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Romney Rout In New Hampshire; Next Stop: South Carolina; New Hampshire Exit Polling Results; Can Romney Be Beaten?; Hazing or a Hate Crime?; Gov. Haley Barbour Pardons Nearly 200; Natalie Wood Death Case

Aired January 11, 2012 - 05:59   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Oh, well, good morning to you. It's one minute to 6:00 a.m. So, if your alarm didn't go off, that's us. It's EARLY START, everyone. Hi! I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We're bringing you the news from "A" to "Z." So, let's get started here.


BANFIELD (voice-over): Mitt Romney, if you slept right through it, he just smoked New Hampshire. He met the expectations. He blew the opponents away, but guess what, that was New Hampshire, and South Carolina is just around the corner. It might be a little different there.

SAMBOLIN: And a new revelation from the family of a Florida A&M student who was hazed to death. Was he targeted because of his sexuality?

BANFIELD: And in Mississippi, there is a storm brewing over Haley Barber, the out-going Mississippi governor facing reporters and walking away without an answer to the burning question, why did you pardon so many criminals on your last day in office? And why would you have pardoned killers and rapists? He's got some explaining to do, but he is not doing it.

I want to start with the politics. New Hampshire primary, says there right there in the CNN election center. This place was hopping last night.

SAMBOLIN: Well, because what was expected to happen happened and then some, right?

BANFIELD: Got it right and they didn't have to do the marathon, you know, 3:00 a.m. thing because Mitt Romney wiped it up, folks. He made history. GOP frontrunner sticking with the frontrunner status and making history because he's the first non-incumbent Republican to ever win both Iowa and New Hampshire.

So is he going to sweep the table? Is he going to get South Carolina in 10 days? Of course, that's what a lot of people want to know, but you're going to have to wait for it.

The 95 percent of the vote have been counted. Here are the numbers from New Hampshire, 40 percent to Mitt Romney, 23 percent to Ron Paul. Jon Huntsman surging at the end to a respectable 17 percent. I can't argue with that.

SAMBOLIN: No, here's the rest of the field for you, Newt Gingrich fourth with 10 percent, Rick Santorum 9 percent, Rick Perry at 1 percent. Romney's speech sounded more like a candidate who had given the fall, perhaps.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This president wakes up every morning, looks across the America and is proud to announce it could be worse. It could be worse?

That is not what it means to be an American, it could be worse, of course not. What defines us as Americans is our unwavering conviction that we know it must be better and it will be better.


SAMBOLIN: Pretty good for him. CNN political director, Mark Preston joins us now. Are you calling this a big win? Folks are saying in the 30s, it's 40 with 90 percent -- 95 percent of the precincts reporting.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, how can we not call it a big win? If it were not, it would just appear that we're trying to drill the Romney candidacy at this point.

BANFIELD: I saw a headline called the granite statement.

PRESTON: Yes, the granite statement. Look, the fact of the matter is he has been organizing in New Hampshire since the day he lost it to John McCain back in 2008. They put a lot of money on the ground.

I was up there this past week. I spent time at the campaign headquarters. It was abuzz. He should have won, but the fact of the matter was he won it 40 percent.

As you said, a lot of people were looking for him to come in the mid 30s. Had he done that there would have been some question about his electability going forward.

BANFIELD: Then a big surprise at the end of the night. I think a lot of us that were expecting there's some vetting going on and no one dropped out, which I suppose is pretty good news for Mitt Romney.

PRESTON: Well, because he wants to see this fractioned conservative field, right? We've been talking about that, the three of us, just about how the field distraction at this point.

Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry all vying for this social conservative vote and they are going to be going at it down in South Carolina where Evangelicals play a big part in that election.

But the fact of the matter is they're also going to be going after Mitt Romney. He has got to be concerned about that.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, we have at of ads that, you know, are airing there that are very anti-Mitt Romney. One of the surprises was the Tea Party vote, right, 40 percent of that.

But you say it's different in South Carolina, and folks are going to be looking a little bit differently there at conservatives.

PRESTON: Sure, and let's just look at the electorate there as a whole. A Republican up in New England is going to be a little bit different than a Republican down in South Carolina or Alabama or Georgia or where we sit right here especially when you look at the Tea Party vote.

A lot of folks don't realize this, but Tea Party activists, majority of them do align themselves with social conservative issues. However up in New Hampshire, those folks up there, those Tea Party folks tend to be more fiscally conservative. So what we had down in South Carolina, social conservatives will have a big say.

BANFIELD: Yes, I thought it was a big mistake when I saw the numbers were coming in the exit polling last night when it said, 40 percent of the Tea Partiers chose Mitt Romney. I thought, CNN is going to take egg in the face there.

PRESTON: Not so much.

BANFIELD: I'm glad you're watching it for us. Thank you for getting up early. You can do this all the time?

PRESTON: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: So this is going to be a long election, right?

PRESTON: It's going to be a long haul.

BANFIELD: You've heard it here. It's on tape. We got him. Mark Preston, thanks.

SAMBOLIN: All right, let's check in with Christine Romans who is poring through exit polling data. I know this makes you super happy, the geek in you is very excited.

BANFIELD: Christine, if there were a headline to talk about it would be that the exit polls told us some really interesting stuff.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: You know, they really did. You mention that Tea Party number. I mean, look, 51 percent of the folks say that they support the Tea Party. That's your opinion of Tea Party's 51 percent of the folks at the exit polling didn't. And as you point out, 40 percent of those who support the Tea Party supported Romney. So it's really a story. I am a geek about the numbers. The geek about the politics is Mark Preston so I'm bridging him here in, too.

But we also look at the top quality of your candidate. That's what they were asked like they were asked in Iowa, what is the top quality of your candidate, 35 percent, you guys, said that they could beat Obama.

That is more than experience 26 percent, character 22 percent, true conservative and when you flip the pictures to show you who won those categories, it is Mitt Romney who they think can beat Obama, Mitt Romney who has the experience, and character and true conservative, of course, was Ron Paul.

I want to look real quick at some other data, too, because we pulled these up for you. This is where I want to bring in Mark. The top issue here clearly was the economy. I mean, 45 percent of those who said the top issue was the economy voted for Romney. No surprise here Paul getting number two.

PRESTON: Yes, no surprise because Ron Paul, as we know, Christine has been talking about fiscal discipline, trying to bring some order to Washington, D.C. We have a lot of libertarians who support Ron Paul and want to see less government and when you speak less government, they think the economy would be better.

ROMANS: Look at this one. Deficit, Romney won that one. You also have Paul number two on that one for the deficit 34 percent and 33 percent. So really the same kind of story there for the deficit and economy overall, but then you look Santorum took the social issue here.

PRESTON: Absolutely because that is his mainstay and that's where all of his support is going to come and that's why it's going to be important when they head down to South Carolina because social issues are going to be --

ROMANS: Look at health care was overall didn't even rate. I mean, health care is the thing when you're on the campaign trail. You hear over and over we're going to repeal the president's health care.

But in Iowa and here, it was jobs, it's the deficit, it's other social issues, not necessarily health care and health care reform. But what does this mean when we go down to South Carolina, because if the economy is so important, Mark, if the economy is important, South Carolina, the unemployment rate is 9.9 percent. It's only 5.2 percent in New Hampshire.

PRESTON: Yes. And it means the economy is going to be the major issue as it always is. However, in South Carolina, the social conservative issues are going to play because we're talking about a Republican primary and these are issues that people think that are important. But again, it's always been about the economy and it's always going to be about the economy for the next seven, eight months as we head into November.

ROMANS: All right, I guess, that means he will geek out on politics and I'll geek out in numbers and we'll see you again and again and again.

SAMBOLIN: The dynamic duo. The geek squad, I love it. Guys, you're great. Thank you for that.

BANFIELD: Six remaining Republican candidates all vowing to press on. Six campaign trekking on down to South Carolina. That's 10 days away, that primary. Mitt Romney is looking pretty strong right now with a double digit lead in those polls. Amazing.

John Avlon, CNN contributor, senior political columnist at "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast," writing very, very late at night last night. Will Cain is CNN contributor and columnist with "The Blaze" and Democratic strategist and CNN contributor, Hilary Rosen, all getting up to do some very early work with us this morning.

Hello, you three. Let's start right away with Mitt Romney because he was looking very presidential. I think, John, you wrote that he is definitely ready for prime time.

So I wanted to pull an example of what you wrote, part of his speech last night, which was pretty strong. Let's have a listen to it and talk on the other side.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we've seen desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation. The country already has a leader who divides us with a bitter politics of envy.


BANFIELD: Bitter politics of envy, I love that line. It made me wonder, John, whether all of these efforts to rip apart, you know, his existence at Bain and tear down his market capitalism was a big fat backfire.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think it was. What those attacks have done, at least within the Republican primary electorate, have made conservative activists rally around Mitt Romney as the last defender of free market capitalism.

It's had a ironic and completely unintended result. You know, that speech he gave last night was a general election speech, full of sharp contrast with President Obama.

But what you saw there also was that swipe, that one-direct swipe at Newt Gingrich for unleashing these ads. You're going to see that continue. Essentially saying that why is Newt Gingrich's PAC doing the work of the Obama administration?

Now some of these attacks could end up backfiring if he goes too hard against the president, but it's clear that now actually Mitt Romney has been strengthened in the mind of many conservative activists because of his experience with Bain, which has come under attack from his rivals.

BANFIELD: It makes me wonder if Gingrich or the PACs are going to maybe tweak some of the message down in South Carolina. Since we're talking about South Carolina, Will, let me jump to you and Hilary, I'm going to get you to jump in on something very Democratic.

But for now, I want to get Will to jump in on the conservative alternative because I think everyone is waiting to find out who that person is going to be.

And to that note, we decided to pull some old numbers from 2008 because if anybody is as geeky as Christine and Mark, they might remember that that very ultra conservative vote was split between Huckabee and Thompson.

And that was what some say propelled John McCain to win that state. So if that's the case, we have Santorum and Gingrich splitting a lot of that vote down in South Carolina.

That's a good thing for Romney right now, but which one -- and I'm asking you to read tea leaves, obviously, which one is more likely to pull off that big upset and get that moniker of being the conservative alternative?

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know what, Ashleigh, I can't read those tea leaves and they can't read them themselves. They have no agreement among themselves.

Yesterday, I sat down with the group of tea party activists. This is kind of funny. I asked them each who they support. There was four of them, two for Santorum, two for Ron Paul. These guys, Santorum and Paul are mere opposites of each other.

There is no common thread that connects those two men. In fact, there's very little common thread between Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, and now Santorum. So why is the Tea Party moving among this different group?

I think it's all about style. The only thing that unites them is their passionate opposition to Obama and to some extent Romney. That speech you talked about, Ashleigh, last night. That's why Romney's speech was so good.

He was able to kind of put out and connect on an emotional level. I think that is going to be one of the first times he can really start connecting with the Tea Party.

But by the way, you've got the stats there, 40 percent of Tea Partiers voted for Romney here. That means people are being quiet and, in the end, kind of shuffling over and supporting Romney.

BANFIELD: I did the double take on it. I have to admit. OK, Hilary Rosen, I want you to jump in on something that our Jessica Yellin who is at the White House monitoring all the returns last night and getting the finger on the pulse of how the Democrats were watching New Hampshire.

She said her place sources were saying that they were having a laser focus on the enthusiasm, the turnout, and James Carville last night went off on how it wasn't as enthusiastic as it should have been. Is this going to be a problem? Is this something the Democrats are going to seize on and have some fun with?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I mean, I don't think it's a political message for Democrats. I think it's an actual operation liability for Republicans. Because, you know, given how much passion there has been in the big picture rhetoric of the Republican Party about getting rid of President Obama.

We've now seen in Iowa and New Hampshire not much of an uptick in terms of turnout and in terms of enthusiasm. We saw in the exit polls yesterday again, significant dissatisfaction with their presidential choices.

So I think from a Democratic perspective, look, we're going to have our own engagement and enthusiasm problems, there's no question about that because you always do in a re-elect.

BANFIELD: I was wondering about that, yes.

ROSEN: I don't think the Republicans right now are showing, you know, the kind of passion you expect when the desired to topple someone is so great.

BANFIELD: It made me wonder if the Dems were licking their chops, but you're right. It can happen to both sides, too.

ROSEN: We are thinking to lick our chops about is, you know, Democrats are actually pretty excited about running against Mitt Romney. I think that --

BANFIELD: No, they're not! I'm going to take issue with you.

CAIN: I'm thinking the same thing, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All I'm hearing the Democrats railing on that guy, they don't like him and they want somebody else who is really quacky to be their competitor. I do have to leave it there.

ROSEN: He's got a lot of flaws there and I think we're ready for him.

BANFIELD: All right, John Avlon, Will Cain, and Hilary Rosen, I wish I had all day. Why don't we just meet later and talk all day about it, the three of us, the four of us. Thanks, guys.

In fact, if you're as into this as the rest of us you can keep it here on CNN all morning for the best political coverage on television.

At 7:30 Eastern, Mitt Romney is going to be live right here on "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien. So it's pretty excited about that. That's some serious exclusive stuff.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It is 6:13 in the east. Time to check our weather. Jacqui Jeras is here with the travel forecast.

I got on the elevator this morning and the security guard said enjoy today, we're in Atlanta because tomorrow it's going to be really cold here.

JACQUI JERAS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It is, but you know, as you head towards the weekend, even worse. The arctic blast is on the way. Your hometown, Chicago, for example, hasn't hardly had any snow at all this season. It's a coming.

So get ready for it. We got two big stories today in the weather department. One of which is our storm across the southeast bringing in those soggy conditions and then that blast of cold air.

So these are the two areas that we're talking about right here. First one means really a big problem with travel. Places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., down towards Charlotte into Atlanta, that's where you're going to see the showers.

Even, yes, some embedded thunderstorms and then our cold front in the upper Midwest. This is bringing in true arctic air for a change and that's why we're going to start to see temperatures in the teens for highs by tomorrow in the upper Midwest.

Showers in Atlanta, heavier right now into the Nashville area and that's pushing on up into Indianapolis. Our storm is going to ride up the coast so it's going to be greeting you into the northeast by tomorrow.

It's going to phase up with that cold air and turn into one big storm and that rain is going to move out, the snow is going to move in so some big changes ahead all across the Eastern U.S.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you.

BANFIELD: Thank you, Jacqui.

Fifteen minutes past 6:00 on the East Coast and quarter past 3:00 on the West Coast. So here are your top stories as you're just about to head out the door.

Big win in New Hampshire, but can Mitt keep that freight train going as he heads to South Carolina? Every GOP nominee, it's one that or has become the eventual nominee has won that state since it went to the primaries back in the '80s, 1980 to be exact. Ron Paul finished pretty well last night, second place. Jon Huntsman, a respectable third.

SAMBOLIN: Iran claims Israel is behind the car bomb assassination of a prominent nuclear scientist in Tehran. Government officials say the attack is similar to others that have targeted Iranian scientists in recent years.

All right. So still to come on EARLY START, new developments in the case of the Florida band member allegedly beaten to death in a hazing incident there. The parents are revealing that he is gay. Did that have anything to do with it?

Sports writer LZ Granderson joining us to talk about what it's like to be gay in a fraternity-type atmosphere. And he talked to the parents as well. He's going to weigh in on that.

BANFIELD: And in Mississippi, if you're just waking up, your headlines are probably reading that your governor who just left office pardoned a whole lot of bad people. He handed out 200 some pardons to convicted criminals and they're not just petty, folks. They're killers, they're rapists, they're nasty. We're going to take a look at some of them and the connections that may have helped them to go free and walk amongst you and me.

You're watching EARLY START.


BANFIELD: Hello, Dallas, Texas. Good morning. It is about 41 degrees, but later on today you're going to warm right up to 66 and it will be sunny. Oh, my dear old homeys, I miss you. I was there for four and a half years.

SAMBOLIN: You do a - you do a great Southern accent.

BANFIELD: If I need to, I can pour it on if I need to. But that was the view from my apartment -

SAMBOLIN: Oh, really.

BANFIELD: -- while I was in Dallas, Texas.

SAMBOLIN: Nice view.

BANFIELD: I'm feeling a little bit of home.

SAMBOLIN: So that is (ph) like that?

BANFIELD: It was every night.

SAMBOLIN: It's very nice.


SAMBOLIN: It's 20 minutes past the hour here.

And we're getting an "Early Read" on your local news that's making national headlines. So this morning we have papers from Charlotte, North Carolina, and from New York.

We are going to begin in Charlotte. "Charlotte Observer" to be exact reports that President Obama's reelection campaign is considering moving the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte to the Bank of America Stadium. Why? Because it can sell more sky boxes to wealthy supporters. There are 74,000 seats. There's also a little bit of room to sell more passes.

Democratic planners are reportedly struggling to come up with ways to meet the fund-raising goal of $36.6 million. Remember when Bank of America wanted to raise those fees and they ended up not doing it but folks said, we don't know if we want to choose this location or not.

BANFIELD: This is the way to raise the fees.

OK. So I know you probably followed a lot of the headlines from the Occupy Wall Streeters when they were in Zuccotti Park in New York, and then Mayor Bloomberg got all, no, no, you didn't, you can't be there and he barricaded the place all up. But look at the picture now. Thank you, "Daily News."

In New York, the barricades are down and the folks are coming on back. And about 300 of them already have flooded back into Zuccotti Park. I don't know if it will be the same story it was before when they were all camped out and eating fabulous food and all the rest because there are some strict rules that remain. No sleeping bags, no tents, no naughty behavior. We'll see how that plays out.

SAMBOLIN: See how that works.

Twenty-one minutes past the hour here.

The parents of that college band player who was allegedly beaten to death in a hazing related incident making a big revelation now about their son's life, Robert Champion. His family says he was gay. But they also said that it did not define him and they're not sure he was beaten more because of his sexuality.


PAM CHAMPION, ROBERT CHAMPION'S MOTHER: You know, my husband (INAUDIBLE) but I never concerted that. My thing is was never consider that at all. Never crossed my mind.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So this was a surprise?



SAMBOLIN: LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN. LZ, it's really nice to see you this morning. I want to start -

LZ GRANDERSON, SENIOR WRITER, ESPN: Good morning. Good to see you.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, good morning. Good morning.

Listen, I want to start with something that we said in the tease because I don't know if it's true or not, so I just wanted to get your perspective here. We said that you had some experience here being a gay man in a fraternity and, you know, how that potentially affects the hazing. Do you have any experience with that?

GRANDERSON: Actually, I am a gay man. I have experience with that. But I have not been in a fraternity. You know, I was approached as, you know, most students are but I declined to be a part of the group.

But what I can tell you from - by my years as an educational reporter on several campuses as well as my reporting yesterday was that, you know, this is a very incestuous culture that we're talking about here and I am really confused as to why the parents would choose to talk about their son's sexual orientation in this case and then not go as far as to say it was a hate crime.

You know, no one's been arrested. No one's lost their job. So, you know, my guess is is that they felt that they had to get people's attention because this case was kind of falling between the cracks in their opinions, I think.

SAMBOLIN: But LZ, there is a lawsuit, right, against the bus company now?

GRANDERSON: Yes. Yes, there is a lawsuit because there was a certain amount of responsibility at least in their eyes of the bus company because the students got off the bus but then were allowed to get back on to - to be involved with this hazing incident that eventually led to Champion's passing.

So they're asserting that the bus company should have been more responsible, should have been monitoring the bus activities more closely, and that their negligence contributed to their son's passing.

SAMBOLIN: Well, I would think, LZ, a lot of people are saying that really the university here is at fault for allowing the hazing. Why haven't we seen a lawsuit against the university yet?

GRANDERSON: Well, one, Florida State law requires that when a public institution is being sued that several more months need to pass from the incident before such a lawsuit can be brought against them. So that's the reason why I believe that you haven't seen a lawsuit yet.

But, that does not mean that the university doesn't have any more responsibilities. They seem to be embracing this notion that it was a hate crime as opposed to a hazing crime. Well, I'm going to go ahead and play devil's advocate and go and ask the university then, what are you doing to address hate crime on campus? What type of environment do you have for students so that they feel safe? Do all the students and faculty understand that the school is supportive of GOBT students? And if not, then you're still morally if not legally responsible to make sure that you do something about it. You know, when you drop the hate crime law into the conversation, you get the Department of Justice involved.

And I talked to Sharon Lettman-Hicks yesterday at the National Black Justice Coalition and she is heated and she has let me know and she's let the White House know that she wants a full investigation because if there is a chance that this was a hate crime then the university does need to be held to task for this.

SAMBOLIN: I hear you, LZ, and I'm not discounting the possibility that in fact this is a hate crime, but hazing is a really big problem with black colleges and universities across the country. So what are the steps that they're taking to address that and perhaps, you know, in tandem with the hate crime?

GRANDERSON: Well, you know, that's a really interesting question because you know how we saw a lot of cover-up, if you will, with the Penn State allegations and how so many people knew so much and said so little? That's what you're seeing historically with HBCUs and I believe that's what you're seeing right now with Florida A&M.

I mean, again, I ask the question, how do you have this happen in front of so many witnesses? This isn't like Biggie and Tupac. This isn't like, you know, Casey Anthony. There are a bunch of witnesses that saw what happened. No one's been arrested.

So why is that? How come the university president hasn't put on administrative leave yet? You know why does the board defend him?

So there seems to be a lot going on to protect and anything isolate incident and not really address the hazing that's been going on on these campuses, as you said, for decades.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Well, LZ Granderson, it's really nice to see you this morning. Thanks for shedding light on this and for keeping Robert Champion's name out there. We appreciate it.

GRANDERSON: Thank you.

BANFIELD: It is a 30-year-old case. Talk about cold. Natalie Wood, the death of that beautiful actress and her husband on the right at one point under suspicion, never though arrested in the case. And now we're hearing this case may be closed again after just having opened up.

So what is happening? Is it open, is it closed, are they finding anything new? You'll find out.

You're watching EARLY START.


BANFIELD: Hello, everybody. It is 6:30 on the East Coast, 3:30 on the West Coast. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We're very happy that you're with us this morning.

On the agenda in the next half hour:

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour pardons more than 200 people. Some of these are convicted murderers. And now, they have a right to carry a gun. They're going to be able to vote. Ed Lavandera has the latest for us.

BANFIELD: And we've been ripped for waking people up. "The Daily Show" was all over us so we decided to go big or go home.

That's right, Jon Stewart. You know who we're going to wake up today? Not the Obamas. The person who's impersonating both of these Obamas, it's RuPaul.

This is my favorite photo overnight that I saw.

SAMBOLIN: I've never seen this before, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: I love it. It's RuPaul dressed as both the president and first lady.

And we figured since he's RuPaul and people have been saying that Ron Paul has as much a chance of being president as RuPaul, we thought we would wake up RuPaul and ask him about that. And it turns out he's been doing some campaigning in New Hampshire.

SAMBOLIN: I'm looking forward to that.

BANFIELD: I'm connected to all of this, believe it or not.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It is time to check the stories that are making news this morning.

History in New Hampshire: the Republican candidates moving on now to South Carolina after Mitt Romney became the first non-incumbent to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. Ron Paul for second. Ron Paul for the second, Jon Huntsman, third.

Rick Santorum who finished in the second tier, he says he is going to keep on fighting.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have an opportunity in this race. We have an opportunity to be the true conservative, the true conservative who can go out and do what's necessary, not just to win this race, and we can win that race.



BANFIELD: And that candidate is big on foreign policy.

And speaking of such policy, the United States resuming drone attacks in Pakistan. The first strike since an attack mistakenly killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border just back in November. Officials there say the latest missile strike killed at least four suspected militants in North Waziristan border region.

SAMBOLIN: And Fannie Mae CEO Mike Williams is leaving. He was appointed to run the mortgage giant in 2009 after the federal government seized the company. It says it's time to rand the reins over to someone else.

BANFIELD: Some newly released documents reveal that the ex- Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour pardoned nearly 200 offenders over the course of the last several years that he's been in the office of the governor and they're not just petty criminals, folks. Fourteen of them convicted of murder. And not just homicides, your run-of-the- mill -- serious, aggravated homicides.

Ed Lavandera is our correspondent in Dallas. He's been covering this story for CNN.

So, Ed, I get it, I get that governors don't have to answer to pardons and neither do presidents. But isn't the hue and cry pretty darn loud? And isn't he going to have to say something to all of his Republican brethren? And after all, he was the leader of the Republican governors.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You've got to think at some point he's got to say something. I think he was asked by the reporters yesterday during the swearing in ceremony for the incoming governor of Mississippi. He refused to answer questions. We tried repeatedly to get any kind of comment from his spokesperson to no avail. They have completely just refused any kind of comment.

So, you have to think at some point they will -- he will have to say something because this is -- I mean, I think the outcry over what has happened here is only going to get louder.

BANFIELD: And not only that. He's been in office, and correct me if I'm wrong, since about 2004. And if you do the math, 200 pardons, that's a whole lot more than the average governor in Mississippi pardons. I think it was something like 10 and 20 a year is more the standard, right?

LAVANDERA: Well, there's I think 222 total during his eight years in office there in the state of Mississippi -- 199 of those coming in the last week as he was leaving office. And the whole range, there's everything. There's murders, rapists, drunk drivers -- just runs the gamut as to how many different types of people were pardoned or had some sort of conditional release. Not all of them are pardons but a small handful of them are these conditional release issues.

But the vast majority of them are pardons, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: And they are unconditional, too, which means they get like all sorts of rights. But you would never expect an ex-con to have rights, right?

SAMBOLIN: Yes, they can vote, which really shocked us and they have the right to carry arms as well. And some of these are convicted for crimes, along those lines.

But I want to ask you about the fact that they worked in the governor's mansion. What is that program all about? Is it a rehabilitation program for the convicted criminals?

BANFIELD: And how do they get in?

LAVANDERA: Well, these inmates were called trustees and this happens across the country. These are inmates who have essentially garnered goodwill, have behaved properly during their time while they were incarcerated. So they've earned extra privileges that other inmates don't get. And obviously, being able to be outdoors and some of these inmates worked on the governor's mansions grounds there in Jackson, Mississippi -- obviously, kind of a nice job if you're incarcerated, to be able to be outside. So, some of these inmates were working on the governor's mansion detail.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Well, thank you for joining us.

We want to talk now to Ronni Mott, the managing editor of the "Jackson Free Press," live from Jackson, Mississippi.

Are you there, Ronni?

RONNI MOTT, JACKSON FREE PRESS (via telephone): I am. Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, you wrote an editorial slamming the pardons as a, quote, "danger to Mississippians." Can you tell us how folks there are feeling about this?

MOTT: Well, from what we've heard people are just outraged. The number -- just the numbers alone of the people that Governor Barbour pardoned over the last weekend, 190 people is just unfathomable, really. What we zoomed in on at the "Jackson Free Press" were the numbers of domestic violence murderers that he released.

SAMBOLIN: And you're worried about that in particular because you say that perhaps in the future, women are not going to talk about the domestic violence and they're not going to get the services they need and they certainly not going to get these folks prosecuted because this is the outcome.

MOTT: Well, that's right. Exactly. Statistically, domestic violence perpetrators are really high as far as recidivism is concerned.

If we can't send the message to women in Mississippi, which has been ranked one of the most dangerous places for women in the nation, if we can't send them a message that they can come forward, talk to officials, be safe, then, you know, we're going backwards here. This doesn't make any sense.

SAMBOLIN: And has anybody heard from the governor about these pardons? Is there any justification behind them? Any explanation?

MOTT: Absolutely not. We've been trying to talk to the governor since 2008 about these pardons, off and on. He has just kept silence over the years. He has not said anything.

You know, one would think if he thought this was a good thing that he would come out and say something. But he said absolutely nothing.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Ronni Mott, thank you so much for joining us this morning. We certainly wish you luck with this there and hopefully you can get some sort of resolution, some answers to the questions.

BANFIELD: I think the people in Mississippi are going to be outraged enough that they're going to make these demands. But the weird thing is they just never have to answer for these last-minute actions, these governors, and the president, too.

SAMBOLIN: But these programs, you know, these programs that exist. I mean, there's --

BANFIELD: That's going to be on the block. That will be up for reanalysis, shall we say.

All right. So, there's nothing worse than having your hero take a potshot at you. And that's what happened to us.

I am such a huge fan of Jon Stewart but he ripped on us last night on his show. So, you know what, Jon Stewart, I'm digging in, my friend. You're going down, my friend.

SAMBOLIN: She's digging in.

BANFIELD: We are going bigger. That's right. RuPaul, waking him up, coming at you. That's all I'm saying.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm letting you.

You're watching EARLY START. We'll be right back.


BANFIELD: OK. So my friend Mike Opelka, who works at "The Blaze," said, fear not, girls, the only bad press is your own obituary. Isn't that great?

SAMBOLIN: I love that. Words to live by.

BANFIELD: Thank you, Mike, for making up early with us and sending that to me live just a few moments ago because I was really in a rough way last night after my hero Jon Stewart -- my absolute hero, I never miss an episode of "The Daily Show," I was a guest on his show and he was so nice to me when I was there.

And then what does he do?

SAMBOLIN: Everyone is fair game on his show. You know this.

BANFIELD: I need thicker skin. I need thicker skin. So, this is what, you know, he's airing last night. He's got -- yes. He's got us on his show.

SAMBOLIN: I'm sorry. I can't help it.

BANFIELD: He calls our wake-up segment "waking bad," which is quite clever, as are all of his segments.

But, Jon, you know what? It's just -- if you thought you were going to tear us down, my friend --

SAMBOLIN: You've got another one, right?

BANFIELD: Yes, you've got another one coming. You've got another thing coming, Jon Stewart, because we decided to notch it up.

It turns out that honest to goodness GOP candidates are not the only ones stumping in New Hampshire. There was one really super tall performer and reality TV host named RuPaul traveling to the Granite State with a very important message for primary voters. Take a listen.


RUPAUL, COMEDIAN: I want you to know that I am not Ron Paul. I am RuPaul and I am not running for president.


BANFIELD: That's right. Famous drag queen RuPaul says he's been getting mixed up with GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul because they look so much alike. And he wants to set the record straight once and for all. We figured it would probably be a really good opportunity to wake him up and ask him how he's weekend was.

SAMBOLIN: Did we dial him up?

BANFIELD: I just got to ask the control room if they can make sure that the number is right.


BANFIELD: Do not get a wrong number for us, please.

Have we dialed through to RuPaul yet?

RUPAUL (via telephone): I'm here.




SAMBOLIN: We're very happy to have you this morning.

RUPAUL: Top of the morning to you.

BANFIELD: How are you doing?

RUPAUL: I feel fantastic.

BANFIELD: OK. This is hilarious because we showed a picture of you dressed up as President Obama and also First Lady Michelle Obama.

SAMBOLIN: And you look great.

BANFIELD: Awesome.

SAMBOLIN: Great picture.

BANFIELD: Awesome, awesome.

But what's funny is this thing is getting traction, my friend. This is not just comedy. This is true. Even Brit Hume of FOX News Channel suggested on his program that Ron Paul has about as much chance of becoming president as RuPaul.

Had you heard that?

RUPAUL: I just read that this morning.

BANFIELD: I hope you're not offended by it.

RUPAUL: I'm not offended by anything. I think we live in a country where too many people are offended by things. I think it's always something you need to take up with your therapist.

SAMBOLIN: So what were you doing in New Hampshire?

RUPAUL: Well, I wanted to clear up for the American voter who is who. I want the American voter to know, I, RuPaul, am not running for president.

BANFIELD: And would never consider it?

RUPAUL: Oh, politics is -- you know, politics is a lot like show business. It's just that in show business we have much better costumes.

BANFIELD: Oh, I'll say -- can we play your -- I love your song. You better work and see some pictures of you while we're talking to you?


BANFIELD: I have -- I got to tell you, I have been one jealous young lady of you because you are prettier than most women I know. "Drag Race" on Logo. I guess, it's the highest rated show on that network, isn't it?

RUPAUL: Absolutely. The new season starts up on January 30th on Logo at nine o'clock. I want everybody to watch.

BANFIELD: January, and it's "Rupaul's Drag You"? Is that what have called?

RUPAUL: It's called "Rupaul's Drag Race."

BANFIELD: Drag race. I had drag you on here.

RUPAUL: Yes. That's another show, but we have another show called "Drag U."


BANFIELD: So, we weren't wrong. OK. Well, that's good. That's good. We got really skewered, Ru, by Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" last night. So, we were a little apprehensive going into the segment with you, but I love the fact that you were suggesting that confusion is a drag, hilarious, and then, I had to ask you because it's just, you know, it's time for pun. If you were to run for office, what would be your platform?

RUPAUL: I think I would do probably an espadrille with --


RUPAUL: Yes, probably, a platform espadrille. I love it. They're so classy.

BANFIELD: I knew you were going to say something like that. Rupaul, you are great for playing along.


BANFIELD: Thank you so much. And good luck with the season opener of "Drag Race" on Logo.

RUPAUL: Thanks, kids.

BANFIELD: OK. You take care.

SAMBOLIN: Thanks, kid.

BANFIELD: Adorable. So there, Jon Stewart, it worked just fine.

SAMBOLIN: It's 46 minutes past the hour. We have an update on the Natalie Wood case, you know? They're trying to figure out what's going on here. Detectives say they are on the verge of finally closing things out, but there could be some possible new information that could change everything. Who are they talking to? We're going to try to found out for you. You are watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back, and good morning, Nashville. Fifty-four degrees right now. It's not going to get much warmer, and it's going to rainy, storms and 57 a little later in the day for you.

BANFIELD: I tell you, what though, you know this, Nashville, it is dark.



SAMBOLIN: Great observation, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Nothing gets by me.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Ms. Soledad O'Brien is joining us now with a look at what is ahead on "Starting Point."


BANFIELD: Hey, you're in a diner. What are you doing in a diner?

O'BRIEN: Yes. You are on top of it. Hey, I'm in a diner today, but you know, we moved from breakfast food into my favorite food. We're going right for dessert today. I'm very excited about that. And I got to tell you, Rupaul and the platform espadrilles. I just bought that --



BANFIELD: What you got?

O'BRIEN: Work it. "Starting Point" of the day, we start in just about ten minutes. We're going to be talking to Governor Mitt Romney live this morning. Of course, he is last night's big winner, coasting through New Hampshire, but he heads to a pivotal test in South Carolina. We're going to talk to him about strategy, strategy, strategy this morning.

And then, murderers go free after Mississippi's governor does a major pardon of some convicted killers. We're going to talk to a man, his name is Randy Walker, who was shot in the head by David Gatlin who also shot and killed his ex-wife while she was holding her six-month- old baby in her arms. Randy will talk to us about just how devastated he is today about news of David Gatlin's pardon.

That and much more is ahead this morning as "Starting Point" gets under way in just about ten minutes. We'll see you then.


BANFIELD: You have exactly seven minutes to catch your bus if your bus leaves at the top of the hour. Hello, everybody. This is EARLY START. We have some developments for you in the Natalie Wood case.

SAMBOLIN: The "L.A. Times" is reporting the detectives have found no evidence of foul play in her death, but that is not yet the final word. You remember, Woods drowned back in 1981. She was on a yacht with her husband actor, Robert Wagner. Christopher Walken was there as well. The actress, somehow, fell off that boat.

How that happened is what investigators are still trying to figure out. CNN's Kareen Wynter is live from Los Angeles, and she's been talking with the L.A. County sheriff's department insiders who say new information could actually change everything in this case. Do we know what that new information is?

KAREEN WYNTER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: They're keeping a lot of things, Zoraida, close to the vest, but our sources are telling us that in no way, shape, or form is this case closed. Steve Whitmore (ph), he's with the L.A. County sheriff's department, he told me that, in fact, that this is still an open investigation, despite the story in the "L.A. Times" which Whitmore says got some things wrong.

That new report claimed investigators have found no new evidence and have basically ruled out foul play in Natalie Wood's death. But Whitmore says investigators are still digging, that's right, they're still digging, looking into this case, and that it's possible they could come up with new information that could change the decades' old findings that her death was an accident.

So, there you have it. You know, detectives not done yet. They're still talking to people. They're still pursuing leads. We'll have to see where things go from this point.

BANFIELD: When we say pursuing leads, they haven't interviewed Robert Wagner to our knowledge, and I'm sort of curious if there are even any forensics that are viable enough after 30 years.

WYNTER: That's really a great question. I mean, it's been such a long time, you know, since this case began. Decades ago. And that's why investigators say, you know, we're really being meticulous about this. But, Ashleigh, you raised the money question the last time we chatted. Why not talk to Robert Wagner again, you know, Natalie Wood's husband at the time?

Well, Whitmore says, well, Kareen, you know, he's not a suspect, but do you have to be a suspect to really to be interviewed, especially since you have so many people coming forward giving new information. Exactly. Absolutely. But they're sticking to their story. They're saying he hasn't been interviewed.

It doesn't seem like that will change in the future, but perhaps, you know, if they did interview him, this would crack this case wide open. Who knows?

SAMBOLIN: You suspect that could, you know, give you some valuable information.

BANFIELD: Maybe. I'm just surmising. Maybe, he's not playing ball. You never know. Kareen, thanks a lot. Keep on the story for us.

SAMBOLIN: Absolutely. Coming up, the big winner last night's New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney. He will be live on "Starting Point" with Soledad O'Brien at 7:30. We will be right back.


BANFIELD: Listen, big night if you slept through it, but Mitt Romney is on the freight train. He made the Granite statement. I don't know how many other silly puns I can do it, but it was good news for Mitt Romney.

SAMBOLIN: It was very, very exciting also, and that Tea Party vote. So, we're trying to see what's going to happen in South Carolina, What happens next, and Soledad O'Brien is covering that, right? She's going to talk to Mitt Romney this morning.

BANFIELD: She's got the interview. She's got Mitt Romney coming up on her program. I think about 7:30. So, you got to make sure you stay tune for that.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, there she is. Look at her beaming. You got it. You snagged the interview, missy. We're so jealous.

O'BRIEN: We are tired from last night watching the returns come in, but it was really interesting to be there at all the polling places. Absolutely. Yes. We're going to be talking to the governor. Thank you, ladies. I appreciate the handoff. And, I'll be seeing you back in New York, by the way, tomorrow, because once we wrap up here, we head back to New York.