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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Political Analysts Examine New Hampshire Primary; Tim Tebow Leads Denver Broncos to Playoff Victory; Penn State's Football Future; A "Secret" White House Party?; New Details In Missing Toddler Case; Report: Iran Enriching Uranium At New Site; Missing Military Equipment; What's In Store For Your Money?; Ron Paul's Rise; Battle For New Hampshire; Interview with Rand Paul; Iran's President Visits Latin America; Actor John Ratzenberger Discusses U.S. Manufacturing

Aired January 9, 2012 - 06:59   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien and you are watching our new show which is called STARTING POINT. It's nice to have you. We're live this morning at Chez Vachon which is in Manchester, New Hampshire. It is primary eve here in New Hampshire.

The specialty, the specialty at this diner is something called -- it is a giant plate of fries covered in cheese curd, Canadian cheese curd, and then a spicy gravy on top. They have promised it's going to be on a giant plate, and we'll explain the challenge (ph) to you straight ahead.

First, though, we're taking a look at the changing field. Is it changing enough though to make a difference for the frontrunner Mitt Romney? We'll take a closer look at the polls this morning.

Plus, the rivals are turning up the heat on him in two debates over the weekend. Flipped just a little smidge, but it's really the battle for second place that everybody is talking about today.

Then we're going to talk to Senator Rand Paul. Of course, he's campaigning for his dad, helping him close the gap to some degree. Is he setting the stage, though, to make it interesting power play? We'll ask him about that.

And then, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords returns to the scene of that Tucson massacre that happened one year ago. She led people in the pledge of allegiance last night at a vigil. Look at that smile. It's really wonderful to watch. We'll show you some pictures of that.

Breaking news out of Iran this morning. Iran is saying it's enriching uranium for the first time after Iran's President Ahmadinejad has landed in Venezuela. And his plan is to try to strengthen ties with the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Then it's Tebow time. The Broncos quarterback takes Pittsburgh to Sunday school. Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh. This is so great to watch, in overtime. I'm just going to sit here and watch this, yes, touchdown. It's over. All that, plus our all-star panel. And then actor John Ratzenberger is going to join us, Cliff from "Cheers." He has his new cause celeb, and it involves getting America working again.

And, of course, you're going to want to set your DVRs for our 8:00 a.m. exclusive interview with Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul. STARTING POINT begins right now.

That's it. That's that I was telling you about. Bring it right here. The challenge at this restaurant. They put this in front of you. Watch out. Make a little space. This is French fries, Canadian cheese curd and then a spicy gravy on top. This platter they sell for $19.95, but the challenge is if you can finish the entire thing, five pounds, you get to have it for free. Today I'm going to say, Will, this is -- clear some stuff out of your way to help you out.

WILL CAIN, COLUMNIST, "THE BLAZE": Right. All right.

O'BRIEN: By the end of the show, if you can -- here you go. I have a fork. Here, a spoon. If you can finish that I'm going to buy it for you for $20.

CAIN: Does it come with its own cardiologist?

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: It does. They take you right to the ER.

All right, we got a countdown, of course, to New Hampshire primary this morning. Lots to talk about. Let's talk about the Suffolk University poll. It shows Mitt Romney with a pretty comfortable lead, but it's been dropping fourth day in a row. And Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman has been gaining a little. And then there's this American Research Group poll showing Mitt Romney ahead by 23 percent and Jon Huntsman surging into second place. The debates, the candidates, to be expected, started turning on Mitt Romney. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts why didn't you run for re-election?

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I went to Massachusetts to make a difference. I didn't go there to begin a political career running time and time again. I made a difference. I put in place the things I wanted to do.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Can we drop a little bit of the pious boloney? The fact is you had a very bad reelection rating. You dropped out of office. You'd been out of state for something like 200 preparing to run for president. You didn't have this interlude of private citizenship while you thought about what to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP) O'BRIEN: Well, these debates, very interesting, weekend full of debates. Let's introduce you to the folks we're talking with this morning. Wayne McDonald is the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. It's nice to you, sir. Feel free to dig in and eat any of the fries you want.

WAYNE MCDONALD, CHAIRMAN, NEW HAMPSHIRE REPUBLICAN PARTY: I don't think I need it.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Luke Hanes is here was as well, as well as CNN senior political analyst and "National Journal" editor, Ron Brownstein. And James Pindell is back in. He zipped in at the last second, a little out of breath. He's a political analyst for DMUR, doing another job helping us out this morning as well.

Then from Washington, D.C. we have Democratic strategist and former Hillary Clinton adviser Maria Cardona. Nice to have you all. Let's begin.

Let's talk polls. So when you see this movement, Wayne, I feel like I should call you Mr. McDonald because I know all these guys. Have a French fry, Mr. Chairman. Went you look at these polls that show this incremental movement, how are you feeling about the changes? They had a weekend to attack Mitt Romney, two debates. Did it work?

MCDONALD: It's not unusual for polls to tighten as Election Day nears. And I'm neutral. I have to be neutral as party chairman, but certainly Mitt Romney remains in a very solid position. The debate yesterday morning at the capital center in Concord was an aggressive debate, much more so than Saturday night. But Governor Romney held his own. He defended his positions well against all of them.

O'BRIEN: Basically it's a fight for second place now?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and possibly fight for third place. You've got a variety of polls which are different trajectory. The Suffolk has him going down and the MUR shows Romney maintaining his lead.

The key question coming out of New Hampshire could be the same one we had coming out of Iowa, will anyone merge as the single clear alternative to Mitt Romney? You could have a result here that further moves you away from that dynamic if -- especially if Ron Paul is able to come in a strong second, much less if Jon Huntsman come in third. Then candidates elevated by Iowa, Rick Santorum, being depressed in New Hampshire. And you move on to South Carolina in a muddle that benefits Mitt Romney.

O'BRIEN: But does none of that matter? If Romney is able to be the front-runnier in Iowa by just a few points, and then he is able to win here in New Hampshire, which is looking like any poll shows him a good lead. In South Carolina he's very strong. Ultimately does it matter? CAIN: What are we playing here for in New Hampshire and Iowa? We're not playing for delegates, media buzz. And if Romney wins both those states, Iowa and New Hampshire, he's running away with that conversation. He's the one we're talking about. I was talking to some of the people in diner here about who they liked. They talk about Mitt Romney because they know he's electoral. He's going to win.

O'BRIEN: When you're talk about eight points in Iowa. Can you use words like -- sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

(CROSSTALK)

MCDONALD: The thing about Romney is he's maintained his position throughout this. People have been up and down, Bachmann, Perry, Santorum. But Romney has consistently been the guy to beat.

O'BRIEN: Yes, but 75 percent, even if you look at your best polls, 60 percent are not supporting him. "Runaway" is not really a word I would use.

BROWNSTEIN: That is the challenge we're talking about. The two things that have been true all year, last January, are that there's a substantial portion of the Republican Party, probably a majority, resistant to Mitt Romney and yet no one has been able to lastingly consolidate that majority behind one candidate.

And if you come out of Iowa and New Hampshire, really with possibly the same story. Mitt Romney continuing to face resistance but yet no one being able to say, yes, I am that single one. Rick Santorum, if he can somehow come in second here, where there's no indication he is, might have been able to get in that position in South Carolina. But the risk is you go to South Carolina, a more conservative state and see that conservative vote fragment and Romney was able to win what John McCain did, very much a plurality victory in South Carolina that really puts him in an almost impregnable position.

JAMES PINDELL, POLITICAL ANALYST, WMUR-TV: What's going to help Mitt Romney is Iowa and New Hampshire don't get presidents. They whittle down the field. It went from seven major candidates after Iowa to only six. If New Hampshire really does whittle down the field because Rick Santorum is where Newt Gingrich is, create one candidate, Mitt Romney, versus five others.

(CROSSTALK)

MCDONALD: Governor Romney -- if Governor Romney --

O'BRIEN: You said once. We have it on tape. I heard you.

MCDONALD: -- success continues, whoever the ultimate nominee is, the party is going to unite behind them.

O'BRIEN: The party will unite behind them, but will the voters unite behind them? That's the $64,000 question. MCDONALD: He's made a lot of inroads with independents because of his record in Massachusetts and some of the other stances he's taken. And number one issue is jobs and the economy. Nobody is strong run issue than Mitt Romney.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you a question of Maria Cardona who is watching this little tussle we're having here from Washington D.C. You know, one of the narratives out of New Hampshire, right, Maria, is New Hampshire loves the underdog. I know the media, we run with that story. We flog it and, of course, it was Hillary Clinton as underdog, down five points in the polls, up three at the end, New Hampshire cried in between there. Tell me a little bit about that -- yes, right. It was on the day before. What do you think is the possibilities from the experience that you had as her former, you know, on her campaign formerly?

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think to your point, Soledad, and New Hampshire voters have said this time and again, they don't like anybody, whether it's the pundits, where it's the polls, or anybody else telling them how they should be voting. And they, I don't think, really care what happened in Iowa. I don't think they don't care what really has happened in the debates or what has been, quote, unquote, "coronated." I think they are in this to make the decision that they believe is the best one for the country, they believe that is the best one who will either be electable or who they believe represents their values. And there are still a lot of undecided voters here.

Is it enough to be able to change the trajectory in terms of the buzz everybody keeps talking about that Mitt Romney has been able to produce? I don't know. But that is what is so terrific about politics. A day is a lifetime.

And I have to point out one thing for the panel, because I think it's so interesting in these past debates, and people have talked about this, no one has been able to really go after Romney on so much of what I believe he's vulnerable on. This past debate, I think, was the one where his rivals went at him in a way that they hadn't before.

O'BRIEN: You know it's coming. They've got a day and I think --

CARDONA: Exactly.

(CROSSTALK)

PINDELL: Soledad, you know, I hate to always say this. The one thing that's predictable about New Hampshire is that it is very unpredictable. Our poll last night shows that 56 percent -- 56 percent of likely primary voters are still making up their minds this morning.

O'BRIEN: First, we have to get to some of the other stories making news. Christine has a look at that while Will digs into our French fries.

(CROSSTALK) O'BRIEN: All right, Christine, good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: And if he can eat all of that, that's a news flash. Soledad, thanks.

New this morning, nearly five months after he was arrested in Iran, an Iranian court convicted American ex-marine Amir Hekmati of working for the CIA and sentenced him to death. The State Department says he's falsely accused and is demanding his immediate release.

Also new this morning, a major drug recall. Novartis is pulling certain over the counter medicines off store shelves because of chipped and broken pills and packaging mix-ups. The recall includes bottles of Excedrin, No Doze, Gas-X, and Bufferin. No illnesses have been reported.

Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords leading the crowd in the pledge of allegiance in a candlelight vigil in Tucson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CROWD: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: One year ago, a shooting rampage claimed six lives and wounded 13, including Giffords.

All right, a woman cheats death after her bungee cord snaps. It happened in Zimbabwe. It was caught on tape. Wow. The cord snapped about 30 yards over crocodile-infested waters. Amazingly, she suffered no major injuries.

And can you feel it? We're paying more at the pump. According to the Lundberg survey, gas prices jumped 12 cents since the middle of last month to a national average of $3.36 a gallon. That's up about 30 cents from last year at this time.

Now let's check in on the markets. U.S. stock futures trading mixed. Dow futures are up just a bit. S&P are pretty much flat right now. NASDAQ futures are up a bit. A tug of war between optimism about the U.S. after that strong jobs report on Friday but lingering concerns over Europe's debt crisis.

All right, LSU and Alabama set for an epic rematch in tonight's BCS championship game. LSU handed Alabama its only loss of the year back in November in overtime in the first meeting. The stakes are way higher tonight in the Superdome. CNN's Joe Carter is in New Orleans. Good morning, Joe.

JOE CARTER, HLN SPORTS ANCHOR: Hey, good morning. Yes, whether you like the BCS or you want to blow it up, it certainly has number one versus number two going at it for all the marbles tonight. LSU had one of the most remarkable seasons in some time taking on Alabama. LSU looking for the second title in four years, Alabama their second tight until three years. As you said, the two went at it in November. It really was a defensive struggle, ended in a 9-6 LSU win in overtime.

I'll tell you, LSU has some incentive tonight. Not only will they be trying to win their second national championship basically at home here in the Superdome, but its Les Miles meets Nick Sabin tonight. Les Miles will become the highest paid coach in the SCC, which basically means he'll get $1 million bonus for each of the next six years which remain in his contract.

So it's a lively atmosphere here in New Orleans. Not particularly at the moment because it's obviously so early. But we saw last night lsu and Alabama, both sets of fans are here and getting rowdy. As you know, it's easy to have fun on Bourbon Street, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You know, I love nor. You know that is my favorite city in the whole world. The poll is trying to drown me out here. I was supposed to go to this game and then, of course, this show got moved so I'm not going.

Let me talk to you for a minute an about Tim Tebow because that was an awesome game last night. That 80 yards.

CARTER: Wasn't it?

O'BRIEN: He's just amazing. Yes. Just amazing.

CARTER: You know --

O'BRIEN: It really --

CARTER: Tebow's become, in my opinion, the greatest story the NFL has seen this season. You know, I can get the Aaron Rodgers thing, the Packers thing, it's great. But Tim Tebow far and away literally is the best story NFL has got going this season. On the Internet last night and I thought Tebow was going to break twitter. But, yes, Tebow, he's proving all his critics wrong. Here he is in the playoffs. He wasn't even supposed to be a starting quarterback and now taking on the Tom Brady in the second round. So it's a great story to follow all year.

O'BRIEN: It is. But you know what I like about it best, people always saying is that football is supposed to be fun. There's other important stuff but football is supposed to be fun. It's makes it when one wins, it makes it more enjoyable. Thank you, Joe. Appreciate it.

We got a new Suffolk University tracking poll. We were talking a moment ago about the one from two days ago. Now we got a new poll which is going to -- oh, there it is right there.

Look at -- so look how it tracks. You can see January 5th and 6th, Romney is at 39 percent. Move to your right there, he's now at 33 percent in this Suffolk Poll. Ron Paul started 17 percent. He's gone up a little bit. Stayed over the last couple of days at 20 percent. And I think it's Huntsman is the other story to watch right there, right? He, a couple of days ago, is at nine percent. He's now up to 13 percent. It still puts Romney in a big lead.

We'll talk about what polls like this could mean for what the front-runners are going to do.

Still ahead, of course, we're going to talk to Senator Rand Paul. Of course, he is out campaigning for his dad. We're going to talk to him in a little bit about his plans to chase delegates in Florida.

Then we're talking about Penn State. They have named a new coach, and everybody is up in arms because he is not a Penn Stater. They're mad. We're going to look at that.

Plus, our "Get Real." There's a new book out that says the White House had a little secret party, however, the secret party was so secret that they actually have video of it (INAUDIBLE) and whose organizations around the country covered it and, of course, it was on the web as well. We'll talk about some secrets ahead on "Get Real."

We're back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Penn State -- welcome back, everybody. Before we talk about Penn State, I want to show you a little bit of the inside of Chez Vachon. We have this giant plate of fries in front of us. Will has had one bite. I've got to tell you, it smells so good. This is a specialty. It's called --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't remember.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Something challenging.

O'BRIEN: It's something hard to pronounce, but it has -- poutine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Poutine.

O'BRIEN: Poutine, yes. There's like eight different pronunciations that I'm getting from everybody of it. But it's French fries. Can you get a shot of this? It's French fries, then you have the Canadian cheese curd and then we have a spicy gravy on top. I haven't tried it yet, but Will has. And Will?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's excellent.

O'BRIEN: Will, it's very good. We appreciate that.

All right. Let's talk a little bit about Penn State, of course, embroiled in that sex abuse scandal with Jerry Sandusky. Now, kind of taking a step forward, they have a new head coach. He's from the New England Patriots. Name is Bill O'Brien. He's an outsider, though. He is not a former Penn State player and he's not been a coach. And, of course, all the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal that people are talking about today.

Joining us this morning is Bryan Scott, played football for Penn State and now plays for the Buffalo Bills. And Steve Adubato, he's a media analyst and a branding expert. Gentlemen, it's nice to see you.

Bryan, let's start with you. The reaction immediately after the hiring of Mr. O'Brien, no relation to me, I should point out, was overwhelmingly negative. How do you feel about it?

BRYAN SCOTT, BUFFALO BILLS: I actually -- I'm excited with the -- with the choice that -- that they made. And you know, I understand the backlash that kind of came from some of the former players. But I'm happy with it. I think the board of trustees --

O'BRIEN: What do you understand about it?

SCOTT: Well, I believe that they were between a rock and a hard place. And having to choose someone from outside of the university as they did, I think it was the best decision for them.

O'BRIEN: So, Steve, obviously it's a challenge to try to find a coach after 47 years of Joe Paterno. Here's what Bill O'Brien said in his press conference. We'll play that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O'BRIEN, NEW HEAD FOOTBALL COACH, PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS: I'm here now. I'm the football coach here now. It's my job as the head football coach at Penn State to -- to have the best football program both on and off the field.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Do you think that it's enough? I mean to have a new coach who has no connection to the school or does it require and by it I guess I mean moving forward require cleaning out all together? Because obviously there are a lot of folks who are involved in the program, involved with Joe Paterno, worked for Jerry Sandusky, who are still there?

STEVE ADUBATO, MEDIA ANALYST: Soledad, this is a long-term process. And if anyone thinks that hiring Bill O'Brien is going to turn this thing around, they're delusional, because whether it's fair or not, whether people think it's right or not, everyone at Penn State who is remotely connected, whose name is likely to come up, one of these many, many trials involving Sandusky and these horrific, disgusting charges, if you will, everyone is going to get pulled into this.

My opinion is, everyone has to go. You have to clean house. And it's not just on the football side. It's not just on the academic side. Everyone connected to Penn State on the administrative side, in terms of the board, and people are going to say that's ridiculous. That's not what the court of law says. That's not due process.

We're talking about brand reputation and management. And I have a 19-year-old and when he was making a decision of going to school, say Penn State is one of those schools, you cannot tell me that this is -- it does not tarnish the ability of Penn State to recruit, not just for football, but for academics and the best students.

O'BRIEN: So we've obviously seen that already, Steve, right? Bryan, we've seen it. We know that the three top picks have changed their minds about heading to Penn State. When does that end? I mean, is it at some point, is it -- they need a year, they need two years, they just need to win and then no one will care? What is it?

SCOTT: I really don't know. I don't have an answer for that. But obviously, you know, we're trying to move forward, and the sooner that we can do that the better. And I think, you know, to be upset with the hiring of coach O'Brien and to kind of, you know, stay where we are is a disservice not just to Penn State alum, but also to the organization itself, to the football program, and to the young men that will continue -- that they want to attend there. I think we just, you know, have to move from it to give them a fair chance at it.

ADUBATO: Soledad, that doesn't --

O'BRIEN: Bryan Scott, Steve Adubato, you know what, I'm going to stop you there, but we will continue talking about this because clearly we could -- we could talk about it all; day. You know, where is the line? Where do you stop? Is it the players, the receptionist? I mean, how far do you go?

Thanks, guys. Appreciate the conversation.

And still ahead on STARTING POINT, breaking news out of Iran regarding country's nuclear program. Plus, an American there on trial has now been sentenced to death. We'll update you on his status. And the Iranian president is in Venezuela. We'll take you there live for an update.

Plus, in "Get Real," a new book is coming out this week, a claims to reveal very juicy, hidden secrets of the Obama administration. So juicy and so hidden you can find them online. We'll talk about that.

And then Senator Rand Paul will join us. He's going to talk about his dad's success in the polls. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. It is time to "Get Real" this morning.

There's a new book coming out this week. You probably read a little bit about it. It's written by "New York Times" reporter Jodi Kantor and claims to reveal all the hidden secrets of the Obama administration. Among them, an Alice in Wonderland Tea Party themed Halloween Party back in 2009 that she claims the White House felt was so rift with Hollywood -- rife, I think that word is, English, hello -- rife with Hollywood glamour at a time when Americans were suffering that the White House wanted to keep it a secret. This is what she's claiming in her book.

It was designed by Tim Burton at the same time his movie, very over the top movie, that's being released at is attended by the Mad Hatter himself, Johnny Depp, and the original Chewbacca from "Star Wars" was sent by George Lucas to entertain the guests, a big, over the top party.

So, according to this book, this is what Jodi Kantor writes. Quote, "White House officials are so nervous about how a splashy Hollywood-esque party would look to jobless Americans, that the event was not discussed publicly. And Burton's and Depp's contributions went unacknowledged." Well, not really.

You take a look at -- and it's not hard, with a Google search you can find that CNN covered the party. NBC covered the party. Reuters covered the party. The Associated Press covered the party. "USA Today" covered the party and the "Chicago Sun Times" also covered the very, very top secret party.

We asked the White House if they tried to keep it a secret, they said, well, not really. There's a video of the party on our official White House website. Take a look at that. Johnny Depp's fan site had a post about his appearance at the party.

So for a secret keeping of this White House Halloween party with Hollywood celebs, not so secret. Maybe it wasn't a secret at all, Ms. Kantor. You might want to "Get Real" on that.

Ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, Ron Paul moving up in the polls. His son, Senator Rand Paul is going to join us to talk about his father's success and whether he can sustain it.

STARTING POINT back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: See, we're not the only people ordering the putzen this morning. Welcome back everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT with Soledad O'Brien.

We are starting our morning with something very, very healthy, which is their specialty, French fries smothered in cheese curd and spicy gravy dressing.

In this next half hour though, Senator Rand Paul has joined us at the breakfast table. He's going to talk to us about these new polls that have come out, where his dad is in the polls and also the plan to chase delegates in Florida.

Plus, we'll talk to John Ratzenburger. You remember him as -- I'm having a hard time with the English language today, Cliff Claven from "Cheers." He has an idea about bringing Americans to work in manufacturing. We'll talk to him about that.

Lots to get to though, first we're going to check in with CNN's Christine Romans with an update on some other stories that are making headlines. Hi, Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. New details this morning emerging in the search for a missing toddler in Maine. Ayla Reynolds vanished from her father's home last month.

Her grandmother claims family members at the home that night had nothing to do with Ayla's disappearance, but she tells CNN she herself was not there. Police suspect foul play, but they have no suspects.

New this morning, Iran has reportedly started enriching uranium at a new nuclear facility. It says, it boasts, it's immune to any military attack.

The plant is set to have 3,000 centrifuges in operation. Iran says another nuclear facility has 8,000 enriching uranium. Iran claims this nuclear program is designed for medical purposes.

And nearly 100 soldiers are on lockdown at a military base in Seattle after reports that sensitive military equipment is missing. It includes scopes and night lasers. The soldiers unit returned from Iraq in $2010. A $10,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the recovery of that equipment.

Let's check in on the markets this morning. U.S. stock futures trading mixed this morning at Dow futures up just a bit, S&P futures are flat right now. NASDAQ futures are up slightly.

They're really been wobbling this morning because today is the first meeting of the new year between the French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel.

Optimism about the U.S. economy after that strong jobs report on Friday, overshadowed today at least by concerns over Europe's debt crisis -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right, Christine, thank you very much. You know, we're sitting here chatting. Christine is talking to me, time to go back to work.

I want to talk this morning about polls. New Suffolk University poll, WHDH poll was just released and shows that Ron Paul is gaining on Mitt Romney. Really Romney's also going downward just a little bit.

He's at 33 percent compared to Ron Paul who is at 20 percent. Also there's an American Research Group poll, Romney is at 23 points ahead of who they pick as number two in this poll, which is Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul is third.

Back with our panel this morning, Will Cain is joining us. He's been digging into our breakfast. Ron Brownstein is the editorial director --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the poll numbers.

O'BRIEN: The poll numbers and breakfast this morning. Ron Brownstein of the "National Journal," James Mendell is joining us as well. He's a political analyst for MUR and we're also very happy to be joined by Maria Cardona. She is a former Hillary Clinton adviser and a Democratic strategist. She's in D.C.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, is the son of Ron Paul. He's joining us at the table. Feel free, sir, as I tell everyone to dig into the French fries covered in spicy gravy with cheese curd.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But it looks like you needed help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's only one way to eat, fork and by hand.

O'BRIEN: We're all family here. Help yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As long as you get flattering shots of me.

O'BRIEN: That's what it's all about, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is what -- when he said help is on the way.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's talk about poll numbers and I just threw them up a moment ago. But if you look over the last couple of days here in New Hampshire, your father has gone from 17 percent, I'm talking about this Suffolk poll, to about 20 percent.

At the same time, Mitt Romney has seen a little bit, you know, not a giant slide, but 39 percent down to now 33 percent. How are you feeling about these polls?

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: You know, I'm amazed by the energy I've seen since I've been here. We got off the plane in Nashua and 1,000 people, mostly young people, at the airport.

We were in Meredith yesterday. They couldn't fit everybody in the hotel. The manager of the hotel who has had every presidential candidate here in the recent years has never seen a crowd this big.

We had 100 people in the hallway and 100 people on the roads still holding signs that they wouldn't let into the meeting. So I think the energy is great. I think we're surging. I think we have a really good chance.

O'BRIEN: So what happens? Let's say he's second here, you know, as well, but a second place, you know, is it something that you would think about being a V.P.? It's been done before. PAUL: I don't know. We want to win and it's always better to win than get second place. I think there's a remote chance we could pull an upset here if there is a large independent turnout.

All of a sudden in the last two days, independents said, we want to send a message and we want to get out and vote. And that's one of the great things about New Hampshire is independents can vote in this primary.

Same with Iowa, in Iowa we doubled the independent vote from 2008 and we won it 3-1. Governor Romney does pretty well with independents, too, up here. But I think we can beat him with independents if we get a big turnout.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you. Your father sponsored 620 bills in his 11 terms in Congress and just one became law. The "Atlantic Wire" wrote this. They said Paul's approach to law making is particularly suited to not getting things done. Is that the kind of -- when someone reads that, wow, do you want that guy as president?

PAUL: I would say it's not completely fair. I've been there for about a year and I've had four or five things I've defeated and gotten through. Not bills yet, but I'm in the mixed of it because the rules are different in the Senate and the House.

The House is absolute. The leadership decides what bills come, what you can speak on and whether there can be amendments. For example, when Nancy Pelosi was in charge of the House, you didn't have amendments and open debates. She had varied control.

Republicans have done it, too. It hasn't been just Democrats. But the House is a much more structured body, much more difficult to get your bills through.

And I guess my dad's point is, is that it's not that his positions are not popular with the people. It's that people in Washington are out of touch by not passing what he's been trying to do.

O'BRIEN: But let me ask you about a position that I think might not be popular with people as certainly as you head into South Carolina.

PAUL: Start with the popular ones?

O'BRIEN: We have a limited time.

PAUL: All right.

O'BRIEN: So, no. But we could do by phone later you and I. Back in 2004, your father was on the floor of the House voting against this bill that hailed this 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and he said this.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not improve race relations or enhance freedom. Instead, the forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.

This Civil Rights Act is, you know, for people who don't know it, of course, is credited with not allowing discrimination among blacks.

Let's give you my kind of take on this or my perspective. My parents couldn't -- my mom is black, my dad is white. They were not allowed in restaurants together because of discrimination. They couldn't get housing because of discrimination.

PAUL: You say that's awful and something he doesn't support, but I think if he were here he would say that's awful and something that he doesn't support.

But I think the thing about Ron Paul -- this is what makes him extraordinary. He is an extraordinary person in American politics and probably unique in American politics.

He voted against giving a gold medal to Mother Theresa, but that doesn't mean he doesn't like what Mother Theresa did. So the issues are a little more complicated than you scratched the surface --

O'BRIEN: Sometimes doesn't the federal government --

PAUL: It is not for civil liberties because of that. For example, there are things that people are concerned about that were unintended consequences.

People who believe very fervently in people being -- having equal protection under the law and against segregation and all that still worried about the loss of property rights in the sense that --

O'BRIEN: He's saying --

PAUL: Let me finish. For example, I can't have a cigar bar anymore. You say, that has nothing to do with race. The idea of whether or not you control your property it also tells you come in here, I want to know the calorie count on that and the calorie Nazis come in here and tell me --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think I do.

PAUL: I don't think you can measure the calorie count there. That's the point. That's the point. It's not all about that. It's not all about race relations. It is about controlling property ultimately.

RON BROWNSTEIN, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, NATIONAL JOURNAL: But, Senator, ultimately was not state-sponsored segregation. What is the key word in there state sponsored. Was not the state using its power to infringe minorities until the 1964 Civil Rights Act?

PAUL: Right.

BROWNSTEIN: So he is choosing one set of rights over another? It's not a black-and-white is the word choice.

PAUL: But I think the mistake in dwelling on something like this is you're dwelling on an obscure issue that is not part of what he's about.

BROWNSTEIN: I disagree.

PAUL: Let me finish. No, let me finish.

(CROSSTALK)

PAUL: For example, if you want to know something about Ron Paul and race relations come and meet our staff, come -- no, don't merely shake your head.

O'BRIEN: I'm not going to sit you two next to each other.

PAUL: Let me finish. The thing is, is that look at the diversity of our staff, look at the diversity of our followers. There are young men and women of every race much more diverse than any other campaign.

What other candidate will stand up and say that our current laws, not what we're talking about in 1964, but that our current laws are imprisoning young black men at rate much greater than young white men because the laws are being unfairly applied. There are civil liberty problems now --

O'BRIEN: They've been given those opportunities because of the Civil Rights Act, right?

PAUL: There are civil liberty problems now that still need to be addressed. Many people think this school choice is the civil rights issue of our era.

That we need to get better schools for people, that our public schools are failing people who come from other ethnic walks of life and other circumstances.

So there are many things now that still need to be fixed, but to sort of paint Ron Paul as someone who doesn't care about race relations --

O'BRIEN: No, I'm not saying that. What I'm trying to say is trying to understand --

PAUL: You are because you're dwelling on something like this.

O'BRIEN: Because I think it gives an insight into how someone thinks about discrimination policy. If he wants to be president of the United States, you have to say, what would he do in a similar circumstance and this is a quote from 2004. I'm not going back to 1964.

PAUL: I would say that I've never heard him give a speech on saying he wants to do anything to overturn anything to do with the Civil Rights Act. You're bringing up a red herring, but here's an issue that is a real issue.

O'BRIEN: I disagree with that.

PAUL: Here's an issue that is a real issue. There's a young black woman in her 30s who's in jail for 37 years for a drug-related crime. Here was her crime.

She was taking money from her boyfriend's house to some other drug dealer's house. It was a crime and we decided to put her in jail, but for 37 years? We have people with life sentences.

And these penalties are disproportionately going to underprivileged, largely African-American communities.

O'BRIEN: He wouldn't support the Civil Rights Act and he would not support desegregating of schools, he would not support -- let me finish my point.

PAUL: The big issue right now --

O'BRIEN: Let me finish my point.

PAUL: The big issue right now with drugs and with imprisonment is a real issue now.

O'BRIEN: Clearly.

PAUL: We need to change.

O'BRIEN: And discrimination is a real issue. That's what it was about.

PAUL: One other candidate is talking about getting rid of mandatory minimum.

O'BRIEN: Clearly, I would give you that, sir.

PAUL: That's a real issue.

O'BRIEN: I think that's resonating with people, but I think at the same time, you're saying, the not discussing discrimination, well, that's trump because you're actually talking about issues that do affect African-Americans and other people disproportionately.

But ultimately you're saying your father would say today I would not get involved in desegregating schools, I would not get involved in saying a restaurant like this --

PAUL: If we were running in 1964 that would be an issue that we would be talking about. No one other than you is talking about this. You brought up something from 40 years ago.

O'BRIEN: No, this is 2004. This is --

PAUL: Ron Paul is not interested in changing. Ron Paul is the only candidate on the Republican stage who would actually do something that would eliminate current imbalances and things -- in South Carolina, there's going to be --

Ron Paul is the only candidate on the stage that would actually do something that would get rid of discrimination in our law. That's what you need to be talking about.

WILL CAIN, COLUMNIST, THE BLAZE: That's not right, by the way, that Ron Paul wouldn't want to be involved in desegregating schools. Ron Paul and Rand Paul's position have been on the private property rights within the '64 Civil Rights Act and I got to say --

O'BRIEN: Right, but if you're saying no to Civil Rights Act, you're also saying no desegregating schools.

CAIN: This conversation is a poignant one because --

O'BRIEN: You can't say a conversation is not --

CAIN: It is because fairing out racist as opposed to talking about private property. That being said, Ron Paul --

O'BRIEN: But in this particular venue, the Civil Rights Act actually overlaps on both of those things, discrimination and private property.

CAIN: Ron Paul does have some controversial opinions that do seem to cap his support. For example, there are many people out there that see Ron Paul as a sole champion of constitutionalism, small government, liberty, individualism.

But, Senator Paul, I have to ask you. He sees those opinions out there, logical conclusions to logical positions such as legalizing drugs, abolishing the Fed, taking troops out of Afghanistan, not just Afghanistan but South Korea, Japan, Germany. For many people --

(CROSSTALK)

-- deal killers. Are these not deal killers for you and the support of your father?

PAUL: He's my dad, OK?

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL: But what I would say is there are degrees of everything. For example, I don't want to, but I'll go back to the Civil Rights Act. I would have voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But I do still have some misgivings as to what it did to things that were --

O'BRIEN: In retrospect, and you're not the only one --

PAUL: For example, we're in this restaurant now. Do you want -- they actually may be allowed for everybody to be armed. But let's say the owner of the restaurant wants weapons in here. Should the owner of the restaurant have the ability to say I don't want weapons in here? I have a bar, people drink and I don't want people to have weapons in here. Should you allowed to say that? You're not because we've evolved to a situation where everybody believes you don't own this restaurant. It's a public place. It's owned by the public. It isn't.

This is owned by whoever owns this diner. And if they don't want guns in here -- and I'm a pro gun guy -- but they ought to be able to say they get to make the rules. That's the slippery slope we're worried about.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Stop, stop, stop.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Dig into the French fries because we have to go to commercials -- is what pays the bills, people. We have to go to commercial break.

I want to thank our panelists.

Of course, Senator, thank you for coming --

PAUL: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: -- and joining our conversation. We appreciate it.

Got lots to talk about straight ahead. Iran's president is visiting Latin America. That, as Iran says it's taking another step in the nuclear program. We'll talk about what's happening there in just a moment.

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O'BRIEN: We've got several breaking news stories coming out of Iran. Welcome back, everybody. Iran is now claiming it's started enriching uranium at a new nuclear facility. Tehran claims it's for medical use. The news comes as Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is rubbing elbows with some vocal critics of the United States right next door to this country in Venezuela. And this morning, he's there already and he's also going to be traveling to Nicaragua. He'll go to Cuba. He'll also go to Ecuador.

Julie Sweig is from the Council on Foreign Relations. She's live with us at a D.C. this morning. And Christine Romans is live for us in Atlanta.

Christine, we'll get to you in a moment.

Julie, let's start with you.

How much of the point of this meeting is to send the message, to really the U.S., that all of these countries that Ahmadinejad is meeting with and -- you know, we're not just friends, we are also economic partners.

JULIE SWEIG, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: I think the economic message is important, Soledad. Latin America has diversified its trade and investment portfolio across ideological spectrums in the past five years, 10 years or so. So the visit is, from the Latin American country's perspective, that it is a sign that this part of the region is independent from the United States. And for Iran also, the economic partnership is one dimension of the visit. Although, I wouldn't overstate the case.

O'BRIEN: Well, I was going to ask you that. When you look at the investments that have been promised, a port in Nicaragua -- didn't happen. Refinery in Ecuador -- didn't happen. How much is just sort of talk and P.R. and how much support does he actually have from the Latin American people?

SWEIG: I think that, you know, he has been there every two years or so since 2005. And there's always a big gap between the rhetoric of promise of large-scale investment and what actually is delivered. I think this is for domestic consumption in his own country to show that he is not isolated, despite sanctions, and despite U.N. resolutions along those lines. In Latin America, generally, he doesn't really have much of a political base.

O'BRIEN: Christine, I know whenever we talk about Iran, often a lot of the conversation is, how much are we going to be paying for oil, and how much are we going to pay for gas.

ROMANS: Yes. And already you're seeing gas and oil prices moving higher, Soledad. And the reason is, even though Iran's saber rattling probably is just saber rattling, the Strait of Hormuz, 40 percent of the world's traded oil goes right there past the coastline of Iran. And when Iran says it could shut it down, just even that talk starts to filter into the oil markets and you have unease.

So where the world economy is, is barely growing, Europe is barely growing, the U.S. just growing maybe 2 percent, 2.5 percent, that usually means that oil prices go down when you don't have a robust concern. Concerns about Iran, where 40 percent of the world's traded oil goes right through the Strait of Hormuz, that means you will be paying more at the pump.

You know, the treasury secretary right now is in Asia, Soledad. They're having all these different meetings. You can be sure that that is on the agenda as well. Iran's talking in our backyard to our neighbors. What will China, what will Japan, what will others do, what will the U.S. do to pressure them to isolate Iran because of its nuclear program. All of that still means more jitters in the oil market. And that means you'll be paying more at the pump. The Strait of Hormuz all the way to your service station, Soledad. They are connected.

O'BRIEN: Sorry. Christine Romans for us on the gas prices, and Julia Sweig for us -- is with the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you both for being with us.

Still to come this morning on STARTING POINT, you may remember him as Cliff from "Cheers," John Ratzenberger is now an outspoken advocate for American manufacturing. He thinks veterans are a key to resurrecting that U.S. industry. We'll talk to him straight ahead.

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(SINGING)

O'BRIEN: The latest on the jobs report -- shush, panelists. Shush, working. Gosh, I've got to slow these guys down.

A latest jobs report to talk about. 23,000 jobs in manufacturing, U.S. manufacturing jobs have been added in December. Despite the new numbers, the industry, though, is on a long-term decline.

We have asked actor, John Ratzenberger, to join us. He is an outspoken advocate for American manufacturing. He's in New York this morning.

Nice to see you.

When you look at some of the statistics, the good news, of course, 23,000 jobs in manufacturing. The bad news is a lot of them are low-wage jobs. They are not that those high-wage jobs. How do you grow the high-wage jobs?

JOHN RATZENBERGER, ACTOR & MOST PROGRAM: Well, that's what we have with the MOST Program. It's the Mobile Outreach Skills Training. And we come in with trailer trucks and buses that we have equipped as classrooms, and actually we can guarantee jobs for returning veterans.

So what's happened over the last 30 years, Soledad, is we have cancelled vocational training in schools. There are thousands and tens of thousands of jobs right now, today, available in manufacturing, but the problem is, the kids graduate from high school without the ability to read a ruler. So that's where we come in. We step in. We actually go to the manufacturers and we say, what do you need? Do you need CNC machine operators? Do you need welders? Do you need lathe operators? And then we configure our program to what the manufacturer needs.

But we bring our classroom right into the parking lot of the manufacturer. So that when the students come in --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: So you --

(CROSSTALK)

RATZENBERGER: I'm sorry. Say that again.

O'BRIEN: Well, I was just going to ask you, you know, conventional wisdom I think today is telling a lot of those students, listen, you need college. The days of having a middle-class life and a middle-class existence when you have not gone to college is no more. That's in the past. Is that just not true anymore? You think it's possible that you can train people as -- (CROSSTALK)

RATZENBERGER: Well, it's turned right around. I gave a talk recently to a high school, and I asked, what is everyone doing after high school, who's going to college. Everybody raised their hand except one guy. He was going into auto mechanics. And everybody laughed at him. I said that's pretty funny because, at the end of four years, he's going to own his own home while the rest of you are waiting tables paying back your college degree.

We gave out more degrees last year, twice as many degrees in sports management than we did in engineering. See it's actually the love of my country that makes me do this, because the strength of America is manufacturing. There's no way around it. We are manufacturers. We make things. We invent things. We innovate things. That's what you sell. That's why Wall Street exists, because of somebody getting up in the morning and putting a nut and a bolt together. And we are losing that. We're losing that because --

(CROSSTALK)

RATZENBERGER: -- we haven't trained people. And we have made them more interested in becoming a sports manager than an engineer.

O'BRIEN: John Ratzenberger is our "Cause Celeb" this morning.

Thank you for being with us to talk about what your passion is. Appreciate it.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, much more on the New Hampshire primary. We are just 35 hours away.

(LAUGHTER)

Now we're doing the countdown.

Plus, exclusive one-on-one with my hero, as we like to say, the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin. I asked her about her music. I asked her about her upcoming marriage. And I asked her about her dad. She is winning an award on his behalf. We'll talk about all of that straight ahead. Stay with us.

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