I've never heard of that. Thank you for that.

I'm going to check that, into that a little bit more when we talk with the mayor of West Hollywood who is coming up in just a few moments from now. He's going to join us to talk about not only the investigation but also how the community is reacting to this. So, John Duran coming up, shortly.

SAMBOLIN: And harsh winds and snow showers continue this morning around the Great Lakes. Beware, there are icy roads making for very dangerous driving conditions.

Meteorologist Rob Marciano joins us with the very latest on this forecast.

Boy, what a change.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Oh, yes. And people as far South as Atlanta, all the way down to South Beach folks are feeling the chill.

First, we'll start off with the snowfall totals here, guys. Columbus, Pennsylvania, 20, Cattaraugus, New York. So, this is a lake-effect snow area. So, this is no surprise really. But it's been a slow start to the season, no doubt about that.

Fourteen right now in Chicago, 30 in New York. But it's 25 in Atlanta and wind chills are in the single numbers in some of these areas.

Streamers coming off the lakes again today, it won't be as intense as it was yesterday. But, nonetheless, there will be whiteout conditions in some spots and we have lake-effect snow warnings that are in effect for the usual spots. Cleveland up through Buffalo, east towards Syracuse. Could see as much as another eight inches on top of what they've already seen.

Three to six inches across parts of the western slopes of the Appalachians. As far south as the Smoky, maybe into the Blue Ridge across parts of Tennessee and north Georgia. There, your wind chill advisories and freeze warnings deep into the heart of Florida, not only this morning, but tomorrow as well. So, that's going to be a dangerous situation for citrus crops.

And if you're travelling today, not (ph) as many delays, but it will be breezy in New York. And as usual, that will slow down places like LaGuardia.

Guys, back over to you.

BANFIELD: All right. Rob, thank you for that.

Every morning after Rob Marciano, at least we figure that's going to be the order of the day. We're still working this out.

We like to get you something called the EARLY START to your day. And it's not just about news that you've been watching last night. It's about news that's actually going to be happening a little bit later on, still developing. And we're keeping an eye on it closely.

SAMBOLIN: So, we're going to begin today in China where a senior U.S. diplomat arrives in Beijing today for talks on North Korea. Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs will also visit South Korea and Japan during this four-day trip.

BANFIELD: Potential break in a cold murder case in Massachusetts. Authorities in Hampton County have uncovered new forensic evidence in the disappearance and murder of 10-year-old Holly Piirainen. It happened back in 1993. Folks are saying they're going to hold a news conference a little later on this morning.

SAMBOLIN: And in about two hours, the first family will be wheels down in Washington. They're returning from that lovely vacation in Hawaii. Tonight, President Obama plans to address his Iowa supporters, but by video conference.

So, you see what they're wearing when they left Hawaii. They're landing in the Northeast.

BANFIELD: Mr. President, madam first lady, it is real cold. When you get home, I hope you have a sweater.

SAMBOLIN: I'm sure coats will be waiting for them or they'll be changing on board, right?

It is 14 minutes past the hour.

U.S. markets back open this morning after being closed yesterday for the New Year's holiday. The Dow, NASDAQ, S&P 500 all closed lower on Friday.

Right now, stock futures are pointing to a lower open this morning.

BANFIELD: Let's bring in Christine Romans who is adorable and brilliant.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Oh, and cold.

BANFIELD: And freezing.

ROMANS: The first family is cold and the year was cold for stock investors.

BANFIELD: Did you get the memo for wearing cardigans.

ROMANS: I know. Can you believe it? I wish I had -- I don't know, it's cold.

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back.

ROMANS: Thank you. Nice to see you, guys. Happy New Year.

BANFIELD: Did you get a break at all since the market has been closed for three days? Does it feel like a year and a half?

ROMANS: You know, it was such a long and tortured year that you really needed a break, you really needed a break, because when you look at what happened in stocks last year, they barely moved, right? After all of that, at the end, they barely moved.

And this year, CNN Money has an exclusive survey of economists and stock strategist. And they expect the S&P 500 to go up by about seven percent this year.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: Seven percent is really not enough.

BANFIELD: Which ones?

ROMANS: Exactly, which ones got more than 7 percent, right?

So, 7 percent comes after the smallest move really ever for the S&P ever. Last year, the S&P was down .003 percent. It barely moved after Arab spring, after remember, the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the debt downgrade in the U.S. -- all these concerns about the U.S. economy and, of course, the European economy.

So, look forward for next year, this year now, we have to say, 2012, looks as though stock experts think we'll see gains this year, that's if the U.S. economy continues to slowly heal, you guys, and if Europe doesn't completely devolve.

BANFIELD: Meet me at the 401(k) computer and we'll talk later.

ROMANS: Yes, absolutely. I hope you guys got to rebalance, remember?

SAMBOLIN: That's the mantra. Thank you very much, Christine Romans.

BANFIELD: I'm thanking you about that. Thank you, Christine.

Fifteen minutes now, 16 minutes now past the hour. Time to check the top stories of the morning.

The candidates have spoken and now Iowa caucus-goers are going to be able to speak themselves. Mitt Romney and Ron Paul leading the polls, going in. Rick Santorum giving the good old push. Many say that Iowans still have their chance to change their minds, though.

SAMBOLIN: The Iraq war veteran suspected of killing a park ranger has been dead. Twenty-four-year-old Benjamin Barnes was discovered lying face down in an icy creek on Mt. Rainier. Investigators believe he died from cold weather condition. Barnes is accused of gunning down Mt. Rainier park ranger Margaret Anderson on New Year's Day.

BANFIELD: And in Egypt, prosecutors are beginning to present their case today in the trial of Hosni Mubarak. Does it feel like they should be over by now?

The former Egyptian was wheeled into the courtroom on a gurney. Of course, he probably remember before all the other Arab spring stories, he's accused of ordering protesters killed during that country's uprising last year.

He could learn his fate by the end of this morning. So, we're keeping an eye on that trial for you.

SAMBOLIN: And still to come this morning, a suspect in custody in the arson attacks across Los Angeles. We're going to talk to West Hollywood, or the mayor there, right after the break.

BANFIELD: And it's either ugly or real pretty. The giant corporate octopus, the symbol of greed, the ugliest rose parade you'll ever see? Not if you ask occupiers.

We'll talk about the Occupy octopus in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Good morning. And welcome back.

We are sitting in a nice cool studio at 21 minutes past the hour. There's weather all over the country. But we're also finding out what's going on in your local communities as well.

SAMBOLIN: We have some early reads of the newspaper this morning. And we're going to start with Tallahassee, Florida.

And I'll have Philadelphia, you go first.

BANFIELD: OK, you got Philly, I'll do Florida.

I tell you what? This is a disturbing story, especially if you're a parent. In "The Tallahassee Democrat," you've probably been following the story that had the drum major who was allegedly beaten in a hazing incident on the bus. His name was Robert Champion.

Well, Florida A&M has decided to put together something it's calling an independent panel of experts to try to figure out how to deal with hazing and stomp it out. They're calling it a blue ribbon panel, anti-hazing panel.

By the way, this is a homicide at this point. This isn't just a hazing incident. This is a homicide. So, this is going to get a lot more traction in the days to come, and probably other universities will be watching very closely what Florida A&M decides to do with its panel of advice givers. I don't know what they're going to advise, but it's interesting to watch.

SAMBOLIN: Well, the hazing is very popular across a lot of colleges and universities.

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: It wasn't violent when I was in college. It wasn't violent. There was a lot of drinking, but it wasn't violent.

SAMBOLIN: I'm glad to see that they're putting that panel together. I think that's a very good idea.

All right. So, let's move on to the "Philadelphia Inquirer." Mayor Nutter is sworn in for a second term. Lots of pomp and circumstance four years ago because he promised to cut homicides. So, right now, Philly tops the list of the city with the highest homicide rates of the nation's 10 most populous cities.

So he failed. However, he does say he's going to take on gun control now, gun legislation. So, we'll see how he fares there. And --

BANFIELD: That's not such a bad failure if you get a second term, right? You may not have met your goals. But --

SAMBOLIN: Yes, it's kind of interesting that he did, maybe it's because he is going after the gun legislation, which he's going to have a hard time doing it, because he's got some people who are really fighting him on that. So, we'll follow that story for you.

BANFIELD: Let's go from one mayor on one coast to a mayor on another coast. This is a big story that's got a lot of people of America talking.

It's that series of fires in Los Angeles. In fact, we can rest a little easier this morning, especially if you're in that community. Police say they have put an end to that arson spree, but not before about $3 million in damage was inflicted on the community.

Twenty-four-year-old Harry Burkhart from Germany originally in custody. He's the one smiling to the left of your screen there with the ponytail. Not sure what he's smiling about. At this point, he's charged with one count of arson.

But the officials there are saying certainly more charges may come down the pike, because there are 52 fires that were raging in just the last four days. An immigration beef is what we're starting to hear about as a potential motive in this, if in fact this suspect is the person.

Joining me now live from Los Angeles, the mayor of West Hollywood, John Duran.

Good morning, Mr. Mayor. Can you hear me OK?

MAYOR JOHN DURAN, WEST HOLLYWOOD: Yes, I can. Good morning.

BANFIELD: You know, Mayor Duran, this is such a bizarre story. We quoted a statistic a little earlier on in the program that there hasn't been this kind of violent spree since the '92 riots.

Do you feel pretty confident at this point that the police have their man?

DURAN: You know, as I was driving down Sunset Boulevard to get here to CNN, I have to tell you, it's the first night in many nights I didn't hear sirens all over the city. And for the last, you know, four nights, we've had sirens going off, 1:00, 2:00, 4:00 in the morning, siren after siren after siren. And tonight, it's quiet and it's cool. Back to normal.

BANFIELD: I feel that. I hear it. I get the sense that people are at ease.

But I still am a little confused, to set that many fires with one set of hands is pretty hard to do in four days. And that's why I'm so curious as to why they think they have their person or if there may be more people out there who may have been connected to the suspect.

DURAN: There may be more people out there. I know the investigation is on going. The person in custody is being interviewed to see what he's got to offer. Search warrants were served on his home earlier today. More evidence is being collected.

There may be additional people. But to cause that much havoc in such a large swath of the city over the last four days, you're right. It does suggest more than one people involved.

BANFIELD: OK. So you say a search warrant executed on the home. We had a feeling that the first search warrant was executed on the van, because comments came in overnight about the van yielding a plethora of information. And our Casey Wian actually just reported just minutes ago that they found fire sticks.

I'm not going to suggest that you're an expert in arson, but do you have any idea what the police officials are saying when they say fire sticks and other evidence. And add to that, what they find in the house?

DURAN: Well, by day, I am criminal defense lawyer, by the way, mayor by night. So, I'm a bit familiar. I do know at this point however that we're not getting a lot of information from law enforcement about the mood of how the fires were actually ignited because they're trying to preserve the integrity of their investigation so that they'll have a successful prosecution.

But I did hear of the news reports earlier this evening as well. I think it's important to remind people, it wasn't about setting cars on fire. Cars are being used to set buildings on fire, because the only cars that were targeted were cars in carports under very dense and crowded apartment buildings.

So, I mean, for us, we felt like we were a city under siege for the last few nights, because what was being targeted were buildings, rent-controlled apartment buildings with hundreds of people residing in them who barely had time to get out with kids, pets and photo albums --

BANFIELD: Right.

DURAN: -- night after night after night.

BANFIELD: And the pictures look like you are a city under siege. I have to wrap it up, but I can't to do that before asking you. You're a criminal defense attorney and then you hear the State Department is involved and they have some information on immigration beef possibly being at play here.

Can you button that up for me as quickly as possible? What does it mean? And what do you know?

DURAN: We heard that he had a problem with some immigration decisions that were made about a family member. And that was his beef to take it out on the United States of America, because that is in essence a threat, a criminal threat. It is at this point being reviewed by federal authorities to see if we have something more akin to domestic terrorism going on here in Los Angeles.

BANFIELD: And I think as a criminal defense attorney, you'll agree, Mr. Mayor, that's a tough case to defend when you have that kind of fire power coming in from the government.

Mayor Duran, thanks so much this morning. I appreciate it.

DURAN: Thank you. I'll go get a good night sleep now.

BANFIELD: Amen to that.

SAMBOLIN: Twenty-seven minutes past the hour.

Still ahead: Democrats are waiting to jump on the winner of tonight's caucus winner. They're already hitting Mitt Romney pretty hard. Are they ready for a surprise however?

BANFIELD: Are we ready for a surprise?

SAMBOLIN: Yes, we're ready. We're ready.

BANFIELD: I think we got a long night ahead of us.

SAMBOLIN: You're watching EARLY START.

BANFIELD: It's only 27 minutes after 5:00 in the East.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Hi, everybody. Good morning. Thirty-one minutes past the hour, so wake up! Get in the shower. You're going to be late.

SAMBOLIN: Actually, you have to go back to work today. Ashleigh Banfield, Zoraida Sambolin. Thank you for joining us. Welcome to EARLY START.

On the agenda in the next half hour, Democrats ready to pounce on the winner of tonight's Iowa caucuses. Who do they want to win?

BANFIELD: I think I know, because they've been beating up on Mitt Romney. I figure it's probably, they don't want Mitt Romney, right? That's my guess. You know what? We do this crazy thing. I don't know if you were watching yesterday because it was a holiday, and I know we're on pretty early.

We do this crazy thing where we decide to call people and wake them up just to make friends with them at five or six o'clock in the morning and get their opinions on whatever is going on in the news, and the person we're going to wake up today, I could get in a lot of trouble because he was on "The Sopranos."

I'll give you clues. I'm not going to tell you who it is. He was on "The Sopranos." He didn't live to see the end, the finale. Do you have an idea? SAMBOLIN: No, because I never watched. I know.

BANFIELD: I think he's sleeping right now and not hearing that. OK. So, there's your hint. I might give you a clue a little bit later, but he's sleeping now, and I could be sleeping with the fishes for waking him up so early in the morning, but he's huge into politics. That's a great part. He's huge in the politics.

What a great day to talk to him. Thirty minutes past the hour. Let's get you caught up on the headlines, shall we, so you can get in the shower.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD (voice-over): So, here's a good one. A man suspected in the L.A. arson spree in custody. Fires have stopped. Police arrested 24-year-old Harry Burkhart in connection with more than 50 different arson fires that started since just last Friday. Right now, Burkhart is only charged with one count of arson, but they say he can expect to face more as the investigation continues. He's being held without bail, too. That says a lot. And police are looking at an immigration dispute as potentially motive here.

SAMBOLIN: Syria's state news agency is reporting an armed terrorist group blew up a gas pipeline right near the town of Rastan, cutting off supplies to two power plants there. An anti-government activists tell CNN the Assad regime blew up that pipeline to distract international monitors from continuing their work in Syria.

BANFIELD: And a very big blast of cold air from the Great Lakes heading east. Snow, blizzard conditions, yucky, yucky winter, it actually triggered some bad accidents. Take a look at your video. You do not want to come upon that. You do no want to be in that as a crash on I-75 in Northern Kentucky, 41 vehicles. Not good news there.

SAMBOLIN: And tonight, the Iowa caucuses will start at 7:00 p.m., that is central time. The first prize for the Republicans who would be president. Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and surging Rick Santorum are the favorites now going in, but many caucus-goers say they could still be swayed another way. So, of course, anything can happen. Lot of people are talking about a three-way tie.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD (on-camera): It's caucus day, what did you get me? I'm kidding. I'm kidding, of course. I do adore caucus day. It surely is the kickoff to the 2012 campaign season. It doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat, because if you don't know, there's not a lot of coverage, the Democrats also have caucuses across Iowa tonight.

It's just that all the focus is on the Republicans. So, what about the Democrats? What are they doing and does it really matter? And P.S., as we move towards general election, what's the strategy? Jennifer Psaki is the Democratic strategist. So, you're just a perfect person to ask this morning, and I appreciate you're getting up early, Jennifer. How are you?

JENNIFER PSAKI, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Good morning, and congratulations on your new show.

BANFIELD: Thank you very much, my friend. You're one of our first guests, so we're very happy to have you. Let's talk strategy. I love this, because I have to be honest with you. I've been so caught up in the Republican race and having such a thrilling ride on the roller coaster that I sort of forgot that there are democratic caucuses.

Are you phoning it in? At this point, you're just phoning it in? Are there other candidates? What's the deal?

PSAKI: Well, look, there's a caucus every two years here. That's a little-known fact about Iowa. And, what is important about tonight for the president and for Democrats across the state is that it's another opportunity for him to continue the conversation with the people of the state he began just four years ago. So, he'll be live streaming --

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: Skyping?

(CROSSTALK)

PSAKI: Sort of like that. He'll be live streaming into caucus sites across the state. And where that's not possible, he'll be over a phone conference. So, you know, he's looking forward to continuing the conversation.

And the other interesting thing about today and the next couple of weeks for us is that while many Republicans, all the Republican candidates pack up their offices and take their down signs, the Obama campaign has eight offices across the state already. They'll still be open for business tomorrow. They've already made 350,000 calls to voters across the state.

So, we'll be continuing this tomorrow even as the focus and the Republican primary moves to New Hampshire and South Carolina.

BANFIELD: OK. So, then, lets you and me move ahead to the bigger battle, of course, the general election, because I think you got this caucus and primary thing sewn up, but in the general election --

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: -- there's a great "New York Times" piece that came out in the last couple days talking about the Democratic strategy, kind of harkening back to authorities, shall we? The old Truman fight which was to do-nothing Congress, and that, I'm going to win this election. A lot of people are saying that is exactly the strategy that Obama is going to adopt, the old Truman strategy. And in fact, to that end, it looks as though Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are picking up on that, because look at the things that they just said about Obama versus Congress in the last couple days. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is like a kindergarten play. You can't -- how are you going to pass appropriations bills? How are you going to deal with anything for 12 months? I just looked -- I looked at the TV this morning and thought these guys are just totally out of touch with reality.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My understanding, their mantra these days is that there's a do-nothing Congress, and this is all the Congress' fault. I think he's forgetting that he had a Democrat Congress for his first two years and put in place as economic plan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: OK. So, here's my question for you, Jennifer. If the battle is going to really be strategically this is a do-nothing Congress, I'm running against Congress, is President Obama going to be facing off against one of these particular candidates in the Republican Party or is he facing off against John Boehner?

PSAKI: Well, look, we'll see. I wish I could have a role in picking the Republican nominee, but I don't. But, you know, I think what's interesting here is that I don't know if Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are defending Congress and how Congress works or their Republican colleagues in Congress. Let's not forget that the last action they took was to take weeks to pass a payroll tax cuts, but, I will --

BANFIELD: It's beginning. Your strategy is beginning. I can hear it in what you're saying already, Jennifer.

PSAKI: I have one more important point to make and that's that you can't always believe everything you read. The president has had many successes by working with Congress, healthcare reform, financial reform, and he'd like nothing more than to pass the remaining pieces of the American jobs act.

So, he will be working with congress, but he knows he can't leave all the eggs in that basket. So, just as he did in the fall, he'll be looking for many ways.

BANFIELD: You better come back and be a guest again. I really appreciate this.

(LAUGHTER)

PSAKI: Well, have a great morning.

BANFIELD: And have a fun day and night. PSAKI: Oh, I'll try.

BANFIELD: Jennifer Psaki joining us live this morning.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): All right. And we are keeping you in the pop culture loop this morning as well by taking a look at what's trending on the web and in social media. Take a look at this. It is trending on Google.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Some people loved it. A 70-foot corporate octopus of greed.

BANFIELD (voice-over): And you know what it's made of?

SAMBOLIN: This giant puppet was made entirely of recycled plastic bags. It hovered over Occupy protesters who tailed yesterday's Rose Parade in Pasadena. Some folks booed, actually, while others were just stunned standing by in amazement watching it.

BANFIELD: It's not the prettiest thing, but it certainly makes a statement.

SAMBOLIN: Oh. It sure does. A big statement.

BANFIELD: I love this next one. (SINGING) what you want baby I got it. Who's that?

SAMBOLIN: Aretha.

BANFIELD: She's going to get married.

SAMBOLIN: The queen.

BANFIELD: Can you believe it? That lovely lady on the arm of her sweetheart, apparently, is engaged. Aretha lost 85 pounds, apparently, in the last year because of a health scare, and now, says she's a brand new woman. She's getting engaged to her, quote, "forever friend," William Willy Wilkerson.

Apparently, they're going to get married on Miami Beach, and do you know who the dress designer she's --

SAMBOLIN: No.

BANFIELD: She's talking about Donna Koran, Valentino, and Vera Wang. And here's the best part --

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): Well, she's aware (ph) on that. I'll tell you that much.

BANFIELD: She's 69 years old. I adore her. She says I'm not pregnant. This is not a shotgun wedding. (LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Not a shotgun wedding. Go, girl. Aretha. Love her.

SAMBOLIN: And ahead on EARLY START, firing up the phone. It's time to wake him up. I'm not going to tell you who he is.

BANFIELD: Oh, come on! It's up there.

SAMBOLIN: You know him best as Joey Pants, right? That's how you know him from "The Sopranos."

BANFIELD: Ralphy. Ralphy.

Apparently, Ralphy is a huge politico. He loves politics. So, this is his day and he's a brand new grandfather. I was out to dinner with him a while ago. So, we're going to wake him up and ask him what he thinks about today, the Iowa caucus day.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Hi. Nice to have you back with us. Good morning, everyone. This is EARLY START. 5:42 in the east. I'm Ashley, she's Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Time to wake somebody up.

BANFIELD: This can either get us fired or it could really endear us to some people. We're dialing Joey Pants' number.

SAMBOLIN: It looks like maybe we miss dialed that one there.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: I don't know if we're calling his cell phone or if we're calling his home phone, but Joey and I were out for dinner a while ago and a big thing, jigger (ph), a political thing. And, he happened to mention how absolutely gaga he is over the political process. And I said, really? And I sort of filed it away for caucus days, because I thought, well, maybe I'll --

SAMBOLIN: Chat with him a little bit.

BANFIELD: Wake him up out of asleep and ask him, you know, what his first thought --

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: Did he give me a fake number? Oh, this happened to me in college.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: We'll keep trying. We got a couple of other numbers that we'll call him. SAMBOLIN: Well, you know what, that's what happens when you do something like this, right? Because it's very extemporaneous. You take a number and you dial it. You don't want to do it ahead of time because you really do want to wake up these folks. So, sometimes --

BANFIELD: Or the person in our control room dialing is terrified because this is like a "Soprano" figure and he's terrified of waking him up. It could be swimming with the fishes like six o'clock this morning.

Let's get you caught up on some top stories while we're trying to redial Joey Pants number, and there are some good news actually if you live on the west coast and good news, actually, if you're an American.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD (voice-over): A suspect has been arrested in that string of weekend arson fires in Los Angeles. There he is on your screen. There he was. This is the person they were looking for before the arrest. Twenty-four-year-old Harry Burkhart suspected in this incident, actually, series of incidents. He's been held without bail.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD (on-camera): They say that he may have been the person behind 50-plus fires and captured on video near the scene of one of those fires. And sources are telling "The L.A. Times" that Burkhart, a native of Germany, may have been in a dispute with federal immigration officials. $3 million in damages in that spree of fires.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): And you know it's down to the wire in Iowa. The GOP candidates making all those last-minute pitches to the caucus-goers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): Nearly every single candidate has held the lead in the state at one point to another. Right now, the race is in a three-way dead heat. It is between Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. But with 41 percent of caucus-goers saying they could change their minds, you know, it could be anybody's game still.

BANFIELD: And you always wonder if the endorsements that come from papers make a difference because the Des Moines Iowa Register endorsed Mitt Romney.

And coming up a little bit later on in the program, we're going to speak to the editor of that paper and not only ask about that endorsement, but also, everything about what is going on in Iowa. It must have been an absolute Cirque Du Soleil in that state right now.

SAMBOLIN: And interesting op-ed piece, we're going to talk about also this morning coming from there. We'll be right back with so much more for you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: I suppose it's -- today's the night it's going to be all right depending on which candidate you are. But, Rod Stewart singing us into good morning. It's caucuses day in Iowa. The big vote getting underway tonight.

SAMBOLIN: And we are welcoming you back to the CNN Election Center. So, the race, you know, is tight and incredibly unpredictable at this point. And we're talking to Rick Green this morning. He is the editor and the face behind the front pages of the "Des Moines Register" where today it is all about the caucuses. Are you there?

RICK GREEN, EDITOR, "DES MOINES REGISTER": I am. Good morning, Zoraida. How are you? Congratulations on your new show.

SAMBOLIN: Well, thank you very much. It's very nice to see you. So, let's start with the op-ed piece that you wrote, because it really is kind of a 101 on the caucus. And, you know, we were talking to the folks who said it's anywhere between two and four-years that you caucus. Is it every two years?

GREEN: It's every two years, right. Four years, obviously, for the presidential cycle.

SAMBOLIN: OK. So, why did you feel the need to give a 101 and to encourage people to go out to the caucuses?

GREEN: Yes. This is, obviously, an incredibly important day for Iowa as well as for the rest of the country. You know, the eyes of the nation have been here for the past 12 to 15 months. We spent an awful lot of time listening to the candidates and doing more than just going to they're events. Iowans are incredibly independent thinkers, but also they embrace this responsibility so greatly.

They've listened to the candidates. They dissected their issues, their platforms and listened very closely to the platform. From everything that we can gather, there seems to be even greater emphasis on that responsibility among the Republicans this cycle.

There's a sense among a very large contingent of Iowa Republicans that you have a very vulnerable president right now in the White House, perhaps, the most vulnerable since Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Despite all the hand-to-hand combats and all the negative ads and this $10 million ad blitz, the one thing that's unifying Republicans here is can they take back the White House. And that's why tonight is so important for them.

SAMBOLIN: But Rick, we're hearing that, perhaps, it's going to be a really low voter turnout tonight. So, do you think that there's some apathy within the state because of the choices in the candidates?

GREEN: You know, we haven't picked that up. 2008 was the record year in terms of attendance out here. Republican caucus, a little over 118,500 or so. The good thing is that the weather looks great. There's no snow. It's going to be a bit of a chilly night. We're expecting there to be a pretty strong turnout, actually.

The issues have dominated this campaign so much. You know, a lot of the attention in the past couple weeks or so has been focused in on the negative ads and the rise and fall of some of the candidates. It will be very interesting tonight to see who is able to bring out their caucus-goers, who's got the best ground game, and what unfolds in another 15, 18 hours or so.

SAMBOLIN: And you have actually endorsed Romney. How do you think he's done in the state since that endorsement?

GREEN: You know, what was really interesting is that Mitt Romney's crew has really tried to downplay Iowa. It really wasn't until a week or so before Christmas that we could detect that they felt that there was some traction here. Throughout the holiday cycle, he spent more time in the past two, three weeks than he has in the entire 14 months or so preceding the campaign.

Yesterday, the number of stops that he made was greater than anything that he's done in his entire tenure out here during his campaign. I think that he's got an understanding that there's a chance that he could win this. There's not been a non-incumbent Republican that's won both Iowa and New Hampshire in the same year. So, we'll see what happens tonight.

SAMBOLIN: You know, Rick I can talk to you -- no, no. No. We aren't and we know you aren't, and we know your polls aren't.

GREEN: You bet.

SAMBOLIN: But I have to just say one last thing. It was Huntsman that had some harsh words for Iowa. We have the sound. Can we play that real quick?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON HUNTSMAN, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They pick corn in Iowa. They actually pick presidents here in New Hampshire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: I got to tell you, my mouth was wide open. My jaw dropped. How do you feel about hearing that? How do Iowans feel about that?

GREEN: You know, it would have been much better for Jon Huntsman to come here and express his vision for America supposed of taking cheap shots at New Hampshire. I think that's how many Iowans feel about it. Listen, we're very proud of our reputation. We're incredibly proud of the role that we play in American politics every four years.

Do we pick the winner every year? No. Not every state does, but the role we have in terms of winning (ph) the candidates and making them better candidates for the rest of the country, that's a great tradition, and we're very, very proud of that.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thank you very much. Rick Green, good luck to you. Nice talking to you this morning.

GREEN: Thank you. You, too. Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: All right. And it happens tonight, the country's first real votes, the candidates' first true test. Special live America's choice 2012 coverage of the Iowa caucuses begins at 7:00 p.m. eastern right here on CNN.

BANFIELD: Right here in the Election Center, too.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: Very exciting place to be if you've ever seen John King in a magic wall. Goose bumps, my friend.

Still coming, though, Thanksgiving revenge. The turkey comes flying --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD (voice-over): Are you ready for this? A turkey went flying right through that tucker's windshield. Take a look. Seriously, folks

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): A turkey?

BANFIELD: A turkey. Poor turkey. We are going to tell you how this things ended up. Here's a hint. The trucker is OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD (on-camera): This is weird. A driver getting a wild ride in his big rig when a wild turkey -

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD (voice-over): I don't know if it was a wild turkey, but it was a crazy turkey crashed through his windshield. Take a look at the pictures. It happened in Northern Kentucky on I-75. Apparently, the turkey hit the driver right in the face, but good news, he's OK. He's all right. He pulled over the big rig.

And then, here's the weird ending. He just tossed the turkey out. My guess here, I don't have a definitive ruling from the hospital, but I don't think the turkey survived this.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): I don't think the turkey made it.

All right. Still ahead, police in Los Angeles say their four-day nightmare is finally over. The man suspected of setting more than 50 fires is now in custody. A dispute with the government over immigration may be behind the alleged arson spree.

And just hours to go in the Iowa ground war. We'll talk with our political panel about the likelihood of a big upset in the Iowa caucuses.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)