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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Santorum at the Top; Greece Bailout; Escalating Violence In Syria; Oil Prices Mixed As Iran Fears Wane

Aired February 21, 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: I'm Ashleigh Banfield. We're bringing you the news from A to Z.

And it's 5:00 in the morning on the East Coast. So, let's get started.

Rick Santorum is waking up to great headlines today. He is pulling away and his lead, folks, is in the double digits. So the banner says: can Santorum really beat Romney? You're going to hear some answers and some perspective.

SAMBOLIN: And a CNN exclusive with Sheriff Paul Babeu. He's the sheriff that's tough on immigration laws and also famous from an ad with McCain saying, complete that dang fence. So, he's been outed, accused of threatening to deport his immigrant boyfriend. We've got lots of coverage on that story today.

BANFIELD: Also, take a look at these pictures. This is what you call chafing the hailstorm. Hail that hurts. Ow, look at that. We'll take to where this is happening and the folks who actually took that video.

SAMBOLIN: And a school district is charging millions of dollars in plastic surgery to the taxpayers. Their nose jobs, breast implants, lipo, you name it, it is on there. How is this happening in the middle of a budget crisis?

BANFIELD: That's a good question. Plastic surgery, teachers, really?

SAMBOLIN: Yes, quite a remarkable story.

BANFIELD: Lordy, lordy.

SAMBOLIN: I don't know if you want to be a teacher in that district.

BANFIELD: Heck yes.

All right. It's one minute past 5:00 in the East. Double digit lead, that's always good news it you're a candidate seeking to be the guy who runs against President Obama.

And that's the story for Rick Santorum this morning. You could say he's kind of in the driver's seat now.

SAMBOLIN: He's opening a 10-point lead over Mitt Romney in the Gallup's latest national tracking poll.

Take a look at these numbers. Santorum, 36 percent; Romney, 26 percent; Gingrich, 13 percent; Ron Paul at 11 percent.

Even some party insiders are starting to believe that Santorum could win the nomination. Listen to Ari Fleischer last night on "A.C. 360."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "A.C. 360": You really think he could get the nomination?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I really do. I'm prepared to say that now. For the first time, I'd say that. I always thought it was an open race, anything could happen. It was that kind of wild year.

But don't underestimate what's happening with people going to Rick Santorum and he does need to broaden it. The social issues really do motivate him. He speaks from the heart.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: CNN political director Mark Preston is live from Mesa, Arizona.

Just last week, we were talking statistical ties. These leads are quite amazing.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, they are. You know, Rick Santorum, if we were just to be talking, having this conversation five weeks ago, Rick Santorum was left for dead. In fact, Newt Gingrich was saying that Rick Santorum, Zoraida, should get out of the race, that he doesn't have the support. But, now, look at how the pendulum was swung back.

Rick Santorum, this former senator from Pennsylvania, who was crushed back when he lost his reelection bid back in around 2006 is now in the lead and in fact, as Ari Fleischer has saying last night on "A.C. 360," there are Washington insiders that think he can win the nomination. A lot of these Washington insiders are concerned that he can win the nomination, because they don't think he can beat Barack Obama in November.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, those powerful Republicans are actually poring over filing deadlines we understand, trying to figure out the worst case scenario is. What are their options?

PRESTON: Well, I mean, there's a lot of chatter in Washington, D.C. about if Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich is not able to get enough delegates to head into August for this so-called contested convention or brokered convention, depending on how you look at it, some talk about perhaps they would try to get a consensus candidate that would come in.

But bottom line, it's going to be one of these three gentlemen, Ron Paul, of course, running as well but he doesn't have a chance at the nomination. But it's either going to be Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum. And it's really coming down to either Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination.

SAMBOLIN: All right. CNN political director Mark Preston, live from Mesa for us -- thank you.

And do not miss the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday. The Arizona Republican debate, it is tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

BANFIELD: It's four minutes past 5:00 n on the East Coast.

Every morning, we'd like to give an EARLY START to your day by alerting you to the big stories that are happening tonight.

Jury selection beginning today in an alleged church sex abuse scandal that has rocked Philadelphia's archdiocese. Three priests and a Catholic school teacher are charged with the alleged assault of young boys. A high ranking church official is accused of covering it all up. All five have pleaded not guilty.

SAMBOLIN: The International Red Cross is trying to negotiate a ceasefire between Syrian government forces and the opposition. The humanitarian agency is trying to get food and much-needed medical supplies to besieged city of Homs and other locations in Syria that desperately need it.

BANFIELD: And voting is under way in Yemen's first election in more than three decades. Long time president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, handed over power back in November after months of really vigorous protests in that country. But Saleh's deputy, the vice president, and Yemen's now interim president is the only candidate on the ballot to replace him.

SAMBOLIN: Five minutes past 5:00 in the East. We're minding your business now.

Greece finally securing a second bailout. It is the largest sovereign debt bailout in the history of the European Union.

Under this deal, Greece will get an additional $172 billion in aid, and in turn Greece agreed to even more cuts to spending, $431 million worth.

So, how are the markets reacting? U.S. stock futures are up right now ahead of the opening bell.

BANFIELD: Let's bring in Christine Romans to talk about that that.

So, here's what I don't get. We talk every day about Greece and the bailout and the plan for the bailout. Now, we have a plan, but are we really closer to having some resolution?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: You know, we are. And here's why. Because Greece has now got the money. It's going to get the money. The European leaders say you're going to get the money. They're not going to go bankrupt. Greece is not going to go bankrupt.

They're going to be able to make a big large bond payment and Greece can now move forward. They've promised more austerity, more cuts in Greece so they can deserve this. Investors are taking a huge hit.

BANFIELD: Bankrupt, default, same thing, not same thing?

ROMANS: It's basically -- I mean, at this point, it basically is the same thing. I mean, this is the end of the road for Greece. Greece had to get this figured out. European leaders knew it. It was a very contentious, down-to-the-wire kind of a negotiation.

And they've also agreed to do something to (INAUDIBLE) Greece, and other countries with too much debt, with this kind of emergency firewall.

So, overall, leaders are hopeful that these kinds of countries are not going to bring down the entire eurozone. But remember, this is not without an awful lot of pain for the Greek citizens.

BANFIELD: All right.

ROMANS: I'm going to talk about that a little because they've had smaller pensions, they're going to have steep job cuts, they're going to have reductions in their pay, they're going to have pay cuts. And this is why people are taking to the streets over and over again.

Here's another concern as well. This concern that cutting, cutting, cutting doesn't remake an economy. Greece still has to change its DNA. It has to learn how to combine private equity, private capital with people's good ideas and have innovation, new business and it's got to grow. It's got to grow out of this long- term.

Otherwise, it's going to be in the same situation, which is why I think markets today have -- are not really moving a lot on this because they wanted this deal, they got this deal and now, they're looking for validation down the road that Greece can become a new Greece, could start all over after this.

SAMBOLIN: You know what I was reading this morning, it surprised me, is that Greece is in its fifth year of a recession.

ROMANS: Yes, it's really -- I mean, it hurts. For those people, that's why they're rioting. They're saying, wait, you can't just keep cutting our way and saying that's making the economy better. It's got structural things have to be done.

And they've been fighting about how to do it. There's a piece called, you know, no pain or pain without gain in "The New York Times" that a lot of people are talking about this morning. Look, you keep cutting, cutting, cutting and he says that we've seen over the past few years that all this cutting hasn't made anybody really grow yet.

BANFIELD: I've never seen anybody suggest being someone told me and I thought that's crazy until I thought it through. How about selling some islands?

ROMANS: Now, that's -- when you start talking about getting rid of --

BANFIELD: Property. Real estate.

ROMANS: They're also getting advertising on some of the big tourist venues. I mean, they have to think of everything, everything is on the table.

BANFIELD: Is that something that might happened, selling Greek islands? Honestly?

ROMANS: I wouldn't be surprised. Maybe leasing them or licensing them or, you khnow, getting --

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: These are Greek treasures. If it's going to drive this economy in tourism, it shouldn't get rid of the thing that will help it grow in the future.

BANFIELD: For Americans who are watching right now who say great idea, how about selling the Grand Canyon? How would you feel about that? I mean, that's what we're talking about here.

ROMANS: They like to compare Greece to the United States, and like, you know, we have so much debt too. Could we be like Greece today? We're very different economies, very different economies.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Christine Romans, thank you for that perspective. We appreciate it.

BANFIELD: We have video for you this morning that's unbelievable to watch. We always talk about our first responders and what heroes they are.

Take a look at these pictures of firefighters who are desperately digging through wreckage. Look how fast and furious they are trying to find people buried. This was a mobile home in Oklahoma. It was absolutely shredded in a severe storm that blew through.

The sheriff has confirmed for us after we look at these pictures that one person was actually killed in that incident. But, but the good news is they were able to rescue another person. So, their work has paid off.

SAMBOLIN: Tough to see Mother Nature in action there.

Let's talk over to Jacqui Jeras. She is in Atlanta minding the weather for us this morning.

JACQUI JERAS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, good morning, ladies.

Yes, you know, those winds were really incredible with thunderstorms. It wasn't a tornado that caused that damage at that mobile home park there. We also had damage in Kansas due to some hail.

Take a look at these pictures. Just incredible. You know, it was like nickel-sized hail but it covered the streets, it covered cars and it moved through very, very quickly. And overall, the storm system packed a punch. But it really was a fast mover. This thing already moving across parts of the Great Lakes and bringing in some rain into the Ohio River valley as we take a look at the radar now.

You can see we've got this little wintry mix of some rain and some snow as well. Some big cities are being impacted by this too. Minneapolis-St. Paul. This is starting to move out even in the next hour. So, watch for improving conditions. But any roads that haven't been treated certainly on the slick side.

Chicago for you, we're primarily a rain event that we might see a little mixing, very little accumulation is going to be expected.

All right. The other aspect we've been dealing with has been the wind. It has just been incredible. Not thunderstorm winds, we're just talking about winds from the strong low pressure area.

Yesterday, in Texas, take a look at what it did. This is Texas. Here's Lubbock.

Did you guys see the haze over the top there? That light brown is dust. So, an incredible dust storm by this as well.

All right. We're going to focus a little bit on the West now because we have a powerful storm that's moving in here. This is going to be bringing in incredible rainfall totals and the snow levels are going to be really high. We're talking about 6,000 or 7,000 feet. So, we're very concerned about that. The avalanche danger remains extreme.

Temperature-wise across the country, staying comfortable. Well above average for this time of year.

Back to you, ladies.

SAMBOLIN: Jacqui Jeras, thank you very much.

BANFIELD: Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: And still ahead, are you planning a vacation?

BANFIELD: Already?

SAMBOLIN: Maybe a stay-cation this year. We've got to think ahead, though, because we are talking about $5 gasoline by the summer. People are already being forced to make choices with their family budget.

BANFIELD: Go bike riding instead, right?

Also, if you're one of the folks who bought the iPhone 4 and found there was glitch, something wasn't working right. It had to do with the case. Keep your eye on e-mails folks. Don't assume that something called death grip is a hoax. The settlement and it's going to be good for you. We'll tell you all about it.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Recognize that song? If you're in New Orleans, you will. It is 58 degrees there now.

So, listen to this, sunny and 71 later. Loving that.

BANFIELD: That is Professor Longhair, "Go to the Mardi Gras". Just in case you're waking up and not seeing your TV. That's a nice song to wake up to.

Exactly 15 minutes past the hour as we whistle a happy tune. I want to get you caught up on top stories.

Here's a good one for Rick Santorum. He is now in a double- digit lead nationally in the latest Gallup tracking poll. The former senator leading with 36 percent of those asked. Romney coming in second, though, at 26 percent.

Also making news, this is new overnight. The Red Cross is trying to broker a peace deal at least for a short time in Syria to try to get food and vital medical supplies to one of the cities so hard hit, Homs. An opposition group is reporting at least seven more people, including an infant were killed in heavy shelling by regime forces.

And the country group Sugarland is responding to a lawsuit claiming their negligence contributed to this -- at least in part that stage collapse at the Indiana state fair last year. Seven people were killed, dozens of those others injured. Sugarland says the collapse was caused by a gust of wind that was, quote, "unprecedented -- of unprecedented intensity" and was also, quote, "a true accident or act of God."

SAMBOLIN: A suspect is in custody in the robbery of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Remember the story? Police say 28-year-old Vedel Browne used a machete to rob Breyer and his vacation home in the Caribbean.

The New Jersey Nets attempting to tame Lin-sanity. I guess they were able to accomplish it. The Nets beat Jeremy Lin and the Knicks 100-92 last night at Madison Square Garden. Lin began his remarkable run against New Jersey. Ron Williams took that personally, scoring 38 points in the win. Jeremy Lin had 21 points in the loss. Not bad. Not bad.

And let it fly. Today is Fat Tuesday. People already partying in New Orleans. We have live pictures from Bourbon Street here. You got eat up today. A dozen parades getting ready to roll in and around the Big Easy. Of course, it is the last big blowout of carnival season before Ash Wednesday.

BANFIELD: Every day is Fat Tuesday for me. That's all I'm saying.

The Arizona sheriff accused of threatening to deport his ex- boyfriend is talking about it and he's saying a lot. Sheriff Paul Babeu spoke exclusively with our Wolf Blitzer yesterday.

SAMBOLIN: And Alina Cho is here with more of what he had to say.

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wasn't it incredible?

BANFIELD: All of the story is incredible. All of it.

CHO: And you know, what was most remarkable, at least to some is that that Sheriff Babeu didn't shy way from any of the tough questions. He admitted to having a relationship with a man we're calling Jose, a Mexican national, spoke to our Miguel Marquez yesterday.

The sheriff said they first dating when Jose was an unpaid volunteer running the sheriff's campaign Web site. Now, that includes much of the social media, including Twitter. He says when the relationship went sour, about a three-year relationship, Jose posed as Babeu online because he still had all the passwords and started posting what Babeu calls slanderous information.

But the sheriff says however he never threatened to deport him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF PAUL BABEU, PINAL COUNTY, ARIZONA: One, he's legal. He has said that. I have said that.

And then, in addition, this whole thing about deportation, we all know I don't have deportation authority. I have the authority to arrest. There were several crimes committed here against me in campaign --

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Alleged crimes?

BABEU: Absolutely.

BLITZER: He isn't convicted of anything.

BABEU: No. The fact that he has a business and he stole my property and the images purported to be me. So, also, identity theft in addition to that. All I wanted done is for this to stop.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: I mean, he makes a convincing argument. Obviously, this was a part of the story that Jose did not reveal to our Miguel Marquez yesterday, presents a new twist to the story. And if you believe him, it becomes a stronger case for Sheriff Babeu, obviously.

BANFIELD: And it's messier than just that, because he's a rising star in the GOP.

CHO: He is. And obviously, a lot of people concerned about the political fallout. Yes, he is going to continue to run for Congress. He's running for the Republican nomination in the fourth congressional district.

And he says he wants voters to judge him not on his personal life, but on his record and his love of country. That he did step down, however, from a very key role on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. He was the Arizona campaign co-chair, but the sheriff insists he was not forced out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Explain why you decided to step down as co-chairman of the Romney campaign here in Arizona. If you've done nothing wrong, why did you step down?

BABEU: One, I didn't want this to splash over on Mitt or any of the other candidates.

BLITZER: What part, the allegations or the fact that you're gay?

BABEU: This controversy, certainly not that I'm gay. The Romney campaign, and I don't think anybody should have a problem with my personal life and who am I. It doesn't take away from my patriotism or my service.

And if you asked any of the candidates that, I don't think they would disagree with that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: It's interesting, the Huffington Post this morning had an article saying that because of that statement right there, that he admitted that he's gay, that his career is essentially over.

CHO: Let's hope that's not true.

SAMBOLIN: Well, yes, let's hope not. But where does his relationship with his boyfriend? Do we know anything about that?

CHO: Well, it's interesting. That was one of the more revealing and interesting parts of the interview with Wolf, I have to say. And kudos to Wolf because h did ask all the tough questions, as he always does.

Sheriff Babeu says he does not wish him any ill will as he does put it, but he does believe that the attack is politically motivated. The timing is suspect in his words.

We'll have much more of Sheriff Babeu's interview coming up in the next hour, including, of course, Wolf asked him what his stance was on gay marriage. Lot of people now very interested in what the sheriff has to say about that. We'll give you his answer on the next hour.

BANFIELD: I wonder if it's the statement about being gay or these photos, because photos in the bathroom mirror never go well.

CHO: The Anthony Wiener looking photos, they never play well in the campaign.

SAMBOLIN: Photos live forever.

CHO: They do.

SAMBOLIN: We're going to talk to the reporter also who broke the story. It's a story that lives on.

Thank you, Alina.

BANFIELD: Nice job.

SAMBOLIN: Well, it is 21 minutes past the hour. And we're getting an early read on your local news that's making national headlines.

This morning, we have papers from Chicago and Richmond. Let's start with the "Chicago Tribune" here.

Gas prices rising at a record pace -- you know that -- more than $4 a gallon in some parts of the United States. Analysts blame the hike on Iran's decision to cut oil sales to Britain and France. Some analysts fear Iran's threats could spark record high gas prices. They're talking $5 a gallon by this summer. Others say that we're close to peak now.

But I got to tell you, "The Tribune" buried the lead. You know, Chicago normally has the highest gas prices in the nation, but they dropped 10 cents a gallon, which is actually below the national average.

So, good morning to you, Chicago. There's good news.

We're trying to figure out where is the lowest gas price to steer our viewers in that direction.

BANFIELD: Is that another thing that makes you miss home?

SAMBOLIN: No. Not really. I just miss home because it's home.

BANFIELD: All right. Let's get you to the "Richmond Times Dispatch," another headline.

Here's something the governor is getting mixed up in. That state is expected to pass a bill requiring ultrasound for women who want to get abortions. It's about to end up on the governor, Bob McDonnell's desk after passing the house today. He's already voiced his support for the bill. So, don't expect last minute veto necessarily.

On Saturday, he said he'll review it in its final form if it does pass. But a thousand people were rallying outside the state capitol on Monday. The majority of the folks been asked do not like this. In fact, 55 percent of the Virginians who were asked say no go. Don't like it. That's 36 percent say they do like it.

So, we'll see what Governor McDonnell decides to do in the end.

SAMBOLIN: That's a tough one. It is a very tough one.

BANFIELD: It's never easy when you're talking anything that has to do with abortion. That's for sure.

It's 23 minutes past 5:00 now.

And still ahead, can Rick Santorum pull this thing off? How long will it take him if he does pull it off? And, by the way, is that such a good thing? Some Republicans apparently saying not so much. Some whisper rumors about this. We'll let you in on it.

You're watching EARLY START.

(CMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: As thousands of teachers face layoffs across the country, some teachers in Buffalo, New York, are getting lipo.

BANFIELD: How the heck is a school system fresh off a recession paying for plastic surgery? You might ask that. Be a good question if you did.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Good morning to you. It's 27 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: I'm Ashleigh Banfield. Nice to have you with us.

Let's get right to your top stories this morning.

Making news, Rick Santorum surging ahead. A 10-point, double digit lead nationally now in the latest Gallup tracking poll. Former senator leading with 36 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney coming in second, 10 points behind, as we said, 26 percent of the vote.

A new $173 billion bailout approved for Greece this morning. It's the country's second bailout granted by eurozone finance ministers. In exchange, Greece has to tighten the belt and agree to even more cuts to spending, $431 million worth more.

And new fears rising over gas prices for us, costs hitting $4 a gallon in some areas. AAA reporting the national average at $3.57 per gallon right now. And analysts say, you want to know why -- it's Iran. Blame it on Iran.

Those threats coming from that country driving the prices up. They cut off their oil sales to Britain and France and that really caused an instability and that's why the oil prices skyrocketed on Monday.

SAMBOLIN: The highest gas prices, though, in Hawaii -- $4.25 a gallon.

It's another day of violence in Syria. Regime forces shelling Homs for an 18th day. Seven people were killed. The Red Cross trying to secure a ceasefire now in order to get the much needed medical supplies into the besieged city.

And the Arizona sheriff who resigned from Mitt Romney's campaign tells CNN's Wolf Blitzer that he never threatened a former boyfriend with deportation. Paul Babeu says his ex-lover, known as Jose, is living in the United States legally. Babeu accuses Jose of posting his private information online. He calls it politically motivated.

And Apple has settled a class action suit over the iPhone 4's antenna problem. I was named the iPhone death grip. Apple promising to pay $15 or give you a free case if you're in the United States and you bought an iPhone 4.

BANFIELD: So, Rick Santorum is now clearly the front-runner right across the country in the GOP race. He opened up a double digit lead. And some Republicans are not that happy about it.

Of course, we say some, because those who follow Rick Santorum are thrilled but those who aren't say what happens if he pulls off a Michigan upset? Well, at least the former White House press secretary for George W. Bush, Ari Fleischer, has this to stay on "A.C. 360" last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FLEISCHER: In the process of the conservative collapse in Romney, with a social movement toward Rick Santorum, he really has propelled himself forward into this primary contest.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You really think he could get the nomination?

FLEISCHER: I really do. I'm prepared to say that now. For the first time, I would say that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Prepared to say that for the first time. So, what does it mean? I know some people who would know. Senior contributor to Politics365.com is Lenny McAllister joining us live this morning, also, CNN.com contributor, Dean Obeidallah is with us live, and "Roll Call" writer, Jonathan Strong, with us to weigh in as well.

Jonathan, I want to start with you. What's up with the whisper rumors already? Why are there whisper rumors? Why is there a memo apparently circulating about how bad this might be for the Republican Party? Why so many haters?

JONATHAN STRONG, STAFF WRITER, ROLL CALL: Well, the Republican Party elders kind of have decided, and it's a very unanimous belief among the Republicans that I talk to in Washington, D.C. that Rick Santorum could not win a general election against Barack Obama because he's a little bit of a polarizing figure.

He's taken some of these stands on social issues that won't play well with independent voters. So, this is a very strong belief among the GOP elite and that's what's driving this.

BANFIELD: OK. So, if they're looking for something else then, if they don't like their group, we have compiled a nice little map of the alternatives, we like to call it to the rescue. Let's have a look at some of the options for those who don't like who they've got.

Let's start with Sarah Palin. Apart from the natural effervescence that that young lady presents on any campaign trail, she also presents something like this. It was a sound bite that went on and on. It was a Katie Couric walk and talk interview that nobody forgot. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And when it comes to establishing your world view, I was curious. What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world.

SARAH PALIN, FORMER GOVERNOR OF ALASKA: I read most of them again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media coming --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What was it specifically? I'm curious.

PALIN: All of them. Any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Lenny McAllister, that was the kind of sound bite that nobody wants to have following them if this is actually a reality, but a lot of people are saying, these could be the people who come in in a last minute brokered convention. What's the problem? LENNY MCALLISTER, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: Well, the problem is Sarah Palin's more polarizing than Rick Santorum. Rick Santorum's become a better candidate over the course of this process through learning more about his family, realizing that he may be against contraception personally, but as a -- somebody in office, he has voted for as a public advocate he's voted for it.

So, you're starting to see his position being flushed out. Sarah Palin has been polarizing since 2008. She has done nothing to unify the country. And if you get someone like Sarah Palin jumping into a brokered convention. If Republicans think they're having a hard time with Santorum or Gingrich out front, just wait until Sarah Palin gets into the mix.

BANFIELD: OK.

MCALLISTER: It's going to be almost a guarantee that President Obama will be a two-termer.

BANFIELD: So, while I like looking at the four of us, let's put our superheroes graphic up again, because there's another guy among those four that a lot of people like and a lot of people wish would want to run, and that's Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. But, there are a few things that he has in his closet as well.

For one, there was this little nugget from back New Hampshire when he was on the stump with Mitt Romney and had this to say to one of the protesters who was heckling him. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) NEW JERSEY: Some may go down tonight, but ain't going to be jobs sweetheart.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Something is going to go down tonight and it ain't going to be jobs, sweetheart. It bears repeating. You can't say that if you're going to run for president. Dean Obeidallah, what do you make of Chris Christie?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH, FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO CNN.COM: I think he's an interesting guy. I mean, I'm originally from New Jersey, and there's some kind of Soprano as quality of Chris Christie that I think some people would like. Also, as a political comedian, I think Chris Christie and Sarah Palin are both much better for me potentially than any of the people out there running.

But I don't think Chris Christie is going to run. And look, the last time a brokered convention resulted in a person winning the presidency was FDR, 1956 -- 1936. It's not going to happen there. I think they're stuck to either Santorum or Romney, to be honest with you. And each week it goes up and down.

It's like American presidential idol. This week, it happens to be Santorum. If Santorum loses in Michigan and Arizona next week, it goes back to Romney. He's the leader until Super Tuesday, then, we'll see what goes from there. It's going to be a long fight all to the end. It's going to be a slog, as they keep saying, a slog to the end.

BANFIELD: A slog to the end. So, what you say makes me think that this is all my fault. Honestly, I start to think that this is all my fault, the press, because we just make sport of this day in and day out. And Jonathan, I'm going to get you to weigh in on this, because the press has been very different year to year, election to election.

We have more skills broadcasters, people who get the system better. They're able to manipulate cable better. They're more polarized now than they ever were before. Are we seeing the result of that is that you can't even have one wart if you're going to run for office?

STRONG: Well, you know, I think we live in this digital era where everything is kind of on video now. So, it's easier to reproduce and look at over and over again. Certainly, I think that there's been a lot of discussion about this during the campaign that there's an incentive for the media to want to prolong this GOP race.

And certainly, you do see some people rooting for the candidates who are down and out, you know, for the time being to come back and have a little bit of a comeback.

BANFIELD: I just am going to go on record as saying, I actually quite like that field that we put up, including Mitch Daniels and also Jeb Bush, but I happen to like the field of four that we're looking at right now as well. So, we'll see how this all plays out. Lenny and Dean and Jonathan, thanks very much.

STRONG: Thank you.

BANFIELD: Also, I want to remind our viewers not to miss the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday. It's CNN's Arizona Republican debate. It's tomorrow, 8:00 p.m. eastern. Make sure you tune in. I feel like I haven't seen a debate in almost a month. I'm kind of --

(CROSSTALK)

SAMBOLIN: Ready for it.

BANFIELD: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: Well, it's just about here. It is 36 minutes past the hour. Still ahead, the Red Cross is trying to negotiate a deal to deliver some vital, vital supplies to all of those folks in Syria. They're trying to get food, medical supplies. They're hoping to broker a Syrian ceasefire. We're going to get an update on that.

BANFIELD: And on the TV landscape in America, there were so much made about the ads from Stephen Colbert last week, and he gets back to the airwaves and puts the wild rumors to rest as only Stephen Colbert could. We will give you a taste of what he had to stay. You're watching EARLY START.

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BANFIELD: Welcome back. It is 39 minutes past 5:00 on the east coast. Some brand new attempts overnight to broker at least a partial peace deal in Syria. Who knows how it will go, though.

The international Red Cross has been trying to secure an avenue of a ceasefire between the regime and the rebels, and all of this just so that they can get a highway of food and medical supplies into the city of Homs which has just been besieged.

SAMBOLIN: They desperately need that. Government troops are shelling homes for an 18th straight day. Opposition groups say at least seven civilians, including a baby killed in attacks on three neighborhoods. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh monitoring all of the developments for us from Beirut, Lebanon.

What could you tell us about this ceasefire being able to get some of those much needed supplies in?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: At the moment, it's still talk, like much of the diplomacy around this complexity -- this particular time. Yes, the Red Cross is trying to see if they can get some kind of cessation in hostilities so, perhaps, aid can get into the worst affected areas, specifically Homs.

But as we understand at the moment, not many details being released about these talks and concerns certainly that they may actually not reach this particularly badly hit area -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: I was reading here, Senator McCain, we're going to switch gears here, speaking out saying that the U.S. should arm the opposition. What are you hearing about that? Is that possible?

WALSH: Well, that's something that the opposition definitely wants to happen, but also, in the same breath, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he didn't think it was something they could do at this point in time because there wasn't clearly a figurehead, a political leader to the opposition at this particular point.

So, I think, you'll see, you got to bear in mind, some of the messages being given by U.S. officials suggesting the possibility that radical elements may slip in in the opposition as this complex drags on, something the opposition categorically denies, but that's going to complicate that effort as well.

But still today, regardless of this talk, regardless of this moves in foreign capital, Homs is being shelled. The person we spoke there saying it's actually possibly the heaviest they've had as yet, claiming 20 shells at one point landed in the space of one minute, something we can't verify, but terrifying indeed -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Nick, I was reading here on the death tolls, depending on who is actually giving you those numbers. They range from 5,000 to 9,000 people killed since the start of the uprising. Can you shed some light on that?

WALSH: Well, the United Nations say about 5 1/2 thousand people have been killed since the beginning of this unrest, but they admit because of conditions inside Syria, they've had to stop counting recently.

So, the more up to date figure is given by opposition activists who, at times, they're absolutely accurate, and at times, the information is hard to verify, but they are putting it near a figure about 9,000. So, terrifying, indeed.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Nick Paton Walsh live from Beirut. Thank you so much for joining us.

And still ahead on EARLY START, reading, writing, and rhinoplasty. You are not going to believe what teachers in Buffalo, New York, get free of charge. It is on the taxpayers' dime. They're running a $42.8 million deficit in that school district.

BANFIELD: Also, he is known for being tough on immigration, but the guy whose face is fuzzed out says that yes, his ex boyfriend, the Arizona sheriff tried to deport him, and that it was all because of a lover's spat. Well, the sheriff now answering to these charges and getting tougher and tougher, and he's doing it in an exclusive interview with CNN. You'll see some of it coming up.

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BANFIELD: Good morning. It is 46 minutes past the hour. Time to check your top stories if you're heading out this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Rick Santorum out to a double-digit lead over Mitt Romney in the latest Gallup tracking poll. New Federal Election Commission figures also show he doubled his fundraising in January after winning the Iowa caucuses.

And a panic that sparked high oil prices appears to be wearing off this morning. Oil prices were mixed in the Asian market today after a spike Monday. Analysts blamed the hike on Iran's decision to halt oil sales to France and Britain.

BANFIELD (voice-over): It was a very bad night in Oklahoma. Some deadly storms rolled through there, killing one person and trapping at least one other in a mobile home. That home was leveled, and look at the rescue attempts for the first responders as they frantically dig through trying to find people under the rubble. That storm pounded the plains with hail and rain and winds up to 70 miles an hour.

Former IMF chief and former French presidential hopeful seen here through a reflective window in the car. Dominic Strauss-Kahn is in trouble again. He is now being question in an alleged prostitution ring in France. You might remember here, in the city, there was all that press because he was charged with the attempted rape of a hotel worker in New York.

Those charges later dropped, but Strauss-Kahn filed a civil suit against his accuser. Now, he sought legal fronts in both countries.

Colbert nation, you can rejoice this morning. Stephen Colbert and the "Colbert Report" back on the air last night. He took two days off last week reportedly to attend to his 91-year-old ailing mother. Last night, he gave a very special tribute to his mom in a confidential message.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, 'THE COLBERT REPORT": Evidently, having 11 children makes you tough as nails. Confidential to a lovely lady.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Precious. He's the youngest of 11, by the way. And that little thing you just saw, him placing his finger on his nose.

SAMBOLIN: I think I just fell in love with him.

BANFIELD: I know. All over again. That's an homage to actress, Carol Burnett's signal to her grandmother. Remember, how Carol Burnett ended each show every night by tugging her earring? That was to say I love you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD (on-camera): So many saying that that was a confidential message to his mom when he did that to her.

SAMBOLIN: Very sweet.

BANFIELD: Imagine having 11 kids for starters.

SAMBOLIN: Ouch. She deserves a huge award for that alone, right?

BANFIELD: I'm going to tug my ear and push my nose for Mrs. Colbert. Way to go.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Let's head over to Jacqui Jeras and get a check on the weather. Good morning to you.

JACQUI JERAS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hey, good morning, ladies. Yes, very adorable. The weather today, really stormy. You know, we're looking at this flight of the country here from the Great Lakes down to the Gulf Coast, we're going to see very windy conditions. Rain in the Ohio Valley. Some snow mixed in here. The accumulations are going to be heavy, but they'll certainly be impacting your travel.

And our other storm moving into the pacific northwest, this is going to be a doozy. This is going to be tracking all the way across the country, might produce severe weather late in the week. Today, it's heavy rain and snow in the higher elevations. Major delays expected in Chicago. Most of those delays across the Great Lakes. Back to you, ladies.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you.

BANFIELD: Thanks, Jacqui.

SAMBOLIN: Forty-nine minutes past the hour. Still to come on EARLY START, when teachers in Buffalo, New York go under the knife, taxpayers foot the bill. It's an insurance perk you may not believe.

BANFIELD: And also, an exclusive here at CNN. Take a look at the pictures. Happy couple, not so much. On the right, the Arizona sheriff, Paul Babeu. On the left, his ex-boyfriend and allegations that he tried to have that ex-boyfriend deported by threatening to say, you say I'm gay, and you're out of the country. But is it true? You're watching EARLY START.

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BANFIELD: Welcome back. It is 53 minutes past the hour. And did you know that if you're a teacher in Buffalo Area, you can get a boob job or a nose job and be 100 percent covered for it, taxpayer's dime.

SAMBOLIN: Indeed. That is true. And here's what makes the story even more surprising. Both the city and the teachers union want to do away with the insurance rider that allows that to happen. CNNs Gary Tuchman has all the details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This Buffalo plastic surgeon has a lot of happy patients.

VALERIE AKAUOLA, BUFFALO, N.Y. TEACHER: Let's just suppose that I was a woman who weighed over 300 pounds and I lost maybe 150 or 160 pounds.

TUCHMAN: Indeed, that's what happened to Buffalo school teacher, Valeri Akauola. But it's not just the results that make her happy. It's the sweet deal that she gets. The sweet deal that all the 3,400 teachers in Buffalo are eligible to get. Under one of their insurance plan options, they're billed nothing for any plastic surgery procedure, such as Botox, liposuction, tummy tucks, and there is no deductible.

Linda Tokarz teaches second grade and says she gets regular treatments.

LINDA TOKARZ, BUFFALO, N.Y. TEACHER: I think it's great for us. I wouldn't want to see it taken away.

TUCHMAN: Dr. Kulwant Bhangoo has been a plastic surgeon in Buffalo for about 40 years.

DR. KULWANT S. BHANGOO, PLASTIC SURGEON: I feel that the teachers have paid their dues, and I think they could be wrong to take it away from them.

TUCHMAN: While he does plenty of non-teacher patients, Dr. Bhangoo does say three out of every ten are buffalo teachers, and the school district insurance covers every single penny.

BHANGOO: They were coming for like hair removal on the lips, face.

TUCHMAN: Do they also come in for liposuction?

BHANGOO: Yes.

TUCHMAN: Breast enhancements?

BHANGOO: Yes, they do.

TUCHMAN: Facelift.

BHANGOO: Yes.

TUCHMAN: Rhinoplasty.

BHANGOO: Yes.

TUCHMAN: So, it's busy.

BHANGOO: Yes.

TUCHMAN: Dr. Bhangoo is one of many plastic surgeons who advertise in where else, the teachers union newsletter. Last year, Buffalo's school spent $5.9 million in plastic surgery, which is also known as a cosmetic rider. The Buffalo teachers have had this rider for nearly four decades.

LOUIS PETRUCCI, PRESIDENT, BUFFALO, N.Y. BOARD OF EDUCATION: I've been unable to identify another district that has cosmetic riders for teachers.

TUCHMAN: You might think Buffalo school district must be flush with cash to be offering perks like free plastic surgery, right? Wrong. Louis Petrucci, the president of the Buffalo Board of Education says he's projecting a $42 million deficit in next year's budget.

If you had this $5.9 million that wasn't being spent on plastic surgery, what would you be doing with it now?

PETRUCCI: Hiring about 240 teachers.

TUCHMAN (on-camera): You don't have to be a brain surgeon to know that a plastic surgeon or a teacher would like this policy more than the typical taxpayer. But the teachers will tell you there's a lot more to the story. They say their contract with the city expired nearly a decade ago, that negotiations have failed.

(voice-over) And they add, they are woefully underpaid. It's quite interesting to hear what the president of the teachers union says about the plastic surgery benefit.

PHILIP RUMORE, PRESIDENT, BUFFALO, N.Y. TEACHERS FEDERATION: We've told the district from the beginning of negotiations six or eight years ago that we're willing to give it up. And as long as the district comes back to the table with us and negotiates, it's gone.

TUCHMAN: Do you feel that as a gesture of good faith, the union should say teachers no more free plastic surgery.

PETRUCCI: It'd be a wonderful gesture. We're willing to give it up. All the district has to come to the table and negotiate with us.

TUCHMAN: But you're not willing to do it unilaterally?

PETRUCCI: No.

TUCHMAN: Fact is that police and firefighters in Buffalo have similar plastic surgery programs. But those departments are not dealing with the same financial problems as the economically challenged school system.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody works for a living. They should pay their tax and offerings (ph) like everybody else.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't think the taxpayer has to pay for that. Not for free anyway.

TUCHMAN: But at least for now, the policy remains. In a school district with the unique mix of brain and beauty.

Gary Tuchman, CNN, Buffalo, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN: Hmm.

BANFIELD: Wow! Yes. That's all we have to say is wow. Wouldn't want to be a taxpayer in that community. That's all I'm saying.

SAMBOLIN: Fifty-six minutes past the hour. Still ahead, the GOP now starting to think about the possibility of Rick Santorum winning the nomination. He is out to a double-digit lead in the latest polls. Can he really beat Romney, or perhaps, some are worried about can he really beat Obama.

BANFIELD: And the president has a plan to, quote, "nudge" Republicans into action. He's talking today about getting things done in an election year. Oh, how's that going to work out for you? You're watching EARLY START.

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