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Changing The Mission; Facebook Going Public; Is Sugar Poison?; President Obama's Plan to Fix Housing; Critics Blast Afghanistan Announcement; Romney Under Fire; Dolphin Deaths On Cape Cod; Troopers Monitoring Smoke Off Of I-95

Aired February 2, 2012 - 06:00   ET



ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. It is 6:00. It's an EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z. We are so happy you're with us this morning. It's 6:00 a.m. in the east so let's get started here.

The Obama administration is looking to bring an early end to the war in Afghanistan. The GOP is blasting that announcement as naive and premature.

BANFIELD: Also a teenager who was orphaned in a terrible Florida traffic pileup now has another worry. Talks about deportation because she along with her entire family were illegally here in the U.S., but has there been resolution? We'll find out.

SAMBOLIN: You know how everything is bad for you? We have the bitter truth about sugar this morning. Doctors are actually saying it is poisoned that should be treated like alcohol or cigarettes.

BANFIELD: But will it be and how can you regulate that? It is in everything.

Speaking of being everywhere and everything, the Donald making an appearance in Vegas a little later on today. All sorts of rumors that it is an endorsement and the rumors go further that it is for Newt.

But, wait a second, if he endorses Newt, how could he possibly run later on as an independent? We'll get to the bottom of all that.

SAMBOLIN: All right, but up first here, critics are slamming the announcement that the U.S. plans to end combat operations in Afghanistan next year. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters about it on a flight to a NATO summit in Brussels yesterday. Here's the quote.

"Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013 and then hopefully by mid to the latter part of 2013, we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role to a training, advise and assist role. BANFIELD: House Arms Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon called this decision premature and said this. In 2006, America made a similar mistake in Iraq. We moved before the Iraqis were ready and we were faced with a near civil war.

It is incumbent upon the DOD, the Department of Defense to justify this change in strategy to Congress before announcing it publicly.

And that was good for Mitt Romney on the campaign trail because in Nevada he absolutely slammed the administration's decision as naive.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: His secretary of defense said on a date certain the middle of 2013 we're going to pull out our combat troops from Afghanistan. He announced that.

He announced that so the Taliban hears it, the Pakistanis hear it and the Afghan leaders hear it. Why in the world do you go to the people you're fighting with and tell them the day you're pulling out your troops.


BANFIELD: Joining us is Major General James "Spider" Marks is a retired Army major general and a former commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center. So, it's absolutely perfect that we have a chance to ask you about this. Good idea, bad idea?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, RETIRED, U.S. ARMY: I think it's a bad idea and there's no compelling reason why the decision would be made now. Essentially, there's no change to the plan that has been in place for a while.

And there are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan right now and the plan is to bring those down to about 70,000 by the end of this year. But for the sec def to make the announcement now is really distinction without the difference.

The mission really is not going to change. U.S. forces and NATO forces are still going to put a heck of a lot of pressure on all Taliban resistance, all form of resistance and also simultaneously, you know, Ashleigh, there is incredible training of the Afghan security forces.

Some would say that needs to be ratcheted up and the numbers need to rise. That is on a path to be from about 300,000 Afghan forces at this, you know, right now to about 350,000 by the end of the year.

So, the numbers are about right. Got to make sure the standards are there. So I don't know why the sec def would make this decision. BANFIELD: I'm glad you said standards because I spent a lot of time in that country and I can tell you this. Part of the biggest criticism of the local forces is corrupt, inept and all scatter and do their things once everything leaves and they don't have some major policemen there. Has that changed or is that really still some of the assessment on the ground?

MARKS: That's the biggest challenge. How do you bolster? What is the glue that holds these forces together? Clearly, it takes time to grow a professional whether it's a professional soldier or whether it's a professional security officer or a policemen, actually.

And so for the United States to say we're going to take a role to allow the Afghans to step up front. There must be something in the mix there that tells the sec def that timing is right. Clearly, I think you have the tail wagging the dog and economic pressures on NATO and, again, I don't know there is a compelling reason for this decision to be made.

BANFIELD: And as you keep referring to sec def, I love your quick speak, the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. I appreciate it. It tells me just how --

MARKS: -- acronyms. I could use a lot of acronyms.

BANFIELD: Let me you ask this. There is a lot of criticism, but the sec def is also saying, come on, give us a break here. Transitioning doesn't mean taking out necessarily. He may have been miscategorized or mischaracterized by saying 2013, 2014.

It's all going to be a big, messy, sort of messy, but clean end when we get to the end of 2014. But this is something that kind of stuck. Buck McKeon, the chairman of House Armed Services Committee said this, "The committee has not seen a single assessment by our commanders that indicate they have any confidence in such a swift transition."

Two questions for you. Is this swift if what the sec def is saying is true and what kind of markers are you looking for on the ground to be able to say it's time to leave?

MARKS: Well, we've already committed to a timeline. Frankly, I look at this decision, again, I put my hands in the air and I say, I don't know why this was made now. There's no reason it has to be done.

In fact, I think he probably got ahead of the headlights within the administration. I think he probably let the cat out of the bag a little bit soon. That's number one.

So we have this timeline that's in place and, again, when you look at what the secretary of defense said is that we're going to transition. He didn't indicate that there's going to be an accelerated withdrawal of forces.

It's fundamentally a shift in his mind and a mission that there will be a crossover, is what they call a crossover, I'm not trying to be too arcane here, but it's where the U.S. and NATO forces say the Afghan forces are now in a position to take the lead and will help and assist.

While the sec def just determined when that crossover point is and it's by the end of 2013. So there should be no misunderstanding in terms of what is going to happen and that fits within the timelines that have been described.

BANFIELD: General, let me ask you this. What are we leaving behind there? Because, you know, getting into Afghanistan, all of us reporters talked about was what we left behind there in the '80s.

Loads of RPGs, loads of ammunition and loads of crap being used against our guys there, are we going to be leaving behind a lot ordinance and a lot of weaponry and a lot of know how that could come back to bite us in the you know what later.

MARKS: Did you say crap?


MARKS: What we're going to have in Afghanistan is a presence that's almost in perpetuity. We're going to have a presence in Afghanistan for a long time. So, my point is, we will continue to have incredible intelligence operations taking place.

There are a lot of bad guys that need to be taken out, identified, rounded up, interrogated, pushed to the side. We have to help the Afghan government do that and will be allowed to do that.

We'll be able to operate with their cognizance. We're also going to have, I would say, a large logistic support effort because we have to able to make sure wherever there is a U.S. presence, there is force protection.

There's the availability for those soldiers, sailors, airmen, service members to do what they need to do. So we will have presence in country for quite some time to include a training presence.

So hopefully, all of that stuff is within a certain construct in order to accomplish missions as directed by the Afghan government and the ones that we need to direct ourselves.

BANFIELD: My tendency would be to say, thank you, Spider, but the smarter of me says, call him major general because he is way more important than that. Major General Spider Marks, thank you.

MARKS: Thanks.

BANFIELD: Nice to talk to you this morning. I just want you to let you know that General Wesley Clark is coming up as well to talk to Soledad, 8:00 live this morning. He's the former NATO supreme allied commander. Some great stuff coming there, as well so make sure you tune in for that. SAMBOLIN: It is 9 minutes past the hour. Now to Facebook's coming out party of sorts. Paperwork for initial public offering was filed yesterday and the company could be valued at $100 billion. They start selling shares this spring.

And depending on how it goes founder, Mark Zuckerberg could be worth up to $24 billion and that would put him in "Forbes'" top ten. Casey Wian live from Menlow Park, California. Is there any downside about this? We were talking about changing the culture of that incredible company. Could there be a downside?

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there could sure be a downside, Zoraida, and a lot of those potential risks to Facebook and its IPO going forward were outlined in that filing yesterday.

And some of the most interesting ones, some of the most obvious ones, is the fact that the global economy could be slow. Facebook's rapid growth and the number of users from 150 million in 2009 to 845 million today, that could slow down.

They talked about risks. What if Mark Zuckerberg leaves the company or something happens to him. They even talked to risks about as specific what happens if someone develops a new technology that would allow ads on Facebook pages to be blocked.

So there are plenty of risks, but most of the people we talk with say this is a company that is poised for rapid growth, continued growth in the future, especially internationally -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: I was reading here on the IPO filing that privacy is a very sensitive issue. That word was actually mentioned 35 times in the filing.

WIAN: Yes, and it's not surprising. Another interesting revelation in that filing is the fact that Mark Zuckerberg who owns 28 percent of Facebook's stock actually is going to have a voting control of 57 percent of that stock because other investors have turned over their proxies to him.

So that means that this man who's not even out of his 20s yet will control a company that is worth, some believe, up to $100 billion -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: It's just an incredible story. Thanks for sharing some more details. Casey Wian live from California.

BANFIELD: And just ahead on EARLY START, doctors are saying that sugar is like poison, toxic like alcohol. So should you be carted the next time you want to buy an M&M, cupcake or one of these things, sort of those malts, whatever they are? Sugar, really?

SAMBOLIN: Elizabeth Cohen is going to weigh in on that, but first, let's get a quick check of your travel forecast with Rob. Good morning.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, guys. Valentine's Day right around the corner so a lot of people getting poisoned.

BANFIELD: What did you get me?

MARCIANO: It's coming. You know, I still got two weeks. Get some warm weather yesterday, that's for sure. Record setters as far as the heat is concerned. These are the temperatures expected today.

Some cooling across the northeast, but, still, 10 degrees above average in some spots. It will be 55 degrees in D.C., 47 in New York City and 52 degrees in Chicago. Still some light showers across the Del Marva.

Still some cloudiness across western Pennsylvania. Today is Groundhog Day, by the way. You may see a shadow, again. You won't see it down across the Deep South. Fog is a problem here and snow storm developing out in the central plains.

That's a quick check on weather, EARLY START is coming right back.


SAMBOLIN: Good morning to you in Charlotte. It is 53 degrees right now. And guess what, it's going to be sunny and 70 a little bit later.

BANFIELD: That's why everybody wants to go to Charlotte.

SAMBOLIN: I'm going to Charlotte.

BANFIELD: It's so beautiful. John Avlon's parents live there. He go there all the time. He said it's one of the greatest places and I love it.

SAMBOLIN: I visited it. It is beautiful.

BANFIELD: It is 16 minutes past the hour. 6:00 is the hour on the East Coast, if you're checking. So here are your top stories if you're heading out the door.

Leon Panetta's announcement on Afghanistan, huh, yes, kind of expected to make some serious ripple waves on the campaign trail today. He made his announcement on an airplane and said this, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are expected to end their combat role in 2013, but then continue the sort of the training and transition right through 2014.

SAMBOLIN: And Egypt is now observing three days of national mourning for the nearly 80 people that were killed in a soccer stampede. You are looking at pictures there. Hundreds of others were injured in the riot that followed a match in Port Said, Egypt.

Authorities are investigating whether the violence was triggered by a sports rivalry or if it was politically motivated.

BANFIELD: Donald Trump, planning to hold a news conference today, 12:30 Eastern Time in Vegas. It's expected that he's going to make something called a major announcement. We don't expect him to say he's running for president, but Politico and others are reporting that he's ready to back Newt Gingrich, which, you know, would be a bit surprising given that he's been talking a little bit about running as an independent, but you can't endorse somebody and then go run against them.

SAMBOLIN: So that's going to be a sign.

All right. So sweet, sweet poison. A new study warns that sugar is as toxic as alcohol and should be regulated just like it.

BANFIELD: You know, we hear that sugar is bad for you, but I'm not sure we've ever heard it is this bad for you.

Elizabeth Cohen is live in Atlanta. They're calling this the toxic truth in the journal "Nature." What exactly is the problem and why is it any more serious than we've already heard?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right, Ashleigh. This actually isn't really a new study.

This is three researchers at the University of California San Francisco issuing their opinion. They say, look, we've done enough studies over the year to know, again, their opinion, that sugar is bad for you, so, they said why not regulate it just like alcohol or cigarettes, right? I mean, we have syntaxes for those. They say let's have a syntax for sugar.

So buy something with processed sugar. It ought to have a tax in it, according to these three folks. Or here's one that writes that I think is really kind of going out on a limb. They say maybe you should have to be 17 years old in order to buy soda because there's so much sugar in soda.

BANFIELD: Come on. It's in everything. How could you possibly regulate that? You can't get a candy bar then, right?

COHEN: Right. Processed sugar is in so many things.

And so, of course, we asked the Sugar Association what they thought of this and here was their response. They said, yes, we have an obesity problem in this country, but they said, to label a single food as the cause of the problem misinforms, misleads and confuses consumers. So, the sugar people saying, hey, don't blame us, it's all sorts of terrible stuff out there.

SAMBOLIN: Elizabeth, are there any guidelines as to how much sugar is OK for the body?

COHEN: Now, the American Heart Association has guidelines, because one of the issues with sugar is it could lead to something called the metabolic syndrome which in turn could lead to heart disease and diabetes.

The American Heart Association has weighed in and I brought three foods that, according to the Heart Association Guidelines just one of these would give you all the processed sugars you're supposed to have in a day.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness.

COHEN: So just one doughnut. You eat this doughnut and that's it. You can't have any - you're done for. You are done -

BANFIELD: A heart-shaped donut.

COHEN: Isn't that sweet?

BANFIELD: I love that they make it in the shape of what's going to kill you.

COHEN: Exactly. There you go. Or, this one really surprised me. Just this much lemonade, we got this on a popular fast food restaurant. That's it. That has as much processed sugar as you're supposed to have in a whole day or this one blueberry muffin has actually way more, way more sugar than you're supposed to have in a day.

SAMBOLIN: Blueberry muffin.

COHEN: It really does look good. I'm actually pretty hungry.

BANFIELD: Thanks for ruining my morning.

COHEN: I'm sorry.

SAMBOLIN: Elizabeth, fruit is still OK, right?

COHEN: Right. Fruits, right. They're not commenting on sugar - on natural sugar.

SAMBOLIN: There we go.

COHEN: Apples are still fine, right. Exactly. We're talking about processed sugar and it is in so many things and I think as Americans we've kind of forgotten how much of this stuff we're eating. It is in everything.

BANFIELD: All right, Elizabeth, we'll look forward to your reports all day on that. Thanks for that.

COHEN: OK, thanks.

BANFIELD: Also ahead on EARLY START, President Obama came out with some news about housing plan. He wants to make it easier for a lot of us to get a re-fi, refinance on our battered home mortgages. But is Congress into this? Are they going to go along for this ride? What it's going to mean to you?

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SAMBOLIN: Boy, are we having lots of dialogues about this. "Minding Your Business" now.

Yesterday was a winning day on Wall Street. The Dow rose two- thirds of a percent. Strong tech earnings pushed the NASDAQ up one percent. The S&P 500 rose, as well.

BANFIELD: And some people -

SAMBOLIN: This is the talker today.

BANFIELD: Yes. And some people hang on these numbers all the time, but most people are hanging on the other stuff and that's like troubled homeownership. All the problems we're all suffering, too.

The president wanting to get people to refinance your home, make it more affordable, help you with a lower mortgage. Christine Romans is here with the details.

All right. So we talk about it all the time. Yes, re-fi would be great. Low interest rates. Wouldn't it be terrific if we could qualify?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Right. And you hear people say, look, I'm underwater on my loan, millions of Americans are underwater on my loan. I can't get these low interest rates or I blew out my credit, I've got a 600 credit score but you have to have 750 or higher to refinance.

The president laying out this challenge to Congress yesterday in this big speech involves a church in Virginia saying, look, this is the American dream. We're on a make or break time for the American middle class, and housing is really important here.

He wants this plan where you will be able to refinance your home and the average saving he's saying is about $3,000 a year. It will costs about $5 to $10 billion to pay for that by fees on some of the banks, which conservatives say that's just more higher taxes, have somebody else pay for it.

And also it will lower your - the threshold down to at least 580, I think, for your credit score to be able to get a refinance. Right now you have to have, you know, 20 percent in the bank. You know, you have to have equity in the house. You have to have money. You have to have a job and you have to have a 750 credit score to refinance, if you can. Good luck. Good luck.

BANFIELD: Right. But what about all that equity? Everybody has lost their equity. So you can't even loan to value any more.

ROMANS: I know. I know. So this is what this plan will do. This is another plan - another - yet another plan.

SAMBOLIN: There is the problem, because so many people have failed. There's so many people who went through this long-winded process - ROMANS: I know.

SAMBOLIN: -- only to be told, guess what, we shut down that program and we're going to move it into this bucket now.

ROMANS: "Disappointing" is the word we use to describe the efforts to date to try to fix the housing crisis. And quite frankly, people like John Boehner and even I think Mitt Romney has also sort of said, let's - you know, the housing market needs to settle out, you know, and the government -

BANFIELD: And let the market fail.

ROMANS: -- and let the market figure this out. But this is what the president says to that.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: It is wrong for anybody to suggest that the only option for struggling responsible homeowners is to wait for the housing market to hit bottom.


ROMANS: So the president said he refuses to accept that, but we've already had several programs and I'm telling you about one in four people that were promised help have been actually helped. So that's why these have been disappointing.

You look at this program called HAMP, that's a modification program that was designed to help four million people, it actually helped 910,000. That's something for those 910,000, but it hasn't helped everyone that they wanted to.

Also, the HARP Program, this is the refinancing program to the government, designed to help five million people and actually helped 962,000 people. So these things have been disappointing to date. That's what John Boehner and some Republicans have been saying, like, look, come on. I mean, we - this housing crisis is so much worse than we thought. We can't fix it.

BANFIELD: How about a big, fat, auto industry like bailout?

ROMANS: Someone at Zillow told me if you were to make people whole on what they've lost on their equity it would costs $750 billion. If you like another TARP -

SAMBOLIN: If you like another TARP, gosh.

ROMANS: -- for homeowners.

BANFIELD: Wouldn't it be nice if we got it?

ROMANS: Who'd pay for it?

BANFIELD: I hear you.

SAMBOLIN: Your grandkids would pay for it.

ROMANS: Yes, of course.

BANFIELD: You're absolutely right. It's (INAUDIBLE). Thank you. Thank you for that.

ROMANS: Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It's 6:27 on the East.

She survived a horrific crash over the weekend. A passenger and a family friend of the teen survivor is going to join us a little bit later and tell us how she's doing and what's next for her.

You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: I'm Ashleigh Banfield. Nice to have you here with us.

It's 30 past the hour, which is also a great time to get you out of the door full of headlines.

Here we go.

Republicans blasting the defense secretary's announcement that the United States and NATO plan to end the combat mission in Afghanistan -- are you ready -- in the middle of next year. Pretty early according to a lot of the other timelines out there.

Mitt Romney for his part on the stump saying that timeline jeopardizes our mission there and makes absolutely no sense.

SAMBOLIN: Attorney General Eric Holder will testify today about Operations Fast and Furious, the botched tracking program along the Southern border. He will face the committee chaired by House Republican Darrell Issa who has threatened Holder with contempt if the Justice Department misses a deadline for documents related to that program.

BANFIELD: And bad news on the job front here -- American Airlines saying it's planning to cut 13,000 jobs. Among the maintenance workers, flight attendants, they could be hit the hardest. The nation's third largest airline is in bankruptcy court and American's parent company also wants to end pension plans and stop paying retirees health benefits. Interestingly enough, saying those are painful job losses, they could lead to a lot of people having their jobs saved. Interesting story developing.

SAMBOLIN: All right, 6:31 in the East. And back to our top story.

The shifting role for the United States and Afghanistan and the winding down of America's longest war. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the combat in Afghanistan will end next year.

So, earlier, Major General Spider Marks says the decision may be political and financial.


BANFIELD: Good idea, bad idea?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET), U.S. ARMY: Well, I think it's a bad idea. Clearly, I think you have the tail wagging the dog. There are economic pressures on NATO. And, again, I don't know that there is a compelling reason for this decision to be made now.


SAMBOLIN: Well, Republicans are also coming out and saying this is not a good idea. Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon.

It seems like there's not a lot of support for this. How is this being justified?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Zoraida, this is something that was clearly in the works anyhow. Perhaps Secretary Panetta, as he sometimes does, got a bit ahead of himself in announcing this publicly. It's not clear that NATO was ready to go down that road just yet.

But NATO had already agreed that it would end all operations in Afghanistan, essentially in 2014. At the end of 2014, so, back up the calendar. You have to shift to training and training more Afghans before you completely pack up and go.

So, that's what Panetta is talking about -- getting out of combat ass a major operation, ending operation some time next year and using the rest of the time on the calendar before the NATO-agreed upon deadline to work on training Afghans.

But that's going to be the real challenge. Can you train enough Afghans and are Afghans really ready to take over and what about those safe havens for the Taliban and al Qaeda across the border in Pakistan. None of this really gets to that key question.

SAMBOLIN: No. And exactly that was the concern of the general, that, in fact, the training would not be complete and we could perhaps be in a worse situation.

STARR: Well, that's one of the criticisms here that it may not be. But, remember, it's the Afghan government. This is beginning to sound an awful lot like Iraq, isn't it?

It is the Afghan government that would have to make a decision to ask NATO, to ask the United States to now stay longer beyond 2014. And Afghan President Hamid Karzai is under his own political pressure inside his country to get foreign troops off Afghan soil. There's not a lot of support continuing in that country amongst the Afghan people for a long-term foreign presence.

But at the same time, just to even make it more complicated, what General Marks said, of course, is correct. The war's not sustainable. It's not sustainable economically here in the United States. Even Pentagon officials say that.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Barbara Starr, live at the Pentagon for us, thank you.

STARR: Sure.

SAMBOLIN: And coming up a little bit later, General Wesley Clark is going to join Soledad O'Brien on "STARTING POINT." He is a former NATO supreme allied commander.

And tonight at 6:00 p.m. Eastern, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates will join John King on "JOHN KING, USA".

BANFIELD: And ahead on EARLY START, the pundits have been slamming Mitt Romney. He told CNN, quote, "not very worried about the very poor." But is that all he said or has that been taken out of context? And it will help to shed his out of touch image even if he gets it into context. You'll find out in a moment.

You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: Good morning, Washington, D.C. Forty-nine degrees right now. A little bit later, it's going to be a little rainy for you, but it's going to get up to 59 degrees.

There's the good and the bad.

BANFIELD: Yes, 59 degrees, but a lot hotter everywhere else. Things are heating up in Washington. And we say that just about every day, though.

Welcome back. It's 6:38.

SAMBOLIN: Especially now.

BANFIELD: Especially now.

Thirty-eight minutes past the hour. It seems, you know, some, however -- let me rephrase this. Some people are saying that Mitt Romney is the only thing standing in Mitt Romney's way to the Republican nomination. And why is that? You might think he would be riding a real wave, right, out of Florida?


BANFIELD: But he sort of stepped in it a little bit with Soledad O'Brien yesterday, or did he? Did he step in it or didn't he? When he said I'm not very concerned about the very poor. By itself, that sounds kind of ugly.

Would you like some context in how that comment came out? You're welcome. Have a look.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I'll fix it.

I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine.

I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I'll continue to take that message across the nation.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, HOST, CNN'S "STARTING POINT": So, I said last question, but I got to ask you. You said I'm not concerned about the very poor because they have a safety net, and I think there are lots of poor Americans who are struggling who would say, that sounds odd. Can you explain that?

ROMNEY: Well, you -- finish the sentence, Soledad. I said I'm not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net, but if it has holes in it, I will repair them.

O'BRIEN: Got it.


BANFIELD: So, context means everything, right? It doesn't seem to matter, though. His opponents are absolutely jumping on that very short statement.

Newt Gingrich at a rally in Nevada said this.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other.


BANFIELD: OK. So, talk about a buzzkill. Certainly a buzzkill after Florida winning streak, you might say.

Let's bring in our panel to talk about this. Live from Washington, Shira Toeplitz, political reporter for "Roll Call"; Democratic strategist Penny Lee; and also Jonathan Collegio, the former press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee and current director of communications at Karl Rove-backed super PAC, American Crossroads.

That's so much to talk to you guys about. This whole issue of Romney about "I'm not so concerned" and the context that it was taken in and run with and the context he supplied that necessarily has not been run with. Let's talk about how he has also been a perpetrator of this.

And I'll talk with you first about it, Shira. Let me run a quick sound bite that gives context to this. Romney ran an ad saying that Obama said if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose. That's really ugly stuff.

But here's the context of how President Obama said that line. Have a look.


BARACK OBAMA, THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Senator McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose".


BANFIELD: Oh, wow. Isn't that just something when the context comes back? Obama didn't say it. Obama was quoting McCain as saying it.

So, has Romney had a taste of his own medicine, Shira?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ, ROLL CALL: Yes, I think in some way, this is the pot calling the kettle black. His campaign is going to go out there and say you took this out of context. Well, they certainly did that before and that clip you just showed is just one example of what we've seen and what I read about in several reports over the course of his campaign that he's done this.

Look, but I think the bigger issue here with Mitt Romney is the quote itself, right? The fact that it was taken out of context is the subject of debate that we're talking about now. But just that little snippet is still indicative of larger problems he has with his candidacy. Still, he's pretty inarticulate on the campaign trail. Of all the flak he gives Newt Gingrich about being ideas man and all these gaffes Newt Gingrich has made, Romney has had his share of gaffes, too.

And, number two, that he's out of touch with the average American. I think that comment definitely in many Democrats' minds probably just reinforces that.

BANFIELD: All right. Since you mentioned the gaffes, we got an amazing team here on staff that just went and found all those gaffes and strung them together so we could play them for you. Have a look at all of these.


ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend.

I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.

I'll tell you what, 10,000 bucks, $10,000 bet?

I know what it's like to worry whether you're going to get fired. There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.

Maybe I should tell my story. I'm also unemployed.


BANFIELD: All right. Look, the guy has made a couple of gaffes. We all make them. Heck, I make them every day on this show when we're live and we're at pace.

But here's the deal, is his message being lost to ultraconservatives who really might appreciate a lot of this? He might be able to get a lot of those conservatives on board if his message wasn't lost for the other headlines bashing him.

I'll throw that to you, Penny Lee.

PENNY LEE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, you know, what's interesting to see is that he's getting it from both sides. He's getting it from Newt Gingrich on one side saying he wants to be more inclusive and he shouldn't be doing a class warfare for the very poor. But at the same time, also Rush Limbaugh really took Romney to task, as well, because over the fact that he says, well, we have a social safety net.

This is the -- social safety nets are the bane of many conservatives. They think that is just government spending, wasteful government spending on many sides.

So, he's actually getting it from both sides on this one comment. In context or out of context, this comment is really haunting him.

But again, to the other comments, that this, again, kind of reinforces a narrative that is out there, or a perception that people have that he just can't connect or, better yet, we can't connect to him.

So, this is going to be a problem for him going forward, whether or not he can find that connectability that people want in their president.

BANFIELD: All right. So, Jonathan Collegio, I want you to weigh in on something, since you're affiliated with American Crossroads. I've been looking at the numbers that super PAC that essentially, it's not going to be a super PAC that spends any money right now on any of the four candidates who are out there in the Republican nomination, but it's all -- it's focused on the general election and going after Obama.

And in that effort in 2011, you all were able to bring in $51 million. If you look at the numbers for Obama's super PAC called Priorities USA, holy molly, you trounced them. They only got $4.2 million.

Here's my question. Money matters. We saw that in Florida.

But in the general election, is it a money battle or is this going to be a battle of personalities? I think, James Carville called Romney a detached (ph) doofus. There's all sorts of epitaphs and invective that are thrown out there?

Is it going to be about the money battle?

JONATHAN COLLEGIO, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, AMERICAN CROSSROADS: It will be partly. It will be partly. As you get closer to Election Day, Money matters less, right? Everybody was talking about what Sarah Palin was saying, what John McCain was saying, and what Biden and Obama were saying. We weren't talking about the ads. Do you remember an ad from the end of the campaign cycle in 2008?

So, money does matters at the front end, kind of framing the issue debate and framing the political debate that folks will have. Ultimately, what an outside group can't control is the candidate's message, is the ability of a candidate, like you were saying to connect with voters. Bur I do think that 2012 is going to be a big issue debate around whether or not Obama can turn the economy around.

He's going to be given three years to do this, and it doesn't look like we've seen any success on it so far. The more that Romney or Newt or whoever ends up being the Republican nominee can make this a referendum on Obama instead of about themselves, the Republican candidate will have a better chance of winning.

BANFIELD: Maybe Karl Rove should run for president, because if he can do for the economy what he's done for the fundraising of crossroads.


COLLEGIO: A high growth rate, yes.

BANFIELD: Hey, OK, listen, Jonathan and Penny and Shira, thanks very much, guys.

COLLEGIO: Thank you.


ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Soledad O'Brien joins us now with a look at what is ahead on "Starting Point." Good morning.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good morning to you and so much ahead, so, so, so much.

Good morning, everybody. This morning on "Starting Point," we're going to talk about Facebook surrendering some of its privacy going public in this $5 billion IPO. We'll be talking about some of the details with Wall Street insider this morning.

Of course, we are following Groundhog Day. It is the most important item of the day according to my four children, so let's know whether or not we're going to have six more weeks of winter.

And we'll talk to the teenager -- remember we told you the story of a young woman deported to Colombia accidentally. She's going to join us live on the set to talk about exactly what happened and what happens now.

That's all ahead when "Starting Point" begins right at the top of the hour. EARLY START is back, though, right after this commercial break.


BANFIELD: Hello, friends. It is 49 minutes past the hour. Time to get you caught up on the top story as you get ready to head out the door.


BANFIELD (voice-over): The Republicans blasting the defense secretary's announcement that the U.S. and NATO plan to end the combat mission in Afghanistan by the middle of next year and make a transition to training the local forces to take over the job, instead.

On the stump, Mitt Romney says that jeopardizes the mission there and basically gives the enemy an edge. Leon Panetta expect (ph) that also said that, hey, an early transition to a training role does not necessarily mean the U.S. is pulling out early.

And marine experts still don't know why so many dolphins are dying on Cape Cod. More than 100 of the mammals have been found dead, stranded along the Massachusetts coastline since last month, 81 of them dying. Investigators saying recent changes to the water temperature could be disorienting the dolphins.

And Florida state troopers keeping a close watch on the smoke conditions that could force part of Interstate 95 to close due to low visibility. The targeted stretch between state routes 50 and 407 in both directions are really what are at play here.

Authorities are being extra, extra cautious because of last weekend's train reaction collisions on I-75 that killed 11 people. These crashes were caused by heavy, heavy smoke and fog from a nearby brush fire.


SAMBOLIN: And Ashleigh, one of the victims of that tragic pile up on Florida's I-75 is staying in the hospital today and will not get deported. This is a big concern that a lot of her friends had. Fifteen year-old Lidianey Carmo lost both her parents and her sister as the family was returning home from a church outing.

She was injured herself in that crash, as well. Lidianey is an undocumented immigrant. She was brought to this country by her parents. There had been some concern that she would be forced to return to her native, Brazil. Immigration and custom enforcements says, don't worry about that, Lidianey (ph). Now, you can focus on your healing.

So, Pastor Alonzo Oliveira, a family friend is joining us now. Thank you for being with us this morning. We appreciate it. First of all, I was just reading that Lidianey just found out that her parents and her sister had died. How is she doing?

ALONZO OLIVEIRA, PASTOR, HEAL OUR LAND CHURCH: She's fine. She's really in shock. She got surgery. She just heard about the news, the truth yesterday, and we told her what's going on and she mentioned three questions. What my future? What I'm doing? And who will take care of me? This is the three questions she leave (ph).

And her uncle just let her decide as, you decide, if you want to stay here, go back to Brazil. And she decided, no, I want to stay here. I love this country. She looks like American, but she's fine. The doctor did not show anything about the date, but we expect for the next, maybe, 20 days she come back with us.

SAMBOLIN: So, her injuries are pretty serious then?

OLIVEIRA: Yes. She had like interior bleeding, and she got a surgery. She broke her left arm. And she had her face -- not broke anything, but if you really -- this is really difficult to just see her. She is really, really --

SAMBOLIN: I know that there were some concerns that Lidianey would be deported. Her family had stayed in this country on expired visas, and yesterday, immigration and customs enforcement released a statement. I want to read that statement.

They say, "Our thoughts and prayers are with Ms. Lidianey Carmo as she deals with the tragic loss of her family. Reports of her facing deportation are completely false. ICE's stated priorities include convicted criminals, immigration fugitives, repeat immigration law violators and recent border crossers."

Is she going to be living then with her uncle? What will be the status on that since she is staying in this country?

OLIVEIRA: We just got my attorney yesterday, and I offer her to be, if I can help her, I'm American and I told the attorney to help her, to do something. Whatever to have to do, I can apply to her to be my daughter. I can adopt her, and my attorney just take care of things and just waiting for her to come, and after that, definitely, we decide whatever we have to do to be her legal.

SAMBOLIN: We're looking at some beautiful picture of Lidianey. She is just 15 years old. And of course, you know, because of her injuries, she is incurring some serious medical expenses. And we have some information here that I would like you to verify or give some more information if you have any.

A source close to the family told CNN that Florida's governor, Rick Scott, visited the hospital on Sunday. He said that the family should not worry about any financial costs, that Florida would take care of it. The governor, apparently, gave the family members a phone number to call if there was any difficulty hearing back. Have you heard from the governor? Do you know anything about this?

OLIVEIRA: Yes. We, he just visited her Sunday in the morning after the accident. And he talked to the uncle. He says, I promise you, I'll take care of all expenses to the hospital, the transportation for the body back to Brazil, discussed around $50,000. And, we tried to contact his office a couple times and nobody answered.

And, yesterday, in the morning, his attorney called a friend of mine and told us to wait two more days, and they will take care of that. But, definitely -- the only thing we have is discount --

SAMBOLIN: Mr. Oliveira, we thank you very much for joining us. I'm sorry to interrupt you. We have to go. But we will, on our website, put up some information. A lot of folks are calling asking how they can help. We certainly wish her well. Let her know that our thoughts and prayers are with her. There's some information for you. We'll be right back.

OLIVEIRA: I appreciate it.


BANFIELD: We're coming very close to the top of the hour, so that's it for EARLY START, the news from A to Z. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien coming up next here. Hi.