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Florida Polls Open in 2 Hours; White House Says Assad "Will Go"; Obama Defends Use Of Drones In Pakistan; Biden Opposed Osama Bin Laden Raid

Aired January 31, 2012 - 05:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: You singing. Oh, my head at 5:00 in the morning. My partner here is singing.


BANFIELD: Did you have that good a night?

SAMBOLIN: No. I didn't sleep last night. So, I think I'm a little loopy this morning.

BANFIELD: You look like the vision of a cacophony (ph) jewel.

SAMBOLIN: That was her word of the day, folks. That was nice and early.

BANFIELD: I nailed that in 21 seconds.

Good evening, everyone. And welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are very happy that you're joining us. We are bringing you the news from A to Z. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East. So, let's get started here.

It's decision day in Florida. The polls open in two hours. It is an ugly fight to the finish.

BANFIELD: And a prestigious college has fudged some SAT scores for some of the incoming freshmen. Why would they do that and then admit to it, too? You'll find out.

SAMBOLIN: And 911 calls from that horrific chain reaction crash in Florida. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh my God, he's coming to fast.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's coming too fast. Here comes another one. Oh, yes, see, there he goes. Oh, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) that one is a bad one.


SAMBOLIN: We're going to be talking to someone who was in the middle of the wreckage, sandwiched in between two semis.

BANFIELD: And then a Tennessee state senator is kind of on the hot seat in a way. He is sponsoring some anti-gay legislation, but you will not believe what he's saying about homosexuals, homosexuality on the radio waves. You'll hear the transcript and you can decide for yourself.

SAMBOLIN: All right. The fight for Florida officially begins in about two hours. But even before the polls open, the Gingrich camp is backpedaling here. If the polls are right, Florida appears locked -- Romney with a very healthy double-digit lead there.

And now, Gingrich says he is lowering expectations for the next two contests, Michigan and Nevada. But the former speaker insists he's in the race for the long haul, he's not getting out. The two candidates, of course, are tearing into each other right until the end.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You have an article today in "The Wall Street Journal." There's no difference between Romneycare and Obamacare. The fact is, I don't believe the Republican Party is going to nominate a liberal who is pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase, pro-gay rights. And I don't think Romney frankly can raise enough money to sustain the falsehoods that are the base of his campaign.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know the speaker is not real happy, Speaker Gingrich. He's not feeling very exciting these days. I know, it's sad. He's been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other and you just watch it and you shake your head. It's been kind of painfully revealing to watch.

But I think the reason that he isn't doing so well is because of those last two debates, don't you think?


SAMBOLIN: So, this is surprise in Florida. It's really big, 50 delegates, winner takes all.

CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser is live from Tampa, Florida.

And yesterday, we were talking about the fact that Romney ahead in two polls, but that Gingrich took him in the national polls. What a difference a day makes.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Yes, really, a big difference in the national polls. The national polls are catching up, Zoraida, to the state polls.

As you mentioned, yesterday, it was two. Now, we have five polls, Zoraida, five major polls over in the last 48 hours to indicate the same thing. Romney, as you mentioned, with a double-digit lead.

Take a look at this one. It came out, oh, yesterday morning, late morning. This is from Quinnipiac, of people likely to vote in today's primary. And there's Mitt Romney on top at 43 percent, Newt Gingrich 14 points back in the survey, 29 percent. You can see Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, Ron Paul, the congressman from Texas, pretty low down there and really out of running here. And that's why they have moved on.

You played some of that sound. I think it's pretty obvious there. Romney, Gingrich, maybe not so much -- so happy with each other. Really, it's gotten a lot uglier.

This was a tough campaign, no doubt about it. It wasn't like it was all pleasant and fun and games in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. But things have gotten even tougher and rougher here in Florida.

We're also, Zoraida, talking about big money, and both camps putting in a lot of money. But the Romney camp and that independent super PAC that supported it is way outspending the Gingrich campaign. A lot of nasty ads on TV right here in Florida.

Take a look at this. This is brand new yesterday. The Gingrich campaign catching up to the Romney campaign with a new Web site, I guess you can say, Gingrich campaign putting this thing up and as you can imagine, it calls Mitt Romney a flip-flopper.

The Romney campaign has their own Web site attacking Gingrich. It's been up for a while. I guess the Gingrich campaign now catching up on this one.

So much at stake as you mentioned. All 50 delegates, the biggest poll so far, winner take all -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Paul, I know you follow these polls very carefully. And they're up. They're down. But what do you think is causing this dramatic surge now for Romney? Is it all those super PAC ads, working, all the money that he spent in Florida?

STEINHAUSER: That is definitely contributing to it. But two other things, Romney's strategy, he got beat pretty bad in South Carolina. Romney started going on the offense. Gingrich started playing defense.

Also, those two debates last week, including our own CNN debate. Romney had very good performances. Most people say Gingrich did not perform well in those debates.

This all matters. This is contributing to this lead by Romney -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Paul Steinhauser, live in Florida for us -- I love your energy at this hour of the morning. Thank you.

And you can keep it on CNN now through November for the best political coverage on television.

At 8:00 Eastern on "STARTING POINT," this is CNN exclusive. Soledad O'Brien goes one-on-one with Florida's Republican Senator Marco Rubio.

CNN's primetime coverage of the Florida primary begins with a special edition of "JOHN KING, USA." That's tonight at 6:00 p.m. Eastern.

And at 7:00 Eastern, join Wolf, Anderson, Erin, Candy and the best political team on television as they guide you through the Florida results.

BANFIELD: I want to get you up to speed on what's going on in Syria this morning. I know we've been bringing you a lot of stories about Syria, but things are really ramping up there on the diplomatic front. Our secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is expected to urge the U.N. Security Council to support a resolution for peace in Syria, to boot Bashar al-Assad out of power.

In the meantime, look at your pictures there. The violence escalating in the streets, tanks in the streets.

CNN is showing you both sides, saying the government has been cracking down day after day. Yesterday, alone, 100 people died. The government is saying for it part, these are all terrorists and that the death of soldiers and the gas line explosions that knocked two power plants doesn't get as much coverage.

Arwa Damon is live next door in Lebanon for us this morning.

All right. Arwa, the U.N. resolutions don't typically have a lot of effect when it comes to something like this. This particular resolution doesn't really have a lot of teeth either. It's not about U.S. sanctions economically and it's not about military might.

So, does anybody think this is going to make any difference in Syria?

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, we are going to have to wait and see if that resolution does even through, bearing in mind that Russia so far is putting forward every single indication that it is going to veto it. What this resolution does which is perhaps different than other ones, is that it calls for the implementation of this Arab League proposal that came out recently that would see President Bashar al-Assad hand over power to its vice president, that would then pave the way eventually down the road for free and democratic elections.

If that does in fact take place, it could possibly result in some sort of change on the ground, because at least in that case, the Syrian government would be getting a signal that its long time international ally, Russia, might be beginning to change its position. One has to remember that the Syrian government, by and large, still believes as if it is in a position of power. And as long as the regime is clinging to that belief, they are not going to be inclined to ease up.

BANFIELD: Sure. Now, other than Russia and its potential action at the U.N., does Syria have any friends at this point? It seems as, though, the Arab League speaks about what's going on in Syria as a block and they speak negatively about what's going on in Syria. And many amongst the Arab League are calling for al-Assad to step down.

Does this country have friends next door?

DAMON: Well, you have to remember they have a very, very powerful friend in Iran and that alliance is very strong and very deep and very historic.

You must also remember that this is not the first time that Syria has been relatively regionally isolated and has managed to weather that in the past. It also enjoys a healthy and fairly strong relationship, by and large, thanks to and as a by product of its relationship by Iran and Iraq and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Lebanon, its tiny neighbor, has tried to remain silent, saying it's not getting involved in Syria's affairs because it is extremely and understandably concerned about potential spillover effects.

And so, it does have some alliances in the region. But what we have been seeing is that up uprising in Syria is not just polarizing the nation itself. It's also polarizing the region and to a certain degree the international community as well, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right. Arwa, we'll keep an eye on things. Thanks very much. And I'm glad to see you're in Lebanon and not in Syria.

I hate to say it, but we're always worried when you head into Syria. Thank you, Arwa.

SAMBOLIN: It is nine minutes past the hour. We're minding your business this morning.

U.S. markets closed lower across the board yesterday. The Dow, NASDAQ and S&P 500 all lost less than half a percent.

BANFIELD: Futures, though, looking up this morning. And Christine Romans is here to mind our business and mind yours, too.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Today, they're optimistic about Europe. Yesterday, they're pessimistic.

BANFIELD: I'm not. And here's why -- because you sent me a note saying they didn't resolve the issues of Greece.

ROMANS: No. They didn't. But they agreed to a permanent E.U. bailout fund. And that this morning is at least is what investors are hopeful for.

You know, this is going to be three steps forward and two steps back with the European issue. All year, we're going to be talking about their political moves towards fixing their problems. So, there's a lot of headline risk when you talk about market. So, you know, be careful.

But, today, at least, you got futures up. You've got the Europeans up. So, we'll watch and see if that --

BANFIELD: Bailouts. We're going to be talking bailouts.

ROMANS: Oh, yes.

SAMBOLIN: We're also going to talk about airlines. I also like it -- full disclosure on things, right?

ROMANS: How many times have you gone to buy a ticket and it's $59 one way, or $129 one way. And then you get the tickets, like, that's $312. How did turn out that way?

Well, it's because now, there are new rules. The Department of Transportation will not allow the airlines to just post base fare and then when you go through at the end of your checkout, you realize there are taxes and fees. I mean, there's always an asterisk down there that said, it's one way based, and then adding taxes and fees.

Well, now, there's going to be some more clarity. The airlines really don't like it. I'm going to tell you why.

They don't like it because it's not their taxes and fees that make your airfare look higher when you put them in, it's the government taxes and fees, right? So, they say they were never hiding anything. They were just showing what their airfare was.

The other thing is that hotels, car rental companies, they don't have to put in the taxes and fees when you check out for them either.

BANFIELD: They're being singled out.

ROMANS: Right. They say they are being unfairly singled out. But consumer groups say and the Department Transportation say, look, people want to know what's going to cost to fly.

You're looking at them, for example, Spirit Airlines this morning has a warning on its Web site. A warning -- the government is trying to hide its fees and taxes and buried in this overall number. The government says that's actually not true. They could put every kind of fee added in there, itemize it if they wanted.

But bottom line here for you guys, is that if you get a ticket today, it's going to look higher. But it won't be higher. It's just going to have everything wrapped in it.

SAMBOLIN: I like that. And I like the finger pointing. You know, it's not us, it's them and here. And we're to put it in writing for you to see.

You know who to be mad at, right?

BANFIELD: Right. There's someone I think a lot of people are going to be mad at. There's a congressman in Georgia who wants to fight this.

I see what you're saying. I see where some of that make sense. But for the average voter out there, they'll be livid about that.

ROMANS: Well, this congressman from Georgia wants to, he's saying, look, you know, it's not fair to single out the airlines and he wants to reverse this. Mostly, it's consumer groups, the Department of Transportation, they're like, look, you need to know exactly what you're paying for your airline ticket. But why not hotels and why not rental cars and why not everything else we use in? I don't know. We'll have to see.

BANFIELD: All right. Christine Romans, good stuff. Thank you.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

BANFIELD: And every morning at this time, about 5:12, or I don't know, give or take 30 seconds, we like to give you an EARLY START to your day by alerting you to news that's happening actually later. Things that are developing now but that will be big tonight.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, just a few hours from now, we could find out some of the people behind the big money attack ads that have flooded the primary state. Today is the filing deadline with the Federal Election Commission for super PAC spending.

BANFIELD: Also, another big election today is going to take place in Oregon, where disgraced former Congressman David Wu's old seat is up for grabs. You might remember, Wu resigned last year after an 18-year-old woman accused him of making unwanted sexual advances.

SAMBOLIN: And players are getting ready for the Super Bowl media day circus. Some 5,000 press credentials were issued for the big game this year. The crowd of reporters around quarterbacks Eli Manning and Tom Brady expected to go about 30 to 40 deep today.

BANFIELD: Excitement builds.

So, parts of the country getting a little taste of spring today. Other parts of country can't feel a thing because they're only thinking about Super Bowl.

Rob Marciano, I don't know which one of those you are. You're in Atlanta.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, I can tell you this -- the forecast interesting for the Super Bowl, even though they're playing in a dome I know that. But they might get snow in Indianapolis. So, if you're going.

SAMBOLIN: Could affect the commute.



MARCIANO: Check out the map, guys. You're right, warm temperatures are going to be making their way north and eastward today. So the cold air that you're feeling in New York and the cold air you felt yesterday, it will be short-lived, as the heat pump will start to move things your way.

All right. As far as Florida is concerned, not bad, a little bit breezy. Maybe a shower near the coastline. But Upstate New York, 32 inches in Fulton, New York. That was a little bit of a surprise. We know the lake effects snow shower would be up there, but showers. Not almost three feet. So, they're buried there and digging out.

Still snows up here. This will taper of throughout the day. And again, the warmer air is going to be moving up from the South.

Speaking of the South, Houston and New Orleans, we're looking at developing storm system here. Some rain across parts of southeast Texas. They'll take any rain they can get. If you are traveling in New York, Cleveland, Boston, Chicago, those are your problem spots.

Houston, obviously, maybe some thunderstorms with a high temperatures there in the lower 70s. It will be 56 eventually in New York City, almost warm enough to water-ski.

That's what they're doing Down Under there because it's summertime there. In Strahan, Australia, the world record for water- skiing behind one boat was broken during Australia Day. They tied up 154 skiers and they pulled them out in and about 145 made it. And they went a full nautical mile behind that boat -- and that, my friends, is a new world record.

BANFIELD: Can you imagine the swell behind that boat? Holy molly!

MARCIANO: Nice little rooster tail.

BANFIELD: So, what about the people who fall, they just get to flail around for a while?

MARCIANO: They get a T-shirt that says you're a loser.


BANFIELD: What a picture, Rob.

SAMBOLIN: At least they tried. They tried.

BANFIELD: Honestly, I have never seen anything like that. Was there -- this is going to sound stupid. But have they done this before? I mean, a world record for the number of people. Did I just miss the last one?

MARCIANO: Apparently so. Apparently the record was 140 and change. And these guys blew it out of the water so to speak.

BANFIELD: That is awesome. Thanks for bringing that. That's a nice little surprise, little treat.

MARCIANO: Good morning.

BANFIELD: Good morning.

SAMBOLIN: Good morning.

It is 5:15 in the East. Time to check the stories making news this morning.

The candidates have done all the talking. Now, it is the people of Florida who get to have their voices heard. Polls open in just under two hours in the Sunshine State. The latest polls have Mitt Romney with a double-digit lead over Newt Gingrich who is now lowering expectations for the next two contests, Michigan and Nevada.

BANFIELD: And a pardoned Mississippi killer may be coming back to face the authorities in Mississippi after police track him down. Joseph Ozment, he was in Wyoming. He was living under an assumed name and he was served with papers -- the papers that ordered him to appear at a court hearing later this week to determine whether his pardon was legal. But still a bit questionable whether he's going to bother actually acknowledging that.

Mississippi's attorney general is challenging the pardon, as you probably have heard. They were granted by then Governor Haley Barbour while he was on his way out of office.

SAMBOLIN: And listen to this: Vassar College is apologizing to 76 applicants after accepting them, then rejecting them.


SAMBOLIN: The school blames a computer error for mystically sending all of those acceptance letters. Vassar says it will reimburse each student $65 for the application fee.

But here's the kicker, right, the school says that they're going to try to help the students who withdrew applications from other institutions.

BANFIELD: How are you going to do that?

SAMBOLIN: How are you going to do that?

BANFIELD: Man, what about the pain and suffering? I smell a civil suit.


BANFIELD: That's a bummer though.

SAMBOLIN: I just think it's tough, how do you help them with applications that they pulled?

BANFIELD: I don't want to confront their parents. I'll tell you that much.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Still ahead on EARLY START, a California college admits to faking its students' SAT scores. Find out why they did it. That is ahead you way, next.

BANFIELD: And also, a Tennessee state lawmaker sponsoring some anti-gay legislation. And if you think that's a little on the harsh side, some people don't, some people do, wait until you hear his radio interview and why he got booted out of a restaurant. All that coming, next.


SAMBOLIN: It's 5:19 in the east. And we're getting an early read on your local news that's making national headlines.

This morning, we have papers from Virginia and California. We're going to start with the "Virginian Pilot."

Virginia is expected to pass a bill requiring pregnant women to undergo ultrasound before they have an abortion. The also bill requires women get a chance to review the ultrasound image before the procedure. Pro-choice advocates call it a tactic to make abortion more costly and inconvenient.

So, there are seven states that require ultrasounds with an abortion. And there's a senator in that area that is really upset about this. Her name is Senator Janet Howell (ph). And she says she was dismayed enough by the bill's progress that she tried to amend it so men seeking prescription for erectile dysfunction medication such as Viagra would be required to undergo erectile exam and a cardiac stress test.

BANFIELD: And would they have to see their exam? I mean, is this the kind of thing where you're given the chance to see it or whether you like clockwork orange, you know, your eyes are wide open so you have to see these things. Seems creepy, doesn't it?

SAMBOLIN: Yes, it does, on both ends actually.

BANFIELD: On both sides of the argument, without question.

So, let's go to L.A., shall we, and get you the good old "L.A. Times," my friends. In fact, if you pick up the "L.A. Times" today, you have to kind of squint because -- well, that's the top fold. The bottom field has something way down here in the itty bitty tiny print. Can you see it?

It says college boosted SAT exam scores. It turns out that Claremont McKenna College has admitted to inflating a lot of the scores for the incoming freshman class. I thought, well, wouldn't it be the student that wants to inflate the scores? But it turns out the college wanted to inflate the scores so that they rank higher on that "U.S. News and World Report" annual college ranking that everybody, you know, waits for.

SAMBOLIN: That is so wrong.

BANFIELD: Yes. Well, they're admitting to it. It's really embarrassing. And I think at this point, they may have somebody - senior official is going to resign, taking responsibility for it. They're inflating it not just a little, like 10 to 20 points.

SAMBOLIN: Oh my goodness.

BANFIELD: I never took the SATs.

SAMBOLIN: It's tough, you know, to then trust these institutions, right, because this keeps on happening over and over again.

BANFIELD: Hopefully not. Hopefully after this it won't.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It's 5:22.

The man behind the Tennessee's proposed "Don't Say Gay" bill designed to prevent teachers from talking about homosexuality in the classroom is under fire again. State Senator Stacey Campfield in hot water for remarks about gays and the origins of the AIDS virus.

They got him kicked out of a popular restaurant in downtown Knoxville. And I think that's the least of his worries.

He made the comments on Michelangelo Signorile's Sirius radio show. The radio host joins us now on the phone.

Are you there?

MICHAELANGELO SIGNORILE, RADIO HOST (via telephone): Hi. Good morning.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Good morning to you.

All right. We're going to listen to some of the interview because there are so many different things that he said on here. But we're first going to start with the issue of how you can contract AIDS.

So, let's listen to that and then I want you tell me how he justified some of these positions.


STATE SENATOR STACEY CAMPFIELD (R), TENNESSEE: My understanding also is that virtually, not completely impossible, is it's virtually impossible to contract AIDS outside of blood transfusions through heterosexual sex. It's virtually impossible.


SAMBOLIN: All right. So, we know statistically that's not through. As a matter of fact, the National Center for Health Statistics says 27 percent of new U.S. AIDS infections are from heterosexual sex. Also, it's not -- this is not the only thing he said. He compared homosexuality to bestiality.

Can you tell us exactly what he said?

SIGNORILE: Well, he seemed to really be going off an enormously outdated data that he had from maybe 30 years ago. He is intent on proving that homosexuality is dangerous and harmful and, therefore, you know, we should do nothing to protect people who are gay. And so, he just began distorting all kinds of figures about AIDS.

You know, he is the one who brought up AIDS. I didn't ask him about AIDS. I was talking to him about the "Don't Say Gay" bill. And he is the one who said, well, homosexuality is dangerous, gay men die at a much earlier age, which also is a false statistic.

And then started saying that AIDS made homosexuality more dangerous, that it started with gay men. And then he told an outlandish story about an airline pilot having sex with a monkey and that's how AIDS began. And then it spread through the gay world -- which is completely false, of course. Around the world, AIDS is an epidemic among heterosexuals in Africa, India, China and elsewhere.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Let's get some prospective here because he's the sponsor of a bill in Tennessee. It's nicknamed the "Don't Say Gay" bill. So, basically, it would prohibit teaching any form of human sexuality other than heterosexuality. And this is in the public schools K through 8.

How are people reacting to that bill?

SIGNORILE: Well, this bill has been something he's been spearheading for years. I actually spoke with him about three or four years ago when he first began pushing this bill. And it never got out of committee in Tennessee. But last year, it actually did and it got passed by the Tennessee Senate. Now, it's in the House and they're going to vote on it again.

As you can imagine, gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender people in Tennessee are very, very alarmed about it. And nationally, people are alarmed about it because this will be the first state that actually would ban discussion of homosexuality.

And they're putting other bills in place as well in Tennessee. They have -- they want to actually exempt people who speak against homosexuality based on religion from the anti-bullying bull in these schools.

SAMBOLIN: Right. Let me actually -- I want to deal with that, because this really shocked me. There are two teenagers that committed suicide, two gay teenagers from his state and what he said and I was reading from your interview, that bullying thing is the biggest lark out there.

How did he explain that?

SIGNORILE: Yes. It's really extraordinary. We've seen these reports, of course, of suicides, of gay teens in the media for quite a while. And then these two stories out of Tennessee.

And, you know, bullying is a problem across the board. We've been talking about it for years. So, the idea that he just saw it as something made up, he was trying to frame the bullying issue as propaganda that was pushed by gay activists.

SAMBOLIN: And, Michelangelo, I can't let you go before we deal with this, because we talked about it. He got kicked out of a restaurant?

SIGNORILE: Yes. I spoke with the owner of the restaurant, Martha Boggs, yesterday on my program. It's called the Bistro at the Bijou downtown in Knoxville. And she said that, you know, she had read some of the comments. I had written a piece on the Huffington Post about the interview. She had read it.

When she saw him, she said he was always controversial but this had crossed the line. She just told him, "I'm sorry, you cannot be served here. You're not somebody who is welcome."

SAMBOLIN: And is this transcript posted somewhere for folks to read if they'd like to?

SIGNORILE: Yes, I'm going to post that interview well up on "Huffington Post." The interview with Campfield is up on "Huffington Post." But I'll be posting the interview with the restaurant as well today.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Michelangelo Signorile, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

BANFIELD: I suggest the senator Google Ryan White. He's like 13, 14-year-old hemophilia who contracted the virus that causes AIDS and then ended up dying because of it, because of a blood transfusion.

It's just horribly irresponsible, notwithstanding how you feel about gay rights, gay issues, homosexuality. This is just extraordinarily irresponsible.

SAMBOLIN: What he did say is, one of the things that he said on that interview is that you can only get it through blood transfusions.

BANFIELD: Oh, I thought he was saying you couldn't --

SAMBOLIN: You could.

BANFIELD: -- or heterosexual (INAUDIBLE).

SAMBOLIN: He did say blood transfusion.

BANFIELD: I stand corrected. Thank you.

Just frustrating, though, isn't, to think that so many people could have taken a lot of information away from that.

SAMBOLIN: The whole transcript will be out there. It's just remarkable.

BANFIELD: Ahead on EARLY START as well, the fight for Florida -- it's today, folks. Ninety minutes from now polls are opening. There are some signs of chinks in Gingrich's armor, at least in Florida. But what about elsewhere? We'll talk about it in a moment.


BANFIELD: Welcome everyone. It is 30 minutes past the hour. It's time to get a check on top stories making headlines this morning.


SAMBOLIN (voice-over): The people of Florida are about to head to the polls. Primary voting begins in 90 minutes with Mitt Romney opening a commanding double-digit lead in the polls. And the Gingrich camp is reeling a bit this morning, now lowering expectations for the next two races in Nevada and Michigan.

BANFIELD (voice-over): President Obama defending drone strikes in Pakistan. He says, quote, "pinpoint attacks are less intrusive of other country's sovereignty than the alternative," going al Qaeda terrorist and other insurgents. The president was responding to a question during a video town hall on Google. The drone strikes tightened tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan.

SAMBOLIN: And Vice President Joe Biden admitting he told the president not to launch the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Biden says he was not convinced Bin Laden was hiding in the compound where SEALs Teams 6 ultimately found him.

President Obama consulted each of his top advisers before launching that mission, and Biden says every single one them warned the president against taking action except for current defense secretary, Leon Panetta.


BANFIELD (on-camera): With a victory in Florida looking almost inevitable for Mitt Romney. I feel like I'm calling a boxing match. Newt Gingrich all but conceding the upcoming contest in Nevada and Michigan. Former House speaker has a bit of an uphill battle on his hands. Is the Gingrich campaign on the verge of crumbling or is that just way overstated?

Live from Washington, Democratic strategist, Penny Lee joining us. Also, from Chicago, conservative radio host Lenny McAllister. And from Tampa, Florida, he's in the center of it all, the CNN Express, is Paul Steinhauser, our political editor.

I'm going to start with you Paul, because the numbers are fascinating. If you look at how they've changed just -- the Gallup daily tracking poll over the last couple of days from Thursday until now, Mitt Romney has jumped ahead eight points of Newt Gingrich.

And it seems as though everybody is talking about this crumbling amount of support for Newt Gingrich, but that doesn't play out nationally. So, I guess the question for you is, when he talks about conceding the states coming up, he's got a bigger prize, doesn't he? He's got a bigger eye on the prize and that's the whole strategy of delegate proportionality.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Yes, even -- there's only 50 delegates at stake here. That's a lot. That's more than we saw, Ashleigh, in Iowa, South Carolina, or New Hampshire, but still, it's a long way away. You need 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination. So, even if Romney takes these delegates, it's winner take all here in Florida, still a long way away.

This thing is far from over, and that's what the Gingrich camp keeps saying. You mentioned those national polls, and yes, Gingrich, he widened his lead in the national polls coming out of South Carolina, coming out of that big double digit victory. But the national polls kind of catch up for the state polls and as Romney surged here in the state polls in Florida, now, we're finally seeing him cut that lead that Gingrich had.

It's basically evaporated in the national polls. So, they're catching up with what we're seeing here in Florida. Big momentum that Gingrich had coming out of South Carolina seems to be gone. And, Ashleigh, you mentioned the February calendar. You're right. It does not look so favorable to Gingrich.

Saturday, Nevada, a state that Romney won four years ago when he was running for the nomination. The first on a large Mormon population, he seems to be the favorite there. Also, a lot of those caucus states coming up in the next two weeks don't seem to be helping Gingrich that much.

And on the 28th of February, the two big states, Michigan, hey, Romney grew up there. His father was governor, very popular governor there. Arizona could also be a tough state for Gingrich as well. Romney's got the support of McCain, and his stance in immigration can help him win Arizona as well, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Well, let me jump to the idea here that Newt Gingrich had a couple of things to say on the trail yesterday. One of them was that he's taking this thing all the way to August to the convention. That he is not dropping out any time soon.

And that was some of the nicest stuff that was said, because, between these two tough candidates, Gingrich and Romney, they are getting really almost petty in their choice of wording. Let's have a listen to how both of them were speaking yesterday.


NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What a pathetic situation to be running for the president of the United States with nothing positive to say for yourself and nothing available, a big idea, a big vision, a big future and all you got to do is try to tear your opponents down so they get to be smaller than you are. And that's the Romney model.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Speaker Gingrich is not feeling very excited these days. I know, it's sad. He's been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other. You just watch it and you shake your head.


BANFIELD: Penny Lee, I remember well when President Obama and then Hillary Clinton wanted to be candidate for president went at it for months and months and months, and the Republicans were loving it, because they were doing their job for them. So, I'm wondering if the Democrats are they loving the fact that these two candidates are doing the democrats job for them?

PENNY LEE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, you're right earlier. It is like watching a wrestling match right now. And I think they have to be careful because they're turning off the voters. The volume of negative ads that you're seeing down in Florida and elsewhere are turning off the voter voters.

And so, I'd be curious to see if someone like Rick Santorum or Ron Paul even kind of starts slipping into and kind of capturing that frustration that they're feeling as these politics of personal destruction go at it. But they have to be careful, because at the end of the day, they're going to ask people to come together and vote for them.

But if they have so turned off the electorate by this nastiness in which they're doing, that does bode well better for us, because we will be coming in with better ideas and for a direction and a forward looking part for this country.

BANFIELD: Lenny McAllister, Paul Steinhauser was referring to that calendar. I want to pop that back up on the screen. It's got really itty bitty print, but what I want to direct people's attention to is the 22nd of February on that calendar, because that's how long it's going to be until there's another debate. And we all know that Newt Gingrich performs well, usually, in the debate.

He didn't have a great performance the last two rounds (ph), but is that something that Newt's worried about at this point, do you think, that he hasn't got a chance to sort of shine on the stage, getting the crowd riled up, and he's got to go through a number of contests before he gets to that debate date?

LENNY MCALLISTER, RADIO HOST, "GET RIGHT WITH LENNY MCALLISTER": Well, again, it goes to the longer term strategy. He knows he doesn't have the money to compete with Mitt Romney. Therefore, he has to use these national debates to inspire people to coalesce behind him. He needs those opportunities to contrast himself one to one with Mitt Romney, which makes last week that much more of an anomaly.

He had the great opportunity to leverage the momentum from South Carolina, and he did not take advantage of it. I do not expect him to do the same exact thing moving forward. He's going to use these debates as an opportunity to get people excited, to show that he is the contrast to Mitt Romney and basically neutralize the money advantage that Romney has.

If he's able to contrast himself well, he could neutralize that and do what he did earlier in the campaign, which is jump from behind back out to frontrunner status.

BANFIELD: All right. Lenny, Penny, and Paul, thanks very much, guys. Appreciate it.

MCALLISTER: Thanks, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Also, I want to let our audience know, at 8:30 Eastern on STARTING POINT, CNN exclusive, Soledad O'Brien is going one-on-one with Florida's Republican senator, Marco Rubio. And then, also, remember to keep it here on CNN now through November, that's a lot of time I'm asking to keep your dial on CNN, but it will be worth it, folks.

Our prime time coverage of the Florida primary, by the way, begins at a special edition of "John King USA" six o'clock eastern tonight and at 7:00 eastern, join Wolf and Anderson and Erin and Candy and the best darn political team on TV as they guide you through the Florida results.

SAMBOLIN: Still ahead, a 911 call that finally been released and it revealed a horror of a deadly chain reaction crash on I-75 in Florida. We're going to bring you all the details of that. You are watching EARLY START.


BANFIELD: And a very good morning to you. Welcome back to EARLY START. It's 5:41, and we've got some new details about that deadly chain reaction set of crashes on I-75 near Gainesville, Florida.

SAMBOLIN: The highway had actually been reopened a half hour before that horrific pileup. Ten people died, 18 people were injured. Nearly 20 cars and trucks were involved in that. And it was near zero visibility because of the smoke and the fog from a nearby brushfire. We finally have a 911 calls that were released. They reveal all of the chaos. Listen to this.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. We are getting help out there, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ma'am, ma'am, ma'am? This was the tenth one now. We just had five in a row.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Was that another one?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. How many vehicles now?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Do you see any fire? Do you see anything like that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No fire. We can't see.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can hardly even see your hazards.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here comes another one. He's coming too fast. Here comes another one. See, there he goes. Oh, (EXPLETIVE DELETED). That one is a bad one. I'm hearing people crying on the other side. That is northbound.


SAMBOLIN: Well, actually, the fires were bad, because it said the subsequent fires burned three of the ten dead to a point where positive I.D. was a hurdle for them. The NTSB may take over the lead in the crash investigation. Officials are still trying to determine how the brushfire started.

BANFIELD: It's just remarkable, and you see those pictures and you think how is it possible anyone even survived that. Remarkable.

It is now 43 minutes past 5:00 on the east coast. Time to get you up to date on your top stories.


BANFIELD (voice-over): In just over an hour, the people in Florida are heading to the polls, well, the Republicans, for the most part anyway. And Mitt Romney certainly has a commanding double-digit lead in the latest numbers that are out. Newt Gingrich insisting that he's in this race for will long haul anyway. Even though, he attempting (ph) that he may actually be ceding to Romney in the next two contests from Michigan and Nevada.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): And a new rule that for severe lines (ph) to include taxes and fees and their advertised crisis. It's coming under fire. One congressman from Georgia is even promising to introduce a bill to overturn it. He's concerned under the new guidelines, airlines can jack up fees and hide them from consumers. BANFIELD: And President Obama just to hanging (ph) out on the Google. Talking jobs and the economy during an online video chat when he made an unusual offer to Jennifer Waddell of Ft. Worth, Texas, who told him that her husband was an out of work engineer.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Jennifer, could I ask you what kind of engineer your husband is?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's a semi conductor engineer.

OBAMA: It is interesting to me, and I meant what I said. If you send me your husband's resume, I'd be interested in finding out exactly what's happening right there, because the word we're getting is that somebody in that kind of high tech field, that kind of engineer should be able to find something right away.


BANFIELD (on-camera): Jennifer says she plans to take the president up on his offer to send that resume in. How awesome would it be to send your resume to the president and have him look it over at the oval office?

SAMBOLIN: He probably gets a lot of them, right, that he never look -- but now, we have it on tape.


BANFIELD: As I said, we'll have to make sure we cover that one and continue to follow it.

And still to come on EARLY START, Mitt Romney really surging in the polls in Florida, but the Tea Party has some number of its own, and they may not exactly match up with the other polls. Gingrich certainly coming out on top. So, what does that mean for the contest today and the contest going forward? We're going to the top and ask the head of the Tea Party Patriots. That's coming up next.


BANFIELD: Just over an hour from now, and it is 5:49 on the east, Floridians are going to be heading to the ballot boxes to decide who their candidates going to be. Mitt Romney is certainly surging in the GOP polls, but that is not exactly how the Tea Party Patriots see things.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, no, no. They conducted a straw poll of their own. This is on Sunday night. This is what they found. Thirty-five percent support Gingrich, 31 percent Rick Santorum, 18 percent Mitt Romney.

BANFIELD: Yes. Very different numbers. Really sort of flip- flop, and, imagine Rick Santorum being that high up as well. The other polls don't show that. So, live from CNN Center in Atlanta is the founder and the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, Jenny Beth Martin. It's good to have you back, Jenny Beth. Thanks for doing this with this.


BANFIELD: So, I'm confused. I just don't understand it. Those numbers show something very different than the other polls. And then, we decided to go back and look at some other numbers. And we found that in each of the states that's been won, so far, by each of those candidates that's won a state, they've all had the backing of the Tea Party.

Iowa had -- Santorum won Iowa. He had the backing of the Tea Party. Romney won New Hampshire with the backing of the Tea Party. Gingrich won South Carolina with the backing of the Tea Party. But in Florida, do you think that trend might end up being bucked?

MARTIN: It may very well, especially when you're looking at the polls that came out today or they come out in the past few days from Florida for all voters. We may see different results tonight than what we saw in our straw poll on Sunday night.

BANFIELD: Yes. And what about going forward, because I even just saw that one of the chairmen of the Memphis Tea Party has come out to back Romney, and there's some support in Nevada as well. Do you think things might be shifting somewhat as the candidates continue to move?

MARTIN: Well, each of the local groups does what they think is best for their local area. So, there are some coordinators who supported Romney. There are others who supported Santorum and others who supported Newt. And I think that it's kind of divided up among the coordinators around the country.

BANFIELD: How are you feeling as you see the tenor change in the campaign stump speeches? I mean, yesterday, like we got Gingrich quoting here, "what a pathetic situation." I mean, using these kind of strident words and the tone, even if the words aren't strident, the tone certainly is. Is this turning off Tea Partiers at all?

MARTIN: I don't know if that is turning the Tea Party people off. What they're really concerned about are the issues, which is one of the things I believe that Gingrich said in that is that they're not focused on the issues and the solutions for America. And that's really important right now.

We're in a situation where our country is going to be $16.4 trillion in debt roughly when the new president takes office. We've got to figure out how we're going to correct that and cut the spending.

BANFIELD: You know, I'm glad you said that, because I was looking at a quote from you earlier that at least three of the participating candidates all pledge to decrease spending below the current spending level for their fiscal year in office and about to repeal government controlled healthcare. And that made me think, gosh, how do they differ? How do they differ? MARTIN: Well, I think the differ, I think, -- the reason the people in Florida and in South Carolina really appreciated Newt is he's out there fighting and really championing what he believes in. We realized he doesn't have a perfect record.

None of them have a perfect record. But the win for the Tea Party movement and ultimately the win for America is that these candidates are talking about what we've talked about which is in line with what the majority of Americans want. They know that government spending has to be reduced, and the majority of Americans do want the healthcare legislation repealed.

BANFIELD: Well, Jenny Beth, I look forward to our next opportunity to speak, and me think it's going to be pretty soon.

MARTIN: Great. Thank you.

BANFIELD: Thanks so much for turning out for us this morning. And we have a whole lot more, especially seven minutes to the hour, right after the break.


BANFIELD: We'd like to keep you in the pop culture loop in the mornings. And so, we look at the interweb to find out what's trending in social media.

SAMBOLIN: And this morning, it is on Twitter. David Axelrod dogs Romney. He posted a photo of the president in the back of his car with the first dog, Bo, with the caption, "How loving owners transport their dogs." So, you know, this is a jab at Romney for transporting the family dog in a kennel on top of the family station wagon.

BANFIELD: I think Mitt Romney is probably quite happy there isn't a photo of his dog up on top of the station wagon.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. I think if he had to do it again, he wouldn't, right? So, the Obama campaign also launched a Facebook page called "Pet Lovers for Obama" on the exact same day.

BANFIELD: Oh, ouch. Look at that cute Bo. My goodness. That's not going to bode it well in the general election.

All right. So, ahead on EARLY START, yes, we're like three minutes away from the top of the hour and the polls are opening in a full hour from now, Gingrich really feeling the heat in that state, but is he ready to concede Florida? He is conceding to upcoming races. We'll let you know which ones coming up.