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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Interview with Tim Pawlenty; Cancer Survivor Wins The Super Bowl; Violence Continues in Syria; Interview with Ambassador Ted Kattouf; Surprise Best Actor Oscar Nominee; Long Arm of the Recession

Aired February 7, 2012 - 08:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. And welcome to STARTING POINT. I'm Soledad O'Brien.

Mitt Romney is the clear front-runner, but today's three GOP contests could reshape the Republican race. There are 70 delegates up for grabs ultimately.

And Gingrich and Santorum say they're not going anywhere. Romney's national campaign co chair, the former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is going to join us this morning.

Also, the deadliest assault in Syria on its own people. Twenty- one civilians killed so far today and there are no signs of letting up.

Also, millions upon millions of dollars in earmarks from lawmakers. And they may have personally benefitted from those earmarkers. But lawmakers say it is legit. Let's take a look at that as well.

STARTING POINT begins right now.

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: This is who's house? Run's house!

Hey, everybody. You're listening to Russell Simmons' (INAUDIBLE). He's one of our panelists this morning. It's Run-DMC "Run's House."

Nice to have you. Thanks for being with us.

Also joining us this morning is Rick Stengel. He is the managing editor of "TIME."

It's nice to see you. Thanks for being with us.

And Reihan Salam is the co-author of "Grand New Party."

Nice to have you.

REIHAN SALAN, AUTHOR: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Lots to talk about this morning, especially these three Republican contests that are under way, Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado.

Mitt Romney is kind of looking over his shoulder a little bit because today, it could be perhaps the most critical day of Rick Santorum's campaign. He's hoping for a very strong showing in the state of Minnesota.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim pawlenty is live for us in Minneapolis. He's also national co-chairman of Romney's 2012 presidential campaign.

It's nice to see you, sir. Thanks for talking with us.

You know, four years ago, Mitt Romney swept the Minnesota caucuses. But now, everybody is kind of downplaying what he might be able to do. Why do you think that is?

TIM PAWLENTY (R), FORMER MINNESOTA GOVERNOR: Well, of course, each state and cycle is different, Soledad. But here, we have a modest size turnout. It's nonbinding. And the tradition in Minnesota is the caucus attendees tend to gravitate towards the candidate they perceive to be the most conservative.

So, Ron Paul has a strong contingent here. Certainly, Rick Santorum will do very well. Newt might even do well. And Mitt will be in the mix as well.

But it will be hard for -- it will be a more challenging state for Mitt because of the lower turnout than some of the others.

And one of the messages we're trying to convey is Rick Santorum is not the perfect conservative that he holds himself out to be. When you look at his record on things like earmark and some other things, you know, his rhetoric and his record don't match up.

O'BRIEN: Yes, you've been the person out front attacking him on that. This is what Rick Santorum had to say about your attacks. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Any time someone challenges Governor Romney, Governor Romney goes out. Instead of talking about what he's for, which is what I did today, in contrast with Governor Romney's for, he just simply goes and attacks and tries to destroy. I don't think it's going to work this time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: How concerned are you about Rick Santorum in this race? I mean, I know people have been pressuring him to drop out. But if he has a strong showing, doesn't that kind of change the game?

PAWLENTY: Well, of course, two of the three states today are nonbinding, Soledad. So it may be a psychological boost but it won't change the trajectory change of the race overall. With respect to Rick's comments -- look, I like Rick. But as long as we keep it on the issues and don't make it personal, I think the debate and the back-and-forth is fair.

He said the other day a scathing attack on Governor Romney on health care. And now, there's news reports that, in fact, Rick Santorum supported the government mandate some years ago when he was in Congress.

So, people need to know this if they're going to make informed votes and cast informed ballots today and beyond.

O'BRIEN: Let me talk to you about some poll numbers we have. Let's throw the first one up. The question was this: if the election were held today, whom would you -- I think -- whom would you vote for? Good, grammatically correct. That's nice to see. President -- because often they say who and that's wrong.

President Obama gets 51 percent of the vote, Mitt Romney 45 percent of the vote. Are you concerned about a figure like that?

PAWLENTY: Well, if it's the poll that I'm thinking of from yesterday, that poll was tainted by the fact that they introduced some negative information about Mitt before they asked the head-to-head question with President Obama.

But I know this, between Mitt Romney and President Obama, it's been close. Some weeks, Mitt has been a little ahead. Some weeks, President Obama has been a little ahead.

But it's clear that Mitt Romney is the strongest Republican candidate in the field to defeat Barack Obama by far. And that's not just my rhetoric. The polls show that week this and week out.

So, if Republicans and conservatives are concerned about who's most likely to beat Barack Obama, the answer is clearly Mitt Romney. The others are defeated easily by Barack Obama.

O'BRIEN: OK. So, that was an ABC News/"Washington Post" poll. And another part of the poll found this: 52 percent of people polled said that the more they learned about Mitt Romney, the less they like him.

How do you -- what's the strategy? As one of the people involved in his campaign, to turn that around. The more you learn about him, 52 percent say the less they like him.

PAWLENTY: Well, I think that will actually -- if I remember that poll correctly, Soledad, I think it related to Republican voters. But nonetheless, there's so many polls flying back and forth, it's hard to keep them all straight.

In my experience, and I think this is what people will see, Mitt Romney is a very gracious man. He's a high integrity person. He's somebody that has strong values. He's knowledgeable. He's capable. He's had a successful leadership experience.

And importantly, he didn't spend his whole life in Washington, D.C. And if that's the problem we're trying to fix, then you don't turn to people who spent their whole adult life in Washington, D.C., or in close parasitic relationship with Washington, D.C.

He's actually been an entrepreneur. He started businesses, grown jobs and provided private sector economic activity and that's more important than ever. I think people across the country know that that's one of the main thing or one of the main things we need to do and need to have in the next president.

O'BRIEN: Governor, hold on for one second while I turn to my panel for a minute.

Reihan, it's -- people in elected positions often will say, like the polls don't count at all. There's flaws in the polls. But they also live and die by the polls.

Are some of the polls, the governor is saying, no, you know, nothing to be really worried about? Agreed?

SALAM: Well, at this stage in the cycle, President Obama is doing unusually well. He's doing about as well as he did after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Whether that will last is another question.

So, I think the question for Republicans is: who is the most viable candidate over the longer turn? The economic cycle is going to experience up and downs.

And, right now, President Obama is in an up cycle.

O'BRIEN: The governor just talked about a parasitic relationship with Washington, D.C. How much baggage does that really carry when you're talking about looking toward a November election?

RICK STENGEL, MANAGING EDITOR, TIME: Well, I guess he's referring to earmarks and that kind --

O'BRIEN: He's referring to Santorum, he must be. Because that's been the message.

STENGEL: Right. I am completely contrary on this. I am in favor of earmarks. I find the discussion about earmarks to be so misguided.

Earmarks are getting money for hospitals, for museums, for senior centers in different cities. I mean, the fact that earmarks have been demonized I find kind of amazing.

They've been abused in some respect. And, in fact, in -- when I ran the Constitution Center at Philadelphia, Rick Santorum was one of the great patrons for the Constitution Center. He helped get money for that. I would argue that that's a very good thing.

And, you know, a relationship with Washington to get things to benefit people is something positive.

SALAM: The influence peddling. He's talking about Newt Gingrich and he's talking about lobbying.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Let's go back to the governor for a final question. Sir, you know what I'm always curious about. Are you -- do you regret you dropped out of this race? Because, you know, one of the things I hear on the campaign trail all the time is who's the guy we want to throw our support behind. You hear it a lot. And you could have been that guy. Do you regret your decision?

PAWLENTY: Well, Soledad, I had my shot at it. We -- I regret some of the tactical decisions we made during my campaign. But we couldn't get it done. And I'm pleased and proud to be supporting Mitt Romney.

And I wasn't just talking about earmarks. Obviously, when you have somebody vote to the bridge for nowhere like Rick Santorum did, that's beyond a need for the federal hospital that the government might have a research project with. But more broadly, Newt Gingrich, Rick, even Ron Paul, their whole adult life in Washington, D.C., in Congress, in government.

It would actually be nice for once to have somebody who's been an entrepreneur, who hasn't spent their entire adult life in Washington, D.C. And the only candidate who fits that bill is Mitt Romney. He's actually been in the private economy. And we need that more than before.

O'BRIEN: Governor Tim Pawlenty joining us this morning -- nice to see you see, sir. Thanks for your time. Appreciate it.

PAWLENTY: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Other headlines to get to. Christine has those for us.

Hey, Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning again, Soledad.

Brand new pictures of Russia's prime minister meeting with Syrian President al-Assad today, urging him to end violence there, saying Moscow wants Arab people to live in peace.

Twenty-one civilians have been killed in Syria so far today. Meantime, the U.S. says its embassy in Syria will remain closed. And today, Italy has re-called its ambassador to Syria. Soledad will talk live with the former U.S. ambassador to Syria later this hour.

Dozens of mourners, many of them strangers, gathering last night for a candlelight vigil honoring the memory of two little boys killed in an apparent murder/suicide. Their father, Josh Powell, is accused of setting off a home explosion that killed all three of them. Powell's wife went missing two years ago.

Her sister spoke with CNN's Ashleigh Banfield this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DENISE COX, SISTER OF SUSAN COX POWELL: They were working on the case without a body to go after him for murder. And it was within a few weeks it was going to take -- the arrest was going to take place. And we were all excited that something was going to happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Officials say Josh Powell hacked his two sons, his two little boys with a hatchet before using 10 gallons of gasoline to blow up their home on Sunday.

A "Washington Post" investigation reveals 33 lawmakers spent $300 million in taxpayer money on projects within two miles from their property. Texas Congressman Joe Barton spent $3 million to widen part of a highway in Ennis, Texas, where he owns two homes.

Soledad asked Congressman Bart about this earlier this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOE BARTON (R), TEXAS: I live in a small town outside of Dallas called Ennis, Texas, which is a community of approximately 15,000 people. Every home in Ennis, Texas, is within two or three miles of either the 287 that goes through downtown and the bypass that goes around it.

And I have been successful over time in making 287 a four-lane highway from Corsicana up until Fort Worth with an exception of about two miles it's still two lane. So, it's -- that's a totally on the up and up process.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: The earmarks are legal. The Senate rejected a bill last week that would have outlawed them.

Country singer Randy Travis arrested for public intoxication yesterday morning outside a Baptist church. He apologized in a statement to CNN, admitting he partied too hard after the Super Bowl. Travis was released after spending some four hours in the drunk tank.

Bart Simpson gets banned from Iran, along with Homer and the rest of the Simpson clan. Simpson dolls, they join Barbie on a list of toys that are prohibited from being sold in Iran because they promote Western culture. Other Western icons like Superman, Spider- man, they are still allowed because they are seen by Iranian officials as helping the oppressed.

O'BRIEN: OK. Interesting.

ROMANS: There you go.

O'BRIEN: All right. We're talking about -- forget PACs and super PACs to our panels. The latest campaign finance issue is about campaign theme tote bags and t-shirts and accessories. Have you heard about this?

Republicans are now questioning Obama campaign's designer apparel sales. They contend the sales -- and you are one of the designers, I believe.

RUSSELL SIMMONS, CEO, RUSH COMMUNICATIONS: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Do you have a picture of this? This is your shirt. This is the Store.Barack Obama.com Russell Simmons where you can sell.

Apparently they contend the sale could violate campaign finance rules -- likely or not likely violations?

SALAM: Oh, I have no idea. All I know is the campaign finance regulations are so insanely complex, which is why I think we should throw out the whole system.

I think that people should be allowed to sell campaign tote bags and what-have-you in order to raise money for their campaigns. And I think it's entirely possible that it is actually against the rules and regulations because again hardly anyone understands them. These regulations massively empower lawyers and they don't actually help people have their voices heard.

SIMMONS: I think the president should use whatever resources he has within the law. But you understand, the problem is the law. The problem is that we allow so much money in politics and so many people funding -- these super PACs have gotten out of control. It's crystal clear when you watch the Republican primaries, it's only money that rules this democracy. And until those laws are changed, the president should play by any rules available. It should be his legacy issue.

O'BRIEN: That's sort of the art of mutual

SIMMONS: But it should be his legacy issue.

O'BRIEN: That's sort of the art of mutual destruction, right? Sort of I'm like I'm against super PACs, but if there's going to be super PACs, I better have my super PAC.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMMONS: I'm for the tax breaks, but I'm happy to pay more taxes if everyone else does. I'm not going to pay more -- people say, well, write a check. I'm not going to write a blank check and no one else writes that check. I want to see a system that works. And I'm going to work within the system to change it.

STENGEL: You know, the thing is there's either way too much money in politics or way too little. Now, if you look at what they're spending on this whole election cycle, Republican primaries all the way to presidency, the estimate is $5 billion. That sounds like a colossal sum, right?

O'BRIEN: It does. Yes.

STENGEL: That's exactly what Procter and Gamble spends in one year in advertising. So, is that enough money in politics or is it too little? I don't really know.

I mean, you know, campaign finance law is a problem, but even if you had federal support of elections, people would still be spending money on elections.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMMONS: The point is there's a level playing field. And more important than that is that there aren't these outside influences buying influence. This should not -- you should not have -- why do we have people in prison if the prison industrial complex says so? Why can't we have health care, because health care companies won't allow you to?

O'BRIEN: You have brought us into conversations that --

SIMMONS: Every single issue that we have that disempowers the poor is money, because the people now -- the politicians are not representing the people who elect them.

O'BRIEN: We're going to pick up this conversation on the other side of this commercial break.

And we're also going to talk about the crisis, or is there a crisis, among conservatives? Can conservatives unite behind one candidate? We'll take a look at that.

And President Obama doing an about face. You know, he's been a big critic of super PACs. And now, he's using one to help get re- elected. We're going to talk about that straight ahead --

SIMMONS: Good for him.

O'BRIEN: -- on STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: It is. Well, the fighting right here on the panel this morning.

REIHAN SALAM, CO-AUTHOR, "GRAND NEW PARTY": We're not fighting, we're debating.

O'BRIEN: I'm sorry, the aggressive conversation across the table.

SALAM: We're just having a debate. O'BRIEN: Yes, you are, and we're listening to on it. Welcome back, everybody. Rick Stengel joined our panel, as I mentioned earlier. He's the managing editor of "Time" magazine. The latest issue on the news stands talks about the conservative identity crisis. I thought that's really, really interesting article, because it sort of gets to what I think we have seen in the race.

We've seen Iowa, New Hampshire. We've seen as we go into Minnesota today, what is the issue behind the conservative identity crisis?

RICK STENGEL, MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, the issue has been who's the real conservative and what happens in Republican primaries, particularly, close Republican primaries where only Republicans can vote. It skews the right. Very conservative folks are the ones who vote in primaries. Richard Nixon famously said to Republicans who run to the right in primaries, who run to the center in the general election.

Basically, the argument by Gingrich and Santorum against Mitt Romney is that he's not a conservative.

O'BRIEN: They are the true conservatives.

STENGEL: They are the true conservatives. And by the way, Newt has been a movement conservative. And basically, in our panel of conservatives, they're talking about what are the true conservative values that candidates should represent. Smaller government, more efficient government, and fewer taxes. I mean, that seems to be the thing that they all coalesce around.

O'BRIEN: But the reason you call it a crisis is that it looks and we have certainly seen this play out in the primary and the caucus season, which is uniting all those disparate parts is proving to be a challenge and could have an implications for the general election come November.

STENGEL: Right. And progressives tend to look at conservatives as monolithic. Conservatives are all the same. That conservatives are way more diverse than liberals are. I mean, you know, there are libertarian conservatives. There are social conservatives. They all have trouble uniting, and that's been the problem in the primaries for them.

O'BRIEN: What's the implication of a trouble uniting, do you think?

SALAM: I actually reject the premise. I think that when you look at the Republican Party during the Obama era on all of the critical issues, you see Paul Ryan, congressman from Wisconsin, who's united the party around the set of ideas regarding health reform where there wasn't a united front there, on taxes, broadening the base and lowering the rates.

You actually see a party that, I think at a lot of respect, has moved to the center where as everyone pays attention to the Tea Party folks on the right. I think that on core domestic policy issues, on skilled immigration, go to the debates. There weren't real differences on issues. The differences were all about, well, you supported X or Y 20, 30 years ago.

Your personality is X, we can't trust you. And that, in a way, is dangerous than you have these petty disagreement, but on the core policy issues, I think there's remarkable consensus. And I think it's big progress from even from the Bush era.

O'BRIEN: But don't you see a difference between the neocons and the people who say they're the true conservatives and the Tea Partiers. I mean, when you look at polling data and you see who they support, you actually --

SALAM: These labels don't mean very much. When you talk about -- like Mitt Romney is talking about the strong military, etc. The truth is that there is an exhaustion in the American public for new military interventions. If you ask Republicans about Iran, that's one thing and that's (INAUDIBLE) President Obama is also quite hawkish.

If you ask them about invading Syria on human rights grounds or something along those grounds, something that somewhat the neoconservatives might have taken seriously ten years ago, I do not think you would get a lot of enthusiasm from the Republican base. So, I think that, actually, you're seeing a coalescing around a shared foreign policy platform that is more traditional --

O'BRIEN: Why are they having a hard time picking a candidate?

STENGEL: Well, I mean, I don't disagree. In fact, over the past 40 years, particularly on social issues, there's been much more unanimity in America between left and right than there ever has been before. But, when we're talking about a campaign here, basically, it's not a valid discussion of ideas.

It's basically saying I'm the real conservative and you're not. And certainly, part of the reason that establishment Republicans have coalesced around Mitt Romney is that they feel that he is a moderate in some respects and, therefore, actually has a chance of beating President Obama, which a true movement conservative probably doesn't.

I mean -- I don't disagree with you that the debate has actually no fundamentals to it, but the debate is about who actually can raise their hand in class and say, I'm the true conservative.

O'BRIEN: And isn't there a debate between the people who are saying they're true conservatives, then you say people who are establishment Republicans, then you have people who say, well, I'm a Tea Party -- I mean, I meet all of these people in coffee shops, and they very clearly delineate themselves --

STENGEL: I mean, the Tea Party has done something, which is -- I mean, they've moved the establishment Republican to the right. I mean, in the sense that, you know, all kinds of things that once upon a time would have been passed in the House and the Senate I think did not get passed because of that freshman class of Tea Party folks who would absolutely not agree to anything.

O'BRIEN: What are the implications for November?

SALAM: I think that, certainly, in some respects, the Tea Party movement has -- I actually think that folks have learned. A lot of the Tea Party freshmen in Congress have learned that certain kinds of recalcitrants get them in trouble. You saw the Social Security payroll tax cut debate, for example.

O'BRIEN: Right.

SALAM: So, I think that the implications are if they're learning that, you know, sometime in 2016 or 2020, the fact that there's so much consensus around someone like Chris Christie, that there's so much consensus around someone like Mitch Daniels --

O'BRIEN: Not in the race. Not in the race.

SALAM: True, but people who actually reconcile these moderate and conservative tendencies, people who tea Partiers like as well as more moderate Republicans, I think it's a promising time (ph) for the future.

O'BRIEN: It sounds like the coalescing will come, maybe not this election throughout, maybe as few leaders down the road.

All right. Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, slaughter in Syria is what we're talking about. It's very complicated crisis for the United States as well. The former U.S. ambassador to Syria will join us to talk about some of the issues in this.

And plans in the works to help underwater homeowners. More than 40 states are on board, but there is a holdup. We'll tell you about that straight ahead on STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: I like this. All right. I might be a new fan of Polyphonic Spree Sonic Bloom That's Rehan's suggestion for us this morning.

In just a few hours, New York is going to be honoring the Super Bowl winning New York Giants with the ticker tape parade, and among them will be linebacker, Mark Herzlich. Herzlich, am I saying that wrong? He is in today's "Human Factor," and Sanjay Gupta has a story of this 24-year-old rookie's incredible comeback. He had a very rare form of bone cancer.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARK HERZLICH, NEW YORK GIANTS ROOKIE LINEBACKER: How's it going?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mark Herzlich has come a long way in a very short time. As a member of the New York Giants, the rookie linebacker focused on beating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Some say his being here was somewhat of a miracle.

Herzlich was expected to go far. As a junior at Boston College, he was named his conferences 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. He was projected to be a first round draft pick, but all that came to a crashing halt in May of 2009 when he was told he had a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing's sarcoma.

HERZLICH: When the cancer came, you know, it wasn't just, you know, my Super Bowl dreams are dead, well, it was all my football dreams were dead.

GUPTA: Herzlich was determined to fight the cancer, but after two months of chemotherapy, doctors wanted to remove part of his thigh bone. Then, he found a doctor who was willing to try a rare treatment for this type of cancer, radiation therapy.

HERZLICH: My dream was to play football again. I knew that radiation and keeping my leg was going to be the only chance I would have of playing again.

GUPTA: The treatment worked, and a little more than four months after diagnosis, Herzlich was declared cancer-free.

HERZLICH: Football drove me every second of every day.

GUPTA: Herzlich returned to Boston College the next year. And even though he wasn't drafted, he was still picked up by the New York Giants.

HERZLICH: Now, I think the biggest thing, you know, coming back from cancer, coming back to play football, you know, all that kind of sits in the rear-view mirror. There are such things as dreams coming true and miracles. I believe that this is one of them.

GUPTA: Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, reporting.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the brutal government crackdown in Syria there has been no lead up. The Russian defense minister is meeting right now with Assad. Does diplomacy stand a chance there?

Also, how did the Super Bowl -- the Giants win the Super Bowl? Giants quarterback, Eli Manning, reveals the secret. More touchdowns than the other guy.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We've got a short break. We're coming back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Let's get to the headlines this morning. Christine has those. Good morning.

ROMANS: Good morning, again, Soledad. Drug Enforcement agents raiding two CVS pharmacies over the weekend in the Orlando area. They're cracking down on the abuse of prescription painkillers. Authorities say these two pharmacies ordered more than three million units of oxycodone last year. The typical pharmacy orders less than 70,000 units in a year.

President Obama changing his position on super PACs. The president has been one of the loudest critics of these unrestricted political spending groups, but his reelection campaign has just directed staffers to help raise funds for Priorities USA Action. That's the name of the super PAC that is supporting the president.

A strike by aviation workers could intensify today, forcing Air France to cut half of its scheduled long haul flights. Airline employees are in the second day of a four day job action. They're protesting restrictions on their right to strike. Air France is contacting its customers, asking them to postpone their travel plans until this job action is over.

In just over two hours the New York Giants will be honored with a ticker tape parade in Manhattan. More than a million people expected to salute the Super Bowl champs. MVP quarterback Eli Manning telling David Letterman last night it's all about the team, not individual accolades.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELI MANNING, NEW YORK GIANTS QUARTERBACK: When you win a championship, it's a team. It's a team coming together, and that's exactly what we did. And so I was happy for a lot of the guys. This is their first Super Bowl. So I think when you have one, that second one, you really do it for the other guys who have never had that experience.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: And there it is, Eli Manning on the cover of this week's "Sports Illustrated" with that headline, "They must be Giants."

"Minding Your Business" now. Some good news for homeowners -- if you owe more on your house than it is worth, you could have some relief coming your way. Under a new settlement expected to be announced this week, underwater homeowners could be eligible for up to $20,000 relief on the principal they owe in that house. It amounts to about $25 billion for mortgage lenders and servicers like bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo. It's designed to help up to a million homeowners and ensure that the mortgage services give their customers a fairer shake. Attorneys general for 40 states have agreed to the terms, but some key states like California, New York, Florida, Nevada, and Delaware, they're still negotiating.

O'BRIEN: How many people, Christine, are they thinking this could help?

ROMANS: They're thinking a million people. It would be the biggest mortgage relief so far. And it's the first on this scale to really go after the big problem of writing down the principle. The question here, though, and this is what some of the attorneys general are concerned about, they don't want to give up their right to really go after these banks. They want to not give them blanket immunity from some of the big investigations they have ongoing against the banks.

O'BRIEN: Christine, thanks.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: The slaughter of civilians is continuing in Syria. Government forces shelling Homs overnight. Nearly 100 people reported killed. Russia's foreign minister is in Damascus trying to negotiate an end to the violence. Anderson Cooper spoke last night to a desperate anti-government activist. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The entire world should be ashamed of what's happening here. Everybody is just silent and looking at us being slaughtered every moment for no reason, just for asking for our freedom. It's too much, for god's sake. This is too much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Ambassador Ted Kattouf is the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, also the United Emirates. He joins us. Thanks for your time. When you hear that activist, it really is heartbreaking. So what can be done at this moment to help people like that?

TED KATTOUF, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO SYRIA: Well, at the moment there is not going to be any foreign military intervention; however, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has called for a friends group for the Syrian people or a contact group, if you will. There are so many states that are against what the outside regime is doing that cooperation among the U.S., the European Union, the Arab League, Turkey, and some other key states could continue to squeeze the regime and cause the economy to further collapse.

O'BRIEN: I have been talking all morning about the Russian foreign minister who is heading to Damascus to meet with al-Assad ostensibly to help stop the violence. What are your concerns in that particular meeting?

KATTOUF: Well, the Russians and the Chinese have already essentially given a green light to Bashar al-Assad to try to end this rebellion by brutal military means. I don't think he's capable of doing that.

The Russians are going to be looking for some window dressing and they're going to probably be asking Bashar al-Assad to do some reforms, open some dialogue with, quote, "oppositionists who are willing," and the like. But at the end of the day this regime believes it can survive. And they won't even listen to the Russians if they believe that what the Russians are recommending will undermine their rule. RICK STENGEL, MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Mr. Ambassador, this is Rick Stengel. I'm the editor of "TIME." I'm curious what you think the role of the Arab league has played in regard to Syria. They seemed quite out front early on criticizing Assad. Subsequently they've been a lot milder. It seems to me for it to be resolved the Arab league has to take a strong position. Will they do so?

KATTOUF: I'm not sure I entirely agree with you, Mr. Stengel, because we have to remember that the Arab League used to be all about keeping their members in power. And now, as has been said, the regimes are more afraid of their people than the people are of the regimes. So even regimes like Algeria, which are authoritarian, have gone along with the Arab League call for Assad to step down. And, actually, what the Arab League has done, I think, is a bit remarkable.

But we should have no illusions. No Arab state is going to take upon itself to militarily intervene. But I do think we will find states like Saudi Arabia, non-Arab state Turkey, Qatar, trying to arm various opposition factions within Syria. And that presents problems of its own.

O'BRIEN: Yes, let's talk a little bit about the potential for civil war, especially in light of what you just said, and also talk about the closing of the U.S. embassy and what the implications are.

KATTOUF: Well, the second question is easier.

O'BRIEN: OK, then take that one first.

KATTOUF: The U.S. embassy did close for security reasons. I've served in that embassy three times. It's a death trap. If anybody gets a substantial car bomb in there, forget truck bomb, they can bring that building down. And the Syrians have been for years unwilling to close the street that abuts the embassy. It's a main thoroughfare, and in fact it leads to a neighborhood where a lot of regime figures live. So that's why we've pulled out.

Now that we're out, Robert Ford is free, the ambassador, to speak with the external opposition groups, particularly the Syrian council.

O'BRIEN: So talk to me about civil war and both sides in that. What does the opposition look like? How is the opposition armed?

KATTOUF: Well, the opposition is armed with light weapons, mostly RPGs, rifles, and the like. And they're going up against tanks, mortars, anti-aircraft fire. They may even be encountering sooner if they haven't already helicopter gunships.

So it's a very unfair fight. And I'm sure Bashar al-Assad will use this period after the U.N. vote to try to stamp out opposition in predominantly Sunni opposition neighborhoods in Homs, which has been the epicenter of the rebellion. But quite honestly, I don't think he can -- his troops are not capable of being everywhere, and there's much more opposition springing up other than just in Homs. So we are in a civil war as far as I'm concerned.

STENGEL: Excuse me, ambassador. Can you speak to the polling that's been done with the people and how large is the opposition?

KATTOUF: Well, quite honestly, I'm not aware of any polling that has been done or can be done, but about two-thirds of Syria population is Sunni Arab. I don't want to say all Sunnis are against the Assad regime, but most of them are. And many of them are arming themselves at this point, because they believe they'll be slaughtered like lambs if the regime ever manages to stamp out the opposition armed presence.

But the regime does have support because there are important minority groups, Assad's own minority, the Alaouites, an offshoot Shia Islam, as well as Christians and Jews. And there is a Kurdish minority too, which has been more or less on the fence.

O'BRIEN: Ambassador Ted Kattouf joining us this morning. Thanks for your time, sir. Appreciate it.

KATTOUF: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT, today's "Reveal" talks about the stunning growth in just how many people are on government assistance and why experts say those numbers have gone up so dramatically.

Then actor Demian Bichir, a surprise nominee for "A Better Life," a film that deals with the issue of illegal immigration. We're going to talk with him live coming up.

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O'BRIEN: A little Beyonce. This is how I get going on the treadmill. Welcome back, everybody.

The debate on how to deal with the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants is obviously a politically charged issue. There's a film that takes a look at what it means to be undocumented and struggling to achieve the American dream. It's called "A Better Life." And Demian Bichir stars as a Mexican day laborer in Los Angeles who is devoted to his son. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DEMIAN BICHIR, ACTOR: I don't want you to miss school no more. School's important. It's everything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh si professor?

BICHIR: Si professor, you want to end up like me?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. So can I have money or what?

BICHIR: You want money. Come work.

(END VIDEO CLIP) O'BRIEN: Bichir scored a surprise Oscar nomination for his role. He's on Los Angeles and joins us this morning. It's nice to have you. Congratulations to you. So tell me how it went down.

BICHIR: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: The night of the nomination you're home watching TV surrounded by your family and friends. No? What happened?

BICHIR: No. I was in Mexico rehearsing a play that I'm doing right now. And -- and I was not feeling good the night before. I went to bed feeling really bad. I had a cold and some fever so I had a really, really bad night. And I -- even if I felt good, I was not going to wake up and turn on the TV, you know? You can get a heart attack if you do that.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

BICHIR: And -- so my -- my girlfriend Stephanie called me from here, from Los Angeles, with the news. And I thought it was part of my fever or some kind of hallucination.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

BICHIR: And -- but it was -- it was real and the madness began ever since.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it's a small film. And you were up against some very big names like Leonardo Di Caprio and Michael Fassbender. What -- what do you think has resonated with people about this film?

BICHIR: It's a -- it is -- it is a small film. I think we spent during the film as much money as any of the studios spend in publicity. And -- but it is a really, really powerful story. It's a touching story. It's a -- it's a story of the love of father for his son and anything he can do to overcome any obstacles to give his son a better life.

And people have been touched by it and it's a really moving story. And it goes straight to the point. And I have a lot of friends, Anglo friends that have told me they just had no idea that two hours sitting in front of a film could change drastically what they think about the immigration issue.

O'BRIEN: Well illegal immigration is a big political football in a big political year, but you've said it's -- it's not a political issue, it's a human issue. What do you mean by that?

BICHIR: It is. It is. I -- you know, part of all of this debate is that a lot of politicians insist in calling this a political issue. It is a human issue because, I mean, this -- this country is exactly based on immigration of all kinds and men have been moving ever since they existed on the face of the earth.

And -- and this is -- this is a large community that it's here to make our lives easier and better and happier in many ways. And they're two different things. The jobs that the American public -- the public are losing is one thing and another thing is this community of hard working people who are doing the jobs that no one else can or want to do.

And there are examples like the laws in Alabama right now. The fruit is rotten on the fields because no American has claimed those jobs.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Demian Bichir --

BICHIR: And the reason --

O'BRIEN: I was going to say, we're out of time but we'll be watching and rooting for you when it comes to Oscar night.

BICHIR: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Thanks for being with us. We appreciate it.

BICHIR: Thank you very much. Thank you.

O'BRIEN: What he is talking about in his movie is obviously an issue that is a hot button issue right now in the United States. And some of the points he's making about -- are really -- it's interesting to see what -- what this will -- what will happen with this conversation come November.

REIHAN SALAM, CO-AUTHOR, "GRAND NEW PARTY": Oh absolutely. I mean, I have a somewhat different way of thinking about the issue, partly because Mexico is a country that is actually sending far fewer migrants to the United States now than it had before partly because it's getting more affluent and it's also aging rapidly.

But then you have a ton of countries, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia where you have a ton of very poor people who, for example, in some countries like Bangladesh is a country where literally over a million people apply for diversity visa lotteries.

So the thing is that there are a lot of people who are, if you will, waiting in line who are much, much poorer than folks coming from Mexico and Central America.

So if you care about humanitarianism and finding hard working people who might then send remittances back to their families back home, you wouldn't necessarily prioritize the countries that neighbor the United States. You would think of countries like Zambia, countries that have very few -- now seriously -- countries that have very few natural resources where those remittances --

RICK STENGEL, MANAGING EDITOR, "TIME MAGAZINE": Well, you can substitute them for the illegal Mexican immigrants who are doing all that work for the academy members which is why they voted for the picture in the first place. SALAM: Well, it was very straight forward. If you care about the humanitarian side of it, you want to see where would get the maximum benefit? You wouldn't necessarily think about it politically which is frankly the way these comprehensive immigration made worse.

O'BRIEN: That's the understatement of the year -- not think about it politically.

STENGEL: But it will be -- but it dovetails with our earlier discussion because one of the areas that there was a consensus before the election is around something like the Dream Act which basically George Bush supported, Democrats supported it. It gives a path of citizenship to people who have been here for a long time. That ought not to be a political issue -- that ought to be a practical issue.

SALAM: I disagree with you Rick. Because I think that it benefits one group of people rather those folks in Zambia and Haiti and elsewhere.

O'BRIEN: That's a conversation for another day because we need about six and a half hours for that.

All right, still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, a startling number of Americans need government assistance to survive. It is our morning's "Reveal".

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back right after this short break.

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O'BRIEN: Oh a little Marvin Gaye to end our morning this morning. It is time for our "Reveal". And our "Reveal" is the long arm of the recession. We know it's left scores of people without jobs as the economy is fully getting back on its feet. But an analysis of the latest census data which is out today shows that it's pushed record numbers of people on to public assistance programs. More than one in three Americans live in households receiving Medicaid, food stamps or other government help.

If you add in Social Security, Medicare and unemployment benefits nearly half of the country is getting a government check. That's more than 148 million Americans.

The nation's safety net as we've seen right here on STARTING POINT is fodder obviously for the presidential campaign.

Republicans are accusing President Obama of turning the country into an entitlement nation. And Mitt Romney said on this program last week he's not very concerned about the very poor because of the ample safety net.

But the rapid growth of government assistance programs is a concern on both sides of the aisle. And we can expect to hear much more about it, including more rhetoric, and certainly what promises to be a rough and tumble general election campaign in November. "End Point" is up next with our panel. Stay with us. We're back in a moment.

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O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. It is time for "End Point" this morning. I'm trying to decide among which of my three new panelists I should pick.

Rick Stengel I'm going to let you go first. Wrap up the day for me. What do you think is the thing we should be watching as we move into tomorrow.

STENGEL: Well, obviously we're looking at the primaries and caucuses. As Governor Pawlenty said, they're non-binding so they're actually not that important. I think the question is does it increase Mitt's momentum or does it detract from it?

But I have to say I was struck by the ambassador and his comments about Syria because I think we've looked at Arab Spring, we've looked at what's happened. It's going to be much, much more difficult and much more bloody there than I think any of us have anticipated.

O'BRIEN: Reihan, you want to take the next one for me?

SALAM: When we were talking about the Stock Act it reminded me of a really clever proposal from Luigi Zengala (ph), he's an economist at the University of Chicago who said politicians should be treated like the managing directors of a public corporation. That is if they make materially false or misleading statements, they should be punished for it.

Now that would have a tremendous killing effect on politicians --

O'BRIEN: Wow. That would change how we cover the news.

SALAM: But it would be very interesting if that happened. I'm not saying it's necessarily a great idea, but if you're going to talk about the Stock Act, let's talk about going further.

O'BRIEN: That's a very interesting suggestion. All right. you get our final word, Russell.

RUSSELL SIMMONS, CEO, RUSH COMMUNICATIONS: Behind the scenes we talked about all this campaign finance issue. And we talked today a little bit about President Obama and Super PACs. I think he should take all the money he can take. And I think that he should make this a legacy issue as he goes into his next season.

O'BRIEN: Take all the money but then work against it?

SIMMONS: No, because -- yes, he's in a system where in order to be competitive he should do what the system allows. But he should know that the system is broken. He should give us a true democracy. He should work on campaign finance reform so that the politicians work for us. And our democracy is broken so long as it's being paid for and so long as it's for sale, it's broken. And it dis- empowers all the lower class and underserved communities. That's my point.

O'BRIEN: My "End Point" this morning before we head to Kyra is the Catholic Church and this whole contraception thing. If you look at one statistic, the number of women who are Catholics who use contraception, it's a really high number. The Catholic Church is out of touch on this.

We go right to Kyra Phillips. She's got "CNN NEWSROOM". I'll see everybody back here at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow. Hey Kyra, good morning.