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Interview with Congressman Steve Israel of New York; Inspectors Press Iran On Weapons; Rick Santorum Surges in Recent Polls; Trump Slams Santorum; Sam Talbot's "Sweet Life with Diabetes"

Aired February 21, 2012 - 07:59   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. STARTING POINT this morning is looking at the numbers that the DNC can no longer ignore. In polls, Rick Santorum is up by double digits. This morning, I'm going to talk to Congressman Israel, one of the Democrats who is charge of crafting the party message.

And fighting words. Newt Gingrich says President Obama is dangerous and that defeating him is a duty of national security. We'll talk about that this morning.

And then the daughter of a Reagan aide who went to Hollywood came back to marry an ex-Clinton staffer. Ali Wentworth is going to join us. He's got a new book about her wild life. It's called "Ali in Wonderland." It's very funny. We're going to talk to her.

STARTING POINT begins right now.


O'BRIEN: Katrina is hooking us up. Katrina Vanden Heuvel from "The Nation," editor and publisher is joining us this morning as part of our panel.

Also, Steve Kornacki is with us, from

And we also have Congressman Scott Garrett joining us, from the great state of New Jersey just across the river from us.

Let's begin with our STARTING POINT this morning. One day until CNN's Republican presidential debate, Santorum's rising poll numbers not only making Mitt Romney's folks nervous, also catching the attention of the Obama re-election campaign.

Democrats are now going on the attack against Romney and Santorum. They've been hitting Santorum on the economy, Romney on the auto industry bailout position.

One release from the DNC about Santorum reads this, "Rather than focusing on jobs, the economy or any other issues that matter most to Americans, he's discussed man's dominion over earth."

Democratic Congressman Steve Israel of New York from Galen (ph). He comes from Smithtown. He's in -- you're in West Bab, right? Am I right about that?

Nice to see you, sir.

REP. STEVE ISRAEL (D), NEW YORK: Your hometown.

O'BRIEN: Yes, yes. Kind of. Nice to have you.

Let's get right to it. Give me the strategy behind going after Rick Santorum right now. Is it because you think he is a viable threat in the general election or is it to raise his profile so that it can ultimately undermine Mitt Romney as they make their way through the primary process on the GOP side? Which is it?

ISRAEL: Well, the chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the strategy is none of the above. The strategy is simply to contrast our priorities with their priorities.

Every time that Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and House Republicans favor subsidies for big oil companies instead of investments in the middle class, every time they favor tax breaks for the wealthy instead of -- and also at the same time favor cuts in Medicare, every time they favor the wrong priorities, we're going to get up and we're going to attack them on the priorities. We're not attacking them personally, we' talking the wrong priorities for America's middle class.

O'BRIEN: Before I open the panel, I'm going to ask you question about -- "The New York Times" reporting that the Obama campaign is going to be sending, they didn't say surrogates, they sort of said, I forget the word, but it's kind of surrogates to go into Michigan and hold press conferences about Mitt Romney's really position on the auto bailout of Detroit.

So my question is who exactly are those surrogates? And what exactly are they going to say?

ISRAEL: Well, I expect that there's going to be plenty of people who will go to Michigan and around the country and tell the story of how Mitt Romney was four square opposed to the recovery of the auto industry. He opposed the critical efforts that had to be invested in making sure that American auto manufacturers did not close down, shut down against a huge competition around the world. You know, it's a --

O'BRIEN: But who's the who?

ISRAEL: -- classic of example of who are you for.

O'BRIEN: You answered what they're going to say, which wasn't exactly my question. My question was: who are you tapping to go into Michigan to deliver this message for the president?

ISRAEL: I -- you're going to see plenty of people. I mean, you know, the most eloquent spokespeople for the recovery of the auto industry led by President Obama and House Democrats are the people who work in the auto industry, the people who did not lose their jobs, who are working now building American cars and an economy that is built to last. Those would be the most eloquent surrogates for the president.

REP. SCOTT GARRETT (R), NEW JERSEY: Steve, Scott Garrett here. Good morning. You know, Steve, when --

ISRAEL: Hey, Scott. I disagree with your play list. I pick Iron Butterfly.

O'BRIEN: You can't fight over the playlist. It doesn't go like that. Go back to your question.

ISRAEL: Debate that. Sorry, Scott.


So when President Obama was candidate Obama he said that he would have three years to get the economy back on track, otherwise the public would not accept him going into the next election. So, isn't the real reason that he's going after the Republican candidates right now is because he can't win this thing if he runs on his own track record?

ISRAEL: Listen, Scott, I hope he does run on his own track record because the track record that he inherited was months after month after month of consecutive job losses. Jobs hemorrhaging in this country.

His policies have helped rebuild the middle class, have created jobs, have generated job growth as opposed to the Romney, Santorum, House Republican policies that got us into this mess.

It's been tough to get out of this mess but we've been standing for the middle class while too many of your colleagues in Congress have been standing for oil company executives. We're the ones who had to bring you guys kicking and screaming over the finish line to extend the middle class tax cut. We'll compare our priorities for the middle class against House Republican priorities any day of the week and I say, we're going to win.

GARRETT: So, Steve, will you join with me then in sending a letter to Senator Reid to say, move some of these bills that have been sent over, some bipartisan bills over to the Senate that just sit there right now and ask Senator Reid to move a budget after 1,000 days? You know, President Obama has said part of the reason things are not getting done is because Congress isn't getting anything done. So, will you work with me to get Senator Reid to start doing something over in the Senate?

ISRAEL: Scott, I'll -- as long as if you want to be bipartisan, as long as the letter is going to the Republicans in the Senate who have filibustered and obstructed, that's fine.

O'BRIEN: That's kind of a kumbaya moment right here.

ISRAEL: Looking at a bill that would end the $40 billion in oil company subsidies at a time of record breaking profits and instead put that into a fund for flex fuel vehicles so that the American consumer can get a break for once. You look at my idea and I'll look at yours.


GARRETT: I'll show you mine, you show me yours.

KORNACKI: It's Steve from "Salon."

I'm just curious -- it seems to me that President Obama's standing in the polls has clearly improved a little bit in the last few months and his prospects for re-election have, too. It seems to me that that's tied pretty directly to the economy and, you know, five straight months of declining unemployment.

What I wonder is it's such a fragile, tenuous recovery at this point. You know, if we go a few months down the line and the unemployment rate stalls and it starts spiking back up a little bit, does he have any chance of winning re-election?

ISRAEL: Well, look, I have one respectful disagreement with you, to an extent it is tied to improving economy. But it's also tied to the priorities that House Democrats and the president have embraced versus the wrong priorities of House Republicans and the Republican presidential candidates.

I mean, these guys, at a time when we have to be focusing on investing in the middle class and fueling this economic recovery, these guys had a hearing on contraception where they denied any woman the right to testify. Those are the kinds of priorities that most people disagree with. We're the ones who supported a full extension of the middle class tax cut.

This would have been the worst time to take that middle-class tax cut away from the middle class. They're the ones who fought it. It's those priorities.

Every election is about who you're for. It's wrong priorities by the presidential candidates and House Republicans versus House Democratic priorities to invest in the middle class, protect Medicare, rebuild our economy that is defining the polls right now. Right now, in every single did he neck poll house Democrats are ahead.

O'BRIEN: So, I will also tell you that on the GOP side, they would say that that wasn't a conversation about contraception. They would say that was a conversation about religious liberty. We have a big debate about that last week.

Congressman, if you don't mind, we're going ask you to stick around and continue our conversation in just moment.

ISRAEL: You bet.

O'BRIEN: We're going to get to some of the other headlines that are making news. Christine has got an update for us before we continue our conversation with the congressman.

Good morning again, Christine.

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

I want to begin this hour with some new information. The coalition in Afghanistan now admitting that the Muslim holy book, the Koran, was improperly burned as officials were disposing of religious materials. The new information coming to us from our very own Barbara Starr.

Reports of that sparked angry protests at an airbase in Afghanistan. Officials say the disposal had been planned but the burning of the holy book was not proper. The commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan quickly apologizes that he has launched an investigation into this.

Also new this morning, Greece finally securing a second bailout and it's the largest sovereign debt bailout in the history of the European Union.

Under the terms of the deal, Greece gets $172 billion in aid and agrees to millions more in spending cuts, that's on top of the strict austerity measures already passed by parliament in Athens.

Leaders of the E.U. met late into the night last night hashing out the details of this, hoping to save Greece from default.

Stock futures for the Dow, the NASDAQ, the S&P 500, they're up right now. Going into today's session, the Dow is only 50 points away of the 13,000 mark. The last time the Dow was here, it was early 2008. It was another election year.

Stocks are up but so are gas prices. AAA says the national average for a gallon of regular is $3.57. But gas in some states like Hawaii costs more than $4 a gallon.

Analysts blame recent threats from Iran. Iran cut off oil sales to Britain and France. Some forecasters worry that this new threats from Iran could boost prices to maybe 5 bucks a gallon.

Rick Santorum has expanded his lead to the double digits. And the fundraising math is working out as well. The Santorum campaign raised $4.5 million last month and spent just $3.3 million. Newt Gingrich raised $5.6 million and spent $5.9 million. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney raised $6.5 million last month. He spent nearly three times that amount, $18.7 million.

The Donald hoping to trump Rick Santorum's gains in Michigan. Donald Trump called into a local radio show to tout his candidate, Mitt Romney, and to slam Santorum. Trump says a win for Santorum is a win for the president.


DONALD TRUMP, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: There is nothing, there is no gift, no Christmas gift that could be given better than Rick Santorum to the Democrats.


ROMANS: Michigan primary voters head to the polls on February 28th. Trump has left the door open for his own third-party run should Mitt Romney not get the GOP nomination.

And just days before Hollywood's biggest night, an "L.A. Times" study reveals that Oscar voters may be an even more select group than we thought. The Academy's more than 5,700 members are 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male. Just 14 percent of the membership is under the age of 50. And as for its minority voters, 2 percent African-American and 2 percent Latino.

And this is, of course, the group that decides the big winners on Oscar night.

O'BRIEN: Well, I'm not -- I'm not stunned by those numbers actually. I'm not shocked at all.

All right. I appreciate that. Thanks, Christine.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: I want to talk to you about what you did during one of those stories. I don't know if we have time now, but maybe when we got a moment after this break, because when we were talking about Donald Trump, the congressman did one of these. So we want to discuss that on the other side. We got to take a short break.

But still ahead on STARTING POINT, U.N. inspectors return to Iran. We're going to talk about what they're going to be allowed to see.

Also, Stephen Colbert back on the air. I'll talk to you about his disappearance. As only he can. It's very sweet.

And she was dumped for the "Soup Nazi," landed on her feet, married George Stephanopoulos. We're going to talk with Ali Wentworth this morning live. She's going to join our panel.

And Katrina's playlist, let's play this off. Little Marvin Gaye. "What's Going On?"


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Top U.N. nuclear weapons inspectors are in Tehran today. The International Atomic Energy Agency says the priority is that the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. Iran is claiming that advances in uranium enrichment and also, of course, tensions are rising as Iran has cut off oil exports to European countries in response to sanctions.

Joining us this morning to talk about all of that is former U.N. weapons inspector, David Albright. Nice to see you, sir. Thanks for talking with us. We've talked about specific questions that the IAEA needs to get answers from Iran. So, what are those questions exactly? DAVID ALBRIGHT, FMR. U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: Well, the two most important are, did Iran work on the processes and the research and development to build a nuclear weapon itself? There are a lot of steps in building a nuclear weapon, enriching uranium, but it's also necessary to learn how to make the enriched uranium turn into a nuclear explosive, and that's complicated.

Another is, did Iran have a military-controlled program to enrich uranium? Was this chrome site that was discovered by western intelligence in 2009 actually part of a program run by the military to produce weapon grade uranium for a nuclear weapon? And so, those two areas are the key wings that the IAEA has been focusing on.

And Iran, so far, has refused to cooperate. It started to cooperate in 2007, and then, in 2008, it broke off all cooperation on these two subjects.

O'BRIEN: You have said you don't expect cooperation and you don't expect these issues to be resolved unless there is concessions and major concessions from both sides. Spell out what those concessions you think would have to be to make progress.

ALBRIGHT: Well, it's a very complicated problem. And I think -- I don't -- what the IAEA is looking for on this visit is some concrete result that shows that Iran plans to open up. The IAEA can't deliver very much to Iran in terms of concessions. So, Iran is going to be looking to the west, particularly, to the United States, to start to make concessions that get to its security concerns.

I mean, will the U.S. be willing to say we're not going to try to overthrow the regime? Will the U.S. accept Iran's enrichment program for peaceful uses? These are all very tough concessions, particularly, now when both countries are entering a political season and the threat of war is increasing.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, THE NATION: Mr. Albright, Katrina Vanden Heuvel from "The Nation" magazine. There's a drumbeat for war with Iran in this country in Israel.

What is your assessment of the impact of airstrikes on Iran in terms of the viability in terms of dealing with the nuclear program or do you feel that diplomacy has not been adequately used at this stage and there is more to be done, and that the drumbeat should cease while diplomacy continues?

ALBRIGHT: I think diplomacy can work. I think Iran has been put under tremendous pressure, and that pressure is starting to pay off. Iran has agreed that they'll enter negotiations. It's dropped its demands for pre-conditions, so I think the negotiations should be given a chance to work. Now, in terms of the airstrikes, we've looked at this at my organization for years.

This is not a case like Syria's reactor, which Israel bombed in 2007. This is a highly dispersed advanced gas centrifuge program that cannot be bombed out of existence. And so, the best you get in these kind of airstrikes that are being talked about is a delay in their program. And I've asked Israeli officials, can you give us five years? And they said, no.

So, we're really talking about something that's a couple of years at best, and it may back fire. I mean, if Iran is attacked, it may just decide, look, we're going for the bomb. And they're going to accelerate their effort. And then, they end up with the bomb sooner than if we hadn't attacked at all.

And so, I think that it is very important at this time to give negotiations a chance and to give Obama the breathing room to try to make those negotiations successful.

O'BRIEN: David Albright is a former U.N. weapons inspector. It's nice to have you. Thank you for talking with us. We appreciate it.

ALBRIGHT: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, Newt Gingrich says that President Obama is the most dangerous president in modern American history. We're going to talk about that in just a moment.

And our next guess from a Reagan family to marrying a Clinton White House -- there she is. Ali Wentworth, eating in the room. Finish up. We'll get with you in a moment. Don't rush. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: This is great. K.C. and the Sunshine Band. You know what, I love them even later all the years after the hits when they just do the shows and award shows. That's "Shake Your Bootie," obviously. Ali Wentworth's pick this morning. And Ali Wentworth --


O'BRIEN: Yes. You should be. I like it. I like it. We've had some, you know, some non-winners. We like that one. Ali Wentworth went from a prominent D.C. family to the heels of Hollywood and back again, and she has so many tales to show for it.

She's the daughter of a social secretary for the Reagan White House escape (ph) D.C., and then, went into Hollywood. Go to "Living Color" and off the space and the infamous (INAUDIBLE) role and Seinfeld, of course. Everybody knows you for it, married to "Good Morning America's" George Stephanopoulos. We're not going to talk politics with you today, though.

WENTWORTH: Well, I just think it'd be a waste of time, because I am not the person to go to to talk about politics.

O'BRIEN: No. We want to talk about your book, which is really funny.

WENTWORTH: Thank you. O'BRIEN: It's called "Ali In Wonderland," and it's hilarious.

WENTWORTH: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: I think really as much as it jokes, it's a very much a love letter to your mom.

WENTWORTH: It is, actually. She's kind of the thread throughout the whole book. And, it's basically great advice my mother's given me through very specific moments in my life.

O'BRIEN: Go shopping.

WENTWORTH: Go shopping. Whenever there's something tragic, she says go to the Four Seasons. You know, I could be in labor and she'd say, go to the Four Seasons. And I start the book with a boyfriend that I was engaged to and I left.

And he ended up very quickly bouncing back with another relationship and I was hysterical, and fetal, and snot, crying, and thought it was the end of my life and called my mother, and said, I found out he had chartered a plane and taken this woman to the Bahamas, and I've made a huge mistake, and I was going to, you know, take my own life.

And my mother, there was a long pause on the phone and she said, oh, Ali, nobody goes to the Bahamas in July. I thought, well, that's kind of true.


WENTWORTH: So, yes, it's a love letter to my mom, but it also kind of goes from being a kid during Watergate through marrying a Greek, so to current day. And, to me, it was growing up in D.C. I had a five-year-old perspective on everything. And so, when I moved back with my husband, it was a whole different city. And one of the things I sort of experienced as a kid was our phones were tapped during Watergate because they thought my stepfather, who was one of the editors in the "London Sunday Times," was a spy.

So, my mother sat me and my siblings down and said, you know, you should know when you hear this clicking sound that there are people listening on the other side to which I said, I'm sorry, what? There's an audience? There's a built-in audience.


O'BRIEN: And that's the career in comedy was born.

WENTWORTH: I spent the rest of -- you know, the next two years going balls and hanging up, which George told me I can listen to my tapes at the Library of Congress. There's something to bring forth to my children.

O'BRIEN: How did you make that move from D.C., in a prominent D.C. family into Hollywood? What was the lure of Hollywood for you? WENTWORTH: It wasn't -- D.C. was so serious to me, I mean, especially during that time. With everything, Bay of Pigs, Watergate, that I wanted levity so much that I used to joke around at the table. We were always quizzed on current events. And I just wanted to perform. And so, to me, that seemed the natural way to go.

Even though my parents were saying go to Katie Gibbs secretarial school, go work on the Hill. You know, this was this -- you know, I was a black sheep, but I said, no, I want to go to Hollywood, which they had no reference at all. They didn't know anybody, you know? So -- which made it even more kind of -- I felt like a pioneer.

O'BRIEN: You went to the show "In Living Color," because they were looking for a black man.

WENTWORTH: So naturally --


WENTWORTH: I'm a shoe-in.

O'BRIEN: Is that true?

WENTWORTH: They were looking for a black guy to replace Damon Wayans (ph), which, you know, that kind of thing never stops me, Soledad. So, I went in and I auditioned a million times, and I really played down the D.C. roots, you know what I mean? I wasn't Debby --

O'BRIEN: D.C. comedy?

WENTWORTH: Yes. No, no, no. You know, I wore a polyester halter top and a mini skirt and walked in heels like a newborn colt and got the show. And it was my first professional job. And it turns out I played a lot of hookers and strippers which my parents, they couldn't have been more proud of me.


WENTWORTH: My mother used to call me all the time in L.A. and say, I just don't -- why don't you do a movie with Meryl Streep? And I'd say, that's a great idea. I'm going to call Meryl -- you know, and then, ironically, years later, I did do a movie with Meryl Streep. And so, my mother finally referred to me as an actress and not the other kid.

O'BRIEN: So, when you are home with George Stephanopoulos -- I said I wouldn't really talk about --


O'BRIEN: -- oh, yes. Do you talk about politics? Is it all politics? That would be my outsider position on people who spend a lot of time in D.C., that every morning they get up and they're like, did you see what's happening in "The Washington Post" today, darling?

WENTWORTH: Not too much. Not our pillow talk, no. I mean, I think he talks about it all day, and so, coming home, you know, it's very transactional. Did you call the plumber? Did you know that the kids have art class? It's your turn to pick up the dog poop in the living room. It's very -- you know, it's a marriage. There are moments where I say explain Egypt to me in one minute, but -- and I use him.

O'BRIEN: We do that on the show, too.

WENTWORTH: I mean, I definitely use him. He's kind of my walking political dictionary, but that's not our thing.

HEUVEL: I'm interested because you grew up in a Washington -- in the Kennedy administration and you were young, but you've seen Washington through many, many, many years. What's changed? What's the same?

O'BRIEN: In a minute.

WENTWORTH: In a minute. I'll tell you the biggest thing. The biggest thing was growing up, the Republicans and the Democrats used to be much more social. Dinner parties. There'd be exchange of ideas. You know, Tipp O'Neal would have a huge fight with somebody, and ten minutes later, go play tennis.

And now, it's so polarized. When I came back, the Republicans on this side of the river, and the Democrats, they don't mix. All the congressmen leave on the weekends. They got to go raise money. So, it used to be so -- there was a community of people, and now, it seems very --

HEUVEL: My mother was close friends with John Sherman Cooper, Republican from Kentucky.

WENTWORTH: Right. And my mother was the only Democrat --


WENTWORTH: My mother was the only Democrat in the White House. That would never happen today.

O'BRIEN: The book is called "Ali in Wonderland." It's really funny. Thank you for joining us.

WENTWORTH: It's my pleasure.

O'BRIEN: We appreciate it.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, could Democrats win back the House this November? Congressman Steve Israel thinks maybe. He's heading the charge to get more of them elected. We're going to talk strategy with him right away.

And also, why Super PAC money could have a lot to do with it. That's up next. Stay with us. We're back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: That's little Rick Ross this morning, "Hustling. Let's get right to our headlines this morning. Christine has that for us.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Soledad. Let's start in Yemen this morning. People are there voting in the country's first presidential election in more than 30 years. The vote signals a formal end to the long reign of the Abdullah Saleh. He was forced to step down in November after months of defiant protests. His successor, who's Yemen's interim president, is the only candidate on the ballot. He says he wanted the election to make his presidency official.

No let up to the violence in Syria. The Red Cross and other aid groups are trying to get the fighting to stop long enough to get food and medical supplies into areas that desperately need it. At least 18 civilians have been killed across the country today, including three children.

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 such legislation to help the economy and create jobs. He'll push for this at an event at 11:35 eastern time today. We're the only network with the story. It's a big change from a White House that sounded like it was accepting that Congress would sit on its hands in an election year.

Turns out former Senator Rick Santorum voted for some earmarks that he criticized, including money for security during the Salt Lake City games in 2002. Mitt Romney was head of the Salt Lake organizing committee and Santorum has tried to use that against him on the campaign trail, saying Romney stuck taxpayers with the Bill for the games.

"The Colbert Report" is back on 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 in a confidential message.


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


ROMANS: Colbert placing his finger on his nose there, an homage to actress Carol Burnett. She ended her show by tugging her ear to say "I love you."

O'BRIEN: Christine, thank you.

President Obama's road to reelection, approval rating over 50 percent. The economy is showing signs of life. Gas prices though are skyrocketing. He might get a do-something congress. Congressman you were trying to work that out earlier today. So how does the president keep the momentum going? We're back with Democratic Congressman Steve Israel of New York. He joins us once again. You have said in the past that it's super PAC money that keeps you up at night. Why is that?

REP. STEVE ISRAEL, (D) NEW YORK: Because in 2010 we lost the House not to House Republicans but to Karl Rove and the Koch brothers, special interest groups who spent unlimited amounts of money not disclosing who was funding those commercials beaming into Congressional districts and affecting the impact of those elections. This was a huge advantage that the Republicans had in 2010. We're not going to concede that to them in 2012.

O'BRIEN: So you're going to use super PAC money and try to win back the house. How likely is that going to be?

ISRAEL: Two things. First of all, look, I'm a huge baseball fan. I love my New York Mets. I've never been to a baseball game in history where one team doesn't get bats. So if a Republican will use super PACs, we will too. When we take the majority the first thing we'll do is pass the disclose act so people know who's funding those PACs, and seek to amend the constitution so that special corporate interests cannot influence elections --

O'BRIEN: Your -- let me just stop you for one second. That analogy is a little flawed, right, because there's never been a team that says we have a moral issue with that. We are against bats and then they go ahead and use the bats. That's where I think your analogy is a little bit flawed, right?

ISRAEL: Well, the stakes are so high. I don't think it is flawed, Soledad, with all due respect. The stakes are so high for the middle class. You had a House Republican leadership that has turned its back on them, that has tried to end Medicare as we know it, that has been for tax breaks for millionaires and tried to raise taxes on the middle class. We're going to fight them tooth and nail with every tool that we have.

And that's why I'm so confident because of their wrong priorities, that's why I'm so confident that the House is in play. Even the Washington Post two weeks ago ran a headline that people in both political parties believe that the House is in play.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE NATION": Representative Israel, so is the official position of the Democratic Party now to fight for an amendment to overturn Citizens United, the decision which is unleashed the super PAC money into an already broken system of money in politics?

ISRAEL: It's my official position, yes. I believe that, look, we tried to pass the disclose act when we had the majority. Senate Republicans refused to go along with us. Most House Republicans, if not all, I don't recall, voted against that kind of disclosure.

And so if the Supreme Court has said that these big special interests can spend unlimited amounts of undisclosed money trying to influence elections, I believe that we have to correct that, the Supreme Court decision. And the way you correct a Supreme Court decision is either through legislation or a constitutional amendment.

The stake of our democracy, that's what we're talking about. Are we going to allow a small group of people behind closed doors pump tens of millions of dollars into elections without even being honest with the American people on who's paying for those elections? This is one of those things that's a major issue of our time.

O'BRIEN: There's something contradictory to me. I agree but you're saying we're going to do it. You're clearly outraged by it.

ISRAEL: No, we're going to disclose.

O'BRIEN: All right, let me play a little bit --

ISRAEL: I believe at that all of these expenditures should be disclosed.

O'BRIEN: Go ahead, sir.

REP. SCOTT GARRETT, (R) NEW JERSEY: That's where I have the same outrage that you do. You take a moral imperative position and then say you're going to engage in it. I would go back to election 2010 where you say the reason that you lost was because of all the money going into the race. Wasn't it because the American public was outraged about all of the things that had happened during the president's administration, the passing of Obamacare, the fact the economy was still going into the tank? Wasn't it there where you lost it? It was the popular vote, the man on the street, not the money being fed into the race.

ISRAEL: Well, I'll tell you what. I will partially agree with some of your analysis, Scott.


ISRAEL: That is there were nine million independent voters, that's maybe as good as you're going to get though. There are nine million independent voters across the country who voted for house Democrats in 2006 and 2008 and didn't vote for us in 2010.

But Scott, if you take a look at every single poll, all the generics, we are winning those independent voters back. Why? Because your party in the House has chosen millionaires over Medicare, fought a middle class tax cut, and has spent time trying to figure out how you redefine what rape is instead of how you build the recovery of our economy.

So your priorities -- you are where we may have been two years ago, and that's why we're ahead in all the generic polling. We've got 75 seats in play with problem solvers, a NASA astronaut, a two star general, the former police chief in Orlando who brought crime down 40 percent. We are the party of solutions. We have problem solvers. And that's why the House is in play. O'BRIEN: Let me play for you, do we have a clip? Is this a full screen graphic? Let me play what Newt Gingrich had to say about President Obama, really stepping up his attacks of late. Here's what he said.


NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: All of you should be very cleanly concerned about national security. Barack Obama is the most dangerous president in modern American history.


O'BRIEN: What do you make of that?

ISRAEL: I don't know what part of killing Osama bin Laden, surging in Afghanistan, and taking out more high level Al Qaeda operatives in three years than the entire Bush administration took out in eight years does Newt Gingrich not understand. The record speaks for itself. It's just an irresponsible sound bite, and it's why the Republicans are in the condition that they are in. They have no credibility.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Steve Israel joining us this morning from my home area of Long Island. Nice to see you, sir. Thanks for talking with us.

ISRAEL: Long Island. Thanks.

O'BRIEN: That's how we say it there, Long Island. Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, we told you a little bit about this earlier, Donald Trump tearing into Rick Santorum saying he'd be a Christmas gift to the Democrats. We want to chat with the panel about that and all the other political issues raised by Congressman Israel straight ahead. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: I get it. None of my gospel gets played today. We are like a Rick Ross show. I like that song. It's called "You the Boss."

Let's talk with the panel about what we were talking about before the break, which was Donald Trump bashing Rick Santorum's electability. Here's what he told the local radio show about what a Santorum win would mean.


DONALD TRUMP, CEO, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: There is nothing, there is no gift, no Christmas gift that could be given better than Rick Santorum to the Democrats.


O'BRIEN: Let's get back to the panel on that. You literally closed -- you looked like you were in prayer. You were like this. GARRETT: At least I wasn't rolling my eyes.

O'BRIEN: You did not roll your eyes. You looked unhappy. Why?

GARRETT: Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving. You don't know where to put that after a while. I don't think Romney wanted that endorsement to play out the way he did. I'm certain he doesn't want Donald going around the country now calling into local radio stations and touting why Santorum is good -- bad, and Romney is good. He should just go back to his TV show and do what he does best, which is promote himself.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Donald Trump is a hyper-leveraged ego with a lot of hair, but on this one, on Rick Santorum, I think he's right. I do think Rick Santorum is --

O'BRIEN: Look at you agreeing with Donald Trump. Wow.

VANDEN HEUVEL: I think Santorum --

O'BRIEN: Are we rolling on this?

VANDEN HEUVEL: I think he's an extremist right wing protest candidate and not the -- he's not someone who can win election. He's out of the mainstream, way out of the mainstream. And I think what he's been saying particularly about women --

O'BRIEN: Oh, you're talking about Rick Santorum? I thought she was talking about Donald Trump.

VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE NATION": No, I'm saying -- I'm saying I agree with Donald Trump who has this hyper- leveraged ego. But I do think Rick Santorum is a Christmas gift. And I think he's -- he -- he -- there is an extremism there. As I said earlier, he is running for theologian in chief. And the head of the RNC said earlier, at the end of the day, to use one of the great cliches this is an economic election.

Rick Santorum with every breath he takes right now is obscuring the economic message he has, which I may disagree with, but at least it has a root in manufacturing and some other --


O'BRIEN: Do you think the DEMs really focus now on Rick Santorum because they're putting a lot of energy. And I've ask this question and every single Democrat we've had has like dodged it this morning. But do you think that a lot of the focus is to raise his profile so that it helps sort of undermine the Romney economic message?

STEVE KORNACKI, POLITICAL WRITER, SALON.COM: I think there is something to that because I think the attacks that we've been seeing from Democrats so far against Rick Santorum are not the attacks really that we're going to be seeing from Democrats if Rick Santorum were the nominee. That's different that Romney. I think what you seen the Democrats use against Romney is their A material. They believe that Mitt Romney is the likely opponent. They believe the election against him is already underway. They're rolling that stuff out.

I think with Santorum it has a much more sort of cookie cutter going through emotions feel to it. But if they -- if they actually drum as an opponent it's going to be -- it's going to be very personal, it's going to be very much about how extreme he is.

O'BRIEN: I have a word for you before I have to go for commercial.

REP. SCOTT GARRETT (R), NEW JERSEY: Right, because President Obama does not want to run on his record. He can't run on the economy because the economy is going into the tank.


O'BRIEN: No, the economy actually -- you had me until that point. The economy is doing this. It's very slow but it's an upward movement.

GARRETT: The economy is doing that.

O'BRIEN: Slowly.

GARRETT: Inventories have just been built up over time. And that's where you show that.

O'BRIEN: But it is -- the graphic is that. It is improved and you cannot argue that it's not improving slowly and slightly.

VANDEN HEUVEL: You can't and the austerity economics we see being played out in Europe where it -- it has failed. It's the kind of austerity politics Paul Ryan, your party would bring and really take us into the tank.

O'BRIEN: Oh now they're fighting. They were like -- they were together.

VANDEN HEUVEL: We have a philosophical major disagreement.

O'BRIEN: All right, I got to -- I've got to take --

GARRETT: We have to live within our means. Do you live on a budget? Do you live within your means, do you spend more all the time -- well, the President doesn't.


VANDEN HEUVEL: I think one of the most insidious metaphors -- this is -- I think families sit around the kitchen table and talk about investments. And what we need in this country right now is the investment in our future in the short and medium term and then we think long term.

O'BRIEN: What we need on my show right now is a commercial break. Thank you, you can continue.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Is the commercial break yes.

GARRETT: But that's capitalism at its best.

O'BRIEN: Yes it is. It is capitalism as it's best. Going to commercial. I'll just keep talking and reading off the teleprompter while they ignore me.

We're going to talk this morning about a finalist on "Top Chef" who has been proving to people that diabetes doesn't have to be a food prison.

Sanjay Gupta is going to join us next to talk about. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're going to continue to fight through the commercial break and back on the other side.


O'BRIEN: So Sam Talbot is best known as a finalist on "Top Chef." He was diagnosed with diabetes when he was just 12 years old. And now he's got a new cookbook out. Our chief medical correspond and host of "Sanjay Gupta M.D." Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us. Hey Sanjay, good morning.


O'BRIEN: Tell me about this guy.

GUPTA: Well you know, he -- he represents a growing population of people in this country, Soledad. You and I have talked about this, but half of Americans expected to be either have diabetes or pre- diabetic by 2020. So this is something we pay a lot of attention to.

Sam's story was very similar. You know when he was eight years old he was -- they became interested in cooking and used to visit farmers markets, used to cook a lot for his parents. And it grew from there. But at age 12, as you mentioned he was diagnosed with type I diabetes. This is juvenile type of diabetes. And this is where -- this is how he sort of dedicated his life.

But I want you to listen for -- for a second, Soledad, to what it was like specifically when a 12-year-old is diagnosed. Take a listen.


SAM TALBOT, CHEF: you know, my uncle, my mom's brother was diabetic. So a lot of the symptoms that happen when you're becoming newly diagnosed, things were happening to me. And my mother obviously had seen them from growing up with her brother. So one night I would use the bathroom like 15 times over the course of a 10 hour sleeping period.

My mom took me to the hospital. We went to the emergency room and they checked my blood sugar and my blood sugar was like 980. It was crazy.

GUPTA: Normal is usually below 100. TALBOT: Normal was like 80 to 120 or something.

GUPTA: Right.

TALBOT: And mine was 900, 980 I think. And my mom burst into tears.


GUPTA: And so those -- those two experiences sort of really informed the rest of his life. He's 34 years old now. You can see he's in terrific shape, but he's trying to cook specifically for people who have diabetes or worried about their blood sugar. Again 12 years old, so 20 years later he joined -- this is where he's sort of dedicated a lot of his attention, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you what his thoughts are on Paula Deen.


O'BRIEN: Because last time we were talking chefs we were talking about Paula Deen.

GUPTA: Right.

O'BRIEN: And her diabetes crisis.

GUPTA: Right, you know I was curious about that as well. And you know a lot of these chefs, you know they do cook for specific audiences. And you know Paula Deen is obviously well-known for the types of food that she -- she advocated. But I asked Sam specifically about that as well considering his diagnosis. Take a listen.


TALBOT: I think that when you know any person with a bit of notoriety that has a platform to speak on right, whether it be a chef, or a doctor, or a lawyer whatever it is that your profession is and you're speaking from the heart, people are listening to you.


GUPTA: He said that she seems to have turned things around. As you know, Soledad, she -- she is a spokesperson now for a pharmaceutical company that focuses on insulin pumps specifically. So he said, look, you know, he thinks that she's advocating on behalf of people who have diabetes now. That's a good thing because of these increasing numbers over the next several years Soledad.

O'BRIEN: And he is advocating as well in his cook book. All right, Sanjay thanks. I appreciate that update.

GUPTA: You got it.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning, the "End Point" with our panel up next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: We are listening to the Rebirth Brass Band from New Orleans. That's exactly like you. They just won a Grammy so congratulations to them. Of course, we're celebrating Mardi Gras today. The folks from (INAUDIBLE) in New Orleans have sent us a king cake. So you know, inside is a little plastic baby. Whoever gets the baby has to buy the next cake. You get to be crowned queen or king.

I'm going to cut it up. Bruce, will you help me hand this out. I want to find this baby.

My "End Point" is happy Mardi Gras everybody.

Congressman, if you will start for us. What's your "End Point" this morning?

REP. SCOTT GARRETT (R), NEW JERSEY: So my first "End Point" is I'm going to see whether I can find the little baby as well.

O'BRIEN: Yes, you will.

GARRETT: But, at the same time I'll still be continuing to look to see what the president has done favorably for either the middle class or for our Middle Eastern policy. I think just as hard it is to find the little baby in this, it will be just hard to find that in anything that --


O'BRIEN: I like the way you smoothly segued from the king cake to your point of the day which has been the Obama Administration. Ok.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE NATION": We've been talking a lot about a surge for Santorum. I'd like to talk about a surge for sanity and from this program. Jessica Alquist, the young woman from Rhode Island who spokes in such poised ways at 16 about a core value of this country which is freedom from religion and freedom of religion.

I also thought the International Atomic Energy Agency inspector David Albright in speaking about the importance of continuing negotiations to avoid a war with Iran. Sanity.

O'BRIEN: I thought Jessica was great. And she's 16 years old. And we will bring her in, maybe she wants to join the panel to have a conversation with us. She's the most mature 16-year-old I have seen in a long time.

All right. Find that baby in your cake.

Go ahead, what's your "End Point"?

STEVE KORNACKI, POLITICAL WRITER, SALON.COM: Yes. No, I mean I'm worried about choking if I bit --

O'BRIEN: Oh, come on. Come on.

KORNACKI: It will be a shame if it all ends here.

O'BRIEN: A shame for you.

KORNAKI: I hope that's not my ending point. I guess mine today would be we talked about Santorum, we talked about the Republican race. We've got the debate. Tomorrow final debate before Michigan and Arizona.

What's interesting to me is if you look at these past challenges that Romney has faced from sort of conservative insurgents, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, all of them have sort of melted down at one point in the debates.

O'BRIEN: Are you predicting a meltdown?

KORNACKI: No. This is what I think is so interesting about Santorum. I think he's a more competent candidate than Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain. I think he can handle himself there in this situation so I'm really interested to watch.

O'BRIEN: All right. That's sort of a "we will watch and see", isn't it? Anybody get the baby in this case?

VANDEN HEUVEL: I didn't get the baby.

O'BRIEN: No, well, someone's eating the baby in our king cake.

Let's get right to "CNN NEWSROOM" with Kyra Phillips. It begins right now.

I'll see you back here for STARTING POINT tomorrow morning. Oops, I think we've eaten the baby.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Someone's going to start choking in about 10 seconds.