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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Rick Santorum Surges in Recent Polls; Interview with Former White House Deputy Communications Director; Sixteen-year-old Atheist Wins Court Battle; Buffalo Teachers Get Plastic Surgery, Bill Taxpayers; Violence In Syria; Elections In Yemen; DSK Questioned In Prostitution Ring; President Obama To Push Congress; iPHone 4 "Death Grip" Settlement; Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories; Will It Be A Brokered Convention?; Is Michigan Romney's Must Win?; Gay Arizona Sheriff in Congressional Race Outted, Threatens to Deport Gay Lover

Aired February 21, 2012 - 06:59   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody, and welcome to STARTING POINT this morning.

Europe seals the Greek bailout deal overnight. We're talking about moving markets affecting your money this morning. We'll talk about that.

Plus, Rick Santorum is picking up steam, and there's more to talk about uneasiness in the GOP establishment. Could he be heading for a rare battle on the convention floor this summer?

A teenager who's an atheist has battled her school over a prayer banner and ends up with a scholarship out of it, but many parents are angry about that. We're going to talk about that this morning. Her name is Jessica Alquist (ph), and she's our guest.

Plus, a nose job, getting a breast enhancement, and liposuction at the taxpayer's --

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Spit out my coffee. How public schoolteachers in the middle of the -- I am not making this up -- are getting away with this. It's part of their deal, and it costs literally millions of dollars. STARTING POINT begins right now.

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O'BRIEN: This is mine. This is mine. Come on. What's not to love? I got this album in eighth grade. My dad gave it to me. I used to love this song. Welcome back everybody. Soft Cell, "Tainted Love," one of my favorite songs when I was a teenager.

Let's get right to our panel this morning. Congressman Scott Garrett is with us, a Republican from the great state of New Jersey just next door who grabbed his coffee and moved it when I kind of spit my coffee out. My apologies sir. I am usually much better behaved than that.

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O'BRIEN: Also joining us this morning is Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of "The Nation," also the author of "The Change I Believe In -- Fight for Progress in the Age of Obama." It's nice to have you joining us.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE NATION": Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Steve Kornacki is back. He's a political writer for Salon.com. Nice to have you.

Let's get right to it. Our STARTING POINT this morning is the national polls, and those polls show Rick Santorum is surging. He's up by double digits. Sometimes we say surge and it's not really a surge, but I think this time it's fair to say surge.

Nine months before the election Democrats are going on the attack. There are plans to hit both now Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. And there's a new e-mail on the Democratic National Committee yesterday that said this about Santorum, quote, "Rick Santorum has embraced the same philosophy that created the economic crisis. His tax plan would primarily benefit the very wealthy while adding $900 billion to the national deficit. It would be a disaster for middle class families."

Let's get right to Jennifer Psaki. She's a Democratic strategist, former White House deputy communications director. She's joining our panel this morning. It's nice to have you.

JENNIFER PSAKI, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Good morning, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Here's my theory on this. The DNC is now attacking Rick Santorum because he's rising and he very possibly could be the nominee, or, alternatively, the DNC is attacking Rick Santorum to give him more credibility so he can undermine the process which might have Mitt Romney leading. What do you think? Which is it?

PSAKI: Well, look, this reflects the changing dynamics in the race. Nobody would have thought a year ago that Rick Santorum would be giving Mitt Romney a run for his money. And let's remember, Mitt Romney is still out spending Rick Santorum more two to one in Michigan right now and still leading in the polls. Really, this is really more of a reflection from Mitt Romney and the fact that Republicans can't get comfortable with him. People don't like what he's offering. They don't feel he's offering a genuine alternative, and they're looking for something else.

O'BRIEN: Who do the Democrats want to run against?

PSAKI: Look, it's like picking between liver and lima beans. O'BRIEN: I like lima beans. I like lima beans just fine, and I make my children eat them.

PSAKI: You may prefer pizza or something else. But you know, people will accept -- I know if people in the Republican Party will accept what they're offered. But it's not really something they're getting excited about.

O'BRIEN: My question was, who do Democrats want to ruin against? I know there are meetings about this. I know people strategize. The person we want the nominee to be is -- who is it?

PSAKI: The reality, Soledad, is that the strategy is the same both ways. You read before I spoke -- before I started speaking here about the e-mail that the Democratic National Committee saying yesterday. There are still concerns about the Democratic Party about what Santorum represents when it comes to the economy in addition to social issues. So regardless of who the nominee is the strategy is going to be the same. It's going to be who are you fighting for? The president is fighting for the middle class. Santorum, Romney, Gingrich, if he has a surge, they're all fighting for the one percent.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Could I ask -- I have a feeling sometimes that Rick Santorum believes he's running for theologian in chief or to be Pope of the United States. How does -- how do you see the framing of Rick Santorum on women's issues broadly defined? And I'm not just talking about choice or contraception, but on economic issues that are also very important to women?

PSAKI: Absolutely. I'm so glad you asked that question because, you know, in the last couple of weeks, as we have heard more from Rick Santorum as the spotlight has been shining more on rim, we've heard him say things like questioning -- we've heard more about him questioning working women. We've heard him say birth control could pose a health risk.

O'BRIEN: And he's rising in the polls.

PSAKI: Yes.

O'BRIEN: So the argument might be it's working for him really well.

PSAKI: Well, I think it also -- the argument also could be that people just can't get comfortable with Mitt Romney. And they have not -- no one is getting a Mitt Romney for president tattoo. You can't buy energy and enthusiasm for a campaign even with all the money he has. So they're looking for an alternative.

And what's so interesting about it is how far out of the mainstream Rick Santorum's issues are and still leading in the polls.

REP. SCOTT GARRETT, (R) NEW JERSEY: I actually do like liver and bacon so there are some things besides lima beans. But when you talk about whether the president is going to be attacking Santorum or whether he's going to be attacking Romney, isn't the focus here should be that the president really can't win at the end of the day if he just runs on his own record but rather the fact that he has to be attacking somebody? Is that the fact that the president just can't win this race, if he just goes back and says this is how great the economy is after three years of the Obama presidency?

PSAKI: I'm actually going to contradict your theory here, because last week you had Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum gouging each other's eyes out on the campaign trail. And President Obama was out in Washington state talking about how to sell American goods abroad by increasing exports.

So the contrast is clear. What we're talking about here is the campaign for whoever the nominee is. And of course they're going to be prepared. But the president is laying out what his agenda is, who he is fighting for, what he's going to do for the middle class. And we haven't really seen many answers on that from the other side of the aisle.

GARRETT: Actually, I think you had both in Congress and by the candidates. I have not endorsed either one of the candidates but obviously Romney has laid out 59-point plan. So he had laid out exactly what he's going to do. Santorum has laid out a smaller plan. The presidential candidates laid out what they're going to do.

I think it's natural the two of them would be battling themselves. What is not so natural is for the president to be engaged on what this segment is all about, engaged is attacking both of them. The president should be engaged not talking about the president or the Republican primary. The president should be talking about what he's going to do.

O'BRIEN: I have a filibustering from panelists, which I like, but final question. He's basically saying, listen, if the president were well-positioned wouldn't he be running on his record and wouldn't have to bother about talking about the other candidate?

PSAKI: Well, if you look at facts the president is running on his record. He talked about exports last week. He's laid out what he would do for housing to keep people in their homes. He's talked about fighting for the middle class tax cut and putting an end to the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. I'm glad you referenced the 59 point plan because in there I don't see three details of what Mitt Romney would to for the middle class. And that's what this debate and campaign is going to be about.

O'BRIEN: We're going to continue this conversation.

PSAKI: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Thanks for being with us this morning.

Let's get right to Christine though who has other headlines. Hey, Christine, Good morning. CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you, Soledad. New this morning, Greece finally securing a second bailout, the largest sovereign debt bailout in the history of the European Union. It's $172 billion. That's how much Greece gets in aid and low-interest loans in return. In return Greece agreed to even more spending cuts, another $431 million worth.

Leaders of the EU, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, they all met late into the night last night ironing out, actually hashing out details of this agreement, hoping to save Greece from default.

And markets like it so far at least. Stock futures for the DOW, the NASDAQ, and the S&P 500 are up slightly right now. Going into today's session, the DOW is about 50 points shy of the 13,000 mark, closed at the highest level since May, 2008 last week. Markets were closed yesterday for the holiday.

But even as the DOW goes higher, so do gas prices. New worries over rising gas prices. AAA says the national average for a gallon of regular is $3.57. Hawaii, it already costs more than $4 a gallon. Analysts blame the hike of recent threats for Iran. Iran cut off oil sales for Britain and France. Some forecasters worry new threats from Iran could boost prices to maybe $5 a gallon by summer.

The aftermath of severe weather, first responders desperately digging through this wreckage. Video of an all-out search for two people who were trapped in Oklahoma. The local sheriff confirmed that one person was killed, one was rescued. The mobile home shredded in that severe storm in Kansas and Oklahoma last night, the storm pounding the plains with hail, rain, and 70-mile-per-hour winds.

In just a couple of hours jury selection begins in Philadelphia in a criminal trial involving the city's Catholic archdiocese. Three priests and a Catholic schoolteacher are charged with sexually abusing young boys. A fifth defendant is accused of child endangerment and conspiracy for allegedly covering this all up.

All right, "The Colbert Report" back on the air. Stephen Colbert took two days off last week reportedly to attend to his ailing 91- year-old mother. Last night Colbert gave special tribute to mom and a confidential message.

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

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ROMANS: Colbert placed a finger to his nose there in a homage to actress Carol Burnett signal to his grandmother. She ended her show each night by tugging her ear to say "I love you."

All right, eat, drink, and be merry. It's Fat Tuesday, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Mardi Gras!

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ROMANS: They're already partying in New Orleans. A dozen parades getting ready to roll in and around the Big Easy. As you know, it's the last big blowout of carnival season before Ash Wednesday.

O'BRIEN: Oh, my gosh. People here haven't been. My panelists full of people haven't been.

ROMANS: What is wrong with you people?

O'BRIEN: You must be the least fun group of people I've ever met. So today this morn, 9:00 a.m., Zulu, the crew of Zulu rolls and I got to be Mrs. Big Stuff in Zulu I think in 2009. You have coconuts of throwing to people. But I was worried about injuring people so I gently hand them.

ROMANS: Next year let's have a school trip, a school trip down Bourbon Street.

O'BRIEN: Yes, that's so much fun. Christine, thank you.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, we're going to talk to a teenager who fought to get a prayer banner out of her school. Now she's receiving a scholarship from an atheist organization and she's also receiving some death threats. We're going to talk to her about that as well.

A public school system pays for its teachers to get plastic surgery. I knew I should have been a teacher in Buffalo. Truly, enough money, no joke, to hire 100 extra teachers has been spent on breast implants and tummy tucks, et cetera, et cetera. It's our "Get Real" this morning.

This is Congressman Garrett's playlist, The Doors. Look at you, The Doors. You're so cool. "Break On Through."

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O'BRIEN: Good music, always a good sign. Sometimes we start off slow on the music and it's like we cannot recover. That's Katrina's playlist "Fight the Power."

This actually is very apropos for our next story. It's the story of a young woman who launched a fight to get a prayer banner taken down at her high school, and in return she got a big boost for going to college. Her name is Jessica Ahlquist. She filed a lawsuit over this banner which is kind of hard to read. It was hanging in the auditorium. She's an atheist and she said the banner made her feel ostracized and out of place. And that's because the banner starts out by saying this, "Our heavenly Father, grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally, as well as physically, to be kind and helpful to classmates and teachers."

And Jessica won the lawsuit. The banner has been ruled unconstitutional. Just last week, though, there was a heated debate about appealing that ruling. And it was caught on YouTube actually. Parents who sort of showed their anger by emphatically reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance," is what I'm trying to say. Here's what that looked like.

So you can see what this fight turned into. The school committee eventually decided not to appeal and we're learning today that an atheist group has raised more than $40,000 for a scholarship fund for Jessica.

So Jessica -- that's all the background. Jessica Ahlquist joins us this morning. She's from Providence, Rhode Island. Hey, Jessica. Nice to talk to you. Thanks for being with us.

So we read a little bit as you heard about the banner. You know, "Dear Heavenly Father, grant us each day the desire to do our best, grow mentally and morally, as well as physically to be kind and helpful." You know, it doesn't sound too objectionable to me. What didn't you like about this banner?

JESSICA AHLQUIST, ATHEIST WHO WON COURT BATTLE AGAINST HER SCHOOL: Well, it's objectionable because it's against the law. And also because it makes people feel excluded.

And when you have something like a school prayer it's, first of all, it's very Christian. Not many of the religions refer to their God as Heavenly Father or end with Amen.

And secondly, if you don't believe in any kind of God or you don't pray at all, then this is essentially saying that as a school prayer, it doesn't include you.

O'BRIEN: So you were born Catholic and then when you were about 10 years old your mom died. And this is really what sort of changed your faith. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

AHLQUIST: My mom didn't die.

O'BRIEN: Oh, I'm sorry. Your mom got sick. Forgive me.

AHLQUIST: Yes. My mother was sick. And I had some, you know, family issues going on. And it kind of started me praying. And then from there, questioning what I believed in. And I eventually came to the conclusion that I didn't believe in anything.

O'BRIEN: So what I have read is that when your mom got sick and you were praying for her to get better, you realized that those prayers weren't actually working. Is that the right way to put it and you felt like, well, then, clearly there's nothing in this? Is that appropriate to say?

AHLQUIST: Not -- not only the fact that my prayers weren't being answered, but because I was praying, you know, I was thinking more about it, I was thinking do I really need God's assistance? I bet other people probably need it more than I do, more than my family does. So how come he isn't helping them either?

And it just kind of brought all of these questions to mind. And in the end I decided he must not exist.

O'BRIEN: We were just showing some pictures of angry parents who were, you know, very loudly talking about the "Pledge of Allegiance" and then saying the "Pledge of Allegiance" in this meeting that clearly became very, you know, full of anger.

What do you make of the hostility that's come out around this? You've gotten death threats, is that correct?

AHLQUIST: That's correct.

O'BRIEN: And --

AHLQUIST: It's been really difficult, obviously, just to constantly have this feeling of hatred towards me in my community. The meeting itself was difficult, but it's kind of what's been going on for a long time now.

And, you know, I think I'm ready for it at this point. But you never really get used to hearing about how bad you are, really. It always hurts. And the death threats obviously have always hurt my feelings.

I just kind of gotten to a point to where I can cope with it. It's not so much that I'm, you know, OK with it happening but I'm able to cope with it now.

O'BRIEN: There's a Congress person, State Rep who -- Peter Palumbo and he said this about you. He said you are an evil little thing. And you've had to have a police escort take you to school. Have you responded to him?

AHLQUIST: I haven't responded to him directly, but the response so far of that comment has -- it's almost a bit of a mockery. I feel it's immature and inappropriate for a state representative who represents me also, by the way, to be calling me something as petty as an evil, little thing.

And so while it does kind of hurt a bit, we've kind of turned it into a joke.

O'BRIEN: I've heard about that.

AHLQUIST: And I --

O'BRIEN: You have a friend who is now co-opted the phrase. I heard you've trademarked that, evil little thing, right, and turn it into T-shirts that is selling that you can help fund your college education. Is that right?

AHLQUIST: That is right. There's a website where people have been purchasing the t-shirts. And I've seen lots of people at the meeting wore them and people take pictures of themselves wearing them and post them to Facebook so I can see. And I think it's really cute.

And in a lot of ways I think his little comment has kind of backfired, because now we're using it as a positive thing. You know, it's almost a way of saying that people stand with me.

O'BRIEN: Jessica Ahlquist, you are the recipient of more than $40,000 in scholarship money as well. Are you going to be a lawyer when you grow up?

AHLQUIST: I don't think so.

O'BRIEN: Maybe too much of the lawyer is on that. Jessica, thanks for talking with us this morning. We appreciate your time.

I think the banner is going to come down next week. Am I right about that?

AHLQUIST: I don't know yet, but it will be down shortly, I assume.

O'BRIEN: The banner is still hanging in the school. Thanks, Jessica. Appreciate it.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the sheriff accuse of threatening to deport his gay lover is speaking to CNN. We're going to talk to the reporter who broke that story as well.

Plus, plastic surgery on the taxpayer's dime. Botox, facelift, nose job. This is a reason to be a teacher in Buffalo. We'll tell you how one school district in a really struggling town is getting away with it.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.

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O'BRIEN: All right. All right, all right, this is Big & Rich, "Comin' to Your City." This is Sean Spicer (ph) is going to be talking about something from the RNC a little bit later this morning, and this is his pick. I like it. I like it already.

Time to "Get Real" this morning, millions of dollars spent on plastic surgery in a single year. I'm talking nose jobs, liposuction, face lifts, breast enhancement -- you name it. We're not talking about some out of control reality TV star. We are talking about public school teachers in Buffalo, New York. No joke.

All their plastic surgery is paid for -- that's right -- under one of their insurance plan options. They are billed for nothing for plastic surgery. The benefit started back in the '70s as a rider to cover reconstructive surgery for burn victims before cosmetic surgery was as common as it is today. Last year the total spent was almost $6 million. $6 million. That's down from $9 million that was spent in 2009.

This as the Buffalo Board of Education is projecting a $42 million deficit in their budget next year. Listen to this.

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

LOUIS PETRUCCI, PRESIDENT, BUFFALO BOARD OF EDUCATION: Hiring about 240 teachers.

PHILIP RUMORE, PRESIDENT, BUFFALO TEACHER'S FEDERATION: We're going to give it up. All the district has to do is come to the table and negotiate it with us.

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

RUMORE: No.

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O'BRIEN: Oh, you see where it's all come down to -- a big fight. The Teachers Union has reportedly been working without a contract since 2004, and of course they're trying to figure out how both sides can get to the table using this, you know, negotiating tool.

But maybe free Botox and face-lifts, it's worth not having a contract. I don't know. And summers off, if you're a teacher.

OK, ahead this morning on -- you know what, we have time for this? No? He's playing the music.

So I was going to ask you guys what you thought.

STEVE KORNACKI, POLITICAL WRITER, SALON.COM: I'm curious what these teachers look like.

O'BRIEN: Hot. Apparently, very hot.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, AUTHOR, "THE CHANGE I BELIEVE IN...": I mean, I'm happy to be here sitting with you, Soledad. Admire you. But I'm not sure why this is a story. I mean, there are many stories out of Buffalo.

One is that the Teachers Union there has done some very innovative reforms. Two, do a story on the workers in Buffalo who are trying to find jobs in this economy.

This is the kind of story that is like a welfare queen (ph) story. It's a blip, it's a kind of idiosyncratic story that is going to make people around this country even more turned off of the need for government, which we need. I know this --

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O'BRIEN: I don't think that's true. I think that -- I think that it's both.

VANDEN HEUVEL: This is a story that's going to make people feel like --

O'BRIEN: I think there's both. You know, I don't think that's true. I think we do -- for example, yesterday we were talking about innovating solutions in education yesterday with Steve Perry.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Right.

O'BRIEN: So we've certainly covered that.

But I do think you're not talking about $230,000, which is a drop in the bucket in terms of education. You're talking $9 million in 2009. You're talking $6 million this year.

VANDEN HEUVEL: It deserves attention, but does it deserve five minutes on CNN?

O'BRIEN: Now we're making it seven --

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VANDEN HEUVEL: On the people's -- on the people's -- you know, on the people's airwaves? There are many -- there are so many other stories that deserve more attention, and I do think that this is part of the sort of thematic government bashing, in a way.

This is a -- this is a serious problem and it should be exposed, but on CNN --

O'BRIEN: And clearly a point of debate -- no, I disagree with you on that, and I've had many of these conversations because when I would do documentaries we have this sort of like what do you spend your time on? You have an hour. What do you focus your documentary on?

And my theory was you really owe it to do all. You know, expand the number of stories, especially, you know, a lot of stuff that I focused on was on race and people would say, do you do positive stories about Latinos or do you do crime and poverty and -- and what do you do?

VANDEN HEUVEL: I'm for exposing. You need the muck racking. You need exposing of abuse. But there are such greater abuses in this country and in the world.

O'BRIEN: Yes, but (INAUDIBLE) I'm going to disagree. REP. SCOTT GARRETT (R), NEW JERSEY: I kind of agree with you to this extent, because my daughter is in college right now. She wants to become a teacher, and she knows how challenging it is to become a teacher, all the courses and what have you and how challenging it's going to be out there. So maybe what the balance on this story would be -- not to say you're not balanced here -- would be then to then also --

O'BRIEN: My panel is revolting around me.

GARRETT: -- also do -- do a segment saying this is what it's like to teach in Buffalo and the challenges with -- with the kids there and other problems economically there, and just to show that it's tough to be a teacher as well.

O'BRIEN: And I would argue that -- and I would --

VANDEN HEUVEL: In the classroom --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: But I -- and I would argue that we do that. I mean, I would argue that we -- that to me the goal in -- across the board, truly, and I'm not being sarcastic at all. I really believe that what you have to do is do a range. You have to do the good, the bad, the ugly, the in between when you're reporting on race, when you're reporting on ethnicities, whether you're reporting with the Botox. You know, you really sort of owe it to do the range of things.

In this particular issue, this is obviously a point of contention in their negotiations. They haven't had a contract since 2004. So they're debating it.

But I --

VANDEN HEUVEL: It's (INAUDIBLE) and I agree with the Representative. You'll see a good story on teaching and the challenges of teaching.

O'BRIEN: My panel is revolting.

Hey, my mom was a teacher in Harlem. Talk about the challenges of teaching back then. Yes. So I know all about that.

All right -- do you have anything you want to add?

KORNACKI: Well, I -- I am curious, to be honest with you, because it's clearly -- you know, this is a great PR move in terms of -- I assume this came from the district who's in contentious negotiations with the union, and this is -- this is the kind of story that's impossible to refute from the union standpoint. But I -- what I'm curious --

O'BRIEN: Well, it's true.

KORNACKI: But what I'm curious about is how much of that -- what it $6 million or $9 million? I forgot the number. How much of that --

GARRETT: $5.7 million (ph).

KORNACKI: How much of that is -- how much of that bill is footed by the taxpayers? How much of that is public money versus how much does the insurance company gets paid? How much of this money --

O'BRIEN: I'm going to get all those numbers for you, but they say the math is that they could hire that number of teachers, 200 teachers.

KORNACKI: Well sure, but is that money that's coming -- is that money that taxpayers are directly paying for --

O'BRIEN: I'm going to find out. I'm being --

KORNACKI: -- plastic surgery --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: -- like we have to go to break, but we're going to find out for you and continue that conversation.

All right, still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, if you ever wished there was a pill that could erase all your worst memories, believe it or not they're -- they are developing this pill. It's called the Mind Eraser for people who have posttraumatic stress and want to forget the terrible memory.

Plus, the man who's in charge of getting the message out for the RNC with Rick Santorum surging. Is there a fear of a war on the convention floor? We're going to talk about that this morning on STARTING POINT. Back in a moment.

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O'BRIEN: And welcome back to STARTING POINT. Let's get right to Christine. She's got the headlines this morning. Hi, good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, again, Soledad.

New developments for you overnight out of Syria. The Red Cross now trying to broker a ceasefire to get humanitarian aid to Homs and other areas where there's a critical shortage of food and other vital supplies. At least 18 people killed across the country today, including three children.

A historic day in Yemen, people are voting in their first presidential election in more than three decades. The vote signals a formal end to the long reign of Ali Abdullah Saleh who was forced to step down in November after months of protests. His successor is the only candidate on the ballot. He wanted an election to make his presidency official.

Former IMF chief and former French presidential hopeful Dominick Strauss-Kahn caught up in a new sex scandal. Now he's being questioned by French police about his alleged involvement in a prostitution ring.

Police are accusing Strauss-Kahn of organizing sex parties at luxury hotels. He was charged last May with attempted rape of a hotel worker in New York. Those charges were later dropped.

President Obama hoping the payroll tax deal is just the start of a productive year. Our Jessica Yellin has learned that the president is expected to push Congress to pass more legislation.

Legislation to help the economy, to create more jobs, at an event at 11:35 eastern this morning that will be his theme. We're the only network with this story right now. Big change from the White House, which sounded like it was accepting that Congress will sit on its hands during this election year.

Got on iPhone 4? Keep an eye out for an e-mail from Apple. Apple has settled a class action suit over the iPhone 4's antenna problem. It was nicknamed, of course, the iPhone death grip. Apple promising to pay 15 bucks or give a free case to everyone in the United States who bought an iPhone 4.

And scientists have reportedly developed a drug to erase painful memories. Sounds like something right out of that film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Remember this.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why remember a destructive love affair? Here we have perfected a safe, effective technique for the focused erasure of troubling memories. In a matter of hours, patented nonsurgical procedure will rid you of painful memories and allow you a new and lasting peace of mind you never imagined possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: All right, that was a movie, but the forgetting pill treatment, it could be used to help patients with post traumatic stress disorder so a real practical and important application -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Sometimes it is hard to get those pictures out of your mind. I remember coming back from Haiti, where we saw a lot of, you know -- it took a very long time before you could like sleep without seeing horrible pictures going through your head. I'm sure I didn't see the worst of it. All right, Christine, thanks. Appreciate that.

It is just one day until CNN's Republican debate. Rick Santorum is surging to front of the pack. That's raising some questions about Mitt Romney's electability. Also a lot of talk about a brokered convention where we could see just a completely different candidate get into the race.

But one poll is finding that that is not what most Republicans are saying, 55 percent of Republicans wish somebody else was running, 66 percent of Republicans don't want a brokered convention. That's sort of contradictory, isn't it?

Sean Spicer is the communications director of the Republican National Committee. He joins us our panel. It's nice to see you. We liked your musical choice a little bit earlier this morning.

SEAN SPICER, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Explain the contradiction in those two graphics, 55 percent. They don't particularly care who is running and 66 percent say they don't want the brokered convention.

SPICER: I think actually if you start to really look at the numbers, there's a lot of agreement on our side in terms of that we want to replace Barack Obama.

Everyone is going to be unified. I think there are a lot of folks that have two choices. They say, well, I want to vote for this person, but here's my second choice.

And so if you go real deep into the numbers, I think there is actual satisfaction with the four candidates that we have. One of them will be our nominee and they will go on to victory in November.

O'BRIEN: Let me stop you there for second because there are many people now talking about this letter that's being circulated, the deadline for states and certain math that can be done with the primaries that are late enough where you could get your filing in so you could run as a candidate.

There are 14 states, which are roughly 700 delegates and you can enter the race. All of that is for someone who is right this moment not in the race to enter the race. Is that true, is that correct?

SPICER: I'll be honest with you. I spent about as much time thinking about that as I have winning Powerball.

O'BRIEN: Really? You might be winning Powerball, sir.

SPICER: I think, Soledad, the reality, it's -- who is this magical person? It's, you know, I think that there is satisfaction with the four candidates.

They're doing a great job out there bringing the case to the people. But there are a lot of folks who sit around and say, well, what if and what if. Who is this person that they're speaking of?

O'BRIEN: OK. Well, let me -- let's throw up some names. OK, so here are some names -- I'm not making these up. These are names that have been discussed consistently, Chris Christie --

SPICER: Who said no.

O'BRIEN: -- Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels. Mitch Daniels' spokesperson said the knocking on the door has become a pounding on the door to get him to enter the race.

SPICER: OK, and every one of those folks has said no. But let's put this in perspective. We have a total of 2,288 delegates at stake. Four states have -- that actually award delegates have voted. So if you think about it in terms of a sports season, it's a 56-game schedule, 56 states and territories, 4 have voted.

A total of 113 delegates have been awarded. We are in the first couple of games in the season here and people are trying to figure out the playoffs or the World Series or the Super Bowl.

O'BRIEN: OK, I buy that. Actually, you know, I'm not really good with sports analogies usually, but that one was a very good one.

SPICER: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: But let me throw another one back at you not in an analogy form, which is what happens if Mitt Romney loses the state of Michigan, that's the big game. It's coming up soon. If that big game is lost, does that spell trouble for getting to the end?

SPICER: Look, I don't mean to -- I'm not trying to get around the question. At the RNC, our job isn't to figure out who is going to be the winner of the nominee.

Our job is to prep the field, if you will, to put the money in the bank, to get the organization and the message ready so that we have -- when we have that nominee --

O'BRIEN: That is kind of a dodge with all due respect. I know -- I could tell because you preface it by saying I'm not trying to avoid the question then you kind of avoided the question. So what happens in Michigan?

SPICER: In other words, I'm not here to decide, you know, what happens if one candidate wins or loses. Each candidate and the voters have to make a decision. That's not our job.

Frankly, for too long I think people have said, you know, people in Washington, the RNC, the establishment, if you will, have gotten in the way of this process.

So Chairman Preibus and the RNC have made it very clear. Our job is not to get in the way of this process. The voters will make the decision as to who the nominee is. The candidates will decide for themselves whether they stay in or stay out of a race.

STEVE KORNACKI, POLITICAL WRITER, SALON.COM: You know, I want to kind of back up what Sean is saying here actually because I think it is possible that we could end up with a deadlock convention in this scenario.

But I think the talk of the deadlock convention is vastly, vastly overrated. It's fascinating to think about and almost certainly won't happen and the reason I say that is because if you look back you can find so many forgotten moments from modern political history.

Where at roughly this point in either party's nominating contest there was rampant talk, you know, about if Bill Clinton doesn't win the New York primary against Jerry Brown, the Democrats are going to revolt and they're will be brokered convention. We have been here eight times since 1976.

O'BRIEN: I'm putting too much emphasis on Michigan?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE NATION": I think Michigan is important, but over stated. I think it will still be a long hard slog to nomination for mitt Romney.

But I wanted to ask Sean Spicer, if I might. Does the flood of "Super PAC" money that we're only beginning to see, Mr. Spicer, make the RNC obsolete?

SPICER: I actually don't -- first of all, when you look at the total amount raised, and I'm not demeaning -- I think "Super PACs" have a role in this cycle.

But when you look at the RNC last year raised $87 million. We have $23 million in the bank. Most of those "Super PACs" haven't even come close to what the RNC has been able to raise or do.

So in terms of the total amount of money, which is I think you're driving at, Katrina --

HEUVEL: An influence in terms of the primary season, which we've seen so clearly with Mitt Romney's money and then Adelson and keeping it alive.

SPIECER: Well, I mean, are they playing a role? Absolutely. But the RNC, again, you're talking about the primary and the choosing of the nominee, that's not a role we would play in any fashion anyway.

So I think from that standpoint, you know, does it play a role to help or hinder some of these candidates? Sure. From our stand point looking forward to the general election, however, I think that we have shown, demonstrated not only our ability to raise the money that's need.

We've out raised the Democratic National Committee for the most part several of the last months. When you looked -- yesterday, when all the candidates filed, the RNC and the Republican candidates raised more money than Obama and the DNC by a lot so --

O'BRIEN: Can I -- I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt you, but I just want -- before we run out of time, I want to ask you about Rick Santorum and social issues.

Because, you know, even some of his own people have talked about how he's moved the focus off of the economy and on to socialist. Let me play you just a couple of like highlights from some of the things that Rick Santorum has said and then I'll ask you a question on the other side. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can't and I won't check my faith at the door because it motivates me to do things that I believe are best for our country.

I do not believe life begins at conception. I know life begins at conception. I do have concerns about women in front line combat. I think that can be a very compromising situation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So Santorum strategist said that he thinks the social issues are overshadowing the economy and certainly in the last week and a half we've seen that. Do you think that that's a bad strategy or a winning strategy, rising in the polls?

SPICER: Well, I'll go back to something I said earlier. I'm not going to give each one of these candidates advice. They have to decide for themselves on how they're going to run their campaigns.

But I do think from a Republican standpoint, social issues have always been a huge part of the Republican Party. I think whether or not it's the question of life or some of the other issues, I think social issues have been important to not only the Republican Party, the conservative movement.

And I think to some degree largely the electorate, the general election electorate, as well. So again, I'm not going to decide which candidate is, you know, using social issues more or less, but I think there's no question that social issues are a part of the Republican Party's message.

And -- but I think at the end of the day this is going to be an economic election and a referendum on whether Barack Obama has, you know, kept -- kept his promises to turn this economy around, bring jobs home, deal with the debt and the deficit.

O'BRIEN: Sean Spicer joining us this morning. He's the communications director for the RNC. It's nice to have you. Thanks for being with us.

SPICER: Thank you very much, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: You bet. Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, a sheriff is accused of threatening to deport his gay lover is speaking out to CNN and we have that the paper that broke the story or the tabloid, the reporter who works for that paper is going to join us to talk about that.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back right after this break.

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O'BRIEN: All right. This is Duane Eddy, "Rebel Rouser." (LAUGHTER)

Forrest Gump, that's right.

(CROSSTALK)

This is Congressman Garrett's playlist. We like this.

We're going to remind everybody, we're going to do all-request Friday. I've been pitching gospel music. But no one finds that for me.

You want to send us your suggestions at Twitter at STARTING POINT, @STARTINGPTCNN, is how to reach us.

Still ahead, when we come back in a moment, $5 gas by the summer? Could surging gas prices derail the recovery? We'll talk about that.

And reports of a Koran burning sparking angry protests in Afghanistan. The video tape -- look at this. Incredible. We're going to have some details on this story from Barbara Starr. That's coming up.

We're back in just a moment.

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O'BRIEN: A sheriff accused of threatening to deport his gay lover is speaking out on CNN. The photos merged of Sheriff Paul Babeu and his ex-boyfriend, whose name is Jose. They've been talking to CNN. There's some other photos as well of both of them. He is running, the sheriff, for Congress. He had built a national reputation about taking a hard line on immigration. All of this is threatening to derail his political career.

Last night, he was talking to Wolf Blitzer. He says all of these allegations were all politically motivated. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Monica Alonzo is the reporter who broke the story. She's with the "Phoenix New Times."

He basically called your paper a tabloid. Give me a little background on how the story was broken.

MONICA ALONZO, REPORTER, PHOENIX NEW TIMES: Jose approached us because he was tired of being threatened and intimidated by the sheriff. He calls us a tabloid. He says that the allegations are baseless. This isn't about him being gay.

He also says that it's some kind of political motivation to out him. It's a worst-kept secret here in many political circles. He even said it Saturday at his press conference. It was well known that he was gay. People had been coming to "Phoenix New Times" and other media outlets trying to get us to report this, including his own sister. We never reported that because this isn't about Paul Babeu being gay. It's about him being accused of using his former boyfriend's visa status as leverage to keep him silent about the relationship.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: What has his former -- I'm sorry for interrupting you, Monica.

ALONZO: That's OK.

O'BRIEN: What has his former boyfriend, Jose, said about his visa status?

ALONZO: Jose has always maintained that his visa status is in order. He's here legally. His attorney has confirmed that. Now Paul Babeu's even saying that Jose is here legally. At this point, it's not an issue anymore, but clearly, and was an issue in letters that Jose has provided us, make reference to these claims that were being made about his visa not being -- that his visa was expired, that he wasn't here legally. Also there's letters here that talk about them having to file an injunction against harassment against the sheriff if he didn't stop threatening and intimidating.

The other thing that's important to point out here, I know he says the story's false. That's his right to deny the allegations that Jose is making, but one of the text messages that he sends -- and he doesn't deny the text message. He doesn't deny that it's him in the photograph. One of the text messages he sent to Jose is, "You'll never have business here again." It also says that Jose's going to cause great harm not only to himself but also to his family. What did he mean by that? You know, so, I mean, there is some evidence that there was something more going on here, that it isn't just about, as he describes it, you know, some political motivation or some attack on him because he's gay.

O'BRIEN: Steve?

STEVE KORNACKI, POLITICAL WRITER, SALON.COM: This is Steve Kornacki. I'm kind of curious what the reaction is on the ground there, specifically from Republicans. What kind of fascinates me about this story is obviously there's an issue. Everything you're raising about whether there was intimidation here. If you can put that aside, we have something interesting here, too, that there's sort of an openly gay conservative folk here. This guy has been all over FOX News. He's been a hero on the right for a long. He was sort of outted. He said, yes, I'm gay and that's it. I'm kind of curious, he's in a conservative Republican district. He's running for Congress. He says he's still running. Is that a subject that's coming up? Is that causing concern among his conservative constituents there?

ALONZO: Clearly. I think that he has a lot of support. People are rallying around him and defending his right to be gay. I think that's part of the sheriff trying to make this about his sexuality and that he's under attack for that reason. Certainly, there are people that are not going to support him anymore. It is a very conservative district that he's running in. And he even mentioned at one of the press conferences that even if people want their money back, their political donations back, he feels that there's going to be more money coming in because he dealt with this honestly.

And we see the fallout, too. Him stepping down from the Mitt Romney campaign here in Arizona. Yes, so there's definitely going to be some fallout for him politically. It's going to be up to voters to decide. His opponents here in Congressional District 4 are running on a very strong family values ticket. That really gives you an idea of how conservative the district is. And it's going to be -- I don't know. We have to wait and see whether they accept him and his explanation for all of this.

O'BRIEN: Monica Alonzo is with the "Phoenix New Times."

Thanks for talking with us. We'll check back and see how the whole election goes. Appreciate it.

ALONZO: All right, thank you.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, he's on the radar now. Congressman Steve Israel on how Democrats are planning to go after Rick Santorum, Washington, Hollywood, Seinfeld, Stephanopoulos. Holly Wentworth (ph) is going to join us and talk about her wild ride, ahead this morning.

And here's part of her play list. Oh, I love her already. Sister Sledge. Can't beat that. "We Are Family." What a great way to start, with the family here on STARTING POINT.

We're back in a moment.

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