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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Decision Day In Iowa; L.A. Arson Bust; Mt. Rainier Gunman Found Dead; First Big Snow; Arrest In Los Angeles Arson Spree; Massive Storms Bring Major Accidents; What's In Store For Your Money?; Iowa's Economy; Philly Mayor Nutter's Second Term; FAMU Creating Anti-Hazing Panel; Utah Children Rescued from Icy River; Tea Party's Influence on Caucuses; Obamas Return To Washington

Aired January 3, 2012 - 06:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And a very good morning to you. It's an early start. Not just for you, but everybody else that's watching. Hi, everybody. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin and we're bringing you the news from A to Z. I'm loving it.

So it's 6 a.m. in the east. Let's get started here for you. It is decision day in Iowa. Will Romney hold onto the win? What about that Santorum surge? Will that last? Voters hear final pitches before the first real tests of 2012.

BANFIELD: And if you're just waking up, there are some good news to report out of Los Angeles and those arson fires. They stopped. The worst string of fires since the L.A. riots back in 1992.

So this is a really big deal. Apparently, they've got that guy arrested and they're looking to it being possibly related to an immigration fee. He's being held without bail.

SAMBOLIN: A man accused of killing a park ranger at Mount Rainier. He's found dead, face down in a waterfall. The mountain shut down as the rangers now regroup.

BANFIELD: And it is really cold. I know it's winter. So don't call me and complain when I say there's a cold weather story because if you live in these communities, kind of around the great lakes region, but all the way down into the Appalachians, it is cold.

We're getting slammed with snow. We're getting slammed with a cold air. One or two feet of snow in some places around the northeast and, guess what? It's causing a lot of traffic problems and accidents, too. So we'll tell you about that coming up.

SAMBOLIN: All right, and we are live in the CNN Election Center, thanks for being with us, and it is decision day. We've heard from the candidates. Now it's time to hear from the people of Iowa. They begin caucusing at 7 p.m. tonight that's Central Time tonight. BANFIELD: Yes, so 8:00 Eastern, hundreds of town hall meetings, dozens of bus tours, all that stuff coming to an end. All this stumping in Iowa coming to an end.

Finally, it's the first real kickoff for the election season. So this is the fun part, really because we start to get some results hopefully although they're kind of weird. More about that in a moment.

Mitt Romney says he's pretty confident, but he's careful, trying not to sound too confident.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'd love to be number one. Anyone would be, but coming in second or third is fine. If we're close together it would give all three of us a real 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 super-charge coming out of Iowa.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: So Newt Gingrich admits that he can't win Iowa. He claims he'll do well in the south a little later this month. He tells CNN's Piers Morgan, Romney's campaign is fatally flawed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So if you've been playing along, because politics is actually pretty fun when you keep track. Here's how it fits, wild ride, a total roller coaster.

Remember back in June, Bachmann was leading the pack? In fact, she won the straw poll in August, I think it was and then, shazam, all of a sudden, the new frontrunner was Herman Cain. He was the darling.

And then that didn't work out so well and Gingrich and Ron Paul had been frontrunners. That was in December I think. Just in December, they both took the poll position and now it looks like Romney back on top.

SAMBOLIN: So let's chat about this. John Avlon, senior political columnist for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast." He is live from the CNN Center in Atlanta, and conservative commentator, Lenny McAllister.

Thank you, gentlemen, for joining us this morning. So let's begin with the polls from the "Des Moines Iowa Register." It's we've been following the last couple of weeks here. There have been about seven lead changes in the last six months.

Tonight, we'll finally have a winner although, will we? A lot of folks are talking about a three-way tie here. Lenny, we're going to begin with you. Do you think that's what's going to happen tonight?

LENNY MCALLISTER, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: I don't know if it's going to be a three-way tie. I think there's a possibility of four people coming out of this and being happy. I really think that we shouldn't look so much at the first three slots.

I mean, they're obviously important. I think Rick Santorum is going to be a surprise. Somebody that we didn't count on a month ago that's going to be in the top three, but look at that fourth slot.

I really think with the forces that Rick Perry's putting on the ground, if he can slide up into fourth place, it would be a blow to Newt Gingrich and it would be a surge for Rick Perry going into South Carolina.

We know that Ron Paul has a good organization on the ground. He's going to do well here. We know now that Rick Santorum has been seen as the most likable candidate, which may even allow him to get the first or second place.

And Mitt Romney has resurged back here in Iowa as well. So we kind of know what the first three are going to look like. But that fourth slot, we may actually have a magical fourth ticket coming out of Iowa this year.

BANFIELD: Lenny, that's not fair. We had it figured on three tickets in Iowa. You've ruined economy class for us.

MCALLISTER: We've had the frontrunner figured out before too so --

BANFIELD: John, here's what I need to you weigh in on, if that's the case, we are talking about four tickets out of Iowa, I'm going to throw in maybe five. They really seem fractured.

And if you look at the graph, I'm going to call it the graph. It's the glass ceiling graph. Romney has been the tortoise to the hare. He's barely broken above that red line. The red line is the 25 percent of voters' glass ceiling.

He fairly -- he's never really broken above it. He's ditched below it, and the blue line above all of that is the everybody else fracture. It's a problem, isn't it if you're Romney?

It's nice to be the leader, but when everybody else has all the other 75 percent, once those candidates start whittle down, what happens to your 25 percent? JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, that's exactly the right point to make, Ashleigh, because look, remember, Mitt Romney the last time around in 2008 when running against Mike Huckabee, he got 25 percent of the polls then.

So this glass ceiling is actually been pretty steady for him and I don't think he's going to do as well in western Iowa as he did four years before. Here's the thing to look at.

Does anyone else either in Iowa or going forward, especially this crucial month of January, which is really the gauntlet you need to run, does anyone else get to really start consolidating that anybody, but Romney support?

People looking for a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney? But tonight, it's not just top three as Lenny said, let's look at the spread. You know, if someone who has a base as a -- a basic campaign, conservative populism on social conservatism like Michele Bachmann comes up in the caboose, it becomes tough to continue your campaign.

The best thing for Mitt Romney is a fractured conservative field that basically distracts from the fact that he does have this 25 percent glass ceiling, but this is game day. Every poll doesn't matter until tonight.

SAMBOLIN: We haven't even talked Gingrich and we have run out of time, gentlemen. Lenny McAllister, John Avlon, thank you so much.

Yes, on that note it all happens tonight, the country's first real votes, the candidates' first true test. Special live America Choice 2012 coverage of the Iowa caucuses begins at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time right here on CNN in the Election Center.

BANFIELD: OK, so let's get you over to Los Angeles now because apart from politics is a big story that's been developing out there. You watched as people watched fires breaking out all over Los Angeles county area.

Now those fires have stopped and now they have an arrest and now the search for a motive. The 24-year-old Harry Burkhart under arrest, he's the one with the ponytail seemingly smiling. Not sure why. This is serious, Mr. Burkhart.

He's facing one charge right now of arson, but the police are saying there could be a whole lot more, since there have been 52 fires since just Friday. Apparently, even federal authorities have been weighing in on this suggesting it could be immigration, an immigration beef.

Casey Wian is our correspondent who's been following this. He's actually out in California right now. Casey, you and I talked last hour. We were getting some overnight material in, that arrest video, which was pretty impressive, considering they had four days to fight these fires and try and actually make sure no one died, which is critical. No one did die.

But at the same time, they've been able to make this arrest, which is pretty darn quick, and they found something in his van, which has been particularly specific. What is it?

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, according to police officials at a news conference last night, in his van were fire starter sticks. They didn't go into any detail about what specifically those sticks were.

The assumption, though, it was kind of an accelerant device used to help start a fire in a fireplace. We don't know if it could have been something else, but that's the way they were described. The police are being very careful not to go into too much detail about the specific evidence they have found at these multiple scenes.

They've served search warrants on the suspect's house. They've served search warrants in multiple locations throughout the city. So they're being very careful to say -- to not say to much more about what these fire starter sticks are and how they actually helped start these fires.

BANFIELD: Casey, one thing they say, Casey, apparently that the U.S. State Department weighed in on this local crime story. It's been a national crime story because they say there may be an immigration beef within his family. What's the story there?

WIAN: Well, that is absolutely one of the things that officials are looking into. We do know that the State Department was a key player in this in terms of identifying who this person was.

Notifying authorities that who he might be because of some dispute he had over an immigration-related issue with his mother, but I should point out that Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck pointed out last night that it's highly inappropriate to conclude that was the motive in the arson fires. It's way too early to make that conclusion -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: I'll bet. They've got a lot of investigating to do with 50-plus fires and of course, they've been doing all their work trying just to put them out let alone investigate them.

Casey, great work out there. Let us know if you hear anything else later on this morning.

WIAN: Will do.

SAMBOLIN: Well, winter storms in the Great Lakes are causing massive traffic accidents. A major pileup shuts down a stretch of Interstate 80 in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania. Take a look at that.

At least six big rigs, 15 other cars involved there. There were 17 people who were taken to the hospital. Two of them, we understand, are in critical condition. The only good news as you're watching this, no one was killed.

BANFIELD: Gosh, that is --

SAMBOLIN: Can you believe that? What a mess.

BANFIELD: And I don't think that's going to be the only situation, because that weather is --

SAMBOLIN: It's brutal. Meteorologist Rob Marciano joins us with the latest on your forecast. Rob, my goodness, what a mess.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Kind of chilly throughout, isn't it?

SAMBOLIN: Chilly?

BANFIELD: Slippery and messy and it's causing all sorts of problems.

MARCIANO: It's all expanding down to the south as well. The streamers, the snow from yesterday that will be lightening up just a little bit, but the cold is expanding.

With that cold comes some wind, windchills as far south as Atlanta, 9 degrees right now. It feels like 3 in Chicago. It feels like 3 in Kansas City. Zero is the wind chill currently in Minneapolis. For you folks in New York and D.C., around 20 degrees as well, but Birmingham 16 degrees even Jacksonville, Florida seeing 26- degree wind chills.

Wind chills advisories as far south as West Palm Beach and freeze warning for the entire mainland of Florida with the exception of Miami. So it just tells you just how cold it is going to be. Temperatures are going to threaten citrus crops that's for sure.

Three to six inches of snow and winter storm warnings remain in effect for western slopes of the Appalachians as those streamers continue to come off the Great Lakes piling up some of the snow there and some more lake-effect snow expected, maybe another five to ten inches on top of what we've already seen in this area.

As far as what we're looking at for day time high, it's going to be chilly. Across Iowa, it will be chilly. Temperatures are in the single digits without the wind right now in Iowa and it will rise into the 30s throughout the day today. By Iowa standards, not too bad.

BANFIELD: Thank you, Mr. Marciano. Good stuff.

By the way, I don't know if you've noticed, but every morning we like to get you ahead of the news cycle, even at 6:00 in the morning.

Not just get caught up in the news, we want you ahead of the news what's happening later today and the stories that are actually developing, but are going to be pretty big tonight.

SAMBOLIN: A senior U.S. diplomat arriving in Beijing today for talks with Chinese leaders. They're focusing on North Korea. Curt Campbell, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs will be there. He will also visit South Korea and Japan during a four-day trip.

BANFIELD: And a potential break in a cold murder case in Massachusetts. Are you ready for this? Yes, I fancy authorities in Hampton County have uncovered new forensic evidence in the disappearance and murder of a 10-year-old girl. It happened back in 1993, and yet they found new stuff. They're going to hold a news conference a little bit later on this morning.

SAMBOLIN: The first family returning home from their lovely vacation in Hawaii. They are expected to land back in Washington in about an hour from now. And tonight, President Obama plans to address his Iowa supporters by videoconference.

It is 13 past the hour. We're going to check the U.S. markets. Back open this morning after being closed yesterday for the New Year's holiday. The Dow, NASDAQ and S&P 500 closed lower Friday and this morning stock futures have turned it up and are pointing to higher open right now.

BANFIELD: Let's bring those frowns into smiles, those upside down arrows into upside arrows. Christine Romans, one of my favorite people in the whole wide world joining us now.

So I want to get to you on Iowa because you're not just a business smarty pants, you're also a politics smarty pants.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And I'm from Iowa.

BANFIELD: And you're from Iowa, which is just, I mean, manna from heaven. But the weird thing that I didn't realize about Iowa is that it's not about the economy stupid.

ROMANS: No, it's not and this is why. Because you've got an unemployment rate that's better than the rest of the country and you've got a farmland surge.

I mean, when you look at small Iowa farmers, the average farmland per acre last year was $6,000. One of the best investments you could have made last year, buying farmland to farm. I mean, you've got all of these people sitting at the diner and at the green elevator saying should, I sell now? Will it be better next year?

But unemployment is 5.7 percent better than the rest of the country. Farmland's doing great, home prices are pretty stable, but the economy is still an important issue in Iowa. Here's why.

Because you have young people having a harder time finding a job and it's just this feeling of a lack of opportunity and a feeling that maybe America's best days might be behind it. That's something Iowans don't like to even have to question, right?

For the first time, its population was above 3 million. It reached 3 million people in 2010. When I was growing up, you'd say there were more pigs than people in Iowa. Now there are 3 million people in Iowa and it matters.

The economy still matters, but people are going there to caucus tonight and they're going without this feeling of foreboding about their own job.

BANFIELD: Which we all have.

ROMANS: Which we all have.

BANFIELD: I don't get it.

ROMANS: It's a little different there.

BANFIELD: What's the deal? Why -- why are they bucking the trend in real estate, in housing sales, in unemployment? I mean, they're not just bucking the trend. They're completely reversing it.

ROMANS: There wasn't a speculative bubble in Iowa. I mean there were here and there. There wasn't a speculative bubble in Iowa.

SAMBOLIN: (INAUDIBLE) there?

ROMANS: Well, there were, of course. There were low -- there were some subprime loans, but it wasn't like some of these places like you saw in Florida, Nevada and the like.

SAMBOLIN: It wasn't inflated to begin with.

ROMANS: No, no, no. Right. And there are some people, of course, who've lost many real -- I've been getting all these e-mails from people saying, hey, are you kidding me? I'm under water by 25 percent.

SAMBOLIN: Right, right, right.

ROMANS: You know, maybe you are under water by 25 percent, but it's not -- it's not as critical there, the housing issue. And that farmland, I'm like anything that has to do with a farm, it's been going gangbusters. Deere, the companies that are making to implements, the capital investments.

But there is still this feeling that they want to make sure that America's going in the right direction, and that's the way people feel about the economy there.

BANFIELD: That's nice of them. Well, everything's great for them. They care about us. That's great.

ROMANS: Well, I mean, they care about their kids and their grandkids. But, you know, the deficit's way down the list of their concerns, quite frankly. They're more worried about the near term.

SAMBOLIN: I think we're going to talk sports.

ROMANS: We have the Super Bowl. Super Bowl ads are sold out, you guys, already. If you want a Super Bowl ad, it's too late. BANFIELD: Really?

ROMANS: They're already sold out. $3.5 million --

SAMBOLIN: No way.

ROMANS: -- (INAUDIBLE) by 2012. $3.5 million for 30 seconds. Look for some celebrities again this year. Look for first-time companies. And we're told, look for --

BANFIELD: They're cheaper?

ROMANS: No. $3.5 million is the record. But look for longer form ads, maybe a minute. And cars will rule. So we'll look for some more cool car ads this year.

BANFIELD: So wait, the -- the economy's killing us all, and yet Super Bowl ads --

ROMANS: I know --

(CROSSTALK)

SAMBOLIN: Those are always insane, though. I mean, they're always insane.

ROMANS: The world wants you to spend your money. They want you to reach in your pocket and get your credit card --

SAMBOLIN: That's a big audience, right? So, yes.

BANFIELD: Yes.

ROMANS: They'll spend money to get you to spend money.

BANFIELD: I wonder who's going to be doing -- do we know yet who got them?

ROMANS: We do know that Century 21 I think is the first ever -- we know a few. We know a few.

SAMBOLIN: I love those Super Bowl ads, so I can't wait.

BANFIELD: Christine Romans, thanks.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you.

BANFIELD: Great stuff.

Time to check the top stories at 16 minutes past the hour.

Down to the wire Iowa. Tonight, the first nominating contest still could be anybody's race. Horse race. They're going to begin caucusing at 7:00 Central Time, 8:00 Eastern Time. And, right now, if you've been watching the polls, Mitt Romney's out on top; Ron Paul going in pretty strong; Rick Santorum, tick, tick, tick, tick -- they're really fighting for that number two spot, maybe even number one.

And the Iowans are saying, are you kidding? We can still have our minds changed.

SAMBOLIN: And 24-year-old Harry Burhart is under arrest in Los Angeles. Authorities believe he is responsible for more than 50 arson fires. That's him, smirking.

As for possible motive, officials say Burkhart, a German national, was angry that his mother was about to be deported.

BANFIELD: And in Egypt, the story out of Egypt, they're going to start presenting their case against former President Hosni Mubarak today. You might remember, he got sick, real sick, after he was arrested, and now he's getting wheeled in.

Take a look at pictures. That's him on the gurney, and that's how they take him to court. Very strange case.

He's of course accused of ordering protesters killed during last year's uprisings, and the case is expected potentially to wrap up in about a month or so. We're going to watch it for you.

SAMBOLIN: All right, and up next we told you about it yesterday in the early reads. It was that really dramatic icy river rescue in Utah. Take a look at that. The car flips upside down, trapping three kids under water, so the parents are now talking about the folks who saved their children's lives.

I think the children were released from the hospital as well. We're going to find out.

BANFIELD: A great story and it's just amazing heroism.

And then, you know how we woke up our -- our friend and colleague, Wolf Blitzer, yesterday? Not a morning man. We have another non-morning man, anchorman, we're going to wake up from CNN this morning.

SAMBOLIN: Looking forward to this.

BANFIELD: Yes. Again -- again, it could lead to a firing, so, you know --

SAMBOLIN: No. We'll be back.

BANFIELD: He's a big deal.

SAMBOLIN: He'll answer the phone.

BANFIELD: We'll see.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. It's 21 past the hour, and we're getting an "Early Read" on your local news that is making national headlines. This morning we have papers from Tallahassee, Florida and from Philadelphia.

We are going to start in Philadelphia, the "Philadelphia Inquirer" to be exact. Mayor Nutter sworn in now for a second term.

So, four years ago 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 popular cities.

BANFIELD: OK.

SAMBOLIN: So he failed miserably.

BANFIELD: How did he win? How did he win?

SAMBOLIN: Yes. I'm not sure how he won re-election there. However, he is saying that handguns happen to be the problem, the proliferation of illegal guns, to be exact, and that it's an epidemic of African-American men being the perpetrators and the victims of the shootings.

BANFIELD: (INAUDIBLE).

SAMBOLIN: So -- yes. So he's going for gun legislation now.

BANFIELD: Oh, well.

SAMBOLIN: So we'll see what happens there.

BANFIELD: (INAUDIBLE) some pushback on that as well.

I want to take it to Tallahassee as well, in Florida, where "The Tallahassee Democrat" is reporting that Florida A&M University has decided to put together a blue ribbon board. So it's a panel that will figure out how to advise against hazing.

Do you remember the young man who was killed, Robert Champion?

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: He was killed in November. A report from the bus that he was riding in, a band bus -- he was a drum major. The report was that he'd been going through a hazing incident where he walked down the aisle of the bus, and I suppose your friends on the band beat you up as you --

SAMBOLIN: To a pulp.

BANFIELD: Right. I think he was beaten so badly -- that's what they're saying, paddled possibly as well, that that's what caused his death, but it's still not 100 percent determined who's responsible. But it is being considered a homicide.

And now this committee, while also advising on how to stamp out, you know, hazing, has decided to approve a memorial to Mr. Champion and also a scholarship in his honor. But the big story, how do you stop it, you know?

So we're going to keep our eye on those stories for you, and also America is talking today about a pretty good story that we told you yesterday. It started out as a really bad story. I mean, quite honestly, about the worst story you could imagine.

Your driving in your car with your two kids and their friends, and this happens. Down a -- sliding -- a slippery embankment into an icy river. This is Logan Canyon, Utah, and the man who was in that car could not get the kids out.

SAMBOLIN: Good gracious.

BANFIELD: This is what was so horrible. But, luckily, there were bystanders, eight bystanders in total, who were able to help him not only shoot out the windows, but then get the kids out.

Frigid conditions, but those kids were -- were rescued, and they all went to the hospital, and they're doing OK. And actually Matthew Jensen is a reporter with "The Herald Journal." Are you on the phone?

MATTHEW JENSEN, "THE HERALD JOURNAL" (on the phone): Yes. Good morning.

BANFIELD: Hi, Matthew.

JENSEN: Hi.

BANFIELD: I've got to say, I'm so happy to talk to you because this is a good story in the end. This was awful to begin with, but the kids are all right, right?

JENSEN: They were released from the hospital last night, and --

BANFIELD: Oh, great.

JENSEN: -- they're doing very well.

BANFIELD: OK, walk me through this, Matthew. Who were these bystanders? How long were those kids under water? What happened?

JENSEN: Well, as you mentioned, on Saturday this man and his two children and a family friend decided to go up the canyon and go skiing for the day on New Year's Eve, and on their way up the canyon they hit a patch of ice and lost control in a bend in the road and ended upside down in these freezing waters in the Logan River.

BANFIELD: Now, the picture I'm seeing, Matthew, is the car is right-side up. Were they able -- were all of those bystanders able to actually right the car or move the car to get them out?

JENSEN: They did. The -- about eight individuals ran into the water, and after shooting out a window, where they could get ahold of the car and grab on to its doors and open the doors, they managed to flip the car over, fighting the current of the water, I understand, righted the car and were able to get these children out.

BANFIELD: How is -- how's the dad doing? And, by the way, I think I heard his mom found out, or the kids' mom found out, by phone? She was at work at the time? Is that correct?

JENSEN: That's right. So the parents --

BANFIELD: How are they doing?

JENSEN: The parents spoke with us last night at a press conference at the hospital, and everyone is doing remarkably well. Everyone is in good spirits. The children, who were taken to separate hospitals on New Year's Eve, they had a chance to reunite yesterday.

And you can tell from their smiling faces in this photograph, that the ordeal shook them up, but they are resilient and they are in great condition now.

BANFIELD: Oh, Lord. I mean, it's such a great New Year's story to be able to resolve, but, I'll tell you, nobody wants to be in that predicament.

Matthew, thank you.

JENSEN: Thank you.

BANFIELD: And happy 2012, my friend.

SAMBOLIN: You know, it's a happy ending, but when you're listening to the details of the story, absolutely chilling.

BANFIELD: How about being the mom, getting that phone call?

SAMBOLIN: Yes. Oh, my gosh.

BANFIELD: Your two kids were under water for 90 seconds in a frigid river, and they had to shoot out the windows of the car. Unbelievable story.

SAMBOLIN: But look at how it ended.

BANFIELD: Great, great.

SAMBOLIN: All right, still ahead, police pulling over a fire engine. So, our question is, why are you doing that?

BANFIELD: Who was driving it?

SAMBOLIN: Wait until you hear --

BANFIELD: And why?

SAMBOLIN: -- Ashleigh, who was driving it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Good morning. It's an EARLY START. Twenty-nine minutes after 6:00 in the East. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I am Zoraida Sambolin. Welcome back to EARLY START.

We are at the CNN Election Center this morning. On the agenda in the next half hour for you -- Tea Party's rookie caucus, first caucus in the first presidential race for the Tea Party. Could they make or break Mitt Romney tonight?

We're trying to figure out what's going to happen there.

The chairman of the Tea Party Express is going to join us to talk a little about that.

BANFIELD: And because our --

(CROSSTALK)

SAMBOLIN: A Rick Santorum surge also we need to talk about.

BANFIELD: Yes, we do. Because our wake-up segment was so successful last hour --

SAMBOLIN: Did you miss it?

BANFIELD: We called Joey Pants to wake him up to talk about politics. Joey Pants from "The Sopranos" is a huge politics fan and it was a total bust. Total bust.

So, we're switching gears and we're going to wake up our colleague John King --

SAMBOLIN: Looking forward to that.

BANFIELD: -- who's not a morning person. We're going to wake him up probably about 15 minutes from now. He's the magic, magic man.

You have seen him on the magic wall? He's like Lynyrd Skynyrd with a guitar. He's just incredible stuff. I love John King.

So, we're going to wake him up, talk politics, et cetera, in a moment.

Half past the hour. So, let's get your top stories to you right now.

A man suspected in the L.A. arson spree now in custody. There he is -- smiling for a strange reason. Twenty-four-year-old Harry Burkhart picked up in connection with more than 50 fires started since last Friday. Police are looking at possibly an immigration dispute as a motive to this.

SAMBOLIN: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are meeting today in Jordan. It is their first face-to-face talks in about 16 months. Talks fell apart over the issue of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

BANFIELD: And big decision day. Iowa caucuses get under way today, 7:00 Central, 8:00 Eastern Time. And there's the man leading in the polls. I suppose he's pretty happy right about now.

But, listen, don't count out Ron Paul. Don't count out Rick Santorum. They are favorites going in as well.

And now, there could be three or four, maybe five tickets out of Iowa. Many caucusgoers say they could still be swayed. So, anything can happen in this horse race, friend.

SAMBOLIN: And tonight, Iowans will cast their vote for the person they want to run for president against President Obama. This is where campaign or the campaign is no longer about the polls and all about the actual number. It's also the first presidential election where the Tea Party is a force in the Republican Party.

In Iowa, 60 percent consider themselves a supporter of the Tea Party movement.

So, joining me now is Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express, and Jim Carley, Iowa Tea Party activist.

Thank you for joining us.

I just want to make sure, is that Kremer or Creamer?

AMY KREMER, CHAIRMAN, TEA PARTY EXPRESS: It's Kremer.

SAMBOLIN: Kremer. All right. I got it wrong all around.

Thank you so much for being with us this morning.

KREMER: It's OK.

SAMBOLIN: For hanging out in the chilly temperatures. We know that's kind of tough for you.

So, we want to begin with you, Jim. We want to look at the polls that we've been talking about from the "Des Moines Register." And this is just in the last two days of polling here. It shows a surge for Santorum, and I'm guessing that you're not going with Romney.

Actually, I'm not guessing because it says here that you were undecided until this weekend. Why is that?

JIM CARLEY, IOWA TEA PARTY ACTIVIST: That's correct, because we have so many debates and everything. Everybody's up and down. I had it narrowed down to a couple but hadn't made the final decision, and I did that over the weekend, I believe it was Sunday.

SAMBOLIN: But what was your reasoning behind that? Because a lot of people are saying that this is just a temporary surge for Santorum. That he can't even afford a rental car. He really has no money in the coffers and that this is it for him?

CARLEY: No. This isn't it for him. As soon as this momentum gets going and he comes out in the top three, then money will start flowing in for him and he'll be able to move on and campaign for the whole campaign.

SAMBOLIN: Have you talked to your fellow Tea Partiers in Iowa? Do you have a sense that they agree with you on Santorum?

CARLEY: Most of the Tea Party elements don't do anything about endorsing candidates. We're just trying to get our members to go out and review and analyze what's going on and then make their own choice. And that's probably why the numbers go up and down so much, because people are doing exactly that. And then when you have a debate every two week, somebody gets beat up on it, their numbers go down and something else's builds up.

That's seems to be the progress of the whole process.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Well, the Tea Partiers do support behind candidates.

Amy, talk about Mitt Romney. He has been courting the Tea Party, and unsuccessfully, but let's listen to what he told to Republicans in South Carolina. This was just a few weeks ago, and then you can chime in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe on the issues as well. That I line up with a smaller government, a less intrusive government, regulations being pared back, holding down the tax rates on the American people, maintaining a strong defense. And so, many Tea Party folks are going to find me, I believe, to be the ideal candidate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Amy, do you se a situation where the Tea Party will ever support Mitt Romney?

KREMER: Well, you know, we're just not there yet. We haven't coalesced behind any candidate. And honestly, I thought that we would have by now.

But the people across the country -- I mean, you're seeing it right here in Iowa, where, you know, 41 percent are undecided as of today. There are literally people going into the caucuses tonight, listen to the surrogates for these campaigns and make their decision from there.

And I think it is very symbolic of what's happening across America. It's going to be really interesting to see what happens here tonight. We've seen Santorum surge. We've seen all these ebbs and flows in the campaign. I don't think we're going to really have any surprises in New Hampshire. I think South Carolina may be a game- changer and I think that we may see the Tea Party movement start to coalesce behind one or two candidates going into, out of South Carolina, into Florida.

SAMBOLIN: Well, but if, in fact, Mitt Romney ends up pulling ahead, do you see yourself as a Tea Partier supporting him?

KREMER: Well, this is what I'll say to that. It's that I don't believe that any of these candidates can win the nomination without the support of the Tea Party movement.

CARLEY: Yes.

KREMER: This is the first time that the Tea Party movement can play in presidential politics, and anybody that thinks that we're going to sit back after what we went through in 2010 and what we're still going through, because the House and Senate still don't get it, if anybody thinks that the Tea Party is going to be silent in presidential politics, they have another thing coming, because we are engaged and they need our support to win this nomination, because they're going to need our support to beat Barack Obama.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Amy Kremer, Jim Carley, thank very much for joining us this morning. Good luck to you tonight.

And, of course, it all does happen tonight.

CARLEY: Thank you.

KREMER: Thanks for having us.

SAMBOLIN: We're happy to have you. Thank you.

The country's first real votes, the candidates' first true test, at a special live, America's Choice 2012 coverage of the Iowa caucuses. It begins at 7:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN in the election center.

BANFIELD: It's going to get crazy in here, folks. The minute Wolf Blitzer shows up, like Cirque du Soleil. I'm telling you.

And we'll keep you in the pop culture loop, not just the election loop as well. We'll get you up on what's trending and on the Interwebs and social media.

From Yahoo, this is trending on a guy. This guy tried to escape, apparently, from a county prison in San Diego. A state prison, actually. A state prison in San Diego, and Thomas Kelly, 51 years old, who apparently was working as a firefighter within the prison, which I've never heard of, decided to steal one of the fire trucks to use for his escape on New Year's Day.

SAMBOLIN: Dumb criminal file.

BANFIELD: I don't know. I think that's kind of clever, actually. But, yes. He apparently grabbed one of the fire trucks and one of the deputies saw it driving erratically.

SAMBOLIN: Really?

BANFIELD: Yes. Dude, if you're going to steal a fire truck to get out of prison, don't drive erratically. But they caught him.

No, they didn't. They got the truck. He's still missing. How about that?

SAMBOLIN: All right. And this generation's action figures aren't superheroes or He-Man. They're nerds. It's the new Steve Jobs doll complete with the signature black turtleneck and jeans.

BANFIELD: I love it.

SAMBOLIN: This is trending on Twitter this morning because people are upset that he's pictured with a tiny iPhone accessory, but it's not included. It will be available next month, folks, for $100.

BANFIELD: Are you kidding me?

SAMBOLIN: No.

BANFIELD: An action figure for $100? Well, maybe it's a collector's item already. Who knows?

OK. So, the thing that we told you about, the wake him up thing, where we wake up friends and colleagues and A-listers and all the rest.

SAMBOLIN: Big name.

BANFIELD: It's John King. I like to call him the magic man, because he's such a magic man on the magic wall. He is not a morning man.

Here he is with Newt Gingrich. He's forgotten more politics than we will have ever read in our lifetime. And he's going to spend a lot of time in Iowa as well. We're going wake him up and get some early thoughts on our EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: This is my problem. I never remember my passwords. So sad, isn't it?

BANFIELD: I know.

SAMBOLIN: I'm trying to find our wake-up guy online right now.

BANFIELD: You know, I'll tell you one thing where he's not. He's not online, because John King works so late. He is the chief national correspondent for CNN, and I met him years ago in the White House when he was a White House correspondent. He's adorable.

SAMBOLIN: I met him yesterday.

BANFIELD: First time?

SAMBOLIN: First time.

BANFIELD: So, he's really going to love the fact that you're waking him up at 6:42 in the East after he spent last night all on primetime. He's all in your grill on primetime.

Can we dial John King and see if we can get through to him?

Here's the deal. As we dial him, you should know, if you don't already, he's married to Dana Bash, who is also a correspondent, a political correspondent here at CNN.

SAMBOLIN: Imagine the conversations at their dinner table.

BANFIELD: And they have a baby, and we're calling their house, you know, at the crack of dawn to wake them up. Well, hopefully, we won't wake up Dana because she also -- look at them. They're adorable together, aren't they?

SAMBOLIN: How young is the baby?

BANFIELD: Six months.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my -- they're up already. That baby is up.

BANFIELD: They've probably been up all night, in fact. I wouldn't doubt it if they have been up all night.

But one of the things that we love about John is that -- well, that guy's all serious when he's talking politics. He is hilarious off-air. He's also very, very effective on the magic wall. So, we're ringing through. I hope --

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John King.

BANFIELD: Oh, come on.

KING: Hello?

BANFIELD: John, it's Ashleigh and Zoraida calling. You don't just wake up in the morning and say, John King, do you? Seriously?

KING: Ah. Good morning.

SAMBOLIN: Good morning.

BANFIELD: Don't you answer your phone like the rest of us mere mortals and say -- hello -- in the morning?

KING: Go away. Call another day.

SAMBOLIN: Hey, John --

BANFIELD: That's what Wolf said.

SAMBOLIN: -- Ashleigh has been telling everybody you're not a morning person. You sound pretty awake to me.

KING: I am a morning person. Sleep is overrated. That's my motto in life.

SAMBOLIN: I love that.

BANFIELD: I think it's because you work into the morning. I think you were on probably late last night and you're going to be on very late tonight. Are you gearing up for tonight?

KING: I am. This is, you know, some days you do like to sleep in. Not on a day like this. We've been talking about this election for so long. The people finally get to vote and we're going to learn a lot tonight.

First, we're going to learn, you know, who's number one, two and number three in Iowa. But we're also going to learn the Republicans have the intensity to challenge President Obama in this re-election campaign. By that I mean, will we see higher turnout by Republicans no matter who wins? Will we see the energy that the Tea Party brought to the Republicans in 2010 carries over to 2012?

BANFIELD: I love it.

Did you just wake up thinking this? Like you just wake up and your head starts going all, like, strategy, Republicans. Did you, like, is Dana awake? How's the baby, all of these things I want to know about you. How are you this morning? How's Dana?

KING: This is a little test for us. Dana's in Iowa, and I'm actually at the CNN election center. So -- the grandparents are taking care of little Jonah today. He's probably eating better, having a lot more fun.

They did send a picture last night, during the program, on my show last night. He was in front of the televisions set, but he was not watching. He's a smart kid.

BANFIELD: And he wasn't watching. Your -- mom and dad are on TV and Jonah's off playing with his abacus, is that it?

KING: He's kind of looking of to the side and thinking there must be something more important than this.

BANFIELD: I know we're talking --

KING: Something more important (ph).

SAMBOLIN: A lot about your baby, but I just wanted to know how old your baby is?

KING: The baby was six months on December 28th. He's doing great. He's amazing. He's a miracle. He's great.

BANFIELD: And you probably getting a few night sleep that you weren't getting in the last six months. Hey, John, we'll see you at the office later on, hopefully. SAMBOLIN: He says he's at the CNN Center, Election Center. So, --

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: Forget it.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: John King, talking to us from his early morning bedside post.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you.

BANFIELD: And by the way, all gets under way tonight. Everything that John was about to talk about, and I cut him of with the personal stuff instead. The country's real votes again. Candidates, the first true test is the Iowa caucuses. Folks, we've been waiting for it.

America's live -- CNN's live America's choice 2012, the coverage in the Iowa caucuses begin at 7:00 p.m. eastern, eight o'clock -- excuse me, 7:00 p.m. eastern, six o'clock in Iowa, but the polls are 7:00 p.m. in Iowa. It's all coming out of the election center tonight. Back after this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ola! This is Elvis, the Mexican Elvis. I have been Elvising since 1988. I have opened for David Bowie, Carlos Santana. Two years ago, we opened for kids. Viva Las Vegas turned to Viva Laraza. I have taken on American icon and put a mustache on it.

The shows, I go 130 minute of Elvis non-stop, so dancing and really seven costume changes in the show.

This bag, some of my Elvis costumes. Black and latex for those sexy numbers. (INAUDIBLE). Everyone's favorite, the tiger. I am a Tigre de Norte.

Thin (ph) and shape is part of my job. You have to be fit for king. Ready to do karate chaps. Ready to do the split as the drop of the hat. You keep some rose as in case known gives you a boquet at the end for the encore.

Check out, Elvis. When I come to your town, I will be there soon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. Soledad O'Brien comes up in about ten minutes.

BANFIELD: She's busy. She's in Iowa, and she's probably with a coat, and hat and gloves, but she's inside. Good for her.

(CROSSTALK)

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST, "STARTING POINT": It is chilly inside, too. I could use my coat, my hat, and my gloves. Good morning, guys.

BANFIELD: Good morning.

O'BRIEN: "Starting Point" for the day. We're just about ten minutes away, and of course, it is decision day here in Iowa. We're talking to the candidates before they start hitting the pavement. They've got their families by their sides in many cases. Of course, that's because Iowa is a state where they talk a lot about family values.

Michele Bachmann is going to join us live this morning for the very first time. She's going to sit down for an interview with her kids by her side. She says she's hoping for a big surprise tonight. We'll talk about that.

Also, Newt Gingrich, he's going to be talking with us along with his daughters. He's been the target of some very nasty attack ads here in the state, taken swipe such as personal life. So, Gingrich says he's been Romney boated. We'll ask about that and also see if that's going to force him to change some of his tactics as everybody heads to New Hampshire and then South Carolina.

All that and much more is ahead in just about 10 minutes when we start "Starting Point."

BANFIELD: Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. This is happening right now. You are looking at live pictures from joint base Andrews Air Force Base where President Obama and the first family are landing at this moment. They're returning to Washington from a little holiday vacation in Hawaii.

And tonight may belong to the Republicans, but the president will make an electronic appearance in the Hawkeye State speaking to his Iowa supporters in a video teleconference. That is scheduled for later tonight. We want to see them actually walk off the plane, because they're coming straight from Hawaii with their Hawaii duds on.

BANFIELD: I know. I bet you they have a wardrobe on the plane.

SAMBOLIN: I bet they do.

BANFIELD: I always love that they --

SAMBOLIN: Being prepared.

BANFIELD: I'd love to travel like this. You get air force one and get on to marine one, and you get right to your back door. Wouldn't that be the best? Especially what we go through with airline travel?

SAMBOLIN: It comes with all the headaches, you know?

BANFIELD: I hear you.

(LAUGHTER)

OK. We'll continue to watch that picture for you. Soledad will watch it as well as she gets going, and we're in the election center for a very good reason. It's decision day one. Decision day one. We've officially kicked off 2012 at the Iowa caucuses beginning at 7:00 p.m. central tonight. Tight and unpredictable is how we're calling the race.

And Rick Green is the editor of the "Des Moines Register," and he joins us now to talk a little bit about being the phrase behind the front page. Mr. Green, it's great to have you. I just got to ask you this.

I know that you probably love this season. I know that you're kind of a new Iowan coming to the state about a year ago, but are you sick of the attack ads and all the negative ads that have been flooding your airwaves for the last several months?

RICK GREEN, EDITOR, "DES MOINES REGISTER": Well, it's good to see you, Ashleigh. You know, it's been a $10 million blitz what we've seen here in the month of December alone. Obviously, that's carried over to January. It's a wave of negative advertising that hasn't necessarily been seen in Iowa to this extent.

BANFIELD: Wow!

GREEN: Iowans, obviously, incredibly proud. They do their homework. They do their research. They take this process that lasts an entire year for us incredibly seriously. So, I think overall advertising spinning has been down this year, but the number of negative ads has been up, and everyone's paying close attention to that.

And you know, you have to admit it. It actually played a factor in the campaign. Former speaker of the House Gingrich -- really has. Yesterday, he talked about being Romney boated.

BANFIELD: Yes.

GREEN: We've seen the Super PACs get into the action and some of the candidates numbers have been really down.

BANFIELD: I get it when he says he was Romney boated. He feels like he's been ad boated, but do you think that Rick Santorum has been the beneficiary of all those negative ads, because his voters sure came from somewhere, and I know he's got boots on the ground and I know he's good at retail politics, but do you think that those negative ads drove everybody to the next guy who has not been under the microscope?

GREEN: I think that's a definite factor in all this, but you're right, though. Iowans respond to retail politics. No one has done it better this cycle than Rick Santorum. He's been in a double cab red pickup truck and crisscross the state in a way we haven't seen throughout this entire cycle. Here's the big issue here.

It's the "E" word. What's the electability? Our last full that we did and we were the last went out in the field, Mitt Romney was at 48 percent in terms of electibility.

BANFIELD: Right.

GREEN: Gingrich came in at 13, Rick Santorum stood at seven.

(CROSSTALK)

GREEN: Absolutely. Yes. Definitely.

BANFIELD: Rick, I wish I have more time for you, but I know you've got a very busy day, so you're going to be probably be on TV all day, but thank you for being with us and have some fun tonight as well.

GREEN: You bet, Ashleigh. Thanks a lot and good luck.

BANFIELD: Thank you very much.

SAMBOLIN: Looks like he's warming up there.

So, it's not exactly flip-flopping, but Newt Gingrich, after saying he didn't think he was going to win Iowa, has had a bit of a change of heart.

BANFIELD: Maybe, now, he believes that the first nominating contest is his to lose. Maybe, he expects a big upset. Maybe, he'll pull it off. Maybe, maybe, maybe. I'm so sick of it. I can't wait to hear the numbers.

Coming up at eight o'clock eastern, Soledad is going to be talking with the former House speaker and his two daughters. They are very much a part of his campaign. You are going to hear it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: And that's it. The news, from A to Z. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: It is EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin. "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien is coming up next. Good morning to you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right. Good morning to you both.