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Interview with Mary Kaye Huntsman; Mississippi Governor Pardons Killer; Interview With John Podesta; GOP Presidential Hopefuls Campaign in New Hampshire; Poll in New Hampshire Begin Opening for Voting; Why Tuesday?

Aired January 10, 2012 - 08:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien. And we are starting our second hour of STARTING POINT. We're live this morning at Che Vashon (ph), which is in Manchester, New Hampshire. The restaurant opened around 6:00 this morning, but the polling doors here in New Hampshire opened about an hour ago. We're enjoying politics and pork pie, which is something that has to have just under a million calories in it.


O'BRIEN: It's right in front of you.

It is boiled pork, potatoes in a pastry thing with potatoes, more potatoes, and then bread, and then eggs. That's the special this morning. Go right back to bed after you have that.

We're talking politics, though, this morning. And our STARTING POINT is really looking at the race for second here in New Hampshire. We have results from one town that has a knack for picking Republican presidential nominees plus a brand new snapshot of the race coming from some new polling that's just an hour old.

We'll talk about all of that with Mary Kaye Huntsman. She joins us this morning.

Also, a story that everyone is talking about: four killers who are working for Governor Haley Barbour have been pardoned. People demand to know why the Mississippi governor set them free as he was walking out the door. And in one case, one of the four men was denied parole.

Also, President Obama's chief of staff has quit. There's a shakeup on the West Wing. We're going to talk to former chief of staff, John Podesta, to talk about what happened and why did it happen at such a critical time.

Then, we'll reveal a surprising change in our credit card habits. Those stories all ahead this morning as STARTING POINT begins right now.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. It is primary day here in New Hampshire.

Dixville Notch results have come in already. The town historically has been predictive of the ultimate GOP nominee. And here are the results: Jon Huntsman gets two votes, Mitt Romney two votes. There a tie. Newt Gingrich one vote, and Ron Paul one vote.

There is a brand new Suffolk University-7 News poll to tell you about. In that poll, Mitt Romney is leading Ron Paul 37 to 18 percent. And they have Jon Huntsman coming in third with 16 percent.

So, this morning we have Mary Kaye Huntsman joining. She is the wife of the candidate.

When you look at these poll numbers, he is coming in 16. So, he's risen from 9 to 13 points to 16 percent in the polls over the last several days. However, pretty much well behind Mitt Romney who is leading with 37 points according to this Suffolk poll.

When you see those numbers, how are you feeling about them?

MARY KAYE HUNTSMAN, WIFE OF GOP CANDIDATE JON HUNTSMAN: I'm not worried at all. All I know is we have worked so hard. No one has worked harder than my husband here in New Hampshire. I think we've done about 170 public events.

And now the voters can speak. And I think they know my husband. They're beginning to just see his heart and soul. And I'm proud of the work that he's done. And we love the state. We have really grown to love the people of this state. In fact, I'm going to be sad to leave in a few days.

O'BRIEN: You put all your eggs in a basket that is New Hampshire. And as you look at some of these numbers, do you regret that? Do you have to come in second in New Hampshire or it's over?

HUNTSMAN: We have to come out with a head of steam. We have to show the fact that Jon is electable. And I think that is what -- I am fighting (ph) -- I am finding the energy that we feel from people, they don't just come in and say, well, I think I could vote for him. When they come on board, there is such an excitement and energy and emotion with him that they walk out -- last night we had an event that was just extraordinary in Exeter. And I watched more people come in with just this excitement.

And even a few people that I saw with tears in their eyes as Jon was giving his speech. Very inspirational.

And I thought, he's talking about things that I think America wants. And that is, he's talking about the trust deficit. Of course, the economic deficit. But he's talking about putting trust back in to our government.

O'BRIEN: And that conflicts with a lot of the tenor, as you know, in a lot of the conversations on the Republican side. I want to play you a little bit from this ABC News debate. I know you've seen this. I'm sure you watched your husband in the debate.

Mitt Romney was critical of your husband's experience in China. Let's play a chunk of that.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm sorry. Governor, you were, the last two years implementing the policies of this administration in China. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president that were being put forward.


O'BRIEN: So, when he was hearing criticisms like that -- and I know he answered it in the debate well, sort of saying that he's an American and there to serve the country -- does that chip away though, do you think? I mean, how did he feel about that kind of criticism coming from the frontrunner?

HUNTSMAN: He's proud of the fact that he stood up to serve his country. As his wife, I couldn't be more proud. With two boys in the military, if he had not taken the call to service when asked, what kind of example would that have been to our boys that we have been teaching service to their whole lives? And now they've chosen to serve. I'm very proud of what he did.

And you know what, I think the message that Jon gave the next day about putting his country first resonated because this country is so divided. And they need somebody that can pull it together.

My husband is not a partisan politician. He never has been. He's a uniter. He brings people together.

He has his core principles that he believes in. He's never wavered. If anyone looks at his record, he has the most consistent, conservative in record. But maybe a moderate temperament. And that is because he has the ability, I think, to unite people together.

O'BRIEN: Your daughters joined us yesterday here. Actually, right -- they are lovely. And we enjoyed talking to them. And I asked them and I'll put the same question to you, is it hard to put your family out there? I mean, they're your daughters, you want to protect them.

And I was talking about the ad that had run basically targeting your younger daughters who are adopted -- one from China and one from India -- sort of insinuating, it was apparently done by a Ron Paul supporter. The Ron Paul campaign has said it was distasteful.

Is it hurtful as a mother that you put your children out there, it's almost like everything is open for attack.

HUNTSMAN: You know, that went into it. My thought when I saw that was I hope my little Gracie, who's 12 years old doesn't pull this up and see it. However, it was a strange ad. It was distasteful. Hopefully she wouldn't quite understand what they were trying to say.

O'BRIEN: What would you tell her, though, if she did? Because she's 12. I have an 11-year-old. You know, she can Google and she's going to Google herself and your husband. That's what they do.

What would you say to her?

HUNTSMAN: She has learned because that's all she's known since she's been in our family. And we had the privilege of adopting her in 1999, and then Jon ran for governor shortly after that.

So, she's been in the arena and she's very mature for a 12-year- old. And I think she understands this happens. And, you know, it's just one of the things that I think we all -- we sat down as a family before we began this process.

O'BRIEN: Mary Kaye Huntsman, it's nice to talk to you. Thanks for joining us this morning. Where are you going to be tonight?

HUNTSMAN: I don't know. Somewhere in New Hampshire.

O'BRIEN: Running through the state today. I know your schedule is crazy.


HUNTSMAN: We ask for your vote, and my husband asks for people's trust.

O'BRIEN: Thank you for being with us.

HUNTSMAN: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Let's turn to Christine Romans. She's live at CNN with an update on some of the other stories that are making news this morning.

Hey, Christine.


A defiant Syrian President Bashar al-Assad making a rare public speech this morning more than two hours. He blamed Western governments and the media for the unrest ripping through his country. He said he'll respond to threats against his regime with an iron fist.

Meantime, the Obama administration blasting Iran's death sentence for American Amir Hekmati, who was convicted of spying in the country for the CIA. He has 20 days to appeal that case.

A tragedy at New Jersey's statehouse. Longtime Republican assembly leader Alex DeCroce collapsed and died late last night after a marathon legislative session. The 75-year-old legislature was a friend and a mentor to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who has postponed today's scheduled State of the State address.

And Alaska's big dig. The town of Cordoba, about 150 miles east of Anchorage, buried under 15 feet of snow. The state National Guard has dispatched troop to Cordoba to help after weeks of record snowfall. No surprise. That town has issued a disaster declaration, 18 feet of snow.

All right. And college football's biggest stage, it wasn't just a beating. It was a beatdown, folks. Alabama won the BCS national championship last night with a 21-0 shutout victory over SEC rival LSU. It is Alabama's second title in three years. No doubt 'Bama fans have been up all night celebrating.

CNN's Joe Carter is in New Orleans, live for us. Not even Tim Tebow, you say, could have done anything against that Alabama defense.

JOE CARTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. They played so well last night. Yes, you're exactly right. I don't think Tim Tebow could have beaten them.

Yes, we can attest that the Alabama nation has been up all night, having a great night on Bourbon Street. It was a big win for that school, for university, for the state of Alabama, for the city of Tuscaloosa.

You know, eight months ago in April, over a three-day span, there was some vicious tornadoes that tore through the entire state of Alabama, killed more than 300 people. There was an estimated $11 billion in damage done. In the town of Tuscaloosa, over 50 people were killed.

And one in particular by the name of Ashley Harrison. She's actually the girlfriend to Alabama's long snapper, Carson Tinker. They were bunkered down in a closet when she was ripped out of his hands and thrown to her death.

So, eight months, have been a long eight months for a lot of people in Tuscaloosa and especially for Carson Tinker. And after last night's championship, he reflected on what he's been through in the last eight months, what the championship means to him, to the university, and to Ashley.


CARSON TINKER, ALABAMA SNAPPER: It's a lot of hard work. It's paid off. It's a great feeling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you think Ashley would say?

TINKER: Be proud of you.


CARTER: You know, before Ashley was killed, she had said to Carson and told her parents, in fact, that to make sure and book their tickets to New Orleans because she felt like this team was so good that they were going to end up playing for a national championship. She was right.

Last night, Alabama beating LSU, 21-0, to win their second title in three years -- guys.

ROMANS: Wow, what a story. All right. Joe Carter in New Orleans -- thanks, Joe.

And now, let's check in on the markets this morning.

U.S. stock futures pointing to a higher open. Dow futures are up 100 points, NASDAQ and S&P 500 futures also up right now.

Tension back in Europe this week. The leaders of France and Germany putting more pressure on Greece's prime minister to make deeper cuts to avoid default -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right, Christine, thanks.

As we mentioned earlier this morning, Mississippi's governor has pardoned four convicted killers. All were serving life sentences and murder cases. All had worked at the governor's mansion. And, in fact, one was denied parole just a couple of weeks before.

Now, the families of the victims, of course, are in complete disbelief and shock. A little bit earlier, I spoke to Mark McAbee who was one of the shooting victims' nephews.


MARK MCABEE, SHOOTING VICTIM'S NEPHEW (via telephone): Things like this don't need to happen. Something this important doesn't need to be in the hands of one person. We have committees and as it has come out before, two weeks prior to this one of these individuals was denied parole, you know?

And we can't fathom what was going through the process. I can't imagine -- if I had to go to Haley Barbour and say, you know, ask one question, it's definitely, why did you do this? I want you to explain this to me because at this point I do not understand what you're doing.


O'BRIEN: Martin Savidge has more on this for us.

You can hear, Marty, the disbelief in that nephew's voice as he says, if I could just ask one question, I want to know why.

What are we hearing from the governor on this issue?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, the governor has been remarkably silent on this. This story literally exploded yesterday afternoon. There was no official announcement of course, and that is usually the case when it comes to pardons like this that comes as governors are departing their office.

So, it sort of crept into the news media as a result of the families -- the victims' families being notified with a phone call. So, no official reaction coming from the governor's office.

You know, interesting just a year ago, you and I, Soledad, sitting there in Mississippi as the release of those two sisters was occurring. And this was a case of women who had been apparently -- I won't say improperly imprisoned. But the governor suspended their sentence. So, it raised questions about their guilt.

But now, you've got these four men who were convicted of murder and they are being released. And it's just shocking for many in this state, which is so conservative -- the governor, a staunch Republican. He had been head of the RNC. Many just can't believe that he would do this.

So there are questions being raised. Did the governor really know? Did he know what documents he was signing? Because we haven't heard from the governor, we can't answer those questions.

O'BRIEN: Remember, Marty, when you and I were covering that story of the woman who needed the kidney transplant, right? That was a story a year ago.

She needed a kidney transplant, so what they did was suspend her sentence so she could go and start getting treatment. He wouldn't pardon her. It was a robbery, I believe, that involved some very minor amount of money. But that's all sort of a side bar.

For someone to claim that maybe the governor didn't know is impossible because we were doing stories about that very issue about these other people who were in line potentially to be pardoned.

Does he have to answer? I mean, he's on his way out. Is this sort of ending his potential, I don't know, presidential run one day?

SAVIDGE: Today is his last day in office. So, he's term limited out. So, he's gone. He knew he was going to be going. I think --

O'BRIEN: Yes, but if he wants a future in politics.

SAVIDGE: Right. You know, he's realized and said he's not going to run for president. It's his legacy, though, that he's got to be concerned with, you would think.

You know, Haley Barbour is one of those politicians who has the unique benefit of not being liked, he is loved in this city and very -- and so strongly so that many are just so shocked by this because they see it as against the character and everything that he ran for. And so, he's got a lot to answer for and many people are outraged, not just the victims' families but most especially they do.

You know, one of those who was outraged, Randy Walker. He was shot in the head by David Gatlin. And this is one of the men who's being released.

Here's what Randy Walker had to say.


RANDY WALKER, SHOOTING VICTIM: Or any governor has the right to single-handedly circumvent the entire judicial system. I think they ought to be -- the governor should have to look me and the family in the eye and say, hey, I'm going to let this guy go. But there wasn't any of that. That's the coward's way out if you ask me.


SAVIDGE: Yes. There wasn't any of that, and that's really what has the victims' families so upset. No chance for them to argue against this pardon. It's a done deal. There's nothing they can do, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Gosh, there's certainly more to come out of this because that just doesn't add up, I think, this morning. So, I'm sure we'll be talking about it again. Marty Savidge for us out of Atlanta -- and, Marty, thank you. Appreciate it.

Still to come this on STARTING POINT: White House shakeup to talk about. Obama's chief of staff in the job for less than a year is now out.

And New Hampshire voters are notoriously late to make up their minds. We're going to talk to a couple of them independents who say they have been down this road before.

Then, our reveal this morning. What may surprise you when it comes to American consumers and their credit card debt. We're watching STARTING POINT. We're back right after the short break.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everybody. I'm Soledad O'Brien. We're inside Chez Vachon and here (ph) this morning is Mary Kaye Huntsman. She is campaigning on behalf of her husband using every moment she does an interview, and then, she's like, there are voters in this diner.

And so, we are going to talk to those voters and get them to vote for my husband. We are surrounded by food this morning as well. Some of the specialties, this French-Canadian cuisine is maple drenched bacon. Those are great. What is that? That's a crepe.


O'BRIEN: What's this?

BROWNSTEIN: From Crosby's Bakery in Nashua. Me and my lovely wife, I --

O'BRIEN: Anybody who brings me food.

BROWNSTEIN: A Huntsman moon pie. On his appearance at Crosby's Bakery yesterday.

O'BRIEN: I get it. See. That's the H.

JAMAL SIMMONS, NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC EDITOR, GOVOTE.COM: Politics infuses even the baked goods in New Hampshire.

O'BRIEN: But look, as an anchor woman, I could easily say it's I.


O'BRIEN: All right. Let's keep talking about politics this morning. We were talking earlier about something that seems to have taken the president by surprise. President Obama is now losing his right-hand man. His chief of staff, Bill Daley, announcing that he's going to step down at the end of this month. Here's what he said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obviously, this was not easy news to hear, and I didn't accept Bill's decision right away. In fact, I asked him to take a couple of days to make sure that he was sure about this, but in the end, the pull of the hometown we both love, a city that's been synonymous with the daily family for generations, was too great.


O'BRIEN: Daley is going to be replaced by the current budget director, Jack Lew, the president's current budget director. Joining us this morning is John Podesta. He's a former White House chief of staff under President Clinton, and he is live for us in Washington. And I should tell you, we have Ron Brownstein as well with us this morning around the table. He's with the "National Journal."

As you know, my colleague, Candy Crowley who's the host of CNN "State of the Union" is here too. Jamal Simmons is back. He's a national Democratic editor of

O'BRIEN: So, Mr. Podesta, let me start with you. Whenever somebody releases a statement that says, I want to spend more time with my family. I need to return. You know, automatically, like the red flags start flying. Do you believe that, in fact, he wanted to spend more time with his family or is this really a metaphor for something else that had to happen here?

JOHN PODESTA, FMR. WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, I think, the reality is that it was Bill Daley's choice. I think he thought about this over the holidays. I don't think he was very happy in the White House these days. The structure wasn't working very well. He'd given up a lot of his day-to-day duties to Pete Rousse who's the counselor to the president.

And I think he made the right call, actually. I think that when in your heart you feel like you're better off moving on, then it's time to move on. And I think the president selected just an outstanding choice in Jack Lew. O'BRIEN: Yes. A lot of people have said that, that he's sort of very well known on the Hill. I think that one of the issues, it seems, is that Daley was having some problems not just on the Republican side what you might expect but with his own Democratic colleagues. Do you think that those sort of rumors are true, that it was getting -- there was a lot of friction?

PODESTA: Well, I think he had -- I actually think he had pretty good relationships with Democrats on the hill. He had a little bit of friction with Senator Reid, but I think that was behind him. Look, Bill took the spear for the, you know, the negotiations in the summer that went on too long and resulted in what was a deal that no one was very satisfied with.

You know, I don't know that that was all his fault, but he, you know, he stood up, took the spear for it, and I think subsequent to that, you know, he was always reluctant to re-engage on Capitol Hill. And I think Jack, from his experience working for Tip O'Neal, working in the Clinton administration, he was the OMB director when I was the chief of staff for Bill Clinton.

He's an extraordinary man and extraordinarily experienced in negotiating with both Democrats who I think really, really respect him, but also with Republicans who have come to admire him. They're a tough lot up there, as you well know. But if anybody can get something done, it will be Jack.

O'BRIEN: We've noticed that a little bit.

BROWNSTEIN: Hey, John, Ron Brownstein. I want to ask you. I wondered if part of the problem was the definition of the job change. When Bill Daley was brought in, the president seemed to be envisioning more of a deal making approach to Congress. As the year went on, he began to see that as less productive and begun to move toward a (INAUDIBLE) strategy of using them as a foil.

It's hard to see Bill Daley as the quarterback of that kind of effort. You bring in Bill Daley if you think you're going to make a deal, not necessarily the captain of kind of a contrast strategy with Congress.

PODESTA: I think you're right about that, Ron. And I think that the other factor was that, you know, in that context, there was sort of a blur of authority there between David Plouffe who was, you know, in charge of, really, the activities that involved messaging, the campaign, etc., the strategy for re-election, and Daley, who is both substantive and, you know, political background, direct political background.

He had he run Al Gore's campaign. And I think this structure really makes more sense with Jack Lew having authority over the budget, negotiations with Congress, and the substance of governing and David will run the sort of political half of the White House. And, you know, that's a model that we're familiar with.

Leon Panetta served that role in the Clinton White House in the re-election in 1996 and Harold Ickes ran the campaign. So, I think, that's a more functional structure. It's more clear. I think the White House staff will understand who to go to with which kind of problem.

SIMMONS: John, this is Jamal Simmons.

PODESTA: Hi, Jamal.

SIMMONS: I want to know, to follow up on this question about the campaign. Do you think that the timing of the resignation will have any impact with the staff and how they adjust going into the campaign year? Was it a little late in the cycle or do you think they have enough time to make the adjustments they need to?

PODESTA: No, you know, I think there's been a lot of turnover right at this point. Some people go into the campaign, other people like Melody Barnes, domestic policy advisor leaving, but I think this was, if you're going to do it, do it now. Don't wait for another couple of months.

And I think that's what Bill concluded, which was that it was the appropriate time before the state of the union, before the president presents his budget so that, you know, Jack can get his sea legs in the west wing as well as OMB.

He was very involved in working with the Pentagon and with the president to develop the defense budget, which I'm sure will be contentious with the Republicans, particularly, in the House side. So, in order to get that moving, I think this is a good time to do it.

O'BRIEN: All right. John Podesta joining us this morning. Nice to have you, sir. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate it. Got a short break. Back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Straight ahead this morning, we're going to be talking to former New Hampshire governor and senator, Judd Greg, as we continue our political conversation. He joins us for breakfast with Soledad as I like to call it.

Also, we'll take a look at our reveal. Americans and their money. Folks were doing something again that might have been a ticking time bomb before the recession. We're back after this commercial break.


O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT this morning. I'm Soledad O'Brien. We are live in Manchester, New Hampshire. It's a French Canadian cuisine here at this diner. The food is really, really good. In this final half hour we'll talk about the final push in New Hampshire. The polls are now open. Some of the folks have been voting. The first votes have already been counted. Quick question is why do we vote anyway on a Tuesday when everybody has to figure out how to get to work after they vote or get to voting after work. We're going to talk this morning with someone who is trying to make voting a weekend thing.

First though we'll look at some of the stories making news. Christine Romans is here with more for us. Hey, Christine.

ROMANS: Good morning, Soledad.

Defiant Syrian president Bashar al-Assad dismissing international pressure to end the crackdown on dissent and get him to step down. Assad in a two-hour speech blaming western governments and news organizations for inciting the violence. He denies authorizing security forces to fire on protesters in his country. Assad claims Syrian people still need and want his leadership.

A dramatic cave rescue in West Virginia. Three cave explorers have gone missing after they entered a 13 mile long cave complex on Saturday. Searchers located them last night alive and unharmed. One of those cavers, a college student, said he learned an important lesson.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It rolls around and we're like, hey, there's people. Do not underestimate the cave and do not overestimate your abilities. That's typical college behavior, you know? You think you're invincible. But when you get in a situation like this, it kind of humbles you.


ROMANS: The Supreme Court hears arguments today in a key First Amendment case. At issue, whether the FCC's efforts to police the air waves for curse words and sexual images, if that violates free speech rights.

Let's check in on the markets. U.S. stock futures pointing to a higher open this morning when the stock market opens in an hour. DOW futures are up 100 points, NASDAQ and S&P 500 are also up. Attention back on Europe this week. The leaders of France and Germany putting more pressure on Greece's prime minister to make deeper cuts.


O'BRIEN: It's now up to the folks in New Hampshire. The polls opened in New Hampshire just about 90 minutes ago and the first votes were counted at midnight. Romney two votes, Huntsman two votes. It's a tie.

Republican strategist Michael Dennehy joins our panel this morning. Also the former New Hampshire governor and senator Judd Gregg is with us. Our panelists Ron Brownstein and Candy Crowley are back. Nice to see you. I want to play a little bit of what Newt Gingrich said to me this morning when I asked him if he was being hypocritical in talking about -- complaining about Mitt Romney's super PAC power and having his own super PAC supporting him. Here's what he said.


NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think if you're faced with the reality, if somebody decides that's what they're going to do, if you unilaterally disarm, you might as well drop out of the race. He's decided that he would pin his entire future on shrinking his competitors rather than offering positive ideas. We came back and offered a very clear choice here, talking about his impact, for example, raising the computer tax on folks from New Hampshire, raising $730 million taxes as governor of Massachusetts. So I think it's fair to draw a contrast between my record of fighting for tax cuts and the tax increases he set up in Massachusetts as governor.


O'BRIEN: So, governor, let's begin with you. When you hear a candidate talking about his fellow candidates and using the words unilateral disarmament, that's almost scary. How worried are you about the damage that Newt Gingrich could do to the front-runner?

JUDD GREGG, (R) FORMER NEW HAMPSHIRE GOVERNOR: Well, I tend to think in the primary process you get intense exchanges. That's how primaries evolve. That's actually probably good for the guy who comes out of it. And in this case I think it's going to be Mitt Romney. The issues will be out there. They'll be on the table. His response to them will be honed and effective, I suspect.

The fact is he created jobs. I can't understand why Republicans would run against Republicans on the basis that he created jobs. It's not really what I would call a market-oriented approach towards politics and governance. I think in this case Romney's on the right side of the issue.

O'BRIEN: At the same time, Romney has had what we call self- inflicted wounds, which is he has said a number of things involving sort of the working people and middle class people that seem to be uncomfortable or don't really jibe with his position as someone who just is a really, really rich guy. There is a little bit of what he said. Let play it first and we'll talk on the other side.


MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I like being able to fire people who provided services to me.

I used to worry about my sons and their future and what America was going to be like when they grew up. I remember I sat down with an attorney and I said, if I have a will, I want to make sure to pass along whatever I have to my sons.

I know what it's like to worry whether you're going to get fired. There were a couple times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.

I came out of school and got an entry-level position like the other people who were freshly minted MBAs.


O'BRIEN: It's been interesting to see him sort of deal with these things where he's speaking the truth, obviously. But I think when he talks about fear of a pink slip he's come out with an MBA from a great school, and I think it has a ring to it that makes him have to correct all of this.

MICHAEL DENNEHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: It does. I think one of the problems that Mitt Romney's had over the last nine months, he hasn't been severely challenged. None of them have challenged him. He's been high in the polls for the last year. And now the pressure's on. The last couple of days he needs to perform well in New Hampshire. I think he's starting to feel some of the heat. So he's going to have to deal with these things over the next few weeks and possibly in the general election.

O'BRIEN: These are self-inflicted wounds, right?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: They are. He hasn't challenged. Some of it is self-inflicted. Some of it is the natural ebb and flow of the campaign. I think his problem right now is -- and this comes up in every election no matter who the candidate is, they need to let Romney be Romney. I think he seems spooked at this point. That's when you make the most mistakes.

He is what he is. And people sense immediately when you're saying something that runs counter to the image that is out there. I get that he's trying to connect, but he needs to connect from where he is. I don't want to sound like a shrink here.




BROWNSTEIN: First of all, Soledad, it's not fair to the pundits to bring in the professionals. We don't like the competition.

O'BRIEN: Feel free to hit him if you need to at some point.

BROWNSTEIN: But I think the past 48 hours really underscores something that I very much believe, that if Mitt Romney is the nominee, how the voters ultimately interpret his experience at Bain Capital is going to be one of the two or three most important pivot points in the general election. If by November most voters accept his explanation that, yes, this equips me uniquely to understand how the economy works.

O'BRIEN: I ran stuff in private industry. BROWNSTEIN: Right. Or at the end of the election do most voters accept the frame the Democrats will be painting.

O'BRIEN: Corporate raider.

BROWNSTEIN: Looting companies, he is the embodiment of what is wrong with the economy. And in the last 48 hours you see Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich beginning to amplify that argument. It can only go so far in a Republican primary. In a general election it's a very different audience. Romney has shown, as Mike has suggested, in the past 48 hours he still isn't entirely comfortable explaining this is a way that is convincing to the average American the way he was in 1994 when he ran against Ted Kennedy.

DENNEHY: I'm with Candy. Let Mitt Romney be Mitt Romney. They're controlling all their events, the Romney campaign.

O'BRIEN: Yesterday was the first event since Iowa where he took questions from the press. And part of that was because he had to fix the problem with, saying I like to fire people. I get it. It's totally out of context. I was there for it. I know he was talking about insurance companies, but you don't want the next day's conversation and certainly not ads to be all about that one little line.

CROWLEY: The good news for Romney is it's still off Broadway.


CROWLEY: So he's got time to put this together. And for those, I know the big question is, are they harming themselves for the general? When we were here four years ago, remember it was the Obama campaign or their friends putting out that Bill Clinton was using racist language, that he was racist against -- he went to South Carolina and it was really ugly. Guess what, she's the secretary of state.

BROWNSTEIN: He could be a formidable nominee, but we are seeing an early test of what will be a critical variable. Can he defend that record in a way that instills confidence rather than instills doubt?

O'BRIEN: Governor, as they go to South Carolina, as they go to Florida, someone like Mitt Romney who has a reputation as really kind of needs to in the general election appeal to independents and moderates, is he being dragged to the right a bit?

GREGG: No, I don't think so. I think all of these candidates are pretty conservative. That's what they are, they're conservatives. I think Romney's strength is that he isn't seen as wearing the social issues on his sleeve. And this is going to help him in the general election. I think he's going to be our nominee. I believe he's going to win in New Hampshire. I suspect he'll do very well in South Carolina. Anybody who wins Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina is going to be the nominee.

So I happen to think he will be our strongest nominee because he will appeal to people who are independent. On this issue of being attacked, this is just beginning. We're just in the start. We're in the first inning here.

BROWNSTEIN: But how would you score his response in a Republican primary to the attacks that will be coming tenfold if he makes it to the general election on the Bain experience?

GREGG: I think by the time we get to the general election, probably long before that, there will be a much more substantive response as to how many jobs he created and what those people who got the jobs think about --

O'BRIEN: I was not jumping in but I can answer that. He has to answer his game in a major way.

GREGG: People will be on TV saying I like my job and thank you, Mitt Romney, for getting that.

O'BRIEN: We have to take a short break. I'm going to stop right there, but we're going to continue our conversation.

I want to remind everybody to watch CNN tonight, primary day. I'll be joining Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, John King, Erin Burnett, and Candy Crowley as well. We have a long day ahead of us, don't' we, for our coverage of the New Hampshire primary. That's on CNN at 7:00 p.m. eastern time.

Continuing here as we have our breakfast on STARTING POINT, why do we hold a primary on a Tuesday anyway? Wouldn't more people be able to vote if it was on a Saturday, say? Coming up next, a guest tells us about the fight to increase voter turnout. You're watching STARTING POINT with Soledad O'Brien. After the short break we're back.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We're coming to you live this morning from (INAUDIBLE); that is breakfast on the grill this morning.

We're asking the question of why is Election Day on a Tuesday? The GOP primary, of course, is really critical for the ultimate race for the highest office in the land. So why would you hold it on a Tuesday? Doesn't that ultimately really hurt voter turnout? Would it help voter turnout -- voter turnout to hold it on a Saturday or hold it on a holiday?

Jacob Soboroff is the executive director of a nonpartisan group which is called "Why Tuesday" and they are asking that very question. He's in L.A. this morning. Nice to see you. Thanks for talking with us. Why Tuesday anyway? What historically is the reason for a Tuesday?

JACOB SOBOROFF, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, "WHY TUESDAY": Absolutely no good reason, Soledad. Good morning. The short answer is no good reason whatsoever. The little bit longer answer is because of a law set in 1845 to make voting convenient for an America that traveled by horse and buggy and get back in time for market day, Tuesday was just the most convenient day.

So what we're saying at is that 166 years later it's time to upgrade our voting system. Let's move Election Day to the weekend, Saturday and Sunday, so that more people can vote.

O'BRIEN: When you look at voter turnout across the United States, it's somewhere in the low 60s. It's not exactly an impressive number. When you look at something like the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico where they shut everything down on Election Day, they've had voter turnout as high as 90 percent.

So is it as simple as just saying listen let's do this on a Saturday, shut everything down. So people don't have to sprint back and forth to their jobs and that would solve the problem of low voter turnout?

SOBOROFF: Well, I don't think it's as simple as just moving Election Day to the weekend, Saturday and Sunday. Which is called for in the Weekend Voting Act which is in Congress. There's no silver bullet for increasing voter participation.

But as you said in Puerto Rico, it's a national holiday. People are out in the street celebrating. In America the Tuesday after the first Monday in November is a workday like just any other day. In New Hampshire where you are right now it's one of the most political states in the entire union. And the last primary election for President held there, 53 percent of the people showed up to vote.

If -- if the people of New Hampshire are showing up at 53 percent you know something is wrong. Because they're some of the most passionate people in this entire country.

O'BRIEN: How come this issue doesn't get much traction? I mean we're talking about it but really you never hear about it almost ever.

SOBOROFF: Because if you had to re-apply for your job, Soledad or I had to re-apply for my job with a different job application on the day you were elected, which is basically what we're asking elected officials in Congress and the President to do, all of them who have been elected for 166 years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. You know, I'm sure that they -- they don't want to change the rules of the game. And we probably wouldn't either if it would make it harder for us to get our jobs.

But at the end of the day our elected officials report to the people of the United States and not to themselves, you know, in the interest of their own job security.

O'BRIEN: Why Tuesday? It's a good question. Jacob Soboroff is joining us. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate it. That's an interesting point. A strange voter turnout.

All right, ahead this morning, we're hooked on plastic again. We're going to reveal for you what our spending habits may mean. That's straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT.

In our reveal today, some surprising numbers about the economy. Since 2008 we've seen a massive drop in consumer debt. Many people who are sort of spooked by the economic crash, have started paying down their debt. Security became the new rich. Instead of having a big house or fancy car, people are downsizing, they're saving and being debt free was kind of the in thing to do.

And you can see that in the Federal Reserve's numbers on consumer Credit; in 2008 through much of 2011 you see a massive drop in the number of people -- in the number of credit, rather, that people were carrying. If they could pay off their debt, they did. Houses were sold, credit cards cut up, shopping done with cash.

Until now, there's some new numbers just released by the Feds that are showing a hot -- and huge jump in consumer credit spending. Since last November credit has skyrocket jumping 9.9 percent. And that would be the fastest monthly increase since November of 2001 which you'll remember the country was bouncing back from the 9/11 attacks.

So this could be a sign that people are optimistic about the economy. That it's getting better and it's ok to carry more debt. And while spending is a good sign for the economy, the jump could also mean that people's economic situation is so perilous that they're actually using credit just to get by.

And there's this: the latest fed figures are also showing that the amount of money Americans are saving has slid. Back in November of 2011 Americans were saving about 5.1 percent but November of 2011 numbers show that those savings have dropped to 3.5 percent. I'm sorry, 2010 to 2011. I misspoke.

So over a year it's gone from 5.1 percent down to 3.5 percent. And this is the kind of thing when you look at it, you have to say as I think our own Christine Romans would say, so are consumers more confident or are our memories a little short?

We'll keep following that of course.

Our "End Point" is what's going to end STARTING POINT this morning. It's right after this commercial break. We're back with a final word from our panelists.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody from Manchester, New Hampshire. We end as we always do, with our "End Point". We're going to start with Candy as part of our panel. What do you take away from this morning?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR, "STATE OF THE UNION": It's interesting that the conversation is all about number two. As we were talking before, it is. The question now is, is there anybody out there strong enough to take on Mitt Romney in the long run? And if you look at their bank accounts --

O'BRIEN: The polls would say no.

CROWLEY: Well, you know, if the polls say no then the bank accounts go down. And then that makes it more and more difficult.

DAVID FRUM, EDITOR, FRUMFORUM.COM: The number twos and the number threes and the number fours and the number fives are hoping that the social conservatives of South Carolina will save them. South Carolina is a state that has always wanted to be with the winner. It is not a social conservative state. It's a deeply establishment state.

It saved George Bush in '88. It saved him again in 1992. It saved George W. Bush in 2000 and it sank Mike Huckabee in 2008.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Given Romney's strength, to me the most interesting thing of the past 48 hours is the extent to which we're seeing a preview of October in January.

The issue of whether Romney can defend his experience at Bain Capital I think will be absolutely crucial in the general election if he gets there. And the evidence of the past couple of days is that he still has some work to do in presenting this in a way that most Americans will find an asset rather than a liability.


O'BRIEN: First? How many do I give you?

SIMMONS: That maple-covered bacon is like candy.

O'BRIEN: It is the definition of candy, yes. I don't need to sit next to that this morning.

SIMMONS: Rock candy. But on politics, I think the negative ads, South Carolina -- South Carolina's also one of the states where things get really negative really fast and really dirty. I think the $3.4 million that Gingrich is talking about spending in South Carolina is going to really take some paint off Mitt Romney. And how he reacts to that will determine whether or not he gets to be president or the nominee.


O'BRIEN: Yes. Well, we actually see the ad spin. Here is my "End Point" this morning. I think there are two theories. One is that all this negative campaigning actually makes a candidate, front- runner stronger, right? Because he's used to people attacking him. It makes him better.

Or the other theory that it could make him much weaker because of course, he goes into the general election completely attacked and scarred. But I think we have to look at the voters. And I think voters are frustrated and annoyed. And all of this negative campaigning actually might just diminish voter turnout and ultimately that's what's going to decide who's going to win this whole thing.

We're out of time. I want to remind everybody if you want to watch CNN tonight because Candy and I will be up all night. Yes we will. We're going to join Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, John King, Erin Burnett. Also for live coverage of the New Hampshire primary -- that is tonight at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time. We hope you'll watch.

That's it for STARTING POINT with Soledad O'Brien. We turn it over now to Kyra Phillips at the "CNN NEWSROOM". Hey Kyra, good morning.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR, "CNN NEWSROOM": Hey Soledad, good morning. And good morning, everyone.