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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Interview with Jack and Suzy Welch; Giffords Resigns; President of Group Supporting Mitt Romney Interviewed; Thompson Backing Gingrich; War of Words

Aired January 27, 2012 - 08:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT.

And we're coming to you live this morning from the Beach Hut Cafe in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. The specialty is Crabs Benedict, which is quite delicious. I'm working on my second order. I wanted to look pretty. You can dig in, Candy, if you want to.

Anyway, our STARTING POINT this morning, GOP candidates come out swinging at last night's debate. There were lots of buzz-worthy moments. Here's one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: OK. All right.

Given that -- given that -- given that standard, Mitt, I did say I thought it was unusual, and I don't know of any American president who's had a Swiss bank account. I'll be glad for you to explain that sort of thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: This was an interesting debate last night, I thought. We're going to break down some of the winners and losers.

Also, former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, is going to join us. He says Mitt Romney is the perfect candidate and somebody should drop out so that he can win the nomination. We'll talk to Jack and Suzy Welch straight ahead.

Plus, actor and former Senator Fred Thompson will join us live. He'll tell us why he is supporting Newt Gingrich to be the nominee.

And could Gabrielle Giffords' husband, the astronaut Mark Kelley run for her now vacant congressional seat that some people have suggested. We had a chance to sit down and talk to him one on one about that.

Those stories, much more ahead. STARTING POINT begins right now.

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: Thank you for playing my music today. It only took two days of begging on my own show. Finally, they're playing my choice.

Yes, that's a morning music. That's morning music. That's a little Usher to get you up and going, getting dressed, watching the show. Come on.

Welcome, everybody. This is the Beach Hut Cafe. And before we move on to our discussion about last night's debate, this is the delicacy as I mentioned, the Crab Eggs Benedict which is crabs covered with egg and covered with hollandaise sauce.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Candy is looking at like -- she doesn't love it.

Candy Crowley has joined our panel. After a late night last night, she's nice to come in early.

I got to tell you, this is a restaurant that's been here for 24 years. Dick and Desiree Downing are the proprietors. And they've been very nice to have us. So, we're kind of taking up the entire middle section of the restaurant.

All right. Let's talk about the debate last night and what it means for the push for the Florida primary. The stakes are pretty high. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich kind of trading barbs all night. It was a pretty interesting debate, I thought. Each trying to build momentum to clinch Tuesday's vote.

We got our panel back this morning. And also, Jack Welch, who's the founder of Jack Welch Management Institute. And Suzy Welch, his wife, who's also a bestselling author. They're columnists as well for "Reuters."

Thanks for joining us. We certainly appreciate it.

I know you guys have a new column out, in fact, today, Jack, and it's all about Ron Paul. And your takeaway is, get out of the race.

Why do you tell him that?

JACK WELCH, CONTRIBUTOR, REUTERS: Well, I'm not saying that. I tie it to current events and business issues. We're saying that in our view, Ron Paul will not be a finalist in this campaign and that the GOP is going to have to exit him just as you have to exit employees.

So the management lesson here is the same one you have with employees. When you let them go, you've got to let them go with dignity and voice. You've got to take care of them because they're going to be suppliers, customers, friends, recommendations. You want them as your friend.

Ron Paul is going to exit left on this stage sometime down the road before August or in August and the GOP doesn't want to lose those wonderful voters that he's brought on board. So how well they treat Ron Paul going forward is a very big deal just the way you layoff employees is a very big deal.

O'BRIEN: Let me -- I'm going to run a little bit of what your column says about Ron Paul. It says this, "Paul and his followers promise to be a lot like that fired employee who, if handled incorrectly at farewell, will make it his life's work to if not bring your organization down, at least show you how very wrong you were to cut the cord."

What are -- it sounds like you're very concerned about the potential downside of a bad Ron Paul exit, is that right? Is that fair to say, Suzy?

SUZY WELCH, COLUMNIST AND BESTSELLING AUTHOR: You know, Ron Paul's followers are not party regulars. He's not a party regular. He really has these very, very impassioned followers. All four of our children are huge Ron Paul followers so we're living with this.

If you let them go, they're not going to go into the booth and they're not going to pull the lever for whoever the nominee is, probably Romney it looks like at this point. They're not going to pull that lever. So, you have to engage them and say, not like this is a booby prize. What were the issues you really cared about?

And so, it's very important, if you alienate them, you will -- either they'll stay home or they'll work against you.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you, you guys have said that he is the -- Mitt Romney I'm speaking about now is the perfect candidate. When you look at the new poll numbers, there's a new Quinnipiac poll that I want to throw up on the screen, Mitt Romney at 38 percent, is where he's polling, Newt Gingrich at 29 percent. It's almost exactly a flip of the poll we got yesterday, which the NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" which had Newt Gingrich at 37 percent, and Mitt Romney at 28 percent.

If he's such a perfect candidate why does that message not seem to get out to anybody else?

J. WELCH: Well, Soledad, that's a great question. Until last night his debate performances had certainly not been those of the perfect candidate. Last night, he did shine in the debate, and I think you'll see that reflected in the Florida results, but we'll have to see.

Last night was his best night on the debate stage. Up to that time, he had not been a rising star -- although he has every credential one would want, whether it be in business, whether it be in saving the Olympics. And I think you remember that, and when he was governor. He's had all the right experience to go there.

S. WELCH: He has great credentials. There obviously is some kind of --

O'BRIEN: Go ahead, Suzy.

S. WELCH: I'm saying there's some kind of connect -- you know, I think his credentials are as Jack says. There has obviously been some kind of connection gap with the voters, some kind of, you know, authenticity issue. I think people have trouble believing or coming to terms with the fact that he is the Boy Scout he appears to be.

O'BRIEN: Well, you know what? I would change that a little bit. I'm going to open this up to our panel as well because I want to ask them a question. I'll come back to you guys, which is I don't think the Boy Scout thing is exactly framing it correctly. I think some of it is the self-inflicted wounds where he talks about his money managers and he's talked about his lawyers and trying to give money to his kids.

He went to -- I was attending an event where he was talking about telling people who were unemployed, I'm unemployed too, which was technically true but probably unwise.

MARIA CARDONA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: When you talk about having a trustee and having a trustee make decisions about your millions of dollars of investments, when you talk about having a supposed secret Swiss bank account, these are not things that the average voter can relate to.

O'BRIEN: David Frum?

DAVID FRUM, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: His problem is one of followership, not leadership. That his core problem -- his selling point was he was the governor who brought universal health coverage to his state. When you say you can't talk about the single thing that you did that was best and biggest, then obviously, all these other side issues take on -- the Mitt Romney we saw in 2006 ought to be the Mitt Romney we take to the country in 2012.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let me ask a final question to Jack and Suzy. And I want to tell you, everybody should look at their "Reuters" article. It's really fascinating I thought about Ron Paul.

But I want to ask about Newt Gingrich. Let's say, hypothetically, nobody ever answers my hypothetical questions, but I'm going to try again anyway. Hypothetically, Newt Gingrich is the candidate. Do you as Republicans say, OK, we will support him?

J. WELCH: Well, I will clearly, yes, support the Republican nominee against the current incumbent under any circumstances.

S. WELCH: And I think that, you know, the policies of the Republican Party --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: OK. Thank you, Suzy. Sorry to cut you off there. We appreciate you guys joining us this morning.

We've got to take a turn and look at other stories that are making headlines. Christine Romans has those for us.

Hey, Christine. Good morning again.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hi there. Good morning, Soledad.

Two teenagers are arrested for allegedly trying to carry out a bomb attack. Police say the two students from Utah's Roy High School, about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City, they plotted to set off explosives during a school assembly and steal a plan to make a getaway.

Eighteen year old Dallin Morgan and a 16-year-old boy whose name is not being released were reportedly planning this for months. Police did not find any explosives at the school or at the teen's home.

Freed hostages Jessica Buchanan and Poul Tisted are now at a U.S. military base in Sicily after their rescue from Somali pirates. Their families released a joint statement, saying, quote, "We are grateful for all the efforts that have been put into getting them safely back to the U.S. and for the fact that a very difficult in their lives and our lives is over." They have been held captive since the end of October.

Stepping up the manhunt right now for a convicted killer in Mississippi, there's a reward to find Joseph Ozment, one of the fellows pardoned by former Governor Haley Barbour. We're also learning that the files for 10 pardoned criminals, including the four murderers are missing. They were supposed to be turned over by the governor's office, but no one knows where they are.

New York City police report that a big cocaine seizure happened at the United Nations, of all places. Officials say the drugs were placed in a white bag apparently in an attempt to disguise the shipment as an official diplomatic pouch but it raised suspicions because it was stamped with a pretty poorly copied version of the U.N. logo.

All right. The wheel was spinning, and so was the host. "Wheel of Fortune" host Pat Sajak coming clean on what he and the lovely Vanna White would do during dinner breaks during filming.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAT SAJAK, "WHEEL OF FORTUNE" HOST: Vanna and I would go across and have two or three or six, and then come and do the last shows and have trouble recognizing the alphabet. They're really good tapes to get ahold of.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Sajak says it happened when the show first started and when he was an awful lot younger -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Yes, that's our secret, too. Mimosas for everyone at breakfast. Kidding.

All right. Ahead this morning -- thanks, Christine. Ahead on STARTING POINT, it could be a two-man fight for Florida seems to be emerging. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich came out swinging in the latest debate. The former Florida commissioner of agriculture is Adam Putnam, and he is endorsing Mitt Romney. The actor and former senator Fred Thompson is backing Newt Gingrich. We're going to have them both come out and join us at the diner and talk about why.

Also, what's going to happen to Gabrielle Giffords' now vacant congressional seat? There are who say her husband, the astronaut Mark Kelly could run for it. We'll ask him his thoughts on that coming up next.

You're watching STARTING POINT, everybody. We're back after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: In honor of all the Latinos here in this great state of Florida, we are playing Maria Cardona's ipod, and this will be "Willie Colon."

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: "Willie Colon" (speaking foreign language)

O'BRIEN: Oh, very nice. Very nice. People, lively.

CARDONA: Thank you. Right?

O'BRIEN: We're working on it. Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. Gabby Giffords resigned from Congress this week. It was so sad to see that, actually. Tears I thought on both sides of the aisle. I had a chance to talk with her husband, Mark Kelly, yesterday. And he says, this is not the end of her political career. In some ways, it could be the beginning of something else. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: On Wednesday, Gabby presented her letter of resignation. I mean, as an outsider, really, just honestly, heartbreaking to watch. What was it like for you to have that read?

MARK KELLY, HUSBAND OF GABBY GIFFORDS: I was sitting up in the gallery when her colleague, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, her colleague and friend read her letter of resignation. And, you know, it was sad. It was sad for Gabby. There were a lot of tears on the floor of the House.

You know, it was the end of Gabby's Congressional career, something she, you know, she really treasured. So, it was a sad day.

O'BRIEN: Why is she leaving now? How much does it have to do with sort of the rehabilitation for her injuries? I know that it's much harder after 18 months to recover and you're kind of in the 12- month window. Did that have something to do with it?

KELLY: Well, I mean, she -- you know, coming up to -- well, in the last month to six weeks, Gabby came to the conclusion that she was not going to be ready to run for re-election, was not going to be ready to get back to work. And, it was more important that she focus on her rehab, you know, for a long-term goal of being able to, you know, return to work some day.

But it was very clear to her that she wasn't ready to get back.

O'BRIEN: Was that her decision or was that her doctor's saying, you're not ready yet?

KELLY: No, it was 100 percent her decision.

O'BRIEN: So, what happens now? I've heard that she's been doing sort of two to three hours of rehab everyday. Does that now shift into high gear and you do eight hours of rehab everyday for her?

KELLY: Well, when you count the amount of time she spends getting to and from the rehab hospital at Memorial Herman, it's probably about 35 hours a week. So, she'll continue with that schedule, the schedule she's been on for, you know, the previous six months. So, she'll just continue with that.

Eventually, that will come down as she improves and, you know, her goal is to recover to the point where she can get back to public service.

O'BRIEN: She wants to go back to elected office?

KELLY: Well, I don't know if it's going to be elected office, but, you know, Gabby's mom and her sister, you know, have at times told me that Gabby was born a public servant. Even as a kid, she wanted to help people. And I'm confident that she'll be helping people in some fashion some day.

O'BRIEN: It was really interesting to watch "State of the Union" address because I thought she looked beautiful. I mean, she really looked absolutely radiant, and to watch folks stand up with her. Congressman Flake get up and help her up and then down, and then, help her up every time she wanted to -- it was very just emotional thing. What was it like? Did she say what the experience was like for her to attend?

KELLY: Well, yes. She said it was emotional. She really enjoyed being there. As you know, she wasn't at the last one. It was right after she was injured, and they left an empty seat for her between Congressman Flake and Grijalva. And, this time she got to occupy that seat. And it was a great experience. I mean, she enjoyed being there. I enjoyed being there. I hadn't attended a "State of the Union" before.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you a question about depression, because people, medical folks have told me that when you're in rehab, that depression is often something that happens as well. Have you noticed that with Gabby? Is she fighting against that as well?

KELLY: I wouldn't say she's fighting against depression. She's always been this incredibly positive and optimistic person. And right from the start, you know, she's been working really hard and really positive about it. Having said that, she does get a little bit down at times, and she'll get a little bit sad. You know, this is a little frustrating.

And she struggles and it's a long -- she often says, this is a long, hard haul, but it doesn't last for very long. Like in her case, she might get bummed out for a few minutes, and then, she's her positive self again. So, no, she doesn't struggle with any depression.

O'BRIEN: Well, that's good to hear. Last question for you. You know, I don't have to tell you, that in history, often spouses will jump in and take over their spouse's Congressional seat.

KELLY: Yes.

O'BRIEN: That would be you, you know?

KELLY: That would not be me.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Hypothetically, that could be you.

KELLY: Yes. Hypothetically, it could be me, but I'm not running for her Congressional seat.

O'BRIEN: No. Why not?

KELLY: Why? Well, my job right now is to make sure Gabby has everything she needs so where she could get back to public service some day. So, it's not -- you know, it's not my time to do that. I need to focus on her and be available to her and, you know, help her, make sure she has everything she needs.

Running for Congress is really, really hard work. It takes a lot of time, and the job takes a lot of time. And, you know, right now, that's not -- you know, that's not what I should be doing. I need to focus on Gabby.

O'BRIEN: Mark Kelly is a former NASA commander and also the husband of Gabrielle Giffords. Nice to have you with us. Thanks. Appreciate it.

KELLY: Thank you, Soledad. Nice to be here.

(END VIDEOTAPE) O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, going to bring Dr. Sanjay Gupta back to talk about emergency room visits that are soaring from sports injuries and how you can tell if your kid has a concussion. That's straight ahead. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT this morning. All week, we've been talking about concussions and the danger of getting concussions in sports. So, let's go right back to Sanjay Gupta, because it's apparent, Sanjay, of course, the question is, how do you avoid some of these horror stories that you've been sharing with us this past week?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, I think there's a few things that are pretty low hanging fruits so, to speak, Soledad. One is, you know, simply having mandating athletic trainers be at every practice and every game. And this is something, you know, you talk to your school about, your coaches about.

They're the ones who can recognize concussions. Also, Soledad, you and I talked about the fact that these hits that we talked about quite a bit, while some of them happen in the games, the vast majority of them actually happen in practice as a result of drills. Head hit after head hit over and over again. So, reducing the number of head hits in practices can help save someone's brain, you know, later on down the line.

Also, the two-point stance. You watch football, people line up in the three-point stance head down using their head, their helmets as ramming devices, force the two-point stance. So, people actually tackle with their bodies and their hands. And also, you know, the helmets, Soledad. You know, helmets, I have one over here, can be a sort of false sense of comfort in many ways.

You know, if you think about this, it can provide an outer covering to the brain, but it doesn't prevent concussions. Why? Because it's the brain, even in a helmet, that sort of moves back and forth, sort of rocking back and forth as a result of the quick stops and the quick starts. So, don't rely on the helmet only certainly as a source of protection, Soledad.

Those are some quick tips. Again, easy ones that don't change the sport of football I don't think.

O'BRIEN: All right. Sanjay, let me ask you a question because people lie. I mean, we had guests on with you who said that they will pretend like they're fine because they know that if they say that they're injured, they have a concussion, that, in fact, they're going to get yanked out of the game. Kids do that, too. How do you make sure that you're able to see how they're really doing?

GUPTA: Yes, best data, you're absolutely right, Soledad. About half of high school students have lied to sort of conceal their injuries. Couple things, first of all, there are sideline exams. So, coaches, you know, and athletic trainers can examine someone on the sideline. They're pretty good exams, actually, to try and figure out if someone's had a concussion.

But there are also a lot of schools nowadays are doing these cognitive baseline exams, Soledad. And if you will, with me, for a second, Soledad, take a look at this. This is just a small example. Take a look at the list of words over here. This is an example of what somebody might receive. Try and memorize those words. I'm going to ask them about you in just a second again, but cognitive baseline exam.

The test is basically designed to be given to students at the beginning of the season, and then, again, if there's a concussion or concern about a concussion and maybe the child who's not being completely forthright, they do the test again. If the child's not scoring well, that's evidence. If the child scores fine or does better, that's evidence as well that the brain may, in fact, now be healed.

So, those are some simple examples of things we're trying to do to prevent that lying or at least, you know, prevent kids from lying. So, Soledad, I don't know if you remember those words, this is the way the exam would work. Put up this other list of words. And now, Soledad, I don't know how well you can see that where you are, but are you able to pick out the words I showed you on the first list out of this longer list now?

O'BRIEN: Yes, I can do that. OK. So, mirror in the second column, stove, parent was one, forest which is next to parent. What was the last one? Oh, ladder.

GUPTA: Very good. Yes. Go ahead --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: So, that means my cognitive function is high.

GUPTA: You have not had a concussion recently. No, you know, but, you know, the point is that you would get the sort of test, it would be an hour long test. There would be things that might be hard for you to answer, and then, you would get tested again if there was some concern. You might not be lying deliberately.

Sometimes, people with concussions, they really do think that they're fine, but tests like this help parse it out. And, Soledad, this is happening in high schools now. These players taking the test at the beginning of the season to prevent that exact problem that you're talking about.

O'BRIEN: That's very smart. All right. Sanjay, thank you very much. It's been nice to talk with you all week about your documentary that's coming up. It's called "Big Hits, Broken Dreams," and it premiers on Sunday, January 29th at 8:00 p.m. eastern. I'm looking forward to seeing it. Appreciate that. OK. Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, neck-in-neck in Florida. The Florida Commissioner of Agriculture is Adam Putnam, and he's endorsing Mitt Romney. And they have actor and former senator, Fred Thompson, and he's backing Newt Gingrich. They're both going to join us live to tell us why their candidate should be the nominee.

Plus, a student takes a picture of his sleeping teacher. Some people would say that young man is a hero, but instead, he was suspended. We'll explain why when STARTING POINT returns right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody. We're in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, 15 minutes away from where the debate was held last night and it is where STARTING POINT is coming to you this morning. We're taking up the middle of this entire cafe. The food is excellent. We have got a lot to get to this morning. We're going to talk a little more about the debate. But first I want to get to the headlines. Christine Romans has the latest for us. Good morning, Christine.

ROMANS: Hi there. Good morning, Soledad. We're watching your money this morning. Just in to CNN a number a lot of people have been looking forward to, the GDP, gross domestic product in the fourth quarter of last year. It grew by 2.8 percent. That's the highest since early 2010. We'll see how stock markets react to this. They had been headed for a positive open this morning with stock futures trading upwards in all the major indices. One reason for that could be Ford. It's the only Detroit automaker not to take bailout money from the federal government. It posted its highest annual earnings since 1998. That makes 2011 the most profitable year in Ford's history according to CNN Money.

All right, 22 people are still missing this morning after the collapse of three buildings in the historic center of Rio de Janeiro. Four people were killed. It's still not clear what brought the buildings down on Wednesday night. Investigators are looking for signs of a possible gas leak or structural flaws as the cause of that collapse.

All right, uninjured passengers aboard the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, they're being offered $14,500 each if they agree not to sue the cruise line company. The offer also covers reimbursement of the cruise and all transportation expenses. Passengers who suffered injury when the ship hit the rock and sank, they will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Parents are outraged after an Oklahoma student was suspended for using his cell phone to snap a picture of a ninth grade substitute teacher snoozing. The school says the student violated rules for using communication devices in class. Parents want disciplinary action taken the teacher for napping in class.

And from anchor of the show to the kitchen. Yes, our very own Soledad O'Brien showing off her very own versatility on the Nate Berkus Show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: We're going to put this piece on here.

NATE BERKUS, HOST, "NATE BERKUS SHOW": All right. It's like a Play-Doh thing, Soledad. I know how to do this.

O'BRIEN: You do?

BERKUS: Yes.

O'BRIEN: I'm having a hard time. Snap it on and start twisting.

BERKUS: This is so great.

O'BRIEN: Yes. You're going to push.

BERKUS: Like this?

O'BRIEN: Whoa. Get closer. This is where you want to be careful with the hot oil.

BERKUS: You're probably better at this than I am.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: No, you're just as good as my seven-year-old.

BERKUS: Should I keep going?

O'BRIEN: Just as good as my seven-year-old.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: That was really cool, Soledad. Was it fun?

O'BRIEN: So it was really fun. Nate Berkus is the cutest man alive. But my husband was, who was that woman cooking?

(LAUGHTER)

Who was that person who looked like you who was actually cooking? I don't recognize her. All right, Christine. Thank you. That was a ton of fun.

We're talking politics this morning. Mitt Romney is fighting back after a disappointing second place finish in South Carolina. He had to come at it a little bit differently. He hit Newt Gingrich harder than he has I think at least, in previous debates. Let's get to Adam Putnam. He is the Florida chairman for Romney for President. Nice to have you with us.

ADAM PUTNAM, FLORIDA CHAIRMAN, ROMNEY FOR PRESIDENT: Great to have you here in the land of sunshine and Timmy Tebow.

O'BRIEN: There's no sunshine. You lie.

Let's talk a little bit about the debate last night. Governor Romney has been working cautiously. How do you think he did?

PUTNAM: I thought Mitt Romney had a fantastic night last night. He's consistently performed in the debates with a lot of substance and has just been a pitch perfect debater. Last night he showed the passion and the intensity that a lot of people had been looking for. I thought that Newt Gingrich was on his heels. I thought Santorum had a good night. I thought Ron Paul had the best laugh lines, but the clear winner last night was Mitt.

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: One of the challenges for Mitt Romney is that if does end up being the nominee, he's not just a flip-flopper but he's said things that are not true. The DNC is pointing all those things out today in terms of, for example, he said he never voted for a Democrat when the Republican was on the ballot. That's not true.

PUTNAM: And tell me why that's an issue in the general election?

CARDONA: It's an issue in the general election because it's an issue of trust.

PUTNAM: No, the issue is the economy, unemployment rate of just under 10 percent in the state of Florida and we just dropped below 10 percent last month, the housing crisis that is at epic proportions, not just in Florida but across the country, a failed foreign policy. That's really what the issue in November is going to be about, not Mitt Romney's tax returns, not Mitt Romney's previous voting record in Massachusetts. The general election's about Barack Obama.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I was going to say, it might not be about the specifics that you're talking about, but clearly this is a race that the Democrats want to frame as we're for the middle class and those guys are for the wealthy. You have a very wealthy man if Romney should win at the top of the ticket who does talk, as Soledad said earlier, talks about his blind trust and his this and that. Don't you think the imagery is going to be tough and going to be part of the fall campaign?

PUTNAM: So what has Barack Obama done for the middle class? I mean, if you want to create that type of setup, then the logical question is, is the middle class better off today because of Barack Obama? And it's unquestionably no. The middle class is not better off because he's imposed the health care tax, individual mandate. He's dramatically increased EPA regulations, driving small businesses out of business. They have no access to capital.

O'BRIEN: I think Candy's point was if your candidate is Mitt Romney, who has made numerous stumbles that show, in all fairness, he's out of touch, he's a very wealthy man. He talks to people who are unemployed and says I'm unemployed too. That's true but it's insensitive. Isn't that a challenge?

PUTNAM: Mitt Romney is the most competitive candidate in the fall. He is the best Republican to take on Barack Obama in November. He's the guy that's got the real world skill set.

O'BRIEN: You don't worry about the fact that --

CROWLEY: The optics of it.

O'BRIEN: -- which people are discussing it, not just people in the media but people in general, having a candidate who's very, very wealthy is a challenge to overcome.

PUTNAM: Clearly he's been a successful guy. He represents the American dream that a lot of people aspire to. If you work hard, put in 18 to 20 hours a day, you sacrifice a lot of time with your family.

O'BRIEN: That sounds like all of us, Barbara, check, check, check, except the millions of dollars.

PUTNAM: And he has accumulated an awful lot of success. So I don't think anybody out there is under the illusion that he hasn't been successful. He's saved the Olympics, turned around Massachusetts and represents the American dream.

DAVID FRUM, FRUMFORUM.COM: I'm with you that Mitt Romney is the most competitive Republican candidate. I'm worried about the party. The most ominous moment in the debate was a woman who was unemployed stood up and said what happens when I lose my job and my health care? Mitt Romney of 2006 had a game-winning answer for that woman, but Mitt Romney in 2012 is not allowed to deliver his game-winning answer. And that's not I think his fault. He's had to adjust to a party that won't let him say that. How do they get that back and say maybe universal health coverage is a good thing and this is a guy who can do it?

PUTNAM: I think what you saw last night, what was a very compassionate response to the woman who was out of work --

O'BRIEN: It was, but he didn't answer her question. She said I'm unemployed. The answer that both candidates gave her was, well, you'd be able to carry your insurance with you, et cetera, et cetera. Her point is, I don't have a job. What happens to me with no job?

PUTNAM: You know, she had two questions. Remember, she said how are you going to help me get a job? And she said, what is this issue that connects my insurance to my job that means that when I lose my job, as many millions of Americans have, it means that not only did we lose our job, we lose that critical safety net, and when our kid gets sick sore when they fall and break their arm and we've got to go to the emergency room and all of those things, why are those two connected?

He answered both of those questions. We have to grow the economy. We have to slash regulations. We have to repeal things that have come into play under the Obama administration a that have should down small businesses, and create things like association health plans, state run health plans, the individual deduction on your taxes so that people who are out of work have the same opportunity to be insured. FRUM: She can't use the tax deduction. That is not very relevant answers to that woman. But the plan that Governor Romney had in Massachusetts would have been helpful to her if he were allowed to talk about it.

PUTNAM: There was plenty of talk last night about the Massachusetts health plan and Newt Gingrich's health plan and Santorum's health plan.

CARDONA: And talking about the individual mandate in terms of the president, Romney supported the individual mandate and that's going to be an issue.

PUTNAM: For his state, for his state. It is not something that the national people ought to have. He has said categorically day one he will repeal Obamacare. He's been very clear about that.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Maria Cardona you're killing me time-wise. Thank you for joining me.

PUTNAM: Thrilled to be here. Keep drinking orange juice.

O'BRIEN: I'm still in my coffee. I appreciate it.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, actor and for senator Fred Thompson has just walked into the cafe. He is throwing his support behind Newt Gingrich. We'll sit down and chat with him about why that is.

We'll play out with Kanye West, "Stronger."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Our next guest is a Hollywood star. Former Republican Senator from Tennessee who ran for president back in 2008. This week he came out and supported Newt Gingrich. Fred Thompson has stopped by to join us at the diner this morning.

FRED THOMPSON, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How are you?

O'BRIEN: Alex Castellanos was giving me lots of questions to ask you. But we'll see about cigars and things like that.

THOMPSON: Well, Alex has a sense of priority, and a good sense of priority. And I want to talk to him about cigars as soon as we're finished.

O'BRIEN: It's a deal. Let's talk about the debate last night. How did you think it went for your candidate, you support Newt Gingrich.

THOMPSON: It wasn't his best debate. He I think substantively made some good points, points that need to be made on immigration for example. You know, some time back Newt kind of shocked everybody when he took a kind of reasonable position with regard to folks who had been here for 25 years and they were good citizens. And all of that.

O'BRIEN: Why is that not resonating with Latinos in the state?

THOMPSON: Well, it is. My point is though Mitt attacked him for it then, said it was amnesty and all that. Now last night Mitt's come around and agrees with Newt. So I think we're making a little progress on the immigration front.

Well, Newt is -- you know, there was about 20 Latino leaders who sent a letter yesterday to Mitt Romney saying that some of us have been supportive of you in times past but we've changed now and supporting Newt. So they are having a big meeting today. Newt has strong support in the Latino community here.

O'BRIEN: He does, but it's not as strong as Mitt Romney and if you look at --

(CROSSTALK)

THOMPSON: Well, we'll see next Tuesday.

O'BRIEN: I guess you're right about that, won't we?

Let's talk about a new poll which comes out of Quinnipiac and it showed that on Tuesday and Thursday, so now Mitt Romney is at 38 percent support. That's up a few points from the Sunday, Monday poll.

THOMPSON: Is this national or local?

O'BRIEN: This is a --

(CROSSTALK)

THOMPSON: Florida?

O'BRIEN: Likely GOP primary voters, so national.

And then Newt Gingrich was at 40 percent and drops to 29 percent in this latest Quinnipiac poll that's out.

THOMPSON: Now one of the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal polls --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Almost a reverse of that isn't it?

THOMPSON: Is almost a reverse of that. So there you go. See you Tuesday.

O'BRIEN: So what's the take away that polls don't matter?

THOMPSON: No, the take away is that things are very, very tight. Very, very tight. Newt had, you know, some great debates. Mitt made several stumbles. Now last night Newt -- I mean Mitt Romney did what he often does, and that is when he gets in trouble, you know, he reaches out for the best kind of help that he can get, and he got apparently a good debate coach. And he was very feisty and aggressive and you know on debating points you've got to give him credit for that.

So he made -- he made up some ground with regard to that, but really the main thing he's got going for him in Florida, of course, is doing to Newt what he did in Iowa. He's -- he's taking up every air wave that's available, you know, to attack Newt and say things, differences on issues, that's fine.

What when he e says the things like Newt had resigned in disgrace and so forth, the most objective observers who were there, and I was there in 1994. I came in because of the contract with America in large part probably. And to say that, you know, he resigned in disgrace and all of that without adding that after he left he was exonerated by everyone who was investigating which made page 10 when that came out is -- they know -- they know better than that.

So they're working. If you've got millions of dollars to throw into an isolated situation or any one state with stuff like that, you know, it's going to have its effect. So that's why it's so tight now.

O'BRIEN: Senator McCain told me on Wednesday that he thinks there's real damage that's being done to the candidates when you have so many debates and it sort of drags on and on and on. Do you think that that's true?

THOMPSON: No. I must disagree with my old friend on that. I think its steel on steel. I think that the person who comes out this is going to be better. This is going to be nothing like the general election.

Do you think that -- that Mitt Romney having a Swiss bank account as late as 2010 is going to be something that David Axelrod doesn't know about? They know more about it than -- than the Republicans do. And these are things that are going to have to be dealt with. It wasn't really dealt with last night, but it will be.

So they're going to have to be tough and aggressive over a long period of time and Newt over the course of the campaign has shown that he's got the advantage on that.

O'BRIEN: Nice to see you. Thanks for joining us for breakfast.

THOMPSON: Good to see you. Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: We're buying breakfast this morning, so have anything you want.

THOMPSON: Well, I just had coffee. Can I come back tomorrow?

O'BRIEN: You can have the crab cakes with the eggs and the holiday sauce. It's very fattening. It was very, very good.

We'll come back in just a moment, we're going to sit down with our panelists and assess the races and their scores. We're back in just a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: This is the music from Candy Crowley this morning. Rocking out. I like that. I like that, I'm impressed. I have to tell you.

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": Neil Young no matter what he does.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes, welcome back, everybody. Let's talk about looking forward to Tuesday's primary. The State of Florida is not the State of South Carolina.

CROWLEY: Yes and Mitt Romney in Florida thankfully for the Romney campaign anyway, is not Mitt Romney in South Carolina. He has tightened up his message. He has been aggressive but not haranguing toward Newt Gingrich.

Newt is dynamic if you believe the polls have changed. The balance is gone for Gingrich and right now Mitt Romney has the right trajectory. You want to be going into Tuesday upward.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Let's throw the Quinnipiac new -- the Quinnipiac poll that we have out on the screen while you pick up your point, David. Go ahead.

DAVID FRUM, CONTRIBUTOR: We also saw last night in the debate a core factor of what a Romney versus a Gingrich presidency was like. It's not just about electability. What we saw is Gingrich is a very volatile personality. When there's adversity, when he has a bad night, he has found it difficult to recover.

Romney, much more resilient and I think one of the questions that a lot of people are going to come away from that debate with is say, yes, he had a bad night. But he really fell apart. And -- and a president will have a certain number of bad days too. If you were President, would you fall apart then?

O'BRIEN: You know what I think it's interesting is that whole conversation and back and forth he had in South Carolina with Santorum about grandiosity, about the space program in part yesterday kind of rang a little more strange.

I think we have that clip. Let me play that first and we'll talk about it on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll tell you, I do not want to be the country having gotten to the moon first turned around and said, it doesn't really matter. Let the Chinese dominate space. What do we care?

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, "You're fired."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: That is a turn.

CROWLEY: It absolutely is, and what you're seeing here is Mitt Romney in a more nuanced way doing what they have had Bob Dole and some of the other -- some conservatives in the party do. It's no longer about Mitt Romney's electability, it's about Newt Gingrich's unelectability.

(CROSSTALK)

FRUM: Wolf Blitzer offered Newt Gingrich a dog biscuit that would have been a very good dog biscuit for him not to bite. And he could not control himself. He should have dismissed the moon colony question with a joke and moved on. Instead, he allowed that conversation to take over. He could not control himself in the face of something he should have controlled himself in.

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: So when you have newt talking about moon colonies and then you have Mitt Romney talking about blind trusts and Swiss bank accounts -- you have the issue of the Republican Party being completely out of touch with middle --

O'BRIEN: Says our Democratic strategist.

CARDONA: But I do want to bring up one point. The Latino vote. The Latino vote here in Florida is going to be critical. I didn't hear anything last night of these Republicans trying to reach out in a broader way to Latinos. Let's face it, for the general they can't get to the White House without at least 40 percent of the Latinos.

O'BRIEN: We have so much more to get through before we get to the general. Slow down. Slow down, Maria.

CARDONA: I got my eyes on the prize.

CROWLEY: They are inches.

O'BRIEN: Slogging through right now before we get to the general. We've got to take a short break.

When we come back our "End Point" with our panelists is up next. Stay with us. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. This is the inside of the Beach Hut Cafe here in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. It is kind of a little bit of an overcast, not sunny day. Although David Frum says it was 80 degrees here yesterday. I do not believe you, David.

CROWLEY: It was. O'BRIEN: It was?

CROWLEY: Right, yes.

O'BRIEN: I always miss the good weather.

CARDONA: It was hot.

O'BRIEN: All right. It is time for our "End Point" which is where we sum it all up and wrap it all up. Candy Crowley, why don't you start?

CROWLEY: You know, I think Florida they used to talk about South Carolina being the fire wall. I think in some ways South Carolina -- I'm sorry, Florida has become the fire wall. If they are going to stop Newt Gingrich or slow Newt Gingrich, it's going to have to be in Florida.

CARDONA: Immigration, the Latino vote, and tacos. We don't know how --

(CROSSTALK)

FRUM: On the grounds outside the debate last night there were a lot of young protesters carrying signs saying we are the 99 percent raising the income inequality issue. On the inside there were a lot of questions about immigration. Americans need to understand high immigration flows are one of the most important causes of inequality. You can be concerned about inequality, you can support higher immigration, not both.

O'BRIEN: All right. My "End Point" of the day is this. If you look at the polls, Quinnipiac's got the latest poll out which was done as late as Thursday, it shows that Mitt Romney is up 38 percent, Gingrich 29 percent. That's the exact flip of the NBC/Wall Street Journal, which ended on the 24th. So between now and Thursday -- now and Tuesday, rather -- the day of the primary there's a lot of time.

CROWLEY: No debates.

O'BRIEN: No debates but a lot can still happen. All right. So that is my "End Point." that is how we not only end the show today, we end the week.

We've got "CNN NEWSROOM" with Kyra Phillips beginning right now. We'll see you back here for STARTING POINT on Monday. And I believe we're in New York for that.

Hey, Kyra. Good morning.