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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Taliban Poisoning NATO Food?; High Oil Prices Driving Gas Prices Up; Syria Referendum Results Expected Today; North Korea "Ready For War" With U.S.

Aired February 27, 2012 - 05:00   ET

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


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And a very good Monday morning to you. And welcome to EARLY START. And it is very early. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

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

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

The Taliban claiming that they poisoned food at a military base in Afghanistan. They're calling it revenge for the mistaken burning of the Muslim holy book, the Koran. And also, we have new explosions and car bombs. And the U.S. is now pulling out more Americans working in Afghanistan.

BANFIELD: And it's one of those questions you have when you wake up. Did gas prices go up again while you were sleeping? Well, guess what? Six dollar gas is already a reality. And is it in the place where you live? We'll let you know.

SAMBOLIN: And the political rollercoaster continues. First, the surge, now this slip. A new poll shows Rick Santorum falling behind Mitt Romney again, one day now before Michigan and Arizona, the primaries there. The candidate says that he is tweaking his strategy on the trail now.

BANFIELD: If you watch any kind of red carpet, this was a moment to behold. Oh, my Lord, you didn't. The whole question, who are you wearing?

Ryan Seacrest apparently wearing Kim Jong-Il's ashes. It's a joke, trust me. But it is the moment that everyone is talking about. Look at Ryan Seacrest's face.

SAMBOLIN: I don't think he thought it was such a good joke.

BANFIELD: I don't think he thinks it's funny. Look at security, too. We'll get to the bottom of that in just a moment.

But the slow-mo shows it all. Oh, my Lord. How did he get to do that in first place?

We'll get you up on everything that happened Oscar-wise as well. But a lot of news to get to first.

SAMBOLIN: It's two minutes past the hour. Up first, the deadly suicide bombing overnight in Afghanistan. In an apparent attempt by the Taliban to poison the food of NATO troops. We have this information confirmed now. The food contaminated at Forward Operating Base Torkham, near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.

This is what they found, traces of bleach in the fruit and in the coffee. Luckily, no one was hurt. Nobody's been sickened. There is a full investigation under way at this hour.

BANFIELD: And also overnight, there was a suicide car bomb apparently nine people killed at this point, 12 injured. We're watching to see if those numbers changed that happened a little farther away from Torkham, at the gates of Jalalabad airport in eastern Afghanistan. No Americans at this point among the victims. But the Taliban is weighing in on this and saying this is all about those Koran burnings at Bagram Airbase last week.

Our Nick Paton Walsh is live from his post in Kabul, Afghanistan.

There's so much to get to this morning. Let's start with the breaking news, and this is the contamination of the food at Torkham. You don't get closer to Pakistan that there.

What is the story? And just how bad is this, Nick?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it would scare some people. At this point, ISAF don't know if it was definitely a poisoning. It seems to have happened that an Afghan worker went to his bosses and said, look, I found something in the food. It appears to have been chlorine bleach in the coffee and the fruit. That caused that particular dining facility to be closed.

The troops there, they're all eating pre-prepared rations that come out of packages. At this particular point, they're investigating how this could have happened.

The Taliban swift to come forward, saying this was a cook acting from outrage over the Koran burning and five Americans were killed. That's not true, according to ISAF-- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Well, it just dovetails into what happened on Saturday. A gunman getting in the interior ministry, signing himself in, getting his weapon and then opening fire on two of our soldiers, one of them a colonel, another a major.

How bad is the potential for infiltration now among all of our troops, all NATO/ISAF troops? And what are they going to be doing about it from hereon then?

WALSH: The fear I think is a new level really, Ashleigh, at this point, because until now, we've seen instances in which Afghan soldiers have turned their weapons on the Americans or ISAF personnel training them. And that's normally out in the field, on bases, on patrol or outposts.

This particular interior ministry instance is particularly troubling for many American soldiers here because it was supposed to be such a secure place, a command and control facility inside a secure ministry. People wondering how on earth did that happen? How did the gunman's apparent time in madrasah in Pakistan linked to extremist groups, how did that go unnoticed?

So, I think with this and, of course, the claims of poisoning today, there could be even further suspicions of these Afghan soldiers who Americans are supposed to work with that could harm that vital trust they need to keep the job going here -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right. Nick Paton Walsh, live for us in Kabul this morning -- thank you for that.

SAMBOLIN: It's five minutes past the hour.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the Koran burning that sparked a week of violence in Afghanistan is deeply regrettable. But things have gotten out of hand and it needs to stop. That's what she's saying.

Clinton spoke to CNN foreign affairs reporter Elise Labott in Morocco yesterday. She says Republican candidates have no business for bashing Obama either for apologizing over the Koran burning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I well remember during the eight years of President Bush's administration when something happened that was regrettable, unintentional as this incident was, President Bush was quick to say, look, we're sorry about this. This is something that, you know, we obviously did not mean to do. That's all that President Obama was doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: We have much more of Elise Labott's interview with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 6:00 a.m. hour of EARLY START.

BANFIELD: We are minding your business this morning at six minutes past 5:00 a.m. on the East Coast. And this just in: it happened again. As you were sleeping, gas prices jumped again.

This time, just a penny though, in the last 24 hours. I know it doesn't sound like much but it is unfortunate because it just keeps happening. AAA just announcing the new national average for a gallon of gas at $3.70. Gas prices have been rising for the past 20 days -- count them -- 20 days in a row. And they're up more than 10 percent since just the start of this year.

SAMBOLIN: Alison Kosik is here, in for Christine Romans this morning.

And, Alison, the national average isn't really telling as the break down of gas prices state by state. Tell us about that.

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Oh, sure, because -- yes, when you put the average in, you can't really understand how it affects you. We have a map here that shows, you know, state by state, you know, what you're paying. And, clearly, you know, if you're on the West Coast, if you're in the Northeast, you're really feeling the sting.

You know, first of all, gas prices are going up because oil prices are going up because of tensions with Iran, the improving economy because the expectation is the banned is going to increase. But if you return to another map and show by region, depending on what your income is, that really makes you understand that sticker shock. You know, depending on how much you take in and put out in paying for filling up your car.

So, if you live in Montana, the Dakotas, you're paying about 10 percent of your income to fill up your gas tank. The situation actually is much worse in Mississippi where drivers pay almost 12 percent of their income. That's how much is going in to filling up your gas tank because the median income there is just under $38,000.

BANFIELD: Wow.

KOSIK: It really illustrates just how difficult it is state by state, you know, if you're not making as much money how much it really hurts. And, you know, I know we sound like broken records tracking these gas prices, but people really feel it in their wallet.

BANFIELD: So, everybody on the campaign trail, at least the Republicans on campaign trail, they have been getting on President Obama. And most economists will say the president can't really make a difference. But what about those salt caverns down in Louisiana, with that huge reserve? Is that possible if there were, you know, barrels released, would it make a difference in our gas prices?

KOSIK: Many analysts say it really wouldn't because it only releases a certain amount of oil into -- sort of into the economy (AUDIO BREAK) a difference and try and tweak how much you pay.

You can -- I want to give helpful information to people who are watching. You can go to the AAA Web site. You can actually break it down in your neighborhood, where you can find the cheapest gas in your neighborhood. Also, if you're taking a trip, this is really useful, too. Go to fuelgaugereport.com.

And if you're actually taking a trip from A to B, you can actually track your trip A to B and figure out where along that route you can go and get the cheapest gas. So, at this point, you know, we know why it's happening -- tensions in Iran, the improving economy.

All right. We know this is a certainty at least in the short term. Gas prices are going to go up. Can we control -- or at least try and control how much we spend? Those Web sites are really, really helpful.

SAMBOLIN: I could have used too yesterday. I actually was driving around trying to find the cheapest gas. I thought, this is dumb --

(CROSSTALK)

KOSIK: Don't drive around. These are helpful Web sites.

SAMBOLIN: That's very smart. Thank you, Alison Kosik. We appreciate it.

BANFIELD: Or we could solve world peace. That would do wonders.

KOSIK: When you do that, give me a call.

BANFIELD: I'll give you a call, my friend. We'll work on it together.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It's nine minutes past the hour here.

Good morning. We give you an EARLY START to your day and tell you the stories that you will be talking about tonight.

New explosions overnight in the city of Homs in Syria. The results of the Syrian referendum on a new Constitution are expected today. The U.S. already calling the vote a phony sham meant to justify the government's bloody crackdown there.

BANFIELD: And it's the last full day of campaigning before you -- guessed it -- two more key primaries in Mitt Romney's home state of Michigan and in Arizona as well. Romney and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are going to be in Michigan today.

SAMBOLIN: And for the first time in the 54-year history of the Daytona 500, the race will be run on a Monday. Rain postponed yesterday's race. It was rescheduled for noon today.

But guess what? The forecast is calling for more rain. Race officials say they are prepared to wait all day if they need to. And they're ready to race under the lights if necessary.

You know, Rick Santorum is actually sponsoring a car there?

BANFIELD: I saw that.

SAMBOLIN: Mitt Romney made a little surprise visit yesterday. Too bad he didn't get to see them run.

BANFIELD: I was thinking, wow, that's a weird place to be in Florida when that race was already determined. If you're trying to off set what it's like to have Rick Santorum's name on one of the NASCAR, I guess you go and you visit.

But I find that really surprising, 54 years that it hasn't been rained out?

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: That's remarkable.

SAMBOLIN: And it may, you know, they say that they're going to go through it all night, even if they have to race under the lights. We will see.

Rob Marciano, do you know what the weather is like there for today? Do you think they'll get it later tonight?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: They may be racing on a Tuesday at this point.

You know, there's a reason they have it in Florida, Daytona in February, because weather typically, you know, is pretty nice -- you know, bright sunshine, dry air. It's not really the rainy season. But a bit of bad luck, little disturbance, little boundary right over Daytona.

This is the batch of moisture that's coming in right now. So, it may lighten up later in the day. It's still light but it's just a nuisance sort of rain. I can't -- if the track was just 50 miles to the south of where it is, which is right there, you can see, this line hasn't changed much in the past 24 hours, if it was down closer to say, Cape Canaveral, it wouldn't have been a problem. But it is where it is. As you can see on the radar, there's more rain that will be kind of annoying them throughout the day today, especially just to the north.

If you are traveling via plane versus a race car, Orlando, some rain today. Detroit, Phoenix, showers in New Orleans, some rain and chilly temperatures expected in Los Angeles. There's a decent storm beginning to move into California.

We've got a series of pretty strong storms that will continue to hit the West Coast and make their way through the mountains. The next one that's going to become through will cause blizzard conditions potentially across parts of the high plains. This one will take more of a western Great Lakes track, which means that the East Coast and eastern tier will be on the mild side of it.

Fifty-five degrees, the high temperature in New York, 63 degrees in D.C., and 59 in Atlanta.

We certainly hope they get 'er her done in Daytona this afternoon.

BANFIED: Get 'er done. Nice reference. That's awesome.

Wow. I have a new appreciation for you.

SAMBOLIN: I can be a little ray -- I'm a big NASCAR fan.

BANFIELD: Good for you.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you, Rob.

MARCIANO: You got it.

BANFIELD: Thank you, Rob.

Big throwback night if you were watching the Oscars.

SAMBOLIN: A silent movie actually dominated, and Billy Crystal returned to save the show.

Kareen Wynter for all the highlights for you.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KAREEN WYNTER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: It was a night of cheers, tears, laughter and memories. The 84th Annual Academy Awards have come to an end. And for a few lucky winners, well, their lives have been changed forever.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Oscar goes to at "The Artist".

WYNTER: "The Artist" proved to be the little silent film that could, winning the best picture, best director, and best actor for Jean Dujardin who gave a one-two punch to both George Clooney and Brad Pitt in that category.

As for supporting actor -- well, no one could knock out 82-year- old Christopher Plummer. He was favored to win for beginners and he did.

"The Help" came in with three -- three acting contenders but left with one winner, the supporting actress gold going to Octavia Spencer.

As for Octavia's co-star, Viola Davis, she may have racked up a shelf full of awards this season but in the end, 17-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep became a three-time Oscar winner for her work in "The Iron Lady."

MERYL STREEP, ACTRESS: Oh, my God.

WYNTER: From "The Iron Lady" to the gold man, Oscar has once again changed lives and entertained millions.

Kareem Wynter, CNN, Hollywood.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: Meryl, I love Meryl.

SAMBOLIN: She's great, but I didn't pick her as my top pick.

BANFIELD: Oh, I did. But I'm still shocked she's been nominated 17 times but only won three.

SAMBOLIN: She's an incredible actress.

All right. The moment everyone is talking that happened before the show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SACHA BARON COHEN, ACTOR: The interesting thing is, actually -- we dropped Kim Jong Il on you. Wait a minute. We have to clean this up. It's OK for you. If somebody asks you what you are wearing, you will say Kim Jong Il.

RYAN SEACREST, TV HOST: Have fun this evening.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Good gracious.

This is what Sacha Baron Cohen dressed as the dictator. He says he was going to dump an urn all over Ryan Seacrest's tux. He claimed that they were Kim Jong Il's ashes.

Seacrest, he wasn't too thrill about this. He looked a little upset. He tried to go to break. But E! milked it for everything it was worth.

And Seacrest had to do interviews with Kim Jong Il all over him.

According to an E! story, Ryan Seacrest could actually press charges against the dictator/actor for that stunt.

BANFIELD: I love that he was pulled away, saying, when anybody asks you what you're wearing, you say Kim Jong Il.

All right, Borat, you are my newest hero again today.

The Twitter universe was buzzing about J. Lo.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: Did you see it?

SAMBOLIN: I did. I don't -- well, I didn't understand why Twitter was all abuzz.

BANFIELD: Well, when you get the slipperoo and the dress is cut a little low, apparently -- oh, hello, fuzzy. That's because there is a claim there's been another wardrobe malfunction.

SAMBOLIN: You can't see anything. Who saw it?

BANFIELD: I don't know. I don't know. She -- her stylist, Jennifer Lopez's stylist says the dress fit perfectly every inch and there was no slip. No slip. There was no slip.

I'm not sure if she meant nip slip or an undergarment that was a slip. But it's not the first time that J. Lo has been danger of falling out of her dress. If we all can please think back to this, the 2000 Grammys when everybody, including Matt Lauer was absolutely aghast.

I think -- I believe -- is crew, you can weigh, was this not when the gentleman on her right was named Puff Daddy? I do not believe it was P. Diddy at the time. I think it was Puff Daddy. Am I right?

SAMBOLIN: I don't know.

BANFIELD: I'm actually getting a lot of nod.

SAMBOLIN: But there was no wardrobe malfunction, right? That was just --

BANFIELD: That was just a less of a dress, less than a bikini. That was just less than a bikini.

SAMBOLIN: She never fails to surprise with fashion, does she? Or to create a bit of a buzz.

It's 16 minutes past the hour here -- time to check the stories making news this morning.

BANFIELD: And we have a big one coming out of Afghanistan. The Taliban is taking responsibility for a suicide car bombing overnight at the gates of Jalalabad's airport in Afghanistan. Nine people killed. None of them Americans at this point we can tell you.

NATO forces are also reporting another bizarre finding. Traces of chlorine bleach in their fruit and in their coffee. Luckily, no one got sick. But, again, Taliban weighing in and claiming responsibility for that little move, too.

Some tragic new details in the death of American journalist Marie Colvin in Syria. Colvin's newspaper, "The Sunday Times" is revealing that she died while trying to get her shoes so that she could escape a shilling attack. Colvin was in a makeshift press office under siege by the Syrian army and she was following the local custom of taking your shoes of before you enter a building.

And rising gas prices just won't let up. Today's national -- latest national average, a penny more than when you went to sleep. This morning, it's $3.70 a gallon. They've been rising, if you're counting, for 20 straight days in a row.

Americans in parts of California, Alaska and Hawaii are now paying more than $4 a gallon. And a couple of states aren't far behind that $4 mark at this point.

SAMBOLIN: A train flipped off the tracks, killing three railway workers and injuring 45 passengers. Take a look at these pictures. A train was traveling from Niagara Falls, derailed just west of Toronto. This was on Sunday.

Officials are investigating to see what happened there.

And CNN has learned Rick Santorum will be getting Secret Service protection, that is beginning this week. Right now, Mitt Romney is the only Republican candidate who has been granted protection. The source says Newt Gingrich has requested Secret Service protection and is now waiting for a response.

BANFIELD: This one is from the medical miracles file. Still ahead, scientists have used stem cells to grow human eggs. Does this mean that there is a new horizon for fertility treatments? Or is this just something that is so far off on the horizon, it won't affect anyone alive now?

SAMBOLIN: A World War II vet is carjacked in Detroit. An 86- year-old man crawling, trying to get some help, everybody ignoring him. He was headed back from Bible study.

We're going it tell you so much more about this incredibly --

BANFIELD: People walking right by him.

SAMBOLIN: You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: It's 22 minutes past the hour.

This one I'd say is a bit hard to take. An 86-year-old World War II veteran attacked and carjacked in broad daylight. This happened in Detroit. No one stopped to help him. It was all caught on tape also.

His name is Aaron Brantley. And he stopped for gas on his way home from church. He was coming back from Bible study. Take a look there. He was thrown to the ground by a carjacker and then he crawled, crawled for help.

He has a broken leg, witnesses walked right past him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LA DENA BRANTLEY, AARON'S GRANDDAUGHTER: He pushed my grandfather out the way for a set of tires and a radio? Seriously? Seriously?

To me, that's the definition of a true coward.

AARON BRANTLEY, CARJACKING VICTIM: They don't care about you or anything. I say, boy, it's a shame that things are like they are now.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness.

So, Aaron finally made it inside the gas station store. He actually asked a woman to open the door for him. And she kind of thought about it once or twice, opened it finally and walked away.

A man -- actually another man gave him a ride home. He offered the guy money in order to take him home. The guy refused it, took him home anyway. Police say they are still looking for the carjacker. But hopefully that video will help them find the offender.

BANFIELD: Makes you sick.

SAMBOLIN: It's pathetic.

BANFIELD: A, that he's a vet. B, that he's an elderly gentleman. C, that he was carjacked in front of everybody. And, D, that people walked right by. Come on, America. We're better than that. Please?

Am I outrage enough?

SAMBOLIN: Oh, it's terrible.

BANFIELD: React.

SAMBOLIN: Well, it's terrible.

BANFIELD: It's 23 minutes past 5:00.

Let's get you up to speed on your early reads. This is local news making national headlines this.

We got papers from New York and Los Angeles.

Let's start in New York with "The Times," shall we? This is fascinating.

Scientists uncovering a real breakthrough in fertility treatments. They've been able to actually use stem cells to generate human eggs, partially. Here's the thing: when they actually insert them into mice, they do become eggs. And that's what's fascinating.

But it doesn't necessarily mean that we can use them in human infertility treatments right away. What it means is that we could probably use them to test drugs at this point and maybe, maybe, somewhere well down the line, we might actually be able to create real human eggs for women who are older or who don't have, perhaps, viable eggs to create brand new eggs that they can use to maybe have children.

SAMBOLIN: That would be great.

BANFIELD: Fascinating.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Let's move to "Los Angeles Times."

Twenty-two passengers on a cruise ship from Long Beach, California, robbed at gunpoint in Mexico. The gunman stole the passengers' valuables, including cameras and money. They were ambushed near Puerto Vallarta when they were riding on a bus back from a nature hike in the Mexican jungle.

Carnival Company that ran the cruise is apologizing. There are some cruise lines that have decided not to take these little routes, these little trips. Carnival said that they felt it was safe -- and apparently not.

BANFIELD: Scary, though, for folks. That's biting the hand that feeds you. A lot of these ports, Puerto Vallarta, that's scary for the folks who need all of those tourists to come in there, thousands and thousands every week.

Still ahead: WikiLeaks is at it again. And now, a new target -- global intelligence firm, the so-called "Shadow CIA".

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: A very good morning to you. It is 28 minutes past 5:00 in the East. Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

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

There is no letup to the violence in Afghanistan. The Taliban claiming responsibility for a suicide car-bombing at the gates of Jalalabad airport. Nine people were killed there overnight. The Taliban also claiming to be behind the poisoning of food at a military dining facility near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.

And Pakistan has finished bulldozing the house in Abbottabad where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces. Only the wall of the compound remains now. No one is being allowed inside.

And unfortunately, gas prices rising for the 20th day in a row now. The national average now $3.70 a gallon. Parts of California, Alaska and Hawaii seeing more than $4 a gallon.

BANFIELD: And WikiLeaks is at it again. The Web site started releasing millions of e-mails from the private global intelligence company called Stratfor. It's been called the "shadow CIA" and WikiLeaks says the emails reveal how Stratfor gets its information. It could be controversial.

Also, beating all the talkies. The black and white silent film, "The Artist," wins five Oscars last night, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Also, Martin Scorsese's 3D picture, "Hugo," tied with five awards.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Let's switch to politics here with Arizona and Michigan holding primaries tomorrow. A new national poll shows support for Rick Santorum may be slipping. Latest Gallup daily tracking poll here for you, Santorum drops seven points in a week. Romney gains five points and now leads 31 percent to 29 percent among registered Republicans.

So, this is a still a statistical tie. So, let's talk to our panelists about this. From Washington, CNN political editor, Paul Steinhauser. From Chicago, we have Lenny McAllister, senior contributor with Politics365.com, and from Washington, Democratic strategist, Jamie Harrison joining us this morning. Thanks, guys.

Paul, I'm going to start with you. You are our number cruncher. I know you're excited about this. We've been talking about the Santorum surge, right, but you saw the poll. So let's put it up here. Santorum's dropped seven points in a week. What do you think is causing this?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: A couple of things, probably. We talked about whether his numbers have peaked earlier in February, maybe they have. Listen, maybe he hoped that Michigan and Arizona would have voted a week ago. A couple of things here, listen, carp bombing from the Romney campaign, especially in Michigan but elsewhere in country.

A lot of negative ads from the Super PAC going up against Santorum. Santorum's debate performance last week may also be contributing. This poll, three to five days, we're conducted after our debate on Wednesday at Arizona. So, a couple of things there may be contributing.

The crucial numbers, of course, are Michigan and Arizona. Where are the polls in those two states? It is pretty much dead even, and every poll I've seen in Michigan, in Arizona, Romney has a single to double digit lead you pick the poll -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Hey, Paul, do you think his comments on women or faith caused some of that drop?

STEINHAUSER: You know, it's interesting, too, because you look at his numbers on women, when you break it down, his favorable numbers on women in most polls, and actually, he's doing better now than he was about two or three weeks ago. So, it's just the opposite of what you would think, Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Lenny, you got all atwitter over something that Santorum said. So, let's listen in, and then, we're going to talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have an opportunity here in America in this election to go across this country and talk to minority communities, not about giving them more food stamps and government dependency, but about creating jobs that they can participate in and rise in society.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Sounds like something Newt Gingrich has said in the past, but on Twitter, you said, "I will surely talk about this with Zoraida and Ashleigh on EARLY START."

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: So, here is your opportunity, Mr. Lenny McAllister. Tell us what you think.

LENNY MCALLISTER, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR, POLITIC365.COM: What I think is, Rick Santorum does a great job when it comes to social commentary, but the same things that work in social commentary with the Tea Party group with hard core conservatives in talking about getting off of the Democratic plantation when it comes to Black voters is horrible presidential political messaging.

And that's the buzz saw that he's running into. This is less about Mitt Romney and more about Rick Santorum saying things that are great when talking to conservatives, horrible when talking to conservative voters. And that more than anything else in addition to the debate performance on Wednesday is causing the drop.

People understand where he's trying to go with what he's saying, but when it comes to messaging, stuff that gets capitalized (ph) in 30-second sound bites, it's a horrible thing to say and they're not the type of ideas you're trying to project as a presidential candidate.

SAMBOLIN: Well, specifically to minority groups.

MCALLISTER: Yes. It's a horrible situation because you're trying to say that I want to be part of the solution making to help bring you back into the American fold, but if you're not messaging it correctly, people hear more divisiveness than they hear unity, and that's exactly what Rick Santorum is experiencing right now.

SAMBOLIN: Hey, Jamie, you want to stay on Santorum?

Yes, listen --

SAMBOLIN: No, no. I got more. I got more. So, we're going to listen first, and then, I'm going to let you talk. So, let's listen and then we'll chat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: What kind of country do we live in that says only people of non-faith can come in the public square and make their case. That makes me throw up. Now, we're going to turn around and say we're going to impose our values from the government on people of faith which, of course, is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Something else he said that we don't listen to there is that there's no evidence at all that he wants to impose his religious beliefs on the country. You're a Democrat, and based on your tweets, I believe you're also a man of faith. How do you respond?

JAIME HARRISON, FMR. EXEC. DIRECTOR, HOUSE DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS: Well, you know, watching these guys is like watching the amateur hour at the Apollo. It's just gaffe after gaffe. And, you know, they're ostracizing more people than they're actually trying to bring in.

I mean, right now, what we need is inspiration in America. We need a resurgence of hope. And as a man of faith, you know, it's not about division. It's about bringing people together. And I don't think Santorum or Romney or Gingrich have done a great job of doing that. They haven't been inspirational at all.

SAMBOLIN: All right. I'm going to end, I think, on a lighter note today. You know, it's my final question, so you have to follow my rules. And I don't know if this is a lighter mood. President Obama and the candidates all been talking about how they deal with dictators. And did you, guys, watch the Oscars last night?

Sacha Baron Cohen, he played his character from the upcoming movie. He spilled ashes all over Ryan Seacrest as we're seeing right there. One word answer, gentlemen, funny or classless? Paul, I'm going to start with you.

STEINHAUSER: Funny.

SAMBOLIN: Ah! Lenny.

MCALLISTER: I'll go with funny.

SAMBOLIN: And Jamie.

HARRISON: I'll go for the trifecta, funny.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Three for three. Thank you, gentlemen. We'll see you back in the next hour.

MCALLISTER: Thanks, Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: And also -- thank you. Later in this hour, we'll be joined by Douglas MacKinnon. He went from welfare to the White House. We'll ask the former government official turned author if the Republicans are taking the wrong approach on poverty.

And then, tomorrow night, CNN's live coverage of the Arizona and Michigan primaries begins at 6:00 p.m. eastern with a special edition of "John King USA." That is followed by live coverage of the primary results with the best political team on television at 7:00 p.m. eastern.

BANFIELD (voice-over): And still ahead, we have more details, brand new details, about Marie Colvin's final moments before she was killed in that bombing in Syria. The move that may have actually cut her her life.

And the bill requiring ultrasound before an abortion in one stage gets an unusual response from the governor there, like didn't know about that bill. Need to read it before I comment. But it's been in the news for a while. So, what's the story? You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. It is 5:39 in the east.

Deadly rocket attacks pounding Syria as the country awaits the result of a vote to change its constitution. The results of the referendum are expected today. Meantime, the city of Homs remains under siege. Take a look at those pictures, shelling, laying waste to streets.

At least four people reportedly killed in attacks, and that was just this morning. The opposition says 55 people were killed yesterday.

BANFIELD: And we have some tragic new details on the death of American journalist, Marie Colvin. She was, apparently, killed while trying to grab her shoes and run from the shelling attack. Michael Holmes is with us live now in Beirut in the adjacent country.

So, Michael, this is one of those things that stands out because Marie Colvin died doing something in honor of customs in that country.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, as you know, Ashleigh, when you go into a house in most Arab countries, you take your shoes off, and then, go about in your socks or bare feet in the house, and this is what Mary and the others were doing in that me in that media center house last Wednesday. When the shelling started, the top couple of floors were hit. They then feared that the building was actually specifically being targeted.

This is all according to her newspaper, "The Sunday Times." And what they did was they ran downstairs to get their shoes which you always put near the front door in order to get ready to escape the building.

Now, as she was down, they're getting the shoes apparently, that's when another shell hit, pretty much right at the front door. And she and the photographer, Remi Ochlik, were killed. So, yes, observing a custom, Ashleigh?

BANFIELD: All right. So, let's move on to one of the more bizarre moves of this regime. Bashar al-Assad has held a constitutional referendum, this as entire cities are under siege and saying that the turnout was high except for a few places, and the referendum essentially is to try to maybe pay lip service to the idea that while the ruling bath party has virtually held a strangle hold in that country, he's opening it up to a multiparty system.

So just exactly what was this referendum all about and how was it even worded if anyone was able to get to the polls at all?

HOLMES: Yes. That was one of the headlines from the referendum, this new constitution being proposed with multiparty system. But you know, when you read the fine print of it, it actually says that if you're a religious party or a political party from a minority, you actually have to ask for permission, you have to have that party approved. So, look at the Muslim brotherhood which is on the ascendency, of course, in the Middle East, or perhaps a Kurdish group within Syria who wanted to become one of those parties. They have to ask the government for permission first. Do you think they're going to get it? Well, who knows?

So, that was one of major points. The other one was that the president could only hold two consecutive seven-year terms. Well, Bashar al-Assad is not up for re-election in 2014. And, so, in theory, if he then wins then, he could go another 14 years. He could be in power until 2026.

The opposition, of course, calls this a sham so do the activists inside places like Homs. And they say, he hasn't abided by the current constitution, why would he abide by this one, anyway.

BANFIELD: And definitely let me know if they get the voter turnout numbers in Daraa and Homs, and you know, Hama, and all of those cities that are under siege.

HOLMES: Yes.

BANFIELD: Michael, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

SAMBOLIN: Forty-three minutes past the hour here.

Still ahead, tough talk from North Korea, says it is ready to go to war with the United States and South Korea.

BANFIELD: And, some history being made at Daytona, not because of who won or who lost, because of who couldn't win or who couldn't lose, except for Mother Nature let's just say. So, we'll let you know whether it's a go, possibly for today? You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is 47 minutes past 5:00 on the east coast, which is very early no matter how you slice it, west coast, east coast, it's real early. It's time to check our top stories making news this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): The Taliban says it is behind a suicide car bombing at the gates of the Jalalabad Airport in Eastern Afghanistan. Nine people were killed there, none of them Americans. The Taliban says the attack is revenge for last week's Koran burning at a U.S. base.

And gas prices jump again. This is now the 20th day in a row. I know you're feeling it. The price at the pump now $3.70 a gallon. That's a penny more than yesterday. The nation's highest price in Hawaii where the average is $4.32.

And North Korea says it is ready to go to war with the United States and South Korea. North Korea furious over joint military drills the U.S. and South Korea are holding this morning. Recent diplomatic talks between the U.S. and North Korea generated very little progress.

BANFIELD (voice-over): Back here at home, the Alabama Senate is starting to debate a bill tomorrow that would require women to undergo an ultrasound before receiving an abortion. This is the governor, and he's standing at a podium, but he says he just learned about this bill and hasn't studied it yet. So, he's not prepared to say whether he supports it or not. Strangely, though, it's been in the news for over a week.

The silent movie is the talk of Tinsel Town. It is "the Artist," and there is the game, walking home with five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," though also came in really well, five academy awards for that animated picture.

And rain, rain go away. Let Daytona have its day, maybe today, maybe tomorrow. NASCAR's premier event, the Daytona 500, will be held today, hopefully, if the weather permits. It's the first time the race will be held on a Monday in its 54-year history after rain washed them out yesterday.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN: You know, Rob Marciano is tracking that in Atlanta. He says it does not look good.

BANFIELD (on-camera): Could be Tuesday. Surprising.

SAMBOLIN: All right. 5:49 -- yes -- here in the east. Still ahead, critics saying poverty is an invisible issue with the GOP. We're going to take an inside look at a Republican stance on poverty from a man who knows a lot about it. He went from welfare to the White House.

BANFIELD: And Hillary Clinton is weighing in on what's going on in Afghanistan. The outrage, how to stop it, and why there should be no apology for our president's apology. Wonder how that's going to play? You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: It is 5:52 here in the east. Welcome back to EARLY START.

Poverty is an invisible issue in the GOP race, and this remark by Mitt Romney right here on CNN set off a wave of outrage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SAMBOLIN: Douglas MacKinnon knows all about the very poor, a child of alcoholics on welfare, he rose to become an aide to President Reagan and G.W. Bush. His new book, "Rolling Pennies in the Dark," tells a very personal story while also focusing on poverty as a political issue. Good morning. Thank you for being with us. I want to start with that Romney comment since we played it, and how did you feel about that?

DOUGLAS MACKINNON, FORMER AIDE TO PRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, I was bothered by it. I was offended. I mean, it was inarticulate, I think, for Governor Romney to say that. In fact to the matter is for anybody that grew up in poverty, especially abject poverty. There really is no safety net.

And what's happening on both sides of the aisle, so many politicians are pandering to the subject every two or four years for the obvious reasons because they want to try to get some votes, but in reality, they don't understand the issue because most of them have never come from it, never seen it, never touched it, and ultimately, never will. And that's the saddest thing of all for the poor of America.

SAMBOLIN: Well, it's interesting because you have both perspectives, right? Growing up poor and being a Republican insider. You now describe yourself as an independent conservative. What is the biggest mistake that you think Republicans are making when it comes to the poor in America?

MACKINNON: Well, I think sort of some of things you had in the earlier segment where they make stereotypical statements, not really understanding the issue. And I think for Republicans, if they want to grow the party, if they want to survive, they have to reach out to the poor, they have to reach out to minority America. They have to start listening to the poor.

Again, that applies to both sides for sure. Republicans, unfortunately, you know, have a label of being a little bit more tone deaf on this issue. Many times they have been, obviously, but it's incumbent upon them as Americans to reach out to this segment of society because this segment of society is paying higher and higher price every single day.

SAMBOLIN: Well, sometimes it's hard to reach out to that segment, right, and really choose your words carefully. So, I'm going to play something that Gingrich said, Newt Gingrich said, and then, I want you to respond to it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So, they have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of I do this and you give me cash, unless, it's illegal.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SAMBOLIN: You used the word ignorant to describe what Newt Gingrich said. What do you think was ignorant about that?

MACKINNON: Well, it was ignorant across the board because he just doesn't understand. Where I grew up, and again, by the time I was 17, I'd moved 34 times. Many times I lived in desperately poor neighborhoods, but what I saw time and time again was single moms, many times single minority moms who would go out and work two, three, four jobs, do the right thing every single day, sacrifice everything for their children, every single day.

They were the role models, They are the role models. And this is the thing that, you know, whether it's Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, anybody else, you have to find these people, find these women and put them on a pedestal and honor their sacrifice.

SAMBOLIN: Do you think there was any truth in what he said?

MACKINNON: I don't. You know, I really don't, because again, those examples exist. You know, but if he's never in those neighborhoods, if he's never exposed to that society, he's never going to see those examples. And again, people have to get into this, understand it and start listening to the desperately poor of our country.

SAMBOLIN: Mr. MacKinnon, you were a Rick Perry supporter, but now, you say that you're cautiously backing Newt Gingrich. Why do you think he's the best choice given some of those statements that he makes?

MACKINNON: Again, I think ultimately, out of the four, he's trying to understand the issue of poverty better than any of them. I'm honestly disappointed with the entire Republican slate, to tell you the truth. But regardless, I think he's at least more open to listening to the issue to try and find some solutions, even if unfortunately, he does say ignorant and silly things from time to time.

SAMBOLIN: Well, we know that poverty, not race, right, is a common denominator and a lack of education and moving forward in this country. What made the difference for you? If somebody is watching and says you know what, I want to be like him?

MACKINNON: Well, I think a lot of it was, you know, a few relatives that took the time and recognized what my family was going through, what my brother and sister and I was going through, and just took the time to try to help us, whether it was for an afternoon or a day and when I say all the time.

You know, poverty, you're never going to solve it as (INAUDIBLE), but we can solve it one-on-one. You know, I guarantee most Americans have somebody in their own family who is going through tough times in their own neighborhood. We all know folks that are going through it. So, let's try to tackle it one person at a time and you see the results will start to change.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Douglas McKinnon, former White House Pentagon official, thank you for joining us.

MACKINNON: Thank you for having me.

BANFIELD: Fifty-seven minutes past five on the east coast. And still ahead, revenge for the mistaken burning of the Muslim holy book in Afghanistan. Are they poisoning soldiers' food now? You won't believe the latest report out of that country. You're watching EARLY START.

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