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Candidates Debate at Crucial Moment; Lacrosse Player Murder Trial; Controversial Virginia Bill; Palin Loyalists Condemn "Game Change" Movie

Aired February 23, 2012 - 05:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. And welcome to EARLY START. It is, indeed, early. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We're very happy you're joining us this morning. We are bringing you the news from A to Z.

It is 5:00 a.m. in the East. So, let's get started here.

Mitt Romney going on attack -- did you watch it -- against his latest challenger at the tippy top, Rick Santorum -- only five days until the Arizona and Michigan primaries. Was Mitt Romney able to lock in his home state?

BANFIELD: And a decision reached by a jury in the lacrosse place. That player convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in a drunken and jealous rage. But did he actually come out better than he could have?

SAMBOLIN: And there are new fears about chemical weapon sites in Syria. The military is saying it would take almost as many troops as there are in Afghanistan to protect those chemical sites. They're also concerned about those chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands and perhaps being used against civilians.

BANFIELD: And in America's constant battle of the bulge, there may be yet another magic diet pill. It's the first prescription drug to battle obesity in a decade. We are going to tell you all about it.

SAMBOLIN: It's getting a lot of buzz.

BANFIELD: The pros and the cons. Indeed.

Up first though -- duel in the desert as they're calling it. We've got five days left until Arizona and Michigan. It's been forever since we've had a primary, right?

Rick Santorum has certainly had his turn at the top, but is it over?

SAMBOLIN: Well, a lot of score cards saying that he may have actually missed his chance. With voters in Mitt Romney's home state watching, you saw the candidates battle over the auto bailout, earmarks, and their records with your money.

The crowd was applauding a lot, particularly for Mitt Romney. Cringing at times and booing Rick Santorum.

Here are some of the highlights.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was fighting to save the Olympics. You were fighting to save the "Bridge to Nowhere".

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You're entitled to your opinions, Mitt. You're not entitled to misrepresent the fact.

ROMNEY: I heard that before.

SANTORUM: You're misrepresenting the facts. You don't know what you're talking about.

Yes, Governor, you balanced the budget for four years. You have a constitutional requirement to balance the budget in four years. No great shakes. I'm all for it -- I like to see it federally.

But don't go around bragging about something you have to do. Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for 10 years. Does that make him qualified to be president of the United States? I don't think so.


SAMBOLIN: A lot of sparring going on there.

CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser is live in Mesa, Arizona.

You know, a couple of things that stuck out, right? First, they were sitting, which is kind of awkward.

But "Politico" said this morning, Romney and Santorum really don't like each other. Kind of an understatement, wouldn't you say?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: You know, the sitting was an idea to make it a more intimate setting. But, yes, in a way, it did make it a little more uncomfortable with the two front-runners right there sitting next to each other. You can tell from the facial expressions when they're each going after each other. There was not a lot of love between them.

I'll tell you, Zoraida, for Santorum, he was forced in a way to defend some unpopular decisions, I guess, with conservatives. His vote in favor of No Child Left Behind, his vote in favor on supporting Planned Parenthood, on funding Planned Parenthood, his support in the past of earmarks and his support back in 2004 of Arlen Specter's re- election, the moderate senator from Pennsylvania at the time.

Take a listen to this exchange between Santorum and Romney.

ROMNEY: The reason we have Obamacare is because the senator you supported over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, the pro- choice senator of Pennsylvania that you supported and endorsed in a race over Pat Toomey, he voted for Obamacare. If you had not supported him, if we had said, no to Arlen Specter, we would not have Obamacare.

SANTORUM: Why I supported Arlen Specter, number one, because Arlen Specter was a senator who was going to be the chairman of the judiciary committee at a time when the most important issue that was coming up in the next session of Congress was two to three Supreme Court nominees.

ROMNEY: Supporting Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey, that was a very torturous route --


SANTORUM: Just about as torturous as six years later --

ROMNEY: -- in 1996 --


JOHN KING, DEBATE MODERATOR: Let's move the conversation along.


STEINHAUSER: Not a lot of love there between those two gentlemen, huh? I'll tell you, I talked to a top Santorum advisor in the spin room after the debate and he said, not my candidate's best debate. But he said nobody else hit a home run so they were not that concerned.

Zoraida, as you can imagine, the Romney senior advisors who are in the spin room were ecstatic. They think their candidate did very well. Santorum was forced to defend these decisions. They will make it tough for him with conservatives. They're very confident they're going to win Michigan and Arizona come Tuesday -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: The highlights were fun to watch, so thanks for replaying some of those.

Paul Steinhauser live in Mesa, Arizona, for us -- thank you.

BANFIELD: A former University of Virginia lacrosse player was found guilty in the murder of his ex-girlfriend. This is one that made a lot f headlines. George Huguely ultimately convicted of second degree murder in the death of ex-girlfriend Yeardley Love. The jury recommended a sentence of 26 years in prison.

CNN legal contributor Paul Callan is here to talk this one through.

So, it was just this time yesterday, Paul, you and I were talking about the options this jury had. They could have gone all the way, could have gone first degree, ultimately settled for second degree. But it still could mean a lot of time in the prison.

So what's the situation? What is he facing? And what could this judge ultimately decide to do?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, this is a very, very serious charge. It's called second degree murder, but essentially it's murder with malice. It's intentional murder.

And he's facing a sentencing range -- well, it could have been five to 40 years. But now that the jury has recommended 26 years, the judge in Virginia can give up to 26 years as the maximum sentence. So that would put him well into his 40s by the time he's out of prison.

I should mention that in Virginia, they've eliminated the parole board. So, whatever time you're sentenced to, you serve pretty much most of that time. Unlike a lot of states where you get out on parole early.

So, Huguely is facing a very, very different life than he anticipated when he enrolled at the University of Virginia.

BANFIELD: OK. So, a lot of people would say, wow, 26 years. And like you said with not a whole lot of options to get out on good behavior, that's a lot of time. Was this something that that his lawyers could look at as a break? Because, of course, he could have gotten life. And would they, therefore, actually start pouring over all of the transcripts from trial looking for some kind of error that they could appeal on.

CALLAN: They'll clearly be looking for some kind of error. This was a compromised verdict. The prosecutor sought murder one which would have been life imprisonment sentence. The defense was looking for manslaughter which could have been as little as 10 years in prison. So, the jury found middle ground.

But I will tell you, from the perspective of the prosecution, they put in a very strong case that this was a brutal murder, that this young lady was beaten to death. And then I think most telling, that she was left to die in her bed. If you beat somebody brutally to the point where they're unconscious and then you walk out of the room instead of calling 911, you're leaving the person to die.

So, there were elements of brutality that went beyond even the physical beating. And I think that's what the jury must have been thinking about when they recommended this 26-year sentence, which is a very, very long sentence for a college student.

So there will be an appeal. But I --

BANFIELD: You really think -- that's the thing. You really think so?

You don't think for the minute that after the violence, and ugliness, and a crying prosecutor in this case, that this lawyer isn't thinking, whew, we skated from a first degree. I'm taking this and running. I'm not going to take my chances on round two and actually end up sticking my kid in the can for life?

CALLAN: Well, Ashleigh, first of all, having represented people in these kinds of cases, anybody who's going to prison for that length of time, nobody's celebrating that. And I have to tell you that when you take an appeal on a criminal case, you can never be sentenced to more than the initial sentence. So let's say hypothetically the judge gives 26 years or maybe even lesser, 20 years, you can take an appeal, get a reversal, and when you go back to trial, maximum sentence you face is 20 years. That's the law in the United States.

So an appeal is risk free to the defense.

BANFIELD: Fascinating. I didn't know that. It's like a little double jeopardy getting in there in the way.

CALLAN: How do you like that?

BANFIELD: I like it. And you know something else? You won the bet, my friend.

CALLAN: I did.

BANFIELD: No felony murder. I thought I'd bring it up.

CALLAN: It's good to see you admit that on the air. Thank you, Ashleigh.


BANFIELD: I knew it was coming whether I did or you did it. Paul Callan, it's good to see you. Thank you.


SAMBOLIN: All right. It's eight minutes past the hour here. Good morning. We give you an EARLY START to your day by alerting you to news that's happening later and stories that are just developing right now, but they will be the big story tonight.

U.S. officials are meeting with North Korean officials today in Beijing to discuss whether North Korea is willing to suspend its nuclear program. Officials will also discuss human rights and humanitarian issues. This is the first time the U.S. and North Korea will meet since the death of Kim Jong Il.

BANFIELD: And a new House contraception hearing is going to get underway today. Don't get all excited popping popcorn and sitting by your TV. There will be no TV cameras allowed.

It's an unofficial hearing. It was organized by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi who claims that the Republicans blocked broadcast, but the GOP is denying that that's what happened.

SAMBOLIN: And President Obama is headed to Florida today. He'll address gas prices and pitch energy policy at the University of Miami. This morning's "Washington Post" is also reporting that he'll promote an energy strategy that the administration says will reduce dependence on foreign oil in the long term.

BANFIELD: And because we like to do it, we're minding your business this morning.

Gas prices are up. I know we sound like a broken record when we say that. But we just found out from AAA that the new national average for a gallon of gas is, you ready, are you sitting down? Actually you might be lying down because it's 10 past 5:00 in the morning on the East Coast -- $3.61 per gallon. That's up three cents just from yesterday.

SAMBOLIN: OK. So Christine Romans in to talk about this.

I was reading $6 in Florida?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, some of these high-cost places you're going to see them go up. But you're not going to see a national average like that.

I mean, Tom Kloza from the OPIS is what he works for, he writes this funny blog. Stop the hyperventilating.


ROMANS: Gas prices are going up. They go up every time this year.

And, look, we're paying double or triple than we did even 10 years ago in the summer for gas. But he thinks the national average will be something like $3.75 to $4.25. Still hurts. Doesn't it? And it hurts really if you live in one of those high class cities -- California, Chicago, although some folks in Chicago yesterday were e- mailing me saying they haven't seen the price spike yet, because they do have enough supply in Chicago.

BANFIELD: They actually saw a reduction of 10 cents.

ROMANS: Right. So, there's a little kind of variation around the country. So, I just want to bring this back home and tell you $3.61 on average a gallon, up 3 cents in one day. You're watching your service station. You're watching the prices go up every day. It's probably going to continue.

If you have an economy car with a 12.6 gallon tank, that's an extra 43 bucks. I mean, there goes your payroll tax holiday, guys, you know -- boom, like that. You know, your payroll tax holiday is kind of disappearing when you're starting to see these numbers.

Now a couple of things here. A lot of people are focusing in on speculators. You're asking me an awful lot about record oil industry profits and how much speculators in the markets are contributing to this. Hedge funds, and commodity funds and index pools -- yes, they have been buying futures and they have been betting more the prices are going up than down. In part that's because they're watching what's happening around the world with Iran and saying, you know, if we have to pick a direction and make money on it, it's that prices are going to go up.

I want to also, really quickly, I brought some of these points up to you yesterday. Let's talk about what we can do to keep our gas.

Don't be a jerk, first of all. Jerks pay more for gas. They do. Because when you're riding the brake and riding the gas all the time, it costs more.

BANFIELD: Shouldn't you just not be a jerk anyway, but now you have a real good economic reason not to.

ROMANS: This is from AAA. Keep your car hydrated. I love that. It's like, you know, keep you and your car hydrated. You know, check all of your air filters, belts, hoses, all of that stuff. Check you battery, tires. Don't put too much stuff in the trunk in the car.

I mean, it's kind of cool comfort, right, to say, don't be a jerky driver. And you're like, I drive the same but the price is still going up. I get it. A lot of people are really angry about it.

The president will be talking later today about his energy policy. A year ago -- almost a year ago right now, he was talking about energy policy and how to use it. A little bit of everything approach to weaning us from foreign oil and more domestic production. So, we'll hear from --

BANFIELD: So, super quick before the president does that. What you just put up, that list, does that make a big difference or are we just talking about dollars -- couple dollars?

ROMANS: You know, I'm not going to quantify because I'm not sure how much of a difference it makes. It does make a difference, but, you know, the price is going up faster than you can make a difference.

BANFIELD: All right. Christine, thanks.

SAMBOLIN: I know that tires make a difference. I've done it. So thanks for the reminder. Tweet it out for us.

ROMANS: I will.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It is 13 minutes past the hour. Time to check the stories that are making news this morning.

The final four in the GOP presidential race squared off one last time before the next crucial wave of primaries and caucuses including Super Tuesday. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, they went after each other on taxes and spending as they battle for Michigan and Arizona.

An FDA advisory committee voting overwhelmingly in favor of approving the new obesity drug Qnexa. If the agency follows the panel's recommendation, Qnexa would be the first prescription weight loss drug in more than a decade.

And the president of Argentina declaring two days of mourning today for the victims of yesterday's deadly train crash in Buenos Aires. At least 50 people were killed and close to 700 people were injured after a commuter train had trouble stopping, overshooting platform after platform, and slamming into a metal barrier at the end of the line there.

BANFIELD: An update for you out of Italy. Eight more bodies have now been found in that wreckage of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia. It sank a month ago.

That means 25 people now are confirmed dead, but seven people still a month later, seven people are missing. Italian authorities are expanding their investigation. Seven more employees now are suspected of manslaughter, shipwreck, and failing to alert authorities. So the investigation continues.

And talk about the price of failure -- 2 million bucks worth of failure, because that's how much the AT&T has slashed the pay of its CEO Randall Stephenson as a direct response for the company's failed bid to take over T-Mobile last year. Gas prices will affect him.

And it was not full on Linsanity but the Knicks didn't really need it, as they routed the Atlanta hawks 99-82 in New York. Jeremy Lin, you know him? Probably heard of him. He's making news everyday. He had 17 points, 9 assists and all that he did by sitting out most of the fourth quarter, too.

But he may be facing his toughest test tonight when the Knicks are going to take on the Miami Heat.

SAMBOLIN: And still ahead, you know, there's a movie out about the 2008 election. It makes Sarah Palin look like a woman on the brink of a breakdown. So, you know, the Palin camp isn't happy. They are now blasting the film.

BANFIELD: I'm going to see that film actually in a premiere. So excited.

And also, take a look at the picture. We showed this to you. It was remarkable.

The school bus driver who got the kids off that bus was hailed a hero. But now, the entire state is telling the schools there to look under the hood of your buses. We'll explain what's going on there.


BANFIELD: Oh, this is one of my faves. "Beautiful People" bumping in on a nice tower cam in Charlotte, because, folks, you and Charlotte are beautiful. Chris brown says so, too.

It's 48 degrees there right now, but you're headed out to a beautiful sunny day, 74 degrees.

I hope that's the song that wakes you up this morning.

SAMBOLIN: I hope so, too. That's very nice.

All right. Nineteen minutes past the hour here. And we're getting an early read on your local news that's making national headlines.

And this morning, we have papers from Charlotte, North Carolina, and Buffalo, New York.

So, the "Charlotte News and Observer" -- we're going to begin there.

North Carolina officials, remember this moment? Look at your TVs. When that bus caught fire, and, you know, this woman was hailed a hero, Lindora Richardson, because she evacuated all the children off that bus and they watched as that happened.

So they're inspecting, they're ordering the inspection now of the school buses after the students and the driver were running for their lives. So, the investigation revealed that the fire was likely caused by a wiring issue. The bus was built in 1999 by Thomas Built buses, that's the company. North Carolina officials are ordering the school district to inspect all the Thomas Built buses from 1998 and 1999.

And I got to share this with you because I found this fascinating. At the time that we had that story, we said that some other buses had also caught fire. And one of the local television stations there investigated the other fires around the state, they found that at least four or five buses that caught fire between 2010 and 2011 were these F-565 buses. Although the company says, you know, that they don't believe that those buses in particular have a problem.

I'm shocked that they are just ordering this investigation now and not immediately after that fire happened.

Would you let your kids back on that bus?

BANFIELD: No, not on that one. I don't think that bus is ever going to drive again.

SAMBOLIN: That particular bus, right?

BANFIELD: That model?

SAMBOLIN: Yes. I would never do that.

BANFIELD: I think states and governments in general move at the pace of glaziers and molasses, I think.

SAMBOLIN: But when children are involved.

BANFIELD: Thank God that they're doing this. I thank God that they're ordering this investigation. I think that's a good thing.

Let's move you to Buffalo right now because if you have ever gone on the Maid of the Mist cruise to Niagara Falls. Remember, Jim and Pam got married on "The Office." No, no, nobody?

Well, OK. Maid of the Mist is a really cool trip. It's something that a lot of people on their honeymoons do.

But if you're an American, it might be hard to get that little cruise because there's some business going on. The tour company's been sold, actually, to an American outfitter. And because it's been wrangling over a little spit of land, I love it that there's a spit of land at Niagara Falls. It's a Canadian spit. There's wrangling whether they can operate the American side of the tour.

So you might have to go to Canada to get your Niagara Falls tour. That's not such a bad thing because it's a great country. I'm just saying. I'm not biased.

SAMBOLIN: I'm worried about those tours though. They make me nervous.


SAMBOLIN: Yes, they just make me nervous.

BANFIELD: They don't go over --

SAMBOLIN: You just never know, right? I would be the first. That would happen to me. No thank you.

BANFIELD: I can see you.

SAMBOLIN: I've been to Niagara a million times. I watch it. I watch it from the edge.

BANFIELD: It feels safe.

SAMBOLIN: Sorry, not doing it.

All right. Twenty-two minutes past the hour. Time to check your weather.

Rob Marciano is in Atlanta for us. Good morning.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Guys, you know, that is an intimidating amount of water --

SAMBOLIN: It is, isn't it? Thank you.

BANFIELD: Come on. This tour company. You don't get anywhere near the edge of the falls. You go under. You get all misty and it's kind of cool.

SAMBOLIN: I'll go repelling off mountains but I won't come on that. It's kind of crazy.

MARCIANO: And, plus, the diplomacy between Canada and -- that tension is palpable when you go to Niagara Falls.

BANFIELD: I don't know why this country allows Canadians in here. I don't know what they're thinking.

MARCIANO: Good morning, guys.

SAMBOLIN: Good morning.

MARCIANO: Watch this video coming out of Colorado. We told you about the tremendous amount of wind that was in that area. Wyoming, Montana, Idaho as well.

Take a look at the video coming through Boulder especially. My goodness. Kids at the bus stop couldn't stand up. That kid went flying. Cars and trucks overturned. Trees and power lines down throughout the low country of Colorado.

Also on top of some of the mountain ridges. Here are some of the numbers as far as what we saw in Wyoming -- 94-mile-an-hour wind gusts. Lyons, Colorado, Boulder saw 88-mile-an-hour wind gusts, again, at the lower elevations. So, even the lowlands seeing some of that.

All right. That wind energy is going to be ejecting out towards the plains and in through the Northeast. It's a quick mover. It's going to have a lot of facets to it.

One of which, not only the wind, the snow that's going to put a strip of snow down across parts of the plains and into Chicago, into the lower hand of Michigan beginning tonight and through tomorrow morning could see as much as six to 10 inches of snow in Chicago proper. I suspect they'll be issuing winter storm warnings here shortly as that storm begins to take shape.

The southern part of this as it heads to the east it will be a severe weather threat. We had severe storms across the Tennessee Valley, including northern Georgia last night. We'll probably see it again tonight -- isolated tornadoes with this. But damaging wind is going to be the main threat.

If you are traveling today, mostly tonight, Chicago will see some delays and some wind across parts of New York. And the rain will begin to take shape for New York as well. All rain for the northeast. It will be a mild side of the storm, 41 degrees before the snows enter.

By the way, it's snowing heavily right now in Denver with that wind and warm temperatures yesterday, almost touching 60. Right now, it's 29 and snowing side ways.

BANFIELD: Sixty? Really, 60?

MARCIANO: Yes. They had down-sloping winds. It took things up 58 degrees officially.

BANFIELD: Is that what they call a Chinook?

MARCIANO: Yes, there you go. Another Canadian term.

BANFIELD: I thought I would endear myself to you with that.

MARCIANO: Nice work.

BANFIELD: Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: Rob, thank you.

BANFIELD: So, there's this story that we hate to bring to you and yet every so often we have to. An 8-year-old girl shot -- and believe it or not, the person in custody is another child. And believe it or not, the shooting happened at an elementary school. We're going to get you up to speed on how this went down.

SAMBOLIN: A federal judge in San Francisco ruling same-sex spouses are entitled to health benefits. Why the judge says the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.

You are watching EARLY START.


BANFIELD: Twenty-eight minutes past 5:00 a.m., and she's already singing.


BANFIELD: Look at you.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, early in the morning.

BANFIELD: One o'clock in the morning is your rise time and you're already cheery.

SAMBOLIN: Always. I like getting up early in the morning, 1:00 is a little early. But still. It beats the alternative, being in a bad, foul mood.

BANFIELD: What? Sleeping in?

SAMBOLIN: How would I greet you that way?

BANFIELD: I come and I greet our security guard every day at 1:30 or 2:30 in the morning and I say good morning, and he looks at me like I'm nuts.


BANFIELD: Because it's nighttime.

SAMBOLIN: He says good morning to me.

BANFIELD: Maybe it's because I'm nuts.

I'm Ashleigh Banfield, everyone. It's good to have you here.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: We want to get to -- yes, we've been talking about ourselves. Let's talk about the top stories.


BANFIELD: Sound the didgeridoo, folks, because the tense moments at the final GOP debate before Arizona and Michigan on Super Tuesday are leading into the big battle. Mitt Romney was fighting with his latest challenger, Rick Santorum, over government spending and a whole bunch of our arcane stuff that lots of people didn't understand. Both candidates are locked in a tight race for the next two states.

And a day after the deaths of two Western journalists in Syria, including Marie Colvin on the left, there's a report in Britain's "Telegraph" newspaper that suggests -- guess what, the military may be targeting specifically targeting foreign journalists. The report cites communications between army officers pledging to, quote, "kill any journalists setting foot on Syrian soil."

An eight-old girl is shot and another child is in police custody after a shooting at an elementary school in East Bremerton, Washington. Here's what police say happened. They say a little boy brought a gun to school in his backpack. That gun, apparently, went off accidentally towards the end of the school day and the bullet struck the little girl in the abdomen. She was rushed right away into surgery, and this morning, we are told that she is in critical condition.

SAMBOLIN: And some changes to a controversial Virginia bill requiring women to have ultrasounds prior to undergoing an abortion. The bill still requires the ultrasounds, but lawmakers now changing it so that only the less intrusive abdominal ultrasounds are used.

And a federal judge in San Francisco ruling that the U.S. government cannot deny health benefits to spouses and same-sex couples -- marriages or couples, excuse me. The judge says the 1996 defense of marriage act which borrows government recognition same sex union is unconstitutional and violates equal protection of the law.

And this morning, the "L.A. Times" reporting in a rare conference call a group of Sarah Palin supporters blasted the upcoming HBO movie "Game Change." It's about the 2008 election. They say that it's a false portrait and portrays Palin in a harsh and unfair light. "Game Change," which is the name of the movie starring Julianne Moore as Palin premieres March 10th.

BANFIELD: That's an HBO thing. I cannot wait to see this. Just like "Iron Lady." I mean, it came in on both sides of the fence. A lot of critics. A lot of people think it was terrific.



SAMBOLIN (on-camera): That was good. BANFIELD (on-camera): I know.

All right. So, the latest debate before the contests that could change it all. I think we've said that almost before every contest, by the way. But it was really --

SAMBOLIN: Because it does, right? It goes up and down and up and down.

BANFIELD: Political roller coaster. So exciting. Mitt Romney versus Rick Santorum, really, yes. There were four on the stage, but those two really going at it. And it really comes at a crucial time for Mitt Romney, too.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. And in case you missed it, we've got a lot of people weighing in this morning. Republican strategist, Matt Keelen, is joining us, Democratic strategist, Penny Lee, and Anna Palmer, money and politics reporter for "politico."

Penny, thanks for joining us, everyone, by the way. I know you got up nice and early for us. So, Penny, I'm going to begin with you. Politico says that the debate drew blood. Romney and Santorum, of course, were fighting each other. We've played a lot of highlights this morning. We're going to play some more. Listen to them attack each other, and then, we're going talk about it.


MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We came to the federal government asking for help on transportation and security. I was fighting for those things. Our games were successful. But while I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere.

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Don't go around bragging about something you have to do. Michael Dukakis balanced the budget for ten years. Does that make him qualified to be president of the United States? I don't think so.


SAMBOLIN: Penny, who got in the most damage do you think?

PENNY LEE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Oh, man. That was like a WWF there.


LEE: You know, the problem is that neither one of them looked presidential, and that was what the occasion would have asked for is that can they be presidential, because both of them have been slinging the mud on their negative ads, going out there back and forth, and this is the chance to kind of lift the debate and neither one of them did this. They got into Washington speak, whether or not an earmark is or whether or not it belongs on a bill or not. So disappointing. So disappointing that they could not lift. I mean, say that disappointing, but at the same time, we have a president out there who is going forth with an agenda and putting out a very strong plan. So, we want to say, you know, let the mud fighting continue, but, really, for the American people, it was a disappointing debate last night.

SAMBOLIN: Matt and Anna, and Matt, I'll begin with you. Who do you actually think came out a winner here?

MATT KEELEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I think Romney probably won the night, because he's blunted Santorum's surge. We've seen different people pop up to take Romney on as the frontrunner.

SAMBOLIN: How did he blunt his surge?

KEELEN: I think that Santorum got off message last night. He had to go on defensive. And as Penny was saying, both guys are on the attack, and the American people are looking for somebody that has a positive vision up against Barack Obama. So, the longer this thing goes on, I think the more the president is actually benefitting.

SAMBOLIN: Anna, you know what, I'll have you weigh in on something else. Contraception is still something that we're talking about. Santorum also had to defend funding Title 10 which is a family planning act for low income and uninsured patients. So, let's listen and we're going to talk about it.


SANTORUM: I think I was making it clear that while I have a personal moral objection to it, even though I don't support it, that I voted for bills that included it. And I made it very clear in subsequent interviews that I don't support that. I've never supported it, and on an individual basis, have voted against it.


SAMBOLIN: Big boos on that one. And defending no child left behind. So, do you think, perhaps, now he's going to get the mantle of flip-flopper? "The New York Times" said it sounded like I voted for it before I voted against it. Will it stick?

ANNA PALMER, MONEY AND POLITICS REPORTER, POLITICO: I think he has a hard time now kind of going back and forth, particularly, as you come up to this next primary kind of convincing people that what he says now is what he believes. You know, it kind of goes back to what Romney's been dealing with for a long time on this campaign trail.

SAMBOLIN: All right. I have a final question for the three of you. You know, my rule here is a one word answer. Our John King asked the candidates in one word to describe themselves. And here's what they said. Consistent, courage, resolute, cheerful. So, now, I ask you, I thought it was an unusual debate last night. One word to describe last night's debate. No caveats. No explanations. I'm going to begin with you, Penny. LEE: No one said conservative. I think that was the missing word.


KEELEN: Stalemate.

SAMBOLIN: Stalemate. And Anna.

PALMER: No winners.

SAMBOLIN: That's two words. Thank you for joining us this morning. You're going to join us again at six o'clock. I appreciate it.

BANFIELD: Still to come on EARLY START, what do you think would happen if the Assad regime failed in Syria, specifically, the chemical weapons that they have? We'll have a live report that just may shock you as to what it would take to get those under control.

Also, some very threatening letters claim to have pathogens in them sent to lawmakers and the media. Ain't the first time, folks.

And Hollywood's big night coming in three days, but what's the latest gorilla stunt plan by actor, Sacha Baron Cohen. I can't wait. It turns out he wants to walk the red carpet kind of like Gadhafi. Yes. How do you think that's going to go over? What do you think the academy has to say about that? Find out. You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: It is 40 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

The shelling of Homs continues almost non-stop in Syria. American journalist, Marie Colvin, and French photographer, Remi Ochlik, among those killed yesterday. The Syrian government denies any responsibility there. It says journalists entered its territory at their own risk.

BANFIELD: The U.S. military, by the way, at this point, is also beginning to weigh its options should Bashar al-Assad and all of his so-called henchmen fall. The analysts are suggesting that tens of thousands of troops would be needed on the ground to secure the chemical sites that Syria has throughout that country. And CNN's Barbara Starr is live in Washington with some of this exclusive information.

Barbara, I was reading some of the notes that you've been disseminating throughout CNN, and I was absolutely astounded not only at the amount of chemical weaponry that Syria has been able to amass but also at what it would take to try to contain this.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It would be really a significant challenge, Ashleigh. Good morning. You know, the U.S. military is looking at these options to be ready in case the president were to ask for them. They don't sit around and wait. They like to have it ready to go.

Would it really happen? What they're saying basically is, you know, Syria has one of the largest chemical weapons programs in the world. Dozens of sites spread across the country. What happens if the Assad regime falls, if those chemical weapons are not secure? They say, the military says it might take tens of thousands, maybe 75,000 troops even to secure those chemical weapon sites.

That means if they were to go into the middle of a civil war in what they call a non-permissive, hostile environment. But the question is, would this really happen, you know, the military -- the U.S. military is very clear, they are lock step with the president, of course. They want to see a diplomatic solution to the situation in Syria.

The U.S. position is they want diplomacy, pressure on Assad to go. They don't want it to get to this point, but I think it's still very telling that people are looking at the possible worst case scenario -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Barbara, I don't know if you can answer this question, but what is the concern exactly here, that if the Assad regime falls, that those members of his military and members of the executive would be able to make off with those weapons or is it that. perhaps. that the opposition might end up being less friendly than we think they are?

STARR: Well, you know, that's the big question. What would happen? Look at it this way, right now, the CIA assesses that the Syrian regime forces are in control of the chemical weapon sites, that they are being guarded by Syrian forces, but what if the situation got even worse than it already is and the Syrian forces either walked away from the facilities or the Assad regime falls and there is no control over them?

You have a very fractured opposition. You already have very credible reports that al Qaeda operatives are inside of Syria, and you have Hezbollah. A lot of concern that Iranian-backed Hezbollah which operates in that region and in Syria would get its hands possibly on some of this, take it across the boarder, and the ultimate doomsday scenario.

And Hezbollah got its hands on some of these chemical weapons. What new threat could that pose to Israel? These are all the doomsday scenarios, but nonetheless, Pentagon commander -- military commanders are very well paid to look at those types of scenarios and figure out what to do about them.

BANFIELD: Just quickly before I let you go, is there any word in the Pentagon about Assad potentially doing what Saddam Hussein did, and that is use chemical weapons on his own people in Homs and the other communities that are now being shelled.

STARR: You know, when you ask this very serious question, the answer you get is, you know, a deep breath, and certainly, he has to realize that would be the end, that the international community, including Russia, which currently supports Assad, in that type of doomsday scenario, they would move very quickly against him.


STARR: That's what they don't want to see happen.

BANFIELD: It's sickening. Just a sickening prospect. Barbara Starr, excellent, excellent reporting. Thank you.

STARR: Sure.

SAMBOLIN: So, Ashleigh, we touched on this earlier that there are new concerns this morning about the growing danger that foreign journalists are facing right now in Syria after American, Marie Colvin, and French photographer, Remi Ochlik, were killed. The protester paid tribute to the journalists in Homs. That is a place where they were killed in that shelling attack.

Reports say the Syrian regime denies any responsibility for their deaths. You're seeing that they're paying tribute there on your screen. Government officials say they sneaked into the country, and they knew it was at their own risk. Marie Colvin's mother talked to CNN about her daughter's commitment as a war correspondent.


ROSEMARIE COLVIN, MOTHER OF JOURNALIST MARIE COLVIN: Died doing what was really, really important to her. She said she needed one more day to finish the story, it was a big story. She needed one more day and she would come out today. One day we missed. From the time she was a little child, she was committed to doing things that were important. I'm going to miss her so much. And I just hope we can bring her home one more time. It doesn't look good.


SAMBOLIN: Wow. All right. Coming up in our eight o'clock hour on "Starting Point", Soledad O'Brien will talk to Rosemarie Colvin. She'll be here to share her thoughts. Tough to watch that.

BANFIELD: That's tough to know that she's having trouble even recovering the body of her own daughter from that war zone. Just a brutal story all around.

Coming up, more deaths in the cantaloupe listeria outbreak. Why health officials really scratching their heads over this one?

And also, is your child having trouble with test, scoring poorly, perhaps? Why an iPad could actually help you and help your child to increase those scores. You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: Good morning, Detroit. Look at that lovely view we have this morning. Thirty-five degrees right now. It can be 40 degrees later, mostly cloudy, but at least their city looks really fantastic this morning.

BANFIELD: And I bet Eight Mile's looking just as nice this morning as well in honor of that Eminem playing in to our program this morning. Forty-nine minutes past 5:00. Time to get you caught up on the top stories making news.


BANFIELD (voice-over): Big debate last night. It was on CNN. And Rick Santorum's spending and voting record was under fire at the final GOP debate before the key primaries in Arizona, Michigan, and all of them Super Tuesday states coming along as well. Mitt Romney leading the attack and kind of hoping to pull away, especially in Michigan, his home state.

Also making news, the jury in the University of Virginia lacrosse murder case says 26 years would be appropriate in prison for George Huguely. This is after he was found guilty by that jury of second degree murder in the death of his ex-girlfriend, Yeardley Love.

And two more deaths have been linked to last year's nationwide listeria outbreak from contaminated cantaloupes, and that brings the death toll to 32.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Wow.

BANFIELD: CDC says that the number could actually go up as well depending on how many more deaths are officially attributed to the outbreak and not to previous medical conditions instead.

SAMBOLIN: And officials say threatening letters claiming to contain dangerous pathogens have been sent to U.S. lawmakers and to media companies. House speaker John Boehner's office reportedly received mail with a powdery substance that turned out to be harmless. The FBI is currently testing other letters they have.

Sacha Baron Cohen having a run with the Oscar police. Take a look at that folks. The academy's not happy that the actor wants to walk the red carpet dressed not like that, but it's a character from his new movie, "The Dictator." The academy says the red carpet's not a place for promotional stunts. And if he doesn't oblige, Cohen will not be allowed to attend. Don't they know that's what he does?

BANFIELD: And everybody else likes to do the stunting, too.

SAMBOLIN: New study found kindergarten students who used iPads in the classroom scored better in every single literacy measure that they were tested on. Researchers say it's not just about the test scores. The students were also more motivated and excited about learning. So, here's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to see who funded the study so I could share that information with you.

BANFIELD: Yes. I talked to experts who say that the more time a child spends in front of a screen, the more detrimental it is to the capacity to learn. So, that's an intriguing little counter point.


SAMBOLIN (on-camera): They say before the year of three, you shouldn't even have TV.

BANFIELD (on-camera): Yes.

SAMBOLIN: I think they put that number up actually to even older kids, but we're trying to get that.

BANFIELD: It's so difficult as parents of kids because I have heard both sides of that study. Do not put your child in front of a TV screen. It is critical. It is detrimental. And then, other studies that have said, no, we've determined there's absolutely nothing to it.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, but the American Academy of Pediatrics is very firm on their position on this.

BANFIELD: Remember Baby Einstein?



SAMBOLIN: But American Academy of Pediatrics, they don't budge on that one.

Still ahead, the hits and misses from last night's GOP debate held right here on CNN. Did the roller coaster race take another turn now?

BANFIELD: And is there some agenda behind those yummy little cookies that the Girl Scouts sell? There is a lawmaker who says yes and going after the Girl Scouts. Full on, calling them a radical organization that promotes abortions. Really? These are comments that have people in his own party laughing, but does he have a point and where does he get his info? I'll give you a hint. The internet. Back in a moment.


BANFIELD: So, we like to keep you in the pop culture loop by getting you all up to speed on what's trending on the interwebs and social media. Let's get you to a Yahoo! story, but it's really everybody's story at this point. There's a lawmaker in Indiana who says that the Girl Scouts are radical, that they promote abortion, and that they promote homosexuality. This is him.

It's Republican representative, Bob Morris. He's a state representative, and he is not backing down either. He just says to all of us, go on the internet. I did my research. He said the scouts are encouraged to look up roll models who endorse feminist, lesbian, and communist agendas. He says the critics need to do more of the research by doing the Google. He's pulled his daughters out and said that they were in the Girl Scouts, but he decided that the Girl Scouts were, instead, not promoting the conservative Christian values that he would have liked to see his daughters ascribe to.

Of course, the organizations behind Planned Parenthood who are also being accused of being a part of this said we have nothing to do with the Girl Scouts. And there are a lot of critics who are coming out and saying this is balderdash. But like I said, he said go to the interweb and do you research.

SAMBOLIN: I was on a path to becoming a Girl Scout.

BANFIELD: I was a brownie. Loved it.

SAMBOLIN: All right. From Google, we have the O-Lin-pics. Get it? O-Lin-Pics. Maybe not. Talk about whether Jeremy Lin should be added to the U.S. Olympic basketball team with all of his success. What do you think? Well, they're saying maybe next time. Team U.S.A. chairman tells "Time Magazine" that Jeremy Lin has not paid his dues yet.

That was Jerry Colangelo, I believe, saying that. He goes on to say that if Lin keeps playing at a high level, he'll very likely receive an invite to join the U.S. select team which acts as a kind of indoctrination into the Olympic program for younger players. Some talks that maybe he should go play for China, but I don't believe that's going to happen.

BANFIELD: What are all the sports fans saying about Miami, that they're not going to win against Miami?

SAMBOLIN: Of course, they are.

BANFIELD: Oh, look at you.


BANFIELD: Of course, they are. It's not even an issue. Next story.

SAMBOLIN: I'm wearing my T-shirt.


BANFIELD: All right. So, here's the next story. And I love this one, because I am always on a diet. Little itty bitty mini one over here has no idea what I'm talking about, but I'm always on a diet.

SAMBOLIN: That's because I don't eat like you eat, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: I know. I'm all about the bacon, egg and cheese.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. Gravy. BANFIELD: Little magic pill, apparently. And, it's supposed to peel off the pounds. And it's the first one in a long time, in fact, that's being released as a diet pill, but is it magic? Is there anything to this that you need to be concerned about? We're going to fill you in.

SAMBOLIN: And of course, a GOP debate last night right here on CNN. Rick Santorum versus Mitt Romney. The moments, the issues that you will be talking about today. You're watching EARLY START.