Return to Transcripts main page


New Details On Houston Funeral Plans; "Snipers On Every Street Corner"; China's Next President To Meet With Obama; GOP Supports Payroll Tax Holiday Extension; Interview with White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske; Santorum Leading Romney in Michigan; Houston's Family Plans Funeral; Syrian Forces Shell Homs

Aired February 14, 2012 - 06:00   ET



ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you, everyone. It is one minute past the hour. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z. Let's get started here. Shall we?

Whitney Houston's body is back home in New Jersey. Questions are still lingering about the drugs at the scene and whether that is what killed her.

BANFIELD: And also we have new video in this morning, the shelling in Syria, which just seems relentless. We, on the other hand, have been able to get a crew into this area, obviously a very dangerous mission for us.

But our CNN group is taking shelter in a safe house in the Homs area and reporting back to us that this country, if not already in full-scale civil war, is certainly headed that way.

SAMBOLIN: China's president in waiting is meeting with President Obama today. The stakes are high, like the global economy. We're going to have a live report from the White House.

BANFIELD: And Mitt Romney getting a bit nervous about his home state. I'm telling you. I said home state, Michigan. He's worried about the numbers in Michigan and his "Super PAC" is showing its concern by pumping the cash to the tune of almost a million dollars into that state. We'll let you know what's up.

SAMBOLIN: And we have exclusive new details on the funeral plans for Whitney Houston. A family friend tells CNN exclusively that her funeral will likely be held Friday. Houston's body is now back in Newark, New Jersey, that is her hometown.

Friends and family including ex-husband, Bobby Brown, are said to be there as well. The funeral is expected to be held at the Prudential Center, which seats around 20,000 people.

BANFIELD: Also, we've got new details this morning about the investigation into her death. The police now say that Houston was found submerged in the water of her bathtub.

The coroner is confirming that prescription medications were found in her hotel room although telling our CNN's Don Lemon that there weren't as many as most people are making it out to be. In fact, even saying I've got more prescription medication at my home.

Deb Feyerick is live now in Newark, New Jersey with the very latest. You've had a chance to speak exclusively with a friend of the family. What's happening, Deb, in terms of the plans to memorialize Whitney Houston here in New Jersey?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ashleigh and Zoraida, it's going to be big. They're doing it at the Prudential Center. It seats about 18,000 people.

Interestingly, while the New Hope Baptist Church was a huge part of Whitney Houston's life, it's where she learned how to sing, she was in the junior choir there. Her mom was the choir director, very big part of her life.

They will probably do a service, but the expectation is that so many people will want to come, that they've had to open it up to a larger venue. That's why it will likely be at the Prudential Center.

We did speak to a friend of the family earlier today, somebody who is very close to the family. And he says that while there's been a lot of talk about drug abuse, he says that there were no hard drugs. That Whitney Houston had been clean for about three years. There was no marijuana, no cocaine.

She was taking medications, however, for a throat infection. Also, she suffered from anxiety and had trouble sleeping. Those were the medications that were found in her room. And she went to take a bath.

The friend believes if she did have some of those drugs perhaps the sedation was just too much in combination with the hot water. We do know that when the casket arrived here late yesterday that it was greeted by her mother, Cissy Houston as well as her aunt, Dione Borwick.

The mom clearly very overwhelmed with everything that has happened over the last couple of days, but remaining strong. Her friends saying her faith is really getting her through this. As for questions about Whitney Houston, had she been drinking?

The friend said that it wasn't uncommon that Whitney would take a drink but again, she really felt that she was in a very good place in her life. She had reconnected with God, the God that she knew as a teenager in her church.

She had also -- and her career was on the mend. She was doing the movie. So there were a lot of good things. And she told a friend before she left two weeks ago, the last time he saw her. She said that, you know, she was happy, she was at a very good place -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Just one quick question. I know Bobby Brown. There were all of these pictures of him arriving in California. He jumped off of his concert tour to go to be with his daughter, Bobbi Christina.

And now we're hearing that he is actually where you are. He's arrived in New Jersey. Do we have any idea about Whitney and Bobby's daughter, and where she might be?

FEYERICK: Well, according to the friend, Bobbi Christina, the daughter is in the care of her grandmother, Cissy Houston as well as in the care of her father. Her father does have a home here in New Jersey, but it's not clear whether he is there or staying with the grandmother as well.

Clearly in the end, his place he realized is with his daughter. What the friend told me is that, you know, look, Bobby Brown had faults, sure, but he was a good father and he was a very loving husband. While the relationship was complicated, they loved each other.

BANFIELD: Deb Feyerick live for us in Newark, New Jersey. Thanks for that.

SAMBOLIN: It's 6 minutes past the hour. Switching gears here, we're getting reports of more heavy shelling and loud explosions in the Syrian city of Homs this morning. Government forces killed 30 more civilians today, children among them. Nearly 700 were killed last week.

BANFIELD: Also, our Arwa Damon has been -- look at those pictures. It's hard to believe that Arwa Damon was able to make her way into Syria. This as tanks line the streets, civilians often being used as human shields on those tanks.

Because of the precarious situation with security there, we can't disclose what Arwa Damon's location is. The situation is very tense though according to Arwa. Everyone in Syria expecting if it's not already there, they're headed for full-scale civil war.


ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The area where the government crackdown is at its worst, people say that there are snipers positioned on every single street, corner.

You can hardly cross the main thoroughfare without coming across government snipers. Of course, they have all the tanks at the government checkpoints.

It's an incredibly intense situation here and it's also incredibly emotional. Anger is running at an all-time high, as is frustration and desperation.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BANFIELD: And obviously with the failure of the U.N. to reach some kind of, you know, meaningful action against the Assad regime, they're kind of going at it again.

At least trying to craft some kind of resolution to condemn what's going on. But it's unclear if or when it might be ready or -- and here's the bigger part, if it's going to have any impact at all.

SAMBOLIN: You wonder what the transition is in order to say it is a full-scale war because those images are just unbelievable.

BANFIELD: You know, it's hard to say because we can barely get people in there to do independent reporting. But so far this has been so focused on Homs.

And whether that is just a crackdown of the regime in one area and who they deem to be terrorists as they call it or whether it's going to be something that now involve a barrage of artillery who comes right back out.

SAMBOLIN: Some reports in the neighboring communities, also, there's been quite unrest.

BANFIELD: I think the issue with war is that up until now this has been so peaceful. I mean, these people were marching through the Streets and getting attacked. You can't call that a war.

But when they start arming themselves and saying, you know what, peaceful or not, we now have to protect our citizens. So it's now us against them and that's where you start getting to the warful situation.

SAMBOLIN: We're going to continue to follow that for you. It's 8 minutes past the hour here. President Obama, Vice President Biden will meet at the White House this morning with the next president of China.

Xi Jinping arrived in the U.S. yesterday. The global economy and human rights are on the agenda. China's vice president and president in waiting might even take in a Lakers game before heading home, we understand.

Our Dan Lothian live at the White House. So we hear that the Chinese vice president is described as self confident, gregarious even westernized in his way, but we also hear reports that there are protests perhaps waiting for his visit.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I mean we saw some of the protests outside the White House yesterday, Tibetan activists with signs, saying free Tibet, 200 or 300 or so, who were outside of the White House.

So we expect we will see more of that not only here, but as vice president makes his trip across the United States this week. This is the kind of thing that has been embarrassing to Chinese officials in the past.

And so no doubt U.S. officials are hoping it will be minimized somewhat. But nonetheless, the freedom to protest here, unlike in their own country, so you can expect that happening as well.

SAMBOLIN: Outside of that Lakers game that I just talked about, what's on the agenda?

LOTHIAN: Well, of course, that meeting that you folks pointed out here with the vice president and the president in the oval office. Also, he'll be stopping in at the State Department for a lunch there, meeting with Pentagon officials, meeting with business officials as well who have concerns about trade issues.

He'll be heading to Iowa where the focus we're told will be more on agricultural issues and then out to the west coast where he will be visiting a school in California, but also there is that report that he could be taking in a Lakers game as well.

He's apparently a fan of the NBA and so a big trip here in the United States. It's really a chance to sort of relationship build between potential -- the next potential leader of China, but also a chance for him to flex his muscles and show and boost his political standing at home in China as well.

SAMBOLIN: All right, Dan Lothian live at the White House for us. Thank you.

BANFIELD: So interesting how his rein compares to Hu Jintao's rein and whether there will be that much of a difference in these two leaders and whether we will be able to make inroads in China as well.

SAMBOLIN: Well, they say he's very different, but still a prickly relationship. So we'll see.

BANFIELD: I love the fact that he spent time in jail. I mean, it's just so bizarre to think that a leader of China was once in jail.

Still ahead, payroll tax cut. I know you've been waiting on it and there's a big compromise. It could mean the holiday for you continues, but strings attached or new strings attached? That's the big question and Christine Romans is going to be able to answer it.

SAMBOLIN: Supreme Court justices running with machete wielding man. We're going to have the details on that story for you, bizarre story.

BANFIELD: Almost like it's a Hollywood script, but it's not. Rob Marciano has the travel forecast for us this morning. Hello, Rob.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, guys and happy Valentine's Day once again. In the spirit of the holiday, the east of the Mississippi, it's kind of nasty. It's kind of a stay in bed kind of day. From Atlanta back to South Georgia all of the way up towards the northeast, this is rain, a cold rain. Temps in the 30s mixing in with a little bit of sleet at times. Snow around Cincinnati, around the Ohio River, this is heading towards New York, but it's pretty much falling apart.

It's just kind of a gray, gloomy day. Temperatures will be warming up across I-95 and accumulations, not a ton. We are looking at fog from Dallas to Houston to San Antonio and Austin, travel delays there and traveling through the airports.

And some low clouds in New York and Philly, Atlanta, Cleveland and San Francisco, too. That's a quick check on weather. EARLY START is coming right back.


SAMBOLIN: It's 15 minutes past the hour. It's time to check the stories that are making news this morning.

Whitney Houston's body arrived home last night in Newark, New Jersey. The plans are not confirmed, but family members are reportedly discussing a memorial service on Thursday with a funeral on Friday, possibly at the 18,000-seat Prudential Center Arena.

And activist organization is telling CNN that the Syrian government forces have been shelling Homs since 6:00 A.M. local time with at least six deaths reported so far. One activist describing this as the heaviest shelling in the last five days, this as the U.N. works on a resolution to condemn the Assad regime.

BANFIELD: The New Jersey State Senate has approved a measure that would legalize same-sex marriage in that state. The assembly there is going to vote on Thursday, but the Governor Chris Christie has already said if it gets to his desk his plans are to veto it.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer usually dealing with issues with regard to the law, now becoming a victim of crime. He was robbed last week in his Caribbean vacation home in Nevis by an intruder wielding a machete. Justice Breyer was not hurt, but the suspect did take about $1,000 in cash and is still somewhere out there on the loose.

And the search for the literal top dog gets underway in New York tonight. Two thousand well-healed canines representing 185 dog breeds are competing to be called Best in Show at this year's Westminster Kennel Club at Madison Square Garden. It is a show to behold if you've never been and it is a lot of fun.

SAMBOLIN: I've never been.

BANFIELD: I've been.

SAMBOLIN: I always watch the -- oh, have you, really? BANFIELD: I always get such a kick out of the way the handlers run.


BANFIELD: I'm always watching them. I'm not watching the dog. Have you ever seen the movie "Best In Show"?


BANFIELD: You've got to see it. It gives you a whole new insight and perspective on the -- on dog shows.

SAMBOLIN: On the dog handling.

All right, 17 minutes past the hour. Still ahead, investigators now in China looking into alleged Apple sweatshops.

BANFIELD: And also, something you don't hear every day, some progress in the nation's capital.


BANFIELD: Wake up, I did say it, truly. You're not -- you're not half asleep. The payroll tax holiday that you've been enjoying might actually continue. And you know what? There may not be the strings attached that have been bogging everybody down in Congress. We'll explain.


SAMBOLIN: Twenty-one minutes past the hour. We are "Minding Your Business" this morning.

U.S. stock markets closing higher yesterday. The Dow, NASDAQ, S&P 500, that's the best indicator, you know, for stocks and your 401(k). All of them making gains.

BANFIELD: Which is always good news. And here's some more good news for your finances.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have decided not the fight --


BANFIELD: -- certain areas -- yes -- that extension on the payroll tax holiday.

Christine Romans has been sorting through all the red tape and the fine details of it. So I guess the question is, you know, not everybody necessarily will benefit from that. I think President Obama didn't want to let the wealthiest Americans continue with the tax holiday, but for the rest of everybody, they're basically going to keep the money that -- excuse me -- keep the money they've been getting up until now, Christine? CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Right. And this is -- this is House Republicans signaling that they're not going to fight, you know, having to find a way to pay for it.

Look, I mean, politically it's very difficult. It would be raising taxes on 160 million working Americans if you didn't extend this payroll tax holiday. The president wants to make it permanent, of course. That's what he said yesterday in his budget.

But House Republicans at least according to "Washington Post" are signaling that they're ready to drop that fight. But just make it separate. Make this payroll tax holiday extension completely separate from some of the other things they're fighting about like extending jobless benefits and some other measures.

So how much would it be? Well, for somebody earning $50,000 a year, it would be keeping $40 in your paycheck. Last year, this was a payroll tax holiday that was enacted. This year there have been these short extensions.

Congress is out, you guys, the week of February 20th. It's in recess. So they've got to figure out how to -- whether they're going to fix this and do it quickly. Oh, my computer is beeping.

SAMBOLIN: I was just going to tell you your alert.

BANFIELD: Your alert is there to tell you whether they've come to some resolution on that if you want to check it.

SAMBOLIN: OK. Christine, I got this next story here that I'm kind of excited about and I think most of my girlfriends would be. Today is Valentine's Day.


SAMBOLIN: And a new survey out that says if you own a home, you've got a better chance of pairing up. I think all my girlfriends would agree, right?

ROMANS: I couldn't believe this. Because, you know, so many people are thinking about renting now instead of buying because of the way the housing market is. But Harris Interactive and on behalf of Trulia, a real estate website, surveyed 1,000 single people and found that a third of women prefer to date a homeowner. Only like two or three percent of women said that they would prefer to date a renter. For men, it's about 18 percent. So clearly it's more important for women than men.

Also, what was interesting in this survey, in light of, you know, honor of Valentine's Day, apparently hot tubs just don't do it for people anymore. They don't -- no one cares if you have a hot tub. It's not up there on the -- on the priority list for what you want in a --

BANFIELD: It's going the way of the water bed, is that what you're saying?

ROMANS: Apparently, apparently. So if you're thinking of investing in a hot tub to improve your dating -- your dating potential and the value of your home, according to this survey, it's probably not a good investment. The hot tub industry is going to get mad at me now.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, no. Don't worry about it. But the home ownership, right, it shows that the person has a job, right, and is responsible, paying their mortgage, right?

ROMANS: Totally. And also they asked about those people who are moving home after college because they can't get a job. Apparently no one wants to date somebody who is living with mom and dad.


ROMANS: I'm going to tweet this on So follow me on Twitter. I'm going to retweet this, because anybody who is looking for a date tonight wants to read this story on CNNMoney.

BANFIELD: And, you know, anybody who's looking for a date with like Ron Burgundy likes a hot tub. That's all I'm going to say on that one. Christine, thanks.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you.

BANFIELD: Still ahead on EARLY START, we're continuing to follow that huge story out of California which has now progressed to the East Coast, it's Whitney Houston, her body is returning back to her home State of New Jersey. This is the hearse bringing her body back to the funeral home. Word now coming about a possible memorial service and funeral plans for Whitney and also the latest on just what might have caused her death.

SAMBOLIN: And Team Romney now reeling. Is he losing in home state? New polls are out. Can a Super PAC help him buy Michigan? You're watching EARLY START.

BANFIELD: The answer is yes, if Florida is any indication.

SAMBOLIN: I know. But he only has two weeks.


ELLIE KRIEGER, DIETITIAN/HOST OF "HEALTHY APPETITE": Hi, I'm Ellie Krieger. I'm a nutritionist, cookbook author and a TV show host and I'm on the road about 100 days out of the year.

Usually when I'm on the road I don't cook. So that's like my time away from the kitchen. So it's actually kind of refreshing. I absolutely would not travel without my sneakers.

I try to stay in a hotel that's in an area that I can do some walking. It's really fun to explore more different food around the country. One of the first things I do is kind of tweet out to my tweets I'm in, you know, Austin, where should I go for dinner and I wind up getting these great responses.

This is my survival kit. I always make a batch of my own energy bars. I think a lot of people feel really frustrated and feel like they're not able to eat well on the road.

Let go of the idea of being perfect. I think very often people think perfect or bust. All right, I can't have my normal oatmeal. I'm going to have a 1,200 calorie cinnamon bun. So just think about making good choices and don't worry about being perfect.

Happy, healthy living.



BANFIELD: And a very good morning to you, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

It is 29 minutes past the hour. Time to check the stories that are making news this morning.

Whitney Houston's body has arrived home in New Jersey where she will be buried later this week. Investigators are now playing down the amount of prescription drugs that were reportedly found in the hotel room where she died.

And rumblings of total war as violence spread in Syria. The opposition saying 30 more civilians were killed yesterday, including children, on top of close to 700 that were killed last week.

And the man in line to be China's next president will meet with President Obama today. Xi Jinping is set to take over as president of China in March of 2013.

BANFIELD: Here's something you don't hear very often. There may be hope for a spring thaw between the United States and North Korea. State Department says the U.S. envoy is going to hold talks with them over the nuclear program. This is supposed to happen next week in Beijing and these are the first talks since the death of Kim Jong Il, the late leader of that country.

Apple says unprecedented inspections are now under way at manufacturing facilities in southern China where workers put together iPhones and iPads. They're investigating reports of sweatshop like conditions at the plants that have led to some suicides among the workers there.

And help wanted, the FAA says they're in desperate need of air traffic controllers, especially at one of the busiest airports, DFW, Dallas-Ft. Worth. Apparently, a new report says 65 percent of the controllers are eligible for retirement. So, they need some people to fill those spots and fast.

SAMBOLIN: Not a bad place to live, either.

BANFIELD: Love Dallas, Texas. Great place.

SAMBOLIN: So, we had exclusive new details about Whitney Houston's use of prescription drugs. A family friend tells CNN exclusively that Houston was taking various medications for anxiety, sleep, and to treat an infection in her throat. A coroner has confirmed Houston did have prescription pills in her hotel room but says not many, only the amount that you would find in your own medicine cabinet.

And meantime, authorities are waiting on the toxicology results. And that could take up to eight weeks, maybe longer than that. Until then, it is unclear if Houston's death was drug related.

But she has been forthcoming at her battles with addiction in the past.

And joining us now is a head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske.

Thank you for joining us this morning. We really appreciate it.

I want to stress again that we don't know the exact cause of Whitney Houston's death. But we saw the reports there. It says that pills were found in her hotel room.

And I have to tell you, you feel when, you know, perhaps she had an alcohol problem mixed with pills, it's kind of common sense that you don't do those two things together because it could cause death. But you say that this still is a teachable moment. What do you mean by that?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE, WHITE HOUSE DRUG CZAR: Well, I think that any time there is a terrible tragedy like this and the person has been public about dealing particularly with prescription drugs, it helps us recognize in this country that the prescription drug problem is a significant problem, not only to the individuals affected and we have over 15,000 deaths. We have literally many more people that are taken to emergency departments.

And people don't often recognize the dangers of prescription drugs because they think they're safe.

SAMBOLIN: Now, we have reports here that the numbers have actually tripled in the past decade. Why do you think there's such a rapid increase?

KERLIKOWSKE: There are a couple of reasons. One is that there has been a real proliferation of these pill mills. And although the state of Florida, which was kind of the epicenter of pill mills and doctor shopping and over prescribing, has been literally shut down, we also know that people get these from family and friends.

And so, we have to do a much better job of cleaning out our medicine cabinets in a safe way and in an environmentally conscious way, and we're working on that.

SAMBOLIN: We know that with Michael Jackson's death this was very serious problem, especially for controlled substances. And I understand if a doctor is going to prescribe something, a controlled substance, there's a DEA number that has to be used. Is that in order to track controlled substances to a particular patient? And in a case like this, do you do that?

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, the DEA number is one that is given to that individual physician. And so, they have to have that license in order to be able to prescribe particularly these more powerful and addictive substances.

What we have in all but two states now are something called prescription drug monitoring programs. These are electronic databases, and they allow boards of licensure, for instance, to look at doctors who may be over-prescribing. More importantly, as doctors tell me, they're a patient safety tool because they can look and see if there are patients who are, in fact, doctor shopping.

SAMBOLIN: Is it a requirement that doctors do that? Because in the case of somebody like Whitney Houston, a celebrity, right, wouldn't you think a doctor would be looking to see what has been prescribed to her by another physician, perhaps, because she has admitted that she has a problem?

KERLIKOWSKE: Yes. The state of California has one of the best PDMP monitoring programs. What we need to do is to encourage -- it's not mandatory use, but we need to encourage more physicians and more of their staff to use these.

These are designed individually by the states. They include patient and doctor confidentiality issues. So, they really are a great patient safety tool when used.

SAMBOLIN: And I want to deal with kids in particular because this is a growing problem also among adolescents, that they have access to their parents' drugs. And after marijuana, prescription and over the counter drugs are the most abused in high school students.

What can we do to protect the kids?

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, the first thing we can do is recognize that most of the young people who do experiment with these prescription drugs get them with a family or friend, not from a prescription. We know that whether it's a grandparent or a parent, that what is in that medicine cabinet can be actually not only addictive but quite dangerous. So, we have to work very hard to clean out those medicine cabinets.

And you know a lot of people don't like to do that. But it should be a clue to the country that when realtors are telling people when they have an open house for sale, that they should lock up their medicine cabinet as jewelry, that tells you the problem of prescription drugs in this country.

SAMBOLIN: Wow. You know, I have to ask you one last question. If somebody is watching right now and we know that Cissy Houston actually had an intervention for her daughter, what advice would you give to somebody who knows that their loved one is going down that same road?

KERLIKOWSKE: Well, the first thing they need is solid information. Oftentimes, they suspect or they're concerned, but maybe they close their mind or maybe they close their ears because they just don't know. And on the Health and Human Services Web site and also on our Website,, we have information.

And, you know, that's what parents and teachers faith-based teachers and leaders need if they suspect there is a problem because they need to be able to deal with it. And without solid fact-based information, it makes it really hard for them.

SAMBOLIN: Gil Kerlikowske, White House drugs czar -- thank you so much for getting up early this morning.


BANFIELD: So if you're a candidate trying to seize the Republican nomination, you go state to state, you try to win the delegates, and you figure you've got a lock on your home state, right?


BANFIELD: Not so much. Mitt Romney is reeling. Apparently there are bad numbers coming from his home state of Michigan.

So, can money make all the difference? You'll find out.

You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: That is "Home" -- Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

I said you all are going to teach me a thing or two about music here.

BANFIELD: I've never heard of that song in my life. I'm sorry. It sounded a little like Lou Reed to me. I would have gotten that wrong.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Forty minutes past the hour here.

His father was governor and he was born and raised there. But Michigan is not feeling like home for Mitt Romney.

BANFIELD: Primary is in two weeks, folk, and you think he's got a lock on this one? But there's been a stress probably flying through the Romney camp and the super PAC is digging one, the one that supports him, throwing in a half million bucks plus into Michigan for ads there.

Here's why -- the latest American Research Group poll shows this. Romney is trailing Santorum in Michigan 33-27. If you do the math, that's about six points. And if you look teeny-weeny print there suggests the margin of error is just four points.

So, yes, he's losing officially.

Live in Washington to talk about this is Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. Also, David Drucker joins us live from -- he's from "Roll Call." He's a political reporter with "Roll Call." And here in New York, Gretchen Hamel is the executive director of Public Notice.

Guys, I could not believe it when I saw those numbers. I was trying to figure out what it was. Was it the momentum from what happened in those last three states? It couldn't have been what happened in CPAC.

So, let me just ask you, Gretchen, what is at play with that latest poll number?

GRETCHEN HAMEL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE PUBLIC NOTICE: Well, you have to look back at the last election and what happened last time in the primary in Michigan. And you have Romney that won Michigan. He didn't win it because it was his home state. He won it because he was the conservative alternative to then John McCain.

Now, he's not the conservative alternative. He's the middle of the road guy.

BANFIELD: Conservative alternative, and even though he used the severely alternative phrase, I would have thought that would have harnessed all of those conservatives right back up for him.

HAMEL: No, unfortunately not.

BANFIELD: Why not? Why not? Just finish that thought. Why didn't that severely conservative phrase work?

HAMEL: I think just because of the contrast that you're seeing play out in the primary right now. You have the contrast of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum which are more conservative than Mitt Romney.

BANFIELD: Now we're hearing about the super PAC that supports Mitt Romney just funneling the dough into Michigan. I don't know whether this was preplanned or whether they're in panic mode or what's happening.

But at last, I think at last count we were right around $890,000 in ads that were being purchased for Michigan. But here's the weird thing and I don't get this. David Drucker, maybe you can weigh in on it. I hear all the negative ads are geared at Newt Gingrich. That doesn't seem to be the problem here. Newt doesn't seem to be the issue.

Why are the ads focusing on him?

DAVID DRUCKER, POLITICAL REPORTER, ROLL CALL: Yes, I don't know. It is a little odd. But it's not surprising that super PACs are playing a role in the states that we're now headed into. You've got Michigan. It's going to be contested. They played a huge role in the states that came before.

Santorum has a super PAC. Romney has super PAC. Newt had a super PAC that's no longer has its main funder.

BANFIELD: Sheldon Adelson is out? Did you just make news there? Did I miss something?

DRUCKER: I didn't make no -- look, I'd love to take credit. But this has been reported. Sheldon Adelson, at least for now, has stopped writing checks.

But I think, look, I think what you're going to see in Michigan is a very closely contested race. There's two weeks to go. I think both the Romney and Santorum campaigns are going to have the ads there. You're going to see a lot of campaigning.

And as we've seen with every primary contest so far, the winner coming out of election day has had a lot of momentum in the polls both in the states to come and nationally. The polling we're seeing now took place last week before CPAC in Maine, whether or not that makes a difference. And we're going to have two elections on the 28th, both Arizona and Michigan.

BANFIELD: So, I think what I'm hearing --

DRUCKER: And you could split the difference and head into super Tuesday, March 6th, really being I guess next big decider in the race.

BANFIELD: OK. All right. I always like when someone invokes the old work decider. It's one of the things from our last administration.

Let me move on to you, Maria Cardona. And that is on this issue, the "National Review," a conservative publication, calling for Newt to drop out.

And here's the actual wording, at least part of it. "When he led Santorum in the polls, he urged the Pennsylvanian to leave the race. On his own arguments, the proper course for him now is to endorse Santorum and to exit."

Maria, you've been watching this as closely as the rest of us. How fair is it to say that when this has been the craziest race in terms of the roller coaster we've all been on. I mean, Newt was out, down and out. The staff was jumping ship. Then, he was back on top. Now, he's down and out a little. Is it fair to say jump ship because you're just down and out again?

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, what we've seen about Newt Gingrich is that he's the Lazarus of politics. We keep -- BANFIELD: Nicely done. Nicely --

CARDONA: Thank you. But, unfortunately, words do come back to bite you sometimes, and it's tough medicine when folks use your own words, your own conservative groups that you think that you're carrying the banner for them use your own words against you. But look, this is what Mitt Romney, I think, is looking to do.

To make sure that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum remain in the race, because as long as both of them do, they split that conservative vote which Mitt Romney will never be able to get until he supposedly becomes a nominee. And it will continue to split that vote and give him the advantage.

And I think in terms of Michigan, in terms of what has happened to Romney, when he makes comments like making sure that he is against the auto bailout and being on the side of letting the auto industry go bankrupt in Michigan, those kinds of comments do not resonate with the blue collar workers who are there.

BANFIELD: You know what --


BANFIELD: -- not before I fight you on that one because he kind of said everybody in the mortgage crisis should just bail. And in Florida, the worst place in the planet right now for mortgage crisis and people under water. He won. He won that state, even though --

CARDONA: That's exactly right. But look at what's happening in Michigan, and this is something that Santorum and Newt Gingrich can use against him.

BANFIELD: All right. I (INAUDIBLE). Maria Cardona, David Drucker, Gertchen Hamel, thank you. Thank you to all three of you. I appreciate it.

CARDONA: Thanks so much.


SAMBOLIN: It is 46 minutes past the hour. Time to check stories making news this morning.


SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Whitney Houston's family is talking about holding a memorial service on Thursday with a funeral on Friday, possibly at the Prudential Center in Newark. It holds almost 20,000 people.

Syrian forces resuming their shelling of Homs in the last few hours as the U.N. works on a resolution to condemn the Assad regime.

House republicans reversing their position and agreeing to extend the payroll tax cut without demanding spending cuts to offset the cost.


BANFIELD: He thinks that might be a subject for Soledad O'Brien to tackle on her program as she comes up next.


BANFIELD: Yes. I'll bet.

O'BRIEN: We have so much to do. Of course, we're going to talk about the death of Whitney Houston. We're going to talk to Gloria Stephan. If you remember, the two of them, really, in the 1980s were rivals for topping the charts. We'll chat with her this morning as she comes and joins us on the set.

Also, we'll be talking about China's next leader. He's going to be meeting with President Obama this morning. The president has been talking very tough on China lately. Interested in seeing how that tough talk is going to translate there. Talk to the author of a book called "The Coming Collapse of China."

Senator Pat Toomey is going to join us, talking about the Obama budget this morning.

All that and much more -- my favorite story of the morning. Did you hear about this cheerleading coach who called her cheerleaders a bunch of heifers?

BANFIELD: No! What?! What?!


SAMBOLIN: You're going to bring that story.

O'BRIEN: Yes. The budget, the president's budget and the cheerleading heifer story, all on "STARTING POINT" at the top of the hour. Commercial back and to you guys right after this.


BANFIELD: Yes, that is David Bowie's "Fashion." Not his best, but you know, a classic.

SAMBOLIN: Very appropriate.

BANFIELD: Very appropriate for this next one because New York original is making some big old headlines again at New York's fashion week and not just for her designs.

SAMBOLIN: No. Alina Cho sat down with Donna Karan.


ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The reining queen of 7th Avenue, she's been called America's Coco Chanel. Donna Karan is not just a designer, she's a one-woman empire.

(on-camera) You failed at draping?


CHO: How is that possible?

KARAN: You've got to fail to move forward.

CHO (voice-over): In the early days, Karan trained under women's sportswear pioneer, Anne Klein. In 1985, the now 63-year-old designer launched her own label, Donna Karan New York, a global empire that today includes DKNY, men's wear, fragrance, home, and a separate company, Urban Zen, a socially conscious line. More than 100 stores worldwide and more than $2 billion a year in retail sales.

KARAN: You know, I started as a dream.

CHO (on-camera): But did you ever think?

KARAN: No, because I started Donna Karan. I wanted to design seven easy pieces that were just for me and my friends, and that's the truth. And then, all of a sudden, everybody wanted them.

CHO (voice-over): Seven easy pieces that women could easily mix and match.

KARAN: Oh, my God! I'm working and I have to go out. And I have to pack. How do I pack? What do I need, you know? How do I make it simple?

CHO: She has a legion of celebrity fans, including Hillary Clinton. She advised President Clinton on the campaign trail, and when he won, he wore a Donna Karan suit to his first inauguration.

KARAN: I have a crush on him. I mean, President Clinton has been so supportive, but he is my inspiration.

CHO: One of the big reasons Karan decided designing just wasn't enough.

KARAN: With the world that we're living with today and you talk about dressing, I can no longer just dress. It was dressing and addressing. The healthcare problem or educational problem, the cultural problems, the impoverished lands of people.

CHO: Like Haiti. Since the earthquake in 2010, Karan has visited Haiti numerous times and makes it a point to go back at least about once a month. Karan supports Haitian artisans, helping them market their products by selling them in her Urban Zen stores.

KARAN: A 100 percent of the profits all goes back to the Haitian artisans. So, not only are we buying product from Haiti, but we're also foundationally giving all the money back to Haiti.

CHO (on-camera): What are you getting out of it, then? KARAN: My heart. Serving my heart and everybody else because they really do need help and support.


CHO: That part of what she does is just so amazing. You know, in fact, just after Karan showed her latest fall collection at fashion week yesterday, I asked her, now what are you going to do? And she said, I'm going to Haiti. And I said to her, don't you need a break? Don't you want to rest?

And she said, Haiti is my break. But you know what's extraordinary about what she does in Haiti is she has such a keen eye for design that she can go in there and talk to those Haitian artisans, and say, you know what, that's a great product. It's not going to sell.


CHO: I think you should tweak it this way. She buys it. She sells them in her Urban Zen stores and, and as you heard, gives back 100 percent of the profits.

SAMBOLIN: That is shocking, right? I mean, oftentimes, they'll get a percentage, but 100 percent of the profits.

CHO: It's extraordinary.

SAMBOLIN: Incredible.

CHO: I mean, you see how passionate she is about it.

BANFIELD: I've already seen two people wearing the Urban Zen clothes, and I commented on them because they were so unique, and now, I feel like I should buy something of hers just because she's so --

CHO: Well, I'll tell Donna, and she'll be very happy.

SAMBOLIN: Nice and different angle that you don't normally hear. Thank you for that.

CHO: You bet.

SAMBOLIN: All right. And do not miss Alina's special this weekend, "Fashion: Backstage Pass" that airs this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. eastern, 11:30 a.m. pacific on CNN. We'll be right back.


BANFIELD: That is EARLY START, folks, the news from A to Z. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien right now.