CNN CNN


 

Return to Transcripts main page

STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Newt Gingrich Wins South Carolina Primary; Congressman Bob McEwen Interviewed; Gingrich PAC Leader Interviewed; Anti-Gingrich Sentiment; Remembering Joe Paterno; Threat Of Tornadoes; Syria Rejects Arab League Plan; U.S. Aircraft Carrier Enters Gulf Without Incident; Santorum's Right To Life Position; Tracy Morgan Collapses; Heidi Klum, Seal Splitting; Steven Tyler Accused Of Butchering National Anthem; Obama's Critics "Dumb?"; Newsweek Makes Case Obama's Critics Are "Dumb"; Texas School District to Ban Sports

Aired January 23, 2012 - 06:59   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: STARTING POINT this morning got some breaking news of those dangerous storms that are racing across the south. Tornadoes sightings as well. Thousand of people without power right now. We're going to talk about that. Update you on what's happening there.

Plus, the fight for Florida. There are just eight days until the primary. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney and they're ripping into each other's records and into each other.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Eighty-eight percent of his Republicans voted to reprimand Speaker Gingrich. He has not had a record of successful leadership.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So, you end up with a guy who's, I think, a very good salesman, very much wants to sell, but he has a really weak product.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Plus, Joe Paterno is being remembered this morning. To what degree has his legacy, though, been tarnished? We're going to talk to former Penn State players joining us ahead this morning.

Plus, one Texas school district lagging behind the academic standards in the state. So, the fix, they say, ban sports. We'll take a look at whether or not that can work. That's all ahead as STARTING POINT begins right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Our "Starting Point" for today is for the fight for Florida, and not a big surprise here, turning nasty very fast. A big debate in Florida is tonight. And then there's going to be the CNN debate on Thursday. The primary is in eight days. And it's Newt Gingrich who has all the momentum after that big primary win in South Carolina. He's claiming he's raised a million dollars in less than 24 hours following that South Carolina win.

So no big surprise that the attacks on both sides are ramping up. We've got Congressman Bob McEwen joining us to talk a little bit about what the plan is ahead. He's a Newt Gingrich surrogate. Sir, welcome to you.

Let me also introduce you to our panelists this morning. We have Bob Brownstein -- Ron. I just called you Bob. I'm just going to make up names for all my panelists.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: And Will Cain and Roland Martin, both CNN political analysts as well. And also this morning, we are being joined by Tom Perriello. Thank you for being with us. Appreciate your time.

Let's get right to it. Sir, what's the plan for today when you look at the graphics that show us the lead that you actually had, looks like a nice solid 12-point lead for Newt Gingrich. Give me analysis, why do you think he won? What did you write?

BOB MCEWEN, (R) FORMER OHIO CONGRESSMAN: What? Am I on, Soledad?

O'BRIEN: Yes, you are.

MCEWEN: The fact is that last week a couple of really terrific things happened. One was the United States for the first time in its peace time history has a debt greater than 100 percent of its GDP. The same time nine countries in Europe had their currencies downgraded as a result of their debt ratios, which six of them are better than America's. The worst is Greece with 120 percent of GDP. We will surpass that within a year.

Now, how do you fix it? There's only been one person able to balance the budget four consecutive years since 1928, and that was under the leadership of Speaker Gingrich. So when it comes to balancing the budget, getting control of the economy, gasoline prices have been doubled over the last three years, if we're going to take America back we're going to need somebody who knows how to lead. And the question is not debatable that this man knows how to bring together resources to accomplish the task, and he is the leader that we need.

O'BRIEN: It sounds to me like you're saying it was his economic message that got out to voters in South Carolina. Let me tell you what Governor Chris Christi in New Jersey had to say on "Meet the Press" over the weekend. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) NEW JERSEY: He was run out of the speakership by his own party. He was fined $300,000 for ethics violations. This is a guy who has had a very difficult political career at times and has been embarrassment to the party.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: "Embarrassment," that's kind a tough word. What do you make of that?

MCEWEN: Very simply the Republicans had not controlled the Congress in 70 years. They've never had back-to-back wins. He was able to accomplish that. And so --

O'BRIEN: You're not answering me question. My question was, when Governor Chris Christie said the man is an embarrassment and now the leader coming out of South Carolina, what do you do about that?

MCEWEN: What he said was he talked about the ethics violation. Because they took control for the first time in 70 years, then Pelosi and the folks filed an ethics violation every week, not for 30 weeks, not for 55 weeks, not for 67 weeks, 84 different ethics violations back to back forever. And 83 of them were investigated and thrown out. Finally there was one where he said foundation rather than a PAC and should have been inverted one way or the other. That was the only thing. What he said was, look, I'll bay for the cost of that investigation if we can quit this. And so he voluntarily paid and all the Republicans voted with it. He paid a penalty.

O'BRIEN: Plenty of people who say -- so you're saying that he voluntarily decided to end --

MCEWEN: Voluntarily. And the Republicans supported it and said, let's get this behind us and quit this nonsense. Now, during that time -- I'm not an anti-Romney person, but during that time, Mitt Romney said, I'm not a Republican. He said during Reagan/Bush I was an independent.

And so now for these folks to come back when he was forging the coalition that made it possible for us to have victory next year, the one who built the coalition which makes Speaker Boehner in control now to have been under that attack for so long and then to use that against them is really unfair. He has paid his dues in order to take the leadership to restore America back to a strong economy again and do the ethics reforms and others needed.

O'BRIEN: Let me bring in from Tampa Rick Tyler, senior adviser to one of Newt Gingrich's PACs. Thank you for joining us our conversation. We have a panel was as well.

RICK TYLER, SR. ADVISOR, GINGRICH'S "WINNING OUR FUTURE" PAC: Thanks for having me. I was enjoying Bob's explanation.

O'BRIEN: I didn't have you visually but glad you could hear us. It sounds to me he's saying that, listen, all the ethics investigation was just a big mistake and it's all bygones to this point. To what degree do you think the victory hinged actually on the debate in South Carolina and the leverage from that debate?

TYLER: I think it was very significant. I think -- I'm told 60 percent of the voters in South Carolina watch the debate. On TV, that's awfully big. And he had a magnificent performance that drove top radio and top television in the next two days. It's very significant.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Rick, Ron Brownstein from "National Journal." The speaker made an argument yesterday on several of the Sunday shows that essentially the Republican party cannot trust Mitt Romney to implement a conservative agenda. Do you believe that in the end, Romney -- that the real Romney is the one who governor of Massachusetts or the real Romney is the one, in fact, offering agenda amount indistinguishable on policy grounds as Newt Gingrich is today?

TYLER: My goodness, you would have to ask him. Let Romney be Romney, but who would that be? All we have are people's records, legislative. Newt Gingrich has four years of balanced budgets, $405 billion worth of taxes paid official. There were 11 million jobs created while Newt Gingrich was speaker. They were created. There were tax cuts, welfare reform.

What we know about Mitt Romney is that he was a supporter of Roe v. Wade. He let judges overrule parents in terms of getting an abortion for their minor children. He raised taxes on business and gave us Romneycare. That's his record. He doesn't want you to know his record or Newt's record. If I wanted a conservative, I wanted someone like a Marco Rubio in Florida, I would pick Newt Gingrich. If I wanted someone like a Chris Christie, I would vote for Mitt Romney.

O'BRIEN: Here's what Newt Gingrich said about super PACs. As I mentioned coming in, Mr. Tyler, you run the former speaker's super PACs. Here's what he's saying.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The super PACs have huge amounts of money to run and they're totally irresponsible, totally secret. I think it's just wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Congressman --

TYLER: I couldn't agree more. I couldn't agree more with that statement. I think we need to return the fund-raising ability back to the candidates and they need to put their own names on the ads and need to end this shell game. We should let candidates collect as much money as they can, expect for foreign contributions. They should be transparent, and then everybody would know who is supporting which candidate.

MARTIN: Rick, Roland Martin, here. If you agree with it, why are you running one? And secondly for the congressman, if Newt Gingrich's leadership is so great, why did his own party throw him out of office as speaker? If they threw him out, why should the American people put him in?

MCEWEN: I'm not sure that they threw him out.

MARTIN: Actually he was thrown out. His own party threw him out.

MCEWEN: No, he wasn't.

TYLER: He left on his own?

MCEWEN: He left on his own.

MARTIN: I got you.

MCEWEN: He never lost an election. The fact is that by taking control for that period of time, once he left, we have never balanced the budget sense, and the contributions that he made were so significant that they've been ongoing. Now, it's appropriate to be --

BROWNSTEIN: That's not true. We balanced it the next several years after he left, in '99 and 2000 as well. So that's not accurate. And also, clearly, he left one step ahead of being pushed when there was a backlash of house Republicans when they lost seats in Clinton's midterm, the first time that happened in party in power since Andrew Jackson's second term, six years in.

So clearly there was a sense among house Republicans in that period of frustration. And it does raise the question, one of the key questions. Gingrich was undeniably brilliant as a guerrilla leader leading Republicans back to power, but running the place as speaker seemed to be more challenging for him, did it now, Rick?

TYLER: What you just said was completely false. We had four years of balanced budget.

BROWNSTEIN: Was the budget not balanced in 1999 and 2000?

TYLER: Sure it was. Hold on, you're asking me a question. We already had surpluses. If you have surpluses going into the budget for the year it's easy to submit a balanced budget. Bill Clinton never submitted a balanced budget. Bill Clinton never submitted welfare reform. Bill Clinton never submitted tax cuts. In fact Bill Clinton in 1996 took credit for 13 items that Newt Gingrich and the Republicans passed, five of which were in the "Contract with America." Don't give me that. It is Newt Gingrich who led that. Nobody disputes that.

And, look, people want to say there was chaotic leadership. Bob knows. Newt served people who were in line for chairmen. He said you don't get this Republican revolution, step aside for somebody who does. Of course people got mad because they wanted -- many of them wanted to continue with earmarks and pork barrel politics the way it always was, and Newt said no. When Newt left, that's what it returned to, that's exactly where we turned to, and that's why we lost the majority. They deserved it.

O'BRIEN: That's going to have to be our final word because we're out of time. TYLER: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Thank you for joining us this morning.

We have other headlines to get to. Christine, good morning.

ROMANS: Good morning, there, Soledad. Let's check the headlines with dangerous severe weather to tell you about. Reports of tornadoes and damage in several states this morning. Thousands of people waking up without power this Monday. The threat ranges from Illinois all of the way down to Alabama.

(WEATHER BREAK)

ROMANS: In Italy, officials hope to determine if they can begin pumping out half a million gallons of fuel from that capsized cruise ship. The mayor of the island where the ship ran aground says the situation is now an ecological time bomb because they fear that ship could slip into deeper waters. Rescue crews have also recovered another body leaving 19 people unaccounted for.

Also today, a Mississippi judge could decide if nearly 200 pardons issued by outgoing Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, if those pardons are valid. The state attorney general requested today's hearing because he said it appeared some of the pardons violated the state constitution. Under Mississippi law, a public notice must run in the newspaper 30 days prior to a pardon.

Egypt's parliament meeting today for the first time since the down fall of former president Hosni Mubarak last year. Lawmakers are expected to vote on a new speaker of the House and two deputies.

Mitt Romney plans to release his 2010 tax returns tomorrow. The Republican presidential candidate says not releasing them has become a distraction.

Today Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords plans to finish the Congress on your corner event that Jared Lee Loughner interrupted last year. She's going to hold a private gathering with some of the people who were there. She announced yesterday in a YouTube video that she will resign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. GABRIELLE GIFFORDS, (D) ARIZONA: I have more work to do on my recovery. So to do what is best for Arizona, I will step down this week.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: And the New York Giants and New England Patriots are super bowl bound. The Giants defeated the San Francisco 49ers 20-17 on a field goal in overtime to win the NFC title. The Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 in the AFC championship game.

"Minding Your Business" this morning, investors bracing for what could be a choppy week. Lots to do -- corporate earnings, Iran oil sanction talks in Europe. Right now U.S. stock futures are trading higher ahead of the opening bell. Markets gained about two percent last week.

Also watching BlackBerry maker Research in motion. It has new a CEO, Thornston Heinz. He'll take over the lead post as the company struggles to overhaul its business, keeping pace with all that competition from Apple and Google.

And Soledad, Research in Motion shares are up three percent but they're down 72 percent over the past year.

O'BRIEN: They've had some big hits over the last literally, over the last year. Christien, thank you for that update.

I guess in the last block we really understood what the strategy will be for the former speaker of Newt Gingrich.

MARTIN: Spin, spin, spin.

I was stunned. That's not even spinning. That is a rewriting of history. I want to play first a little bit of what Mitt Romney said talking about his competitor Newt Gingrich. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He was a failed leader and he had to resign in disgrace. I don't know whether you knew that. He actually resigned after four years in disgrace. He was investigated under an ethics panel and had to make a payment associated with that. And then his fellow Republicans, 88 percent of his Republicans, voted to reprimand Speaker Gingrich. He has not had a record of successful leadership.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: OK. We're back with our panel.

Tom Perriello is a former Democratic congressman, CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

So, it's nice to have you joining our panel.

Ron Brownstein, who I mangled your name. It's Monday. It's early.

Will Cain is back.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I am.

O'BRIEN: Roland Martin is back.

Wow. So?

CAIN: So I would say, I make two points. First, though, I have to clarify, this criticism is coming from the conservative side of the spectrum. The former congressman, and Roland and Ron, had a debate about whether or not Newt Gingrich was forced out or left on his own. I put that beside the point.

I could line up many conservatives, many Republicans --

O'BRIEN: Like --

CAIN: From Joe Scarborough, to Tom Coburn, they line up out this door to say that Newt Gingrich is not fit for leadership. I'd say explain that to me, former Congressman, why do you have such a different opinion.

The second is this just simply this -- this conversation about the '90s, I'm not convinced that's a good idea for Newt Gingrich. He won South Carolina based on no substance, no platform. He won that based on his personality. I don't think he wants to be litigating the '90s in the next couple of weeks.

O'BRIEN: Hold on one second. We got David Frum joining us. He's in Washington, D.C. this morning.

Hey, David.

DAVID FRUM, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hey there.

O'BRIEN: I know you've written a piece for CNN.com which talks about Newt Gingrich and you use the word panic when you talk about really senior Republican leadership. What's the panic over?

FRUM: Well, just what everyone who worked with him who is a contemporary in Congress then as will just said, has serious reservations about his leadership. And I have this joke that if you were to do an election between Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama and can find the franchise to Republicans who serve in the House of Representatives in the 1990s, it would be a very, very close call. If you were to make people who served in past Republican cabinets, I don't think Newt Gingrich would win.

Will made another very important point, when you're talking about Gingrich you're inevitably talking at the past -- his personal past, his financial past, that was a big part of what that ethics report was about.

O'BRIEN: Didn't seem to matter in South Carolina.

FRUM: It didn't seem to matter in South Carolina. Lucky him. The question is, will that continue to be true? Because one of the most popular figures in the country right now is Bill Clinton.

If you put Newt Gingrich back on the platform, you invite a re- litigation of the impeachment, of the elections of the 1990s. Suddenly the question is, Bill Clinton will have an opinion of who gets the credit of balanced budget of the 1990s and he will be all over TV.

Every time Gingrich faced against Clinton, he lost. He'll be doing it again. Better to run against Obama.

O'BRIEN: So, is the strategy now just going to be, either only look backwards or do we sort of look forward to --

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No.

O'BRIEN: You think backwards?

BROWNSTEIN: No, forward. I mean, look, there are two distinct phases to Newt Gingrich's career in Congress, as I'm trying to suggest. As a gorilla leader from 1978 to 1994, leading the Republicans back to the majority for the first time in 40 -- not 70 years, just another point of fact -- he was undeniably brilliant. He led Republicans. He was the architect of their recovery.

Once, he was Mao in the caves, he was great. Mao is the great helmsman. Once he was in charge, that was much more difficult for them. It was much more chaotic.

But what worked in South Carolina was channeling back that Newt of the 1980s who gave voice to the deepest antipathy among conservatives about Democrats.

O'BRIEN: Aggressive fighter, et cetera, et cetera.

BROWNSTEIN: It was the language. It was him channeling the emotion that Romney didn't, that allowed him to consolidate conservatives to a greater degree that anybody has in any earlier race this year.

O'BRIEN: Roland Martin has got to go get on the Tom Joyner morning show. I say hey as you run out.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you a question, though. All right. So, we look toward Florida.

TOM PERRIELLO, FORMER DEMOCRATIC CONGRESSMAN: Right. Well, I think what you saw in South Carolina as well is a concern for Republicans beyond the fact that they're beating each other up and Gingrich is getting attacked by ethics former Governor Mark Sanford. That's never a good news cycle.

But what you saw was a real anger driving that -- something that I saw in parts of Virginia when I was in Congress. And I think the concern here, if I were a Republican, would be the president is about to give a State of the Union Address with a positive message about rebuilding our manufacturing base, about to announce positive numbers on manufacturing, about the ability to build and grow things here in America again.

And you have conservatives fighting each other on very nasty political grounds. You see a conservative base that remains extremely upset.

You see independents out there who want to see solutions, who want to see a focus on how do we actually create jobs and continue to move out of this recession.

And so, I think you see the president continuing to build that track record, focused on jobs and payroll tax that hits the middle class. And meanwhile, you have conservatives fighting each other for who has done more damage to the country. Was it Romney's vulture capitalism or was it Mr. Gingrich's ethics violation?

O'BRIEN: So, maybe the president can just sort of tip toe through and skip all the infighting.

All right. We're going to take a short break. We come back in just a moment.

Remembering Joe Paterno, we'll talk about his legacy and the degree to which it is tarnished by the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal at Penn State.

Plus, the owners of the Costa Concordia are making the survivors of the disaster an offer they're hoping they can't refuse. It's actually very bizarre. That's this morning's get real.

We're back in just moments. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: In State College, Pennsylvania, students and football fans are mourning the loss of a legend. Joe Paterno died on Sunday of lung cancer. He was 85 years old.

And there's bitterness over Paterno's firing and it still runs high in Penn State. He was fired, of course, in the fallout over the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. So, to what degree will it tarnish his legacy?

Bryan Scott is now with the Buffalo Bills. He played for Joe Paterno at Penn State.

It's nice to see you again. Thanks for talking with us.

We all knew that Joe Paterno was very sick. Still, I think his death came as a big surprise. What was your reaction when you heard that, in fact, he had died?

BRYAN SCOTT, BUFFALO BILLS: You know, I have to be completely honest with you. Coach Paterno always used to talk about Bear Bryant and when he got finished coaching, that, you know, a few months later he passed away and Coach Paterno would share this story that he didn't like to golf on Saturdays, he didn't like to mow his lawn. He said, to be honest, I don't even know where the forks and knives go in my own kitchen.

Football really was his life. And I just had a feeling that once everything transpired and he moved away from football, I kind of figured this was going to happen.

O'BRIEN: There was an interview in the "Washington Post" on January 14th. And he said this: "I miss the last three days of spring practice and I was disappointed I couldn't be with the did the last three games. Yes, I miss it. Right now, I try to figure out what I'm going to do because I don't want to sit around on my backside all day."

So, you think that the end was very near once he stopped actually coaching?

SCOTT: I believe so, sad to say. I mean -- but, you know, his time there at Penn State, he just gave so much to it. Football, it really was his life. The student athletes, the university, he poured his all into it.

O'BRIEN: "The Washington Post" and the interview that I know you read, Sally Jenkins wrote the article, sort of portrayed a man who was elderly and befuddled and talked about it didn't occur to him to do more when he heard a report about what Jerry Sandusky was up to. To what degree do you think that, that interviews and his inaction his firing has tarnished that tremendous legacy that before, you know, before the Jerry Sandusky scandal was mammoth, outsize?

SCOTT: Right. Well, you know, Soledad, everyone is going to have their different views and opinions, and -- which is fine. And I can't sit here and try to convince people of how great a man Joe Paterno was. I really can just speak what he left -- what he meant to me and the legacy he left to me. And a lot of his morals, values, fundamentals that he coached and teach, I'll carry on with me throughout the rest of my life.

O'BRIEN: So, tell me exactly what did he mean to you? What did he tell you? As you were being recruited back in 1999, what made you say, "Yes, Penn State is where I want to go"?

SCOTT: Right. Coach Paterno, when he came in and sat down with me, you know, when the recruiting process goes on, a lot of coaches come at you from different angles and say, hey, I want you to come to this university. You're going to start with us your freshman year, you're going to this, this and this.

Coach Paterno, he really came at me more like a grandfather. And he said, Bryan, I don't want you to come to Penn State because your friends or teachers want you to come here. I don't want you to come to Penn State because we have a pretty good football program. He said, I want you to be on this campus first and foremost to know what you'll get a great education and I'm going to push you. You know, I'm going to push to get your degree.

And that really just meant a lot to me. He said, if football doesn't work out, and I can't guarantee you that it will, I want you to be happy here on campus.

O'BRIEN: Bryan Scott for us this morning. Nice to talk to you again. Thanks for being with us. Appreciate it.

SCOTT: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning, "Get Real", the owner of the capsized cruise ship is making what some people are calling an insulting offer to passengers. I just think it's bizarre. We'll have that straight ahead.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Time to get real this morning. Today, we're taking a look at a sales pitch. That has many people saying, no, thank you. Of course, after an accident or a mishap, companies will try to save face by offering the affected customer a discount, free flight, a discount on future purchase. And now, a 30 percent discount on a future cruise.

That is reportedly what the survivors of the Costa Concordia wreck are being offered. According to the "London Telegraph," a spokesman for the Costa Cruises says this, "The company is not only going to refund everybody but they'll offer a 30 percent discount" -- not even 50 percent -- "a 30 percent discount on future cruises if they want to stay loyal to the company."

Passengers, as you can imagine, are outraged. One survivor tells the paper it is ridiculous. It's insulting.

So far, CNN has not been able to independently confirm that 30 percent number. But as you can expect, passengers want more than 30 percent. They want more than 50 percent. They're going to find lawyers and they're going to sue. It's reported that many of them are filing a class action lawsuit.

So, to this attempted good will gesture, might want to get real.

Still ahead this morning, lots to talk about. Obama's critics in a "Newsweek" article -- they're dumb? Well, David Frum is disagreeing with that. We'll take a look.

Plus, a failing school district in Texas has a radical solution. They say, get rid of sports.

Plus, you guys heard this? Steven Tyler's national anthem? Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we heard it. We saw it, too.

O'BRIEN: Listen, folks. Some people loved it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everybody. First off, what are you laughing about? I'm trying to get to the headlines -- Christine Romans. Not enough space for the two of them on this side of the table, that, we know. First though, headlines, Christine Romans has that. Hi, Christine. Good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. Dangerous weather this morning, leaving thousands without power overnight in that south and all the way up through the Ohio Valley.

Several reports of possible tornadoes and wide spread damage. This could be just the beginning. We're going to get a check right now of the weather with meteorologist, Rob Marciano this morning. Good morning, Rob.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Christine. Yes, damage across parts of Alabama including Tuscaloosa and just north of Birmingham. Search and rescue crews out to help people there.

A dangerous situation that is moving off to the east, here it is on the radar scope. Tornado watch is still in effect for parts of Alabama for the next few hours, but Georgia, some more stable air here.

Once the storm gets into Georgia, beginning to fall apart, but there's still a strong storm that has a history of doing significant damage that has crossed I-65 heading just north of Alexandra City. So that's the spot right now we're watching closely.

Once that cell diminishes, I think we will be able to relax. Storms are weakening up towards the north, but this thing is strong. It wraps around to some snow on the back side. For the most part it's a warm system.

That warm air is getting into pockets of cool air and up to the north, Christine, just north of New York City, just north and west of Boston. We do have reports of some light freezing rain this morning. But temperatures will be on the rebound as we go throughout the day today so just next couple of hours will be a slick go if you're heading out the door across the northeast -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right, thank you, Rob.

All right, Syria is rejecting an Arab League proposal to end the 10-month-old uprising that's reportedly claimed thousands of civilian lives.

The plan calls President Bashar Al-Assad to turn over to his vice president and establish a new unity government within two months. Syrian officials say they consider it a violation of sovereignty and flagrant interference in the internal affairs.

It's been smooth sailing so far for the USS "Abraham Lincoln" in the Persian Gulf. Iran had threatened military action to keep U.S. ships out of the Gulf, but then backed away from that. The U.S. Navy says the aircraft carrier completed a regular and routine passage through the Strait of Hormuz.

Presidential candidate, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum stressing his opposition to Roe versus Wade today, the 39th anniversary of that Supreme Court decision, legalizing abortion.

In a "Wall Street Journal" editorial, Santorum writes, quote, "my opponents whisper that they are pro-life, but I fight the battle in the trenches and will continue to do so until every innocent human life in this country is protected. Rick Santorum wrote stressing his position protecting life.

Reports say "30 Rock" star Tracy Morgan was rushed to the hospital last night after collapsing at a charity event at the Sundance Festival in Park City, Utah. Spokesman for Morgan says Tracy is seeking medical attention from a combination of exhaustion and altitude.

And another storybook celebrity marriage bites the dust. Supermodel Heidi Klum and singer Seal confirming the rumors they are separating. The couple have been married seven years. They have four kids.

They issued a joint statement to "People" magazine saying, quote, "While we have enjoyed seven very loving, loyal, and happy years of marriage, after much soul-searching we decided to separate. We continue to love each other very much though we have grown apart."

"American Idol" judge Steven Tyler criticized this morning. You know, he sang the "National Anthem" last night before the Patriots-Raven's game last night. Folks say -- well, you be the judge.

ROMANS: So, Soledad, I don't know. He's a rock 'n roller. He's not an opera singer, right? He doesn't do musical theater.

O'BRIEN: It's the "Star-Spangled Banner."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rock 'n roll is still supposed to be in key.

O'BRIEN: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's not going to Hollywood. On that show, he would not be going to Hollywood.

O'BRIEN: That's right. Yes. What do they say on "American Idol," that's it, we vote him off the island.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would like to challenge you.

O'BRIEN: I actually could do it. Maybe I'll do it for you one day. Maybe one day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's a STARTING POINT smack.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It could be worse.

O'BRIEN: Kind of is. Thank you for the support. He says it's not going to be worse, that's support.

OK, ahead this morning, are President Obama's critics dumb? That was the headline in "Newsweek" cover story the other day. David Frum is going to join us and he says he disagrees right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. Are President Obama's critics dumb? "Newsweek" cover story made that case, but David Frum disagrees. He joins us from Washington, D.C. We're back with our panelists as well.

So the article that you wrote is an antidote to Andrew Sullivan's article who wrote in "Newsweek" and basically he said, listen, President Obama has done a bunch of good things.

Number one, the bailouts worked, Obama care is more moderate than critics say. Congress is very polarized, basically the president just kept his promises. What didn't you like about that article?

DAVID FRUM, WRITER, "NEWSWEEK" AND "THE DAILY BEAST": As you say, Andrew Sullivan wrote that as the cover story in "Newsweek" last week and this week. I'm a "Newsweek" contributor and "Newsweek" gave me space to write the rebuttal to Andrew.

And I think what Andrew was doing there was shooting fish in a barrel, he was taking the most extreme and most criticisms of the president and they're having lots of those and replied to those.

Meanwhile, serious case about that is the issue in this about the direction the country is going. The key fact about this president is that for all of his personal good qualities.

He is taking on a country toward a path on a much bigger government on a permanent, not emergency basis. I give lots of facts and figures in my article about those trends.

O'BRIEN: Let me interrupt you for a second to read you a little bit from your own column. You say hiring is up across the federal government by 15 percent since 2007. Why did you mention 2007 since, of course, President Obama didn't come in until 2009?

FRUM: I want to make clear that what we're doing here is we're not just talking about the emergency measures that were put in place to deal with the recession of 2008 and 2009. Obviously during an emergency government is going to grow.

We have unemployment insurance to pay. You have the normal counter cyclical behavior. What we're doing here is looking at the longer term trend. What you've got is a situation where, for example -- I take some of these numbers back not 1900s and 2000s.

Social Security disability payments have been going up and up in response to the recession. People who can't find work are basically reporting themselves disabled.

The judges are becoming more lenient for reasons you would understand if you were in one of those courtrooms. That is leading then the Social Security Administration to get bigger.

O'BRIEN: You can see part of your article is seeing the growth of article. Let me throw one other thing out there for you, David. When you look up the number of federal employees you see that President Obama has 2.8 million, but under President Reagan it was 3.2 million so, with President Bush actually sort of having the trend going back up again.

FRUM: Well, there's a large intervening event, which is the end of the cold war and reduction of the United States military. That combines military and civilian employees. I think you want to look civilian employees only and that will be a better guide.

You see the size of the federal government employees, of course, have been shrinking over time because the federal government is a huge user of computer technology. It takes many fewer clerks to process Social Security check today than it did in the 1960s. So the trend line for federal employment has been down. But that has come under -- began to reverse during the Bush years because of homeland security and continued to reverse.

What's happened in the past couple of years is we've seen a big reduction in state and local employment. That's probably temporary. It will be corrected. When the state and local payrolls begin to grow again the federal payrolls, which have been growing, under President Bush and continue to grow faster under President Obama, they won't shrink.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: David, it's Ron. But if you talk about the big picture of the government's role in the economy, the number of federal employees is secondary to the entitlements, the costs of entitlements.

FRUM: Absolutely.

BROWNSTEIN: And if you're talking about entitlements, is the issue here ideology or demography? The number of seniors in the country is doubling from 40 million to 80 million over the next quarter century. Leaving aside the temporary measures involved in this downturn, isn't the long-term pressure on the size of government simply providing services to that much larger a senior population? And is there any realistic way to return government to 18 percent of GDP, which is what it was the year Medicare went into effect, in 1966, with so many more seniors?

FRUM: Ron, you're right about the nature of the problem is. The question for leadership is which way do you lean, forward or backward? I point to several things in this article. President Obama has made choices that take him in the direction of government force, not market force. Look, for example, at the health care problem. Look, for example, at the president's health care reform. A lot of good measures there. A lot of idea there's that I have written in support of.

The fact is that this president has relied heavily on Medicaid as his way of expanding coverage. Of the people who will gain coverage under his health care proposals, the majority of them will gain their coverage not through that mandate that we've been debating so much about, but through Medicaid. It didn't have to be that way. It could have been designed in a different way. You see the same tendency in his energy policy. You want to move off oil? Great. You can use market incentives, price. You can tax carbon and encourage the market to grow. Or what you can do is you can have direct government investment --

(CROSSTALK)

FRUM: -- particular technology and big winners. And that's the way the president's been going.

TOM PERRIELLO, FORMER DEMOCRATIC VIRGINIA CONGRESSMAN: The core of the health care plan was to create a market. It's market that has worked in other places and continues to be based on competition in the private sector. The energy approach was a conservative market-based approach based on tradable permits developed under the first President Bush. So it seems to me that these are examples of the president being centrist and using market-based incentives to try to solve structural problems.

(CROSSTALK)

PERRIELLO: We see, coming out of the recession, the jobs growth has been the private sector --

FRUM: That's just not right.

PERRIELLO: -- and the job decline has been in the public sector.

(CROSSTALK)

FRUM: That's just not right. Look -- look, the idea of a market, of a regulated market to bring universal coverage, that is Romney-care, which I'm one of the view people who still have a good word to say for it. The problem with the president's plan is, although we talk about it as if it were Romney-care, the real energy of it comes from this huge expansion of Medicaid, which is a very troubled program. Half the people who will gain coverage under the president's plan gain, not through mandates and private insurance, but through medicate.

And on energy, yes, at one point, there was talk of a very complicated form of tradable permits. The Democrats themselves in Congress abandoned that, as you know, because of objection from coal state Democrats. And what the president has fallen back on is his plan B, which is direct government investment to pick winners in solar energy and windmill subsidies. Exactly the approach that has not worked since it was tried in the 1970s, tried again and again. It's consistently failed. Rather than using taxes and markets.

O'BRIEN: David, let me give Will Cain the final question to you, and then run to a break.

Go ahead.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I want to remind people that David's piece is a response to Andrew Sullivan's, that the critics of President Obama are all stupid. And the point is this --

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Dumb is the word they used, dumb.

CAIN: When you make the argument the president is driving this country in a certain direction, there's plenty of evidence to suggest he is infusing the government into our markets and our lives from energy policy -- David points this out -- from our energy policy to our health care market to bailouts of certain industries. And there is a substantive reason to make that argument. We're not all dumb.

O'BRIEN: And on that note --

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: There's a legitimate debate that demography is the big long-term force growing government as a share of the economy.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: And on that note, we're going to take a break.

BROWNSTEIN: -- is demography.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Another STARTING POINT smack down by Soledad.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning, a Texas School District is now banning sports. It's a desperate attempt to save money and boost academics. Could this last-ditch effort save the school and the community? We'll take a look.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: OK. I want to tell you about the --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: I know. I couldn't really hear it.

(LAUGHTER)

The Fremont School District in south Texas is banning sports. They say they want to boost their academic performance because they have failed to meet the academic requirements of the state every single year since 2007. They've been placed on probation. It happened just about a year ago. And they were nearly shut down in July, and they have to pay a $400,000 line of credit by the end of this year. So the district now has one last chance to meet the state criteria. We'll talk about the strategy of losing sports.

To try to do that, Dr. Steve Perry is the principal and founder of Capital Prep. And he was the focus of a documentary we did on education.

Nice to see you, Dr. Perry.

First and foremost, what do you think of this idea, kill sports to try and get academics up?

DR. STEVE PERRY, PRINCIPAL & FOUNDER, CAPITAL PREP: I think that it makes no sense. The reason why these schools failed or this school failed is not because they had a football team. It's because the teachers and the principal in the school were not able to teach the children the skills that were necessary for them to be seen as viable by the state.

O'BRIEN: Well, isn't the theory, so if you remove sports, number one, you can take that money -- and they have mentioned the number, $50,000 -- and you can invest that into a science lab and you can invest that into tutoring. that will raise everybody's standards and abilities and, you know, improve academics? It seems kind of basic. No?

PERRY: While basic, it's inaccurate. The $50,000 represents approximately one staff member. And the -- by teaching standards. And the $50,000 on the other side, from an enrichment perspective, enriches thousands of hours of children's lives after school. And in fact, may be part of why some kids get into school. Many kids will get into college, in part, because they play a sport, not just as a scholarship athlete, but as an activity necessary to put on your college resume.

O'BRIEN: Leadership at the school that there were a couple of things that were mandated. Number one, they needed to get better science labs. Number two, they had to attract more qualified teachers. They are a rural school district. I think the entire town has roughly 2,700 people.

PERRY: Right.

O'BRIEN: The school itself, 570 people. To what degree is this just a poor school? Here is what the superintendent had to say. His name is Ernest Singleton. He said, "Our urgent situation requires swift and drastic action. If we were a wealthy district and had performance at the right level and money in the bank, I wouldn't even consider cutting athletic programs. It wouldn't even cross my mind. But we're not, and I can't emphasize that enough."

PERRY: Well, how much money do they get per pupil may be in part an issue. But it's not -- it doesn't determine what's happening in the classroom. The teachers are all given access to the same information that the other teachers in the wealthy districts are given access to. And they either can teach it or they can't. In this case, they clearly couldn't.

MARTIN: I tell you, Steve, I'm from Texas. Will is from Texas as well. And we saw Robin Hood thrown out. The problem that you have is rural school districts simply don't have the same revenue obviously as some of the more wealthy suburban districts.

But here is the other issue, where I think this is important, why they did it, which I support. If this school shuts down, it's going to get annexed. The parents say, if that happens, then the next school district is 35 miles away. We're going to leave the town. So literally, if that happens, this town could go away. And so the decision that's being made goes beyond just sports. You're hearing people say, we have to save this entire town. I say, when you have that kind of pressure, you make this kind of move.

O'BRIEN: But at the same time, you're talking about 2007, right? Since 2007, the students in this school, that is an entire half your career practically in high school.

MARTIN: That's a whole class, freshman to senior.

O'BRIEN: Have completely been in a failing school year after year after year.

MARTIN: Right.

O'BRIEN: How do you balance the needs of a community? It's true, 35 miles to go to school is very, very challenging.

MARTIN: On rural roads, right.

(CROSSTALK)

PERRY: It's actually not that far, because 40 percent of the kids, whose hands I just shook, came in from as many as 35 miles away because, in many school choice situations, what happens is children ride on buses anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half. Many of our children come to Capital Prep from an hour and a half away. That's not unreasonable, especially when we look at what the upside is. The upside is the kids will get access to a quality school. Who cares if the school is in the town? This is, in part, why some schools like Rocket Ship are more and more popular because they are a hybrid of --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: What's Rocket Ship?

PERRY: Rocket Ship is a partial -- it's partially online, and it's partially a brick-and-mortar school. And they are being placed throughout the country at rates I have never seen in terms of school expansion. And what they do is they say you don't have to just draw from the teachers who will live or do live in or near your community. But in fact, you'll be able to draw upon the resources from throughout the country and world by using technology, much the same way we are using it right now.

O'BRIEN: Dr. Steve Perry for us.

It's terrible to think of these students in this school that is just failing year after year, and yet another year.

(CROSSTALK)

PERRIELLO: I tell you, sports are incredibly important. Wrestling for me taught me discipline. It taught me focus.

O'BRIEN: It's probably a carrot, too. You come to school so you can do sports.

PERRIELLO: But also, Soledad, we have to assume that maybe these local leaders and parents can get together and make a right decision. It's hard for us sometimes, from the outside, to look and to decide the right approach. And we need to make sure to protect that. I found sports very valuable to me. My brother is a high school coach. And --

O'BRIEN: Apparently, a lot of the money is the cost of buses. Maybe there's a strategy where the parents could step up and manage that.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: It's interesting. The whole point of No Child Left Behind was to increase pressure on states to improve the performance of failing schools. 10 years in, we're in a severe backlash against it. Every Republican candidate is talking about repealing it, even though it was the brain child of George W. Bush. But you do see what you're suggesting, that kind of conflict. If a school is failing, where does the demand come to improve it? Is there enough pressure at the local and state level without some hammer behind it?

O'BRIEN: We have to take a short break.

Coming up in our next hour, after placing second in South Carolina and Iowa, what exactly is Mitt Romney's strategy for Florida? We're going to talk ahead with Congress Tom Rooney -- he's a Romney surrogate -- about that strategy.

Plus, a hearing on the Mississippi pardons today. Could some of those who have been released be heading back to prison?

And Congresswoman Gabby Giffords leaving politics at least for now. We're going to talk to one of Giffords' close friends, Senator Mark Udall.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back right after a short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)