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Rick Santorum Attacked in GOP Presidential Debate; Pentagon Considering Plans for Guarding Syria's Chemical Weapons Should Assad Regime Fall?; Lacrosse Player Murder Trial; Lawmaker Refuses to Sign Resolution Honoring Girl Scouts; Argentina Mourns Crash Victims; Report: Gitmo Detainee Plea Deal; FDA Panel Backs New Obesity Drug Qnexa; Man Grabs Tree, Dodges Avalanche; Obama Takes A Beating At Arizona Debate; Are Pills Effective for Breaking Addiction; Will Latinos Pick the Next President?

Aired February 23, 2012 - 06:59   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST: And good morning, everybody. Our "Starting Point" this morning is Rick Santorum and his first debate as the frontrunner. Kind of had a target on his back. Here's how it went.


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: We have a new television ad that labels him a fake. Why?




PAUL: Congratulations.


O'BRIEN: "I'm real. I'm real." We're going to have Santorum's campaign to join us this morning and talk about how she thinks that debate went last night.

Also, there's a fear of chemical weapons getting into the wrong hands in Syria. And there's talk this morning of needing some 75,000 troops to make sure that doesn't happen. We'll talk about.

Plus, the college lacrosse player has been convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in a, quote, "jealous rage" after a day of binge drinking. She was beaten so badly that her brain was bruised. The jury, though, didn't think he should get the maximum sentence. We'll talk about how that went yesterday.

And voters feeling the sting of high gas prices. President Obama is set to address those rise in gas prices today, but no surprise he's not going to take the blame. STARTING POINT begins right now.

(MUSIC) O'BRIEN: Maggie Haberman is joining us from I am liking this. The Cure -- it's going to be a good morning. If we start off with The Cure, it is going to be a good day.

We should introduce to you the rest of the panel. Marc Lamar Hill is professor at Columbia University back with us, again. Nice to have you, again. Will Cain is back. Nice to see you, Will, from

Let's talk about Rick Santorum. He was in the front-runner position, although that is kind of almost like front-runnerish position. That was the 20th GOP debate last night on CNN and he was really hit from all sides, accused of being a big spender and accused of being a Washington insider. He was accused, as you heard just a moment ago, of being a fake, at which point he's like, I'm real, I'm real. Some of the toughest attacks came from Mitt Romney. They literally yelled at each other. Listen.


MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: While I was fighting to save the Olympics, you were fighting to save the bridge to nowhere.

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




O'BRIEN: Wow, they were kind of going at it. Alice Stewart is the national press secretary for the Santorum 2012 presidential campaign. Nice to have you with us this morning. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate it. So there were some comments from, if you scan the headlines. Some people said he did a great job in the debate, and others said he was, quote, "deep in the weeds" in the debate. How do you think it went?

ALICE STEWART, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, SANTORUM 2012 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: I think he did a great job simply because he was able to outline his record, and he also pointed out the fact that despite the distortions from other candidates, he never voted to raise taxes while he was in Washington. He was fighting against the wasteful spending in Washington. And these are important things that Rick was able to explain last night in the debate.

He's also taken the lead in Washington as the member of the gang to expose taxpayer scandals in Washington. He is one of the people that has been referred to as the Tea Party guy before there even was a Tea Party. We wouldn't have a Tea Party if it wasn't for issues like Obama care and the bailouts which is something Mitt Romney supports as well as Newt Gingrich. He is the true, consistent conservative that was up there on the stage last night. O'BRIEN: Mitt Romney really trying to attack him on that. At one point they were talking about, for example, Title 10 and also talked about, he used the words taking one for the team. I will play you some of the chunks from the debate and then I'll have you talk about it on the other side.


SANTORUM: I think I was making it clear while I have a personal more objection moral 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.


SANTORUM: I've never supported it, and on an individual basis, have voted against it.

It was against the principals I believed in, but when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team.


O'BRIEN: So let's talk about that comment, took one for the team, because I think some Palestinians are thinking about that this morning and thinking that may be an unfortunate way to put it, as if Washington is all about two teams going at it and the American people are stuck on the sidelines. Do you think that was not a great way to portray that?

STEWART: In that particular instance he was referring to the No Child Left Behind issue. And while he did support it then, he has come to learn that federal government shouldn't have a role in our education. It should not be left up to the federal government and in particular the state, as well. He believes education should be left to the local level, and he is a strong supporter of that.

Of course Governor Romney went to great lengths last night to pick apart rick's record in congress. We would have had the same opportunity to do that with Governor Romney had he not lost his U.S. Senate race back in 1994.

But what we can look at with Governor Romney is that he wrote the model for Obama care, which is certainly not popular. He supported the Wall Street bailout. He supported cap and trade and these are the cornerstone of the Republican Party in a conservative movement that they do not support.

O'BRIEN: And, of course, your candidate Santorum lost his race, as well by 18 points. I know everybody likes to throw that back and forth, but that's reality of it. Will, you want to jump in?

WILL CAIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, Alice, this is Will Cain. One of the challenges that Senator Santorum had early in this primary season in the first couple of debates when he was sort of off to the side was beyond the substance. He was having a little trouble connecting with the voters. I talked to Senator Santorum about this. He was coming off as unlikable, as defensive, he kind of fought for time. Are you worried last night he almost slipped back into that attitude? He seemed a little defensive last night.

STEWART: Certainly when you're the frontrunner, you have the big target on your back and you have to defend your record, which he had the opportunity to do last night. Several of the points he made last night is that while he was in Washington, he wasn't of Washington. He fought against the wasteful spending. He was a leader in the balanced amendment fight. He was someone who fought against the wasteful spending. And he was able to articulate that very well last night.

Any time you're the frontrunner you'll be attacked from all sides, and that was the case last night. He was prepared for that, and he made an articulate argument for the fact that he is the one who has the views and values that best reflect the conservative party and the conservative people of this country. That's why he's leading nationally and leading in Michigan. That's why he's leading in Ohio and certainly closing the gap in Arizona and in important states like Georgia, which is Newt Gingrich's own state.

The people have taken a look at the record. They're not listening to the misrepresentations by the other candidates. They're actually looking at the records of these candidates and they see that Rick Santorum is consistent on the issues --

O'BRIEN: May I stop you there for a second, because I want to go back to something that you said and I really want to counter it with what Ron Paul said last night when you talk about the true conservative. This is Ron Paul's take on that. Listen.


RON PAUL, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's a team sport. He has to go along to get along and that's the way the team plays. But that's the problem with Washington. That's what's been going on for so long.



O'BRIEN: You know, actually, I wanted to play the one where he talked about, John King asked Ron Paul, you have a new ad and it says that Rick Santorum is a fake. Do you have that? Will you play that for me?


JOHN KING, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You have a new television ad that labels him a fake. Why?

PAUL: Because he's a fake.


SANTORUM: I'm real.

PAUL: Congratulations. No, I find it really fascinating that when people are running for office they're really fiscally conservative. When they're in office, they do something different and then when they explain themselves they say, oh, I want to repeal that.


O'BRIEN: That seemed to get a lot of traction, certainly with the audience last night. Do you think that kind of attack is going to get a lot of attraction outside a bigger audience?

STEWART: It certainly isn't working for congressman -- Mr. Paul right now. You can throw words like that around on the debate stage and throw misrepresentations of the facts out there. But the truth is when it comes to consistent conservatives on the fiscal issues and when it comes to social issues, there is no one more consistent than Rick Santorum. And he made that case very clearly last night. No amount of ads or rhetoric on the debate stage will change history.

And Governor Romney can't say that. He can get up there and say he has been fiscally responsible, but when we have issues like Romneycare that he supported, that he was creator of in Massachusetts, which was the model for Obamacare, that's not fiscally responsible. The Wall Street bailout, that's not fiscally responsible. He is saying one thing and his record reflects something different. What Rick Santorum says today is reflective of what he has done in the past.

O'BRIEN: But some of what he says is I regret having voted for that. I wanted to take one for the team. So some of what he says is actually saying, I did it against what I believe because there was sort of another agenda there, that's what he said last night in the debate.

STEWART: When he got to Washington and saw the waste, fraud, and abuse that was going on with members of congress, he has taken on the position and is firmly opposed to earmarks and supports the moratorium on earmarks. That is something that he took going to Washington and seeing the waste, fraud and abuse that went on.

O'BRIEN: He talked about that in the debate last night. He talked about specific earmarks that he supported. So I will agree to disagree with you on that one this morning. We're out of time. Alice Stewart, we're always happy to have you back. Thank you for being with us this morning, we appreciate it.

STEWART: Thanks, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: We've got to get to some other headlines this morning and Christine Romans has that for us.

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

Michigan's favorite son candidate Mitt Romney getting an endorsement from "The Detroit Free Press." The paper says Romney's record and history make him far more qualified to be president than any of the other Republican candidates. But the editors also say Romney seems to have lost his, quote, "collaborative spirit and needs to get it back."

Gas prices rising three cents in just the past 24 hours. Good morning, you're waking up to higher gas prices, again. The national average for a gallon of gas is $3.61 a gallon this morning. Gas prices have been rising for the past 16 days. Economists say they could go up to $4 or ever $5 a gallon by summer. So I guess that means fill up now.

President Obama will talk gas prices and energy policy, as well, at the University of Miami this afternoon. He is expected to tout his administration's steps toward energy independence, including expansion of oil and gas production here. Obama has delved into U.S. oil reserves to help ease gas prices, last year he did. But under pressure from environmentalists he did not approve the Keystone pipeline plan which would eventually have given the U.S. cheaper access to Canada's oil, although analysts say it wouldn't affect gas prices for several more years.

"Minding your Business" this morning, U.S. markets poised for a higher open. Strong economic data out of Europe pushing U.S. stock futures higher. DOW stock futures up about 20 points right now.

U.S. and North Korean officials meeting today for the first time since the death of Kim Jong-il. A U.S. envoy in Beijing to find out whether North Korea is ready to shut down its nuclear program. Before his death, former leader Kim Jong-il discussed ending that program in exchange for food assistance from United States.

Some severe weather to tell you about. Check this out, winds so strong that kids at a bus stop couldn't stand up in Colorado. There was 88-mile-per-hour wind gusts in Boulder, also tipping trucks, toppling trees. Heavy rains also triggering mudslides in the west. One home hanging on the edge of a river in Washington state. Look at that, 24 hours of heavy rain and so far. No reports of anyone hurt, thankfully.

Scary moments for fliers. A United flight arriving from Chicago sliding off the runway and skidding to a stop at greater Rochester international airport in New York. This happened around midnight and it was reportedly snowing at the time. The airport says all 45 passengers were brought into the terminal and no one was hurt, but certainly some scary moments. Routine flight and then you're skidding.

O'BRIEN: Every time I hear those stories, it scares me a little bit. Christine, thank you for the update.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: It has been now 20 days of nonstop shelling in Syria a day after two western journalists were killed in Homs, suggesting that Syria is deliberately targeting those journalists and other journalists, as well, many of whom were injured. The government is denying responsibility for the death of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik. The U.S. military is now considering a worst-case scenario. If, in fact, Assad's regime falls and Syria's chemical weapons are left unguarded, what will happen?

Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon this morning. Good morning, Barbara. So we set it up with two things we need to talk about. There have been some intercepted communications that make it seem as if western journalists are actually being targeted in that shelling in Syria certainly after the death of the two western journalists, and then also the chemical weapons supply, what is going to happen to them? Will you start with me about the intercepted communications?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, there are reports about all this and a lot of concern of what is happening. Is the Syrian regime actually specifically targeting journalists? By all accounts, they knew where that media center was in Homs to some extent, and did they go after it, in particular? Very disturbing, very concerning. A lot of news organizations considering what they can reasonably do now to continue to tell the story and communicate what is going on in Syria. You still see, of course, these citizen journalists inside the country getting their information out via social media, getting it out any way that they can, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about the chemical weapon supplies. What is the concern there? What is the planning on that?

STARR: Right. The Pentagon, you know, hopes that it is very much in lock step with the White House, everyone looking for a diplomatic solution to get Assad out of power and end all of this violence. But it could get a lot worse. Syria has one of the world's largest chemical weapons programs in multiple sites across the country.

So the Pentagon has done some preliminary planning and come up with a scenario that nobody wants to see happen. It could take tens of thousands of U.S. troops, boots on the ground to guard Syria's chemical weapons site. If the regime falls and sites are those sites are left unguarded, there are Al Qaeda opportunity in the country and potential for Hezbollah moving in and trying to get his hands on some of that material, all nightmare scenarios, very concerning.

Look, the Pentagon always talks about how it needs thousands of troops for almost anything it wants to do. Nobody is -- everyone is hoping this doesn't happen. But it is a nightmare scenario out there that they certainly are considering. They may have to plan for. Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Thanks very much, Barbara, appreciate that update.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, we'll tell you about the college lacrosse player who has now been convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in a drunken and jealous rage. There are some people who say the jury let him off easy. We'll talk about that.

And a weight loss drug that was rejected two years ago now has been approved by a federal panel. It will be the first prescription drug to treat obesity in 13 years. Is it safe?

A lawmaker is attacking a girlfriend, says it's a radical organization that promotes abortions. It's the focus of our "Get Real" this morning.

And we leave you with Will Cain's playlist. It's the Dixie Chicks. You love those Dixie Chicks.

CAIN: It makes me manly.



O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody.

The jury is recommending 26 years for former University of Virginia lacrosse player. George Huguely was convicted of second degree murder. His ex-girlfriend Yeardley Love died in May of 2010. Huguely was not -- was found not guilty on the most serious charge, which was first degree murder.

He showed no emotion during the reading of the verdict, kept his head down when the sentence was announced, as well.

Michael Christian is a producer for "IN SESSION." He's covering the trial for TruTV. Good morning. Thanks for talking with us. I appreciate it.

So it took them just about nine hours to come to --


O'BRIEN: -- a conclusion and really seemed to hinge on, was this planned, was this premeditated or was this something that was kind of an act of passion? Were you surprised by this verdict?

CHRISTIAN: I wasn't terribly surprised. I did not think that the jurors would find him guilty of first degree murder as they didn't, Soledad. The issue is intent.

To find George Huguely guilty of first degree murder, the jury had to determine that he intended to kill Yeardley Love when he went into her bedroom, when he kicked down that door in May of 2010. They did not decide that that happened, but they did find malice and malice is a component of second degree murder.

Now, I must say this was a disappointment to Huguely's attorneys and his family. They were hoping the jury would convict of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a much lesser penalty.

O'BRIEN: The prosecutor, I was sort of surprised to see, became very emotional in this trial. And, you know, I haven't covered a ton of trials, but I certainly haven't seen someone near tears as a prosecutor. What do you think the implications of that could be? CHRISTIAN: You know, that was very interesting. I must say I haven't seen that either. And the way this courtroom is set up, the prosecutor's back is to us as he's giving his closing argument. So when he started crying, we weren't really sure that we could hear it. We didn't see it. So everyone was kind of like, is he crying?

But I do believe that happened. I think Dave Chapman cried at the beginning of his closing and also at the end. And that is unusual. That's got to have an effect on a jury.

O'BRIEN: So what was Huguely's response when -- not just the verdict came down, but later when they -- when it came to the sentencing phase? I know some people said he didn't show a lot of emotion. But what was it like in the courtroom?

CHRISTIAN: No. You know, it was very tense. Everyone was straining to hear. The acoustics are not terribly great in this building. But he did not show a lot of emotion. He came in during the entire sentencing phase. He pretty much sat with his head down like this, just kind of looking down.

He did cry a bit during his own defense attorney's closing argument. At the end, I saw him wiping some tears, but for the most part head down and that's pretty much how he took the verdict, as well. Really, no emotion.

O'BRIEN: Yeardley's mother and sister testified in the sentencing phase and it was just heartbreaking and to some degree, you know, you can't have paid any attention to this case and not think always about, wow, just college kids. I mean, just a tremendous tragedy for this girl's family.

CHRISTIAN: Yes. You know, it's a tremendous tragedy for both families. I mean, one has lost a daughter and one has lost a son. But you had to be a rock not to be moved when you heard Yeardley Love's mother and sister testifying yesterday.

And they testified about the loss of Yeardley, the impact that had on their lives. One said that Christmas now is just awful. It's just awful. And one said, well, you have good days and you have bad days, but then some of Yeardley's friends will come over and Sharon Love, Yeardley's mother said I expect to see Yeardley with them and she's not there.

Lexie Love, Yeardley's sister, said she would give anything, anything to see her sister's face one more time. And perhaps the most moving passage was when Yeardley Love's mother, Sharon Love, said, she -- she worries because every day she's afraid she's losing little pieces of Yeardley as time moves on. She forgets things and how disturbing that is for her.

O'BRIEN: Oh, that's such a sad thing. Michael Christian for us. He's a producer at TruTV. Thanks for the update. I appreciate that.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, Latinos are the fastest growing voting bloc in the United States. It's the "Time" cover story. Will Latinos be picking the next U.S. president?

And then our "Get Real" this morning, a state lawmaker is attacking the Girl Scouts and says it's a radical organization. It is an arm of Planned Parenthood and that's our "Get Real" right after this short break. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: You know, you can't get too much Common. That is a handsome man. That's "The People." I know, I know.

LAMONT HILL: It's the music, the content.

O'BRIEN: It's the music, blah, blah, blah. It's the content, blah, blah, blah. I have sat with him on a plane and he is a handsome man. Love you (ph) Common.

All right, let's get to our "Get Real" this morning. Oh stop, Will Cain. Our focus is -- I can see you rolling your eyes.

Our focus is this Republican Indiana state representative. His name is Bob Morris. Yes, Bob, we are talking to you this morning. And he has said this in a letter that he wrote to his fellow representatives. He says the Girl Scouts are a, quote, "radicalized organization that promotes abortion and homosexuality."

He wrote this letter last week. Today he's standing by those comments. He said the Girl Scouts are encouraged to look up to role models and he pointed out that of the role models on this list -- there are 50 -- only three have a religious background. The rest are feminists, lesbians or communists.

He said that after his doing his research, a small amount of web research, as he likes to say, he realized quickly that Girl Scouts has become a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood. So, the upshot is he's refusing to sign this resolution that honors the Girl Scouts on their 100th anniversary.

He says his girls -- his daughters, who are Girl Scouts, are actually going to quit the Girl Scouts and they're going to join the American Heritage Girls, which is run by pro-life, conservative Christians, and the Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana, Michigan says they have no relationship with Planned Parenthood.

Then, there was the Indiana House Speaker, Brian Bosma, also a Republican, starting to distance himself from a little bit of crazy talk, he ordered cases -- like hundreds of cases of Girl Scout cookies, was eating them all day and handing them out to the journalists who were visiting. And he said, you know, he was here to do the people's work. And when the came time for the House to adjourn, he asked all the female lawmakers who had been Girl Scouts, would they stand up, and it was virtually every single female lawmaker, and they adjourned the meeting.

You know, you really -- the letter to his fellow representatives is worth -- is worth reading and Googling and grabbing.

HABERMAN: It's a bold stand (ph) (INAUDIBLE) Girl Scout cookies. I'll tell you.

O'BRIEN: Against small girls trying to do something for the last 100 years.


LAMONT HILL: -- probably put their foot down on those little Girl Scouts.

O'BRIEN: I knew there was something behind those thin mints getting delivered.

That's -- you know, this is what gives -- well, honestly, this is what gives lawmakers a bad name. Like the fact that this becomes something that becomes something.

CAIN: An issue of importance.


CAIN: Right.

O'BRIEN: Insanity.

HABERMAN: With a little bit of web research. Just a little, though. You don't want to have it go too far (ph).


O'BRIEN: There's this thing called Google --


O'BRIEN: -- that I discovered last night. Yes, Bob, all about you this morning.

All right, moving ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, a high- value Gitmo detainee has struck a plea deal and he's telling the United States that he's going to talk. We're going to update you on what's happening there.

And President Obama taking a beating at last night's CNN debate. Of course, he wasn't there to defend himself, but his deputy campaign manager will join us to give their side.

And an incredible videotape, a snowmobile that pulls off a video game move to try to dodge an avalanche. This is real life.

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


HILL: I was getting ready to make fun of Will. Dixie Chicks, you're going too far, man.

O'BRIEN: I love this. This is great. This is very '80s. What does that mean? That's OK for me.

HILL: This fits your personality.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's OK for Soledad, but not for me.

O'BRIEN: There you go. I think you'd agree.

CAIN: -- in my dress in my room spinning around.

HILL: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: That is going to take a long time to get out of my head, Will Cain. All right, let's get to our headlines, first. Christine got that for us. Hi, Christine.


Argentina this morning is declaring two days of mourning for the victims of that deadly train crash yesterday in Buenas Aires. At least 50 people were killed and close to 700 people were injured when a commuter train had troubled stopping.

It overshot platform after platform and then slammed into a metal barrier at the end of the line. Authorities are investigating possible problems with the train's brakes.

The first plea deal by a high-value detainee at Guantanamo Bay. The "Washington Post" reports that (inaudible) Kahn, a Baltimore man of Pakistan descent. He struck a deal to testify against other al Qaeda suspects in return for a lighter sentence.

Kahn allegedly plotted with the accused September 11th mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to detonate bombs at U.S. gas stations.

Your "A.M. House Call" this morning, a new weight loss drug getting the green light from a panel of FDA advisors. The obesity drug is called Qnexa. It received overwhelming approval.

If the agency follows the panel's recommendation, which it often does, Qnexa would be the first new prescription weight loss drug in 13 years and only the second one on the market.

The FDA rejected Qnexa in 2010 because of the risk of heart problems and birth defects. We'll ask Dr. Sanjay Gupta about how safe this drug is coming up in about 10 minutes.

All right, amazing video for you of a snowmobiler dodging an avalanche, check this out. Nate Smooth was driving over a weak layer of snow when the snowmobile triggered an avalanche in the Beaver Creek area of Northern Utah.

All caught on a helmet camera by Smooth's friend. You can see the slab of snow carrying the snowmobile down the mountain. It's about a 700-foot drop in case you're wondering. That's when Smooth bails and grabs the nearest tree and holds on for dear life.

He held on for about five minutes and said the tree saved his life. The snowmobile was found crushed, crushed against some trees.

One of the many reasons, Soledad, I will not do back country snowmobiling.

O'BRIEN: Or snowmobiling at all. That sounds like not for you. All right, Christine, thank you.

A pivotal debate in Arizona last night. Five days ahead of the elections there and Michigan, as well. Rick Santorum really trying to earn the top spot. He's been the frontrunner sort of kind.

But Mitt Romney also sort of kind the frontrunner lost a little ground. All that conversation meant the two of them were going at it and at each other last night, but President Obama did not go untouched in the debate. Listen.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need a new president or we're going to have a cataclysmic situation with a power that is the most prolific proliferator of terror in the world.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If we're going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama who is a state senator who voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscious and religious freedom and tolerance that we've seen in Barack Obama.


O'BRIEN: Brings us right to Stephanie Cutter. She is President Obama's deputy campaign manager. It's nice to have you with us. Thanks for joining us.

I envision that you all as you watched the debate sit there and take notes and you're like weakness on the GOP on this, is that true? Is that how it works?


O'BRIEN: Yes, you all watch the debate together and you strategize -- no, truly, of like what are the highlights and low points of the debate. Is that how it works? CUTTER: Well, we do watch the debates. I will concede that.

O'BRIEN: OK, then I'm right. I think I just got that right.

CUTTER: And, you know, we look at what the candidates are saying and whatever highlights there are any low lights and any points worth taking from these debates and, you know, I think like most viewers last night, we didn't see much.

O'BRIEN: Well, I was going to ask you, if you sit around, what do you think? Did you see last night as vulnerabilities in the GOP that you were sitting around taking notes on, as I predicted to happen?

CUTTER: Well, I think a couple of things. One, there is no frontrunner in the Republican race. I think that's pretty clear. It's pretty clear on that stage last night. There was a contest to see who could move further to the right on issues like immigration, tax or earmarks.

And they went at each other on a number of things, you know, for instance, on earmarks. Every one of them on that stage has taken an earmark. Mitt Romney took earmarks, but he's attacking Rick Santorum for taking earmarks.

Rick Santorum has taken earmarks, but his attacking Mitt Romney for the same thing. So I think a lot of people are scratching their heads and wondering why aren't we talking about the issues that actually really concern us like jobs and the economy.

Mitt Romney only talked about his tax plan that he introduced yesterday once and that was defending himself against Rick Santorum because Rick Santorum said that Mitt Romney was protecting the 1 percent.

O'BRIEN: What do you think about immigration? You point that out as a potential weakness. Let me play a chunk of what Mitt Romney said last night and then we'll talk on the other side.


ROMNEY: The right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona. I'll also complete the fence and make sure we have enough border patrol agents to secure the fence. And I will make sure we have an e-verify system and require employers to check the documents of workers.


O'BRIEN: So when you heard Mitt Romney laying out sort of his immigration policy and plan if he were president, where do you see opportunity in that?

CUTTER: Well, I see opportunity in that Mitt Romney has the most extreme position on immigration of anybody running for president, any nominee running for president in years. He is supporting the Arizona plan, which even other border states don't support because it's the extreme.

There's a reason why even the Catholic bishops are against the Arizona plan. There's a lawsuit there for a reason. So, you know, I think Mitt Romney's support of that. I'm sure it will be talked about should he be the nominee in the general election.

I think he's alienating a lot of the voters by doing that. The truth is the border has been secured under this president. He has been fighting for comprehensive immigration reform. He's done what he can through administrative action to strengthen our laws, to ensure that we're deporting criminals.

That we're using our resources wisely and that the border is protected. But Mitt Romney is going so far to the right on immigration that it will be worth talking about in the general election.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Hi, Stephanie, Will Cain. You used an interesting phrase a moment ago. You said let's see -- it was a contest to see who can run the furthest to the right and you talked about immigration.

But also on earmarks, I find that curious. Are earmarks a left/right issue? Is President Obama's position then somehow in opposite of that? Is he in support of earmarks? Is it something he says earmarks are no big deal then. I don't understand what is the left/right issue?

CUTTER: I think it's an issue of government accountability. And the president actually put a halt to earmarks, but he's honest about it. You know, there should be transparency that we shouldn't be using taxpayer dollars for pork projects back home. But the interesting thing I thought last night was that they were attacking each other for something that they've all done.

CAIN: If President Obama has the same position, it's not really them running to the right on earmarks then.

CUTTER: Well, except that the Tea Party has a very strong position against earmarks. They have a very strong position against any government spending and they have a very strong position about being of Washington in Washington.

And Mitt Romney's attacking Rick Santorum for being part of that where Mitt Romney has taken advantage of Washington himself. I think that plays to their Tea Party base, the votes that they're fighting for right now in Arizona, Michigan and elsewhere. That's the point that I was making.

O'BRIEN: Stephanie Cutter is the Obama deputy campaign manager joining us this morning. Thanks for being with us. Appreciate it.

CUTTER: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Will Cain. CAIN: I have to say, Soledad, it's just odd to me. So is the Democratic position then not opposed to earmarks? Is it not opposed to deficit spending? Not opposed to running up big budgets? I mean, if that is a hard right position, what does that mean the left's position is?

O'BRIEN: I thought what she was saying was that when she says move to the right, I hate to speak for Stephanie, certainly, but wasn't she sort of saying like you're trying to get points with the Tea Party.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, she's saying it's a far right commitment --

CAIN: There are all issues that we can agree on. I don't know (inaudible) what characterizes far right. If you want to say they ran to the right, I think you need to be careful and be very choosey about her words.

MARC LAMONT HILL, PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: No, I think she was. She's saying that she was trying to appeal to the Tea Party base, which has made an express commitment to eliminating earmarks and that's why they're --

O'BRIEN: And as they said in the debate, people who had asked for earmarks more than saying, well, no, I don't support earmarks partly to appeal to --

CAIN: That's possible.

HILL: -- the Democratic Party concerned about those issues.

O'BRIEN: We can always discuss it.

All right, we have to take a break. Ahead on STARTING POINT, we're going to talk about Latinos and immigration, two fastest growing voting bloc in the United States.

An estimated 12 million Latinos will vote in the fall and also "Time's" cover story. Will Latinos pick the next president?

And cold turkey in a pill. You can shut off addiction? Dr. Sanjay Gupta is going to join us next to talk about that. Here's Sanjay's playlist, Jason Mraz.

No judgment, just confusion. Look at Sanjay, what is wrong with you? Obviously, I need to add this to my playlist. We're back in a moment.


O'BRIEN: That's Finger Eleven, "Paralyzer."

Sanjay, you and I need to get together later and swap out music --


-- because I'm guessing you have no gospel and I have no whatever that was, which I liked.



O'BRIEN: You do? Yes, all right.

GUPTA: I like a wide variety. I like bands with a story behind them. Finger Eleven is a great band.

O'BRIEN: Oh. And I like that about you.

All right, let's talk about addiction this morning. You say you can possibly break an addiction cold turkey using a pill and that there are medications that short circuit addiction. Are they truly effective? Are they used all the time?

Sanjay is going to look at that for us this morning.

Good morning.

GUPTA: Good morning. This is a big cultural shift and a controversial one in the world of addiction, this idea that we've been talking about, Soledad, that if you think of addiction as a brain disease, it changes the way that you might approach it. And medications, pills, could be on the table as an option. We've been investigating this for some time and there is one particular situation, someone who is an alcoholic for a long time, nothing else has worked when they enter into a trial where they try these pills.

Listen to how a particular patient, Walter Kent, put it to me.


GUPTA (voice-over): This is the last place you'd expect to find a recovering alcoholic.

WALTER KENT, RECOVERING ALCOHOLIC: One of my favorite watering holes.

GUPTA: This is where Walter hangs out, a bar called Goobers. Walter is a giant of a man. But for most of his life, he couldn't find the strength to put down that bottle.

KENT: I was the type of person that, the only time I drank was when I was alone or with somebody.


Other than that, there was never a problem.

GUPTA: He tried rehab and A.A. Nothing worked. WALTER: Nothing seemed to get rid of that urge. I couldn't get rid of the craving.

GUPTA: But then, in 2000, he tried, again, an experimental program at Brown University. This time, he got counseling once a week and a daily pill, a medicine called Naltrexone. And this time it worked.

WALTER: When you can lose a total urge, a total craving for alcohol, you can beat it. There's no doubt in my mind, because I'm living proof.


GUPTA: 12 years now he's been sober, Soledad. 16 weeks is how long he took that medication. And, so, it's pretty remarkable. The way it works is basically it tamps down the euphoria you get from drinking. People say you get the euphoria. You want to keep replicating that feeling so you drink more. But Naltrexone tamped it down. It's not for everybody and the trials that Walter was just referencing, only about a third of patients actually made it all the way through the trial because the medication can cause side effects and make you nauseated, reduce your feelings of pleasure from other things, as well. But these patients were where nothing else worked. It was a last option. And it gave more relief than anything else that was out there for these patients. So, it's an option, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Can I ask you about this weight loss drug?


O'BRIEN: It's like the first time in 13 years that there has been a prescription weight loss drug that been approved. Tell me a little bit about it. Does it work? Is it safe?

GUPTA: You and I talked about my feelings on weight loss overall. I'm not a big fan of throwing pills at problems like this. But the way that this works is basically a combination of Phentermine, which is a stimulant like speed and also a medication called Toperimate, which is typically used to treat migraines and seizures. This is a combination pill.

About two years ago, a year-and-a-half ago, they put it before the FDA and, at that point, it was rejected, saying there's not enough safety testing and what we do see, we have concerns about. Could it cause birth defects in pregnant women who are taking this medication? They went back and studied it again and now at least, in the advisory panel, has been approved.

But there's a lot of caveats with this pill. The about a lot of these diet pills in the past, including the ones from more than a decade ago, they are on a market for a while and the side effects get more amplified, and then they get taken off the market. And also they say it's for obese people, people with a body mass index over 30 percent. Doctors and professionals are starting to need to stick to that, not giving it for more casual weight loss. Who knows? The FDA doesn't approve this, but they usually take the recommendation to the advisory panel.

O'BRIEN: It always worries me when Dr. Gupta says, well, who knows.


O'BRIEN: I'm going to say no to that one for me personally.

All right--

GUPTA: There are other ways to do it, right.


O'BRIEN: Thank you, Sanjay. Appreciate it.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, Latinos. Could they be casting the vote come the 2012 election? "Time" magazine is asking that question. We're going to discuss that next.



O'BRIEN: I like this. (INAUDIBLE). I love it.




O'BRIEN: If Will likes it --



CAIN: Luccini.

O'BRIEN: Luccini. We like it.

O'BRIEN: Will likes it. We like it.

All right, let's talk about the Latinos. The fastest growing voting block in the United States. An estimated 12.2 million Latinos will vote in 2012. They could make up 8.7 percent of the country's voters. So is this the group that will pick the next president?

It's a question that's been posed on the cover of this week's "Time" magazine. The article is written by our next guest, Michael Scherer. He's "Time" magazine's White House correspondent.

Nice to see you. Thanks for talking with us.


O'BRIEN: 26 percent increase, they're expecting from 2008 in the 2012 election. So is this enough, you think, to actually sway an election?

SCHERER: Like with everything with a presidential election, you don't look just at the national numbers, you look at the state-by- state numbers. It just so happens, a number of states where the Latinos are the biggest percentage of the voter electorate are swing states, talking about Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, where the Obama campaign is making a big push after years of it not even being a battleground state -- Florida. If the Obama campaign is able to perform very well within that group, talking in the neighborhood of the numbers they got last time in 2008, Bill Clinton got in the mid '90s, 68, 70 percent, they can pick up an extra two or three points in these states. If the states are close, which they're expected to be, at least Nevada, Colorado, new Mexico, that could be decisive. It provides a path for the Obama campaign to win even if they lose states in the industrial Midwest that have been traditionally seen as the deciding states.

O'BRIEN: So it's sort of a new map? Ohio --


SCHERER: That's right, it does. It provided a new map. And it's not just this issue. We're talking, for every cycle from here, going forward, the power of this voting block is going to continue to grow. We're looking at gradual transformation of how presidents get elected.

O'BRIEN: You said, if the candidates can perform well, and that really is about the message. When I talked to someone like Iliana Rosplaten (ph), she'll say, Soledad, you always want to talk about immigration, but Latinos care about the economy like every other voter cares about the economy. She has a point there.

SCHERER: She's absolutely right. Latinos do always say jobs, the economy, those are the most important issues. The trick is that, even though those are the issues they want to be talking about, the immigration issue can move their vote. It's not as much the immigration policy issue, it's whether they feel like the parties are talking to them or pushing them away. What we've seen over the last several years is the rhetoric within the Republican Party has pushed Latinos away. There was a poll in January by Univision that said 72 percent of Latinos in America either thought the Republican Party didn't care about their vote or was hostile to them.

That overrides the issues they want to be voting on, which are issues like jobs, the economy. Latinos have been hit much harder than other ethnic groups in this country when it comes to the recession and jobs, so they want to be dealing with those issues. But if they see grainy black-and-white campaign ads about --


O'BRIEN: It's the tone. It's a tone thing, if the tone seems hostile.


SCHERER: People coming across the border, they get turned off. That's exactly right.

O'BRIEN: So let me play a little chunk from the debate last night from -- I think, we have three of the candidates in this little clip. Listen.


REP. RON PAUL, (R), TEXAS & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We reward illegal immigration. They get benefits. Texas, hospitals and, you know, schools are going bankrupt.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The further we have gone with the fence, the fewer the people have broken into California.

MITT ROMNEY, (R), FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration. It's time we finally did it.


O'BRIEN: So Senator Marco Rubio has really been counseling his fellow Republicans on the tone thing. What has he been saying? I know you've been talking to him.

SCHERER: Yes, he's been saying that that kind of rhetoric, the sort of law and order, we just have to crack down on these lawbreakers is the exact wrong approach. The Republican Party has to be a pro- immigration party, pro-legal immigration party. And he's not alone. Carl Rove, Jeb Bush, Ed Gillespie, there's a whole bunch of party elders who have been saying the candidates are going into states like Arizona where the Republican base is clearly to the right of the country on this and want to hear what we heard last night.

It was interesting last night, you came out of Florida in which Romney and Gingrich had all moderated their tone on immigration. They were making these blatant appeals to Latinos because it was a heavy Latino state. We get back to Arizona, where there's really no Latino vote in the Republican Party and the Republican primary and the candidates are once again saying, oh, what Arizona is doing is exactly the right thing --


O'BRIEN: So then, does it matter? Is the theory like, listen, you have to moderate your voice, win the nomination and then, when you go into the general, you say, listen, I've really seen -- this is what I really think now and everybody -- do you pay the price later or not among Latinos, I guess, is my question?

SCHERER: I think the signs point to, right now, they are going to pay a price. We don't know how big a price it's going to be. We don't know what's going to happen over the next six months. When I was in Arizona, I spoke with Republicans who had worked with -- for George W. Bush's re-election in 2004, evangelicals who could not vote Democrat because they're pro-life and their values won't let them, who are saying, look, I can't vote for mitt Romney. He's against my people. It's gotten to the point where it's that bad. They're not able to get voters that should be theirs by all rights.

O'BRIEN: It's going to be so interesting to crunch these numbers, I think, certainly in this election and as these elections go forward.

Michael Scherer, with "Time" magazine, thanks for joining. Appreciate it.

SCHERER: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, the numbers on the gas station sign becoming a trend. It's a trend that's going upward. Inching above $4 a gallon in some cases, $6 a gallon in some places. Today, President Obama will talk about it. But is there a plan to bring prices down?

Then, remembering war reporter, Marie Colvin. Some new details on how she was killed in Syria. Her mother will join us to talk about that.

We're back in just a moment.