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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Remembering Whitney Houston; Iran Halts Oil Shipments to U.K., France; Iran-U.N. Nuclear Talks; Poll: Santorum Up By Eight

Aired February 20, 2012 - 05:00   ET

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


ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. And welcome to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everybody. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

We're bringing you the news from A to Z. It's 5:00 a.m., really early, in the East. So, let's get started.

The big funeral over the weekend drew a lot of attention. It drew a lot of television coverage. And one CNN television producer was the only TV producer invited to Whitney Houston's funeral from any network.

So, we'll have not only the inside look, but also the explanation from Bobby Brown as to why he bailed on the ceremony.

SAMBOLIN: Did you hear about the deadly avalanche near a ski resort in Washington state? Skiers buried in snow after falling 1,500 feet. There were warnings of high avalanche danger. They were not supposed to be in that area. And reports are that it was an out-of- bounds area that they were skiing in.

We have all the details of that deadly avalanche coming up.

BANFIELD: Also, the polls just keep coming in on his side. You might call it the Santorum surprise. He's opened up an eight-point lead right across the nation in a brand new nationwide poll. But does it mean what some people think it means? Or is it a blip? We'll talk about it.

SAMBOLIN: And Mardi Gras is getting an R rating. They are attempting to enforce a curfew for kids under 16 in the French Quarter.

How are they going to accomplish that? We're going to try to find that out.

BANFIELD: I always thought Mardi Gras was R rated. Isn't it?

SAMBOLIN: Yes, kind of. I wonder how they'll keep those kids out though. How do you do that with the volumes of people?

BANFIELD: I just know I wouldn't want my kids out there.

SAMBOLIN: I wouldn't either.

BANFIELD: But there is different issue that's being bandied about that is creating quite a stir.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, yes.

BANFIELD: All right. So, let's move on to our first story of the day, it's Whitney Houston's journey home as it's being called, ending Sunday with that private burial in New Jersey. She was laid to rest at the plot next to her father. It was the cemetery in Westfield, New Jersey, that was actually listed on her death certificate.

SAMBOLIN: The private moment following the so-called home going service, that's what they called it on Saturday. Our CNN producer Raelyn Johnson was at the funeral. She had an up close and personal view.

Raelyn, I've got to tell you. We all watched it at home as a family. Incredibly moving.

What was it like to be there in person?

RAELYN JOHNSON, CNN PRODUCER: Really there are no words to describe it, but to say that for many of us, it felt like three hours of church on a Saturday morning. Now, I go to a Baptist church. My brother is a reverend. So, I know what it feels like. And it felt like church.

We were standing on our feet, singing hymns, clapping, the choir was so moving and inspiring. I have to say, for so long, I didn't realize that it was a funeral because, like you said, it's a home going, it's a celebration of life. You want to send someone off with love and music and song and praise, and that's exactly what it was inside.

And there were so many moments. R. Kelly would sing, Stevie Wonder would sing. The whole entire crowd would be up on their feet as if they were at a concert. It felt more like a concert than it did a funeral.

SAMBOLIN: Raelyn, I want to watch here, a moment from Saturday and then I want to talk about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TYLER PERRY, ACTOR: What I know about her is she loved the lord. And if there was a grace that carried her all the way through, it was the same grace that carried her home.

STEVIE WONDER, MUSICIAN (singing): Who can lose with God on my side, no more Whitney, no more do you have to cry, you will always be our ribbon in the sky --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: This is what we all saw, the millions of viewers. You say that you came back and then you watched it on television the way that we all watched it, and you said it was very different. Could you explain that?

JOHNSON: It was because when you see it on TV, you only get that one shot from the balcony. I was seated about 20 pews back behind the family. And what you didn't get to see is that you didn't get to see Oprah Winfrey walking down the aisle with a faceful of tears. There were people laughing, singing, you know, consoling each other.

But the best thing I personally thought was the music and the way Stevie Wonder, Kim Burrell, Alicia Keys, they sound on TV, there was just no way to describe the warmth and how much everyone was so happy and celebratory and really, really singing to someone, you know, their beloved, you know, the princess of Newark as people know her now. But she was just Whitney Houston to them. She was such -- she is such a big star and will be remembered that way.

But there was a lot of times, I had to pinch myself and say, you know, this is not a concert. It really is Whitney Houston's final goodbye. It's our last chance to say goodbye to her.

SAMBOLIN: You know, you said you were 20 pews behind Cissy. And as we were watching this, this is a sight that we were seeing. Do you recall what was one of the most difficult moments for her?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. It was the moment when the casket was raised by the state troopers, and her song "I Will Always Love You" was playing. The minute they started walking down the aisle at the end of the ceremony, everyone just lost it. Here you see it right here. It was like an audible gasp, the second they hoisted her coffin up.

And you can see some celebrities, you can see Ray J on one side, you know, he grabs the casket for a little bit. But to see Cissy Houston come down that aisle behind her daughter's body completely broken up, I thought to myself, what does it feel like to be her right now, to know that maybe for some time, you've been warning your daughter, her friends and everyone in your church community to pray for her because she's had some struggles in her life, and people always say mothers, parents are not supposed to bury their children.

And that moment really crystallized for me when I saw Cissy Houston being held up by people. I said that's the kind of grief I don't want my mother to feel or anyone. It became so serious and heavy and hard right at that very moment.

SAMBOLIN: I'm going to switch gears here, because it's something everybody is talking about. And that is Bobby Brown ranting about the fact that he was not allowed to sit where he wanted to sit. You were there.

What did you witness?

JOHNSON: Well, I saw Bobby Brown come in the church. He came with only three other people, so contrary to reports, those same four people that you see on your television right now are the same four people that I saw come in the church, including Bobby Brown and with his wife. He came in, walked past the casket, grabbed his wife's hand and walked up the aisle.

When I saw his face, it was completely broken up. I thought, he's just moving to another area of the church. Maybe he's going to the balcony. Some people were up there because they had more privacy.

And I thought Bobby Brown just couldn't handle the service. I think a lot of people sitting in the section around me felt the same way. And had it not been for Twitter reports or a statement released, no one on the inside of that church knew Bobby Brown was having, you know, any sort of drama.

Now, I want to be very clear about something. In this type of church service at a Baptist church, there are strict protocols you need to follow by the reverend. I know this, my brother is the reverend. When you are part of the family in a funeral, you have to process in with the body, or if the body is already there, like it was Whitney Houston, you have to come in after at the family, with the family and then you are seated. First, all the guests are seated. And when the music starts and the family comes and walks down with the body, that is when the ceremony officially begins.

So what I think about Bobby Brown is that if you wanted to sit in the first two or three rows, then you needed to process in properly with the family. And he was not the only celebrity who had musical chairs going on because the more VIPs that arrived, the more police and security teams had to sort of shuffle where people should sit.

SAMBOLIN: So, he wasn't singled out.

JOHNSON: He was not singled out. And I saw that with my own eyes.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Raelyn Johnson, your perspective is just incredible. Thank you for joining us this morning.

JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.

SAMBOLIN: Well, coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, Soledad O'Brien is going to talk to Reverend Jesse Jackson about the funeral and how the Houston family is doing this morning.

BANFIELD: It's eight minutes past 5:00 now.

Every morning, we like to give you an early start to your day by alerting you to news that's happening later, stories just developing now. It's going to be big tonight, though.

Let's start with this. Iran cutting off oil to the U.K. and to France. And the United States urging Israel -- hold off, do not attack. Officials at the U.N. nuclear watchdog are going to begin a second round of meetings with Iranian officials about that country's nuclear program.

The International Atomic Energy Agency made a report warning that it thought Iran could be on its way to developing nuclear weapons.

SAMBOLIN: Senator John McCain is in Egypt, leading a congressional delegation and meeting with the head of the Egyptian military. He will be talking about the case of American workers who were charged with raising illegal foreign funding. McCain says he will be dealing with their case, but also insists -- listen to they -- he is not Bill Richardson and he is not going to negotiate their release.

BANFIELD: And it was 50 years ago today, the world heard the words "Godspeed, John Glenn." President Kennedy uttered those incredible words and John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. That mission lasted about five hours and pulled the United States dead even with the Russians in the space race.

Coming up at 7:40 Eastern, on "STARTING POINT," John Glenn will be here live. NASA facing deep budget cuts and hitching rides with Russia, too, in the space. Do we still have the right stuff?

SAMBOLIN: Three skiers are dead after an avalanche hit a resort in Washington state. All the skiers are accounted for. And authorities say they were well-experienced and well-equipped.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SGT. KATY LARSON, KING COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: At this point, almost all of them, probably up to 12, at some point are buried in the snow. They managed to dig themselves out of the snow. At that point, they look and they find that three of the skiers are suffering from medical issues. They begin CPR and unfortunately they were not able to resuscitate the victims.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: The victims include Jim Jack, head judge for the Free Skiing World Tour. The fourth skier was saved by an inflatable safety device that kept her from going under.

So, that area was out of bounds for skiers at the resort. There was heavy snow that fell in the area overnight, 19 inches in just the past 24 hours.

BANFIELD: It is 10 minutes now past 5:00 on the East Coast. Good chance to check in with Rob Marciano who is keeping an eye on the weather for us.

Hi, Rob.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, guys.

As you mentioned, heavy snow across Snoqualmie Pass, Steven's Pass. It was a separate related avalanche just south of there. So, a dangerous condition over the weekend, an area that with the snowpack that's slowly been building, just east of Seattle, across the Cascades, typically more wet snowpack.

But when you get 14 or 20 inches of snow in this case and the skiers want to get out there and get some of the fresh untouched stuff out of bounds that avalanche danger obviously is on the high side. A little more on the way of precipitation today out west, although most of the heavier stuff is heading south into Sierra Nevadas where they desperately need it.

Speaking of some snowfall, these are numbers out of Virginia and Kentucky yesterday, up to seven inches in some spots. Most of the heavier amounts were in western parts of Virginia. Most of it stayed south of D.C. just pop up that Virginia snow video any time and we'll take a look at it because the snow lovers just want to see it on the bushes, on the roads. Thankfully, it was a Sunday, so the commute around this area, not terrible. But you saw it piling up fairly rapidly.

All right. Here it is on the radar scope as far as where it's heading across the Delmarva and heading out to sea. So, we'll see clearing behind this and travel shouldn't be too much of an issue across the Northeast. Next storm up for grabs is coming into the high plains and out of the Colorado Rockies. Wind gusts with this system as it progresses to the East. East of the Mississippi should be a relatively quiet day after a pretty stormy day yesterday.

BANFIELD: Hi, Rob. You know, I just want to zip back to the avalanche issue for a moment. I'm a back country skier and it's always out of bounds really. A lot of country skiing is out of bounds.

But is this sort of a strange year? I know we've had such a weird winter. Is it a strange year for avalanches as well? Or is that kind of tough to nail down?

MARCIANO: Well, the numbers are about average. But right now, because the snowpack has been building especially in Colorado, it's getting more and more dangerous. We started out slow, but now the snow is beginning to pile up out there.

And, you know, once we hear about it on the news, we think, oh, it's been a bad year. But no, we get many, many deaths every year. They know the risks when they go out there. These guys are prepared. But still, Mother Nature takes hold, and that's a lot of snow, a lot of weight tumbling a long distance. This was long avalanche, over 1,500 feet. So, that's a dangerous situation.

BANFIELD: When it's that big, it doesn't matter if you're wearing those beacons.

MARCIANO: Right.

BANFIELD: Beacons are only as good as people who can dig you out. If you're too far down and too buried, you know?

All right. Rob, thank you for that.

MARCIANO: Thanks.

SAMBOLIN: And minding your business, now U.S. markets are closed for Presidents Day today. The Dow closed at the highest level since May 2008 on Friday. It's about 15 points shy of that 1,300 benchmark level. Investors are hoping to continue those strong gains from last week when the markets reopen tomorrow.

BANFIELD: Alison Kosik is minding our business, filling in for Christine Romans this morning.

So, I get really tired of saying this over and over again. But wow -- I know, Greece is the word.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Meeting again, I know.

BANFIELD: Here's the thing, I also not just hear about Greece all the time, but I hear Greece is on the verge of default all the time. Now, we're getting closer to that reality?

KOSIK: Yes. And we -- you know what? We really are getting closer to that if you put your faith into all those leaders that are meeting today. You know, what happens in Greece doesn't stay in Greece anymore.

And what happened last week was this big meeting was supposed to happen on Wednesday. That was delayed because Greece needed to continue making more cuts, pay cuts, job cuts, pension cuts. So, it went back to the table and then said, OK, we're going to meet Monday.

So, that brings us to today. If it's not Monday, there wouldn't be a Greece meeting. So we have this meeting happening today because there's this big effort to keep Greece from defaulting on its debt.

On March 20th, Greece owes this big bond payment. It's ultimately trying to get this $170 billion bailout. And we don't really want Greece to default because we can see how its issue can spread to other countries in Europe like Portugal and Italy, and that could cause a slowdown in the E.U.

And we care here in the U.S. if the E.U. slows down because the E.U., the European Union, is one of our biggest trading partners. If the E.U. stops buying products from the U.S., that could, in turn, hurt us. So, that is why all eyes today, even though the markets are closed, all eyes today are going to be on these Greek meetings starting in about four hours, 9:30 Eastern Time.

BANFIELD: Are we going to have the same conversation tomorrow?

KOSIK: Most likely, yes. But hopes are high because we're getting close to the March 20th date. And a deadline is a deadline. So, there you go.

SAMBOLIN: Let's talk about Iran and made the decision to halt oil to Britain and to France.

KOSIK: Right.

SAMBOLIN: How is that affecting us?

KOSIK: We're seeing a spike in oil prices overnight. Oil prices jumped 1.4 percent, trading at about $104 a barrel.

The interesting thing is, this is sort of more saber-rattling. The back story on this is the E.U. came out and said -- you know what Iran, we're not going to buy anymore oil from you starting July 1st. And Iran said -- you know what? We're going to trump you one on that. We're going to stop selling oil to Britain and to France and see what happens there.

So that's why you see this spike happening in oil prices, because of those sanctions that would be going into effect on July 1st because what these countries want, the E.U. wants and the U.S. wants is more information about Iran's nuclear enrichment program. So, how this affects us is oil prig prices are going up.

And essentially, it's going to affect our manufacturing, transportation and our gas prices because those oil prices go up. It costs more to make those goods, it costs more to transport those goods from that manufacturing site to the retailer, and then, yes, gas prices -- gas prices are at $3.55 right now. You can expect them to go higher if oil prices stay higher as well. You usually see the lag time, though, of two weeks.

BANFIELD: Are you a Lin fan?

KOSIK: How can you not be?

BANFIELD: I know. You can't wake up in the city without seeing Lin headlines. This one is "King Lin."

Thank you, Alison Kosik. The reason I ask you that Alison is because I'm going to segue from you to this, Jeremy Lin did it again, another solid game as a New York Knick.

SAMBOLIN: Did you watch it?

BANFIELD: No, I didn't.

SAMBOLIN: It was incredible.

BANFIELD: But I watched the highlight, and these are the kind of things you get to wake up to nowadays when he takes to the court, knocking off the Dallas Mavs yesterday at Madison Square Garden, 28 points -- 28 points -- and a career high 14 assists on the court.

Also, a little controversy here -- a lot of bit of controversy. A very controversial headline put out there. It was a racial slur used against Jeremy Lin. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEREMY LIN, POINT GUARD, NEW YORK KNICKS: -- has apologized. And, you know, there's no -- I don't think it was on purpose or whatever. But at the same time, they've apologized. So, from my end, I don't care anymore. I have to learn to forgive. I don't even think that was intentional -- or hopefully not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: We should tell you that it's offensive and we're not saying what it is because it's offensive. You can look it up online. But ESPN fired one of its employees, suspended another employee who used that slur on the air.

SAMBOLIN: He handles everything with such grace and humility.

BANFIELD: Awesome.

SAMBOLIN: A winner, a winner.

Seventeen minutes past the hour. Still ahead, a mid-air collision, a chopper clips a small plane. How did no one get hurt? Take a look at that.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Good morning, New York.

That's a pretty shot. It's a little dark, but nonetheless, you can see that lovely skyline. We're lucky enough to wake up to that every day. It's 36 degrees in New York City, warming to 47.

Twenty-one minutes past the hour.

SAMBOLIN: And it is time to check stories that are making news this morning. Whitney Houston has been laid to rest in Fairview Cemetery near Newark, New Jersey. Family and friends mourned the singer in what they called a private home going service.

U.N. inspectors are in Iran today for another round of nuclear talks. This comes as Iran fights back against new sanctions by cutting off oil to the U.K. and France. And with the U.S. now saying an attack on Iran would be premature.

President Obama's top military advisor says it is premature to be arming the Syrian opposition. A rebel commander says their fight against the Assad regime is a, quote, "orphan revolution" without international support. Nearly two dozen people were killed in the latest violence.

BANFIELD: United States Coast Guard says a tanker barge that spilled almost 10,000 gallons of crude oil into the Mississippi River has been drained and moved to a repair facility. The spill happened Friday when two barges collided near New Orleans.

A deadly avalanche at a resort in Washington state. As many as 12 skiers were buried in snow after falling 1,500 feet. And three of them were killed. The rest have been accounted for. Authorities say they were in an area that was off limits to skiers.

And a small plane collided midair with a helicopter between Oakland and Sacramento. The helicopter pilot was not hurt after crashing the chopper. And the pilot of the plane was also able to lands safely.

SAMBOLIN: That's scary.

BANFIELD: Lucky for both of them.

SAMBOLIN: Way too close for comfort there.

Twenty-two minutes past the hour.

We're getting an early read on your local news that's making national headlines. This morning, we've got papers from Houston and Chicago.

So, let's start with "The Chicago Tribune" here. Apparently, more people are choosing a paycheck over a degree. These are community colleges we're talking about. Enrollment is falling as tough economic realities hit hard. The students say they can't wait two years to start earning money.

In spring 2012, community college enrollment was down almost 3 percent from last year. And the number of full-time students is also down about 4.5 percent. Officials say the trend will continue until employers start to hire and the economy fully recovers.

I used to run a broadcasting program at community colleges, and the median age is about 27 or 28. So, I know that it's tough to stay in school. At the end of the day, a person with an associate degree is paid $8,000 more a year compared to a high school degree. So, if you can figure it out, it's well worth it financially.

BANFIELD: I think that's the problem, trying to figure it out.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: The rising cost.

"Houston Chronicle" has a story you may appreciate. We talk a lot about energy independence, especially with all this business with Iran cutting off U.K. and France.

Well, guess what? There is some, you know, bright spots on our horizon at this point. We're hearing that we are now producing more oil here -- there's a surge in our projections. We have more rigs in the United States oil fields at work than the rest of the entire world. And not only that, but our oil fields and the rigs here have quadrupled in the last three years to over 1,200. That's good news when you're worried about importing oil.

So, the forecasters are saying actual energy independence could be on the horizon, even with the oil boom. The crude prices though, Alison Kosik was talking about it, they remain at record highs. So, we will continue to watch that story. But nice to know we're doing well right in this country.

SAMBOLIN: Twenty-four minutes past the hour here.

Still ahead: a new nationwide poll shows Rick Santorum pulling away. A bitter fight for Michigan with the primary just eight days away now.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Teenagers are no longer allowed after dark at Mardi Gras.

SAMBOLIN: And how New Orleans police expect to enforce that curfew kind of beyond us this morning. We're going to talk to a reporter live there.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Nice to have you all back with us. Good morning, everyone. It is 28 minutes past 5:00. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

It's time to check the stories that are making news this morning.

BANFIELD: U.N. inspectors are in Iran for another round of nuclear talks. It comes as Iran fights back against E.U. sanctions by cutting off oil to the U.K. and also to France.

Singer Whitney Houston was laid to rest in a private burial service over the weekend. Her "Bodyguard" co-star Kevin Costner gave one of the many moving speeches at her funeral.

And the U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman said that it's, quote, "premature" to consider arming the Syrian rebels in their fight against their president, Bashar al Assad, and his regime. General Martin Dempsey says they need a much better idea of who these rebels are and who's infiltrating their ranks as well. Lawmakers, including Senator John McCain, have suggested possibly providing arms to the opposition could be a good idea.

SAMBOLIN: The trial of Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, is resuming today. He and his co-defendants are charged with ordering the killing of protesters during last year's revolution that forced him from power.

Three skiers killed in a deadly avalanche in Washington state. Authorities say a dozen skiers were buried in all. The rest have been accounted for.

And Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin leading his team to another win over the defending champs, the Dallas Mavericks. Lin also saying that he accepts ESPN's apology after a racial slur for Asians with the use in an online headline.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: There is a brand new poll out again, and it shows the candidates going in different directions. Rick Santorum is now leading nationally, count them, by eight points. It's a Gallup poll, and here are the numbers. Santorum is coming in at 36 percent, followed by Mitt Romney kind of way back there out by the margin of error at 28 percent.

Newt Gingrich following way and behind at 13 percent, and there's Ron Paul pushing along at 11 percent. So, do these numbers mean anything, especially since, you know, that lull in between contests and debates is getting smaller.

Joining us to talk about it, Republican strategist, Trey Hardin, political White House reporter, Joe Williams and CNN contributor and Democratic strategist, Maria Cardona. Joe Williams, I want to start with you. You're the reporter in the mix here. When you see these numbers rolling in one after the other and they kind of show a lot of the same trend, does it surprise you?

JOE WILLIAMS, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: It is surprising, and it probably is more surprising to the Mitt Romney camp, because this wasn't supposed to happen. This wasn't supposed to be in the script. Basically, you have Mitt Romney expecting to grab the nomination and having stumbling blocks including in his home state of Michigan because Santorum seems like the more authentic conservative. Mitt Romney has had this problem all along because he's been the red governor of a blue state.

He speaks conservatism but with a Massachusetts accent. Rick Santorum, on the other hand, seems true blue authentic, believes what he's says, and that's a problem that Romney has had difficulty getting across to voters and the public, in general.

BANFIELD: So, some people say they're surprised by the numbers because they hear an increased sort of rhetoric and the strident nature that keeps bleeding its way not just into the commercials that are run by the Super PACs but also by the candidates on the campaign trail. And I want to play something from this weekend that really stood out. It was Rick Santorum talking about the president's religion. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's about some phony ideal, some phony theology -- not a theology based on the bible, a different theology.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Trey Hardin, jump in here, if you will. Look, I get core conservative values and I get red meat. This is something I don't get. President Obama has said over and over again he's a Christian, and yet, it doesn't seem to be well accepted. In fact, you know, when pressed, Rick Santorum even said I take him at his word which is a far cry from saying I believe the guy is a Christian. Is that just a dirty low blow, like the birther movement and everything else?

TREY HARDIN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, infusing theology into politics is just not a winning strategy. Right now, --

BANFIELD: But he's winning.

HARDIN: You got to remember who he's winning among. He's winning among hard core conservative Republican voters. I mean, those wins that he had recently in those states, very low turnouts, high Tea Party states. So, not a surprising message, but it's not a winning message in the general election.

We have the highest number of registered independents we've seen all time. Twenty percent from 2008 of the Democrats who voted for Obama --

BANFIELD: But you can't get to those independents until you've gone through the gauntlet of those folks in this primary.

HARDIN: Right. But I would argue that this is who Rick Santorum is. He has no chance of beating Barack Obama just for this reason. He believes in this. It's his core principles, but it's not a winning strategy. So, he has no chance of beating him. And -- but you're right, he is going after a certain base right now.

BANFIELD: So, Maria Cardona, if the numbers keep up with the Gallup poll and the other poll and the CNN poll, all keep coming in with Rick Santorum in the lead, and he sweeps the south and does all these crazy things that people think good (ph) actually happened, are you keeping a ledger?

Are you and the Democrats taking a ledger of all these extraordinary statements and comments and thinking this will play well to those independents when it comes time for the general election?

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Oh, there's no question about that, Ashleigh. And in fact, I would say that most of the ads for the campaign have already been written. They've haven't been written by the Democrats, they've been written by the candidates, themselves, using their own words. And that I think is what should be so concerning to the Republicans.

I completely agree with everything that Trey said. Yes, we understand that they do have to right now serve this red meat to their GOP base, but that's exactly the problem. The GOP base has moved so extremely to the right that it's going to be almost impossible for any candidate to move back to the center and to gain those --

BANFIELD: Maria, I feel like we say this, though, every couple of years, whether we're doing midterms or whether we're doing presidential elections. I keep hearing the same things over and over. It's never been dirtier. It's never been nastier. We've moved farther to the right. We've moved farther to the left. Is it just me?

CARDONA: Well, no. I actually think that this time it is, in fact, true. And you know, what's interesting you say that because Republicans do like to make the comparison between what's happening now and what happened in 2008 when you really can't compare because between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, first of all, it never got this nasty.

They never got personal, and what they were doing was really fighting for those independent voters even during the primary. So, they never moved way to the left.

(CROSSTALK)

HARDIN: Ashleigh, with all due respect to Maria, Clinton and Obama went to June. It was extremely nasty.

BANFIELD: I thought it was pretty nasty, yes.

HARDIN: Running for president in your party for the nomination has become an ugly business, but at the end of the day, it's ultimately a healthy process because all the voters get a chance to kind of vet their candidates --

BANFIELD: One last comment from Joe Williams. Remind me. Was it as ugly as I remember it?

WILLIAMS: Well, it was -- there were some nasty spats in 2008, let's be sure about that. But from my perspective, the thing that's pushing this thing further into the mud is the fact that we've got unregulated money, these money bomb ads that are just taking everybody out and obliterating everything and subsuming any kind of legitimate political discourse --

BANFIELD: I hear you.

CARDONA: That's exactly right.

BANFIELD: I hear you. All right. Trey, Joe and Maria, you're coming back in an hour for even more of this conversation. Thank you all.

CARDONA: Thank you.

BANFIELD: I also want to remind our viewers, don't miss the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday. CNN's Arizona Republican debate on Wednesday, eight o'clock eastern. As Nancy Grace, it's a sharp. Make sure you come here eight o'clock eastern sharp. SAMBOLIN (on-camera): Thirty-six minutes past the hour here. And still to come on EARLY START, John McCain is leading a Congressional delegation to Egypt. The military there plans to prosecute 19 Americans in a crackdown on NGOs. Those are non- governmental organizations.

One of the defendants is Sam Lahood, the son of transportation secretary, Ray Lahood. But McCain says he's not there to help secure his release. Why is he there? We have a live report from Cairo.

BANFIELD: And check out the scenes. You see them every year. New Orleans gone wild. Girls and boys gone wild. And the cops are starting to crackdown saying, you know what, we need a curfew for the teens. So, how do you weave your way through those crowds and actually enforce it? we'll get to the heart of that in a moment.

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SAMBOLIN: Want to hear that for a while? It says New Orleans. And where are we? In New Orleans where it is 46 degrees right now, 65 later. Good morning to you, New Orleans.

BANFIELD: Good to wake up to Elvis, isn't it? Everybody should have a little Elvis everyday. Welcome back to EARLY START, everybody.

It is party time officially in New Orleans. Of course, that means Mardi Gras. I know you knew it. I just wanted to remind you. There is one big change, though, this year. Police are enforcing a new curfew at night for teenagers.

SAMBOLIN: So, the curfew bans teens 16 and younger from the French Quarter. That's after 8:00 p.m. Ed Lavandera shows us how they are trying to enforce it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New Orleans Mardi Gras is an intoxicating splendor to see, especially for wide-eyed kids, but they shouldn't see everything. So, New Orleans police are enforcing a big change to the city's curfew, no one under 16 allowed alone in the French Quarter after 8:00 p.m.

COMMANDER JEFFREY WALLS, NEW ORLEANS POLICE: We were having kids that were being victims and also perpetrators of crime.

LAVANDERA: Commander Jeffrey Walls runs the New Orleans police precinct in the French Quarter.

WALLS: At night, it turns into more of an adult entertainment area.

LAVANDERA (on-camera): The clock has struck eight o'clock at night here in Jackson Square in New Orleans, and now, it's time for the crazier side of the French Quarter to come alive, and we're going to go find it.

(voice-over) We found Maria Munoz Silva walking with her children.

(on-camera) So, you think this is good place for kids to be after 8:00?

MARIA MUNOZ SILVA, MOTHER: No, not down there.

LAVANDERA: Why not?

SILVA: Crowds are getting rowdy. Things that they shouldn't see.

LAVANDERA: Don't tell them that. Whisper that to me, will you?

SILVA: We hide his eyes.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): So, just how many kids are running around unsupervised at night? New Orleans police say during this Mardi Gras, a 170 have been arrested so far for violating the curfew. That's 20 percent of all Mardi Gras related arrests.

(on-camera) This seems to be one of the harder parts of enforcing this curfew is just how do you find someone who's under the age of 16 in a crowd like this?

(voice-over) Charles Dorsey sees underage revelers every night while he sells New Orleans lucky dogs and also sees 17-year-olds taking care of 13-year-olds.

CHARLES DORSEY, LUCKY DOGS SALESMAN: You got children watching children.

LAVANDERA: That's not a good combo.

DORSEY: That's not a good combo.

LAVANDERA: Curfew supporters say the French Quarter's wild side is just too dangerous, and some sights are so bizarre they just can't be explained to a kid.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA (on-camera): And that curfew will continue throughout not just the Mardi Gras which ends tomorrow here in New Orleans, but will continue for the foreseeable future. And I was pretty surprised by just the number of curfew arrests that have happened here in the last week and a half alone, guys.

SAMBOLIN: That is a huge number. Were you watching that video with us?

LAVANDERA: I saw part of it, yes.

BANFIELD: That last shot you left us on, Mr. Lavandera.

SAMBOLIN: You know what, Ed, I'm just going to be on record here. I don't think anyone under 40 should see that shot or that scene.

LAVANDERA: Yes. It takes a lot of therapy to get over.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: Yes. Thank you for that. We appreciate it.

BANFIELD: Thanks, Ed. Good to see you this morning.

SAMBOLIN: Forty-three past the hour. Still ahead, the standoff with Iran is costing you. Oil prices are shooting up on Iran's latest move.

BANFIELD: Also, are you a fan of Colbert, Stephen Colbert? Well, you can exhale. He's going back into production. We'll tell you what happened and why he's back. You're watching EARLY START.

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BANFIELD: Welcome back everyone. It is 47 minutes past 5:00 on the East Coast. Time to check our top stories making news this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Whitney Houston laid to rest over the weekend in Newark, New Jersey. Family and friends mourn the singer in a private service. Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys among several who performed at the funeral. Quite moving.

U.N. inspectors in Iran for another round of nuclear talks, this comes as the U.S. and Great Britain urge Israel not to attack Iran over its advancing nuclear program, and as Iran fights back against EU sanctions by cutting off oil to the UK and to France.

Oil prices hitting a nine-month high on that move from Iran, trading near $105 a barrel this morning. Gas prices in the U.S. are the highest they have been on President's Day weekend.

BANFIELD (voice-over): A deadly avalanche at a resort in Washington State. Skiers were buried in snow after falling 1,500 feet, and three of them were killed. Authorities say they were skiing in an out-of-bound area when the avalanche broke loose.

A brand new Gallup tracking poll shows Rick Santorum has an eight-point national lead over Mitt Romney. Just a few days ago, the two were in a statistical tie within the margin of error.

And Comedy Central's, "Colbert Report," is expected to resume production today. The show abruptly shut down last week citing unforeseen circumstances. It ended up that Stephen Colbert's mother was ill, but he did tweet that he was grateful and was touched by all of his fans' concerns.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): Happy to hear he'll be back.

BANFIELD (on-camera): Yes.

SAMBOLIN: And still ahead on EARLY START, John McCain on a mission to Egypt. He's trying to resolve the crisis over American workers charged in a crackdown on non-governmental organizations, NGOs, as they're known. We're live in Cairo with the report for you.

BANFIELD: And the magic just keeps on coming from Jeremy Lin. Can we say that? Can we say magic and Jeremy Lin in the same sentence when talking basketball? Well, he is the sudden star for the Knicks, and he's opening up about his new-found fame. Hear from him. You're watching EARLY START.

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BANFIELD: Welcome back to EARLY START. It is 5:51 on the East Coast. Senator John McCain leading a Congressional delegation to Egypt, very important talks with the country's military leadership in that country.

Nineteen Americans are among 43 people who are awaiting a trial in that country. They're accused of illegally raising money for pro- democracy groups. Egypt has set February 26th to begin that hearing.

SAMBOLIN: The case has strained U.S.-Egyptian relations now. The U.S. is threatening to cut off more than a billion dollars in aid. McCain says he is not there to negotiate any release. CNN's Ian Lee is live in Cairo. Among those prisoners is secretary -- transportation secretary, Ray Lahood's, son, Sam. And so, if he is not there to try to negotiate a release, what is his objective?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Zoraida, what we've seen him doing today was he met with the American Chamber of Commerce. And this was seen as more of as a trip to build ties, economic ties, between the United States and Egypt. He met with the American Chamber of Commerce. So, it had American business men, had Egyptian businessmen, to build close ties.

And he said, Egypt's revolution depends on coming out with a strong economy. And he said the United States is willing to help. He did give a speech at that meeting. Nothing was mentioned about the Americans, though, who are right now going to be put on trial next Sunday. But, we're waiting -- we're going to talk to him later, and we'll ask him more about that.

SAMBOLIN: Now, we know this is a criminal court that they are going to be heading into. And we see that McCain said that this is a serious situation and had serious implications for our relationship. Is that a setup as to what he hopes he's going to be able to accomplish?

LEE: Well, this is really a low time for relations between the United States and Egypt, and this could really jeopardize the way the United States goes forward with Egypt, and they will be in criminal court. We will see these Americans behind bars which is typical of Egyptian criminal court. This is something that many people have never really seen, Americans behind bars like this.

So, this really will strain the relations, but when McCain spoke today, he did mention how he would like to keep strong political, economic, but also military ties with Egypt. And that would -- that comes with the over a billion dollars that the United States gives in military aid.

So, from what it sounds like, he's not too keen on giving that up and not -- and pulling that back. So, it sounds like he is still willing to give that aid and try to move this process forward.

SAMBOLIN: Has there been a history of problems with the non- governmental organizations, the NGOs as we call them?

LEE: Well, this is something that during Mubarak's regime, it was kind of in a gray area where they were allowed to operate, but they really not a lot of questions were asked about how they operated. And so, talking to some lawyers about this situation technically, these NGOs were operating. Some of them were operating illegally.

But in the past, Mubarak -- during the Mubarak regime, they were able to operate, and he kind of let this happen. So, this is something that, you know, has changed with this new government that's coming in place. And we're seeing one politician, in particular, trying to lead the drive against the NGOs.

And there's a real strong anti-foreigner feeling right now. So, this is something that will have to play out, and we'll see what happens.

SAMBOLIN: All right. CNN's Ian Lee -- or Ian Lee, excuse me, live in Cairo for us. Thank you.

And ahead in our next hour, we have exclusive details about Whitney Houston's funeral from the only TV producer that was actually inside attending the funeral as an invited guest.

BANFIELD: And Iran is playing the oil card as the U.N. arrives in Tehran for talks. Just what will those talks actually produce? Or more importantly, what will these nuclear facilities produce? We'll get into it in a moment.

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