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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Escalating Violence In Syria; Santorum Sweeps Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri; Karen Handel Quits Komen

Aired February 8, 2012 - 05:00   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z. We are very happy that you're joining us.

It is 5:00 a.m. in the East. So, let's get started here.

A stunning sweep. Rick Santorum wins Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado. They're calling it a GOP stunner. He scores a triple win, a Santorum surge. Does it revive his campaign? And what kind of questions does this raise for Romney now?

BANFIELD: And while this was happening, overseas, an entirely different story. Syrians fighting for their lives, more killings, the numbers are escalating. President Bashar al-Assad refusing to cede power and now some surprising report about U.S.'s options.

SAMBOLIN: And chilling 911 calls from the case worker who dropped off those two little boys at their father's home before he blew up the house, killed his entire family, shedding new light on what happened moments right before that tragedy.

BANFIELD: And we go one on one this morning with Donald Trump. He is one of the wealthiest men in America. No one would dispute that. So, what does he think about Mitt Romney's tax rate and the whole idea of raising taxes on the wealthy. We're going to ask him about it and see what he has to say. You might be surprised.

SAMBOLIN: And up first here: Rick Santorum's Tuesday night trifecta. The former Pennsylvania senator turning the race for the Republican nomination on its ear.

Missouri, the nonbinding primary, no delegates at stake there. Here are the results: Santorum, 55 percent, Romney, 25 percent, Paul, 12 percent. Gingrich, not even on the ballot there.

BANFIELD: And Minnesota, this is the state that he won handily back in 2008. This time not so much. The caucuses there had 37 delegates at stake. Santorum pulled off the win with 45 percent of the vote. Ron Paul came in second with 27 percent. And then came Mitt Romney, a distant third with 17 percent. Gingrich's very bad showing was 11.

And if we move on to Colorado, look at it again -- the third checkmark in Colorado. Again, another win for Romney in '08, but not last night -- 33 delegates up for grabs. Rick Santorum again pulling this one off with 40 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney coming in behind at 35 percent of the vote.

And Rick Santorum was suddenly sounding presidential.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ladies and gentlemen, I don't stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: CNN's political editor Paul Steinhauser is live in Washington, D.C., to talk through all of this. You might say Romney might be suffering some welsh words this morning. Did anyone expect anything like these results?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Wow. That's what I'll start with, a big wow. This hat trick of victories, I know the other candidates are trying to play it down, but this is very surprising and a very, very big deal.

Listen, any time you think you know what's going on in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, you don't. It changes. And last night's victories for Santorum are proof of that.

You know what? He also used his victory speech in Missouri to say that it was more of a level playing field last night because a lot of money wasn't spent by any of the candidates. He also took some shots at Mitt Romney. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: Governor Romney's greatest attribute is, "Well, I've got the most money and the best organization." Well, he's not going to have the most money and the best organization in the fall, is he? No, we're going to have to have someone who has other attributes to commend himself to the people of America, someone who can get up and make sharp contrasts with President Obama, someone who can point to the failed record of this administration and say that Barack Obama needs to be replaced in the Oval Office.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEINHAUSER: So what does Santorum do next? Well, Ashleigh, two-and-a-half hours from now, he's right here on CNN.

But then he heads to Texas. Why Texas? Their primary isn't until April. We're talking fund-raising, Ashleigh. Now is the time for Santorum to capitalize and monopolize on his big victories and start raising some campaign cash, which probably will come a little bit easier.

And in the next day on Thursday, he's Oklahoma. That's one of the Super Tuesday states -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Well, in this effort to capitalize on the momentum, will he be trying to push this message that this was not only a validation for me but it was also a thumping non-confidence vote in Mitt Romney among the GOP?

STEINHAUSER: Exactly. And the other point he will make as well is that I am the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, not Newt Gingrich, somebody who did not perform very well at all.

Also, we're going to look to see what Rick Santorum says at the Conservative Political Action Conference, that big meeting with three of the presidential candidates. Going to happen on Friday.

BANFIELD: You know, I've got to be honest with you, Paul, a lot of people make huge hay the morning after, and then it's on to the next state. And it's hard to know what race happened two to three weeks ago. But this is three. It's not that forgettable, is it?

STEINHAUSER: Not at all. Romney campaign is going to say, listen, Missouri, we didn't even campaign there. Minnesota, well, he did go to Minnesota. That was his first stop after Florida, after his big victory in Florida, and he came in third in Minnesota. That's got to hurt.

And especially Colorado. He was there last night. He had a small crowd. Mitt Romney at his H.Q.

Take a listen to what he said, though.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This was a good night for Rick Santorum. I want to congratulate Senator Santorum. Wish him the very best. We'll keep on campaigning down the road.

But I expect to become our nominee with your help.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEINHAUSER: A top Romney adviser said they're going to pay more attention to Rick Santorum and try to paint him as the Washington insider they say he was in those years in the Senate.

So, to Rick Santorum, I say watch out. We've seen the Romney campaign go after the Gingrich campaign.

Santorum has had it pretty easy. I think that changes today, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right. Paul Steinhauser, thanks very much for all of that.

You know, it is very safe to say, Zoraida, I think that Donald Trump may not be all that impressed by Santorum's big win last night, because, of course, six days ago he endorsed Mitt Romney. It was a big affair in Las Vegas.

I had a chance to sit down with the big man, Mr. Trump, yesterday, and we talked about the all important question about electability because that's such a huge issue in this election. Trump says Santorum flat out doesn't have it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, CHAIRMAN & PRES., THE TRUMP ORGANIZATION: Rick Santorum was a sitting senator who in re-election lost by 19 points -- to my knowledge, the most in the history of this country for a sitting senator to lose by 19 points. It's unheard of. Then he goes out and says, oh, OK, I just lost by the biggest margin in history. Now I'm going to run for president.

Tell me, how does that work? That's like me saying, I just failed a test. Now I'm going to apply for admission to the Wharton School of Finance, OK? He just failed a test. Now, he's going to run for president.

So, I don't get Rick Santorum. I don't get that whole thing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: You were talking about that endorsement he made of Mitt Romney. What was the outcome of that endorsement?

BANFIELD: There was a bit of blow-back from it. There was a poll down in ABC News/"Washington Post" that said, actually, 31 percent of respondents said it would make him less likely to actually vote for his candidate.

But I asked Donald Trump about that, and he dismissed it. He said it's foolish. It's ridiculous.

SAMBOLIN: All right. A lot more to come on that. We'll see about Santorum's surge, won't it?

BANFIELD: Well, indeed. Yes, what a story.

SAMBOLIN: All right. And you can keep on CNN now to November for the best political coverage in television.

At 7:30 Eastern on "STARTING POINT" this morning, Soledad O'Brien goes one on one with Rick Santorum.

So, we are minding your business news this morning. Wall Street shaking off fears about Greece yesterday by the end of trading. The Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 all closing higher. In fact, that close is the highest yesterday since May of 2008.

BANFIELD: Christine Romans is here minding your business. The stocks high and all the rest. But still, Greece comes back to bite us. Why?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: It really does because we got to get this resolved. And it's one of those things there's not an easy, short resolution, quick resolution of it. So, Greece is going to be a drag.

But you look at May 2008, why is that important? May 2008, that means that the Dow at least is at the highest, trading at the highest level since before this president was in office. So, it's one of those things politically at least is in the president's favor. But now at least you have a stock market that has recovered.

I want to look at the Dow and S&P are up 60 percent over the past three years. And I'm not giving credit or blame to anyone politically. I'm just saying that stocks have recovered here.

But have they recovered and everyone is feeling it? That's the big question here. It's what I've been calling a two-speed recovery going on because you have stocks that are doing better, you have unemployment down, 8.3 percent is the unemployment rate.

But we heard from Ben Bernanke, the Fed chief, yesterday, who said be careful about being too optimistic about the jobs numbers. He says we are still a very long way from a normally operating labor market. Too many workers have been left behind. Too many have dropped out of the labor market. Too many, Ben Bernanke has said, are working part time but they're capable of working and want to work full-time.

Companies are recovering -- this is the Fed chief's words and this what the data are showing -- companies are recovering, the housing market isn't. And that's most likely to affect middle class people who are really trying to figure out, are they going to benefit from a growing economy?

Maybe they're not exposed to the stock market anymore. They got blown out three years ago. That happened to a lot of people. They're still exposed to jobs and housing. Those are the two things they feel the most.

So, a two-speed recovery. You look at data getting better on almost all fronts. It's really benefiting people who have money. It's benefiting companies. Even Ben Bernanke yesterday saying, we've got a long way to go in the labor market. That's what most of us feel.

BANFIELD: And most of the GOP say as well.

ROMANS: Yes.

BANFIELD: Thanks, Christine. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

SAMBOLIN: It is nine minutes past the hour.

Every morning, we give you an EARLY START to your day by alerting you to news and stories that are just developing now, but they will be the big story. You saw it first here.

He was brutally beaten apparently for wearing skinny jeans and for being gay. Today, that man, 20-year-old Brandon White, is set to speak out this morning.

Before we show you any of this video, though, we want to give you a chance to turn away. If your children are up at this hour, get them out of the room because it is quite shocking to see.

This is the video. It is posted online under the headline "dead wrong." Man wearing skinny jeans gets sucker attacked. And G's throw a tire on him for being gay. He was attacked last month outside of an Atlanta convenience store.

Brandon White will speak out this morning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time. The FBI and local police are still looking for his attackers there.

BANFIELD: It's hard to watch that.

More airline passengers are about to get in the fast lane at airport security checkpoints. Later this morning, TSA administrator John Pistole is rolling out the pre-check program. This is going to happen in airports in Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, New York's JFK International.

And if you want to get involved, a couple of things you've got to do. You have to volunteer personal information. You also have to agree to a background check.

But in return, those travelers who are vetted for this are allowed to wear their shoes and their belts and even their coats. But maybe more importantly, bypass long security lines.

SAMBOLIN: Yippee.

BANFIELD: I know.

SAMBOLIN: And it's been one of the warmest winters on record, right? But today, rain and snow are moving into the Northeast. Up to four inches expected in parts of Pennsylvania, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City could all see light snow this morning before it mixes with rain a little later today.

Rob Marciano is on that. He'll bring us more details later.

And still ahead on EARLY START: the 911 calls released in that family tragedy in Washington state. Josh Powell, his two young sons, well, he blew everybody up in that house fire.

BANFIELD: And a vacation to forget for cruise ship passengers, not one, but two outbreaks of norovirus on board. We'll get to the bottom of it. Find out how this happened.

SAMBOLIN: And a Susan G. Komen executive quits. More questions about the charity's short-lived decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Good morning, St. Louis. It is 33 degrees right now. A little bit later, sunny and a nice chilly 39 degrees for you.

BANFIELD: Ooh, that's the perfect temperature to have moves like Jagger.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Maroon 5 waking you up this morning.

It's 15 minutes past the hour. It's time to get a look at the top stories making news this morning.

Rick Santorum turning the race for the Republican nomination on its heels -- sweeping to victory Tuesday night in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses.

SAMBOLIN: Are you pumped?

BANFIELD: Yes.

And Missouri's nonbinding primary, it was a three-fer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: -- is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: And as he was excited, something very different going on. Our ambassador to the United States, Susan Rice, warning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, quote, "Your days are numbered," as the Pentagon looks at military options in Syria in case President Obama requests them.

Also, funeral services for the two young boys who were killed Sunday night when their father blew up their Washington state home. Scheduled for Saturday afternoon. And we now have the 911 calls that were made by the children's caseworker just moments after she brought them to that mandated visit with Josh Powell for supervised time with him.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SOCIAL WORKER: I'd like to pull out of the driveway because I smell gasoline, and he won't let me in.

911: So, you want to pull out of the driveway because you smell gasoline but he won't let you --

SOCIAL WORKER: He won't let me in.

911: He won't let you out of the driveway?

SOCIAL WORKER: He won't let me in the house.

911: Whose house is it?

SOCIAL WORKER: He's got the kids in the house, and he won't let me in. It's a supervised visit.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: There's so much more to those 911 tapes. We're going to share some more with you a little bit later.

And the Los Angeles school board has fired Miramonte Elementary School teacher Martin Bernard Springer after he was formally charged with three felony counts of lewd acts upon a girl under 14. Springer pleaded not guilty yesterday. He is the second teacher at that school facing child abuse charges.

And passengers on the Crown Princess cruise ship forced to cut their vacation short because of a nasty norovirus that has broken out among the passengers and crew. Just a few days ago, Princess Cruise Lines declared the ship sanitized after a similar outbreak.

And it was quite a scare for a 6-year-old boy. This little guy from Texas, he was attacked by a mountain lion in Big Bend National Park. Rivers Hobbs and his father Jason reliving how this all went down.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RIVERS HOBBS, ATTACKED BY LION: It sneaked up on me.

JASON HOBBS, SAVED SON FROM MOUNTAIN LION ATTACK: The cat was clamped on his face, reached down and got my pocketknife out and stabbed the cat in the chest, and it let go at that point.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness. That's a hero dad.

So, several trails in Big Bend National Park have been closed, and dog teams have been called in to search for the wounded cat. They say no luck so far, but they're going to stay on top of that.

Oh, my gosh, that little boy.

BANFIELD: Can you imagine that as a parent?

SAMBOLIN: Good he's alive, right?

BANFIELD: It turned out far better than it could have, that's for sure.

This morning, a whole lot more fallout from that Susan G. Komen Foundation's very short-lived break with Planned Parenthood. The senior vice president is stepping down, that's Karen Handel. A lot of people thought that she was the orchestrator of pulling the funding from Planned Parenthood.

But she was speaking out about all of this yesterday. She was asked how much she had to do with this decision, and her opposition to abortion. Here's her answer. Have a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KAREN HANDEL, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT, SUSAN G. KOMEN FOR THE CURE: Absolutely none. I'm a professional, and when I come to Komen, my number one priority is the fight against breast cancer, our mission, and the women that we serve.

(ENDVIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: So, Handel blames Planned Parenthood for making this issue political.

Laura Bassett, political reporter for "The Huffington Post," is in Washington. She's joining us again.

You have been following this very closely. Earlier this week, we saw internal e-mails suggesting that Handel was to blame. But Handel said policy review actually predated her arrival at Komen. You quoted a source who said Handel was the driving source behind this.

Really, could just this one decision or this one person make this major decision for that organization?

LAURA BASSETT, POLITICAL REPORTER, HUFFINGTON POST: Absolutely not. It wasn't only Handel's decision. Of course, it had to be vetted by executives at Komen and the board. It was unanimously passed by the board.

I just said that she was the driving force behind the decision. My source told me that she kind of pumped up the anti-abortion attacks against Komen and tried to convince Komen leadership that defunding Planned Parenthood was the best thing to do.

Of course, she was successful, and they did end up signing off on it. So, it was a group effort in the end.

SAMBOLIN: It's kind of hard to believe, though, that there's really one fall guy here. Do you think that Brinker deserves any accountability here?

BASSETT: I think she definitely deserves accountability and certainly for lying to the public last week. She went on Andrea Mitchell on Thursday and said Karen Handel had nothing to do with this. And that was a bold faced lie.

And if you're a cancer charity, you have to be really careful about what you're telling people and about your transparency because people want to be able to trust you. They're raising money for you. They're doing Komen for the Cure walks. I think that's what really makes her culpable here.

SAMBOLIN: So, Handel and Brinker seem united on this, on the fact that Handel resigned. Handel actually is blaming Planned Parenthood. She said that they made it a political issue. Let's listen, and then we can talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HANDEL: The only place for politics in all of this came from Planned Parenthood when they launched this vicious, vicious attack on a great organization, and perpetrated what was nothing short of a shakedown to coerce a private entity to give them grants.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: I know you said you saw this coming. But are you surprised that Handel came out swinging so hard there?

BASSETT: I'm not surprised at all. Her resignation letter was defensive, and her interview on FOX was defensive, and Brinker's acceptance of her resignation letter was defensive. I think they're trying to clean up the mess that they created here.

Unfortunately, that's just not true about Planned Parenthood. It is true that Komen is no political match for Planned Parenthood, but this backlash didn't come from Planned Parenthood.

It came from the people raising money for Komen. It came from Congress. It came from public figures such as Mike Bloomberg who came out and publicly rebuked Komen.

For them to solely say that this is vicious attacks from Planned Parenthood, it's just not true.

SAMBOLIN: All right. I want to read from Komen's founder Nancy Brinker. She says, "We have made mistakes in how we had handled recent decisions and take full accountability for what has resulted. But we cannot take our eye off the ball when it comes to our mission."

You have been critical in the past on how Brinker personally has handled this. You know, she's the name of Komen. She named this in honor of her late sister.

How damaged do you think her organization is going to be?

BASSETT: Unfortunately, because I think Komen does do some good things, Komen is extremely damaged from this. The reputation is damaged. People just don't trust them.

And yesterday, even after Handel resigned, there were all these petitions circulating, demanding that she resign, and then she did. There wasn't a sense of relief. There was a sense of dissatisfaction.

And people want more. They want a board shakeup, and they want Komen to come clean about what happened and stop trying to pretend to the public like this had nothing to do with abortion politics.

SAMBOLIN: Now, I have to get back to the board because this was not a unilateral decision, it was a board decision, it was approved by the board. Do you think this is the end of resignations, or do you think that we'll see more in order to try to settle this issue?

BASSETT: I think we'll see more. I think the public is not going to back off on Komen at all on this. And in order for them to protect their reputation going forward, some people are going to have to step down and admit their involvement, and they're going to need to completely shake things up in how they handle these kinds of situations in the future.

SAMBOLIN: I just want to ask you one last question here. I know that Komen has taken heat in the past for suing an organization when they were trying to use the phrase "For the Cure." Do you think they're going to be hiring a pr firm in order to rehab their image? And how do you think that's going to weigh in with the public if they do?

BASSETT: They already have. They've hired Ogilvy, and Nancy Brinker is consulting with Ari Fleischer, a well-known conservative, you know, P.R. cleanup man.

And so, I think they're already kind of trying to figure out how to best go about this. They hired Ogilvy last week. It doesn't seem to be going so well so far, but we'll see what they can do for them.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Laura Bassett, political reporter, "Huffington Post" -- nice to have you on again. Thank you.

BASSETT: Thanks for having me.

BANFIELD: And still ahead on EARLY START: a warning from the United States to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and I quote, "Your days are numbered." Is there a military option this country is now considering?

SAMBOLIN: And did you hear about the Santorum sweep? Is he the new GOP front-runner? And is Romney going to be changing his strategy now?

And also, Kid Rock has a new clothing line. It's called Made in Detroit. God help us save Flint -- Flint, Michigan. My goodness.

So, what about this clothing line? What do you need to know about it? And why should you care? We're going to tell you.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is 27 minutes past 5:00 on the East Coast. Time to check your top stories this morning.

A clean sweep across the board for Rick Santorum last night, winning two caucuses, one in Minnesota, one in Colorado, and a wow primary victory in Missouri as well.

Also making top stories, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice saying this to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, your days are numbered, and it's past time for a peaceful transfer of power. For its part, the Pentagon is also said to be reviewing military options regarding Syria.

And 55-year-old NASA astronaut Janice Voss has died after a battle with cancer. She was one of only six women to have flown in space five times.

SAMBOLIN: And no criminal charges will be filed against New York TV anchor Greg Kelly in connection with rape accusation. Kelly is also the son of New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Four members of Yahoo's board of directors, including the company's chairman are resigning. This is in response to stockholder complaints they did little to prevent the decline in Yahoo's revenue and stock price.

Big oops for Detroit native Kid Rock. "The Detroit Free Press" reporting some of his Made in Detroit clothing line isn't actually made there, but printed on apparel from India, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic.

BANFIELD: Oh, that's kind of embarrassing.

SAMBOLIN: Kind of? Eek.

BANFIELD: All right. Sorry, kid.

What a difference a day can make in politics. Mitt Romney, you might call it a king-sized speed bump that he hit last night on the road to that Republican nomination that so many said was kind of a lot. And that speed bump is in one Rick Santorum, former senator from Pennsylvania.

SAMBOLIN: He pulls off that stunning sweep, crushing Romney in Missouri in the primary and in the Minnesota caucus -- finishing off the hat trick with a narrow win in Colorado as well.

Taking a little dig at Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: I do care about not 99 percent or 95 percent. I care about the very rich and the very poor. I care about 100 percent of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: So much to talk about.

So, live from Washington, CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser, Republican strategist Trey Hardin, and Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.

Nice to see all of you. I'm going to start with you, Paul, because I want to start with numbers this morning. So, let's take a look at this.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN DEPUTY POLITICAL DIRECTOR: No, no. This was a huge night for Rick Santorum. Listen, he got cheated (ph) out of that victory in Iowa. Remember, he did win Iowa, but we didn't find out until two-and-a-half weeks later. So, Rick Santorum probably gets his big night, and a lot of people now are questioning whether it's inevitable that Mitt Romney is going to win the nomination.

The other thing, Newt Gingrich. He said he was the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. Well, now, Rick Santorum is grabbing that mantel. So, this was a very big night. In a way, an unexpected night, but a very big night in the race for the White House.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Trey, I want to switch gears here, but we're going to stay on Santorum. There was a gentleman standing right behind Santorum. I think -- do we have a picture here? Billionaire, Foster Friess. See him there on the left hand side? He's in charge of red, white, and blue fund.

It's a Super PAC supporting Santorum. We know that this is completely legal. So, I'm going to say that. As long as they're not coordinating about Super PAC business, it's OK, but was it appropriate?

TREY HARDIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I don't think so. I don't think it sends a great message, but, at the end of the day, I don't think it's going to mean that much. Listen, candidates want to have their big supporters up there behind them. Sometimes, donors certainly want that opportunity and that attention to be close to the candidate and be in the room, but --

SAMBOLIN: But don't you think that sends a message that maybe the appearance of them talking about all of the advertising?

HARDIN: Absolutely. I think that it could send the wrong message, but, at the end of the day, I don't think it's going to impact the state races going forward. I mean, Rick Santorum's campaign has been sustained because he is focused on the issues. And, last night was an example of that.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Maria, let's talk about Romney here. Senior adviser indicated last night that the campaign will step up the attacks on Santorum. He's been very successful in bringing up issues on Gingrich. Is this worth his time with pro-Romney states like Arizona and Michigan lying ahead? MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, this is the problem with that strategy, and you're right, that is exactly the strategy that they're going to embark on, and they need to, because, clearly, what happened last night was a big problem for Romney and his narrative about being the inevitable nominee. But the problem is that the more that Americans find out and learn about Mitt Romney, the less they like about him.

And the more that he is now on the attack against Santorum now and Gingrich moving forward, it seems that part of the -- of his narrative is going to be that the only way he can win is with these negative attacks against his opponents. The memo that his campaign put last night, and they're right about this is that he is in this now for the long haul.

They saw the shellacking that was going to come down last night. And they're saying that he's the only one with the resources across the board to compete until the end. We'll see about that. Santorum now has the ability to raise some money. Gingrich is out there trying to raise some money.

But the problem for Romney is that he's tanking with independents, and the more that people learn about him, the less they like about him. That's not something you want in a candidate.

SAMBOLIN: OK. Maria, hang on there, because I'm glad the three of you are up. I want you all to weigh in on this very quickly, but I have a rule here. Three word answers tops.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: So, did Romney's loss have anything to do with what he said to our Soledad O'Brien about the very poor, but they have a safety net? So, let's start with you, Maria.

CARDONA: Absolutely, yes.

SAMBOLIN: Great. So, Paul?

(LAUGHTER)

STEINHAUSER: A huge factor. Three words.

SAMBOLIN: OK, wait. I didn't hear you. Repeat it.

STEINHAUSER: A contributing factor. Yes.

SAMBOLIN: OK. And what about you, Trey?

HARDIN: Absolutely not.

SAMBOLIN: OK. Trey, Maria, and Paul, thank you. They followed the rules. I love that.

BANFIELD: I know. Very behaving panel. Still ahead on EARLY START, a sit down interview. I get to sit down with Donald Trump to ask him about his endorsement of Mitt Romney. What does Trump think about Romney's 15 percent effective tax rate?

Also, the Pentagon weighing its military options in Syria. So, we ask, will President Assad really be committed to stopping the fighting there? You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: It is 37 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START. We turn now to the crisis in Syria. More bloodshed overnight in the city of Homs. Opposition activists say at least 42 people have been killed. We're getting reports of entire families wiped out. Syria may be on the verge of a civil war.

BANFIELD: United States, at this point, is saying not only with Pentagon sources but also CENTCOM sources that military options are possible. They're looking at the military options, the actual plans right now. All of this as Senator John McCain is saying that our administration should, perhaps, consider arming the opposition groups in Syria right now.

And on CNN, U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, delivered this warning to Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUSAN RICE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: Your days are numbered, and it is time and past time for you to transfer power responsibly and peacefully.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Professor Fawaz Gerges is a Middle East expert. He's live in London for us. He's a director of the Middle East Centre and the London School of Economics. Professor, thanks for being with us. I want to ask you right off the bat. Those comments from our U.N. ambassador and the notion that CENTCOM and the Pentagon are looking over war plans, this sounds terribly ominous. Does it seem ominous to you?

FAWAZ GERGES, MIDDLE EAST CENTRE/LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Well, yes and no. Remember, Ashleigh, there is a psychological war taking place, and what the United States and the western powers have been trying to do is to squeeze the Assad regime, is to fight a war by other means, psychological war, economic war, and financial war.

And what the remarks, what you have read, what you have seen in the last few of days, is part of the campaign to pressure Assad and force him to basically transfer power to the opposition, to listen to the grievances and the aspirations of his people.

BANFIELD: You know, I can't help but thinking that Iran is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Syria. They are allied like, perhaps, no other country, and I'm wondering if this is a serious problem for the United States that Iran may try to capitalize on the fact that we're considering some kind of military option, at the same time, the rhetoric with Iran is heating up.

GERGES: You know, Ashleigh, this is a very, very important question, because, in contrast to Libya, the Syrian crisis is embroiled in what I call regional and international dynamics. I mean, you have a struggle for Syria. The double veto by China and Russia, Russia and the United States, and the west on the whole, are basically fighting for Syria.

Also, unfortunately, for the opposition, the Syrian crisis is caught in the regional cold war between the Saudi left coalition on the one hand and the Iranian coalition, and rising tensions with Iran don't actually help the crisis in Syria because Iran is very committed to helping Assad because Assad is the only ally that Iran has in the region, and that's why we're talking about a very complicated and complex struggle in Syria.

BANFIELD: I'm glad you mentioned complicated, because as I hear that CENTCOM and the Pentagon are looking over military options, I am reminded in 2003 of those words that were spoken by our then vice president, Dick Cheney, with regard to how we would be received getting rid of an evil dictator in Iraq. Here are his words on "Meet the Press." Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Professor, so many people think that these desperate voices in Syria are calling out for us, but there are other voices that want no part of us, right?

GERGES: You know, Ashleigh, this is a very, very important point to be reminded of what has happened in the last ten years. Remember, as you said, the idea that the United States would have been received as a liberator, showered with rice and flowers, it has been -- it was one of the bloodiest conflicts in America's history.

And what Barack Obama has been trying to do is to really mend the rifts. And that's why Barack Obama in Libya, he did not take a lead in Libya. He allowed the European powers and the Arab league, because he's fully aware, Barack Obama, of the bitter legacy of his predecessor. And that's why in Syria, I think Barack Obama is absolutely correct to say there is no military conflict.

That, basically, Syrians on the ground will determine their future, will own their future. And the strategy, I think, of the international community should help the opposition outside and inside, basically to tip the balance of social forces inside Syria. Arming the opposition will not help end the Syrian crisis sooner. In fact, it will likely plunge Syria into all out civil war. It will exacerbate a high complex conflict.

BANFIELD: It is so complex. And I so appreciate your perspective on this this morning. Thank you so much, Professor Gerges. Appreciate it.

And we want to remind you that General Wesley Clark, who's the former NATO supreme allied commander is going to talk about Syria at 7:00 a.m. eastern starting -- with Soledad O'Brien on "Starting Point." So make sure you tune in for that.

SAMBOLIN: Forty-two minutes past the hour here. Ahead on EARLY START, winning the White House requires big, big money. So, why is President Obama giving $200,000 back?

BANFIELD: That's got to be tough to do, or maybe not so much.

Chuck Norris, tough guy, says he knows what it takes to be a warrior. He was a big backer of Bush, but who is he endorsing now? You'll find out in just a moment on EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Forty-six minutes past the hour. It's time to check stories that are making news this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Rick Santorum pulling off an improbable three-state sweep last night, winning the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and Missouri's non-binding primary.

Mitt Romney's new secret service detail saving the former Massachusetts governor from a glitter bombing in Denver last night. Take a look at that. The man who threw the glitter was taken into custody.

And actor, Chuck Norris, saying he knows what makes a true warrior, announcing he's endorsing Newt Gingrich for the Republican nomination.

BANFIELD (voice-over): The Obama administration is returning $200,000 in campaign donations from the family of fugitive Juan Jose Roxas Cardona. Did I say that right?

SAMBOLIN: Excellent job.

BANFIELD: I'm going to get future (ph) over here. Cardona disappeared after jumping bail in Iowa 18 years ago and has been linked to violence and corruption in Mexico. But don't forget, he is the brother, not the donor.

The president is holding a fundraiser in New York last night called "Runway to Win." He hopes to raise money by selling tote bags, T-shirts, accessories all made in America by two dozen designers.

And Madonna is releasing details of her 2012 world tour that begins May 29th in Tel Aviv, Israel and comes to America on August 28th starting in Philadelphia. I seem to remember -- this is kind of taxing for me, but she started her last tour in Israel.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, really?

BANFIELD: I remember she definitely performed in Israel. It seems that she started (INAUDIBLE).

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): I love her too, but I know we were talking about her heels. She's got to bring those stilettos down. I was worried about her teetering off that stage.

BANFIELD (on-camera): She had like an injury. She was rocking the injury and rocking the four-inch heels. It's tough, isn't Rob? It's hard to walk in those heels.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MARCIANO: We're looking forward to her new tour. Hopefully, she'll be singing and not --

BANFIELD: Stumbling.

MARCIANO: Good morning, guys.

BANFIELD: Good morning, Rob.

SAMBOLIN: Good morning. We missed you earlier.

MARCIANO: We've got a little bit of snow across parts of the Ohio River Valley right now. Temperatures are right around the freezing mark, and this is a fairly quick mover. Right now, it's 32, 33 degrees in D.C., and I point that out because that's where the snow is heading. But again, it's moving quickly.

It's not going to be a huge blizzard or anything, but considering what we have had this year, which is practically nothing other than the October storm. One to three inches seems like a big mess, and it's going to time out, at least in the D.C./Baltimore area to come in and be the most intense right around the evening commute. It will be slushy and messy on your way home and that will slow down the airports as well in the D.C. area, maybe Philly as well.

A little bit getting into New York, but I don't think we'll see much in the way of accumulation there. San Francisco, some low clouds as another storm rolls in there. And finally, some colder air, more winter-like stuff coming in to the Western Great Lakes and that will pour in behind this system. Thirty-nine degrees in New York City. Hey, that's actually where you should be this time of year.

SAMBOLIN: We like it when it's warmer, Rob --

BANFIELD: When you say rain and snow is where you want to be, what's up with you, Mr. Georgia?

MARCIANO: Come on. Embrace --

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: We'll embrace it. Thank you, Rob.

BANFIELD: Still ahead, Donald Trump. He talks and people listen. He's the man now standing behind the man who was the frontrunner until last night. He endorsed Mitt Romney, and he's now talking about a number of different issues.

He addresses the controversies over the 15 percent tax rate, the effective tax rate that Mitt Romney pays. I ask him about that, and I also ask him about how much tax he pays. You're going to hear all about it in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: That's not going to get you out of bed this morning. Marc Anthony for you. I know we just said this, New York, it's 36 degrees. Rob Marciano told us. It will be snow showers. Thirty- eight degrees will be the high, but he says that's pretty average temperature.

All right. Welcome back to EARLY START. Love him or hate him, real estate mogul and reality TV star, Donald Trump, can command an audience. His new book called "Time to Get Tough."

BANFIELD: We had an extensive one-on-one interview, and in fact, we're going to run clips throughout the morning of his thoughts on the political process right now, particularly this. We talked about Rick Santorum. Wow. We didn't know what was going to happen.

SAMBOLIN: Timing, timing.

BANFIELD: Timing is everything. And we also -- I also asked him about a possible cabinet position since he came out with his endorsement of Mitt Romney. I asked him, would you want a cabinet position? Have you been discussing anything about a cabinet position, and what cabinet position would you want?

But then, I really wanted to get to the heart of the money thing, because I said you're a rich guy. Romney is a rich guy. He took it on the chin for the taxes and the low effective tax rate, the 15 percent effective tax rate. I wanted to get Donald Trump to weigh in on that. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: Fifteen percent effective tax rate. A lot of people real surprised by that. Squeaky clean returns. But the bigger question became 15 percent on this kind of taxation? Is it fair? What's your effective tax rate, by the way?

DONALD TRUMP, CHAIRMAN AND PRESIDENT, THE TRUMP ORGANIZATION: Well, I can't -- it's substantial, and I paid a very, very substantial tax.

BANFIELD: Is it substantial 15 or is it closer to the 30 like the rest of the gang pays?

TRUMP: I paid millions and millions of dollars. I mean, I paid a very, very substantial tax, and he did also. He paid millions of dollars in tax, and he paid millions of dollars to charities and things that are very nice.

BANFIELD: The numbers are amazing.

TRUMP: They're very substantial.

BANFIELD: Truly if you look at the numbers, they are amazing, but people still get stuck on the 15 percent.

TRUMP: A lot of people want to know, in terms of tax increases, they want to know where's our money going to? I think people would feel a lot differently if they thought that the government knew what they were doing with the money. I really do. I would. I can tell you, I would.

BANFIELD: I'm not sure of that. I have to be honest. I think a lot of those Wall Streeter, you know the Occupy Wall Streeters have a real bone about the inequity, as they see it, of the code, of the tax code. Is there a problem with the tax code?

TRUMP: Yes, it's too complicated.

BANFIELD: Other than complication.

TRUMP: The biggest problem with the tax code is it's too complicated. You have to have -- you need a 180 IQ to understand it. So, that's the number one problem. And it's also -- it's too cumbersome. It's not only complicated, it's cumbersome. The tax code has to be simplified.

BANFIELD: A lot of people agree it's complicated, but the bigger question becomes, I think there's a statistic that the top ten companies in the United States pay more in lobbying to keep some of that protection for the effective tax rates that they pay than they actually pay in taxes. Does that seem right?

TRUMP: Well, I will say this, and I'm speaking for myself. But when I look at what's going on, this world is very fragile, and this country is really fragile from an economic standpoint. China is eating our lunch. OPEC is taking advantage of us like probably nobody's ever taken advantage of anybody or anything, and you look at what's going on in this country.

Everyone needs leadership. But beyond leadership, taxes to start raising taxes at this very fragile point can be a very, very dangerous thing.

BANFIELD: But can I peg you on the future? Is there, perhaps, future -- if we do recover in this economy, are higher taxes for the wealthy or for corporations maybe something that would be viable?

TRUMP: Well, it could happen, but I'm just saying, very simply, and I hate to give you a very quick answer.

BANFIELD: Could it happen?

TRUMP: The truth is it could happen.

BANFIELD: Should it happen?

TRUMP: It certainly could happen.

BANFIELD: Should it?

TRUMP: It depends on the economy, it depends on the state, and it depends what they're doing with our money. I really want to see where this money is going. Why can't a committee, which has never been formed in the first place, we had real leadership, why can't a committee come up and say we're going to cut a trillion dollars or $2 trillion or $3 trillion?

Instead, it ends up in turmoil. We can't cut anything in this country, and the cutting is the biggest thing because, if you cut, you don't need tax increases.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: I'll tell you what, half the time I couldn't focus because of the beautiful view.

SAMBOLIN: The view.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: That guy's the got the nicest office.

SAMBOLIN: Popping out in the background.

BANFIELD: Did it ever. And how would you like just look at that all day long? I wouldn't be able to think.

SAMBOLIN: No work.

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: We talk a lot all the time about the --

SAMBOLIN: It's a great conversation.

BANFIELD: It's a great conversation. And he has a lot to say about electability and what that means because so many people are talking about it being really important to them as they walk into their polls. Then, we also talk about Rick Santorum's electability.

Clearly, last night, it was really up there. But Donald Trump feels really differently about him and also the cabinet issue. Sort of pegged him on the cabinet talks if even having Mitt Romney --

SAMBOLIN: Are we going to hear about that later?

BANFIELD: You are. You are, indeed.

SAMBOLIN: There's your tease.

BANFIELD: That's all coming. All coming ahead.

SAMBOLIN: All right. And also ahead, top stories coming up next, including the terrifying 911 calls just minutes before that Washington State man killed himself and his two little boys. You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)