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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

"The Story Is False"; Gingrich Gaining Momentum; Gingrich Attacks The Media; NATO Chopper Crashes in Afghanistan; Google Stock Drops 10 Percent; Online Activist Group Goes on Major Offensive; Standing by Cruise Ship Captain; Did Newt Score Big?; Nevada Wildfires

Aired January 20, 2012 - 06:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: A very, very good morning to you. It is 6:00 in the east. That means it's a very EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are very happy you're with us this morning. Let's get started here, shall we.

Newt Gingrich in rare form, did you watch it? Clashing with his three rivals and even our very own moderator, CNN's moderator John King. The fiery highlights are headed your way.

BANFIELD: She's not kidding. Fiery highlights to say the very least.

We're watching some other news developing overnight too. A NATO chopper down in Southern Afghanistan. Six peacekeepers apparently are killed and a Taliban sent a text message to CNN is claiming responsibility for this, but is it true?

SAMBOLIN: And that Italy ship disaster. The search for survivors has been suspended again because of rough weather is causing the ship to shift. If it keeps moving, they're fearing an environmental disaster there.

BANFIELD: And you've probably heard of this notorious group called "Anonymous." "Anonymous" is sort of like a web club, an internet club, now targeting the FBI and the Justice Department.

This could be the largest coordinated internet attack ever. You won't believe how the government responded and what that's causing anonymous to say and do.

SAMBOLIN: All right, so we have hit the home stretch in South Carolina. The polls open in 25 hours. Newt Gingrich hoping to pick up some new momentum after last night's debate.

Former House speaker came out swinging against allegations from his second wife that he wanted an open marriage. Here's what she told ABC News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARIANNE GINGRICH, NEWT GINGRICH'S SECOND EX-WIFE: I found out during our conversations that it was occurring in my bedroom in our apartment in Washington and he always called me at night. He would always ended with I love you while she was there listening.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right next to him.

GINGRICH: In my home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: John King kicked of last night's debate by asking about that interview. As you'll see, Gingrich appeared visibly angry that he was being asked about the claims.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KING, CNN MODERATOR: Your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview at "The Washington Post" and this story has now gone viral on the internet.

In it, she says that you came to her in 1999 at a time you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, but I will. I think -- I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office.

And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that. The story is false. Every personal friend who I had during that period said it was false. We offered several to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested because they would like to attack any Republican.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: So that response earned Gingrich a standing ovation. He's now leading in South Carolina according to public policy polling, 35 percent of likely Republican voters back the former House speaker, 29 percent support Romney.

Paul Steinhauser, CNN political editor live in Charleston, South Carolina. Paul, I know that you watched it. We heard how Gingrich insulted the media. Let's hear what John King said about his thought process behind that first question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING: My judgment, my decision, and mine alone. If we're going to deal with it, deal with it up front. Let's not try to sneak it into the middle of the debate somewhere.

People at home either you agree with that or disagree with that. You make a decision, you ask the question and this is politics.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: This is one of the most explosive moments we've seen in debate history.

KING: Debate history.

GERGEN: -- debate history. It was also one of the harshest attacks we've had on the press that I can remember in a long, long time, but very personal in the beginning.

As political matter, I think Gingrich saw a fast ball coming and refer to this audience. He smacked it right out of the park. I think there's a reasonable chance that he could win South Carolina based on that answer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: That person that we were just listening to was CNN's senior political analyst, David Gergen. So the question here is, is Gergen right, Paul?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Well, no doubt about it. Listen, he hit a homerun maybe even a grand slam. Listen, Newt Gingrich since this cycle began, debate is one of his strong suits and up with of the major staples of him is going after the mainstream media.

No doubt about it. We've seen countless debates. We saw it on Monday night when everybody said he had a strong debate as well. This was made his finest moment at least when it comes to taking on the media.

Listen, yes, it was a major story yesterday. It's going to be a major story today and probably through tomorrow. I think it was the right decision to go to this right off the bat. For Gingrich, yes, he had a fine moment, strong debates. No doubt about it another strong debate for Newt Gingrich.

But the story line out there from ABC and also from "The Washington Post" report about his ex-wife, that could be troublesome for them straight up through the primary on Saturday.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, we're trying to figure out. When will we see polling wise whether or not that worked?

STEINHAUSER: We may not. Listen, most -- I think we're going to find out on Saturday night when we see the results from South Carolina.

SAMBOLIN: All right, so short-term Newt might get a boost from his answer. Long-term, this issue might be a problem for women voters, as we were talking about specifically in South Carolina. How do you think that women voters are going to respond to this concept of an open marriage?

STEINHAUSER: I don't think he can play very well. We saw it from our own CNN/"Time"/ORC poll from earlier this week, when you break down the numbers, you look at men and women, Newt Gingrich does a lot better with men than women here in South Carolina.

So this issue, his answer, yes, great, the crowd did love it. It was throwing red meat to the audience. But overall this could be a tough issue with Newt Gingrich and female voters here in South Carolina and across the country.

SAMBOLIN: All right, Paul, hang tight there. We're going to bring you back in a minute here. We're going to bring in our panelist first.

BANFIELD: I think it would be great at this juncture especially since CNN has been under the radar for that choice at this question is to bring in Erick Erickson who's the editor of redstate.com.

Because Erick Erickson, I am here to tell you that I recorded the exact time of day at 5:09 a.m. when you were speaking with my colleague, Zoraida, you said, I'm glad he asked that question first.

And I did not expect you of all people to say that. I didn't expect you were going to actually agree that John King's question was appropriate first because it sort of felt you would come after King, too.

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, I absolutely think it needed to be asked. Everyone knew it was a question that needed to be asked. It would have been a question that hung over the entire debate had it not been asked.

Look, CNN and John would have been attacked had he not the asked the question first. It was darned if you do, darned if you don't situation. He might as well go on and get it out of the way, give Gingrich his moment to answer.

Now the key there that I think John really did good with is when you ask a question like that you can't put him on a one-minute time line you've got to let him answer the question. He filibustered, but you can't give him a minute to answer and say, time's up. John did it the exact way it needed to be done.

BANFIELD: Listen, I'm a big fan of John King. Not just because I work here. I've been watching him for a solid two decades and he got a lot of props from people as well. He said, this is my decision and my decision alone.

There is something I want to get to the heart of with you and that is much of Marianne Gingrich's interview was not seen at the time of this debate. It was not aired until "Nightline" last night, 11:35 on ABC. I'm not so sure how many of the people who were standing with that standing ovation knew the gravity of what Marianne Gingrich said. I just want to play a quick piece of what she told ABC's Brian Ross on "Nightline" last night. Have a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MARIANNE GINGRICH: I said to him, Newt, we've been married a long time. And he said, yes, but you want me all to yourself. Callista doesn't care what I do.

BRIAN ROSS, ABC CORRESPONDENT: What was he saying to you, do you think?

MARIANNE GINGRICH: He was asking to have an open marriage. I refused.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Erick Erickson, when I heard that my stomach turned. Newt Gingrich said these are lies. But now what I want to know of you, my friend, is every time Newt Gingrich is on the stump from now to the next 26 hours.

And Callista is beside him, people if they now know the story knows she was cheating with him if they believe Marianne for six years while he was married to Marianne and she was a congressional aide. Is she a liability on the stump at this point?

ERICKSON: She could be and it depends on how Gingrich does this. But for perspective we've got to remember it was Marianne who broke up the first marriage. You get attacked for saying that, but it's a legitimate question.

When people look at that and say we've got one woman who broke up the first marriage upset with the third woman. Yes, this is a problem for Gingrich long term. Look, my wife knows Newt Gingrich's first wife.

She was her elementary schoolteacher. She really has a problem with this issue. And I think she speaks for a lot of women when she has a huge problem with Newt Gingrich and getting beyond this.

For men, I don't know that it is as much of a hang-up, but more women turn out to vote. That's a problem for Newt Gingrich.

BANFIELD: I'm glad you said that because I have numbers in front of me. Going into this, Gingrich's favorability among women, 54 percent. Romney's favorite -- excuse me, unfavorability.

Gingrich's unfavorability going in last night, 54 percent. Romney only 44 percent so I'm curious if those numbers are going to shift among the women of South Carolina, really, honestly. That's a big question. South Carolinian women, can we suggest that they don't care about all this? That they care more about the politics of it all?

I'm going ask my next panel, but before I do, let me ask you about a curious tweet that I saw you sending out. It said with regard to another big part of the story yesterday, and that was Rick Perry stepping aside.

One day I hope to tell the story of what happened these last three days, but not now. And, you know, what a difference 24 hours can make. Weren't we talking yesterday at this time about you asking him to step aside?

ERICKSON: Right. You know, for the past three days I have been more in-depth seeing the dysfunction behind the scenes on the Perry campaign, the competing camps.

The desire to get him to do the right thing, to realize they weren't going to win South Carolina, what to do about it. It was a fascinating experience to kind of be dragged into that. Now is not the time to focus in on something like that. At some point it's just a fascinating story.

BANFIELD: It is, indeed. You are part of it officially. Erick Erickson, thanks so much for getting up early.

I want to bring in other panelists as well to weigh in on this. Shira Toeplitz is the political writer for "Roll Call" magazine. Maria Cardona is a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, and who could forget Paul Steinhauser, one of our own.

I can see you listening. I think I bore him, quite frankly, at this point. All right, Maria, let me start with you. I was sort of edging towards this with Erick and I want to go fully at it with you, my friend.

Women in South Carolina, I'm looking at this, media versus the mistress. Who are they going to hate more when they go to the polls? Are they going to hate us for asking that question and thinking it's appalling like Newt said?

Or are they going to hate the mistress for doing this for six years with a married man while she was working for him in the government?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That is a great question, Ashleigh. I think it's going to have a lot to do with how much they knew about this story to begin with because one of the things that you can say about Newt Gingrich is that this kind of baggage, this personal baggage is baggage that he has been carrying for years.

We've all heard about it. We've all heard the stories. Every time that he has talked about perhaps running for president, we've heard the stories. But I think that you never hear it the same if you watched the interview last night it's not the same as just having heard it.

BANFIELD: You are right. Because I tell you what, I've heard it a lot and read the magazine articles. I don't think I ever heard about the wife sharing thing, that she's in bed with him while he says I love you honey and the mistress is beside him.

It was really creepy to me. I want to say again, Newt Gingrich said these are lies. We do have to give him that because nobody knows what happens in people's bedrooms. Let me move on.

Shira, because we're talking at the reaction and the cheering and standing "O" that Newt got for that I would be remiss to say that there were also boos in the audience, but it wasn't for Mr. Gingrich. It was for Mitt Romney.

And it was because of this. Let me play the question from John King about taxes for Mitt Romney and ask you something on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KING: When you release yours, will you follow your father's example?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Maybe. You know, I don't know how many years I'll release. I'll take a look at the -- what our documents are. I'll release multiple years. I don't know how many years, but I'll be happy to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: That was kind of uncomfortable. Referring to the 12 years of taxes that George Romney, I think it was 1968, released when he ran and it was unprecedented.

So that's uncomfortable to see booing in a debate when off the top of the debate your opponent got a standing "o." Shera, how much is that going to play? How damning is this tax story or was it completely overshadowed by the sex?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ, POLITICS WRITER, ROLL CALL: It was not completely overshadowed. I think it was one of the big moments for Romney during the debate, but I think on the whole debate performance was even. It wasn't his best night.

It wasn't the worst night. I think the problem is if you look at the way Mitt Romney answers the questions, he is so uncomfortable. It's cringe worthy. You just kind of grit your teeth and say, OK, when is this going to end. Then he goes and laughs at himself? What is that about?

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: Quickly for a minute.

TOEPLITZ: So awkward.

BANFIELD: I want to jump in with Paul. Sum this up for me real quickly. What is this going to mean for the stump today? Are we going to move on from this or is this going to chew around all day?

STEINHAUSER: This question mark is still going to be there. He didn't do what he needed to do last night on taxes. Another highlight of the debate besides Gingrich, besides Romney, Rick Santorum had a pretty strong performance some people say his best performance. Some people say his best performance. We saw him in the spinner after the debate. Very happy. He went on the attack against Romney and against Gingrich repeatedly through the debate.

Will it be enough though? He trails pretty far in the polls here. We'll find out Saturday.

BANFIELD: You are three smart people is all I'm saying. Paul and Maria and Shira, thanks very much. Appreciate you.

CARDONA: Thank you so much.

BANFIELD: Not only your smarts but also your ability to wake up at 4:00 in the morning. And we're not going to leave this story long, everybody.

Coming up at 7:00, Eastern "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien has lots of good stuff. She's going to sit down with former presidential candidate Herman Cain and he's - she's going to get his reaction to last night's debate. You want to make sure you stay tuned for that.

And, of course, for the big vote. South Carolina's primary live 7:00 Eastern right here Saturday night on CNN. It's going to be some pretty good stuff.

SAMBOLIN: It's 15 minutes past the hour here.

A deadly tragedy to report this morning for NATO peacekeepers in Afghanistan. A helicopter crashed in the eastern part of the country in Helmand Province, a place American troops know really well. Six peacekeepers were killed there.

Barbara Starr is working (INAUDIBLE). She's live from Washington. Good morning, Barbara. What details can you share with us this morning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Zoraida.

Well, as you say, this is Helmand Province. This is an area where it is mainly U.S. Marines serving. They are not yet saying that the fatalities were Marines, but there are growing indications of Marines being - being there indeed. And, of course, six families now getting that - pardon me - that dreaded knock at the door.

The Taliban as you might expect very quickly claiming responsibility. In fact, e-mailing our own producer in Afghanistan that they shot the helicopter down. But the NATO Force coming back very strongly and saying there were no indications of enemy fire in the area. They believe it was some sort of mechanical issue that brought the helicopter down, Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: And I believe it was specifically a text message that we received from the Taliban. Is that unusual or is this just a sign of the times?

STARR: Not - not that unusual these days. The Taliban are pretty communication savvy. They - they message out very frequently and they make a lot of statements after every attack or after almost every situation in Afghanistan claiming responsibility for it.

It may be Taliban sometime, sometimes it's other factions in Afghanistan that claim responsibility. This time, however, NATO says they are very certain that they believe at this point there will be an investigation but they believe it was a mechanical failure that brought this helicopter down.

And, of course, other sad news from Afghanistan, four French peacekeepers shot by an Afghan policeman, that country in mourning for its loss. And there was also a massive attack in Kandahar yesterday, Afghan civilians killed.

So while politics is front and center in the United States, understandably, the war in Afghanistan goes on - Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: And, again, suicide bombers.

Barbara Starr, thank you so much for joining us this morning with an update. We appreciate it.

STARR: Sure.

SAMBOLIN: It is 17 minutes past the hour.

"Minding Your Business" now, U.S. markets closed higher yesterday. The Dow, NASDAQ and S&P 500 all gained less than one percent.

CNNMoney's Poppy Harlow is here. So let's talk about Google dropping overnight, the stock.

BANFIELD: The arrows were all pointing up.

POPPY HARLOW, CNNMONEY.COM: Yes. The overall market - the overall market is great. Google came out with their earnings, but let's not be mistaken. This company made a lot of money, over $10 billion in just three months.

Here's what's going on at Google. They missed the Street's expectations. It didn't make as much as people thought they would per share. Two things at play here. Their clicks are going up by 34 percent but the amount they make per click is going down by eight percent.

Also, this is the upside to this story in my opinion. More hiring in the quarterly brought on four percent more staff. They had said to us a year ago, 2011 is going to be our biggest hiring year ever. They invested $950 million in infrastructure. So no apologies from Google. They said we're going to continue to spend a lot of money.

But here's an interesting twist to the story that I read in these earnings. Google Plus, the social network that they're trying to compete with Facebook. Since they launched in June they have 90 million users, since June.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Holy cow.

HARLOW: And you may think, oh, 90 million, Facebook has 800 million. That is a lot of users since June. Larry Page, the CEO and also the cofounder said 60 percent of those folks engage daily on Google Plus, 80 percent weekly.

BANFIELD: I heard this weird thing. And for what it's worth, I remember years ago - a couple of years ago, somebody saying, oh, yes, Facebook is way cooler than MySpace, but now I heard somebody say the same thing, like a younger person say the same thing about Google Plus.

HARLOW: About Google Plus.

BANFIELD: Google Plus is way cooler than Facebook.

HARLOW: That's so interesting. But, you know, we'll see if it catches on like it's very hard to catch up to Facebook at this point.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. The point in the market (INAUDIBLE).

HARLOW: But here's - but here's what Google is doing. They have tied their social network to their search and they're optimizing it socially. Now, that has brought huge anti-competition issues to the forefront. They're facing a lot of legal pressure on that one. But that is interesting. It's changed the way the company works.

BANFIELD: A lot of people's home page.

HARLOW: Yes. In fact, when I saw it first I was shocked to see some of my personal pictures on my - on my Google search. But this is changing the game for Google, a lot of users. Shares are down right now about eight percent ahead of the open.

BANFIELD: We'll keep an eye on it, Poppy, great.

HARLOW: Sure.

BANFIELD: Good stuff. Thank you for that.

And still to come, we're keeping an eye as well on Italy, that Italian cruise ship. The captain, unbelievable, like across the board vilified internationally except in one place. You might not be surprised when you find out where he's got a lot of support.

SAMBOLIN: Online activist, Anonymous launched a major revenge attack. They shut down the FBI and Department of Justice website in retaliation for the piracy crackdown. Up next, we'll hear heal from Anonymous members.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. It is 6:23 in the East.

And new this morning, U.S. government websites now back online after facing a major attack from online activist group Anonymous. Anonymous lashed out after the Department of Justice busted the downloading site Megaupload. Authorities arrested four people including the site's founder. Anonymous retaliated by shutting down the DOJ and FBI websites as well as sites for several major entertainment companies.

And here with the latest is Amber Lyon. She spoke exclusively with members of Anonymous. What did they tell you?

AMBER LYON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they said that yesterday the shutdown of Megaupload.com was really the straw that broke the camel's back.

We've seen Anonymous protesting anti-piracy legislation all week, legislation such as SOPA. They say after this website was shutdown almost immediately Anons started gathering in online chat rooms discussing what they were going to do and they began what's known as a distributed denial of service attack against these U.S. government websites. That's a type of attack where so many computers flood a website with so much traffic that it causes it to shut down.

I spoke exclusively with some of these Anons who are watching this operation. They called it - it was called OP Megaupload. They're watching it very closely. And here's what they had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LYON (on camera): So Anonymous sees the shutdown of Megaupload as a type of Internet censorship?

ANONYMOUS: Exactly. It's a - it's a violation of freedom of speech. And it's a - Anonymous and a lot of other movements regard the Internet as sort of independent from any government and they regard the government interfering in the free flow of the Internet as stepping outside their jurisdiction.

LYON: How long did it take for the Department of Justice's website to go down?

ANONYMOUS: I would give it seven or eight minutes, not even.

LYON: Seven or eight minutes.

ANONYMOUS: I would say seven minutes.

LYON: What were the thoughts within Anonymous that it was that easy to - to take down the Department of Justice's website?

ANONYMOUS: With enough power and with enough manpower you can take down pretty much anything.

ANONYMOUS: It's basically the power of absolutely massive group of people coming together. They're not happy. And this wouldn't be possible with one or two people, you know? It's one of those things which is very general in the expression of how many people are angry.

(END VIDEOTAPE) LYON: And those Anons were covering up their faces because they wanted to conceal their identities, obviously there.

On the other side of things, the Department of Justice says that this site was allowing the illegal upload of copyrighted material costing the industry somewhere near half a billion dollars a year. And but you talk to Anons on the other side, they believe this was some type of internet censorship - Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Well, that they could - they have that kind of collective effort that they can do this.

A Twitter account that's affiliated with the group said that FBI.gov is next to go down. Did they talk about that, what was next?

LYON: Well, they were able to take down FBI.gov for a brief period of time yesterday. And there's still traffic going online saying that Anons are targeting more websites today. We'll be monitoring that all day on CNN - Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Amber Lyon, thank you so much.

BANFIELD: All right. So how about these descriptions? He's a family man and he's a very good neighbor. Do you think I'm talking about the cruise ship captain?

SAMBOLIN: I know that you are.

BANFIELD: I am.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. A lot of people find that remarkable.

BANFIELD: Because he's the most vilified man almost globally at this point. So find out who is calling him all these great things in a moment. We're live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: When our stage manager is dancing, it must mean it's 6:30 and closer to his Friday. That's all I'm saying.

Folks, nice to have you here. Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

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

Still ahead at this hour, a Republican debate unlike any other. Could Newt Gingrich's anger be the ticket to victory in South Carolina?

BANFIELD: And you know that mystery woman, she's mystery woman no more. In fact, this woman standing behind the captain of the Costa Concordia. Originally, she was looked at as the woman who was just dining with him when the ship was going down, but she's saying, uh-uh, he is not a coward, he is a lifesaver and we all have it wrong.

SAMBOLIN: It is 6:30 in the East. Time to check the stories that are making news this morning.

Newt Gingrich coming out guns blazing in last night's GOP debate in South Carolina. He called his second wife claims that he asked her for a open marriage a lie and he angrily scolded CNN moderator John King for bringing up the subject at the beginning of the debate.

BANFIELD: And also making news, a crash overnight. The Taliban claiming that it shot down a NATO helicopter. The crash happened in southern Afghanistan, in Helmand Province, late yesterday. And six NATO peacekeepers who were on board are now dead. NATO official insisting there was no enemy presence in that area when that chopper went down. So, a bit of an argument as to whether the Taliban really did it or did not do it.

SAMBOLIN: And south of Reno, Nevada, stiff winds pushing an out of control wildfire toward the city limits. Ten thousand people have been evacuated. The fire has destroyed 20 homes. It's being blamed for one death.

There is some rain headed to that area. So hopefully they'll get some sort of reprieve fight that fire.

BANFIELD: We have some brand new video that's in to CNN. It is shot from the deck of a Costa Concordia. That's, of course, that doomed passenger liner. Take a look at this. Let's just listen for a bit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Steve! Steve! Kathy!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: I'm watching it for the first time with you, folks, but I don't know if you feel the chills. That is just awful to hear passengers calling out for their family and friends, panicking and trying to get into life boats, seeing them wearing those life jackets, not knowing whether the ship was going to sink or not. Chaotic and now we, of course, know that we have a death toll and we also have at least two dozen people who are unaccounted for.

The ship's chef is now reporting that the captain was actually ordering dessert and sipping drinks as the boat -- as the ship was going down.

He may just be one of the most vilified people, almost a global misanthropic animal if you read the headlines around the world. But guess what? In his home down, not the same at all. He's getting a lot of support.

Our Dan Rivers, CNN correspondent, is on the line from Giglio, Italy, right now.

Dan, when I heard there was graffiti on the outside of his home, the first thought was that it was anger and that's not the case. Is it?

DAN RIVERS, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No. I mean, I think the people in his hometown are maintaining he is a hero because simply after this accident happened, he steered this ship towards the shore which may sound crazy but it was basically sinking. And they maintained that had he not done that, the ship would have sunk to the bottom of the sea here and, you know, thousands of people's lives would have been imperiled.

That's obviously completely at odds with the kind of the other side of the coin as it were which paints him as a reckless, fool- hearted captain, he was intent on showboating, going way too close to the Giglio Island, resulting in this collision with the rock and then abandoning his ship before his passengers were safe.

And then according to that cook that you mentioned, Rogelio Barista, a Filipino cook, his testimony suggesting that the Captain Schettino was ordering dinner after the collision. Here's what the cook said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROGELIO BARISTA, COSTA CONCORDIA COOK (through translator): The captain insisted on having a meal around 10:30. He arrived with a woman who I didn't recognize. I did wonder, though, what the captain was doing, why was he still there. Anyway, we gave him his drink. After that, he was also still waiting for the dessert to be served to the woman he was with.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RIVERS: The woman has mentioned there appears to be this Moldovan woman, 25 years old Domnica Cemortan who is a Costa employee but she wasn't actually working on this leg of the voyage. She bought her own ticket to continue on having finished her duties on the previous leg to spend time with her colleagues and friends aboard.

Now, she's come out and started speaking as well, Ashleigh. Here's what she is saying about the captain's actions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DOMINICA CEMORTAN, FORMER COSTA CONCORDIA CREW MEMBER (through translator): I've heard in Russian media that the captain left the ship first or among the first, but this is not true. I'm a witness. I don't know if I'm invited to testify in the court or not but as a witness, I can say that I left the deck at 23:50, following the order from the captain who told me to go to the third deck, to and get into a life boat that could take more people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RIVERS: So that is contradicting the picture we've been building up from those radio intercepts that are being leaked between the captain and the port authority, suggesting that the captain was not on board at that point, that he was in a life raft off the ship and you heard a few days ago the port authority repeatedly and angrily ordering the captain to get back on ship and ensure his passengers were safe.

BANFIELD: I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask you about the weather and I know that's odd but since there is supposed to be bad weather coming, the ship behind you is only a couple of feet from literally an underwater cliff that's upwards of 200, perhaps more, 200 feet deep. And that is awful.

What is the status of the weather? And what are they saying right now as it's daylight where you are?

RIVERS: Well, the bad weather that was forecast today, if you can see, let me step out of the way and you have a look at what's going on. I mean, it's pretty calm out there at the moment.

Having said that, there are no divers on board because they're still detecting movement of this ship. Apparently it's moved about 1 1/2 meters. So what's that, about a yard and a half in your money. And that is the big problem.

If it keeps shifting like that towards that underwater cliff you're talking about, that's going to be a real issue because she may topple into much deeper waters and that could cause the fuel tanks to rupture. So, they are very concerned about what's going to happen to the ship. Thankfully at the moment, the storm that was forecast hasn't turned up.

SAMBOLIN: Good news.

BANFIELD: Yes, and clearly, they are concerned out of Giglio, Italy. Dan Rivers, thanks very much. Keep an eye and let us know.

SAMBOLIN: Six-thirty-seven here in the East. Up next, who won the debate? We're going to talk to Brett O'Donnell, chief strategist for Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Hi, folks. It's 40 minutes past 6:00 on the East Coast. Nice to have you here with us.

Newt Gingrich you might say could be getting momentum after doing what you call in hockey roughing during last night's debate performance.

SAMBOLIN: In a big way.

BANFIELD: In the penalty box.

SAMBOLIN: So from the start, the former House speaker came out swinging, branding his wife a liar for suggesting that he wanted an open marriage. Also, he slammed the media for covering the allegations.

So, joining me now, Brett O'Donnell, chief strategist for Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign.

Thanks for being with thus morning.

BRETT O'DONNELL, PRESIDENT, O'DONNELL AND ASSOCIATES: Good to be with you.

SAMBOLIN: So, "The Washington Post" said the first five minutes of the debate were Newt's finest hour in the race.

Do you agree with that?

O'DONNELL: Well, pretty much. I mean, I think that, you know, from a debating stand point last night, Newt has made a living of bashing the media and really grandstanding on that issue. And last night was no different. He used that -- I'm sure that he knew the question was coming.

And I'm pretty sure that he's probably grateful it came as the very first question because it gave him a chance to cast the issue aside and use the media as a whipping post to diffuse the issue and distract from the issue itself.

Now, whether or not that will be able to serve him well going forward on the actual substance of the charge remains to be seen. We'll see how particularly women voters in South Carolina and Florida respond to the actual substance. But in the debate last night, he was able to distract from it by using the media -- and John King in particular -- to distract from the issue.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. Now, we've been discuss that all morning long, whether that will affect him with women voters in South Carolina. So, his first question was about his ex-wife giving an interview with ABC and saying what you just mentioned, the open marriage.

Let's listen to Newt's response. And then, I want to ask you a very specific question about that.

O'DONNELL: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: So you just said that he anticipated that question. It sounds like he was really well prepared for that. Is that something of a gift for him or did somebody prep him for this? I know you're a debate prepster. How do you handle a situation like that?

O'DONNELL: Well, certainly, you would prepare for that question because it dominated the news all day yesterday besides Rick Perry getting out of the race. And so, I'm sure that either Newt or his advisers thought very carefully.

And my guess is that behind the scenes, Newt wouldn't say he was appalled by the question. My guess is he was probably thrilled by it because it gave him a chance from the onset of the debate to diffuse the question, to move it to the media, and to move it to a different topic. And so, it gave him a chance to sort of refocus.

And in debates, when you've got a weakness, the ability to move off of that weakness and into your strength and Newt's strength throughout these debates has been attacking the media, is something that gives you the chance to refocus the issue and distract it from the substance.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So let's stay there because Mitt Romney had a really awkward moment yesterday. I want you to listen to this and then we'll talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: When you release yours, will you follow your father's example?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Maybe. You know, I don't know how many years I'll release. I'll take a look at what our documents are. And I'll release multiple years. I don't know how many years. But I'll be happy to do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Romney had to have known that that was going to be a topic in the debate again last night. Why was he not well-prepared to answer that?

O'DONNELL: You know, I'm not sure that -- I'm sure that they saw this question coming. But sometimes it seems to me that Governor Romney litigates answers and tries to dance around things to get to a precise answer in his mind. Earlier in that exchange, he had been on message. I'll release the returns. I will release them in April.

But then once John King drilled down on the issue, it seemed as though he was trying to litigate through the issue to get to, you know, how many years returns and be overly precise.

You know, he actually had a pretty good moment in that exchange when he talked about how he had earned his own living and that he didn't inherit things from - he had the right message, but he got off the message when he was asked about whether or not he'd follow his father's example. And I'm sure in his mind, he was sorting through, OK, am I going to release 12 years? Do I say I'm going to release 12 years? And I think he got off the general message of the answer, which is to, you know, I will release the tax returns. SAMBOLIN: OK. Brett O'Donnell chief strategist Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign. Thank you so much for joining us.

O'DONNELL: Thank you for having me.

BANFIELD: We also want to get you, after the break, out west in Nevada because there are some wildfires that are raging. The pictures show the winds and the smoke. Look at that. Find out just what implications these flames have for the homes nearby and how many are already lost.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is 48 minutes past 6:00 on the east and one of the top stories is a loco. That's for you.

(LAUGHTER

BANFIELD: That's for you, my friend.

SAMBOLIN: I give her a word of the day to try to use today. So, there you go. It's loco.

BANFIELD: Isn't it fitting when you talk about the 16th presidential debate?

SAMBOLIN: Crazy. Little crazy.

BANFIELD: It was crazy. In the books, history books and the record books. Fierce exchanges among the candidates. Newt Gingrich slamming up the media for reporting his ex-wife's claims that he wanted an open marriage, and saying they're a lie. Mitt Romney also being booed by people in the audience after being challenged on whether he released his tax form, tax returns, dozen years worth, in fact, just like his dad did when his dad ran for president.

SAMBOLIN: And the Taliban is taking responsibility for the crash of a NATO helicopter that went down in Southern Afghanistan. This was late yesterday. Six NATO peacekeepers were on board. They were killed. The Taliban insisting that it shot down the chopper, and NATO official says there was no enemy presence in that area when that helicopter crashed.

BANFIELD: Soledad O'Brien has also been following that and all the rest of the news as well. She's got some great bookings for "Starting Point" which is coming up next. Hey there, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Hey, good morning. Good morning. It was so interesting to be in that crowd last night at the debate to see exactly where people were booing loudly and also to see where people were cheering loudly as well. Got lots to talk about this morning following that debate.

We're going to talk to the RNC chairman, Reince Priebus will be with us, to handicap what goes on tomorrow when the actual primary takes place. Then, we're talking to Republican congressman, Tim Scott, of South Carolina. Remember, we had him on a couple of weeks ago. We'll see if he's finally ready to endorse somebody. He said he would.

And then, we are joined by former presidential candidate, Herman Cain. He's just promised he's going to stick around for the whole first hour to chat about what happened last night, what happens ahead in South Carolina, and looking even further ahead, what happens in Florida. All that and much more this morning when "Starting Point" gets under way in less than 10 minutes. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. It is almost seven o'clock. And happening right now in the east today, a wildfire still burning out of control near Reno, Nevada.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): One person has died there. At least 20 homes have been destroyed. Take a look at this, folks. Nearly ten square miles have burned.

BANFIELD (voice-over): Ten thousand people have been asked to leave their homes, evacuated. The governor has declared a state of emergency there, and the National Guard troops are expected to be coming on to those front lines to battle those flames. That smoke, look at that wind. Remarkable pictures.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): So, Rob Marciano is standing by in Atlanta. How is the weather affecting the firefighting there, Rob?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, two stories here. First of all, guys, the winds have picked up are in advance of a storm that is now arriving there which will bring a little bit more in the way of humidity, and maybe some rainfall. So, we're going to get some help from Mother Nature. It's coming from this place across the northwest.

Look at this video coming in from Oregon, tremendous amount of rainfall. We talked about the ice and the snow in Seattle which, by the way, is just beginning to warm up this morning, but the rainfall in Oregon, especially in the Central (INAUDIBLE) Valley as been deadly. A couple of deaths here because of cars being swept away by the flood waters.

Most of the rivers, the smaller ones, at least, have crested. But, there are more storms on the way. This weekend with more rainfall and expect more flooding across western Oregon. Here's the rain across San Francisco. You've been dry. Tahoe, it's raining at lake level but snowing in trucky. So, a little bit of cold air will be moving in.

You will see snow finally in Tahoe and surrounding Sierra Nevadas. Here's our next system coming in to the northwest. This will have wind and rain with it tonight and another system coming in on Sunday with more rain next week flooding issues will prevail. Snow, piece of energy coming in from the western storms into Chicago.

Snow will arrive over the next few hours, really around lunch type or so. Accumulation is expected, yes, probably a good three, maybe up to seven inches across the Chicago land area, and this will stream south along I-80 and through Cleveland. And yes, tonight into the northeast, temperatures are just cold enough for snow.

Three to six inches expected along the Tri-State area of New York City. So, if you're traveling through Chicago, obviously, going to be an issue. If you're at work or if you're going to work, maybe you want to leave a couple hours early. Clear it with the boss, though, right, Zoraida? Clear it with the boss before you want --

SAMBOLIN: Stay home.

MARCIANO: Three to seven inches maybe isn't such a big deal.

SAMBOLIN: No, I know. I know. And actually, it looks kind of nice sometimes, right? So --

MARCIANO: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you.

MARCIANO: All right, guys.

BANFIELD: Thanks, Rob.

What do President Obama and Al Green have in common?

SAMBOLIN: Oh-oh!

BANFIELD: They can sing.

SAMBOLIN: Can he sing?

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Good question. That man right there tried his hat at singing. And after the break, trust me, you have got to hear it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: President Obama singing.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: At the Apollo Theater, fundraisers all over New York, but this one might be the biggest headline. Singing Al Green. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And then to know that Reverend Al Green was here --

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

OBAMA: (SINGING) I am so in love with you.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: I am impressed!

BANFIELD: Yes!

SAMBOLIN: Whoa! He can serenade.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: We have Bill Clinton on the saxophone, and now, we have President Obama singing Al Green. That did Al Green proud, I think.

SAMBOLIN: All right. On that note, let's say good morning to Soledad O'Brien. Did you hear that?

O'BRIEN: Hey, ladies. Good morning. Good morning. You can serenade me. Go ahead. Come on.

BANFIELD: You don't want to hear us at 6:58 in the morning eastern, girl.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: President Obama sounds much better.