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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Countdown to Super Tuesday; Deadly Tornado Damage; Obama to Meet with Netanyahu; Limbaugh "Slut" Controversy; Putin Declares Victory

Aired March 5, 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: A very good morning to you. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z.

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

Super Tuesday now one day away. And if the polls, the latest polls are right, Mitt Romney could be closing in on the nomination.

BANFIELD: And also, some real heart-breaking news from the heartland. This was the little angel we were all hoping would survive. She was a victim of last Friday's deadly storm in Indiana, taken from her home, found in a field, on life support. The family has made the decision to take her of life support. She is the 39th casualty now of Friday's storms.

SAMBOLIN: President Obama preparing for a face-to-face showdown this morning with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the table: how to handle Iran and its nuclear program.

BANFIELD: And Rush Limbaugh stepping in it big time, and the advertisers are dropping like flies, folks, bailing, because it just ain't right to call a law student a slut. That's how most people forget.

So, why doesn't he get it? Can the champion of the right overcome this or would this possibly become his Imus moment? We'll explain.

SAMBOLIN: Is it ever OK to call anyone a slut?

BANFIELD: Yes. I would say probably not, being the victim of having been called a slut on the air by one of my colleagues --

SAMBOLIN: Oh.

BANFIELD: It's not appropriate, Mr. Limbaugh. Shut your cake hole.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, I'm going to switch gears here and welcome you back.

BANFIELD: I came back to all this news about nasty talk.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BANFIELD: Limbaugh idiocy.

SAMBOLIN: But sadly this little girl, right, we've been following so closely, that making --

BANFIELD: Listen -- awful story. It's one of many we followed along the way following tornadoes. And I know it happens every year and I know when you're watching, some of those pictures tend to look a lot the same. I keep calling it a massive blender, putting buildings in a massive blender, and those pictures do look a lot same, but for the stories coming from those images.

SAMBOLIN: We really appreciate it.

BANFIELD: Very sad.

SAMBOLIN: Two minutes past the hour here.

First, the countdown to Super Tuesday and Mitt Romney's clicking on all cylinders. Romney coming off three straight wins, Michigan, Arizona, Washington state. He got two big endorsements also over weekend. He is sounding like a nominee, attacking President Obama instead of his Republican rivals.

Listen to what he told voters in Georgia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's pretty straightforward in my view. If Barack Obama gets re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change if that's the case.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Well, words like that and probably a couple of wins under his belt, and the polls are definitely showing the momentum picking up for Mitt Romney.

Let me get you to some of the latest numbers from the NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll. Not too shabby in a national contest. Romney getting 38 percent from likely Republican voters, that's to 32 for Rick Santorum. If you look at Gingrich and Ron Paul, they're all the way back with 13 percent and 13 percent respectively.

So, what can Mitt Romney do if he wants to deliver that knockout blow? Or can he? Or do we still do this whole thing until June?

CNN's political editor Paul Steinhauser is live at CNN Center in Atlanta.

I like to call it mojo but you like to call it momentum. Last count, and I do lost count, I think Mitt Romney has three in a row from the last time around. Is that momentum that we're seeing closing that gap and knotting up the race?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Definitely that and probably ad spending in some of the Super Tuesday states as well, Ashleigh.

Listen, you know what Super Tuesday is going to do? It's going to give Mitt Romney an opportunity to put some daylight, some distance between himself and his rivals for the GOP nomination.

Here's why you mentioned it. All those delegates at stake, 10 states, we're talking about more delegates at stake tomorrow night than all the contests we've had so far. More than a third those needed to clinch the nomination.

And, you know, Romney has closed the gap in some of the states. Ohio, this is a state where Santorum is up just a week and a half ago. Now, all the polls in Ohio, which is probably the most important Super Tuesday state, Mitt Romney is ahead.

Take a look at this brand new poll from Tennessee, the same story. You can see right here, Mitt Romney has closed the gap with Rick Santorum in Tennessee. Rick Santorum used to have a double digit lead there as well.

So, Romney has got a lot of momentum. You want to call it mojo, I love that word as well. But, Ashleigh, let's say Rick Santorum holds on and wins a state like Ohio, which is so important, maybe he wins Oklahoma or one or two others, this race goes on for a long, long time.

BANFIELD: I knew you were going to say that.

You know, Super Tuesday is not as super as it used to be, right? We just keep losing states for Super Tuesday, don't we?

STEINHAUSER: Just on this time last around, there were about 20 states the last time around. The calendar changes every four years.

BANFIELD: Yes, so does mine.

I think I heard a pundit say over the last couple of days that if one of these candidates can prevail in five or six, I may have the math wrong, but five or six of the 10 states, it's over, baby. Is that true?

STEINHAUSER: No, I don't think that's true. Here's why: If Romney does, maybe it's over. If Romney has a bad night, he still has the organization to continue on.

So, you know, he wants to have a very good night. But if he doesn't, he can continue on.

Newt Gingrich, though, let's talk about him. He needs to win right here where I am in Georgia. Take a listen to what he told our Candy Crowley yesterday on "STATE OF THE UNION."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm very confident in the largest state that's going to vote on Tuesday, Georgia, which has more delegates than any other state, we're going to win a decisive victory and do pretty well I think in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Ohio and a number of other states.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEINHAUSER: Gingrich is not bad, double digits right here in Georgia. It doesn't sound like he's going anywhere right now -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Yes. I'm sure he's probably going to have a good night there. But like you said, there's 10 states there and other states.

Paul Steinhauser, nice to see you. Thanks very much.

STEINHAUSER: Thanks.

BANFIELD: And almost coming up on "STARTING POINT," we should mention that our colleague Soledad is going to have one-on-one conversations with Eric Cantor, as well as Senator John McCain about endorsing Mitt Romney.

Then at 8:30 Eastern on "STARTING POINT," Soledad is going to go one-on-one with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Don't miss that.

Also, our Tuesday coverage, our super, Super Tuesday coverage, which means it's not only Super Tuesday but it's super coverage begins at 6:00 p.m. Eastern tomorrow evening, with a special edition of "JOHN KING, USA." It's followed by primary results coverage for "The Best Political Team on TV," beginning at 7:00 Eastern Time.

SAMBOLIN: Six minutes past the hour.

Just days after a series of tornadoes turned towns into complete ruins, from the Deep South to the Midwest, another deadly blow. This is what we were talking about a little while ago. This little girl, 14-month-old Angel Babcock has died. Everybody was pulling for Angel. She had somehow survived a tornado that killed her father, her mother and her two siblings in Indiana.

The toddler was three about 100 yards from her home. She suffered massive head injuries. She was in critical condition from the very beginning. And sadly, she was taken off life support yesterday. She is the 39th fatality in five states from Friday's storms.

Angel's grandfather, talked to a CNN affiliate about the agonizing decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My pastor will go in with me and we're going to pray there and I'm going to tell that little girl that -- I'm going to tell her that it's time for her to meet her mommy and daddy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness.

Well, meantime, Kentucky's governor requesting federal disaster assistance. The town of West Liberty, one of the area's hardest hit -- and that is where Rob Marciano is this morning. He's joining us live.

And, Rob, I understand it is snowing where you are? Oh, my gosh.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Very much so. Yes. Take a look.

You know, talk about adding insult to injury. If this isn't any sort of indication or illustration of how two different air masses cause a tornado outbreak like this, here it is, because it was in the 70s just three days ago with tornadoes firing across this state and now it's snowing sideways and temperatures in the 20s. And it's piling up. The roads are slick and obviously this is going to hamper recovery efforts and cleanup efforts today as we go through time.

You know, over 100 tornado reports across the United States on Friday, 42 of those confirmed. That number will go up, as you mentioned, 39 fatalities. That number seems to continue to climb, 21 of those in the state of Kentucky.

Senator Mitch McConnell was out here yesterday. He said he hasn't seen anything remotely like this since 1974. The state certainly is reeling.

The tornado that came through on Friday was rated an EF-3 with win winds wind speeds of at least 130 miles an hour. And the problem with the storm, it was half a mile wide. Even some of the stronger storms in Indiana and Tennessee were more narrow, they had a more narrow path of destruction.

This was a half mile wide. It took out almost this entire town. There's 12,000 people that live here. And I haven't seen many buildings in this town that have been untouched.

You're looking over my shoulder. This is the mobile command center of the bank that's been here for 100 years. There's the main street, the municipal building. That's probably -- has done the best. It's all brick there. Just the windows are blown out.

But every other building in this town has seen major, major damage. Residents have not been allowed to come back. They thought they'd be allowed to come back yesterday. I'm not sure if they're going to be allowed to come back today.

A number of them are staying at our hotel about an hour away. And I spoke with them last night. They're all frustrated. They give me their phone number to call them.

SAMBOLIN: Oh my goodness.

MARCIANO: And check on their homes and give them updates.

It's so frustrating and sad. I don't have good news for them, because like I said, there haven't been many structures here that have gone untouched. You know, everything is either very, very much damaged, unlivable or completely destroyed.

SAMBOLIN: Wow. Rob, I can feel that frustration coming from you. Thank you very much for that report.

And then in our next hour, we'll talk with two tornado survivors from Henryville, Indiana. Julie Money (ph) and her brother, Terry Mock (ph). His home, take a look, was leveled by that storm.

BANFIELD: In just under six hours, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are going to meet face to face at the White House. The two leaders are pretty much off completely on how to handle Iran and its budding nuclear program. President Obama really wants the Israelis to hold off, exercise some restraint, let diplomacy work its way for a while.

Israelis are not so sure that's the idea. They say their window is closing, that diplomacy is great, but if your window closes and then you have no other options, you've got to act fast. That's how Netanyahu sees it anyway.

So, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee meeting was held yesterday. This is what was said in front of a very powerful organization. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of the regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and supports terrorist groups that is committed to Israel's destruction.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: I don't know if you could spot it in the backdrop, but there was a tight rope in there somewhere that the president was walking while addressing that organization.

And our Brianna Keilar joins us now live to talk more about this.

So, Brianna, get me up to speed with this mood between these two leaders. Normally, a pretty friendly relationship between them. But this is an ugly situation that's developing and they do not see eye to eye at all on the notion of a preemptive strike on Israel. Even though they kind of talk a little bit of talk the same, essentially they are nowhere near the same on the red line, are they?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They say their objectives are the same, Ashleigh, obviously to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon. But I think probably one of the best ways to describe the relationship would be to say that it is cordial and that's almost kind of, I guess you could say, speak for they get along because they have to get along.

This is a relationship -- Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama, they've met several times over the course of the presidents being in office. But there have been times where it has been extremely tense. There is obviously some mistrust but I also think you hear from both sides, these are huge allies, the U.S. and Israel. They do have the same objective here and they'll work towards that objective.

But oh, yes, this is kind of where you'd want to be the fly on the wall for sure, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: And while you hear the eloquent and profluent speeches from the campaign trail, you're definitely hearing the Republicans are having some fun with this one, at least they're finding fresh ground to mine. And they're pretty critical of what's going on.

KEILAR: This has been a huge issue for Republicans in general and also on the presidential campaign trail.

I mean, if you just open up the papers today, you look at "The Wall Street Journal" and editorial by Dan Senor saying that Mr. Obama should make it clear that he will do everything in his power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, and that he will stand by Israel if it must act.

You go to "USA Today," Mike Huckabee saying 70 years after the Holocaust, the U.S. cannot turn a blind eye to Iran, which is the focus of evil in the modern world. We must act soon or face the withering verdict of history.

They see this as a big opportunity -- Republicans do -- Ashleigh, because obviously, when you're looking at this in the context of an election year, normally, Jewish voters very much go for the Democrat for President Obama.

But this is such a toughly contested election year that even peeling off a few votes, we're seeing this in all kinds of voting demographics really could be the key. And this is something obviously Republicans know and President Obama is very sensitive to as he really tries. And we saw this yesterday when he addressed AIPAC to say the U.S. is strongly allied with Israel.

BANFIELD: All right. Well, more to come on this for sure. We'll be keeping a close eye on it. You are busy today.

KEILAR: Oh, yes.

BANFIELD: Keep working. Thank you, Brianna Keilar. Appreciate it.

And we're also minding your business there. We're just nosy buddies really. We're minding your business --

SAMBOLIN: We're doing our job.

BANFIELD: Right.

The U.S. markets are closing -- were closed slightly lower on Friday, in fact, if you were watching the bell.

SAMBOLIN: And stock futures pointing to a lower open this morning. European and Asian markets are down.

Christine Romans is here to explain why.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: China, China and China.

BANFIELD: Broken China?

ROMANS: That's a good banner. You'll be a good headline writer.

Look, China today, Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, the first time in eight years speaking to the national congress there saying to the peoples national congress saying, look, we're going to lower our growth target to 7.5 percent. That's still a lot growth. But that shows you that China is trying to focus on quality in its economy, not speed.

Chinese growth has been gangbusters for 30 years. At least double digit, mostly double digit growth in China's economy over the past 30 years. They're trying to slow it down just a little bit, rein it in, focus on quality over just speed there. This pertains to commodities -- metals, stocks, anything you can think of in financial markets will be affected by this.

I want to show you quickly how China compares with the rest of the world because China is the driver. U.S. growth this year is forecast at 2 percent. E.U. growth this year is forecast at nothing.

SAMBOLIN: Wow.

ROMANS: Nothing.

That's painful. Zero is painful. Europe still has a lot of work to do.

China, even with a slower growth target if they can actually manage to slow it down, 7.5 percent.

I want to real quickly focus on another thing, too -- military spending. The Chinese are boosting military spending by 11 percent, still a fraction of what the U.S. spends. But this is after this pivot by the U.S. to focus more on the Pacific Rim area, China is responding by spending more money on its military. That's something that bears watching, too.

BANFIELD: All right. The growth number, when you're saying it's still alive, I was trying to do the number in my head to what our growth is. How does that compare?

ROMANS: It's about 2 percent for us. Zero percent for the E.U.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: And gas prices came out, they're up again, surprise, surprise. But zero percent, 2 percent.

BANFIELD: Did you see me over here? I'm sure she's talking.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANS: I forgive you. I forgive you. Since I've never done that in my life.

SAMBOLIN: Christine, thank you.

BANFIELD: Appreciate it.

SAMBOLIN: All right. It is 16 minutes past the hour here, 16 minutes past the hour. Time to check stories making news this morning. It's look like it's 60 there.

So, 10 states and 437 critical delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday tomorrow. A new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows Mitt Romney gaining support from likely Republican voters and conservatives.

And that fast-moving tornadoes that hit on Friday killing 39 people in five states. The latest victim, this little girl -- an Indiana toddler who had become a symbol of hope, little angel. She survived after being thrown into a field 100 yards from her home. Her whole family was wiped out.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes face to face with President Obama at the White House this morning. The two leaders will discuss Iran and its nuclear program, with the president expected to urge Israel to use restraint.

BANFIELD: A tragic ending to the search for a 4-year-old boy in New Mexico. His body was found on Sunday morning at the bottom of a 30-foot deep hole. That was in his neighbor's backyard. An AMBER Alert had been issued to are that boy the night before.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the demilitarized zone for the very first time since taking control of that country last December. The visit comes amid threats of a, quote, "sacred war with South Korea over join the military drills with the United States."

And this just in. (INAUDIBLE) with Christine Romans. I was looking up the numbers, folks. And I got them for you.

Here you go. So, gas is up again, rising for 27 days straight. Your new national average for a gallon of gas is $3.77. It's up a fraction of a cent. In fact, 0.3 cent in the last 24 hours.

AAA just posted it on the Web site, again, why I was reading, instead of listening to Christine. And we're getting uncomfortably close to that magic, awful number, which is $4 a gallon, you know, gas, which exists in a few places but not ubiquitously. And that's something that really makes people curve their behavior.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, I have yet to find a place that sells at $3.90. So, it's tough.

BANFIELD: Especially if you got an SUV. I know. Folks out there trying not to drive as much, but there's only so much when you have to get to work.

SAMBOLIN: And you're car pooling.

BANFIELD: Yes. Take a train.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. Well, when you have kids and you're taking them to games, it's complicated to do that.

BANFIELD: Can't do that.

SAMBOLIN: Eighteen minutes past the hour.

Still to come on EARLY START: did you see this? A tearful Vladimir Putin. He is declaring victory in Russian elections. The opponents are really furious. They are alleging massive fraud and they're planning a protest rally in Moscow a little later.

BANFIELD: And Rush Limbaugh, rush to judgment or is he really an idiot for saying what he said on the air?

I don't know. This one's a real tough one, ain't it? Most people pretty much agree, you just shouldn't call women sluts no matter what. Oh, please, Rush, really? Good luck with those advertisers.

Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is 5:22 in the morning.

He's the president. He's the prime minister. He's the president again. Vladimir Putin claiming victory again in Russia's presidential again.

SAMBOLIN: He's tearing up at the election rally. Did you see that? He'll give up his jobs as prime minister and he appears to be headed for a third term as president.

Opposition is insisting that he won by massive fraud, intimidation, ballot box stuffing, all sorts of allegations there. They also have a protest rally and that is planned for today.

So, let's check in with Phil Black. He is live in Moscow.

So, Vladimir Putin is saying we won in an open and honest battle. Can you tell us what's going on?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Zoraida, that is indeed what he's saying. He is claiming it is an open and honest battle. And as you say, he was very emotional as he declared victory before a huge crowd of supporters here in Moscow last night. Those were definitely tears.

As for the cause, well, Putin says it was the cold wind, not an overwhelming sense of emotion. So, the strong man of Russian politics isn't prepared to have the public counts as the possibility that he does have a softer side up at this stage. But he is saying that it was a good win, a strong win, an honest win.

But as you say, that is very much being contested by his opponents, by the growing opposition movement that is being protested on the streets of Moscow and other cities in recent months. They very much believe that there was significant fraud involved in this election.

SAMBOLIN: They also believe that he will not be able to rule like he used to. We understand there are some protests planned. Can you tell us about that?

BLACK: Yes. This is really the big question now. What happens next? How do the Russian people -- particularly those who have been so openly displaying their dislike for this man, how do they respond to this election result?

There is a rally planned for Moscow this evening by that opposition protest movement. This will be the first real test of the momentum of that movement which has grown from almost nothing three months ago to a very significant, regular protest force where they do get tens of thousands of people on to the streets.

So, as I say, the question now is, will the Russian people, in particular those people who live in the cities and are dissatisfied with Putin's leadership, will they just simply accept the new reality that's back or they continue to oppose and challenge his continued leadership of this country, Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. We'll continue to check in with you.

Phil Black, live for us in Moscow -- thank you very much.

BANFIELD: You know, I'm going to be honest. I agree with Phil there, that it's a good possibility that Putin was not crying, that he was actually tearing because of the wind because I grew up in Winnipeg and at the beginning of March outside in the evening --

SAMBOLIN: The cold makes you cry?

BANFIELD: Yes. The first thing I thought was, it looks cold, not oh, look at him, he's all emotional. First thing I thought. And then I read all the accounts, all the wire accounts that he was tearing up in emotion -- I thought, nah, he was cold. Yes, yes, rookies. You have to spend some time in the cold prairies for a while.

SAMBOLIN: You got Chicago wind, right, it gets biting sometimes when it's slapping against your face.

BANFIELD: Exactly.

SAMBOLIN: Believable, I suppose.

BANFIELD: Twenty-five minutes past 5:00 now. There is a student who's gone missing at the University of Wisconsin. And it is a bit of a mystery, folks. He celebrated his 21st birthday at a local bar and then -- gone.

So what's the story here? We'll talk to unravel this mystery.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: It is 28 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

We are very happy you're with us. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

It's time to check the stories making top headlines this morning.

Mitt Romney climbing in the polls on the eve of Super Tuesday. A new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows Romney nearly doubling his support among conservatives and that is just since January.

And the focus is now turning to recovery and cleanup after last week's tornado devastation in the South and Midwest. Kentucky's governor is requesting federal disaster declaration, describing West Liberty -- that's a town where Rob Marciano is -- describing it as a war zone.

President Obama telling Jewish leaders he, quote, "has Israel's back" as he prepares for face-to-face talks at the White House this morning with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president is expected to urge Bibi to use restrain when dealing with Iran and the nuclear program in that country.

SAMBOLIN: And this morning, police will resume their search for a missing University of Wisconsin college student. Eric Duffey was last seen celebrating his 21st birthday with friends at a bar in Stevens Point. That was early Saturday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, go!

SAMBOLIN: Get ready to mush. The 40th Annual Iditarod Dogsled Race took off from Willow, Alaska. The nearly 1,000-mile race is a grueling test of endurance that lasts more than a week. Sixty-six teams are racing to get to the finish line in Nome.

BANFIELD: I love that every year. Ever done it?

SAMBOLIN: No. I have not. Talk about crying while you're being pulled by the dogs in the cold.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: That's how I used to get to school every day, uphill on the way there, uphill on the way back.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Go, go, go, mush. I love that story. All right. So, welcome to March Madness. I like to call it Republican-style.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, yes.

BANFIELD: If the poll numbers are right, Mitt Romney is looking pretty good. Looking pretty Mitt-ish on the eve of Super Tuesday. So, can he deliver what he needs to deliver to do that knockout punch and end this thing once and for all? The poll certainly showed that he's got the mojo, got the momentum. NBC News/"Wall Street Journal's" latest poll has the numbers this way.

Romney coming in at 38 percent of the vote, Santorum well and behind out by that margin at 32 percent of the vote, and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul both coming in with 13 percent apiece. But if you break it down into Ohio, which is the big old critical bellwether state and the one -- oh, I don't know that stat, everybody's want it if they're going to be president. You can't lose it. It's a dead heat statistically speaking, anyway.

Again, the NBC News Marist Poll says that Rick Santorum has about a two-point lead over Mitt Romney, but that is, again, a four-point margin of error. So, what does it mean, all that math? Live from Chicago is conservative commentator, Lenny McAllister, also, here in New York, Dean Obeidallah who's a contributor to CNN.com, and live from Washington, Joe Williams who is a White House reporter for Politico.

Lenny, let me start with you. I've been watching these numbers contract, slowly but surely, all those big wide gaps that Mitt Romney has probably been sweating over as he gets to every contest, they get tighter and tighter. I don't get it. What is it exactly that he's been doing or other people have been doing to contract those numbers for him?

LENNY MCALLISTER, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: Well, everybody else had an opportunity to be a frontrunner, and everybody else has fumbled while they've been a frontrunner. The latest casualty to that has been Rick Santorum with the race going into Arizona and Michigan.

At this point in time, it seems as though conservatives are finally starting to say to themselves, it looks as though it's going to be Mitt Romney. So, where you've seen Rick Santorum had these big leads in Ohio, previously in Michigan and the like, they're starting to contract. And the closer these races get, the more the advantage goes to Romney, because again, he does have the structure, he does the have money, and he has been running for president since pretty much 2006.

This is when it starts playing to his advantage to have the establishment behind him and the money available to be able to win these close races. If he wins a close race in Ohio, and he can couple that with some good showings in the south, he's going to be well on his way moving forward.

It looks like really look at Ohio, but we also have to see, what does he do in Oklahoma? What does he do in Tennessee? How does he look, even if he doesn't win, if he's a respectable second place, he's going to be well on his way moving into April.

BANFIELD: So, one of the things that we have to do here as good reporters is learn the election system. This should be a master's program, honestly, that the briefing book on each of the races and all the rules and how they allot the delegates, because it does change, as Paul Steinhauser said, every four years.

And back in, I think it was 2010, the RNC got together and jiggered with the rules a little to suggest that people who have the (ph) contest have to allot things proportionately. Not the big old swath of winner takes all. Some people said great idea, that helps, you know, that helps, you know, protract the race a little longer, get other states involve, but Chris Christie had this to say about the idea. Are you ready?

And I will quote him directly, "This is the dumbest any idea anybody ever had. Make ours longer so we can beat each other up longer?" So, here's my question for you, Joe. Is that really what's happening? This races now more protracted because of the proportional allotment of the delegates and it's a bad thing?

JOE WILLIAMS, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: Well, it's what's happening in part. Basically, the RNC changed the rules because they wanted to have an epic battle like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John Edwards to an extent had in 2008. Generally, they had a lot of interest, got a lot of new voters involved in the process.

They wanted a repeat of that scenario. Instead, what they got is almost like an endless poker game where guys sitting around the table, even the loser keeps getting chips fed to him by the Super PACs, basically, not encouraging them to get out of the race, encouraging them to stay on so they're in a sense victims of their own decision to protract the rules and try to generate some interest, because you can't land a haymaker or a knockout blow. Yes, Mitt Romney is in a very, very good position right now. His poll numbers are taking out. He's looking to gain some momentum heading into Super Tuesday. The problem there is the proportionate system.

Even though Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich probably are not going to finish as strongly as Romney will on Tuesday, Gingrich can take a big win in Georgia, grab a lot of delegates there. Santorum can still keep phasing the race by collecting some, although not at as quite the big rate as Romney does.

BANFIELD: So, I'm curious as to the results of this ABC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll when people where ask, you know, give me a word or two about what you think about the Republican race, and I want to read some of the words that people came up with, the ones we could put on TV. Looky, unenthusiastic, discouraged, lesser of two evils, painful, poor choices, uninspiring, depressed.

Holy moly, Dean Obeidallah, I don't know if maybe Chris Christie had a good idea by suggesting that this was really stupid to protract the race or if this is the only way to get all other states involved in the race?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH, CNN.COM CONTRIBUTOR: I'm not sure. I mean, Chris Christie is always interesting and funny. And I'm from Jersey originally, so I think he's -- I find him interesting at all times. You have Super PACs, you have Super Tuesdays. What you don't have are super candidates on the Republican side, and that's the problem.

I mean, there is an enthusiasm gap with Mitt Romney. They might be coalescing a little bit, but voting is not enough to win the presidency. Anyone who's worked on a campaign can tell you. You need people to be excited, call people up, tell them to vote, drive them to the polls, you know, give campaign tough of issues (ph).

Romney has got to do something to build excitement, maybe wear a Jeremy Lin shirt, maybe date a Kardashian. Do something. Something to get people excited on him. That's the problem. They might hold their nose. He reminds me of John Kerry, frankly, in 2004. They're starting to build around him, but there's no excitement or enthusiasm. We saw that --

BANFIELD: Maybe what he can do is say, you know what, vote for me because I'd only lose to President Obama by six points, and the other guys would lose by eight points, 14 points and 17 points if you go down the line. That was one of the latest polls, too. I got to cut it there, guys. Thanks very much.

OBEIDALLAH: Thanks, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Also, at 7:00 this morning on STARTING POINT 7:00 with Soledad O'Brien, she's going to speak to House majority leader, Eric Cantor. He put his weight behind Mitt Romney. So, what does that endorsement do for Romney and why did he do it?

At 8:00 a.m., Soledad also going to go one-on-one with another Romney supporter, 2008 GOP nominee, John McCain. So, make sure you tune in for the one-on-one senator.

And at 8:30 on "Starting Point" also, she is busy. Soledad goes one-on-one with Newt Gingrich, too. So, she's going to be very. I think there'll be some headlines coming out of these interviews. Make sure you stay tune.

Our Super Tuesday coverage begins at 6:00 p.m. eastern tomorrow evening. A special edition of "John King, USA" is followed by the primary results coverage with best political team on TV. It begins at seven o'clock eastern, and we will be right back.

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BANFIELD: So, did you hear the one about Rush Limbaugh?

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness.

BANFIELD: Should I keep it clean?

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: You should.

BANFIELD: Here's the deal. I can't keep it clean, because I cannot report on the story without saying something that probably shouldn't be said on TV, slut. That is what Rush Limbaugh deemed appropriate when referring to an adversary in an argument, in a debate, over contraception and whether it should be covered.

And the advertisers who spend money on his show are dropping like flies, folks, even after he decided to put out an apology days later. It all had to do with Sandra Fluke. She appeared on Capitol Hill. She talked about coverage and contraception, and he said she's a slut for doing so.

SAMBOLIN: Seven sponsors have now pulled business from Rush Limbaugh's radio show in response to his three-day rant against Georgetown student Fluke because she wants insurance companies to cover contraception. As you said, here's just some of what Limbaugh said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, TALK RADIO HOST: What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke who goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex. What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Fluke is her name. So, Limbaugh released a written apology over the weekend saying in part, "My choice of words was not the best."

BANFIELD: Really? Not the best? Really. SAMBOLIN: No, listen to this, "In an attempt to be humorous -- "

BANFIELD: Funny, funny.

SAMBOLIN: -- "I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Miss Fluke for the insulting word choices."

BANFIELD: Yes. There was a whole bunch of stuff in the middle of that apology that had a big but where he said I still think this is the argument I want to make, which is fine, Rush Limbaugh. Make your argument. You can agree or disagree on contraception. That's not the issue here, my friend. The issue is, you cannot call women you disagree with sluts or prostitutes.

I was called a slut by Michael Savage, a conservative radio talk show host. Laura Ingram has been called a slut by another conservative, Ed Schultz, on MSNBC. By the way, I was also called a slut on MSNBC, and it ends now. Cut it out! It's not appropriate. It's disgusting.

SAMBOLIN: A lot of people are wondering if this will be, you know, the demise of Rush Limbaugh, and a lot of folks saying, you know what, this wasn't a funny moment, right?

BANFIELD: Not at all.

SAMBOLIN: How could you possibly call this funny? I think that's what catches me more and losing his sponsors. Ron Paul said the only reason that he apologized is because he's losing sponsors. And he's down to seven sponsors that he has lost. And I want to read the statement from one of them, because this is why one of the sponsors actually walked away, Carbonite CEO, David Friend.

He says, "no one with daughters the age of Sandra Fluke, and I have two, could possibly abide the insult and abuse heaped upon this courageous and well intentioned young lady. Mr. Limbaugh with his personal attacks on her overstepped any reasonable bounds of decency."

BANFIELD: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: This is kind of the way that, you know, you affect change, right?

BANFIELD: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: Lose your sponsors.

BANFIELD: And it's just -- it's unbelievable what these men think they can get away with. Please, are you kidding me? I was called a slut because I was doing coverage in the Middle East. And apparently, Michael Savage didn't like giving the voice to some of the Arab instigators in the Middle East, and that made me a slut. I mean, come on! What does it take? What year is this, Limbaugh? Shut your cake hole, please.

SAMBOLIN: Losing sponsors. BANFIELD: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: Perhaps, that will be it.

BANFIELD: Woop, woop. OK. So, I think I said my peace on this one. Boy, was that opinionated?

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Forty-four minutes past five o'clock. Coming up on EARLY START, Dan Aykroyd on fellow Blues Brother, John Belushi 30 years since his death. A sneak peek at a "Showbiz Tonight" exclusive. You're watching EARLY START.

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SAMBOLIN: It is 48 minutes past the hour. Time to check the stories that are making news this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD (voice-over): Countdown to Super Tuesday. Ten states, 419 delegates at stake tomorrow night. It's a big one, folks. The new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" national poll has Mitt Romney opening a six-point lead over Rick Santorum among likely Republican primary voters.

And that rash of tornados that raked five states now blamed for 39 deaths, including a 14-month-old baby who had briefly survived, being catapulted from her home, discovered in a field. The tornado killed her entire family in Indiana. Kentucky's governor says the damage in his state is the worst that he has ever seen.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Vladimir Putin headed for his third term as Russia's president, declaring victory with 64 percent of the vote. Putin's opposition claiming he rigged the win through fraud and intimidation. Protests are scheduled for today.

SAMBOLIN: Thirty years ago today, comic legend, John Belushi, died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin. Fellow Blues Brother, Dan Aykroyd spoke exclusively to HLN "Showbiz Tonight," saying if his friend was still alive, he'd be a leading light on Broadway.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN AYKROYD, ACTOR/COMEDIAN: He would be directing plays in New York City. He would be there with the leading lights of theater avant-garde in traditional. He would be directing plays and musicals. He would be one of the premiere director/producers on Broadway. That would have been his destiny, because he was so intelligent and so well referenced there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Belushi's body was discovered on March 5th, 1982 in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. You can watch the entire exclusive interview on "Showbiz Tonight" on Headline News. That is 11:00 p.m. eastern and pacific.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD (voice-over): A.J. Hammer does such a great job with this interview. He always gets the big ones.

Still ahead, by the way, at 5:50 in the morning on the east coast, Prince Harry on a royal tour on behalf of his grandma. He's in the Bahamas wowing the crowd. The next stop, I'm not sure it's going to be as friendly. It's the Jamaican prime minister he needs to woo next, and that person wants no part of the British monarchy. You're watching EARLY START.

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BANFIELD: OK. This is supposed to be the easy part of the job, but it turns out it may not be much of a picnic. It's a diplomatic test for Britain's Prince Harry. He's going to head to Jamaica a little bit later on today. It's all part of this like Caribbean tour, you know, meeting all the folks in the, well, former colonies and now in the commonwealth.

And he's meeting with the Jamaican prime minister who says she wants to remove the queen of England as Jamaica's head of state.

SAMBOLIN: So, Prince Harry on this diamond jubilee tour of the Caribbean to celebrate the queen's 60th year on the throne. Right now, as Ashleigh said, he is in the Bahamas having all sorts of fun, we understand. CNN royal correspondent, Max Foster, is live in the Bahamas. Talk to us a little bit about what he is doing on this trip, and then, we'll talk about this little diplomatic mission he, perhaps, could be on.

MAX FOSTER, CNN ROYAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's going to be a big test for Prince Harry, this whole visit. (INAUDIBLE) he's hurdling around at break neck speed. He arrived in Belize over the weekend, and it was a big test to see really how they'd accept him. He went into the street party which was organized for him, and he just threw himself in.

And that's what endeared him, really, to the crowds there. He started drinking the local drinks and then threw himself into a dancing session. The crowds just loved this. And then, the next day, he toured (ph) an ancient Mayan temple, took in incredible views, and then, after that, he headed to (INAUDIBLE) sort of Bahamas. This was an island that Princess Diana loved.

They honeymooned here, Diana and Prince Charles. So, it was a personal visit. And he visited an island (ph) and was shown around by India Hicks, one of Princess Diana's bridesmaids. And other says (ph) how he'd be accepted here? And I have to say, the scenes we have here were quite incredible.

I mean, the island went absolutely wild for him. And, it was a great success, really, but it was so successful, he was pulled out after ten minutes because there was just too many people there. SAMBOLIN: Well, you know, we know that he's there celebrating the diamond jubilee, but he's having a meeting with Jamaica's prime minister as well. Can you tell us about that?

FOSTER: Yes, this is significant because since the visit was announced to Jamaica, the prime minister was voted in, and she said that she wanted to get rid of the monarchy, the link to the monarchy. So, the queen of Britain is the queen of Belize, the Bahamas, and also Jamaica. And they want to break this link, think it doesn't make any sense. There's all sorts of associations between the British and colonies and slavery.

So, we're going to see how he does that. Can he win Jamaica around or will Jamaica just decide as they did with Kate and William in Canada, in Quebec, that actually they're anti-monarchy but they like Harry as a celebrity-type figure.

SAMBOLIN: All right. CNN royal correspondent, Max Foster, thank you for joining us this morning.

BANFIELD: It is 56 minutes now past 5:00 on the east coast.

And just ahead on EARLY START, 39 now the death toll from last week's five-state killer tornadoes. Coming up in just a moment, out of these pictures, a remarkable story, a brother and a sister who are alive but lost just about everything.

SAMBOLIN: And it is countdown to Super Tuesday. Good news and bad news for Mitt Romney. He's pulling away from his GOP rivals but not President Obama. We're breaking down all those numbers for you this morning. You are watching EARLY START.

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