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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Iowa Caucus Count Unresolved; Timeline Of Cruise Disaster; Iowa Recount Gives Rick Santorum Victory in Caucuses; Interview with Family Research Council President Tony Perkins; SC Tea Party Undecided on Candidates; Barbour Explains

Aired January 19, 2012 - 08:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Wow.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

We're digging into the Harbor Sautee this morning. I've never seen Ron Brownstein my whole life --

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.

O'BRIEN: And I've done a review over many, many years -- dig in to a dish like a crazy man.

Welcome back, everybody. We're at the Bear E Cafe in Charleston, South Carolina. Having breakfast.

The owner John Coos (ph) tells us that this is one of the specialties of the House. It's crab, shrimp, and what else?

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Oh, it's fantastic.

Breaking news this morning is out of Iowa. Interestingly enough, even though we're in South Carolina.

The question is: did Iowa actually go for Santorum after all? There's a new recount, but it's not quite so simple. We got a news conference coming at 9:15 a.m. from the Iowa Republican Party. We'll update you.

Also, Newt Gingrich's second wife is talking, and talking, and talking apparently. ABC this evening will be airing what his former wife has to say. And it must be pretty bad because already the former speaker has been doing spin control all morning. We'll tell you what he said on the "Today Show" this morning.

Plus, "The Real Romney". We'll talk to the co-authors of the Romney book.

And we'll update you on those leaked transcripts in the Italian cruise ship accident. The captain admitting he made a mistake.

Those stories and much more ahead as STARTING POINT begins right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We're updating you on what's happening. Those new numbers coming to us from the Iowa caucuses.

I want to get to Jennifer Jacobs about this Iowa recount update.

The numbers show that Rick Santorum finished ahead by 34 votes. You'll remember, those are the counts right there, 29,839 for Santorum, Mitt Romney at 29,805. Eight precincts though will never be certified. The GOP is calling it a tie and it doesn't change the delegate count.

Mitt Romney earlier today released a statement saying this, "The results from the Iowa caucus night revealed a virtual tie. I'd like to thank the Iowa Republican Party for their careful attention to the caucus process and once again, we recognize Rick Santorum for his strong performance in the state. The Iowa caucuses with record turnout were a great start to defeating President Obama in Iowa and elsewhere in the general election.

Jennifer Jacobs is a reporter with the "Des Moines Register" and she broke that story. We'll bring her in now.

Jennifer, so, tell us how it started. How did you begin to realize that what we thought was a minor victory for Mitt Romney actually looks like it went Santorum's way?

JENNIFER JACOBS, DES MOINES REGISTER (via telephone): Good morning. I knew it first when the party officials told me that they couldn't declare an outright winner because so many precincts couldn't be certified. Those precincts have just proven that there have been some errors and those errors have been very, very small, but this margin of this gap that Rick Santorum had was so tiny that's impossible to say who exactly won.

O'BRIEN: So, talk to me about some of those errors. We've got eight precincts now that they will never be able to certify because of those errors. What exactly happened?

JACOBS: Right. They don't recount any of the ballots. That's all taken care of on caucus night. But what the officials have do, it's all run by volunteers. They just hosted a special Iowa GOP forum that night and it's supposed to be signed by two precinct officials. They were supposed to turn the official documents by yesterday at 5:00.

Well, eight of those precincts, the documentation never came in. And so, the GOP officials were just saying we will never know the true results of this because so many of those were missing. That was one big problem.

The other errors were just typos. There was about 131 precincts, to be precise, that did have some sort of a change in their results from caucus night to the certified total.

BROWNSTEIN: Jennifer, it's Ron Brownstein. Can I ask you a question?

I was told not only are there positions about recording, excuse me, but each precinct might actually have a different process for tabulating the ballots, whether they even have ballots. How people turn in their vote. The level of informality in this process, is it out of sync with how important the result has become? I mean, does this need to be professionalized given how much it affects the entire race and actually who could be the president of the United States, commander in chief and leader of the free world?

JACOBS: It is a very loose process. It's about as precise as picking a class president except on a slightly bigger scale. It is. It's just a bunch of volunteers, Iowa citizens.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

JACOBS: And they write down their choice on a little slip of a piece of paper and pass it to the front of the room or someone goes around with a box or bucket and collects the ballots. It is very, very informal.

But it's always been that way. It's just a caucus. It's not even a primary. It's not a government-run election.

It's a very informal snapshot of where Iowans are at.

O'BRIEN: Is this the first -- I'm sorry, Jennifer, is this the first time that you've seen -- is what's remarkable about this is that it's so close that when you have this variability, it really could matter versus every year, there are some precincts that you cannot certify or every four years because, frankly, there are always mistakes? I mean, having been part of that process you've seen little slips of paper, trying to count them. I could see where there would be errors.

JACOBS: Yes, definitely. And most precincts, every four years, we have precincts where the precinct leaders don't turn in their results on caucus night. You know, they go to sleep and they'll wait to turn them in until the next day. Every four years, we have many, many precincts that never actually turn in their results. You're exactly right. It's never mattered before because there was always a clear winner. The gap was always large enough that party officials were very comfortable in calling a winner even though they didn't have the 100 percent complete results.

This year, the results are incomplete and they're saying there's too much wiggle room here. We just cannot declare a winner.

But, you know, you can look at that as either there's no winner here or there are two winners here. It all depends on the way you want to look at it.

O'BRIEN: Wow, that sounds like an elementary school classroom. There are two winners. Everybody won. Congratulations to all.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is Roland Martin here. Are state officials in Iowa looking to make changes? Because, obviously, they look horrible as a result of this and I understand your point about this being an informal process, and some folks may go home for the night, but the party, though, still plays a role in the caucus there in Iowa. Are they looking at making any changes to their own process?

JACOBS: They have updated their security this year. I know they've made a lot of improvements this year. And this is -- according to everyone who's watched this process, this has been the best run Iowa caucus ever in the history of Iowa caucuses. It's been the most precise.

But I haven't heard them talking about anything specifically as far as changing. In fact, they were very liberal with their rules this time. There were some of these official documents turned in by the precinct that had some irregularities. Some of them weren't signed by the true precinct leaders as they were supposed to be. Some had no signatures at all. Some of them didn't come in on the official documentation, they came in on a piece of scrap paper, notebook paper.

But Matt Strawn, the GOP chairman here, wanted to err on the side of inclusion. He didn't want rules or instructions to prevent any votes from being discounted, so he accepted all of those irregular documentation, note papers, into the big pool of the final certified total. He just really wanted to include everybody.

O'BRIEN: And we know that at 9:15, we're going to be hearing from the Iowa Republicans who will be telling us exactly, maybe, how they're going to be making changes. So, they can avoid these problems.

Jennifer Jacobs, we're going to move on to another topic. But we'd love having you by phone. So, if you want to stick around with my crazy panel, they're extra crazy today. We'd love to have you stick with us.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: We're talking about Newt Gingrich who was on the "Today Show" earlier this morning defending what hasn't come out yet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pre-buttal.

O'BRIEN: Pre-buttal. I like that. Pre-buttal to what his ex- wife who, talking about no love lost, between the two of them, has been -- will say apparently in an interview that will air on ABC News this evening.

So, here's what he said on the "Today Show." Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My two daughters, Kathy and Jackie, have sent a letter to the president of ABC News, saying from a family perspective, I think this is totally wrong. They think ABC should not air anything like this, and that intruding into family things that are a decade, more than a decade old are simply wrong.

Now, I'll have my daughters speak for it. I'm sure they'd be glad to come on and chat with you on it. I'm not going to comment beyond that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: He's done commenting on it but he may not be done commenting on it, of course, because I think it's what people are going to be talking about. I should reintroduce you guys, right?

BROWNSTEIN: Here we are.

O'BRIEN: That would be Roland Martin at the end. Will Cain is with us and Ron Brownstein. The wheels are coming off already only 10 minutes into our second hour.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: We have a difference of opinion on this Newt Gingrich story. Will it matter or won't it matter? Roland and I --

O'BRIEN: We don't know what it says. How can you weigh in on that?

CAIN: Listen. I've been called naive in the last past hour.

O'BRIEN: I mean, yes.

CAIN: That being said, I won't be surprised if this scandal has something to do with the word S-E-X, sex or infidelity. If it does --

O'BRIEN: You can spell it.

CAIN: I want to continue with the naive persona. If it does, let me assure you, this matters to people. That kind of thing resonates if that's what we're talking about in the last 48 hours.

O'BRIEN: Ron Brownstein completely disagrees.

BROWNSTEIN: The truest words --

O'BRIEN: Are you going to spell sex for us too?

BROWNSTEIN: The truest words ever written about American politics or American life where Robert Penn Warren in "All the King's Men," when the Willie Stark character says to Jack Burden, man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, there is always something. And that is what I believe we have seen over the past two decades, the American people intrinsically know everybody has done something they don't want to talk about on television.

I think we see over and over that they are willing to judge politicians by more than their worst moments. And I think this will be another case of that.

I mean, look, this has been out there. And, you know, it's obviously a very painful moment. But there was one answer he gave in a debate, Newt Gingrich, talking about his leadership in the 1990s -- a lot of criticism of his leadership of the House that applies to this as well.

He said, look, I am a different guy. I am 68 years old. I'm a grandfather. Judge me by who I am today.

And my instinct is -- maybe I'm wrong -- but my instinct is that most people will take him at that word.

O'BRIEN: Let's take a look at what his ex-wife Marianne said in a 2010 "Esquire" interview because that's the only real information we have at this point since the interview is not out yet. She says this, "He believes what he says in public and how he lives don't have to be connected."

She goes on to say as she's quoting Newt Gingrich at this point, "It doesn't matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live."

MARTIN: Here's what I've always found to be interesting to Ron's point. I remember, I watched Jack Welch on "PIERS MORGAN". And he said, well, you know, look, I think, people, they grow and they move on, things along those lines. When I read Jack Welch's book on leadership, he talked about wanting people in G.E. who have character, integrity, who he can trust.

And I found it interesting hearing that from somebody who cheated on the first wife, married the second wife, cheated on the second wife, married a third wife.

And so, what does it mean when we value integrity in the workplace but then say it doesn't matter at home?

O'BRIEN: But the question --

MARTIN: The reason I say this resonates because -- look, when you talk, especially for female voters, we can say, hey, people say, you know, folks make mistakes, but it still says something about a person. Talk about leadership.

A person -- are you a leader in home and can we trust you to make the kinds of decisions? I think it still matters to a number of people.

BROWNSTEIN: George Bush in 2000, if he could have run for a third term and would he not have carried a very substantial number of female voters, especially college educated.

O'BRIEN: Very hypothetical questions.

BROWNSTEIN: No, I think the answer is yes. I think the answer is clearly yes.

MARTIN: If we have the kind of meeting we have today --

O'BRIEN: Believe it or not --

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

O'BRIEN: -- there are other stories that are making news this morning and we're going to get a look at some of those stories.

We got Christine Romans for us. We don't have Christine Romans for us.

In fact, we got two authors of the book about Mitt Romney. We should bring them in because -- what's that? The Real Mitt Romney.

It's Michael Kranish, he's one of the co-authors of "The Real Romney," and Scott Helman is also a co-author.

And this is a pretty fascinating book. They have taken a close look at Mitt Romney sort of from the very beginning.

So, gentleman, I welcome you to the show. And we have our panelist with us as well. Appreciate your time being with us.

First and foremost, what was your big takeaway? Who is the real Mitt Romney?

SCOTT HELMAN, "THE REAL ROMNEY" CO-AUTHOR: I think it's a hard question to answer in a few seconds. It took us 360 odd pages to do that, I think.

I mean, as you know, he's rooted in family. Deeply rooted in his Mormon faith. He is very much committed to following his father's example, George Romney's example.

He's somebody politically who has been hard to pin down, as you well know. He's run several races over the last two decades and had sort of a different political persona in each.

You know, somebody who we've seen having trouble connecting on the campaign trail, but is privately, apparently very warm, very human, very funny.

So, he's a complicated figure. I think we all can talk about strengths and weaknesses. But, you know, we have a fascinating account. We think, of a man who is absolutely -- despite the news this morning, I think he's still poised to be the Republican nominee.

MICHAEL KRANISH, "THE REAL ROMNEY" CO-AUTHOR: Right. Well, Soledad --

O'BRIEN: So, let me ask you a question about motivation because I'm always -- I'm sorry. But let me just hop in --

KRANISH: Sure.

O'BRIEN: I'm really curious, I'm always curious when people are running for the highest office in the land, why? What's your motivation? Why do you want to be president and how long has it been that you've wanted to be president?

Is he the guy who from childhood said, this is my dream, this is my goal?

KRANISH: Well, in this case, I think you certainly can say that Mitt Romney has wanted to run for president for a long time, perhaps since the time that his father, George Romney, ran for the presidency in 1968 and lost.

In the book throughout we very much emphasize the relationship between George Romney and Mitt Romney. A lot of Americans remember when George Romney said he'd been brainwashed by the generals in Vietnam. And that one sentence pretty much exploded his presidential ambitions.

And Mitt Romney has taken a lesson from that. In fact, in the book, we quote his sister saying as a result Mitt is more careful, more scripted in what he says because one sentence could perhaps end your campaign as it did his father's. While Scott mentioned, he's obviously in a circle of friends and advisors he trusts, very warm. For the general public, it could be a harder connection to make, especially given his great wealth, his career, and trying to make that connection to the average person.

O'BRIEN: He has claimed that he's created more than 100,000 jobs. And we've heard this over and over again. And now, he's sort of dealing with on two fronts some issues. Number one, the taxes issue, number two, Bain, which I think is a conversation that's going to keep coming up and coming up and coming up.

Have you guys been able to prove that number? Was it 100,000 plus jobs that Mitt Romney was responsible for creating?

KRANISH: Well, in fact, we sort of say the opposite. You cannot definitively say how many jobs he created. Very specifically on the $100,000 job figure, for example, going back to 1994, the "Boston Globe" asked Mitt Romney about his claim then that he created 10,000 jobs or more and he said regarding Staples, for example, he was always careful to say I quote, "helped create those jobs."

And he said, I don't take credit for the jobs at Staples. In the current campaign, the campaign has said he's created over 100,000 jobs, 89,000 of those jobs are from staples. Most of those 89,000, by the way, are after he cashed out -- long after he cashed out. So, there's a bit of a disconnect between what he said back in 1994 in the "Boston Globe" and what he says now and exactly how many jobs he can take credit for.

When Bain invested in Staples, it was actually one of the smallest deals. Of the 100 deals he did, we examined them, this was actually one of the very smallest. Put in about $2.5 million, got back about $13 million. There's other deals where he made as much as a billion dollars for Bain. So, this was a relatively small deal for all duplicity it's gotten. It's actually small in the context.

CAIN: Fellows, Will Cain here. Here is the million dollar question for many conservatives who are going to be voting here in South Carolina in a couple of days and across the country. Is Mitt Romney an unprincipled human being? Is he fundamentally a man without a core?

HELMAN: Well, I think that's certainly a criticism we have seen time and time again. I mean, I think that's probably taking it too far, but at the same time, clearly, a lot of voters believe that, and that's why he's had trouble, I think, getting above this, what have we been calling him the 25 percent man, though, I guess that's changing.

Look, I do think at the same time, if you look back at his first campaign in 1994, he's run for governor in 2002, and then, his last presidential campaign, you know, he been very different, and not just on abortion, not just on life issues, but on a number of things. I mean, in the 1994 debate with Ted Kennedy, he famously said he did not want to return to Reagan/Bush.

You know, that he was an independent, and now, of course, he's running very much in the Reagan mold. So, you know, I think this is going to continue to be one of his great challenges assuming he's the nominee is showing people that you can trust me. That I know what I believe, that I stand for things, and that I'm going to articulate them in a way that resonates with you.

KRANISH: And probably this race (ph), in 1994, when he ran for the U.S. Senate, he said Newt Gingrich's contract with America was a bad idea. He opposed it. Since then, he said that was a mistake, but you've got those two factors running again here.

MARTIN: Hey, you talk about him being warm. This is Roland Martin here. Do you believe he will have the John Kerry/Al Gore problem that not connecting with the voters will eventually doom his candidacy?

HELMAN: I think that's a real risk. I mean, you know, one of the things we were struck by in the book is this sort of tremendous gap between how he's perceived by people close to him and how he's perceived publically. And, it sort of drives people in his family and in his circle crazy when they hear him described as cold or detached, wooden, because they don't see that Mitt Romney at all.

Unfortunately, a lot of people do. And I do think he has to find a way to really open up. Of course, one problem with that or one hurdle for him, Roland, is his Mormon faith which is so much part of who he is and who he has been and who his family has been, but he's been uncomfortable talking about it for reasons that we all know.

And I think he has to find a way to sort of open up and explain to people that that's sort of where he is or where he comes from. But, you know, again, he needs to find a way to do it that doesn't turn off voters.

O'BRIEN: Scott Helman and Michael Kranish, thank you, guys. The book is called "The Rea Romney." Thanks for talking with us about it. Appreciate it.

Still to come this morning on STARTING POINT, Newt Gingrich is rising in the polls. So, how will he be preparing for tonight's debate? We'll take a closer look.

And Tea Party politics, who will be influential movement back in Saturday's primary?

Plus, a new twist in the cruise ship captain story and what he's reportedly saying now about that night. Straight ahead. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We're coming to you this morning from the Bear E Patch Cafe. Bear as in like big brown bear. E Patch Cafe.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Yes. We're in Charleston, South Carolina, today. I'd hit you if you were closer to me. The owner who's owned this cafe for 12 years is John Haas, and the specialties which we've been digging into -- I don't this is going to be cute to look at, but it's grits and seafood and everything delicious. So, we appreciate them.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Yes. You'll be here tomorrow. And you can have the whole thing tomorrow. Let's move on, shall we? And we're going to talk about this cruise liner tragedy, which is a topic we've been discussing now for a couple of days. The captain now is claiming that he had intended to stay with the ship. This is according to leaked interrogation transcripts, leaked by an Italian news -- in an Italian newspaper.

So, CNN is not independently confirming those words at this point. The captain claims though, and I have to say this borders on the absolutely insanely ridiculous, that, somehow, he slipped and fell into a life boat and that's why he was off the ship. He wasn't trying to abandon the ship. He also mentions that he gave away his life jacket to a passenger. It's insane.

Anyway, there is some evidence, though, about what exactly did happen on board that ocean liner on Friday night because there's a transcript of these calls back and forth from the ship to the port authority. And so, as you can see from some of this timeline, at 10:06 police on land called the ship to make the ship aware of the problems.

What had happened was a woman on land had got a phone call from the ship from her son, and so, it was police on land who reach out to the ship at 10:06. Then, the Concordia officers tell the coast guard, well, it's only a power outage, it's no big deal, eventually. By 10:26 p.m., the captain calls the coast guard and says there's an open hole in the ship.

And they also, at 10:48, say there's an evacuation under evaluation. At 10: 58, nearly one hour after police were first making the ship aware of the problems, the evacuation process finally begins.

Let's get right to our guest on this is John Hickey, the maritime attorney. We've got our panel back again. Mr. Hickey, thanks for being with us. It's nice to see you again. We appreciated your help yesterday, and I have more questions for you today. So, let's start with the captain first --

JOHN HICKEY, MARITIME ATTORNEY: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: -- because there's so much to talk about. Oh, thank you. From the get-go, I think, the word incompetent is sort of one everybody's been using, but now, it looks like there's an hour, the hour before they called for the evacuation, he's actually on the phone with the cruise line company. From a legal perspective, how does this affect how this case could go?

HICKEY: Well, you know, from a legal perspective, I mean, there's many points of negligence here. There's like so many things he did wrong from the navigational standpoint, number one, to the delays in calling for may day, to the -- you know, as is coming out now, he's calling the company and having a conversation with the company, apparently, before damage assessment.

The very first thing that a captain onboard a ship should do is take leadership and do damage assessment to see what are the facts and, you know, this captain, he was all about relying on other people for what the facts were, relying on and it's just incredible this new timeline that you pointed out that people onshore are now calling the ship to find out, you know, to tell them what's going on or that there is a problem before the captain really has done his damage assessment.

I mean, this is going to go into -- yes, this is going to affect all the legal proceedings, but it's pretty clear that the cruise line is going to be responsible because they are responsible for the negligent actions of the captain.

O'BRIEN: What degree?

HICKEY: I'm sorry.

O'BRIEN: What degree, because when you look at, and I think there is an article that I read that where you were quoted that talked about the Costa contract. I remember the very few times I've taken cruises, you sign these contracts about the cruise, and this one says, this contract says the line will pay no more in cases of death, personal injury, and property loss than $71,000 per passenger.

It allows for no recovery of mental anguish, no recovery for psychological damages, and it bars class action suits. That sounds very clear. Does negligence change what looks like an ironclad contract that says, listen, people, we don't care what happens, you cannot get anything out of the company?

HICKEY: Yes. That is the cruise/passenger contract which is, you know, we printed one out. I mean, it's eight pages of very fine small print, and it's all legal gobbledygook. You put your finger on what's called the Athens Convention which if the cruise does not touch a U.S. port, the Athens Convention would apply and impose that limitation on damages which is just absolutely horrendous.

But the Athens Convention has an exception, and one of the exceptions is intentional conduct, and what we have here is intentional conduct by the captain. He intentionally, you know, navigated that ship way too close to shore. He intentionally abandoned ship before he should have. All of these are intentional acts.

And, I know that -- I don't know if you're referring to the "New York Times," but the "New York Times" was making a point that, well, you know, what if the cruise line says, well, you know, too bad, so sad, it's the intentional act of a captain, but we did not authorize him to do any of these things.

Well, you know, the fact is, and I went online yesterday looking at that after that question was raised, because it's almost absurd, you know, to think, oh, well we want to distance ourselves from the captain. And, on the Costa cruise --

O'BRIEN: Which they've been doing very aggressively.

HICKEY: Right, which they have been doing very aggressively, you know, for obvious reasons, I guess. And, if you go on their website though, under a certain section, you can see the hierarchy onboard the ship or in the company, and I have it here and I printed this out. You can see the chairman and CEO at the top, and under that is the president, and right under that is the captain of the ship.

So, the captain of the ship is right under the president of the company in terms of the hierarchy with regard to the ship. The captain is the master of everything that takes place in regard to that ship, and he should be responsible. You know, this is -- you know, getting back to the negligence, people do have rights and remedies under the ticket contract.

It's just that because this is a foreign-based cruise line and because this particular cruise did not touch a U.S. port, there are those limitations and getting back, you know, the Athens Convention initially does apply, but I say the exception comes into play here.

O'BRIEN: I have a feeling this is a conversation that you and I will be having on television for a long time over the next couple of months as this is definitely going to be a case, many cases probably that go to court. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate your time again this morning.

I want to turn now to the big debate that's happening tonight. It is the final one before this crucial South Carolina primary. We've shown you some new numbers from Iowa with Santorum certified results, 29,839 and Mitt Romney at 29,805 votes, which would put Santorum 34 votes ahead of Mitt Romney in the caucuses.

Results from eight precincts will never be certified, so you really can't know for certain who was the victor. Mitt Romney today is calling it a virtual tie. South Carolina polls show that Newt Gingrich is closing in on Mitt Romney.

Brett O'Donnell is the former chief strategist for Michele Bachmann's campaign. He joins us to talk about the debate tonight, planning, and strategy. We have our panel with us as well. Break it down for me. Let's look at what I think people would say are two people to watch this evening would be Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich has a lot of drama happening in his life right now. We don't know exactly what this interview is going to be. How are you prepping him if he's your client?

BRETT O'DONNELL, FORMER CHIEF STRATEGIST FOR MICHELE BACHMANN'S CAMPAIGN: For Newt, you know, I think that last debate you saw that really Newt had a very, very good debate. But Newt border lines on condescending sometimes. In fact, in the last debate in Sioux City, Iowa, I thought he was somewhat condescending to my candidate, Michele Bachmann.

So if I'm prepping Newt, I'm going to talk to him especially tonight with the interview coming out about humility, making sure that while he's firm and makes his arguments strongly, that he doesn't come off as condescending, that he doesn't come off as lecture.

The rap against him has been that he is somewhat professorial, that he tends to be a lecturer. That's not the Newt Gingrich that needs to show up in the debate tonight. What needs to show up tonight is the same Newt that showed up on Monday night, which was someone who is very intelligent, on his game in terms of making the points that he needed to make, particularly in exchange with Juan Williams over race and the employment of children in schools. So, you know, I think that that's the temperament he needs to have.

O'BRIEN: Does that mean he needs to be on the offense? Is it better to be on the offense? Should you get out front, I know everybody's seen this interview with my ex-wife. I guess this would apply for Mitt Romney too. Listen, let's set the record straight about Bain, or let's set the record straight about my taxes. Is it better to come out or to say I'm going to avoid all of this until someone poses the question and I respond?

O'DONNELL: I think it's a different game for Mitt and for Newt. I think Newt has to walk a fine line. He does have to be on offense because he still is trailing Mitt. For Mitt Romney the game is a little different. He needs to be focused on debating Obama, because, in reality, Republican voters are looking for the person who can best take on Barack Obama in the fall.

And what's helped Newt Gingrich is that he's made the case that in the debates he would be the best one to do that. And that showed up, you know, in the debate this past Monday. Mitt Romney has been very good in the debates, and he's actually made that case pretty effectively as well as the poll numbers would bear out.

But what Newt Gingrich has to do is go back to making that case. He is at his best when he is going after Barack Obama, going after the media, and not attacking negatively other candidates. So the offense has to be, I think, against President Obama and not against Mitt Romney, especially if it turns nasty.

CAIN: Brett, Will Cain. The story for the debates is not Newt, but Mitt Romney who seemed to have his worst debate the other night. What happened? Was he unprepared by someone like you to deal with this tax issue?

O'DONNELL: The tax answer was very surprising to me. It was very uncharacteristic of how Mitt has been in the debates. I think you're right that the debate on Monday was one of his weaker performances.

And so I think the Mitt Romney team's pretty confident. I think they'll have their act together tonight. Mitt tends to rebound very well off of past bad performances in debates, so I expect that they'll have a tighter answer on the tax issue.

But that has been a weakness over the past couple of days, and I think that's opened the door for other candidates, particularly Rick Perry's been on the offensive on this and Newt Gingrich. So, you know, we'll see what Governor Romney has in store this evening for that answer, but I do think that is one of the questions that will be on the minds of the moderators, and he'll be attacked for it on the candidates because it's a weakness that plays into some of the narrative on Mitt Romney.

O'BRIEN: Brett O'Donnell joining us. I know you'll be watching the debate. We appreciate your time.

O'DONNELL: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Time to get an update on some of the other stories making the news. Christine has got that for us. Hey, Christine.

ROMANS: Hi there, Soledad. In Syria growing fears this morning the country is plunging into an all0out war. Opposition forces say the government's crackdown killed 21 more demonstrators. At the same time today is the last day for the Arab League monitors. They arrived last month but so far have been unable to calm things down.

President Obama heads to Disneyworld later today to talk tourism, big business in the U.S. The president wants to make it easier for people in places like Brazil and China to obtain travel visits to come here and spend their money.

Just in the last hour CNN confirms Casey Anthony was offered $1 million for an interview by the producers of a place called Private Elevator Productions. Casey was in talks with them earlier this month right before she split with her attorney, Jose Baez. Now that he is gone, talks have resumed and a deal could be in the works.

New weather worries for people in the Pacific Northwest after that big snowstorm, the biggest snowstorm in decades. Warmer temperatures could cause severe flooding and make road conditions dangerous. Nearly seven inches fell in Seattle. That's usually what it gets all year.

(WEATHER BREAK)

ROMANS: Minding your business now. Just in to CNN the labor department announces 352,000 jobless claims filed for the first time last week. This is the lowest since April 2008. That's good news for the economy. Any time this number comes in below 400,000 it shows the labor market headed in the right direction. It shows you sort of the best conditions in three years, really, for people who are newly unemployed here.

Let's check on the markets. Futures, no surprise for the DOW, NASDAQ, S&P all pointing higher. Also Google today topping fortune's list of 100 best companies to work for. Number two, Boston Consulting Group coming in third, the SAS Institute. Very good numbers on jobless claims, Soledad. Well' be watching the markets to see if they really like it.

O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you very much for that update, Christine. Appreciate it.

Religion and politics do mix if you're talking about South Carolina. Tony Perkins is the president of the Family Research Council. He has joined our panel. Why don't you come in and join our panel. While you're hopping in, I'm going to throw up on the screen some poll numbers. Go ahead. You can cross there.

We're going to give you a look here. This is from the CNN poll. This is the CNN poll. Look at the top line. This is Romney's support, born again versus not born again, evangelical support. If you look at that, the born again category you have Romney at 26, Gingrich at 23, Santorum at 20, really Splitting that vote. Some people would say it's a surprising number for Mitt Romney considering, I think, a lot of people felt like he hasn't really done a lot to reach out to evangelicals.

I know we're putting our mic on you now, but you look like you're up and ready to go. Why don't you assess that number for me. Is it a surprise how that has broken down, sir? Welcome. Have some coffee.

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: Good morning. I feel like I'm at home. There's grits on the table.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS: I think it's still very fluid. We see up and down, you look at the Florida polls. You've got kind of the mix up there between Santorum and Gingrich. I think Saturday may be another surprise as you see revelations --

O'BRIEN: A surprise in what way?

PERKINS: I think the vote is still extremely fluid. I think what the polls are showing right now are not necessarily what the snapshot's going to be at the finish line on Saturday.

O'BRIEN: Do you think this breaking news out of Iowa has any impact on what could happen in South Carolina because we're talking about the 34 votes?

PERKINS: I do. It takes away the storyline that Mitt Romney, that it's inevitable that he has secured these two early victories, historic for a non-incumbent. Not the case now.

CAIN: Tony, I have to ask you. You keep saying surprise. What surprise are you expecting?

PERKINS: I'm just saying, I don't think what the polls are showing right now, kind of this march, this snapshot we're seeing at the moment, just like we saw in Iowa, this snapshot the week before the election there.

BROWNSTEIN: Can I ask you, that graphic that we put up seems to be the entire race encapsulated in one chart, Romney getting 47 percent, and the more ideological part of the party or the tea party dividing being, fragmenting among the different candidates.

When you endorsed Rick Santorum, the group endorsed Rick Santorum last weekend, is there a risk that that further fragments the conservatives, especially since Newt Gingrich seems to be the one who has a realistic shot at beating Romney in South Carolina?

O'BRIEN: So you mean by endorsing Santorum he basically gave it to Mitt Romney?

PERKINS: Did that inadvertently, as Erick Erickson said, yes, that probably does in the end help Romney because as Santorum gets stronger, it's yet another sliver peeled away from that vote that is resisting Romney and he is able to kind of pursue a divide and conquer strategy?

I guess that's one way to look at it.

(LAUGHTER)

PERKINS: First let me say --

O'BRIEN: That was a slap.

PERKINS: I have not endorsed Rick Santorum. Over the weekend I was speaking for the group, our organization. We have not endorsed. The discussion that took place in Texas about that was exactly about that point that you raised, that there is about 44 percent of primary voters are evangelicals, and here in South Carolina it's even higher, 60 percent. And so that has been fragmented in the last election we saw it where there were multiple candidates and they couldn't get together.

There was a desire to come together. Historically that's not happened. It did happen in Houston where a majority, a super majority, 75 percent of those present decided they wanted to stick with Rick Santorum. I think the reason, the rationale was he's consistent on the issues. He's principled. We don't have to worry about things coming out in the news that would challenge his lead. And so they thought, you know what, we're going to take a public stand, it's going to be with him.

O'BRIEN: Talking about things coming out on the news, we now know that it looks like Newt Gingrich's ex-wife has sat down to do an interview on ABC News. That will come out sometime this evening. Do you think -- what's the impact going to be for evangelicals watching that?

PERKINS: It's not new. I don't know what's going to be said. Look, I think especially the evangelical community understand the issue of forgiveness. People can make mistakes. They can do things wrong, right, Roland, and they can come back.

MARTIN: You make so many mistakes all the time, Tommy.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: The two of you, stop. Stop. Carry on.

PERKINS: That's the makeup of the evangelical community. But that does not necessarily translate into endorsing for leadership. Think about it. When you look at the captain in the Costa Concordia, the guy who abandoned his responsibility, who's going to put him charge of a cruise ship again? I'm not getting on that cruise ship. I think people are going to process it. Is it the deciding factor? I don't think so. But I think it is a makeup of the character.

BROWNSTEIN: Real quickly. If Mitt Romney wins Saturday in South Carolina, do you see a way to realistically deny him a nomination after that?

PERKINS: I think this could be a much longer primary season.

O'BRIEN: That's a long answer to a yes or no question. Hold on. Let's ask that again, sir.

BROWNSTEIN: Even if he wins.

O'BRIEN: If he wins, is it done?

PERKINS: I don't think so.

O'BRIEN: We've got to take a break. Tony Perkins, thank you for joining us. Stick around for some breakfast. We appreciate it.

Still ahead, the Tea Party has proven to be a very powerful force in American politics. So who are they supporting in South Carolina? We've got that on the other side of the break. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

Of course on Saturday we are looking toward the South Carolina primary. In modern times apparently every winner of the GOP primary here has gone on to be the GOP nominee. And one group that could play an important role in Saturday's contest is the Tea Party. Amy Kremer is the chairman of Tea Party Express. And she's with us this morning. Feel free to dig into the grits.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

O'BRIEN: It's nice to have you. We appreciate it.

MARTIN: Looking snazzy.

AMY KREMER, CHAIRMAN, TEA PARTY EXPRESS: So are you.

O'BRIEN: No, no grabbing the guests please. Absolutely not.

KREMER: I know, he's always snazzy.

O'BRIEN: Oh I know. We know. We know. We know.

All right, let's pop up a graphic because I think that's a good place to launch our discussion from. And this is a look at South Carolina Tea Party support. I want to put special focus on Newt Gingrich. Among Tea Party supporters is pulling 31 -- 31 percent, among other voters 13 percent.

And then contrast that with Mitt Romney; Tea Party supporters at 26 percent, all other voters at 43 percent. What's your take away from this poll?

KREMER: I mean, I'm not surprised at all. Newt Gingrich has been involved in the Tea Party movement since the beginning. A lot of people don't realize that, but he's put together a good grounding here in South Carolina. And he's got support. So this poll does not surprise me.

BROWNSTEIN: But the basic dynamic is exactly what we're just talking about with Tony Perkins about Evangelicals. The Tea Party support is divided pretty widely. Gingrich is at the top, but only 31 percent. If you look at the non-Tea Party, Romney is much higher at 43.

So is the center of the party consolidating while the right is fragmenting and giving an advantage to Mitt Romney in that circumstance when many Tea Party activist express enormous suspicion about him?

KREMER: Well, I think that at the end of the day I understand the Evangelicals and I know that Santorum got the endorsement this past weekend, but at the end of the day everybody's going to be voting on jobs. And any of these candidates are better than Barack Obama. So you know, people are going to have to make up their mind. And the Tea Party Movement is tired of -- of the establishment shoving candidates down our throat.

BROWNSTEIN: I guess I'm asking is the Tea Party influence being dissipated because they cannot unify behind one candidate and in -- and in effect by doing that they are allowing the establishment Republicans to pick the nominee?

KREMER: No I think what's happening is you're starting to see the Tea Party coalesce behind somebody.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: Who is that somebody?

KREMER: I think you're seeing it behind Newt Gingrich. I mean, you know but look, they all have support. I mean, Santorum does. Rick Perry even has support.

O'BRIEN: But if you look at Newt Gingrich's number, that's 31 percent. That's hardly a number of coalescing, right?

KREMER: Yes but you guys, there has been, I mean, Sarah Palin is the only one that truly excites the base and brings the energy. There is no candidate out there right now that does that.

O'BRIEN: So when she supported Newt Gingrich the other day. She said if she would -- if she -- if she could vote in South Carolina, she said she'd vote for Newt. Does that mean that that 31 percent now grows dramatically because she can excite the base?

KREMER: I think that it probably is going to grow some. But I think people are realizing that we have this field of candidates we have. We're not getting anybody else so you better choose now and get behind somebody. And that's what's starting to happen.

MARTIN: Isn't this also a clear indication that when it comes to Republican Party politics, you can't just lock and load and think somehow that, well, this group is going to simply support this one particular person. You have social conservatives, you have financial conservatives, national security conservatives.

And so when you have these (INAUDIBLE) of candidates, people are going to go in different directions. And so Romney is saying give me a piece of this, piece of this, piece of this, I can still pull together a win.

KREMER: I mean, you know that people are divided, but I think it's anybody's race. I mean everybody keeps saying it all depends on South Carolina. Look, we could have a very long process here.

CAIN: Let me just ask you this. Anybody's race. Do many of your friends say they're going to vote for Mitt Romney? I ask you that because as those polls show, 25 percent of Tea Partiers like Mitt Romney. (CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Why are you putting your finger like this?

CAIN: 40 percent in New Hampshire like Mitt Romney. Do many of your friends talk about Mitt Romney?

KREMER: Yes but this Tea Party is different all across the country. I mean the Tea Party Movement in Georgia is different than the Tea Party Movement in New Hampshire. So you know while the tea partiers in New Hampshire may like Mitt Romney, you may not find that in other states.

O'BRIEN: Tea Partiers here in South Carolina, they're the Nikki Haley endorsement, right, which I think brings in some Tea Party. Then you have this other people who have said, I mean, used the word "despise" and "disgust" ultimately for Mitt Romney.

So -- so when you look forward to a general election, can you really expect somebody who has used the word "despise" and "disgust" if Mitt Romney is that candidate, to be engaged and energized now that he is the lone -- if he becomes the lone GOP candidate?

Yes, I'm going to vote for him, I'm going to have my friends to vote for him.

KREMER: You know what, I think at the end of the day we're going to work to defeat Barack Obama. But these candidates have the chance now to get their message out there and talk about what they're going to do to turn the economy around. That's what everybody's focused on. And you're going to have tea partiers that are going to support Mitt Romney. You're going to have them support Newt Gingrich. So -- but it's all about the jobs. That's what it's about.

MARTIN: But if you have Tea Party's out there who say flat out that he's -- that we believe in these things and he doesn't stand for it, do you think they will say come November, you know what, I can't back the guy on principle? Are they going to put partisan before principle?

KREMER: You know each individual will have to make that choice. I think people are going to be upset. Everybody's going to be upset at some point, I mean, even with Perry getting out of the race, if he gets out. But at the end of the day it come out --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Amy Kremer, thank you very much.

KREMER: Hey, hey, hey.

O'BRIEN: We're having some side conversations at the end of the table. Roland, I need to stop. We have to go to commercial break. Amy, I want to thank you for joining us. We appreciate your time and insight this morning.

KREMER: Thank you for having me.

O'BRIEN: We got a commercial break.

Please help me get through the last seven minutes of this program. Still to come this morning, our "Reveal". Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour explains his decision to pardon four inmates who are convicted of murder. That's up straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We begin with our morning's "Reveal". Roland, shush. I need you to focus.

Former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour is explaining his decision to pardon four convicted murderers. Now, you might remember the outgoing governor pardoned some 200 people before he left office. But he came under fire when it was revealed that four of the people he pardoned were killers. He had pardoned them because they had been working part of their time as inmate trustees at the governor's mansion.

Needless to say the families of the victims were outraged and since then, the former governor has been defending his decision.

In an editorial in this morning's "Washington Post" Barbour says this. "These crimes must be punished but these offenders are not hard core criminals. In fact, to work at the mansion an inmate must be classified as a minimum security by the Department of Corrections."

Now, remember, these men include David Gatlin who was convicted of walking up to his estranged wife as she held their six week old daughter in her arms and shot her in the head.

Yesterday Barbour had to say this to CBS News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HALEY BARBOUR, FORMER GOVERNOR OF MISSISSIPPI: I understand, recognize and respect the fact that if you were injured by somebody or if your loved one was killed that there may be vengeance, there may be fear, there may be all these things.

You know, when I became governor I made plain that I would follow the tradition of governors in Mississippi. For decades the mansion, part of the staff are trustees from the state penitentiary. In my time all but one of them have been murderers because the experts say that those are the people who are the least likely to commit another crime.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So we did some research. We wanted to see if, in fact, what Governor Barbour was saying was true. And here is what is revealed. In fact many convicted killers released from prison do commit crimes again. A 2002 Department of Justice story followed more than 270,000 prisoners for three years after their release; 1.7 percent of those were in prison for homicide. Within three years of their release 40 percent of them had been re-arrested, of course, not all of them on homicide charges.

Some rapists also released by Barbour. And according to that same DOJ survey, 46 percent of those released had committed another crime within three years. The survey does not qualify homicides by category, such as crime of passion, but domestic violence experts say that only serious counseling would keep somebody from abusing again.

As for the prisoners, the current attorney general in Mississippi is exploring whether or not he'll be able to put those prisoners back in prison and that state's new governor says he will not be continuing the tradition of pardons. That is our "Reveal" for the day.

We go right into "End Point", which is where we sum up our day. We have a guest end pointer with us. We'd asked Amy Kremer from the Tea Party to stick around. Do you want to start or do you want to go last?

KREMER: I'll go first.

O'BRIEN: Ok. Why don't you start for us. Our guest speaker.

(CROSSTALK)

KREMER: I'll just say, you know, the Tea Party Movement is not dead regardless of what people say. We're having an impact. You can see that in the poll numbers. And I don't think any, whoever wins the nomination, they cannot do it without the support of the Tea Party Movement. Because they're going to need the passion, the fire in the belly, and boots on the ground to defeat Barack Obama.

O'BRIEN: Roland Martin?

MARTIN: I want to see today how many times Newt Gingrich mentions his grandkids and his daughters tonight in the debate. That's the one thing I'm looking for. Also, I hope Chucky comes out. That's crazy, deranged Newt. If Chucky comes out, Mitt Romney is going to say, "Baby, I'm winning on Saturday."

O'BRIEN: Will Cain, do not laugh at his jokes. Go ahead.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Roland and I were talking about exit polls from New Hampshire, or polls here in South Carolina, it shows me what we talked about. Evangelicals or Tea Partiers, a surprising number of voters like Mitt Romney. It says to me they're going to vote for him but they're not going to tell their friends about it.

BROWNSTEIN: No, look, one question.

MARTIN: Is that a joke.

BROWNSTEIN: One question looms over everything else I think in the final hours in South Carolina. Can Newt Gingrich convince those conservatives skeptical of Romney that the only way to stop him from winning the nomination on Saturday is to consolidate behind Gingrich? If he can't, Mitt Romney will be in position to win this with support from the center of the party and put himself on a glide path to the nomination.

O'BRIEN: Well, I guess, my end point would be a question. Does it all end here at South Carolina? Are we around a table somewhere in Florida?

MARTIN: Yes.

KREMER: Yes.

CAIN: Yes.

MARTIN: South Beach. South Beach. I vote for South Beach.

O'BRIEN: Let's keep it together for my last two minutes of the show, please. I want to remind everybody.

All right. Back off the Florida thing. Tomorrow we're going to be joined by presidential -- former presidential candidate Herman Cain. He's going to sit with us and be part of the panel for two hours.

That is on STARTING POINT tomorrow.

I'm Soledad O'Brien. We wrap it up for today and send it right to "CNN NEWSROOM" and Kyra Phillips.