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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Interview with Congressman Paul Ryan; Syrians Under Siege; Conservative Activists and Leaders Gather for CPAC; Interview with Senator Mike Lee

Aired February 9, 2012 - 08:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST: And welcome back, everybody.

STARTING POINT this morning is coming to you live from CPAC in Washington, D.C. Of course, it's a gathering of the nation's leading conservatives and activists. It will all end with the straw poll that happens on Saturday night.

Before the big kickoff, though, some very big political names are going to join us. We had Debbie Wasserman Schultz was here. Of course, she's with the DNC.

Also, Congressman Paul Ryan is going to be with us in just a little bit. He's been talking about big, bold reform. And he's targeting massive spending. We'll talk about some of his specifics straight ahead when he shares his plan with us.

Plus, a $25 billion deal that could help nearly a million homeowners. We'll tell you what that deal could mean for individuals.

STARTING POINT begins right now.

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: Congressman Paul Ryan's playlist. A little Led Zeppelin. Look at that. "Traveling Riverside Blues." He's going to join us to talk about a budget and talk about his speech that he'll be delivering her at CPAC.

We have our panel with us this morning. The Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz joins us. Ron Brownstein is back. And Erick Erickson is with us as well.

Nice to have you all.

Let's talk about some of the news that's been broken on this show in the last hour. We'll start with listening to -- let's go first to Congressman Walker because I thought what he said about how this could all end up, he supports, of course, Newt Gingrich. So, there's some spin to that.

But here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FMR. REP. BOB WALKER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: I'm suggesting that there will be a contest where Mitt Romney will not end up with the majority of votes headed into Tampa and where we will have an election that will be settled at the convention.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: OK. So, Senator McCain when he heard that said, you know, isn't that funny that people who are losing positions often suddenly start predicting contested -- you know, going to the convention as a big contest.

What do you think of what the congressman said?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, as John McCain pointed out there are a lot more predictions than, in fact, actually achieving a multi-ballot or broken convention. We haven't seen one since 1952.

But as I've been listening to both Al Cardenas saying that if there is not a decisive result on March 6th, and Bob Walker saying there could be a multi-ballot convention -- first of all, it's making Erick Erickson --

(CROSSTALK)

ERICK ERICKSON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.

BROWNSTIEN: -- because he has been one of the people out there arguing for that throughout.

But the question I kind of come away with this, could you see a informal division of responsibility between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, in which they stop focusing so much on each other and instead put energy into different places trying to deny Mitt Romney a first ballot victory -- Gingrich focusing, for example, on the South, Santorum perhaps on some of the Midwestern states. You could make an argument that they could move from opponents to kind of allies of convenience in this race as it moves forward.

O'BRIEN: I'm not the political expert. And I will live to my political experts. But that sounds so unlikely to me.

ERICKSON: It sounds unlikely to me, but the question is do they tip their hat on what do they do in Virginia? Because only Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are on the ballot in Virginia. Do Newt and Rick Santorum suddenly tell their constituents in Virginia, maybe you should look at Ron Paul, that's not happening yet, which to me is a sign --

O'BRIEN: When's Virginia?

ERICKSON: Virginia is on Super Tuesday.

O'BRIEN: Oh, Super Tuesday.

ERICKSON: You'll have Georgia on Super Tuesday, which will have the most delegates. Newt is focused there. You have other Southern states.

We should keep perspective though. In 1980, you had the Republican establishment largely aligned against Ronald Regan, pushing either Howard Baker or George H.W. Bush. Reagan lost Iowa by 2 percentage points. Went into New Hampshire and won, and then he lost six races, including coming in third in one race, kind of like Mitt Romney did in Minnesota coming in behind Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. He's still wound up to be the nominee.

The difference was that Reagan's support kept building and his favorables kept increasing through the primaries. Mitt Romney's favorables are increasing through the primaries, and he's still having trouble bringing conservatives over. The base is not consolidating to him the way establishment Republicans consolidated with Reagan in 1980.

O'BRIEN: Talk about turnout for me, because I'm trying to figure out what the turnout message is. We've seen it going down, going down, going down.

First of all, isn't that a dire problem if you're talking -- you know, if you're trying to really rally the bases and the time when they should be rallied?

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: Look, when the country starts focusing on jobs and the economy -- that they need a chief executive who understands the economy and capital formation, then that sunlight starts to go on those other candidates, Mitt Romney is the one that consistently comes out on top.

He's done exceptionally well. He's won literally in every single category. He got a big contest coming up in Arizona, and then going into Super Tuesday -- I think, again, the people who are running against Mitt Romney, when the sunlight gets shined on them, they don't look quite so, you know, conservative and quite so shiny as they'd like to portray themselves.

And that's what's happening. If you look at Rick Santorum had a good night. But the person who had a really bad night was Newt Gingrich. I mean, he was absolutely nowhere in those contests. So --

BROWNSTEIN: I'm sorry. I was going to say, on the other hand --

O'BRIEN: I was waiting for the on the other hand.

BROWNSTEIN: If you're looking at it from the Romney point of view, this week, you've seen two different developments. You've seen trouble turning out the base, 1/3 as many people came out to vote for him in Minnesota as four years ago, half as many people in Colorado, 1/3 as many people in Missouri.

And at the same time, in the national polling, he's fallen back behind President Obama in the national ABC/"Washington Post" poll among independents; trailed among independents in the poll in Virginia released yesterday.

He seems to be eroding from both sides at the same time, not quelling the doubts among the base and seeding new doubts in the middle.

O'BRIEN: Translation is big problem for the person who's supposed to be the front-runner.

CHAFFETZ: No.

O'BRIEN: Hang on. Let him answer first.

CHAFFETZ: No, I think clearly, when people start to focus on jobs in the economy, they gravitate to Mitt Romney. And now, Rick Santorum will get back in the sunshine and he'll start to see all the problems he had with earmarks and everything that he did, in voting to raise the debt ceiling. I mean, Rick Santorum is somebody who thought that Arlen Specter should be the next president of the United States. That's not going to play too well at a crowd like CPAC.

ERICKSON: You know, when we talk about polls this early that are always falling behind Barack Obama. John Kerry led George Bush until the summer in 2004. Ronald Reagan was behind Jimmy Carter.

O'BRIEN: So, you think polls are irrelevant?

ERICKSON: So, in this point, I think they're -- the polls that you should focus on, I think, are the actual voting booths where in Florida the counties that had lower turnout Romney one. The counties that had higher turn out, he lost. Same thing happened across --

CHAFFETZ: But he won by an overwhelming margin.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes.

ERICKSON: He won by an overwhelming -- but the problem, though, is when you look at northern Florida Panhandle, he came in less there this time than he did last time. In Iowa, he got less votes than he did in 2008. In Minnesota, he got less votes than he did in 2008. In Colorado, he sent out a press release and said ignore Minnesota and Missouri, focus on Colorado.

CHAFFETZ: Well, there were no delegates.

ERICKSON: That's what they're saying now.

O'BRIEN: But ultimately, let's talk about --

(CROSSTALK)

CHAFFETZ: It's what we were saying before, there are no delegates at stake. That's why he didn't go there. And if you look at the overall popular vote, you can combine Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich and you still don't even come close to Mitt Romney.

BROWNSTEIN: Look, I mean, Romney is the only one with the capacity to run a national campaign. And what I was suggesting was not a formal alliance between Santorum and Gingrich, but kind of a nod and a wink in which Gingrich focuses on certain states, Santorum focuses his resources on other states and between them, they both try to deny Romney enough victories --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: That sounds like so much more coordination? Are you laughing because that sounds like a lot of coordination?

BROWNSTEIN: I don't know.

CHAFFETZ: I think the electorate would be offended by that.

BROWNSTEIN: I think you'll see Santorum with minimal efforts in the South and Gingrich with less efforts in place where Santorum is focusing.

O'BRIEN: We're going to watch.

All right. Let's get to Christine Romans. She's got an update for us on some big news about a big mortgage deal this morning.

Hey, Christine. Good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning.

We're expecting a deal to be announced sometime today, Soledad, a deal for 1 million underwater homeowners, where they'll be eligible for up to $20,000 relief on the principal they owe on their house. We're expecting that announcement later this morning, a landmark mortgage deal between the states and some of the country's largest banks. It would amount to $26 billion for mortgage lenders and servicers -- Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Ally Financial. It's the largest, broadest housing rescue plan yet, the largest settlement between an industry and the states and the government since that big tobacco settlement in 1998.

Attorneys general for California, Florida, New York are now onboard. Nearly all the other states have agreed to the terms. We're getting more details and we'll get to them as soon as we've got them.

The 911 call center in Pierce County, Washington, is launching an investigation to find out why it took dispatchers eight minutes to send a police car to the home of Josh Powell. Once that police car was dispatched, it took 13 minutes to get to Powell's home, too late to stop him from blowing up his house and killing himself and his two little boys.

The founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure is speaking out for the first time since reversing a controversial decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood. In a letter to "The Washington Post," Nancy Brinker says, quote, "I made some mistakes. Women's health organizations must be absolutely true to our core missions and avoid even the appearance of bias or judgment in our decisions."

Brinker apologized for disappointing so many of their supporters and she pledged to work harder to restore their trust.

Tough talk from Iran's ambassador to Russia. He's telling reporters in Moscow that Iran is capable of attacking U.S. interests anywhere in the world, and will do so if the U.S. attacks first.

Students from Catholic universities will speak out this morning about a controversial new White House policy. It requires certain religious organizations and hospitals to offer contraceptives and other birth control services as part of their employee health care plans. Critics charge this mandate is unconstitutional and the Obama administration is signaling it is willing to consider making some compromises.

And treasure hunters say they've discovered a sunken ship off the coast of Cape Cod with a fortune on board. It's the SS Port Nicholson torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1942. That's during World War II. The crew that found it says there's 71 tons of platinum on board along with gold ingots and uncut diamonds. Total value could be $3 billion if they can get the ship to the surface.

Wow. Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Yes, and that's the big if, right? If they can get that ship to the surface.

All right. Christine, thank you very much.

One of the biggest names speaking at the conference today will be Wisconsin Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. He joins us to talk a bunch of politics.

Nice to see you, sir. We appreciate your time this morning.

In your talk, you're expected to call for bold ideas, a principled plan. I've seen some of the early drafts of it.

What specifically are you going to call for as you speak to the thousands of people here at CPAC?

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN: Good morning, first of all, Soledad.

I just think we need to go bold in that if we don't agree with the direction that the president is taking the country, which we clearly don't, it's not just to oppose. It's not enough. We need to propose alternatives, a different path for the country based upon our core founding principles, and that way, the country gets a legitimate choice of two futures. So, what I'm trying to say is all of us need to give the country a choice of two futures because we shouldn't just run against President Obama, we should offer the country a choice because we really believe that this precarious moment in our country's history where we're really on the verge of a debt crisis, we need to show how we can fix these problems.

We think the president's taking us in the wrong direction. We think he's applying the wrong philosophy. We think he's irresponsible in that he's not addressing the country's biggest problems that are right in front of us. And so, we need to propose very specific alternatives so the country gets a legitimate choice in the next election.

O'BRIEN: And you have specifically talked about the president's path to decline is how you put it. But, you know, there's a column by Bob Kagan, I'm sure you've seen because a lot of people have been talking about it. And he calls this the myth of American decline.

And he writes this in "The New Republic." "In economic terms and even despite the current years of recession and slow growth, America's position in the world has not changed."

In other words, your position of decline is wrong.

PAUL: Soledad, we have 20 million people still out of work. We have 6 million people that have gone on the poverty rolls since the president took office. Our economy is not growing near the pace it needs to.

But more to the point, our debt is literally getting out of our control. Our gross debt has exceeded the size of our entire economy, and we're not doing anything about it. The president hasn't proposed a solution. The Senate hasn't passed a budget since 2009. They're not going to do one this year.

We have a debt crisis right in front of us. What brings down great empires, past and future, is debt. They're doing nothing to prevent it.

Europe is in the throes of a debt crisis. I would argue that European nations are in a state of managed decline right now.

Why on earth do we want to copy those policies and follow that direction? But clearly, that's the path we are on because that's the path the president has kept us on.

Not all of these problems were created by Barack Obama, but he's doing -- not only is he not doing anything to fix them, I would argue he's making them worse.

And if we disagree with that, which we clearly do, what I'm saying is we owe the country a legitimate choice of a different future and a different pathway so they can choose what kind of people they want us to be, what kind of country they want us to be in the 21st century, because literally, Soledad, the next couple of years in our government, what we do, how we handle the situation -- that's going to determine the kind of America we're going to have for the 21st century. And it's not an ideological thing. It's a mathematical thing.

O'BRIEN: That segues us nicely into the current political race. Ron Brownstein, hop in here.

BROWNSTEIN: Good morning, Congressman. Ron Brownstein from "National Journal."

Let me ask you, as you talk about your choice, the core choice on taxes that you offer is extending the tax cuts passed under President Bush. You mentioned the increase in poverty under President Obama -- 8 million more people went into poverty in the first eight years after tax cuts were passed while Bush was in office. There were fewer people working at the end of the eight years than when the tax cuts were passed.

What in that record gives you confidence that extending those tax cuts will produce better economic growth in the future than they've contributed to so far in the past?

PAUL: Well, fewer people were working now than before Barack Obama got started. We have a low employment rate, meaning not unemployment but employment.

But what I would say is we're not saying extend tax cuts, we're saying reform the tax system to make us more competitive.

Look, here's the problem. Eight out of 10 of our businesses in America, they file their taxes as individuals. And so when the president keeps raising these tax rates, which are on individuals, they're actually on small businesses and we're taxing them at much higher rates than other countries.

Look overseas which in Wisconsin means Lake Superior, you know, Canada is lowering their tax rates on their businesses at 15 percent. And our top tax rate for small businesses is going to 45 percent in 2013?

You can't compete. You can't create jobs that way. Our businesses can't succeed in a global economy. And so, what we're saying is not just extend tax cuts, we're saying reform the tax code. Get rid of the loopholes. Get rid of the deductions. Lower the tax rates for everybody.

And when it comes to class warfare, look, what we're saying is, let's not penalize people who are successful, let's set the conditions for economic growth so new people can become successful that haven't seen success yet in their lives. Let's not preach envy and division, let's preach prosperity, and growth and hope.

And when you're taking away all those loopholes and deductions, it's the people in the higher income areas that enjoy them, anyway.

O'BRIEN: So, Congressman Ryan, I'm going stop you. I don't know if you can hear me.

RYAN: I can hear you fine. Can you not hear me?

O'BRIEN: If you can hear me, because my earpiece has just died. I apologize. And we thank you for joining us this morning. Thanks for being with us. We've got to take a short break. Still this morning ahead on STARTING POINT, the U.N. secretary general is calling it appalling brutality in Syria. Overnight, there was more shelling, more deaths. We're going to take you live there with the very latest out of Syria.

Plus, why John McCain says arming the rebels is the right answer there.

And, in less than 15 minutes, new jobless numbers will come out. Will it be another improvement? We'll take a closer look at that. We leave you with a track from Congressman Paul Ryan's playlist. He likes Van Morrison, "Wild Night." We'll back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: The slaughter in Syria is growing more and more intense by the day. Overnight, government troops were bombarding Homs. At least 12 people were killed overnight in fact, and it is the fourth straight day of shelling. The U.N. secretary general said "it is appalling brutality." That's a quote.

And earlier this morning on STARTING POINT, we talked to Senator John McCain who said there is a lot that this nation can do. We talked a little bit about what it would be like to arm the Syrian opposition. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R) ARIZONA: Work with other countries to provide assistance in a broad variety of ways. And by the way, military equipment should not be an option. It should not be -- it's an option that should be considered but maybe not directly, but we could give them communications. They need equipment. They need medical help very badly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: That was Senator John McCain talking to us a little bit earlier about the situation in Syria. This morning, we're coming to you live from CPAC. And as you can see, they put us in a conference room where later today there'll be thousands of people listening to many of the various speeches that'll take place on the stage.

And as you can hear behind me, they're rehearsing the audio, which is nice to hear. Lovely song. Hopefully, you guys at home can still hear me. We've got to get to what's happening though in Syria. We want to check in with Ivan Watson. We now have him live. He's in Istanbul for us. Ivan, what's the very latest from where you are? Turkey's getting involved.

IVAN WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, we can go straight to that embattled besieged city of Homs where the Syrian military continues its deadly artillery barrage. Here are some live pictures via (INAUDIBLE) of the Homs skyline. We've been monitoring it, hearing periodic explosions and gunfire during the call to prayer. A doctor we talked to there this morning said he had seen already, today alone, 40 bodies of victims as well as some 100 wounded people. Among the people wounded there, Soledad, is an activist who got international attention when he confronted observers from the Arab league weeks ago, a few months ago.

His name is Halad Abusala (ph), and he was wounded, and he gave a defiant statement to an activist camera. Take a listen to what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WATSON: Of course, there, he's talking to the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad. Defiant even as residents there tell us that the army has encircled the city. They're not even allowing food in while continuing what appears to be the indiscriminate shelling of a city with a population of a little under a million people.

Hundreds of people, civilians, believed who've been killed in the last couple of days alone -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: That's Ivan Watson for us. Oh, my goodness, those pictures out of Syria look just very, very awful. Thank you, Ivan, for that update.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the CPAC panel topic today is government spending and how to reduce it. There's a panel that's called, "It's The Spending, Stupid." Senator Mike Lee is going to be delivering some part of that panel. We're going to talk to him a little bit later this morning.

Also, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, remember last week, we were talking about his documentary about concussions. Well, he's back to talk about what one state is now doing to take action to protect young people. Short break. We're back in just a moment. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: OK. No disrespect, but that song is terrible.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: That is Airborne Toxic Event, "Sometime Around -- what's it called? --"Sometime Around Midnight."

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: OK. How come none of my music is getting on today? Like nothing.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Yes. You were wiped out fast, and I got nothing. I've had nothing today. And that sounds like a garage band, honestly.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: We brought you some information last week about how programs across the country are helping protect kids from concussions. Sanjay Gupta did his big documentary about it focused on -- in the documentary which was called "Big Hits, Broken Dreams," about the risks to kids.

And now, literally, as the result of his documentary, the Georgia legislature is taking action. Sanjay joins us live. He's in Atlanta this morning. Sanjay, I guess, congratulations are in order when you're able to do a documentary that's, you know, riveting, and also, sort of moves the needle in terms of legislation, too.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know, it's great. I think it's part of the reason, you know, you and I do documentaries like this. It's nice to know people are watching, maybe even feel compelled to action. Specifically, in the state of Georgia, what they want to do is educate parents and players about concussions.

That seems like a pretty basic thing, but there was no official mandate on that. They also want to have coaches and athletic trainers at practices and games who have been trained to recognize the signs of concussion. Again, this is pretty low hanging fruit. They also want to make it -- medical clearance necessary before a player ever returns to the game.

Very important point, Soledad, you and I talked about this last week, that someone can tell that someone's brain is healed before they let them back on the field. And also something interesting, Soledad, this idea that at the beginning of the season or as part of a routine physical exam, players would also get a neurological exam.

So, that that's a baseline, and then, if someone has a hit to the brain, they can get that checked again. So, that's sort of what they're sort of putting forth here in Georgia.

O'BRIEN: So, how does that compare what they're doing in Georgia to what every other state is doing in the nation?

GUPTA: Well, you know, truth is, there's about 35 states and the District of Columbia that do have some sort of, you know, acts on the books now. So, Georgia is a little late to the game on this, but it's pretty similar in terms of what they're asking for. I should point out, a lot of this was named after Zachary Lystedt.

You know, when he was a middle school football player, he basically had what was a concussion halfway through the game, and then, he had -- you can see him playing there, and then, he was put- back in the game, in the fourth quarter, had another concussion and left him neurologically very bad off.

That prompted these whole series of laws around the country. And remember again, Soledad, just this quickly, you know, when a brain is hit and you get a concussion, that brain is swollen. It's a little bit inflamed. It's probably going to heal, but if it takes a second hit before it heals, that's when you take a bad situation and make it catastrophically worse. And that's what these acts are designed to prevent.

O'BRIEN: It's good to see our legislators moving, because you know, the numbers for approval, very low. Low right now. Sanjay Gupta for us this morning. Nice to see you, Sanjay. Sorry, I missed you in New York the other day.

GUPTA: I know. I was away -- two trains, you and I.

O'BRIEN: Always. This is the story of our lives. Two trains crossing here.

Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the jobless numbers, we're expecting them. They're just minutes away. Looking to see if there's going to be another improvement there.

Plus, Senator Mike Lee will join us. He wants to talk about an issue that is near and dear to his heart, which is how to reduce government spending. Let's play a little bit from his playlist as we head to commercial break for a moment. Styx. I love now. Eric, Styx. Now, that's music. I love Styx.

(CROSSTALK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Lots to get to. Let's start with headlines. Christine Romans has that for us. Hey, Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you, Soledad. A bombshell revelation in the University of Virginia lacrosse trial. Accused killer George Huguely apparently e-mailed his ex-girlfriend Yeardley Love shortly before her death, saying, quote, "I should have killed you." Huguely is on trial for fatally beating Love to death in May in 2010. Prosecutors say he killed her in a jealous rage after finding out she had been dating a rival lacrosse player from another college.

Egypt's prime minister says his country won't stop its crackdown on non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Egyptians first raided NGO offices last year accusing them of improperly using foreign funds. They are planning to put dozens of NGO workers on trial, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Just in, the weekly report on jobless claims. It says 358,000 jobless claims were filed for the very first time last week. It sounds like a lot, but actually this is pretty good news. We were expected 12,000 more claims. Any time this number comes in less than 400,000, that is seen as a sign the labor market is headed in the right direction.

The Obama administration will announce that 10 states are getting wavers from the most burdensome mandates of No Child Left Behind. In return, those states have agreed to raise standards for improving student achievement, provide more accountability, and make more reform to teacher effectiveness. Critics of No Child Left Behind say that current labels too many schools as failing and it dictates unworkable remedies. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: All right, Christine. Thank you very much.

Back here at CPAC if you're attending, there's lots to keep you busy obviously. There is going to be a panel here in three hours that it's called, "It's the spending, stupid." Our next guest is going to be taking part in that panel. It's Utah Senator Mike Lee, who joins us, co-founder of the Senate's Tea Party caucus. Thanks for talking with us this morning. Give me a little preview of what it's the spending, stupid. What does it mean? I wonder, can you hear me, sir?

SEN. MIKE LEE, (R) UTAH: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Senator, let me try one more time.

LEE: Good morning.

O'BRIEN: There you are. OK. I have you now. Sorry about that. We were having a little audio difficulties. I was asking you you're on this panel, "It's the spending, stupid." It's a spin on it's the economy, stupid. What's this about? What are you going to contribute to the panel today?

LEE: This is a discussion about our debt problem, the fact that our national debt is now over $15 trillion. It's larger than our GDP. That's a problem. This threatens to undermine our ability to fund everything from defense to entitlements. And this is a discussion about that. It's a about the need for a balanced budget amendment, a constitutional restriction to change structurally and permanently the way Washington spends and borrows money.

O'BRIEN: So let me ask you a little bit about the Tea Party. As I mentioned, you're with the Tea Party caucus. If you look at the track record, it is since Iowa all over the place. Iowa, the winner of Tea Party support, was Santorum with 29 percent. In New Hampshire it went to Romney with 41 percent. In South Carolina it was Gingrich. That was 45 percent. Then went on to Florida and Romney took that at 41 percent. Then the state of Nevada, it was also Romney at 47 percent. I'm almost afraid to ask, but who does the Tea Party support in this race?

LEE: Well, of course the Tea Party isn't a party. It's not any single organization. It's a spontaneous grassroots movement that stands for principles of constitutional conservatism. And because there's no party structure there's no single entity to get behind a single candidate. But I can tell you that conservatives --

O'BRIEN: Right, but the question is -- forgive me. Let me just interrupt you. I'll reframe the question. Maybe there's a better way to say it. Who's the true conservative that the Tea Party in general would like to embrace? Who is the true conservative? LEE: Well, we've got four conservatives, four Republicans running in this race. Conservative Republicans are going to be eager to get behind whichever man gets the Republican nomination. And there's no real consensus choice at this point, but I have a feeling we'll have a candidate within just another month or two.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Senator, good morning. Ron Brownstein from "National Journal." Can I ask you about your spending ideas? You want to limit federal spending to a fixed share of GDP going forward, 20 percent is the figure often used, or 18 percent. On the other hand, the number of seniors in the country is supposed to double in the next 30 years from 40 million to 80 million. How can we limit that while we have that many more seniors who are going to be relying on Social Security and Medicare? What are the implications of limiting that against that demographic backdrop?

LEE: The implications are that unless we limit spending as a percentage of GDP, we'll continue to continue to accrue debt until that debt crushes our ability to fund everything from Medicare and Social Security to defense. As I explain in my book "The Freedom Agenda," the only way to solve this problem is through a constitutional restriction. And that restriction will actually protect the very programs that you're expressing concerns about.

That's why this is an issue that's neither Democratic nor Republican, neither liberal nor conservative. It's simply American. We have to protect our ability to operate the government.

O'BRIEN: Did you just slide in a promo for your book on my show, Senator?

LEE: Absolutely I did.

O'BRIEN: I can't believe that.

LEE: It's a beautiful book.

O'BRIEN: Shamelessly. Shamelessly. Let me ask you -- let me play a little bit of sound which we heard Al Cardenas from CPAC. He, of course, as you well know, is running the whole thing. Here's what he said about the importance of Super Tuesday. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL CARDENAS, AL CARDENAS, FORMER CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN PARTY OF FLORIDA: If it lasts quite a while, it may more likely mean that no one has those 1,147 delegates to win the nomination. If they don't, then you're dealing. If you're dealing, you're going to come up with a combination of two of the four that are in the race or you'll have an outsider like a Jeb Bush got in the race. Mitt Romney is hoping he can get this thing done March 6th. I don't think anyone else has the resources. But if he doesn't and it continues to be a wide open race, things may get complicated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Do you agree March 6th is the cutoff?

LEE: I don't know whether it's the cutoff or not. I think March 6th is certainly a critical date. I hope that by that point we'll know who our nominee likely is. But I'm not ready to say that there is any specific date that represents the cutoff.

O'BRIEN: All right, Senator Mike Lee joining us this morning. Nice to see you. Thanks for being with us. Can you believe he was pitching his book on my show? Sir, we will get you back for that.

Still ahead this morning, he has been called a Tea Party kingmaker. We'll talk to Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. His speech will kick off in just about an hour. First though, we're going to chat with him about his thoughts on the GOP race as well.

Then this morning the story of Brandon White. You see these pictures, this video. Oh, my gosh, a horrific beating, anti-gay beating. It was caught on tape. Brandon said he could have died that day. He's going to join us to talk about what happened and what he does now straight ahead. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: Guess whose choice that is. Congressman Jason Chaffetz. It's taking me right back to the '80s.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ, (R), UTAH: The awesome '80s.

O'BRIEN: Next time, better music, everybody.

Welcome back, everybody. The who's who of the Republican Party is here in Washington, dc, of course, for this year's conservative gathering. It's called CPAC. Rick Santorum is hoping to keep his momentum going off of Tuesday's win. Mitt Romney is saying he could govern as a conservative. Republican senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina will be giving a kickoff speech in a little bit, like literally just a little bit. He'll leave here and run down to the podium. He's also the co-founder of the Senate Tea Party caucus. It's nice to have you, sir. We had a chance to talk before the race in South Carolina.

SEN. JIM DEMINT, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: It was good to have you visit Myrtle Beach.

O'BRIEN: Very nice. Very nice. You're going to give your talk in a little bit. Are you going to read passages off your book or what are you going to say to the crowd?

(LAUGHTER)

DEMINT: I'm going to try to avoid that. This is our big huddle as conservatives before the 2012 election. So we're kind of reminding ourselves of our ideas but also the importance of this election. O'BRIEN: What are your big worries as a conservative? You go in and I'm concerned about what?

DEMINT: Well, I want to make sure that we understand how important the election is and that we are reminded that a few people who get active in the 2010 elections, we saw it, can make a huge difference. I'm not sure we're going have another chance to turn things around if you look at where our country is and the kind of hole we are in with our debt and the fact that the current president and the majority in the Senate will effectively double that debt over the next 10 years, it's just time we get our people out and get them to recruit others, because the key to this election is recruiting Americans who are working, paying taxes, but they don't like politics.

O'BRIEN: If you look at turnout, then that would go against everything you're saying because the turnout in these races has been very low, especially the last three races where the turnout has been off by a lot. What does that say about the general election, that the Republican base is not energized --

DEMINT: Not that I've seen. And I spoke to a number of conservative groups last night, and their memberships are going up exponentially. A lot of these folks who are Tea Party protesters put down their picket signs and they're joining more formal organizations. They're getting organized at the local level. I think you're going to see a strong outpouring of not just conservatives but just everyday Americans who are alarmed at where we're going as a country.

O'BRIEN: But when you look at the actual numbers, right, you see that unemployment's down for the fifth straight month. You look at growth in manufacturing, growth in transportation, growth in retail. Isn't that argument starting to dissipate?

It's actually getting better. We had a graph the other day, I think not when we were talking, but you know we're basically like it's that the numbers of unemployment were going down. And that's a good thing if you're running on that record, right?

DEMINT: Yes well, we want the economy to come back, but if there's any improvement in the economy, we have to attribute that to the hard work by American workers and businesses. There's nothing this President has done that have changed policy that are going to turn things around.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: So if the economy is doing badly it's the President's fault but if the economy is improving it's not the President's fault?

DEMINT: Well our work force -- so many people have dropped out of our work force. We've got the smallest work force we've had in 30 years. That makes unemployment look a little better but to still say that 8.3 is an improvement that just means we've lowered our expectations. I mean we obviously can't grow at less than two percent a year and say that's a good economy. But Republicans have to remind Americans, it's not just about unemployment numbers. It's about what we see, the centralization of power in Washington and the dependency and the dysfunction, where we are with our debt. And this President has no plans to turn it around. He's put no plans to fix Social Security and Medicare on the table.

And he's just been standing aloof of criticizing and making speeches. So it's going to be a rhetorical battle in some ways, but what we're going to have to do is call those Americans out who know that this country is a bottom up country, decentralized, a very dynamic and individualistic. And this President and the Democratic Party is taking us in a different direction.

O'BRIEN: I should mention to folks, if you can hear the noise behind us, it's because they finally opened the hall. And the thousands of people that are going to come and listen to you.

DEMINT: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Literally in about 14 minutes.

DEMINT: No pressure. No pressure at all.

O'BRIEN: All right, no pressure at all. But it's a lot, it looks like a big crowd.

The straw poll is what will wrap up everything here. Who do you think is going to win the straw poll? Filibuster for me; just give me a name?

DEMINT: No, I have -- I have -- Ron Paul has won it a number of times because his folks are more organized. And you really have to organize and get people to go to a particular place to vote. They don't pass around ballots of people who are sitting out here in the crowd.

So I really have no idea who has worked that angle this year.

O'BRIEN: So when we talked to Al Cardenes earlier, he basically said listen, if you look to March -- if you look to Super Tuesday and if by Super Tuesday Mitt Romney has not wrapped this up, this could go to a brokered convention.

DEMINT: Well, that's probably true the way it's set up this year with the divided delegates -- it could very well go to the convention.

O'BRIEN: So you have a divided electorate, especially when you look at conservatives. I mean this chart earlier, here, Tea Party.

DEMINT: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Santorum, Romney, Gingrich.

DEMINT: Well, that's a good sign.

O'BRIEN: How's that a good sign? DEMINT: We don't have a Tea Party candidate. The Tea Party is -- is really very diverse. And I don't think anyone has ever defined them properly. They're not radical right-wing people. I mean, they are a lot of folks who are not even involved in politics.

So they are very divided among these candidates, which I think means that any of them once we get a nominee can converge around them and we'll have energy behind our candidate.

O'BRIEN: Senator Jim DeMint, you seem calm for a man who literally now 12 minutes has to go down and give a speech. Nice to have you thanks for visiting with us.

DEMINT: Ok, thank you.

O'BRIEN: We appreciate your time, sir.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the victim of what is -- have you seen these pictures? A vicious beating, with a gang shouting anti-gay slurs as they beat up this young man. Well, now he's come forward and he is demanding justice. His name is Brandon White. And we'll chat with him coming up next.

You're watching STARTING POINT; short sure break but we're back right on the other side.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: You've seen some of this video today. The young man brutally attacked for being gay is speaking out. And we want to show you some of the videotape. I've got to warn you, it's a little bit hard to watch as they just pummel this guy. He's 20 years old. He's from Atlanta. His name is Brandon White. He is being attacked as he walked outside of a store.

Brandon -- he told that he wasn't going to report the attack. Can you believe that -- was not even going to go to the police to report this attack because he said he was embarrassed and humiliated when he saw it. But then he decided since they had -- it's gone viral that in fact he would report the attack to the police; it encouraged him to come forward.

So we were going to talk to Brandon this morning but we're having some technical problems with -- with getting him on air. So what we're going to do is we're going to ask him to move his interview to tomorrow so we can sit down and talk to him without technical difficulties tomorrow.

So Brandon White's going to join us to talk about that horrific attack. We'll chat with him tomorrow.

Turning back to politics now though, with our panel. Lots to talk about as we've been here and we have a little news going here this morning at CPAC.

Brokered convention, yes or no, what do you think? REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: No. I think Super Tuesday will provide clarity. And -- and I happen to think that Mitt Romney will come out ahead.

O'BRIEN: Because you're a Romney supporter.

CHAFFETZ: Because I want to beat the President. That's why I support him, yes.

O'BRIEN: All right.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Not likely but not inconceivable if Santorum and Gingrich can win enough states between them to deny Romney the first ballot majority.

O'BRIEN: John McCain said listen --

BROWNSTEIN: Right.

O'BRIEN: Every single -- I have been to this rodeo before.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, it's been 60 years. It's been a while.

O'BRIEN: And he says.

ERICK ERICKSON, REDSTATE.COM: Which means it's time for one. I'm all on board for a brokered convention.

O'BRIEN: Why? Why?

ERICKSON: Because I think any three of the candidates going against Barack Obama, they're the wrong three candidates against Barack Obama across the board. I think, particularly if the economy is improving and you've got the flare-up in Syria and elsewhere where the President shrinks the national security, we've got the wrong three guys who're trying to face the President.

I do not believe the current crop of candidates can beat Barack Obama --

BROWNSTEIN: Two words of caution -- two words of caution. Rick Perry. No matter how good you look on paper, this is very difficult.

CHAFFETZ: Yes.

BROWNSTEIN: And the idea of someone coming in, in May or June --

CHAFFETZ: Exactly.

BROWNSTEIN: Who hasn't been running and suddenly be ready to run not only in the primary but the general election --

CHAFFETZ: In the general election.

BROWNSTEIN: -- that is a tall order.

O'BRIEN: So who would you -- you must have a short list in your head of who could possibly --

ERICKSON: You know looking at people who could come in there. There's Mitch Daniels who already said no, there's Bobby Jindal from Louisiana. Would any of those guys do it? Probably not. I think we go against the President with the field we have and I'm not optimistic in November.

BROWNSTEIN: But -- go.

CHAFFETZ: No, I think Mitt Romney is in the best position to do that. You wanted an outsider. You want somebody who doesn't have that Washington, D.C., you know, senate record.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: He has made some -- some -- some big stumbles, public stumbles. When he should have been doing his victory lap after Florida.

(CROSSTALK)

CHAFFETZ: No, remember, that when we did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they went until June. And so we're still early in this process. And as Mitt Romney has said, this makes us stronger. It doesn't make us more divided. It prepares us for November. I think that's absolutely is.

O'BRIEN: (INAUDIBLE) said the exact opposite thing. He said actually (INAUDIBLE) and slinging money to take down other Republicans is a bad thing for the party. Is he wrong about that?

CHAFFETZ: Yes, I think it does make that stronger. And look, we're still in February. Remember how early we shifted this, we used to be that we were just about doing Iowa at this point. So there's still a lot --

ERICKSON: And but -- keep in mind, in 2008 we already had three times as many elections by now as right now. We've dragged this thing out. Super Tuesday was in February in 2008. It's now in March.

Here's another danger for the Republicans. The longer this draws out and people are throwing money into the presidential races is less time for them to give money to the senate races, house races, gubernatorial races and other races. This -- this has the potential to drag the Republicans down.

I am a firm believer that primaries make people stronger. The problem is, we're not seeing that this time. We're starting to see the candidates hurting themselves.

O'BRIEN: I don't know. Rick Santorum looks like a stronger candidate today.

BROWNSTEIN: Right, yesterday. I agree. I want to go to the larger point. That you just to keep our eye on the big picture. Two tail winds gave the Republicans their historic victory in 2010. An ideological backlash and a performance backlash. People were just not happy about the economy.

The ideological backlash is still there but it's not by itself a majority of the country. And on the other front, you are beginning to see the trend lines move in the right direction. And the one thing we know, trajectory matters more than level.

A lot of people are unhappy with 8.3 percent unemployment. But if it's going down that could be --

O'BRIEN: It's that map. It's that chart that goes like this.

BROWNSTEIN: Right.

O'BRIEN: Like my chart.

BROWNSTEIN: He's just got to hope that he has not peaked too early on unemployment and it doesn't begin to turn around.

O'BRIEN: Well, we're expecting some new numbers coming out as well in a little bit.

We have to take a short break. When we come back we're going to ask our panelists to give us their "End Point."

You're new to our panel, I'll explain what that is during the break. Also we're going to listen to Arcade Fire's (ph) "Wake Up." What is with the music?

BROWNSTEIN: That's good. That is good.

O'BRIEN: I've never heard of that. I was about to make fun of you but Ron Brownstein said it's good.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: It gets ugly. It gets ugly.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Our "End Point" now in our final minute. Give me an assessment of how the day goes.

CHAFFETZ: Well, I think here at CPAC you're going to see conservatives unite. Get excited. I think they're going to look to Mitt Romney and say that's a better, smarter way to go because we want to beat Barack Obama. Mitt Romney is an outsider and he has the best case to make against President Obama and defeat him in November.

O'BRIEN: Ron Brownstein.

BROWNSTEIN: For the end I go back to the beginning. I think what Al Cardenis (ph) said, unlikely but no longer improbable that if this race stays muddled we either see a late entry or convention that goes past the first ballot. Still not likely, but no longer entirely off the table.

O'BRIEN: Which contradicts the congressman's united comment.

Go ahead Erick.

ERICKSON: I think conservatives are rather divided and unexcited about the field as it exists. They don't see anyone who has a mantle of Reagan that they seem. It's going to be interesting to see the speeches this week. And Mitt Romney's going to have to sell himself to the crowd if he wants the nomination.

And if Syria flares up, suddenly we move from the economy to foreign affairs. What's the arrangement there?

O'BRIEN: Yes, we're watching Syria as well.

Thank you gentlemen. I appreciate your time this morning.

It is time for "CNN NEWSROOM" with Kyra Phillips. I'll see everybody back here at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. Have a great day.