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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

New Hampshire Primary Begins; Rivals Pounce On Romney Remark; Federal Reserve Says Consumer Borrowing Rising; Today's Travel Weather; Unsolved Murder in Seattle; Beyond New Hampshire; Roll Tide!; WH Chief Of Staff Leaving; American Sentenced To Death In Iran

Aired January 10, 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: Hello, everybody. It's 6:00 in the east and it's 3:00 a.m. in the west. Good morning, everyone. This is EARLY START. I'm Ashley Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: It is time to wake up this morning. I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We're bringing you the news from A to Z. Let's get started here, shall we?

BANFIELD: Decision day. Did you hear? Whatever you might call it, it's a tie day. Believe it or not we have a tie and a win in New Hampshire.

I'm talking about one itty bitty little place that decides to hold the vote its vote at midnight. We have the results. Guess what, good news for Obama.

SAMBOLIN: DNA links a killer to a pilgrim. This is pretty fascinating. It's a break in a 20-year-old murder mystery of a high school cheerleader. We're going to talk to someone about that.

BANFIELD: Also, in the west wing, things are usually settled until they aren't. President Obama is trying out two men, the guy on the right out and the guy on the right in.

Why did the chief of staff -- guy on the left and guy on the right. Why did Daley decide he had just had enough? Sorry, why did Bill Daley decide he had had enough as being chief of staff and call it quits? We'll tell you.

SAMBOLIN: A blowout, Crimson Tide wins the national title. Sweet revenge against LSU.

BANFIELD: So many darn dailies, it's hard to keep them straight. It's all over the place. Clearly, he must have missed Chicago because he's on his way back, or something else is afoot.

SAMBOLIN: Typically, right?

BANFIELD: Typically.

But this is big politics day elsewhere, too. In New Hampshire, it's the first primary. It's officially under way because at midnight in an itty-bitty place called Dixville Notch, this is a tradition folks.

They are the first to vote and they do so just when the clock strikes midnight and then like minutes later they can count because there are only nine registered voters who actually showed up. Three of those votes went to President Obama. So I suppose you could say he kind of won it, but the others were split.

SAMBOLIN: On the Republican side, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, two votes each. Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich with one vote each. CNN's political reporter, Shannon Travis is live in Dixville Notch. Did you get to talk to any of those of folks after they voted?

SHANNON TRAVIS, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: I talked to a few of the people after they voted, yes, I mean, among those nine registered voters that you mentioned, there were four independents, three Republicans and two Democrats.

So that means one of the independents voted for President Obama, which is kind of a big deal. But the other big deal, headline from this, is the tie between Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman both getting two votes.

The organizer of this, the man in charge of the voting here tells me that's never happened before. So that's one historical headline to add to this little historical footnote of them doing this since 1968.

And one other thing, since 1968, the Republican winner of this very small vote here has gone on to become the republican nominee. So it would be a been a bragging rights for Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both of them obviously want to do that this year.

BANFIELD: All right, Shannon. Thank you. Sorry.

SAMBOLIN: A little delay on this end.

BANFIELD: We're just really, really sleepy, my friend. But you know what, you look great and you did good work and you should be sleepier than we are.

TRAVIS: Join the club.

SAMBOLIN: I know. We shouldn't complain, right? I mean, that's at midnight.

BANFIELD: There's a hardworking man right there, my friends.

SAMBOLIN: All right, many political analysts believe today's New Hampshire race is a battle for second place. Here's why.

The latest American Research Group poll released last night has Mitt Romney with 37 percent of the vote, Huntsman 18, Paul 17, Santorum, 11 and Gingrich 10 percent. It's getting nasty, you know. Big flap over this remark from Mitt Romney, which he claims has been taken out of context by his rivals. Listen up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: All right, John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for "Newsweek" and the "Daily Beast." Democratic strategist, Kiki McLean and live from Chicago, conservative commentator, Lenny McAllister. Thanks for joining us everyone.

So let's begin with you, John. We just heard in that sound bite, you know, that was taken out of context, at least that's what Romney is claiming. Can that hurt him though with the voters if they don't understand where that -- how it fits in to the totality of what he was saying?

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Short answer, yes. Look, it was taken out of context. But again, this re-enforces, I think, some of the general election that you're going to see, which is Mitt Romney as Mr. 1 Percent.

Not feeling the pain of folks who are sort of still struggling through this great recession. It's going to be the last thing -- that sound bite was going to be last thing that some voters went to bed with in their heads last night.

That helps frames how they vote on Election Day. And just like the headline this morning out of Dixville Notch, Romney and Huntsman tied.

That's an important psychological validator especially for Huntsman folks, who have seen a surge in the last couple of days who believe their candidate can have a shot.

So it's short-term bad news for Mitt Romney and potentially good news for Jon Huntsman. But let's remember only poll counts is today, realtime, that's what's happening.

SAMBOLIN: So Kiki, let's talk about that. Huntsman, either tied or in second place. He may be relying on the independent vote there, which is high. It's at 40 percent. Are these part of the undecided and could they potentially sway the vote in his favor?

KIKI MCLEAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: They could completely sway the vote in his favor. He could be experiencing a Dixville Notch bump today as John and all of us sit here talking about him. What's really been interesting, you know, last week we took a look at some of the social media. I talked to you about some of -- what my team does and what we saw yesterday was Santorum receding in the social media.

We see some of the energy deflating out of Santorum in New Hampshire. That makes more votes available. That does build the bridge to some of that conservative support for Huntsman. Not just the independents.

And again, like we talked about earlier this morning, 2008 in the Democratic primary, a 10-point misfire by all the polling. So anything can happen tonight.

SAMBOLIN: Let's talk a little bit about Santorum then there. Yesterday morning, I believe that he said that, you know, this could be neck and neck and by yesterday evening, he was saying I'm happy if I come in second place. What do you think is going to happen there?

MCLEAN: Well, I think that the battle here -- there is a favorite son element to Mitt Romney, right? So the question is who does come in second. Don't forget the famous comeback kid in the former Bill Clinton.

There had been moments where it brought Hillary Clinton back and others in that second and third string run. But I do think Santorum's got to do a little better than be in a recession like he is right now.

He needed to show more movement, not count solely on South Carolina to be considered really viable in Florida.

SAMBOLIN: So, Lenny, let's talk to you here. Assuming that Romney wins today, making that assumption, should we be talking about who takes second and third place, given the contentious nature of this campaign.

That conservative meeting that's going to be happening in Texas this week to try to wrap their arms around somebody who is not Romney? So do you think that there could come from behind winner, perhaps, could happen here moving forward?

LENNY MCALLISTER, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: I think the come from behind winner could be somebody such as a Gingrich or Santorum. Even if Huntsman gets second place, unless he gets this huge infusion of money, I don't see him playing well in South Carolina.

I don't see him doing well enough in Florida to really stay in this race. Ron Paul, despite the niche of supporters that he has, I don't see him being a viable number two to go against Mitt Romney. So we're really looking at either Gingrich or Santorum. It will be interesting to see who ends up being in third place.

Because if it's Huntsman, is it going to be Paul in third place or somebody such as a Gingrich slide into third place this evening coming into New Hampshire when everything closes down.

If that ends up being the case, now Gingrich or Santorum has momentum for South Carolina. It could be a major player in Florida, where, if you remember, Gingrich had a huge lead not too long ago down there.

So this is an opportunity to solidify some more footing. Get some more money coming in and then go back into more debates and make more of a contrast before they vote in South Carolina.

SAMBOLIN: OK, Lenny McAllister, Kiki McLean and John Avlon, thank you so much for joining us.

And of course, you keep it on CNN now until November for the best political coverage on television. Newt Gingrich is live at 7:30 eastern on "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien.

BANFIELD: OK. Eight minutes past 6:00. U.S. markets closed higher yesterday. Dow gaining 33 points. S&P and the Nasdaq up just a wee bit closing kind of flat, 0.09 percent on the Nasdaq. I would like to call it an alarming one-day trend.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I know. I was watching earnings. It's earnings seasons so companies are telling us how much money they're making. It's amazing how they're able to squeeze blood from a turnip.

BANFIELD: That is so Iowa.

ROMANS: I know. I know.

BANFIELD: Blood from a turnip?

ROMANS: That's what we're expecting from companies. We heard Alcoa. But we also got Europe, you know, I keep saying Europe is our biggest customer. You know, Canada is our biggest one customer.

We're watching that. You know, and still -- I mean, 2012 is going to be the same old story for Europe, right? Trying to figure how to get out of its debt mess so those are all things that we're watching.

So I'm not too concerned about the one-day move in stocks, but I am concerned about what we're doing with our money and our debt because consumer borrowing is up. Consumer borrowing is bigger than any time we've seen since November 2001.

Remember what happened after November 2001, it was after the terrorist attacks. So we are starting to add debt. We've been adding student loan debt. No surprise. We've been adding car loan debt.

But now we're adding credit card debt. It could be good. It could mean that people are feeling better about things and people who have a little money in their pocket --

SAMBOLIN: -- to be cautious, don't you?

ROMANS: It could have people have a short memory and that deleveraging that we should still be doing is going away.

BANFIELD: I still have to say I feel differently about that.

ROMANS: What do you mean?

BANFIELD: Well, I wonder if people are throwing things on their credit card because they don't have any money.

ROMANS: Living paycheck to paycheck. It's true. When you look at the discounters and dollar stores, I mean, their customers are living paycheck to paycheck in the way that we haven't seen before.

So it might be that they're digging into their savings. They're putting money on the cards again, but that's the way they're living their life and that's the problem now.

I'll tell you that the credit card companies have been trying to find the people who can afford to pay. Have you been getting mailings for new credit cards?

If you've been getting mailings for new credit cards, it means that your credit history is good and they want to spend more money. Just be careful, 3.5 percent of the savings right now. I don't think that's high enough.

SAMBOLIN: Rip them if you're not going to use them. Don't just toss them, right?

ROMANS: That's true. Save your identity. That's actually true. So there you go.

BANFIELD: Thanks.

SAMBOLIN: All right, so every morning we give you an early start to your day by alerting you to the news happening later and the stories that are just developing now, but they are going to be the big stories of tonight.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad keeping up friendships right in Washington's backyard. Fresh off his visit with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. He will be in Nicaragua --

BANFIELD: Say that again?

SAMBOLIN: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. He's going to attend the inauguration of President Daniel Ortega. There's my problem. When the names are in Spanish that's how they come out.

BANFIELD: I love it. She's going to start teaching me a word of the day. I'm looking forward to that.

Also, I want to let you know that we're looking at something that's on the radar here. The family of that Florida A&M drum major who was hazed to death, they're going to hold a news conference at 11:00.

Because Robert Champion's family filed a lawsuit against the university back in November saying that the school officials didn't do anything to stop what they called that culture of hazing.

SAMBOLIN: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is heading to China. He's going to try to convince that country that it needs to turn up the pressure on Iran by squeezing the oil revenues.

BANFIELD: It's 12 minutes past 6:00 in the east and 12 minutes past 3:00 a.m. in L.A., so night-night. Rob Marciano who usually does the duty of weather is not here today. Just to prove how new we are here, Jacqui Jeras --

JACQUI JERAS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You have no idea who I am.

BANFIELD: Hi, Jacqui. It's nice to see you.

JERAS: I was in makeup when you guys came up so I didn't get to introduce myself.

BANFIELD: It's nice to meet you.

SAMBOLIN: I watched you so I kind of feel like I know you.

JERAS: Well, thank you. I can't wait to get to know you guys better. Sorry we have such lousy weather to greet you here, by the way.

BANFIELD: It's not that bad.

JERAS: This is a skyline picture right now in the Atlanta metro area. Yes, there's a lot of fog out there. In fact, it was a rough go on my way in along Interstate 75 so really low clouds. That means a mess at the airport.

Unfortunately, ladies, this storm system is going to travel up the coast for you. So when you get in New York on Thursday, yes, that rain will be there with you once again. So how about that? Get comfortable with the storm.

It's going to be a very cloudy, dreary, wet day all across the south, from Texas, extending up into the Carolinas. We've got the dense fog advisory. So that means travel delays, really extensive. It's going to be down a quarter of a mile at times for some of you so slow going on the interstates.

Now there is some kick to this storm. As we head into the afternoon hours, we are going to be seeing some showers and thunderstorms that could become severe. That includes you in New Orleans up towards Greenville. Even into Birmingham, Alabama.

So be aware of isolated tornadoes here. And as we take a look at the temperatures, yes, it is mild. It's crazy mild out there. Look at the highs. Minneapolis, you're about 25 degrees above where you should be for this time of year.

But reality is setting in, ladies. Believe it or not these temperatures will be changing quite a bit. We're talking about 18 for a high in Minneapolis by Thursday. So finally that cold air is going to start to move in.

BANFIELD: Aren't you excites?

SAMBOLIN: There was a really pretty shot at the White House, I think it was Brianna Keilar yesterday. It looked like Christmas. It was so gentle and pretty, but I'm sure it was messy.

JERAS: Yes, about half an inch.

SAMBOLIN: That much?

JERAS: Yes.

BANFIELD: Hello. It's very nice to meet you for the first time.

JERAS: You, too.

BANFIELD: How weird is that?

SAMBOLIN: We're really truly meeting for the first time.

BANFIELD: Things are kind of hectic at election time.

JERAS: I know. You're just running.

SAMBOLIN: Well, thank you very much.

BANFIELD: It's 14 minutes past 6:00. That's in the east, of course. Time to get your top stories. We're checking them for you this morning.

A decision in Dixville Notch, that's a tiny, itty-bitty, little New Hampshire town that traditionally vote first in that state's primary. And that they cast two votes, not two percent of the votes, two votes for Mitt Romney, two votes for Jon Huntsman, and that all happened just after midnight. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul each came in at one vote apiece.

SAMBOLIN: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blamed external conspiracy to the violence in Syria. In a rare speech to the nation, Assad described them as Arabian and Western. He claimed hundreds of media outlets are working against Syria.

BANFIELD: And in Alabama, apparently Alabama's king, especially when you -

SAMBOLIN: Bama.

BANFIELD: -- chant the college football, Bama, apparently they call it. And it's the Crimson Tide exacting revenge by shutting out LSU in the National Championship Game, 21-0. LSU had handed Alabama their only loss of the season back in November. So I suppose the victory was pretty darn sweet.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, it was.

And ahead on EARLY START, it might be a break in a 20-year-old cold murder case in Seattle. The suspect has been genetically linked to a pilgrim on the "Mayflower." Unbelievable. Can that help solve this homicide?

BANFIELD: And also if you're a smoker or you were a smoker did you ever try the patch? Lots of people have. The nicotine patch has had some success, people say, but guess what, there's a long-term study out now and you are not going to believe what it found out.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Hey, everybody. It's 19 minutes past 6:00 in the East and 19 minutes past 3:00 in the West. So we got an "Early Read" on your local news that's making national headlines this morning.

Papers from New York and Palm Beach, let's start on this one. It's a "New York Times" story but also a CNN.com story. It's big on the health agenda today.

Guess what, you know that nicotine patch that a lot of people have been trying? And actually studies have said work? Apparently a new study says, not so much. Apparently it doesn't have a lasting effect, the kind of effect that most people thought. Which is tricky because people say that if you had used the patch properly, regularly, that it might have had a different effect.

But Jack Lowe (ph) usually operates our steady cam, where is the steady cam? Why are you -

JACK LOWE (ph), CNN CAMERAMAN: Oh, it's over there.

BANFIELD: You used a patch.

LOWE (ph): I used it. I had used it in the past.

BANFIELD: No, didn't work?

LOWE (ph): Didn't work for me.

BANFIELD: So you're not surprised by this study?

LOWE (ph): I've tried it for about a month. In fact, I still have a box of patches.

BANFIELD: What are you going to do with those?

SAMBOLIN: I think you should have tried it longer -

LOWE (ph): You think so?

SAMBOLIN: -- according to this study. It wouldn't work anyway.

BANFIELD: Apparently not. And, again, it's not so much the short term. People said it worked short term - or at least the studies have shown that it worked short term and they had also some approvals based on these medical studies. But now it is a long-term study that says, no, absolutely not. So interesting stuff.

SAMBOLIN: Well, good luck.

BANFIELD: Thank you, Jack.

LOWE (ph): Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Let's go to the "Palm Beach Post" here. Reports that a Florida Senate Committee has passed a bill that would allow up to three new Las Vegas style casinos in the Sunshine State. So this is the first hurdle for an incredibly controversial bill.

Malaysian gambling firm is pitching $3.8 billion casino. It's a hotel complex on Miami's Biscayne Bay. The supporters call it a nice antidote to 10 percent unemployment. Disney is lobbying hard to defeat the bill. But you know the state is really - this would be good for them, right, because they can finally control gambling and perhaps make the money themselves as opposed to it going, you know, unregulated.

BANFIELD: But if you're Disney and you want all of those tourists in Florida coming to your park and not going to the casinos, perhaps that - I don't know. Maybe that's behind the lobbies. But I could see that being a problem.

SAMBOLIN: But one of the politicians there, "My hope" - says, "My hope is that we stop the proliferation of gaming through clever lawyering or loopholes."

BANFIELD: I like that language.

OK. Let's switch gears for a second here. This is a bizarre-o story. It's a 20-year-old unsolved murder case. They've been searching for a suspect all this time. It happened near Seattle. It's bringing investigators back to the earliest days of America, believe it or not.

Let me get you back up to how this started. Sarah Yarborough, 16 years old, raped and murdered on her way to school back in 1991. And now investigators have actually taken DNA from the crime and put it into a massive batch. Now, this is sort of my language here.

But made a genetic link between the killer and a descendent of a passenger on the "Mayflower." I kid you not.

SAMBOLIN: Bizarre.

BANFIELD: You can't - I mean you really can't write this stuff, right? Detective Jim Allen is assigned to this case. He's live on the phone with us now from Seattle where it's really - it's only 20 past 3:00 there. So thank you for waking up. Can you hear me, Detective?

DETECTIVE JIM ALLEN, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON (via telephone): Yes, I can.

BANFIELD: OK. This story really caught our eye. It is absolutely bizarre. I'm not sure how much science you know on this, but do you - can you at least tell me how this worked, how they got that DNA sample and what they did with it to determine that it comes from someone who is a descendent of that "Mayflower" passenger?

ALLEN: From my understanding, a company by the name of Identifinders International. The president is Colleen Fitzpatrick. She can take a YSTR DNA sample and using some proprietary software of hers, search genetic DNA databases and she did that with DNA in our case.

BANFIELD: But that got her back to the seventeenth century somehow?

ALLEN: Well, from my understanding, it probably DNA matches from more contemporary sources, persons doing their own DNA - doing their own genealogy. But they list their selves in the database by their oldest known -

BANFIELD: Relative, right?

ALLEN: -- ancestor that they've traced back.

BANFIELD: So as I understand it, and you have to correct me if I'm wrong, because I was really just sort of reading up last minute on this as I came in this morning.

The trace has gone to the family of Robert Fuller, who apparently settled in Salem, Massachusetts, back in the 17th Century. And somehow it is assumed by investigators at this point that the person they're looking for - and I can show a sketch, actually, which is all we've had thus far, since this crime was committed, more than two decades ago, but they think he might actually have the last name Fuller still. How on earth do we get there?

ALLEN: Well, from my understanding, that's why they - in the genealogy they used the YSTR from the male linage, so in a perfect world the name Fuller would have been passed down all of the way through until today.

But there is also a chance that the person may not be named Fuller but he's still related to the Fullers through adoption or other interruptions in the genealogy.

BANFIELD: You know, you need to call John Walsh with "America's Most Wanted" and get that on there because I think he'd really dig this one. The history is - is fascinating. I can't believe we could do this. But Detective Jim Allen, thank you so much for your time, and thank you for waking up early for us. I know that's a big deal.

ALLEN: No problem. Thank you for airing this for us.

BANFIELD: And good luck. I mean - and let us know how - how you do, if you get a break in the case, we'll be fascinated to know. That is so incredible.

ALLEN: OK. We have -

BANFIELD: Especially since - oh, sorry. We just lost him.

But especially since they seem to think that they still have the last name Fuller at play.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. It's a very, very bizarre story.

BANFIELD: It's really centuries later.

SAMBOLIN: But a great commitment, right? He's only getting up at that ridiculous hour of the morning in order, you know, to get some attention on that. So that's great.

BANFIELD: Jim Allen, you're our hero.

SAMBOLIN: Ahead on EARLY START here, New Hampshire primary under way. Did you hear? Dixville Notch, the first town, we're looking ahead now to South Carolina and Florida. Dixville Notch cast their ballot at midnight.

BANFIELD: Gosh, you got a really one go if you're going to get up and -

SAMBOLIN: Great folks in that town. Could the nomination be won by the end of the month?

You are watching EARLY START.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GAVIN DEGRAW, SINGER/SONGWRITER: I'm Gavin Degraw and this year I'll be on the road for longer than 10 months.

When you're a touring musician, you have to have certain things that you'd typically have at home. I need pickles, yoghurt and half and half of my coffee. I sound pregnant.

Once you put a record out, then you're on the road sort of non- stop. So typically I have to get up early, go to a radio performance.

Hi, this is Gavin Degraw.

Meet some fans.

Hi, nice to meet you. When you get up in the morning, sometimes people start taking pictures of you right away. And I think everybody should be allotted at least a four-hour period of pajama time.

Today, we went to St. Jude's here in the Memphis area and I think they did us a service just by showing us how much care they take in every possible aspect of catering to someone's health and their family's health in turn.

That was great. That was really great.

It really is a full-time gig, but I couldn't possibly complain about it.

Thank you for coming! I'm Gavin Degraw.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Good morning to you and welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: Hey, everybody. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. Lots to show you.

And on the agenda in the next half hour, here we go:

The American who was sentenced to death in Iran accuse of being a spy there, apparently he has 20 days to appeal that sentence. And while he's mulling that over, which you can assume won't take very long, the White House is slamming this decision by Iran. We're going to hear from the man's attorney in a CNN exclusive.

SAMBOLIN: 'Bama blowout -- Crimson Tide wins the national title. Did the system work this year? We're going to talk to Joe Carter about this.

But first, it's time to check the stories making news this morning. Polls open in New Hampshire just about half hour from now. The traditional first votes, however, were cast just after midnight in the town of Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. And so, far the race is extremely close. Two votes for Mitt Romney, two for Jon Huntsman, and one apiece for Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

BANFIELD: And just as his re-election campaign is heating up, oopsie. The president gets some bad news. He learns he's losing his chief of staff, Bill Daley. Daley is resigning after less than a year on the job. He's going to be replaced by the current White House budget director.

SAMBOLIN: And last night, the president sounded very much like the campaigner in chief, saying the Republicans run for president are the same as those blocking him in Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When you get the top Republican in the Senate saying his party is number one priority is not to create jobs, not to fix the economy, but to beat me. That gives you a sense of the mentality here. Things aren't on the level. That's how you end up with Republicans in Congress voting against all kinds of proposals that they supported in the past.

(EDN VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: And it is decision day in New Hampshire. I don't know. Did you hear?

The nation's first primary, folks, people there are going to be pretty much looking at who is going to get second place if you believe the polls because Mitt Romney is pretty much expected to win. That's what the polls are saying anyway.

But let's look ahead to the next two primaries, shall we? January 21st, South Carolina is on your map. And January 31st is Florida, which is a big kahuna. Lots of delegates at stake in Florida. Mitt Romney is ahead in both of those states.

And many in the GOP, they think pretty much the nominee could be decided by the end of this month.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, John Zarrella is live in Plantation, Florida.

First to David Mattingly live in Charleston, South Carolina.

So, David, the latest CNN/"TIME"/ORC poll shows Romney with 18 percent lead in South Carolina over Santorum and 19-point lead over Gingrich.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And -- but remember, that poll was taken last week. And most of those voters are saying -- half of those voters are saying they could change their mind before the primary here. So, all of these candidates do have a lot to prove once they get on the ground here. There's already been millions of dollars being spent on ads here.

Expect to see the airwaves absolutely saturated by the end of this weekend. This is going to be the place where Romney could be able to claim that he is the true front runner this case and has what it takes to go all of the way to the nomination. On the other hand, it could be the place where it could be a game changer for any number of his competitors.

You're talking about the poll results. One thing to look at those when you drill a little bit deeper is looking at the votes by born-again Christian, evangelical voters, they make up more than half of the votes that will cast for Republicans here. Romney is leading with that group, as well, but when you dig a little bit deeper, you find that born again Christians who are siding with the Tea Party are less likely to vote for Romney than the other born again Christian who are not siding with the Tea Party.

So here, economic issues will be paramount and that's where these candidates are going to be looked at and scrutinized very thoroughly.

BANFIELD: Proving, David Mattingly, that evangelicals are not single issue voters. Thank you for that, John Zarrella and David Mattingly.

We're going to go to Florida because the Sunshine State, of course, is holding its first primary in three weeks. Mitt Romney with double digit leads there. I think, wow, holy smokes, 12 points ahead.

Here's how things are shaping up, if you want to look at the polls there. Romney ahead of Gingrich, with Santorum in a distant third.

John Zarrella, jump in here with on this, because a lot of people were surprised to see that Newt Gingrich was doing as well. He'd been plummeting in the polls and he's polling in pretty good numbers there now.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, there's a couple of things to be said about the Florida poll. First of all, you know, 54 percent of those people said, you know, we're not -- it's not etched in stone that we're actually going to vote for who we said we're going to vote. We can have our minds changed depending on who ends up still standing when they get to Florida.

Gingrich, though, aside from Romney, has the best organization in this state of Florida. In fact, former Attorney General Bill McCollum is his state chairman, hugely influential guy in the state of Florida. On the other hand, Romney has got Pam Bondi who came out and supported him over the weekend. She is a hugely popular current A.G. here in Florida.

Another thing, I know you guys were talking about Florida being the big kahuna prize. Well, you know, if you remember, it used to be an even bigger kahuna when it had 100 delegates that they sent to the convention. But when they moved their primary up four years ago, the Republican Party slapped Florida on the wrist and said, OK, we're cutting your delegates in half, you only get 50 and that still stands this year, only 50 delegates.

One other point, the cost of television advertising is enormous in Florida; $9 million to $10 million is estimated to run an effective campaign in Florida because of the costly markets -- Miami, Orlando, Tampa.

BANFIELD: You know what?

ZARRELLA: Yes?

BANFIELD: I still think it's great that you just reminded everybody about all of that delegate cutting the RNC did. I know that's a big deal. But I could have sworn I heard something about the RNC reconsidering possibly.

Do we have any idea where the reconsidering stands? Is there still a chance, right, Florida could get all the delegates back and go back up to 99, 100?

ZARRELLA: What they could do though is wait until they go to the convention and say, OK, your others can vote now, too. So, it could also wait until actually at the convention before they give them those delegates back. So, you know -- but let's face it, when it comes to the general election, 29 electoral votes and both sides want this state badly come general election.

BANFIELD: That picture behind you is so pretty. I just got to say it. You've got the sun coming up on the boats behind you. You have a nice assignment, mister.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. And very diverse voters there, too.

ZARRELLA: Yes, and I heard you guys are lobbying to see who is coming down to work Florida.

SAMBOLIN: We're trying. We're trying.

BANFIELD: We're going to do a WWF and wrestle for the Florida assignment because we heard you would buy us breakfast if we came.

SAMBOLIN: I think we're probably just going to see him. That's what's going to happen.

John Zarrella, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

ZARRELLA: Sure, absolutely.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thirty-seven minutes past the hour.

Still ahead, the college football championship game was a rematch of the nation's best -- absolute best, Alabama versus LSU. But the outcome, totally different.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BRESAK)

SAMBOLIN: Alabama players and fans have something big to celebrate, a college football championship.

The Crimson Tide shut out LSU 21-0 in the BCS national title game. It's Alabama's second title in three years.

BANFIELD: I'm laughing because I didn't even know the game was on. I am that pathetic.

SAMBOLIN: We talked about it yesterday, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: No, no. I mean, I just didn't know it was on last night. I heard it was coming.

But I love these pictures. I mean, I always love to see a coach getting douse with Gatorade.

But the guy who was at the game, who is our colleague and knows way more about football than I do is Joe Carter, our CNN sports guru. He joins me live now in New Orleans.

I don't even know what question to ask you. I have to be completely honest, Joe. I cannot fudge my way through this. If it ain't Blue Bombers versus Alouettes, Saskatchewan Roughriders, I don't know what I'm talking about.

SAMBOLIN: You know what? You were there. How about the highlights of the game and how unexpected, right?

JOE CARTER, HLN SPORTS: Well, I can tell you this, ladies. I'm kind of unexpected. We expected a good game. We had hoped it would be a good game.

We didn't realize Alabama's defense was going to be so dominant. As a matter of fact, not even Tim Tebow would have beat Alabama defense last night. I mean, these guys were fantastic. Statistically, all year, they had been very good.

Against LSU last night, they dominated them from wire to wire. It's the first time in BCS history that a team has been shut out. Alabama's defense only allowed LSU to cross the 50-yard line one time last night.

So basically they didn't have any chance at scoring. Alabama won 21-0. It's second title for this school in three years. It's a school that's used to winning national football championships.

But this one is a little extra special considering the tornadoes that devastated Tuscaloosa back in April. So, as we asked the players what's this championship means for that town as they begin to -- as they continue to rebuild and recover.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For Tuscaloosa, it means a lot because, like I said, we lost a lot of people in the tornado. And I totally -- I told the team before, you know, the season, that it's going to mean a lot to a lot of people that we do make it to the championship. And I said before the season, I said, we're going to win the national championship.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For us to bring back the crystal ball to the town, it brings a lot of hope and dreams for the community of Tuscaloosa.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARTER: You know, last time these two teams played was back in November. It was a defensive battle again but Alabama missed four field goals in that game. That was the real difference. Last night, they only needed one field goal but actually tied a record with five.

Nick Saban, the coach of Alabama, has now won three national championships in the SEC Conference in the last 10 years. One LSU, two with Alabama.

So, I'd say he's definitely worth all $4.6 million they pay him every single year -- ladies.

SAMBOLIN: Joe, it's really nice for you to give us some perspective from some of the players. It's nice to see that.

I was reading that come the NFL draft, they're going to be having a field day with some of the players from both of these teams.

CARTER: When you look at the starting lineups on both LSU and Alabama, I'm telling you, every single one has the ability to play in the NFL. Whether they do or not is yet to be seen, but they have the ability. It's incredible when you watch these two teams go at it. People don't appreciate when you see a low-scoring defensive battle, but that's what we had last night, was two really good teams that are really well-coached playing each other for all the marbles.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Joe Carter, thanks for joining us this morning. All that perspective.

BANFIELD: Thank God. I'm serious. Thank God he was here. I have no clue what was going on in that game. No idea.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Still ahead, American sentenced to death has 20 days now to appeal his case. What's going to happen there?

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Hello, everybody. It's 47 minutes past the hour, which is a perfect time before you get in the shower or head out the door to check the morning headlines, and so, here we go.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD (voice-over): Voters, on your marks, in 13 minutes in the east here, your polls are going to open. That is, unless, you live in Dixville Notch and you were putting your ballots in the ballot box at midnight last night. We got the results from that. We'll give those to you later. But, you know, statewide, Mitt Romney is really expected to win this nation's first primary. So, the big story could be the battle for second and third place.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): A long time New Jersey lawmaker collapsed and died at the state House late last night following a marathon legislative session. Seventy-five-year-old Alex DeCroce was a Republican leader of the state assembly. Governor Chris Christie called the lawmaker a dear friend, and he's actually postponed his scheduled state of the state speech.

BANFIELD: One of President Obama's closest advisers has announced that he's out, leaving the White House. Chief of staff, Bill Daley, who replaced Rahm Emanuel like just a year ago, says that he wants to spend more time with his family in Chicago. But, that could be code for something else. We never know.

Current White House budget director, Jack Lew, guy on the left of Obama there, he's going to replace Daley and that change will take effect at the end of this month.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): It is 48 minutes past the hour. Soledad O'Brien joins us now with a look at what is ahead on "Starting Point." Good morning to you.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR, "STARTING POINT": Hey, good morning to you, guys. So much, so much ahead. We're in Manchester, New Hampshire, again today back in our diner. Our "Starting Point" for the day just ten minutes later. We're going to be talking to Newt Gingrich live.

The speaker, as you know, has been talking about and been a victim of some nastiness in the campaign. Well, now, he says it's my turn. He's planning to pick up the attacks on Mitt Romney. We'll talk about strategy this morning.

Also in Mississippi, four killers are off the hook. They've been pardoned by the governor. Families are outraged. They say that they're not getting any word on why this happened. This morning, we'll speak to a nephew of one of the victims.

Those stories and much more ahead on "Starting Point." We're up in just about ten minutes. Short break. We're back right after this.

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SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin along with Ashleigh Banfield. The Obama administration is slamming Iran this morning after the country handed down the first death sentence against an American since the Islamic revolution 33 years ago.

BANFIELD: Iran is saying that Amir Hekmati who's former marine interpreter is a U.S. spy who was using a family trip to see his granny as a cover-up. CNN's Zain Verjee just spoke exclusively to the family's attorney who is a former U.S. ambassador for war crimes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PIERRE PROSPER, LAWYER FOR HEKMATI FAMILY: I hear from them easily five, six times a day. As you can imagine, the distress is very, very high. The news is not positive, but we try to reassure them that it's not over. We will engage the government and hope that they'll show compassion.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BANFIELD: Wow. It's a remarkable story. Iran is saying that Hekmati and his attorney and family have 20 days to appeal that case, whatever the appeal means in that country, because that trial sure came about fast.

SAMBOLIN: Very quickly.

BANFIELD: I didn't even know it was on, I have to be honest with you. The moment we found out that he was actually in custody was just a few weeks ago if I remember correctly. So, we're watching that for you.

And also, we are watching a trending story for you this morning. Remember Right Said Fred, "I'm too sexy for my shirt," apparently, this photo is just too darn sexy for this 18-year-old high school seniors yearbook. Yes.

SAMBOLIN: She chose the picture.

BANFIELD: She did, but you know what? You're going to hear about why the ACLU is now getting involved in this photo flag.

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BANFIELD: Hi. Punch drunk (ph) this morning. It's 6:56 on the east coast --

SAMBOLIN: That's what's in the coffee cup, folks.

BANFIELD: Vodka. Straight vodka. No, culture. We love the pop culture. We think it's important for you as you start your day because what else are you going to talk to your friends at work about, right?

SAMBOLIN: Yes. These are trending pretty high, so --

BANFIELD: They are. They're trending huge. Charlie Sheen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD (voice-over): Charlie Sheen has announced he's not crazy anymore.

SAMBOLIN: Wow!

BANFIELD: Literally said the words, "I'm not crazy anymore." This is coming to us from people.com. We had heard before that he said I don't do drugs anymore. I'm cured. But now, apparently, he's decided he's going to spend some more time with his kids and he's doing so. Very good news. Also good news, he's dumped the goddesses. Apparently, they're not part of his life anymore. And he's got a new show. You probably heard about the FX program, "Anger Management." But I think he's gearing up. He said he's kind of psyched for getting that show underway. And then, you know, I don't think we've heard this before.

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BANFIELD (on-camera): He watched that final episode of "Two and a Half Men." I didn't watch it, but there was a funeral scene.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. I remember him talking to someone on late night television about that.

BANFIELD: Did he say that he thought it was bizarre?

SAMBOLIN: He said it was odd to watch it.

BANFIELD: He's now going further and saying that he thought it was bizarre to watch his own funeral on that -- I guess it wasn't family. It was the season -- it was the premier.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. That's how --

BANFIELD: Good luck. Charlie, good luck. I hope you pull it together and that you do well on your next project.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, here's another one for you. Take a look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): This yearbook photo was rejected. Apparently, it was too sexy. This is a story come out of Denver, Colorado. So, the student committee at this particular school, Durango High School, refused to publish the picture. They're calling it inappropriate.

BANFIELD (voice-over): Wait, the students decided not to?

SAMBOLIN: Yes, yes. So, here's what happened.

BANFIELD: Wow!

SAMBOLIN: You do not have to go with the standard photo. Apparently, you can go ahead and submit photos for the yearbook, and you can submit them depending on what you like.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): So, a lot of, you know, kids are dressed in their sports attire, right?

BANFIELD: Sure.

SAMBOLIN: Whatever it is that they're interested in. She didn't want the same old boring photo. She wanted to do something different. So --

BANFIELD (on-camera): She's like 18.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. Yes. She is 18 years old. She got her mother's approval to have that particular photo, and her dad is actually saying that that's OK, also. But, you know, the students decided that this was too racy, too sexy. They were really mean about it, too. They say, "You were gross and your parents are losers just like you are." Yes. It's awful, you know, how they dealt with it, but the ACLU now may be getting involved.

BANFIELD: You know what, Soledad, we're just going to send it to you on that note. How does that sound?

O'BRIEN: Wow! Wow! Can we go back to, I'm not crazy because I'm not crazy either today. Good morning, ladies.

(LAUGHTER)