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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Voting in Florida GOP Primary to Begin Soon; Congressman Allen West Interviewed; Florida Voting Begins; Teen Cancer Survivor Suspended Over Hair; Mass Protest In Syria; Report: Freddie Betting Against Homeowners; Primary Day In Florida; Research Shows Results of Nurturing Parents on Children; Alex Sink Discusses Which GOP Candidate Can Take on Obama

Aired January 31, 2012 - 06:59   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. You're watching "starting point" this morning. We, of course, are talking about the voting that gets under way this morning in Florida. In fact, it has just started. Mitt Romney has been surging to this double digit lead in the latest polls. We might be seeing some signs of cracks in the Gingrich campaign. We'll talk about that this morning.

Plus, the former speaker is lowering expectations for the two February contests, one in Michigan and one in the state of Nevada. He says this is good strategy. Others say this could be the beginning of the end.

Plus, our get real this morning, a teenage cancer survivor has been suspended from school. See him in that picture there. Hair is kind of long. He's been growing out his hair. He says he wants to give the hair to other cancer patients through locks of love. My daughter did this.

The school says, oh no. No, no, no. We have rules against boys growing their hair. We'll talk about that debate straight ahead this morning as "Starting Point" gets underway right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Tonight's the night. You know, Will.I.Am said that he wrote this song in, I think, New Year's Eve 2008, feeling going about the year ahead. Welcome, everybody. You know, we've had (ph) Congressman Tom Davis joins us, Republican congressman, from the state of Virginia.

Let's explain the music thing. We had a lot of very, very bad music for a long time. And then, finally, I just decided to jump in and try to fix it. So, now, we play music off my iPod and also all of our guests get to contribute as well. We want you to take this piece of paper, write down the list of things you would like us to play this morning.

TOM DAVIS, (R) FORMER VIRGINIA CONGRESSMAN: To find it you would have to go back to the archives.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: That's OK. That's OK. We like oldies but goodies. It's OK. The only thing I ask is it has to be a little bit fast so you don't put our viewers to sleep. Will Cain had a few moments last week we mocked him for. And forgiveness is a beautiful thing. We're also going to steak suggestions for our free for all Friday music so you can tweet me @Soledad_OBrien and we'll get that on the air.

I guess I could introduce the panel. Will cain is back with us and Maria Cardona is back as well, and the congressman joins us here. Polls are just opening in the state of Florida. Florida you remember is a 50-delegate winner-take-all state. And 600,000 ballots have already been cast in the two candidates at the very top really have literally been ripping into each other right to the bitter end. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: 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. The Republican Party base does not want to nominate somebody who represents the establishment of Wall Street in New York. Romney refused to allow Catholic hospitals to have conscience in their dealing with certain circumstances. Romney cut of kosher food for elderly Jews on Medicare. Both of them have the same lack of concern for religious liberty.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know the speaker's not real happy, Speaker Gingrich. He's 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, and you just watch it and shake your head. It's been kind of painfully revealing to watch.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: What truer words have ever been spoken, "painful"? This is crazy to watch. We've got Republican Congressman Allen West joining us this morning from Florida. He is in Davey, Florida. Thanks for talking with us. We had a chance to chat in person last week in the state of Florida.

Let's begin with a little bit of what that back and forth has been. You have Newt Gingrich saying Romney is a liar and against anything any conservative would believe. He's against Catholics. He's against elderly Jews, if you believe what Newt Gingrich is saying about Mitt Romney. Romney says he's flailing, pathetic, essentially. It seems very ugly to me that the point. First, how ding this race is going to turn out tonight? And, two, is it just getting brutally, brutally ugly?

REP. ALLEN WEST, (R) FLORIDA: I think it is quite brutal and it is painful to watch. Of course here in Florida we've been inundate with the radio and TV ads all over the place. I would hope much of the thing as we talked last week in person that they would have presented their vision, a contrast between and quality of opportunities versus quality of achievement and allow the voters to decide who would be the best person to go into of ideas the arena against President Obama. But it has somewhat degenerated into a very ugly food fight. And I think people are starting to get tired of it and hopefully get back to discussing the issue.

O'BRIEN: So who do you predict will be the person who walk away with it tonight. The polls say mitt Romney. Do you grow with that?

WEST: I think looking at the polls it seems to be Mitt Romney. When you look at the organization, the structure, the ability to get your message out across the TV, it is definitely going toward Governor Romney's side. Now it will be matter of the Speaker Gingrich will be able to stay in this race, at least up until March when we have the big super Tuesday.

O'BRIEN: One other question for you. If Romney does win tonight, what's the take away? What happens, do you think?

WEST: Well, I think the take away is that Florida ended up being a very pivotal point in this primary this time. Florida is the fourth largest state in the union. Very diverse from north Florida down to south Florida where I am and of course down into the keys. I think it shows a good indicator of the strength of a candidate as we move on.

O'BRIEN: Will Cain, stand by for one second, if you will, congressman. So he's basically saying Florida might be the best indicator so far. Do you think that that's true?

WILL CAIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think Florida is a good proxy for the rest of the nation. It has representatives from all kinds of conservatives. That's the thing that we've had this debate about now for, what, now, six to eight months.

O'BRIEN: Feels like five years, by the way.

CAIN: A candidate that actually appeals to all different elements of conservatism, from Tea Party conservatism to establishment conservatism, from social conservatism to economic conservatism. This is a group that historically hasn't always been cohesive. Ronald Reagan is the one guy who has brought everybody together.

O'BRIEN: Everybody has been saying his name.

CAIN: If you can win Florida, it shows real promise.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask Congressman West another question. You were talking on Saturday at the Lincoln dinner. I want to play a chunk of what you said and then explain it to me of the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WEST: We need to let president Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and my dear friend, the chairman of the Democrat national committee --

(BOOS)

WEST: We need to let them know that Florida ain't on the table.

(APPLAUSE)

WEST: Take your message of equality of achievement, take your message of economic dependency, take your message of enslaving the entrepreneurial will and spirit of the American people somewhere else. You can take it to Europe, you can take it to the bottom of the sea, you can take it to the North Pole, but get the hell out of the United States of America.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: I didn't get it. I don't understand what you're saying, telling Obama and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to get out of the United States? Explain that to me.

WEST: No, Soledad. Soledad, absolutely not. You know that.

O'BRIEN: I truly -- no joke. I'm not being facetious. I don't get what you're saying.

WEST: The thing is you should have listened to the entire speech. You didn't listen to the entire speech which talked about the contrast between equality of opportunity which allowed a young man born in 1961 from the inner city of Atlanta, Georgia, to now represent the highest per capita income zip code in the United States of America. That's the America that I love. That's the America that's dear to me, not the America where people sitting far away in Washington, D.C. get to decide the winners and losers in the free marketplace or decide who pays a fair share. That's not American values. That's not in concert with our constitution republic.

And if you can't understand that, please come down to south Florida. You and I can read the federalist papers and go over the constitution and have a great chat about this.

O'BRIEN: As fun as that sounds, the two of us sitting down, no, I'll stick to TV interviews with you, if you don't mind.

Let me ask you another question. Newt Gingrich, we spoke about this the last time we were in person, called President Obama the food stamp president. You have said also that he has increased food stamps 41 percent. And I know that you know that actually the bigger increase was under President Bush, right? This is under President Obama. But it went up 65 percent under President Bush. So explain to me why the food stamp president thing is a strategy when really the percentagewise is bigger increase -- no one calls President Bush the food stamp president, right?

WEST: Well, no one called him the food stamp president, but I do remember people throwing eggs at his inaugural car and they called him many other different names. Look, let's be very honest. Down here in south Florida we have a high level of unemployment. The state of Florida is 9.9 percent foreclosures, the amount of storefronts, our small businesses that are closing up. So it is very, I think, apropos, to say that we have seen an increase in food stamp recipients. We've seen a 16 percent to 17 percent increase of poverty roles as well.

We're not going in the right direction, Soledad. We is had an increase in our debt from president Obama more than George Washington right up to President Bill Clinton, almost $5 trillion. And yet we're not hearing any plan of how to reduce the debt or deficit. You didn't even hear it mentioned during the state of the union address. The health care law is destroying our businesses. I sit on the small business committee. I talk to these business owners down here. That's what they're saying. So I want to see a different vision for this country.

O'BRIEN: You have said that roughly a third of African-Americans are conservative, but when you look at where they vote or they put their political support, 90 plus percent are Democrats. So one of the things you're interested in is trying to get some of that black support to come over to the GOP. What do you think the biggest challenges are in that?

WEST: Well, it's not so much get their support to come over. I just want to have the conversation as we did last Monday at the Conservative Black Forum. Why do 33 percent of African-Americans say that their values are conservative but yet 90 plus percent vote with a Democrat Party? I think we have to have that conversation. We have to look at how do we restore urban empowerment zone, economic zones.

So I think the most important thing that we can do as a Republican party, as a conservative black as myself is start to challenge people on those values and get them to see that there is a different way that they can diversify their political capital and spread it out across the entire spectrum and not just the one party.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Allen West, state of Florida joining us. Thanks for being with us.

WEST: Always a pleasure.

O'BRIEN: He's in a tough fight because of the redistricting for his district.

DAVIS: It's a tough district anyway.

O'BRIEN: But he's raised goo-gobs of money. I honestly didn't get what he was talking about.

CAIN: Can I try to explain that because I do think when a lot of people hear that message --

O'BRIEN: I get it. It's out of a speech. I understand breaking down a speech into 30 seconds is a challenge. CAIN: Unfortunately a lot of people hearing that they think they're saying I think there's a black Kenyan Muslim president and should get out of the country when that's obviously not what is being said. Let me explain to you what people are talking about when they say this not the vision of America.

O'BRIEN: Explain it to us, please.

CAIN: Look, America is built on a romantic idea of rugged individualism, risk takers, doers, pioneers. That's has a practical manifestation as well. It's practically manifest in things like short-term unemployment, weak social safety net. And what that does is create an economy that is extremely vibrant. Barack Obama and much of the left right now threatens that by putting in place society that is more dependent on entitlements. This is what this debate is about. It's about the message.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Go ahead, Tom.

DAVIS: This is a campaign you're going to hear a lot of red meat in this campaign thrown out and take with it a grain of salt at this point.

O'BRIEN: We're TV news. We don't take it with a grain of salt.

DAVIS: You hear it on both sides.

O'BRIEN: Hang on. Let him finish his thought. No over-talking. Don't defer to the lady on this.

DAVIS: I think you have to put it in perspective. You're firing up the troops is a partisan speech to a partisan crowd.

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: The issue here, and the congressman is I think one of the most caustic and divisive, Allen West, caustic and divisive members of Congress. He talks about wanting Nancy Pelosi and the chairwoman of the DNC wanting to get out of the country.

O'BRIEN: I don't think that's true. I don't think he's the most caustic and divisive.

CARDONA: He's one of them. And he used a lot of divisive rhetoric during his campaign. And congressman, you were head of the NRCC. I don't think you would ever have used that kind of language and have used the kind of language that the chairman of the RNC yesterday comparing president Obama to Captain Schettino.

O'BRIEN: I hear you on that.

Coming up this morning at 8:30 eastern right here on STARTING POINT, we're going to have an exclusive interview with Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. He's going to join us to talk about -- curious to know if he really wants to be VP or sit it out and wait until 2016. I think he might.

CAIN: Hang in there.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Exactly. We'll parse through that. We have other headlines making news this morning. Christine Romans, who turns 25 today, is joining us with those. Good morning, Sunshine. Happy birthday.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Soledad, nice of you to remember. Thanks.

All right, U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have taken out at least nine suspected Al Qaeda militants. Officials say the strikes were targeted in southern Yemen and areas taken over by a militant group with links to Al Qaeda.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton goes to the U.N. today to press the Security Council on a resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and calling him to step down. Clinton says increasing violence in Syria it could destabilize the region more. This as the U.N. says more than 5,000 people killed in Syria over the last 10 months. The Security Council will hear from the head of the Arab League about their monitoring mission in Syria.

We're hearing for the first time dramatic 911 calls from the scene of that horrific chain reaction pile-up on I-75 in Gainesville, Florida. Ten people were killed after heavy smoke from a brush fire left drivers with zero visibility. Listen.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No fire. We can't see. You can hardly even see your hazards. Here comes another one. He's coming to fast. Here comes another one. Yes, see, there he goes. That one is a bad one. I'm hearing people crying. On the other side that is northbound.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Investigators are now trying to figure out if that fire was arson.

A pardoned Mississippi killer may be coming back to face authorities in Mississippi after police tracked down Joseph Osmond in Wyoming living under an assumed name. Osmond has been served with papers ordering him to appear at a court hearing this week to determine whether his pardon was legal. Mississippi's attorney general is challenging pardons granted by then governor Haley Barbour on his way out of office.

Rescued American aid worker Jessica Buchanan is on her way home. U.S. officials say that the 32-year-old Buchanan left Italy yesterday. It's not known when she will arrive back in the states. Buchanan and a fellow relief worker were held captive for three months by Somali kidnappers until they were rescued last week by an elite Navy SEAL team.

And a prestigious California college caught cheating. Claremont McKenna College admits to inflating SAT scores. A senior official has resigned after taking responsibility. An investigation finds the school exaggerated scores for incoming freshmen by 10 to 20 points for the past six years. Claremont McKenna is currently number nine among the nation's liberal arts colleges.

O'BRIEN: And now it's number 30. But I'm kidding, probably not. Thanks, appreciate it.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, it is decision day. Florida voters are lining up right now at the polls. Will the outcome of the primary cement the GOP nominee, or do we just keep going and going and going? The head of the Florida GOP will join us up next. Take a look at that.

Plus, take a look at this young man, high school student making a commitment to help cancer charity by growing back his hair. But, no, the school says, no, we have rules against that, and he is suspended. We'll talk about what he is doing when today's "Get Real" is ahead. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: OK. This is a great way to start your morning, so I'm going to be quiet so everyone can enjoy it.

This is Marvin Sapp, gospel to start your day. Congressman Davis, I'm going to tell you, I'm going to have you a little gospel convert by the end of the show, in one hour and 45 minutes.

DAVIS: It's going to be a long show.

O'BRIEN: You are going to -- you are going to be demanding -- demanding Marvin Sapp on your iPod, I know it.

Welcome back, everybody. Decision day, of course, today, the polls are now open in the State of Florida. And my next guest says whoever takes Florida is likely to become the GOP nominee. That's Lenny Curry, he's the Chairman of the Florida Republican Party, that's part of the reason he says that. Nice to see you, Lenny. Thanks for being with us.

LENNY CURRY, CHAIRMAN, FLORIDA REPUBLICAN PARTY: Pleasure. Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: You bet. So you look at the polls and we have this thing called political insiders for each state. And when CNN does their political -- GOP political insiders, Romney is winning, who will win the Florida primary is the question, Romney at 43, Gingrich 4, is there any reason in your mind to think that this poll is incorrect?

CURRY: I mean, all the polls that I've seen show Romney up. There are varying spreads. But going into this evening, it looks like Romney has got it based on polls. That being said, we've seen a lot of surprises and a lot of volatility this primary season. So we're going to have to wait. The game is played on the field, so to speak, and that will be when the votes are cast and counted tonight.

O'BRIEN: Oh, I love when people use sports metaphors talking about politics.

You know, when you look at the same poll for their GOP political insiders and they talk about biggest obstacles for the two front- runners. The biggest obstacle -- easy for me to say -- for Newt Gingrich in the State of Florida, 63 percent say he doesn't have the right temperament to be president.

Look at the biggest obstacle for Mitt Romney in the State of Florida, perception that he has changed his views on key issues, to me that says some of this mud slinging is really sticking among the electorate. Do you worry about how ugly it's gotten?

CURRY: Well, look, the negative ads have been running now since the candidates have been in Florida. I think it's all news. The silver lining in all of this is that we have basically vetted our guys internally. I don't like the negative ads, but they're not throwing anything at each other that the Obama campaign re-elect team will eventually throw at them. So it will be old news by the time we get to the general election.

O'BRIEN: So let me ask Tom Davis this. He's basically saying it makes your candidate stronger, and I think we've seen Mitt Romney, he actually gets this.

DAVIS: This is -- this is spring training. The election is in November. Memories are short. So it allows the Romney campaign to make those adjustments, get your answers, see what sells at this point.

O'BRIEN: But isn't there a different weight when your own guys are throwing those barbs versus someone from the opposing party?

DAVIS: Well, a little bit. I mean, it hurts you a little internally, but, look, you have a long time to recover. This race is an eternity between now and November.

CARDONA: When you have the candidates going at each other, calling each other unethical, calling each other dishonest, they basically have written the Democrat ads for them and I think that is ultimately what's going to hurt the party.

CAIN: I'd love to ask, Lenny. You know, a couple weeks ago, Soledad -- well, not a couple of weeks, but one week ago, the polls looked different.

O'BRIEN: Just feels like a few weeks ago. CAIN: Newt Gingrich was winning -- coming out of South Carolina handedly in Florida. So I know we've all -- we've all guessed over the past week what happened.

But in Florida what happened? What is -- if you had to say one thing, is it this message about Fannie and Freddie, that Newt is tied to the housing bubble burst? What is it? Just a plethora of ads? What is it? The money? What happened in Florida?

DAVIS: Let me tag on it. It looks to me like the spending advantage that Romney had allowed him to get his message across a lot better than Newt was able.

O'BRIEN: All right. So, Lenny, why don't you answer both of those? What do you think happened to Newt Gingrich and how much of that was correlated just massive amounts of money that Romney has been able to spend?

CURRY: Well, I mean, I haven't seen a poll as to why voters have started to break towards Mitt Romney, but what I've been saying all week is that whichever candidate connects with the voting public with all demographics, it makes the case for free enterprise and how families can basically have a better lot in life for their families in the next generation would win the primary.

So if I were to guess, I'd say Romney is making that case right now and connecting. Who knows what will happen on the campaign trail today? Look, I can't take sides. I can't take sides.

O'BRIEN: You always say that. I can't take -- you always say, but I know. I know. We know it. We know it.

CURRY: But I have -- I have to be able to rally all of our troops around our nominee regardless of who that is when we get to the convention.

O'BRIEN: When you look -- there's an article today in the "New York Times" which is called, I think, "New Tenor for the GOP" and they sort of look forward. And they say after Florida here's what's going to happen. You're going to have fewer debates and that gives a disadvantage to Newt Gingrich.

There are, you know, focus on national polls versus state polls. That's going to give an advantage to Newt Gingrich, although I think that's changing a little bit. Fund-raising, that's going to go great guns for Mitt Romney. You have to have amazing vision to see that tiny, little graphic from here. And delegate chase is also going to give an advantage to Newt Gingrich, to Santorum and also to Ron Paul.

So who -- do you think first of all that assessment is true, Lenny, and do you think, you know, so who -- who ends up being the victor out of that?

CURRY: I think that at some point we're going to have a person that clearly has a path to winning the nomination and that all of these men are statesmen. At some point they're all going to recognize that we need to rally around a person. It's too early to say who that person will be, but they understand that the big goal is to take back the White House. And at some point stop killing each other.

O'BRIEN: And that's exciting to see. $64,000 point and that was at some point stop killing each other.

We've got to take a break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation as we look toward the State of Florida and beyond.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, a teenage cancer survivor has been suspended from school for growing out his hair. The reason, he was trying to grow it to donate it to other cancer survivors. We'll examine that in our "Get Real" segment this morning.

Plus, Freddie Mac betting against homeowners, profiting only if they remain trapped in their homes. We've got some details on that story with Christine Romans straight ahead.

You're watching STARTING POINT. Short break. We're back in just a moment. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. Time for our "Get Real" segment this morning.

I want to introduce you to a kid named J.T. Gaskins. There he is on the right. He's a student at Madison Academy in Burton, Michigan. As a kid he survived childhood leukemia and now he's choosing to help others who are going through the same thing. He's growing out his hair to donate it to "Locks of Love," which is a charity that makes wigs for kids -- really for all cancer patients. My daughter did this.

But his school has suspended him because he's got long hair. Long hair on boys is against school policy. His mother says this is a double standard. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRISTA PLANTE, J.T. GASKINS' MOTHER: Female students sitting next to my son can grow her hair out and cut it and donate it, but yet the male student, or my son, can't do the same without being kicked out of school.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Sounds like a lawsuit to me. But it does sound like really, really, really bad PR for this school.

CARDONA: I agree.

O'BRIEN: OK. So we looked at the student handbook for Madison Academy. And it says this, boy's hair must be clean, neat, free of unnatural and distracting colors. That's kind of subjective. Off the collar, off the ears, out of eyes. But we say, "Get Real." There's an online petition to change the school's policy. We've reached out to Madison Academy. We're still waiting to hear back what they -- what they have to say. Maybe they're reconsidering there.

CARDONA: I'm going to sign that petition.

O'BRIEN: They don't want your signature, Sunshine. You don't attend the school and you're not a fund-raiser for them.

DAVIS: There will be an interesting PTA meeting. There will be an interesting PTA meeting.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes, it will because that's --

CARDONA: (INAUDIBLE) start a grassroots movement in that community.

O'BRIEN: That's a lot of bad PR for them.

All right. Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, Mitt Romney is leading in the polls ahead of today's primary. If he wins, what does it look like forward? We're going to talk to one of his supporters straight ahead.

Plus, would Mitt Romney get your vote on "American Idol"?

CAIN: Please.

O'BRIEN: He did a little singing. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

Mitt Romney, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: (SINGING "AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL")

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: He gets points -- points for the song. No points for the singing.

CAIN: That is no Herman Cain.

O'BRIEN: Yes, that's correct. We've got to take a short break.

CARDONA: And no Obama.

O'BRIEN: We'll discuss on the other side. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: This is J. Lo, J. Lo "On the Floor." So welcome back, everybody. Maria Cardona's pick. We also have Tom Davis is joining us. He is a former Virginia congressman with us. Will Cain is with us this morning as well. So we've got to add this to our list because Congressman Davis is giving me -- he's got some Elvis on here and some Steely Dan, "Ricky Don't Lose That Number," I like that. Jimmy Clanton, never heard of that. Bruce will, you take this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm aging myself here.

O'BRIEN: No, no, we are all equal opportunity for everyone's musical tastes, unless it's low and then we won't play it. Lots to get to this morning, some headlines making news. Let's get right to Christine Romans for that. Good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, again, Soledad.

Tensions mounting this morning in Syria and at the United Nations a world away. Protesters flooded the streets in Syria for an anti-Assad rally. Violence continues to escalate with casualties on both sides of this conflict.

Mounting sharply since the Arab League monitors pulled of the country. Syrian opposition expects China and Russia to block a U.N. security resolution for President Bashar Al-Assad to step down.

Three Americans taking refuge at the American embassy in Cairo. The group includes Sam Lahood, son of the Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood. They expressed concerns about their personal safety in Egypt. U.S. officials say they felt threatened and were afraid for their lives.

Minding your business this morning, stock futures trading higher ahead of the opening bell. Optimism carrying over from the European Union's decision to establish a permanent bailout fund for countries in the E.U.

World markets up overnight on that news. A lot about volatility though, of course, in the markets as long as Greece's debt problems remain unresolved. Those negotiations in Greece continue today.

Taxpayer owned mortgage giant Freddie Mac is reportedly betting against struggling homeowners. Get this. The reports say Freddie Mac placed multibillion dollar bets that pay off if homeowners say stay trapped in their expensive mortgages with interest rates well above current rates.

The trades give Freddie a giant incentive to do exactly opposite of what Freddie Mac is supposed to do, make home loans more accessible. It's essentially Freddie Mac betting against homeowners getting out of trouble.

And in his last campaign stop before Florida voters went to the polls, Mitt Romney led a crowd of seniors in song.

There you go. Not as bad as Steven Tyler, come on, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's right. That's right, Christine.

O'BRIEN: Better song and kudos to anyone who sings out loud, but they should stop after 10 seconds and save us all. Christine, thank you.

After Mitt Romney's second place finish in South Carolina, he arrived in the state of Florida armed with money and a strong organization, and really what a difference. It's only been 10 days.

Can you believe that? Ten days since South Carolina. He is now, Mitt Romney, that is, leading in the polls. Adam Putnam is the Florida chairman for Romney for president and he joins our panel.

All good news for you. You must be pretty excited as you head into the results this evening. Am I right?

ADAM PUTNAM, FLORIDA CHAIRMAN, ROMNEY FOR PRESIDENT: Well, we're very excited about the possibility. Everybody has worked very hard. The organization is in place. The infrastructure is in place and that's what made the difference coming out of South Carolina, to turn that momentum around.

Florida is a tough state. It's a diverse state. It's a big state. We don't know what we're going to see when the polls close, but we certainly have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the final number.

O'BRIEN: Newt Gingrich has called your candidate a liar, the last rant that we played he said he was against elderly Jews and I think against the Catholic Church.

I mean, long kind of list of stuff that he's called him. There is a theory that says he's made Mitt Romney a better candidate. Do you agree?

PUTNAM: Well, tough primaries do produce better general election candidates. The wild flailing that Newt Gingrich has engaged in isn't really helpful to him, to his opponents or to the party, but certainly tough substantive primary debates and tough primary fights do make that ultimate nominee a better person to take on President Obama in the fall.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Tom Davis is with us. I know the two of you are friendly. I'm going to ask you a question, sir, first, and then bring in Adam as well.

What happens to independents? I mean, he said it's not doing such great things for the party and clearly playing to the base. But is there a risk that independents get this message of the candidate's a liar, the candidate is a flip-flop, that all of these things are bad?

TOM DAVIS, FORMER CHAIRMAN, NATIONAL REPUBLICAN CAMPAIGN COMMITTEE: I mean, I'd say, Adam, I think you probably agree. This is January. There's a long way to go between now and November. Memories tend to get short. O'BRIEN: People forget?

DAVIS: Yes, they're going to get a lot more information between this. There's going to be a different context in November. We don't know where the economy will be.

But this good spring training for Mitt Romney because when he gets to the general election, there will be a billion dollars on the other side to spend against him.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I'm curious to know from Adam. The strategy for the Mitt Romney campaign has changed. It's quite clear, a week ago, you were running essentially let's run out the clock campaign.

We're ahead. Let's play from ahead, run out the clock, but you changed. You stopped talking about Obama and started talking about Newt Gingrich. What happens after you presumably win Florida?

What's going to happen in Nevada and Colorado? Which strategy are you going see, which Mitt are we going to see, the one on who's offense right now or the one who is on defense two weeks ago?

DAVIS: What does it look like in November for Mitt if he goes on and gets the nomination?

O'BRIEN: That's a ten-part question, Adam. Go for it.

CAIN: Exactly right.

DAVIS: He's used to it.

PUTNAM: First of all, I think that Florida is definitely Romney country not only for tonight, but also for the general election. This is ground zero for the housing crisis. Nearly double digit unemployment. This is just not friendly territory for the president even though he carried it four years ago he's going to have a hard time carrying Florida again.

Mitt Romney enjoys a lot of support among Hispanics. There is not the gender gap among Romney supporters that there is for the other Republican candidates. So he's building the kind of base that will attract independents and crossover voters in the fall election.

And so as we leave Florida, you will continue to see the Romney campaign focus on closing the deal on winning the Republican nomination and making the case to Republican voters that he's the best candidate not only to defeat Barack Obama, but also to take back our country.

So you won't see the backsliding or the running out the clock type strategy, but I think what we want to see is a pivot back to focusing on the real issues facing the country and making Barack Obama the issue here his lack of performance, his lack of success in his first term as president of United States. O'BRIEN: It will certainly be interesting if you can do that. If Newt Gingrich decided --

CAIN: You've got to ask Adam if that song was poll tested. If that version of "America the Beautiful" sung by Mitt Romney was poll tested.

O'BRIEN: Yes, do you say, do that again, sir. That was terrific.

PUTNAM: Soledad, it was not Luther Vandross, you're right.

O'BRIEN: You know, I'm getting all teary because that man knows how to get to my heart. He mentions Luther Vandross' name. Adam, we love you. Come back anytime you want.

All right, we got to a commercial break. Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, a CNN exclusive, we're going to talk to Florida GOP senator and apparently, a short lister -- VIP and VP nomination. Marco Rubio is going to be talking to us ahead this morning.

Also, Michael Reagan is going to be joining us, the son of President Ronald Reagan. He says he thinks Newt Gingrich is the best candidate following in his father's footsteps.

Plus, this there is a new study that tells you -- listen up, Will Cain with small children -- how you can improve your children's learning power and memory. Senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen is going to join us with some tips for all of us struggling parents.

That's ahead. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in a moment.

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O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT.

Medical news to tell you about this morning. There's a new study that says, if you are a nurturing mother, that can make actual physical changes to your child's brain that they can take with them over the long haul.

Elizabeth Cohen is our senior medical correspondent and joins us with more.

My strategy has always been flinging Cheerios into the crib --

(LAUGHTER)

-- to get the kids to keep it down. I'm guessing that's not the definition of nurturing. What is their definition of nurturing in this study? ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, I hope I am not revealing too much, but I have seen you with your children, and you are, indeed, a nurturing mother.

O'BRIEN: Liar, but go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: We appreciate that. But go ahead.

COHEN: What they did is, these researchers assessed who is a more nurturing parent than another. Most of these parents were moms. What they found is that the children who were better nurtured, when they looked at them years later and did imaging studies, they found that those children had bigger hippocampi.

The hippocampus is an area of the brain. Let's take a look at it. So that blue area there is the hippocampus. And that area governs a whole lot of things, including memory and learning, and how you deal with stress. It was bigger and, in this case, bigger really is better. A bigger hippocampus does indeed make for a more intelligent child.

O'BRIEN: What do they count as nurturing? Serious, what does that mean?

(CROSSTALK)

COHEN: How do you measure that?

O'BRIEN: Yes.

COHEN: Exactly. Here's what they did. This is actually kind of funny. As a mother you will appreciate this. They put the mom and kids -- and these were kids aged 3 to 7 -- in a room and gave the mother a big thing of paperwork to finish. It was a lot of work. Then they gave the child a present all wrapped up. They said to the child, Honey, you can open this present when your mom is done with the paperwork.

Soledad, you can guess what happens. The kids were mommy, mommy, mommy. They wanted the mom to finish so they could open the present. And then they looked at how the mom dealt with it. And some moms got grouchy and annoyed, and hey, be quiet, and tried to get them to be quiet, whereas other mothers were more in nurturing. They were much more, come on, sweetie, it will be OK, and had a better response.

This isn't a 100 percent fabulous way of measuring nurturing but, in the study, you have to come up with something. And this is what they came up with.

O'BRIEN: I would have said, go ahead and open the present while I work on the paperwork.

(LAUGHTER)

That's a --

(CROSSTALK)

COHEN: You can't. You would be a rule-breaking mommy.

O'BRIEN: That's why mommy gets kicked out of surveys all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

Because I say that makes no sense. Open the present. Be quiet, so I can do the paperwork. That's how we do it.

(LAUGHTER)

Elizabeth Cohen, we both have four children -- eight children between us.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: At the table?

O'BRIEN: Elizabeth Cohen --

CAIN: Between you and Elizabeth?

O'BRIEN: Elizabeth, yes.

CAIN: Oh, wow.

O'BRIEN: She's the only person.

(LAUGHTER)

But I had a set of twins, so I didn't actually, you know -- mine were not completely intentional.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning -- that's too much.

(LAUGHTER)

Just kidding, kids.

(LAUGHTER)

MARIA CARDONA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hopefully, they're not watching.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Oh, they know. They know. Twins, it was a surprise. Come on.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Who is the best GOP candidate to go against President Obama come November? We're going to take a look at that. Talk to Alex Sink, the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida back in 2010. She lost by a smidge. We'll talk about her handicapping of the race.

Plus, this is Will's iPod. Rod Stewart --

CAIN: Wake up, Maggie.

O'BRIEN: -- "Maggie Mae."

Pretty good. Pretty good. You're improving.

CAIN: That's an oldie.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: That's an oldie.

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O'BRIEN: My iPod is rocking out today.

(LAUGHTER)

Are we getting Congressman Davis's iPod stuff going? Because that's a good song. We're working on it, I'm told. The control room says, sir, your Elvis is coming up in just a moment.

(LAUGHTER)

This is such a great song because you can grab a hair brush, stand on your bed, sing your heart out, just like Mitt Romney.

(LAUGHTER)

CAIN: You can. Yes, you're right, you can.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: You can, and no one has to hear you. Yes. Exactly.

This morning we're talking to Alex Sink. She was the Democratic nominee for governor in the state of Florida in 2010. She lost to Republican Rick Scott by just 1 percent. Not sitting on the sidelines though. She's been watching the GOP primary race unfold in her state. She has an insider view from the Democratic side of the fence.

Nice to have you. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate it.

STATE REP. ALEX SINK, (D), FLORIDA: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: I would like you to start by handicapping the race for me. You lost by a narrow margin. Who do you think is going to walk away as the winner? Is it Romney as all the polls seem to show? SINK: Absolutely. We've seen a big momentum shift. Part of that is because he's outspending Newt on the air waves, radio, TV. We've been inundated by Romney messaging, mainly, anti-Newt messaging.

O'BRIEN: OK, let me ask you a question. You're the state's chief financial officer, formerly. I want you to remove yourself from the Democratic hat you wear and tell me, between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, who is better on the number-one issue in that state, the economy?

SINK: Well, that's hard to say because all we've heard from both of these candidates is a lot of negative bickering back and forth. Who cares whether Newt was a lobbyist or a historian. And Romney seems to be talking a lot about -- mostly about big corporations. That's what his background is. Here in Florida, we're a state of small businesses. So I couldn't choose either one of them. I think the president just runs circles around them in terms of his focus on the issues of importance to Florida's small business, Florida homeowners.

O'BRIEN: I knew you were going to say that.

CAIN: Take that hat off.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: We thought maybe -- well, you know --

(CROSSTALK)

SINK: The truth.

O'BRIEN: They tend to run these interviews over and over again during campaign season.

(LAUGHTER)

You may not want to be on the record on that. But I get that.

So, but let's talk about President Obama's challenge because you look at the economy where unemployment is at 9.9 percent overall. I'm not even giving you the numbers for Latinos or the numbers for African-Americans, which are significantly higher. For the nation, that rate is 8.5 percent. Half the homes we were talking about yesterday are underwater in the state. 25 percent of the homes in foreclosure in the nation are in the state of Florida. Aren't those just really devastating figures for President Obama?

SINK: Well, they're devastating figures for the people of Florida, and that's why we're paying a lot of attention to the choice that we're going to make in November. It will be a choice between President Obama and what he's been able to accomplish in improving the state of affairs, which we do see improvement here in the state of Florida, but more importantly, what's the vision for the next four years. We're going to be interested in hearing -- that's the thing that's been missing, Soledad, is we haven't really heard much from Gingrich or Romney about their vision for the future. What is their plan for providing more health insurance to Americans? What is their plan for improving the economy, for bringing jobs back? They just seem to be engaged in this over-the-top president bashing. But the voters are going to have to go to the polls in November. And I truly believe that they're going to see what the president has laid out. He was very strong in his State of the Union message. I've never seen the Democrats so fired up in this state as they are right now.

O'BRIEN: Do you think that that, in fact, is the case?

Tom, I'll start with you. That with all the negativity and the mudslinging that you're kind of missing out on opportunities to say the vision thing?

DAVIS: They'll have plenty of time for vision. I will say the facts on the ground are going to determine who the next president is. If things are where they are today in November, it's probably going to be a Republican year. If they improve, that's going to help the president at this point. But presidents get held, rightly or wrongly, for what's happening. Political scientists, the Harvard guy, used to say, if the shoe pinches, voters will look for a new shoe. The shoe is pinching right now.

CARDONA: The fact of the matter is all the negatives for both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are sinking among Independents. They need to speak to Independents. I know that they have to win the nomination and they're not thinking about Independents right now. But I think it's going to have a long-term negative effect, especially in a place like Florida.

DAVIS: They will have plenty of time. 10 months is an eternity in this business to turn that around. When you stop the negativity, Republicans unite behind a candidate, the dynamics change pretty quickly.

O'BRIEN: A question for Alex?

CAIN: I think Alex has actually a fair criticism of the GOP. I want to say that.

(LAUGHTER)

CAIN: That is, right now, the Republicans have proven very good at saying where Obama has failed. One place they need to improve is where they might have a positive vision, and that is on housing and health care. You can't always say what's wrong, in which case, they're right, by the way, about what the problem is. They need to come up with a message on how you are going to solve the housing crisis, which Florida exemplifies.

O'BRIEN: It could be a challenge if Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul all continue to stay in the race. That continues the mud-slinging for many, many months. Alex Sink, thanks for joining us. We certainly appreciate it.

SINK: Thanks, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: She is now the chair of the Florida Next Foundation, which means, to me, she is teeing up for another run for the governorship.

(LAUGHTER)

But I'm not a political analyst. I'm just a girl who reads the research. All right, moving on. Coming up next on STARTING POINT, a CNN exclusive. We'll talk to Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. He hasn't endorsed anybody. We want to know why not. Does he have something else in mind?

Also, Newt Gingrich claims that he's the heir apparent to the Reagan movement. We'll talk to Ronald Reagan's son, Michael. He joins us at the top of the hour.

Plus, Team Obama dogs Mitt Romney on Twitter.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in a moment.

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