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Romney to Release Tax Returns; Alabama Tries to Recover; Romney To Gingrich: "I Call It Influence Peddling"; Deadly Tornadoes Sweep Alabama

Aired January 24, 2012 - 05:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And a very good morning to you. It is an EARLY START. Hello. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z.

It's 5:00 a.m. in the east. So, let's started here.

BANFIELD: Why don't we start with taxes?

SAMBOLIN: Oh, yes.

BANFIELD: Don't you love that?

SAMBOLIN: Big news today.

BANFIELD: Unless you're probably like Governor Romney. You don't like taxes. You certainly don't like talking taxes anyway.

But he is. He's talking taxes. He's releasing his tax returns today.

But you know what? EARLY START has the early look. And we got all those facts and details of why everybody is still up in arms. What did he make and what he paid out?

SAMBOLIN: And the Florida debate. It was a little nasty and personal. Romney, I guess he's saying no more Mr. Nice Guy. He's going after Gingrich with gloves off.

BANFIELD: And either TiVo or pop the popcorn now, because it's the annual state, or the -- should I say, annual State of the Union. Even though one of his terms didn't have a state of the union. But we're going to have that tonight.

What is President Obama going to do? Is it going to be a campaign speech or a blueprint for the economy? We're going to let you on that.

SAMBOLIN: And this was breaking news yesterday morning. Those deadly tornadoes in Alabama. It is the second time for those folks in less than a year.

The Red Cross is responding. There are two people dead, hundreds of homes destroyed in that area. Pictures are difficult to see.

All right. But up first here, we're going to start with the tale of the 1040s. In less than four hours, the Mitt Romney camp will officially release the former governor's 2010 tax returns.

BANFIELD: But dribs and drabs already, you know, coming out. "Washington Post" certainly got a sneak peek out of this. Well, he made $21.6 million in 2010. I don't know that that's such a big surprise.

But how about this part? He paid just over $3 million in tacks. While that sounds like a lot of money, and it is. His effective tax rate is 13.9 percent.

So while you're digesting that, Christine Romans has been breaking it all down and digesting it as well.

I don't know that it's a surprise, but when you see the numbers, it's weird.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I would say it's not surprising but revealing. We're getting a better look at "Reuters" and the major newspapers last night got a sneak preview of these numbers and we're going to see them all in entirety at 8:30 this morning when the Romney camp releases them.

Let's just look at 2010 in detail. This is a vastly wealthy man. This is someone who has made a huge fortune.

And so, he paid -- look, he made $12.6 million in capital gains just in 2010 -- almost $5 million in ordinary income -- ordinary dividends, and $3.3 million in taxable interest. All that stuff -- the reason I point this out for 2010, that's tax add 15 percent. Not the 35 percent if he was making his money from working. So, that's really important here.

Let's look at what's in them. Income from profits, dividends, interest as I was saying from his investments. He made $7 million over two years in charitable contributions. Mostly to the Mormon Church. You will not be able to criticize him for not tithing, because this is someone -- over two years --

SAMBOLIN: Ten percent of his salary.

ROMANS: It's more like 15 percent it looks what he paid to charity. He didn't reveal here that he had a Swiss bank account but "Reuters" reporting that he closed that recently. So, he no longer has a Swiss bank account.

Let's look at a full extent of his assets. We know that he's worth between $190 million and $250 million. He's got an IRA that's worth between $20 million and $101 million. And a blind trust for his wife, about a $10 million blind trust. There are actually three family trusts and a foundation.

What I'm telling you this morning is we'll be spending days, if not weeks going through the more than 500 pages of information here to try to figure out the Swiss bank account, there are assets in the Cayman Islands. Of course, there are tax advantages in the Cayman Islands, looking to see all of this.

One last thing I want to show you, quickly -- how it compares with Newt Gingrich and the president himself. Look, you can't really compare them, I will say that, because Mitt Romney is so wealthy. He is so rich.

I mean, you look at Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, they paid much less in taxes last year because they made a lot less. If you look at the wall here, we're going to show you what it looks like actually. Mitt Romney made an awful lot more.

You can see that the Obamas made about $21 million in income with a $3 million tax there, effective tax rate 13.4 percent tax rate. You take a look then at the Gingriches, $3 million in income, total tax of $994,000 and 31 percent effective tax rate. Then you look at Mitt and Ann Romney, you can see from 2010, their income there, total tax and effective tax rate.

So, that's just something to take a look at to give you a sense of how these compare. But I think that top line number for the 2010 tax return. They made more than $1 million in 2010. You know, over the course of a couple years, they made an awful lot of money.

BANFIELD: I feel that in every kerfuffle of my body. I got to be honest. Why we haven't heard this before? It's like he hasn't run for president before.

ROMANS: Well, he has said he paid about a 15 percent tax rate. We know he's the 1 percent. He has said in the campaign trail, this is not a country of a 99 percent and 1 percent. This is a country that is a 100 percent. And in this country, we want -- we want people to have the opportunity to be able to make a lot of money.

He's also said he didn't inherit his money. He earned his money. I mean, he worked for a long time at Bain Capital in private equity. We're learning more about what private equity does, you know, what they do with companies. How you make money in America.

It's almost sort of the DNA of the American financial system. He is an example of someone who made it.

SAMBOLIN: He's done it really well.

ROMANS: But I will tell you that the narrative in this country right now is about income inequality. He has an awful of lot of money and, you know, he doesn't pay 35 percent income tax, marginal rate, because he's making his money with money. And we tax that differently than we tax actual work in this country.

BANFIELD: Income inequality, me thinks we're going to hear about that tonight.

ROMANS: I think so too.

BANFIELD: All right. Christine, good job. Thanks for that.

Of course, Mitt Romney was admitting that he really kind of fumbled on some of those debates when it was tax pressure.

SAMBOLIN: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: And he thinks it actually cost him South Carolina. He made all that money, as Christine mentioned, you know, long time ago at Bain, and it continues to make its money, all those proceeds.

But does he need to release the returns from the '80s and the '90s?

From Washington now -- let's dig in, shall we? CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser is with us. From Chicago, conservative commentator Lenny McAllister is joining us as well. And from D.C., Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.

All right. Paul, let me start with you.

A lot of people said the tax issue was Mitt Romney's Achilles heel. Has it gone away because he's released two years of tax returns or has is it been made worse for him because, as Christine said, income inequality is going to be a big topic tonight?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Income equality will be a big topic tonight. But right now, Mitt Romney is running for the Republican presidential nomination. So, let's take it one step at a time. I think on that side, he's OK.

Listen, Republicans are about making money. They're about capitalism. He defended himself pretty strongly in that Republican presidential debate last night.

If you weren't counting, that was number 18 by the way.

BANFIELD: Yes, I'm counting. Paul, I'm counting every single one of them, because I go to bed at 5:00 in the afternoon and I got to stay up until 8:00 for the beginning of this thing.

STEINHAUSER: Well, he talked about the taxes last night at the debate and he was pretty strong in defending himself and the success at Bain Capital. And it was one of his strongest debates last, really going on the offense. He was on defense last week. That's what he's trying to do, turn it around -- guys.

BANFIELD: I just keep wondering if he's going to turn it around by saying things like it's the American Dream or something along those lines.

But you know what? Last night, Lenny McAllister, this sounded like the gloves were really -- I hate to say the cliche -- gloves were really off because it was a different Mitt Romney on the stage.

Let me play a quick piece of how he's now going to, I think, characterize Newt Gingrich going forward and the big word, disgrace. Have a look.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994. And at the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace. In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington.


BANFIELD: So, Lenny, is that what you call the equivalent of getting a spine and really digging in?

LENNY MCALLISTER, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, he has to. And what you're going to find him saying is he's going to use the word disgrace and he's going to say influence peddler. And on the flip side of that, you saw this starting Saturday night from Speaker Gingrich after he announced his victory in South Carolina. You're going to hear him use the word elite. If you thought he was using the word elite on Saturday night, after these tax returns came out and they're going to have more information coming out today, wait until you see how many times the word elite is used by Newt Gingrich over the next several days leading up to next Tuesday.

There's going to be a contrast. They're going to try to show Gingrich as erratic and ineffective which is why Gingrich was so silent yesterday. He wasn't on the attack yesterday in order to deflect that criticism.

On the flip side, you're going to see Gingrich try to paint Romney as elitist and detached and somebody that made money off the backs of people that are struggling in this economy. If he could that, Gingrich is going to try to identify himself with the 99 and make Romney out to be the one that everybody is rallying against from the Tea Party to the Occupy movement.

BANFIELD: I keep coming back to that whole notion of the American Dream. I'm an immigrated to this country. I know all about the American Dream. I'm a big fan of it.

So, Maria, is it going to be the battle against the American Dream for Obama or is he going to have to go against perhaps the ethics? I mean, I kind of trying to figure out where Romney's Achilles heel and Gingrich's Achilles hell falls into the Democratic strategy.

MARIA CARDONA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's actually going to be about fairness and it's going to be, frankly, about the American Dream and how the American Dream needs to be available and open for everybody, which right now, a lot of people don't believe that the American Dream is available to them because of the policies that have been put in place by frankly, Republicans who do focus on the 1 percent, on the millionaires, on the billionaires, on the folks like Romney.

Look, the criticism of what Romney did at Bain Capital is not a criticism against capitalism. You know, Democrats love that as much as the next guy. But if you are heading something like Bain Capital where your sole focus is to make money, to become wealthy and to make your investors wealthy, then don't come and run for president to tell us that you are the one who is best suited to look out for the American worker and to look out for the American economy when that was never what you did to begin with at Bain Capital.

So, that, I think, is the argument, the underlying argument that Democrats are going to make, that this president is going to make, that Romney is somebody who is absolutely out of touch with what American workers need, with what the American economy need, in order to put the middle class first and not to put the 1 percent first.

BANFIELD: All I can think is Democrats are licking their chops, I think it was Jeb Bush suggested it, the firing squad has become circular with this primary battle.

So, all right. Paul, and, Lenny, and, Maria, thanks for that. Stick around. I know we have a lot more to talk with you about as well.

And, Christine, you know, these are the kinds of things that the numbers are going to get really chewy, right?

SAMBOLIN: Well, actually, we're talking the numbers because earlier, we were showing what the president and Mrs. Obama made.

ROMANS: Right.

SAMBOLIN: And I thought the numbers, seem a little odd.

ROMANS: I don't think it's right that Mitt Romney made only a million -- somehow we superimposed with the president and his wife made last year and what Mitt Romney made last year. You can't compare them.


ROMANS: Yes, that will end up on YouTube. But all I have to say is there's kind of graphic mistake. It is clear, as I have said many times, that Mitt Romney is fabulously wealthy. He is more wealthy than the president. He is more wealthy, Mitt Romney and he pays a 13.9 percent tax rate, which is lower than the effective tax rate paid by the president and by Newt Gingrich right now.

BANFIELD: Do you want to say that again? I'm kidding.

ROMANS: No, I don't, actually. But I promise when I come back in an hour, it will be -- the graphics for you.

SAMBOLIN: Well, the graphics were lovely. They were lovely -- just, you know, they were superimposed. Thank you so much, Christine. Thanks for that correction.

All right. So, Mitt Romney knows he may have a long fight on his hands for the nomination. That means a lot more debates as well. The former Massachusetts governor gets a debate coach, we understand, probably another one.

Brett O'Donnell, veteran debate adviser, prepped Michele Bachmann during her campaign, joined us last week and joins us now from Tampa.

And we understand that you were with the Romney team last night. Are you a part of that camp now?

BRETT O'DONNELL, PRESIDENT, O'DONNELL AND ASSOCIATES: Well, I might be. I'm not sure what's going to happen. But I was happy to join them yesterday, just to give them some advice. They've been reaching out for some time and so, it was just -- you know, they brought me in to take a look at their operation yesterday.

SAMBOLIN: So, you were just taking a look yesterday because it's a very different Romney that we saw. He was very fired up.

Did you have anything do with that? Was that any of your advice?

O'DONNELL: Well, no. I think they've got a great team around them. And so, you know, they put together the strategy and I think the governor realizes that this is going to be a tough battle and that, you know, he was engaging Newt Gingrich a lot more last evening.

SAMBOLIN: So, let's talk about Newt Gingrich, because normally he's verbally very strong, especially when he has a crowd behind him. Last night, he seemed a little tongue-tied. Let's listen to this and you can weigh in on it.


ROMNEY: You have congressmen who say that you came and lobbied them with regards to Medicare Part D. At the same time, your center was taking in contributions --

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You jumped a long way over here friend.

ROMNEY: Well, another area of influence peddling.

GINGRICH: No. Let me be very clear. Because I understand your technique, which you used on McCain, you used on Huckabee, you've used consistently. OK?

It's unfortunate. It's not going to work very well because the American people see through it.


SAMBOLIN: What happened there in your opinion?

O'DONNELL: Well, I thought that was a very telling moment last evening. I thought that, you know, these things are almost like prize fights. And that was one of the few moments in any of the debates where Newt Gingrich is literally left speechless. I think that he was -- you know, I think all of the candidates are a little worn out by all of the debates.

And I think Speaker Gingrich maybe showed that a little bit last night. He was a little tired and I think Mitt Romney got the better of him in that exchange and for a moment, I'm not sure how he wanted to -- I don't think Speaker Gingrich knew how he wanted to react in that situation.

SAMBOLIN: And what about his point that the Americans will see through this tactic? What do you think? How do you think folks are going to respond to that?

O'DONNELL: Well, no, I think that this is -- you know, this is sort of a stock answer that he's come up with. That's been a strategy of Speaker Gingrich. He used this on Michele Bachmann when she was running. You get your facts wrong.

He sort of got these stock answers that he uses to answer charges by other candidates. But, you know, this is a specific charge that Governor Romney is laying out on his lobbying for Freddie Mac and on his lobbying for the health care industry. He didn't do anything to answer those charges.

He released his contract from Freddie Mac, but I took a look personally at the contract and it does not answer the questions that are being asked by both Governor Romney and the press.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Let's talk about the negativity in debates, because Romney had been complaining about that. But moderator Brian Williams pointed that he is actually contributing to it. Listen to what he said, or what Williams asked him and the response, and we'll talk about that.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Do you pledge to spend your time going after the incumbent president, yet here we are again?

ROMNEY: I'll tell you why, which I learned something from the last contest in South Carolina. And that was -- I had incoming from all directions, was overwhelmed with a lot of the attacks. I'm not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire.


SAMBOLIN: So overwhelmed doesn't sound like a word that you would want to use. How did you feel about that?

O'DONNELL: Yes, I'm not sure that that's the correct word choice. I do think that, you know, the debates up until this point, where they've gone down to four people, have really not been what we would consider debates. They've been really joint press conferences where each candidate has given their position on the issues. But now they are debates where the candidates are being asked to contrast with one another. And when that happens, they're going to be on the attack. They'll be offense.

And I think you saw Speaker Gingrich did that. I think actually Rick Santorum had one of his best moments ever in the debates last evening at the end of the debate when he went after both Mitt Romney and Speaker Gingrich.

So, you know, the fewer people there are in the debates, the more likely there will be clash. And that's really what a debate is. A debate is a clash of ideas.

And I think this is good. It's really a testing out of the candidates and their positions and it will harden them down in the battle against President Obama in the fall.

SAMBOLIN: Well, it's certainly fun to watch. Brett O'Donnell, thanks for joining us this morning.

And you can stay with CNN now through November for the best political coverage on television.

Coming up at 8:00 Eastern on STARTING POINT, Soledad O'Brien goes one-on-one with Newt Gingrich surrogate Trent Franks. She'll ask the Arizona congressman how this candidate plans to seal the deal in Florida, and rally the party behind him moving forward.

BANFIELD: And still ahead, you know, yesterday we were talking about the terrible winds coming through communities that were still in the dark and when the light came up. Look at the devastation.

We're going to run down exactly what happened, how many homes and lives were lost. This is a place that can afford it least. We'll tell you why.

You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: It is 5:20 in the East. Welcome back to EARLY START.

We are counting down to the State of the Union as President Obama takes center stage tonight. It's the third State of the Union Address and sources say that he'll present his blueprint for an economy built to last.

Among the proposals here.

BANFIELD: Bunch of them, in fact. Here's what we know. Tax reform, so that the wealthier Americans pay more.

Also, those Bush tax cuts you always hear about, set to expire. And I believe that's what the president would like to see happen.

Also, more refinancing for all you homeowners out there who are struggling with really high rates. Making it a little bit easier to get at that re-fi deal.

Also, additional tax breaks for companies that bring jobs to this country, instead of exporting them out.

More clean energy incentives -- something that's not on the Republican agenda, that's for sure.

And enhanced education and job training initiatives as well.

The president knew way back in 2009, this is not going to be easy.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will be held accountable. You know, I've got four years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're going to know quickly how people feel about what's happened.

OBAMA: That's exactly right. And, you know, a year from now, I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress, but there's still going to be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one- term proposition.


BANFIELD: Yes, I think we're going to hear that sound bite. Did you see the color of his hair?

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my gosh, he looks totally different there, doesn't he?

BANFIELD: What a difference three-and-a-half years can make.


BANFIELD: Unbelievable.

SAMBOLIN: They say stress doesn't do that to you, right, a little gray hair and --

BANFIELD: You know, they do say that although --


BANFIELD: They're just as agey as we are.

Let's jump to Brianna Keilar who's live in Washington, who covers this stuff for a living, shall we say.

All right. So, one of the big questions about for you, Brianna, was this -- State of the Union is always something that has to be somewhat political. After all, it is your party in power. But tonight in particular, we are in the thick of it in the Republican race.

So, how much of this is going to be an election speech and how much is this going to be really a state of how our Union is?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, Ashleigh, for sure that it's going to be both. And the sort of problem her or the challenge for President Obama is that politicking isn't necessarily presidential, right? Especially for a president who has billed himself as post-partisan.

But if you talk to White House officials, they would sort of make the argument that what's good for governing is good for politics, and they would say there's no distinction. But, of course, this is going to be political. It's always political for a president when it's the year that he's facing reelection.

And I think one of the ways that you can really tell that it's going to be very political would be to look at the states that he's going to on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, following the State of the Union to sell his message. He'll be in Iowa, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and Michigan. Many of these states play into the strategy of the campaign for states that they need to win in the general election if, say, President Obama loses Ohio, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Oh, Ohio. Always the swing state we end up talking about, isn't it? And I think he's going to be headed to Ohio soon, if I remember correctly on some schedule.

Let me ask you this -- remember when you were covering politics back in 1948 and President Truman ran on the whole platform of the do- nothing Congress. And that's kind of how a lot of people think this president is going to campaign. Not so much against whoever this Republican nominee is going to be, but against this Congress.

Is that off the mark?

KEILAR: Well, I think definitely Congress has been a very good foil for President Obama. You're going to see that tonight. No doubt.

But I also think that you'll be seeing him kind of lumping certainly the Republican field and really keep in mind the concentration here of the campaign and of President Obama is very much Mitt Romney. That is who they have in their sights, not so much Newt Gingrich even though there's this sort of uncertainty right now in the Republican presidential field.

And you'll be seeing some of arguments that he'll be making tonight, some of the things he's proposing will sort of lump Republicans in Congress and Mitt Romney in a way together. Not that you would hear him talk about Mitt Romney by name.

But you mentioned before, Ashleigh, he'll be pushing for tax reform, letting those Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire. This goes to that message of his that the wealthy should pay their fair share. This is something that's worked for him for Congress. And it's certainly something that his campaign, that his advisers would say would work for him against Mitt Romney, of course, who's paying that low tax -- that low effective tax rate.

So, I think you'll be seeing him hammering both in a way.

BANFIELD: Yes, you'll have to watch for that strategy as to whether they're going to go after Mitt Romney as, you know, their target or whether that will shift to Newt Gingrich.

Brianna, thank you. And we'll see you later at the White House, I'm sure. Thanks for that.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Lots of politics.

But we also want to talk about the weather, turning to the South now, in the state of Alabama. It's trying to begin recovering after three powerful tornadoes tore through that state. It's 150 mile an hour winds. They were clocked in Jefferson County.

In Tuscaloosa, a 400-yard wide path of destruction. Look at that -- 140 mile per hour winds uprooted two dozen pine trees. At 8:00 p.m. last night, Alabama restores power to 55,000 customers.

My goodness, that's a disaster area there.

Reynolds Wolf is live in Clay, Alabama, with more.

What can you tell us?

REYNOLDS WOLF, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, I can tell you, I heard when you mentioned about one of the tornadoes having a path of 400 yards wide. I can tell you that in this community of Gladbrook (ph), right near Clay, Alabama, the one that came through was as wide as a football field, about a hundred yards. And this was one of the edges -- went through part of this house.

This house, what's amazing is, it's just a little over 24 hours ago, it was standing tall and you see the remains of it right now. The center part of the house in pretty good shape. In the foreground, you can see a little bit of black metal.

Mike Callaway (ph) is our photojournalist. Mike, hold on for one second. Stay right there if you can, man. There are a lot of nails and stuff.

This, I don't know if you can hear this, piece of metal. That's actually part of a travel trailer that was only like a few streets over that was picked up by winds topping 150 miles an hour, slammed right against this house and for the most part, disintegrated. Sure, you see the framework but everything else is gone.

And if you look at the timbers that hold the house together. It's got all kinds of things wrapped up and all kinds of -- insulation, you see other wires, even clothes from other houses.

What's amazing about this is despite the devastation that we had in the subdivision, subdivision about 100 homes, about 25 to 30 completely beyond repair at this point. There's only one house where someone suffered a major injury. Thankfully, they will recover from those injuries, expecting a full recovery.

However, it was a 16-year-old girl not far from this community and also a man who is 82 years old. Both lost their lives. And, you certainly can't put a price on that. Just a heartbreaking event for both families.

And again, the cleanup continues.

SAMBOLIN: Terrible. And last year, 20 people died during those powerful storms in that area. They can't catch a break.

Thanks for joining us.

WOLF: Absolutely.

SAMBOLIN: At 5:45 Eastern, we're going to talk to Art Faulkner. He's the director of Alabama's Emergency Management Agency.

EARLY START will be right back.


SAMBOLIN: Does this make you happy in the morning, the music? I love it.

BANFIELD: She's rocking out.


BANFIELD: It is 5:31 Eastern. And I'm glad that you can rock out at 5:31 in the morning, my friend.


SAMBOLIN: This is my hour. I really like it at this hour.

BANFIELD: Does it the music --

SAMBOLIN: It is. Let's do that.

BANFIELD: Let's do headlines, shall we? Well, here's a good headline for you if you're waking up.


BANFIELD (voice-over): How do you like the rich? Well, apparently, this guy is one of them. We're getting a sneak peek at Mitt Romney's federal tax returns, and boy is he loaded. "Washington Post" is reporting Romney earns a total of just over $45 million in the last two years and paid, get ready, a total of $6.2 million in taxes.

I know you're doing the math. But you know what, it's around 13- ish and 14-ish and 15-ish, percent depending on the year. Romney's campaign is going to formally release the tax return at 8:30 this morning.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): And two more bodies have been recovered from the wreckage of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, off the coast of Italy. That brings the number of confirmed victims to 15. Seventeen people are still unaccounted for. Italian officials say salvage workers have started pumping fuel out of the cruise liner again today.

BANFIELD: And it got pretty ugly. Some very intense exchanges between Mitt Romney and Speaker Gingrich during last night's Republican presidential debate in Florida. The governor accusing the speaker of being a Washington influence peddler for Freddie Mac, and Newt Gingrich denying those charges and all the calling Mitt Romney a liar. Florida's primary is set for next Tuesday.


SAMBOLIN (on-camera): So, Ashleigh, if you like your debates nasty --

BANFIELD (on-camera): Sure.

SAMBOLIN: -- Florida was the place to be last night. The attacks are getting very personal. Romney turning the aggressor now. Is this the new Mitt Romney and can he get over those tax returns? Let's talk to our political panel. From Washington, CNN political editor, Paul Steinhauser, from Chicago, conservative commentator, Lenny McAllister, and from Washington, Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona.

Paul, I want to begin with you because you're a numbers guy. Of course, we all know that those tax returns are being released today by Mitt Romney. We got a little bit of a preview, and it shows Mitt and Ann Romney, I'm going to show the numbers here again just in case anybody miss that.

Mitt and Ann Romney had an adjusted gross income over $21.6 million. Adjusted gross income is a total income minus a few specific expenses and fees. The effective tax rate, 13.9 percent. This is not the full extent of his net assets. And IRA and blind trust also in there. And, comparing it to the rivals, he pays the lowest effective tax rate.

It all looks really legal. I know that we're going to tear this apart a bit. But my question here is, can he spin this? Could he use this to sell himself as a savvy businessman who can turn the economy around?

STEINHAUSER: Yes, and he was actually trying to do that in the debate last night down in Florida. You know, listen, in the Republican primary, this doesn't hurt you too that much of an extent because Republicans are about capitalism. The Republicans are about creating jobs, making jobs, being successful, building companies, and that's what Mitt Romney will defend himself on.

And as for the tax rate, we've been through this already, because his tax rate, of course, is on investments and not on actual income. And that's why it's a lot lower than most Americans. And also, listen, we've known for quite some time, because he had to put a financial disclosure form a while ago, so we knew this guy was wealthy.

Not a lot of huge headlines here right here right off the battle. Of course, we're going to dig a lot deeper once these things come out at 8:30 a.m. eastern. But right off the bat, yes. I mean this story has been around for a while. He was uncomfortable with it last week. He's trying to get it out of the way, and we saw he's trying to go from defense to offense in these presidential debates.

He's got another chance as well on Thursday night with our CNN debate in Jacksonville. You know, I had to get a plug in there.

SAMBOLIN: Nice little plug there. I got to tell you, for me, it's been an education on the tax code. But Maria, let's turn over to you. Let's talk about the debate last night. And, obviously, the economy is number one for Floridians, but a good part of the debate was spent on immigration, which actually surprised me.

They tackled the Dream Act. Listen to what Gingrich and Romney said last night, and then, we're going to talk about it.


NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would work to get a signable version, which will be the military component. I think any young person living in the United States who happened -- brought here by their parents when they were very young should have the same opportunity to join the American military and earn citizenship which they would have had from back home.

ROMNEY: That's the same position that I have. And that is that I would not sign the Dream Act as is currently exists, but I would sign a Dream Act if it were focused on military service.


SAMBOLIN: OK. That surprised me, Maria. Are they finally on the same page here, because it was in Iowa that Romney said he would actually veto the Dream Act. And you know as well as I do that for Latinos in Florida, the number one issue is really the economy and immigration reform actually falls to number six. Is this still an attempt for him to court the Latino vote?

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: He's trying to, Zoraida. But again, what we saw last night was yet another flip-flop, because you're right, he said from the very beginning that he would actually veto the Dream Act, and what he did last night was when he heard Gingrich basically talk about a version of the Dream Act that had military service in it, he just started saying, oh, me too, me too.

In his attempt, knowing full well the audience that he was playing to that he needed some sort of morsel to throw to the Latino community. It's clearly not going to be enough. Latinos, yes, you are absolutely right. The main focus is the economy, it's jobs.

But, immigration and especially the Dream Act have become what we call a filter issue, which is, if Latinos don't like the way that you are talking to the community about immigration, about the Dream Act, which basically not just the majority of Latinos, but the majority of Americans believe that it is good policy.

They're not going to listen to you on anything else. So, both Gingrich as well as Romney have put themselves in a box in terms of really trying to go after the Latino vote. And as you know, no Republican candidate can get to the White House with at least 40 percent of Latino voters. They're not even going to make it to the low 20s right now.

SAMBOLIN: Lenny, I need to let you chime in on this. Will it look like a flip-flop?

LENNY MCALLISTER, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: It absolutely will look like a flip-flop, because once again, you have Romney who has to play catch-up with Gingrich right now, catching up to Gingrich on an issue. Romney started out the debate leading the aggression, leading the offensive and having Gingrich react to him which made Gingrich look a little tentative.

And then, halfway through the debate, this issue comes up and right back again, Gingrich is out front, looking more presidential, and Romney is catering to him and trying to catch up. That's not a good image for Romney. He can't look that way on Thursday, particularly, with the immigration issue while he's in Florida.

If he does, once again, this tie that we see in the national polls is going to start swinging a little bit more towards Gingrich.

SAMBOLIN: Lenny, Paul, Maria, nice talking to you.

CARDONA: Thank you so much.

MCALLISTER: Thank you, Zoraida.

BANFIELD: And coming up we might, we might be adding one more state in the union to the group that allows same sex marriage in this country. Do you know which one it is and do you know why? We're only saying might. We're not saying will. We're going to sort it all out for you in a moment. You are watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: I couldn't tell if he was dancing or pointing at us to stay start?

BANFIELD: He was doing both. (LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: It's your turn to talk. It's 40 minutes past hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

SAMBOLIN: We have friendship page faces. You know how you have the newspapers and you don't know who's behind the articles. So, we're talking to the folks this morning. So, we have the headlines out of Washington shall the state that is. It's one step closer to legalizing same sex marriage. If it all passes, Washington State will be the seventh state plus the District of Columbia to legalize gay marriage.

The legislature now has the votes to pass it and state senator, Mary Margaret Hogan, announced her support saying in part, "I do not believe it is my role to judge others regardless of my personal believes. I have always believed in traditional marriage between a man and a woman, but this issue isn't about just what I believe. It's about whether everyone has the same opportunities for love and companionship and family and security that I have enjoyed."

And on the phone now is Evan Wolfson. He is a face in the founder of "Freedom to Marry." It is an organization fighting for marriage equality. Thank you for joining us this morning.

EVAN WOLFSON, FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT OF FREEDOM TO MARRY (on the phone): You're welcome. I'm glad to be with you.

SAMBOLIN: So, Washington state is pretty progressive. Back in 2007, you passed a domestic partnership law, and it allowed things like hospital visitation and community property. And then in 2009, you passed a bill granting same sex domestic partners all the rights and benefits that married couples have. So, why take it this step further? Why is it such an important milestone?

WOLFSON: Well, because actually, the bill that you're talking about, the domestic partnership law which definitely was a step forward and gave families many important protections didn't provide all the protections and responsibilities of marriage because the only way to do that is by ending the exclusion from marriage itself.

When you don't give people the most important thing, which is the ability to stand in front of their family and friends and neighbors and communities and the law and say, this is the person I'm building a life with. We want the same and have worked to have the same and take on the responsibilities of the same commitment, which is called marriage, then you're already putting those families in a place where they're more vulnerable to the insecurity and unknown that comes to people when they don't share in the same language that we all understand.

The word we all understand is marriage. When you say I'm married, everyone knows who you are in relationship to the primary person you're building a life with.

SAMBOLIN: Evan, I found it interesting that you have some major companies supporting your efforts, Nike and Microsoft. Why is that?

WOLFSON: Because they know that what's good for business is treating people in the workforce with respect, encouraging people to be part of the community or part of the company and not have to worry about what's happening back at home when they're at work. And that's why businesses in this country have moved way ahead ironically of where many of the state governments are.

And now, we have states like Washington saying we want to be part of this. We want to keep up. We want to actually compete in the global economy. We don't want to be putting barriers in people's way when they're trying care (ph) for their love one.

SAMBOLIN: Evan, this is the most high-profile issue before the legislature this session. Do you think it has all of the support that it needs to pass? And if not, what's your strategy?

WOLFSON: Yes. I think the announcement yesterday that you've been talked about, from senator who obviously really wrestled with this like a lot of Americans have and decided that it's wrong to deny to others the respect and protection and love and commitment that she treasures in her own life. That was the vote that we believe will put us over the top.

And so, I do believe it's going to pass through the legislature, but the challenge really is that in Washington as in many other states, unfortunately, there's a process that says that even when the legislature passes a law, it can be forced on to an up or down vote by the majority. And you know, typically in America, we don't really believe that people's basic rights should be up put up to a vote by the majority.

Like whether people should vote on your freedom of speech or your freedom of religion or your freedom to marry, but we have to be prepared for that vote, and we're working very hard to do that.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Evan Wolfson, founder and president of "Freedom to Marry," thanks for being with us this morning.

BANFIELD: And from the Pacific Northwest issues to the crisis in the southeast. Alabama is reeling. There are hundreds of homes that have been completely destroyed. The governor is doing some visitations around these places. There are people who have lost their lives. There are people who are injured and emergency management is busy.

We're going to talk to the director of Alabama's emergency management next.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to early start. I'm Zoraida Sambolin along with Ashleigh Banfield.

BANFIELD: We have a lot of news that we're covering, not the least (ph) of which we started this story yesterday with storm system just flying through the southeast, and we bring the story to you today without good news to report, unfortunately. We can tell you that Alabama is really recovering from a battering.

Just take a look at the pictures. Two people dead. At least 100 people hurt. Two hundred homes or more destroyed. The entire state is in a state of emergency. And, you might remember that the state is also recovering from deadly tornadoes that just struck last spring. So, they are the state that, perhaps, or one at least can least afford to have an incident like this.

On the phone with us live from Montgomery, Alabama is Art Faulkner, who is the director of Alabama's emergency management. Mr. Faulkner, thanks for being with us. Let me just ask you right off the bat, do we know -- actually, you're not on the phone, you're on camera, and thank you for doing that for us.

Do we know if we have the assessment final yet or could this story get even worse with the number of homes destroyed, two people dead? Are we still doing counting at this point?

ART FAULKNER, DIRECTOR, ALABAMA EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Well, we certainly hope that we don't have an increase in our fatalities or injuries. We believe that our first responders did a great job yesterday of going out and trying to locate everyone, and so, we really feel that those numbers are pretty accurate. Certainly, two is too many, but thankfully, this morning, we're not facing what we were facing last spring.

BANFIELD: Well, especially with the pictures that we're seeing, Mr. Faulkner. To think that only two people died and that is, you right, is too many, and the number of injuries, over a hundred, I think, at this point. But when you look at these pictures with entire destruction homes that are wiped off the foundations, it is pretty miraculous which I think begs the question.

Was there enough time to get that notice out to people to get into their shelters or seek cover, because this happened in the middle of the night?

FAULKNER: Well, we have been working with the National Weather Service throughout the weekend. And, you know, Governor Bentley on Sunday had ordered all state agencies to be ready, because we knew that this system could be potentially severe. There had been deadly storms overnight in Arkansas.

And, you know, I think that our people on the heels of the spring of last year saw the importance of having a plan and listening when the warnings were issued. And so, hopefully, that contributed to the very low loss of life and the injuries.

BANFIELD: The timing of this could not have been more bizarre. I didn't realize this as we were bringing the story to our viewers yesterday morning as the storm was just starting to come through, but yesterday was actually kind of a critical day for you all because the tornado recovery action council, which is as I understand, is a state organization that was hired to figure out how you all are doing in terms of emergency preparation.

It was due to set out the report yesterday with all its recommendations. So, I suppose my question is this. Are you going to be able to do better given that you got those recommendations now and how unfortunate is it that it came late?

FAULKNER: Well, that summation (ph) was set up by Governor Robert Bentley in the wake of the storms last year. And it was a committee of business people to go out and to meet with all the aspects of the state, the first responders, the elected officials and the general public. And I think that was the most important of going out and talking to the general public, finding out what we did right and what we needed to improve upon.

And while that report was not able to be issued yesterday, fortunately, it will be able to be formally presented to Governor Bentley today, and hopefully, in the wake of this storm, it will show that much more importance of having that safety plan and us going in there and trying to focus on those recommendations of the council.

BANFIELD: Well, Mr. Faulkner, our thoughts are with you and everyone in your state as you try to sort of put those pieces back together. And like you said, this could have been so, so much worse given the vast destruction that we've seen in these pictures. Thanks very much for being with us.

FAULKNER: Thank you, Ashleigh.

SAMBOLIN: A lot of work ahead there, huh?

BANFIELD: I just hate seeing those pictures, and we see them all too often.

SAMBOLIN: I'm going to switch gears here, dramatically. Did you hear about the showdown yesterday at the Nashville airport?

BANFIELD: I did, actually. And I thought it was somewhat funny but also interesting.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, very interesting. Senator Rand Paul versus the TSA. Who won? We'll tell you when we come back.


SAMBOLIN: All right. We are keeping you in the pop culture loop this morning by taking a looking at what's trending on the web and on social media. We're laughing about this one. Kentucky senator, Rand Paul, versus the TSA. So, he refused a pat-down at the airport security in Nashville after he set off a scanner alarm. He said he was ejected from the screening area. Those are his words.


SAMBOLIN: And that he was detained, also, he said.

BANFIELD: Right. And you should have seen our Blackberries, they were on fire yesterday as this was happening. TSA, though, says no, no. He left the checkpoint willingly. And he was eventually booked on another flight to Washington, because he had to miss his flight. But you know what it does bring up the big argument that a lot of us go through.

Do we find that we, our privacy, just completely invaded when we go through airport security or do you appreciate the fact that they are careful and they are not going to let another 9/11 happen on their watch?

SAMBOLIN: Well, he's been arguing the issue with the TSA, specifically. And so what he did was for two hours, he refused the pat-down because he wanted them to go back through the scanner again. And at the end, he won.


SAMBOLIN: He went through the scanner again.

BANFIELD: Well, it's a win-lose, though, right?


BANFIELD: He's late for whatever meeting, I'm sure, he's supposed to do. I tell you what, I still appreciate what the TSA does. And you know what, I hear them get yelled out a lot. I have not appreciated some of them in the way they treated me and some of those -- the pat-downs. But, overall, I think, you know, I feel safer going through security than I did on September 10, 2001.

SAMBOLIN: Well, you know what he says, though, that they randomly go off. That those scanners actually randomly go off.


SAMBOLIN: And that's why he's refusing the --

BANFIELD: And the TSA said no, that's not true, the big scanners, anyway. But, some of the other things can randomly go off like the x-ray of your bags, that can happen. But we digress, because, boy, there's a bigger issue. Mitt Romney's money. Money, money, money. It's a trump thing, isn't it?

The trump is not running and Mitt is. And it got fiery and aggressive last night. Newt Gingrich on the right on the defense. Wow. Can you believe it? After the debates before this where he was on the offense. Well, we're going to break it all down for you.