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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Santorum At The Top; Obama To Nudge Congress Today; Philadelphia Church Sex Abuse Trial; Sheriff Babeu Speaks Out On Accusations; iPHone "Death Grip" Settlement; Gas Prices Rising; Santorum at the Top; Afghan Koran Protest; Sheriff Babeu Speaks Out On Accusations

Aired February 21, 2012 - 06:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. It's 6:00 in the morning on the East Coast. That means it's an EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: We are very happy you're with us this morning. I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z. Let's get started here for you.

Santorum is pulling away. He has a double digit lead now in the latest polls. Does that worry Republicans? We're going to let our panelists weigh in on that this morning.

BANFIELD: Also, we've got a CNN exclusive with Sheriff Paul Babeu. Don't know who he is? Well, you're going to. He's the tough on immigration sheriff, famous for an ad with John McCain saying complete the damn fence, but now he may be made more famous because he's been outed as gay.

And, also, because he's been accused of threatening his ex-lover with deportation if that lover said he was gay, and he's a rising star in the Republican Party. More on all that too.

SAMBOLIN: And we love sharing good news with you. So listen to this. Apple has been ordered to pay up. They're settling a lawsuit over the iPhone 4 death grip. So be on a look out for an e-mail headed your way, some freebies.

BANFIELD: And, baby, you can drive that car, but you are going to pay for it big time. Gas prices are surging and some folks are actually whispering five bucks a gallon by summertime.

Yes. There's that. Families already have been forced to make tough choices now having to decide whether they need to stay home for vacation or actually pay --

SAMBOLIN: What makes me really mad?

BANFIELD: Five dollars?

SAMBOLIN: I mean, so many people, their daily budget. How do you do that?

BANFIELD: That reaction is exactly what the Republicans want because this is where near going with their campaign against President Obama. A lot of people are saying they're going to focus on the fact that people are angry about gas prices --

SAMBOLIN: This is reality. It's the reality regardless of whether you're a Republican or Democrat. This is a reality.

BANFIELD: And how much can you blame it on the president and how much can the Democrats say it's Iran's fault, don't blame us? It's a great debate no matter what.

SAMBOLIN: All right, it's 2 minutes past the hour. Here it is now, a double digit lead. Former Senator Rick Santorum, he is in the driver's seat.

BANFIELD: I don't know if he's paying $5 for gas, but he is in the driver's seat. He got a 10-point opened up lead over Mitt Romney in the latest Gallup national tracking poll.

Are you ready for the numbers if you don't believe me? Look at the picture. He's at 36 percent over Romney's 26 percent. Gingrich falling well behind at 13 percent and there's good old Ron Paul hanging in at 11 percent hoping for some of those proportional delegates.

All of this as some party insiders are starting to whisper that, Santorum could really win this nomination and is that such a good thing? Listen to Ari Fleischer last night on "AC 360."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you really think he will get the nomination?

ARI FLEISCHER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I really do. I'm prepared to say that now for the first time I would say that. I've always thought this was an open race, anybody -- anything could happen. It was that kind of wild year.

But don't underestimate what has happened now with people going to Rick Santorum and he does need to broaden it. Social issues really demote vat him. He speaks from the heart.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: CNN's political director is Mark Preston. He's live from Mesa, Arizona, where the big debate gets under way tomorrow. Mark, I had been thinking all along, much to do about nothing.

This whole GOP race so far has been a roller coaster with loads of peaks and valleys. This is just another one of those until I heard President Bush's former press secretary say that. Is there something more to this? MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, you know what's great about what he said is he said I am now prepared to say that Rick Santorum could win the nomination. That's drama and that's exactly what Republican insiders are thinking right now.

You know, Mitt Romney actually was supposed to be the one who is going to win the nomination and he was going to be best suited to take on President Obama in November. He could perhaps appeal to those independent voters or even more moderate Republican voters who could vote Democrat depending on the election year.

But now they are looking at Rick Santorum. He is now at 10 points nationally as you just pointed out. The reason why he's doing so well in the Republican primary is that he's talking about issues that real conservative Republican voters want to talk about.

But these aren't issues that are going to play well in the general election. That's why you have the GOP establishment scratching their head saying, if Rick Santorum wins, could we lose November?

BANFIELD: So, Mark, I'm reading on "Politico" this morning that -- and I'm preface this by saying it was the headline that stood out to me. It was "pro Santorum PAC picks up another mega donor."

Because up until now I kept thinking, look, Mitt Romney has the money and Newt Gingrich has Sheldon Adelson and the money and Rick Santorum has peanuts.

And now I'm reading that Rick Santorum has picked up another big, big donor. This is like a million dollar donor. Is this a sign of things to come?

PRESTON: Well, what we are starting to see now is that people are starting to get behind Rick Santorum. There are a lot of deep- pocketed donors out there who are strong social conservatives who want to see Rick Santorum win the nomination.

Again, these aren't necessarily the establishment Republicans, but these are Republicans who are really driven by social conservative issues. As you said, Rick Santorum doesn't have the money, but he's got the momentum and in some ways he has the support of the grass roots.

When you're run for president in the Republican presidential nomination, maybe the grass roots can just win out over organization and money, which is what Mitt Romney has.

BANFIELD: OK, well, there's mojo, there's money, and then there's debates. We've got one coming tomorrow night. What does Rick Santorum need to do to make some sort of real memorable moment that Newt's done, Mitt's done, is this Rick's turn?

PRESTON: Well, you know, Rick Santorum has pretty much had very good debate performances over the last 19 debates. Yes, I did say that, 19 debates. BANFIELD: Lord!

PRESTON: He's done well -- and we'll have the 20th tomorrow night here. Yes, right. So, you know, he's always had good debate performances. They've always been overshadowed though by Mitt Romney and Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich and sometimes Ron Paul.

He's a very good debater. He spent a lot of time in Congress. He knows how to do it. But tomorrow night, there's going to be a lot of knockout punches you've got to expect to be thrown, not only by Rick Santorum, but by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich because there's a lot on the line.

This will be the last debate, not only before the Arizona/Michigan primaries on the 28th, but before Super Tuesday on March 6th. So there's an incredible amount on the line tomorrow.

BANFIELD: Well, maybe that's the great strategy. Stay under the radar as long as you can. We'll find out what happens. Mark Preston, nice to see you. Thanks.

PRESTON: Thanks, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Also want to remind you. Don't miss the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday. CNN's Arizona Republican debate gets under way 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time tomorrow night.

SAMBOLIN: It's 7 minutes past the hour. New this morning, President Obama expected to go after Congress today. CNN is learning that he will push lawmakers to get more accomplished today at his payroll tax cut event that's scheduled at 11:35.

Senior administration officials telling our Jessica Yellin he will use it as a springboard to urge Congress to pass more bipartisan measures. The White House saying it's no longer accepting that Congress can sit on its hands in an election year.

BANFIELD: Also Philadelphia's Catholic archdiocese is sort of figuratively going on trial today. Jury selection set to begin in a child sex abuse case in that city. Three priests and a Catholic schoolteacher are charged with sexual assaulting young boys.

Monsignor William Lynn is charged with child endangerment. He's the highest ranking U.S. church official to stand trial. The Philadelphia archdiocese is accused of failing to investigate the sex abuse claims and the testimony is expected to begin next month.

SAMBOLIN: Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu defending himself against allegations from a former boyfriend that the sheriff threatened him with deportation.

BANFIELD: He sat down with our Wolf Blitzer exclusively on Monday. Alina Cho is here now with more from that interview. It's like a bombshell after bombshell, but he is digging in? ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He most certainly is. He hit all of the tough questions head-on. You know, a big reason why this is getting a lot of attention, of course, is because Paul Babeu is a rising star in the Republican Party in Arizona.

He is by the book sheriff who has built a reputation as being tough on immigration, tough on drug enforcement. He also happened to serve a tour duty in Iraq.

But now these accusations are not threatening to derail not only his political aspirations, but could also pose big problems for Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. We'll explain that in just a moment.

But here's the back story. Babeu said that his former boyfriend who we are calling Jose once worked as a volunteer on his campaign web site, running much of the social media. You see Miguel Marquez there.

He spoke to Miguel yesterday after their relationship soured, the sheriff said Jose stole his identity, hacked into his campaign web site and then posted what he calls slanderous information online.

Now Babeu said he never threatened to deport Jose and points out, he doesn't have the authority to do so anyway. He also denied that he made any other threats. Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": He says there were phone calls. There were text messages in which you were supposedly threatening him.

SHERIFF PAUL BABEU, PINAL COUNTRY, ARIZONA: And this is documented as well. I said, I said, how can you -- you think you're going to do business. He had a business with web sites. He just stole my web sites and put slanderous information on my web sites and how can -- how can anybody expect to do business?

All I wanted this -- because I have waffle authority for arrests, there was no arrest, there was no lawful authority. I do what you and other citizens would have done, went to an attorney.

The attorney handled the matter. I thought it was done. Now as I'm approaching five months into this election, I'm 10 points ahead in the poll over an incumbent member of Congress, and all this stuff comes out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHO: Timing is everything.

SAMBOIN: It most certainly is. And he's running for congress, as he said there. Any word on whether he plans to drop out or what he plans to do next? CHO: No, he plans to stay in the race. He is running for the Republican nomination in the 4th congressional district in Arizona. He's staying in and he's fighting. He said he's never backed away from a fight.

He believes all of this is politically motivated. He has however, stepped down as the Arizona campaign co-chair of the Romney campaign and adds he was not pressured to do so. It was his decision.

As I mentioned, he is actively staying in the race for Congress probably a big reason why he's speaking out. So watch this moment in the interview when Wolf asked him about a topic that will likely become a campaign issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You know you want to be a member of the House of Representatives, right?

BABEU: Yes.

BLITZER: People are going to ask you political questions about gay marriage, for example. Should gay men and women have the right to get married?

BABEU: This is where I go Ron Paul on people in terms of the libertarian. I believe in less government at the federal level. They should get out of the people's lives.

Unless it's an enumerated power in the constitution, it falls to the states. This is where it falls to the states. We have had Washington. We have had a number of other states, Massachusetts. Now we have --

BLITZER: Maryland.

BABEU: -- Maryland and they have all made decisions. Arizona has made a decision. That's the law of the land. I enforce the law. I can tell you my personal beliefs and my political beliefs are I believe in freedom of religion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So I don't quite understand why he would step down as co-chair yet continue to run for Congress. Like one is not acceptable, the other is?

CHO: It's so interesting because, you know, people have asked me. They knew I was going to cover the story and they said, you know, what about the political fallout. I said, well, it depends on how you look at it.

He is stepping down as campaign co-chair of the Romney campaign. He was very adamant about saying it was his decision. They did not ask him to step down. That is what everyone is saying publicly. You don't know what is going on behind the scenes, but you have to take him at his word.

Having said that, he is continuing to run for Congress. Now as for the support that he has gotten, this is also interesting. He said that it has been far reaching and unwavering. Members of his staff, elected official, mayors, all have come forward to support him.

And the sheriff said that he rarely gets emotional, but when he saw that type of support that he did get emotional. He said he's never backed away from it and he's not about to now and he's going ahead with his campaign.

BANFIELD: This makes me wonder if the Mitt folks were as supportive as his staff and everybody else around the congressional battle.

SAMBOLIN: You have to wonder.

BANFIELD: Alina, good work. Thanks.

SAMBOLIN: All right, we're going to be speaking to the reporter who actually broke the story. We'll ask him about that, whether he has that support in his area. Monica Alonzo from the "Phoenix New Times" is joining us at 6:45 Eastern.

BANFIELD: And it's now 13 minutes past 6:00. You have an iPhone and iPad and everything, right? Look at her. She doesn't go anywhere without it. Are you one of the people who is going to benefit from this new settlement?

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: She's so excited.

SAMBOLIN: I love freebies. Doing the right thing, and they did.

BANFIELD: The iPhone folks might be sending you an e-mail entitled debt grip. It's not a joke and it's not a virus. It's actually something you might appreciate.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, I'm making a big deal out of it. It's not that big, but still it's free.

All right, Lin-sanity, remember him? It all started a few games ago against New Jersey. What happened in the rematch?

BANFIELD: It's just a one-game thing, isn't it?

SAMBOLIN: It is. You're absolutely right, Ms. Ashleigh Banfield, it is a one-game thing.

BANFIELD: Lin-sanity didn't continue.

SAMBOLIN: No, it's OK. I'm good with it. I'm wearing my t- shirt to wish him luck.

BANFIELD: Jacqui Jeras is also following the Lin-sanity joining us this morning with a quick look at the travel forecast. Hi, girl.

JACQUI JERAS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi, guys. Travel insanity kind of across parts of the Midwest this morning. Blustery and snowy start for you, Minneapolis, St. Paul, one to three inches in the last 24 hours.

So things are going to be slick there. Also Chicago, your rain just changed over to some snow, but little accumulation is going to be expected. High pressure hugging the East Coast so great weather for you here today. And the northwest, this is going to be the storm of the day. A bunch of moisture moving in, flooding along with high winds.

And speaking of winds, take a look at what they did yesterday in Texas. That's dust. You can see it from space.

That's the latest on your forecast. Ashleigh and Zoraida are back right after this break. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Good morning, Phoenix. It is 48 degrees there now. Later, it's going to be a nice, balmy 76 degrees for you. "The Leader of the Pack" here because we're talking about things on (ph) Santorum. Ashleigh is having a moment.

BANFIELD: I am.

SAMBOLIN: She's (INAUDIBLE) having a moment.

BANFIELD: I love the Shangri-Las. Just listen. It's a great way to wake up. You've got to admit, right? If you've got to get up at 18 minutes past the hour.

SAMBOLIN: I don't know. Wake up to motorcycles, I don't know. I don't know that I would choose that.

BANFIELD: Oh, come on. This is a good tune.

Like I said, if you're waking up now, then we've got some news for you. Top stories, "Time" and Rick Santorum, leader of the pack, my friends. He's out in front with double digit numbers in the national -- the latest national Gallup Tracking Poll. I already think that -- I think this is before he heard about double digits.

Here's a guy whose smile might dissipate because the former senator is leading Mitt Romney with 36 percent of the vote to Romney's 26 percent.

Also in the news, former IMF chief and former French presidential hopeful, too, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, bad news for him again. He is being questioned in an alleged prostitution ring in France.

You might remember that he was charged here actually in New York last May with attempted rape of a hotel worker. Those charges were later dropped. He in turn filed a civil suit afterwards. Also, Greece is getting another chance. It's a second bailout, folks, that's been approved by the Eurozone. The finance minister approved $173 billion bailout deal for that teeny tiny country. Greece has now agreed to toughen its austerity measures and we'll just see how that goes over with the folks who live in Greece and have to actually eat up those measures.

SAMBOLIN: And police say they have caught the man who robbed Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. Twenty-eight-year-old Vedel Browne, there he is right there, he turned himself in. He's accused of using a machete to rob Justice Breyer at his vacation home in the Caribbean.

And listen to this, folks. Apple is counting down on its website as it closes in on a magic number 25 billion apps downloaded. Listen to this. Whoever downloads that 25th billion app will win an Apple gift card worth $10,000.

BANFIELD: How about just the money? You have to buy apple stuff with that $10,000?

SAMBOLIN: Yes, I'll take the gift card, Ashleigh. I will take the gift card.

BANFIELD: I'm such a whiner. I am such a whiner.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, indeed. The New Jersey Nets taming Lin-sanity. Did you see this? And they beat Jeremy Lin -- Jeremy Lin and the Knicks, 100 to 92 last night at Madison Square Garden. That makes it worse. Lin began his remarkable run against New Jersey. The Nets' Deron Williams took that personally scoring 38 points and the win. Jeremy Lin had 21 points and the loss.

BANFIELD: I'm still kind of bitter about that -- that present, that money that you have to spend at the Apple Store.

SAMBOLIN: Then don't bother to try to be that --

BANFIELD: I think I wouldn't bother with that.

Well, all right. So if we're talking $25 million teeny, tiny bite out of the Apple? How about this little bite out of the Apple? If you had a problem with your phone and it was the "Death Grip" which was the problem, watch your e-mail because something that says "Death Grip" in your e-mail is no problem. Open it. Look at it. Could mean relief for you. We'll explain.

SAMBOLIN: This is something that's going to burn you up, $5 gas by the summer? Could surging gas prices derail the recovery?

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: OK. Twenty-five minutes past 6:00 A.M. And just before Christine Romans gets here, we have to get you up on an Apple -- another Apple story. We're just full of Apples today. But this is payback for all of you folks who had dropped calls because you had a bad antenna problem. Apple settled a class action suit over that whole iPhone 4 debacle. This is called the "Death Grip." Remember?

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: They're now promising to pay $15 or give a free case to anybody in the U.S. who bought the iPhone 4 and had this problem.

So here's the deal. You're going to get an e-mail. It's going out sometime in April.

SAMBOLIN: Watch for it.

BANFIELD: And it'll probably say something about a death grip but it's not a virus, because usually if I see "Death Grip" in my inbox it's a big fat delete. Just want to make sure.

SAMBOLIN: No, pay attention. Pay attention. All right.

BANFIELD: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: We're "Minding Your Business."

Gas prices, they just keep on going up. AAA says the national average for a gallon of gas is $3.57 right now. It's been rising for the past two weeks. I'm sure you've noticed, right?

BANFIELD: I get all crazy about this until I saw a statistic earlier this morning that back in 2008, I think in July, we were way higher than this.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: But it hurt. I mean it hurt back then. You know -- and, look, gas prices are probably going to keep rising through May, ladies.

And if you haven't, make sure your tires are properly inflated, don't have a bunch of junk in the trunk of your car. Throw all the things -- you know, if you have too much stuff in your trunk, I mean, if you're carrying on too much stuff in your car, it's not a good idea.

Don't drive the big car if you can drive the little car. Look, look, all of this is starting to matter because gas is up 10 percent almost in price so far of this year. Interestingly enough, it's not because we're using more gas in this country, it's because we're concerned about Iran and because the global oil markets are moving higher.

Gas prices rise, it hurts everybody. It also hurts the U.S. economy and that's what people are worried about right now. Why? It's not just us driving. I want to show you all the things that gas price -- oil prices affect. You know, how much you pay at the pump, of course, but also transportation cost, or everything that's going to your grocery store, everything that's going to the mall, those are up.

Tires and petroleum byproducts, those prices go up. That means packaging cost is going up because a lot of that stuff are derivatives of -- of petroleum products.

SAMBOLIN: Like the bubble wrap and everything?

ROMANS: Yes, absolutely. Raw materials for manufacturing go up. The cost to run a factory goes up. Chemical prices go up.

And in the end, you've got companies who have all of their costs rising who say, maybe we'll get the hiring plans on hold for now because we have our -- our input costs are going up. So this is why we're watching it so closely.

Iran is getting all the blame. It's a lot of psychological blame at this point, but Iran is saying it's going to take -- keep oil away from some European markets. You know, the European Union, they're already saying that they're not going to take Iranian oil after six months. So there's already the fight going on between Iranian oil. But we're all in the same world market so that's what's causing those prices to go up. But it affects absolutely everything.

Go to the AAA Web site if you want to make sure that you're doing all of things with your car.

BANFIELD: The junk in the trunk.

(CROSSTALK)

SAMBOLIN: You forget about those little things that you can do that can actually affect change.

ROMANS: I know, but I think people are starting to carpool a little bit. People are not doing --

SAMBOLIN: It's very tough when you think of this great story about driving and just coasting.

ROMANS: Yes, yes, yes.

SAMBOLIN: A year or two ago. I think I remember seeing him do it.

ROMANS: And all of these myths and realities, and people, you know, car people (INAUDIBLE), go to fuelgaugereport.com, I think. I think fuelgaugereport.com you can get all of this really great advice on AAA.

BANFIELD: OK.

ROMANS: I'll tweet it out to you. We can all tweet it together. BANFIELD: The headline here -- Iran.

ROMANS: Gas prices are going up. Plan accordingly. Plan accordingly. Gas prices are rising.

BANFIELD: Thank you, Christine.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, thank you.

BANFIELD: I think. So still ahead --

SAMBOLIN: Knowledge is power.

BANFIELD: Is it ever. Is it ever. And coast when you drive. Come on. Don't hit the brake all the time. Just coast to the stop sign.

ROMANS: Don't be an aggressive driver.

BANFIELD: Exactly, exactly.

BANFIELD: Mean drivers pay more.

SAMBOLIN: The Midwest (ph) girl there.

BANFIELD: Surging, folks, on the politics front, this guy has reasons to smile. Is it just a blip or is this boost he's been getting, is he going to get some traction, ride that all of the way to the convention? Why are some Republicans not happy about that? You'll find out.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: A little pep in my step. Sometimes, we open the power cam and it's Shangri-La, and sometimes it's house music. And we're doing house music this morning at 6:32.

It's nice to have you back with us. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are happy you're with us this morning.

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

Rick Santorum surging ahead. He's now out to a double digit lead nationally. This is in the latest Gallup tracking poll. The former senator with 36 percent, Mitt Romney is coming in second place with 26 percent.

President Obama hoping the payroll tax deal is just the start of a productive year. He's expected to push congress to pass legislation to help the economy and to create job. That's scheduled an event in just a few hours from now.

BANFIELD: Deadly storms rolled through Oklahoma and one person is dead. Another person trapped. Look at the first responders trying to dig through the rubble of a mobile home that was flattened, just desperately seeking any signs of life. That storm pounded the plains with hail and rain, 70-mile-an-hour winds as well.

It is Fat Tuesday, as they call it. Live picture on Bourbon Street. Don't you love waking up to a shot like that?

Take a look on the left-hand side. Love the garage festering on Bourbon Street. Things are going to get pretty excited there. A dozen parades are getting ready to roll out this morning in and around the big easy. You will know from years gone by this is the last big blowout of carnival season before Ash Wednesday.

Look at that.

SAMBOLIN: Cleaning away all the garbage there. They're listening to you, Ashleigh.

Take that garbage out of the way. We don't want that on our pictures. There it goes.

BANFIELD: They must have heard us complaining about the dirt on the street of Bourbon Street. How about that timing?

SAMBOLIN: Yes. Perfect timing.

BANFIELD: It's lovely on Bourbon Street now at 6:33 in the morning.

SAMBOLIN: So we are counting down to the big CNN Arizona GOP debate. The last presidential debate before Super Tuesday.

Rick Santorum is now clearly the front-runner in the GOP race. He's opening up a double digit lead nationally. This is in the latest Gallup tracking poll.

So, we're now hearing something new from some key Republicans. He could win this thing. So let's talk to our panelists about this. We have senior contributor politics 365.com Lenny McAllister; CNN.com contributor Dean Obeidallah; and "Roll Call" writer Jonathan Strong.

Lenny, I want to starts with you. And this Santorum surge, right? We're talking about Mitt Romney being the inevitable nominee and now, Santorum is ahead in the polls. Let's listen to what Ari Fleischer said last night on "A.C. 360" and then we're going to talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

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

But don't underestimate what has happened now with people going to Rick Santorum. And he does need to broaden it. The social issues really do motivate him. And he speaks from the heart.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: That's former press secretary for George W. Bush. That's pretty huge. How do you think the GOP feels about that?

MCALLISTER: They're not to excited about it. If you look at two states, it tells you exactly why Mr. Fleischer is right. You look at Michigan where Santorum is beating Romney in the state where Romney grew up and then you look at Pennsylvania.

One of the arguments against Rick Santorum, always was, look at how he lost in 2006, he lost by this huge double digit loss deficit. But now, look at Pennsylvania. He's actually winning and has been ahead of Romney for a while in Pennsylvania.

If Santorum wins Michigan and can somehow win Pennsylvania later on in this process, you probably will see Rick Santorum ahead of the pack moving into Tampa and it's something the Republican establishment absolutely positively does not want to see. But it's headed that way.

SAMBOLIN: Well, Ari said don't underestimate him. We're going talk about that, about whether or not they're happy with this choice.

Jonathan, I'm going to talk to you about this. There are reports that senior Republicans are nervous about either candidate and they are circulating plans that show how new candidates could actually enter this race. They're talking about a brokered convention, perhaps a contested convention -- 66 percent of Republicans don't want that.

What's the likelihood that any of that will happen?

JONATHAN STRONG, STAFF WRITER, ROLL CALL: Well, it's still a long shot but there is a lot of unease among Republicans about this slate of candidates. If I can just disagree there with my fellow panelist on Michigan, for instance -- Mitt Romney made huge progress in the last couple of days and the polls are now within the margin of error.

And usually the states that, you know, have been big contests where a lot of money has gone into them, Romney has been able to go ahead. So, you know, there's a lot of momentum for Santorum but I wouldn't put Romney out of this yet.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Dean, there is one person that is pleased by Santorum's success. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Of course, he owns FOX News. I'm going to put a tweet that I'd like you to look at.

"From a distance, Santorum doing great. Values really do count in America, and not sneered at as in parts of Europe. Win Michigan game over."

That's my question. Win Michigan, game over? Your thoughts on that.

DEAN OBEIDALLAH, FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO CNN.COM: No, not even close. Let's be honest. You know, it gives momentum to Rick Santorum if he wins Michigan and Arizona. Super Tuesday coming up a little over a week after that. We're going to have 10 primaries.

This is far from over. This is a battle to the end. And Rick Santorum, his views get more and more by mainstream Americans, they're going to see he has a problem. He's on far right.

There are people in the Taliban who would call Rick Santorum a radical conservative. I'm not even kidding.

He's sincerely, he's far right. He wants to see our laws and the Bible contort or agree. That is -- so, it's scary.

I don't think -- I think it's far from over. I don't think the average American has taken time in the recession and struggle of their life to focus on this race yet. That's going to be in the future.

SAMBOLIN: Who is laughing?

STRONG: I was laughing because, you know, the idea that Santorum is to the right of the Taliban is a little ridiculous. I mean, yes, the guy has polarizing conservative issues but I think that's over-stating it just a bit.

OBEIDALLAH: It is lightly over-stating but let's be honest. I mean, the man is against abortion even in the case of rape -- meaning a woman who is raped has to carry a child to term? He's against gay marriage to the point that he will annul it if he's president. Meaning, everyone who has gay marriage legally will be thrown into disarray because their marriage is illegal.

He's also against pornography, which I think is anti-American. Let's be honest.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: I'm going to move on, gentlemen. I'm moving on to my final question here.

I think we're going to play by the rules today. I'm not sure. It's one name answer.

Newt Gingrich gave an interview on the "Rich Stevens Radio Show". So, he said that he would want Brad Pitt to play him in a movie. Not because they look alike but because it's Brad Pitt.

So who would you choose to play newt in a movie? I said I don't want any reasons on this but -- just a name. I may want reasons.

Lenny, I'm going to start with you.

MCALLISTER: You know, I was thinking about Anthony Hopkins, somebody that is extremely intelligent but very scary, smart.

BANFIELD: That's good.

MCALLISTER: But after Brad Pitt, I'm thinking about lady --

SAMBOLIN: Like Hannibal Lecter?

MCALLISTER: Yes, but now I'm thinking about the ladies man, maybe he should do that after picking Brad Pitt. Maybe it goes back to his philandering past.

SAMBOLIN: Dean?

OBEIDALLAH: I think the Geico lizard would be perfect. Newt, he's got some qualities about Newt that I have no problems with. And Geico lizard is likable, and that's actually should be a good positive thing, because I don't think he's that likable.

SAMBOLIN: Jonathan?

STRONG: I get a big kick on this "Saturday Night Live" parody of Newt. So, I forget the name of the actor but that's a great one.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

OBEIDALLAH: Thanks.

SAMBOLIN: And, of course, do not miss the last presidential debate before Super Tuesday. CNN's Arizona Republican debate tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: It's 43 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

Happening right now in Afghanistan. Hundred of demonstrators are gathering outside Bagram Air Base. They're protesting the burning of copies of the Koran and other Islamic religious materials.

The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan is apologizing and promises an investigation.

BANFIELD: CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is monitoring the developments. That is his beat. He's in Beirut for this morning, in Lebanon.

All right. So, Nick, this isn't something that somebody should jump to a conclusion about. but what exactly happened?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ashleigh, it's still quite hard to understand how this could have occurred. Deeply insensitive to many, of course, in the entire Muslim faith. Bagram Air Base is a huge facility. So, there are Afghan detainees there some point, much traffic for -- all of the east of Afghanistan, frankly, goes through there, and some many other operations as well.

So, of course, part of that, there will be as they refer to religious materials. And we should see in this case to have included parts of the Koran. Now, it's not clear how these were collected and then passed through. It seems to be the waste disposal part of that base which then I think hands outside of the base to Afghans who at this point obviously taking great offense at finding these particular materials.

But, certainly, this is one kind of a distraction. This is the last thing ISAF really need. They're trying to win hearts and minds. The clock is ticking on the amount of time they have troops there to continue their mission.

And things like this -- well, frankly, there have been many reports of Koran burning denied by ISAF, actually having to come forward and say, yes, this did occur and we are deeply apologetic about it, does nothing when you're trying to win a population over, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: The commander, John Allen, has issued an apology to not only the president of Afghanistan but all of the people of the Islamic Republic. Is this not enough? I mean, is there anything they can do to try to assuage this, because you can see those crowds and those are the kinds of crowds that get out of hand real fast?

WALSH: It's basically things like this recently in which U.S. marines with video urinating on the corpses (ph) of Afghans. What they do is they kind of act as trigger points which inflame the tension in the population, already furious with a ten-year NATO presence that hasn't really changed their lives in the way that was originally promised.

Troubled by corruption in the Afghan government, things like this just act as, really, a flash point, and that's what the scene seems like this, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right. Nick Paton Walsh live for us in Beirut, Lebanon, on the beat of the Afghan story. Thanks, Nick.

SAMBOLIN: And Soledad O'Brien joins us now with a look at what is ahead on "STARTING POINT." Good morning.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST: Hey, good morning, ladies. Coming up this morning on "Starting Point" which begins in roughly 15 minutes, we're going to be talking to the Democratic congressman, Steve Israel, of New York. We're going to talk about Rick Santorum who's gaining some steam. He's now the target of both Republicans and Democrats. We'll ask about strategy there.

Plus, a young woman who says she is an atheist is able to win a big battle which ends up in a $40,000 scholarship. She gets a sign that displays a religious slogan taken out of her school. We'll talk about that this morning.

Also, a rare look inside a really interesting community, a tight-knit Hasidic Jewish community in New York. Deborah Feldman who's written a book about running away from that community. It is a fascinating read. We'll talk to her this morning as well. That's straight ahead on "Starting Point." EARLY START after this break.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHIL KEOGHAN, HOST, AMAZING RACE: Hi. I'm Phil Keoghan, host of "The Amazing Race." I travel about 400,000 miles a year. When I say "go" on the "Amazing Race" --

Go!

KEOGHAN: -- it's just go on for about 25 days. I started travelling when I was two, and I really haven't stopped traveling. I hand-fed sharks in the Bahamas. We did live skydiving. I putted a golf ball across Scotland once. Getting my reindeer racing license. Oh, I even renewed my vows Underwood (ph) once with my wife. I've been to over a hundred countries.

I've actually been keeping my boarding passes for the last 20 something years as well.

That's a whole lot of traveling.

I haven't found a piece of luggage that really worked for the way I like to travel. So, I designed a piece of luggage that gives me easy access to everything that has to get pulled out and put back into a bag when you're traveling.

From my original now like this, I put on that I want to go to outer space. I'm ready to go. I'd like to talk to Richard Branson (ph) about that. Travel safe, and remember, the world is waiting for you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Fifty-one minutes past 6:00 on the East Coast. The sheriff accused of threatening to deport his gay lover speaking out exclusively on CNN.

SAMBOLIN: You know, those photos emerged of Sheriff Paul Babeu and the ex-boyfriend known as Jose. Also, we saw some more intimate pictures of the sheriff as well. He is running for Congress, and he has built a national reputation taking a very hard line on immigration. All of these allegations are threatening to derail his political career. So, last night, he told our Wolf Blitzer that the allegations were politically motivated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF PAUL BABEU, PINAL COUNTY, ARIZONA: This has been trying to get rolled out by numerous political opponents, and now, it has under the slanderous, baseless attack. And then, all of a sudden, everybody reports it as if it was true from this tabloid, and nobody has verified any of the facts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: That was exclusive interview that he had with Wolf Blitzer. Monica Alonzo is the reporter who actually broke this story. She is with the "Phoenix New Times." Thank you forgetting up so early this morning. We really appreciate it. I don't know if you watched the interview, but Sheriff Babeu spoke with Wolf Blitzer last night, and we think that there was some criticism that was directed at you.

He called your paper a tabloid, and so, that the allegations are baseless and slanderous. You know, it's in reference to the evidence that he actually threatened his ex-boyfriend with deportation. What can you tell us about that?

MONICA ALONZO, REPORTER, "PHOENIX NEW TIMES": Well, when Jose approached us and shared these allegations with us, part of the thing that he did is he did provide us some letters, some text messages.

One of the things that the sheriff hasn't talked about is a text message which he doesn't deny that he sent to Jose that talks about you'll never have business again, and he also says in that text message that Jose is going to cause great harm not only to himself but also to his family.

You know, what exactly did he mean by that? And the other thing that Jose provided us is letters that his attorney sent to Christi Rose, who is Paul's attorney, Paul Babeu's attorney. And in it, in the letter, they definitely get into the issue of, she reference their claim that his legal status here was not valid, and she says that's simply not true.

So, clearly, at some point, a discussion about Jose's visa came up. At some point, you know, the sheriff was angry, and he was telling Jose that, you know, that he was going to cause great harm to himself and to his family.

SAMBOLIN: And, so that was interpreted --

ALONZO: -- exactly what he means with that.

SAMBOLIN: OK. So, that was interpreted to mean a threat of deportation?

ALONZO: No, the letter -- the letter that Jose's attorney sent to Paul Babeu's attorney makes reference to their claims that Jose's status here was not valid. So, they raise the issue of his visa being expired. And what --

SAMBOLIN: He is on ten-year multiple entry visa, is he not? Have you confirmed that?

ALONZO: That's what he says. That's what his attorney says. What was here was just sort of using the visa as leverage. The thing is, I talked to multiple immigration attorneys. And when you're an immigrant here in this country, whether you're status is legal or illegal, you don't always understand what the process works.

When you get a text message from somebody like the sheriff who, as you mentioned, you know, very hard line stance on illegal immigration, you know, that can be taken very seriously by someone.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. The sheriff, we understand, is running for Congress. And he said that, really, this is politically motivated. He's questioning the timing of this. How did you come to talk to Jose? Did he reach out to you or did you -- how did you find him?

ALONZO: Yes. Jose reached out to us. You know, part of the reason that he went to the attorney was because he was afraid he was being intimidated. And then, he reached out to us. During our conversations, one of the things that he said is that he felt that there needed to be accountability, and he wanted to stop being afraid. And he felt like the best way to do that was just to stand up and speak out.

SAMBOLIN: Well, we were -- we had Alina Cho, one of our reporters, on earlier, and, she was sharing with us some of the interview last night with Wolf Blitzer. And one of the things that the sheriff said is that he still has the support of the people in his run for Congress. What do you know about that?

ALONZO: Well, there's definitely people that are coming forward and supporting his right to be gay and his right to be a politician at the same time, which is fine. I mean, that's wonderful. But the story is not about Paul Babeu being gay.

The story is about this allegation that he was using his ex-boyfriend's visa status as leverage to silence him about their relationship. And in fairness to both parties, this really does need to be investigated.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Monica Alonzo, "Phoenix New Times" reporter, thanks for joining us this morning. We'll be right back.

ALONZO: You're welcome.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: So, that's it for us. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: I'm Ashleigh Banfield, and that would mean the end of our show is the beginning of Soledad's show.

O'BRIEN: Parting is such sweet sorrow.

BANFIELD: Not for us.

(LAUGHTER) BANFIELD: We've been up all night, sister.

O'BRIEN: Oh, you're right. Sorry. I'll take it from here. Thanks, ladies. Appreciate it.