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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Super Tuesday in Two Hours; Limbaugh "Slut" Controversy; No Tornado Warning; NFL's 'Hits-For-Cash' Bounty Scandal

Aired March 6, 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 morning to you. It is EARLY START, which means it's early. That's all I'm going to say.

Hi. I'm Ashleigh Banfield, everybody.

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., which is what she's alluding to, in the East here. So, let's get started for you.

BANFIELD: Happy Super Tuesday, folks. It is that day where we all wait with baited breath. Well, kind of, anyway. But the polls will open in about two hours.

And it's super because there are more delegates at stake today than we have seen all the way along the race until now.

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are really duking it out for this one. And in Ohio, the big kahuna, they are neck and neck in the polls.

SAMBOLIN: It maybe a super late night as well.

So, Rush Limbaugh apologizing again for calling law student Sandra Fluke a slut. We understand more sponsors are bailing now. We have 15 and counting. The stations are also starting to yank his show.

And I've got to tell you, we found a guy, an editor and publisher who's been following Limbaugh for quite a bit of time, who says that that apology was sincere and he's going to tell us why he thinks so.

BANFIELD: Because the sponsors are bailing.

SAMBOLIN: That's not what he said. It will be interesting.

BANFIELD: Another story. This is one of those ones that gets you to shake your head -- because NFL players are admitting they put together big buckets of cash to pay each other to really take out other team members. They're so-called bounties. And it happened to some of the league's biggest names too.

And the investigation is going from locker room to locker room. We'll fill you in.

SAMBOLIN: I can't wait to see what the league is going to do about this.

And slipping and sliding away. Drivers -- oh, my goodness. That's a big slip slide. Did you look at that?

You know what that is? Those are the effects of black ice. Makes you end up in ditches.

You don't see this. You don't see black ice. You have no idea the conditions are so bad.

That is wreaking havoc across the Midwest. We're going to have an update on that for you.

BANFIELD: And you do not want to be the camera man who's standing right there in the path.

SAMBOLIN: Holy frijoles.

BANFIELD: I've never heard that one before, in deference to you my Latina friend.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: Frijoles.

BANFIELD: You're better at that than I am.

All right, folks. Two minutes past 5:00 in the morning, which means it is the start of our big Super Tuesday show. It's the final countdown, folks, to the start of the big day. Voting begins two hours, 10 states, and 419 delegates up for grabs.

And, of course, we all talk about Ohio. It's the big prize, and not mentality. It's got a lot of delegates.

And there's a brand-new CNN/ORC poll out that shows Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are in a dead heat. Not even just a statistical dead heat, a real dead heat, 32-32.

SAMBOLIN: And both of the candidates are looking for last- minute votes in Ohio. That was yesterday. Romney is telling supporters, "If I win Ohio, I win the nomination."

Santorum and Newt Gingrich are trying to stop that from happening.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He will be the weakest candidate we can possibly put forward on the most important issue of today.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He can't close the deal. And he can't close the deal in part because people inherently don't trust what he's saying and think that he is isn't always very candid with them and sometimes frankly isn't straight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: It will be interesting to see what happens.

Political editor Paul Steinhauser is live from Mount St. Joseph, Ohio.

I understand you have a breakdown of some of those states for us. And then I got some questions for you.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Why don't we start with Ohio? That's where -- we beat everybody. We beat the rush here. As you can see, we're at a polling station in Hamilton County, just west of Cincinnati. This is pretty conservative country here.

Polls open a little later. It's just me right now and our camera man Dave Rush and Scott Barber (ph), our engineer. It will get more crowded later.

Yes, Ohio, so important, Ashleigh. It's a battleground state in the general election. But it's also really pivotal here on Super Tuesday. Why? Because of the blue collar vote, because of the Catholic vote, because in the state, it's open primary, which means Republicans can vote in the GOP contest, so can independents, so can Democrats.

Rick Santorum wants to win here because he's been trying to appeal to blue collar voters. He's from neighboring Pennsylvania. Mitt Romney really wants to win this state. If you turn on the TV, you see a lot of Romney commercials, Romney and that independent super PACs supporting him have been flooding the airwaves.

But there are other important states as well. Tennessee, a crucial Southern state. You've got 55 delegates up for stake there. A lot of evangelical voters, conservative voters.

Polls indicate Santorum with a slight edge. But you know what? His big lead seems to have disappeared.

And also let's talk about Georgia, that's got the most of all at stake today, 76. That's an important state for whom, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who represented the 6th congressional district there for 20 years. He said, I've got to win Georgia, if I'm going to keep in.

The polls indicate he will. Our poll, our CNN/ORC poll that came out yesterday had him with a 20-point margin -- Ashleigh.

SAMBOLIN: It's Zoraida. Listen, that CNN/ORC poll --

STEINHAUSER: Sorry.

SAMBOLIN: Don't worry about it. It says that Romney is winning Catholics but it's an 8 percent sampling error. Is that really a win there? What can you tell me about those numbers?

STEINHAUSER: Yes, it's a very slight advantage there. So, I think it can go either way.

But it's interesting. Remember, they had a lot of the Catholic vote in Michigan. According to the exit polls, in Michigan, Mitt Romney won even though he is the Mormon candidate. And, of course, Santorum is Catholic.

So, that's why we're paying close attention to the Catholic vote here in Ohio as well. In both states, it's a pretty sizable population. And it could be crucial. But there are a lot of voters as well, and we're going to keep our eyes on today -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: I know. There are a lot. But Romney, we went in to you saying that Romney is saying, "If I win Ohio, I win the nomination."

STEINHAUSER: It is an important state. It is so important because of its symbolism as a big battleground state in the general election.

So, yes, if Romney wins here and the momentum seems to be going his way, remember, it was just a week or two ago that Romney had a double digit lead here in Ohio. Now, CNN's poll, one of five over the last few days, shows it's all tied up here in Ohio.

But Romney also needs to do well in the South. He needs to do well in Tennessee and a few other states to show he can win in that region. And if he does all this, he puts some daylight between himself and the other candidates. But if not, this race goes on for a long time -- Ashleigh and Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Paul Steinhauser, live for us in Ohio -- thank you very much.

BANFIELD: And, of course, we are all --

STEINHAUSER: Thank you.

BANFIELD: -- thinking about jobs and housing as we move towards the general election. Certainly in the primaries, too. Two issues certainly that voters today at Super Tuesday are going to be taking as well.

SAMBOLIN: And Christine is at the data wall this morning for us, looking at the health of the economy in the Super Tuesday states.

What are you finding, Christine?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, ladies.

And we know from a lot of the exit polling so far from other states that it is housing and it is jobs that really affect voters the most. Where you live and how you pay the bills.

So, let's look at Super Tuesday states and let's start with jobs. This is what it looks like for unemployment rates in the six of the 10 Super Tuesday states. The jobless rate is lower today than when the president took office, lower today. Alaska, Massachusetts -- look at North Dakota, very low for sometime -- Ohio, Tennessee, and Vermont.

In battleground Ohio, the state -- this is at the end of 2011. The rate is down 7.9 percent but it's still an uncomfortable level here. A half a million people in Ohio are still out of work.

In Tennessee, the rate is above the national average which remains pretty high at 8.3 percent.

I want to take a look here at some of the place where -- Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, Virginia, candidates can rightfully say there that the unemployment rate has risen since Obama stepped into the White House.

In Gingrich's home state of Georgia, 9.4 percent at the end of the year. In 2010, that state's jobless rate spiked to an all-time of 10.5.

In Idaho, in Oklahoma, in other states here, you have higher rates today than when the president took office.

But in Oklahoma and Virginia, higher than when Obama took office, but still better than the national average.

Let's move on to housing because this is incredible important. If you're under water on your loan, it means you owe more on your house than it's even worth. Super Tuesday states have some of the highest rates of under water mortgages in the country.

Take a look at Georgia -- 33 percent of people who have a loan in Georgia are under water. Isn't that incredible?

Ohio, 25 percent. Virginia, 23 percent. The national average is about 22 percent, according to Core Logic. So, in these states, people have higher than the national average.

I want to look at Ohio quickly where it's 24 percent. Ohio is almost a proxy really for what the GOP nominee faces in November. Why? Because voters can either focus on how bad it got, and it got bad in Ohio -- or they can focus on how things are improving. And the numbers are improving there.

So, that's what's going to prove to be so interesting politically about what happens today, ladies.

BANFIELD: All right. Christine Romans, thanks very much. Those numbers are amazing. Georgia and North Dakota.

ROMANS: I know.

BANFIELD: Polar opposites.

ROMANS: North Dakota is making a ton of money and natural resources, we'll have to say. In North Dakota, companies there are working aggressively to hire people, 3.3 percent.

BANFIELD: Can you imagine? Wow.

SAMBOLIN: Fantastic.

BANFIELD: And you know what? I lived right above there. It isn't so bad. Apart from that October, November, December, January, February, March, which is really cold --

SAMBOLIN: It's ideal.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: And I love North Dakota.

All right. Christine, thank you.

I want to remind our viewers that 7:00 Eastern on "STARTING POINT" with Soledad, she's going to be joined by Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He's a big Romney supporter. See what he has to say about Super Tuesday.

Also, Congressman Allen West of Florida, freshman Tea Party member, who is being pushed by Sarah Palin as a possible V.P. candidate. She's going to talk to him as well and ask him why he hasn't made an endorsement of anybody as of yet.

And CNN's Super Tuesday coverage begins tonight at 6:00 p.m. Eastern, with special edition of "JOHN KING, USA," immediately followed by the primary results coverage of "The Best Political Team on Television" at 7:00 p.m.

And also, for complete Super Tuesday results, join us tomorrow a little earlier than usual. We're going to jump on the air at 4:00 a.m. Eastern Time tomorrow morning for EARLY START. It's an early start to EARLY START. You cannot forget that -- a very early start for EARLY START. We'll get you all up to speed.

The race may not over by then.

SAMBOLIN: Maybe, yes. A late night in politics. We will join you early.

And this is interesting time, meanwhile. President Obama not letting the GOP grab all the headlines. The White House said he will hold his first formal news conference of the year. And it comes one day after he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And that conference is live at 1:15 Eastern. It is on CNN and CNN.com/live, if you want to catch it.

BANFIELD: Also, speaking of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he's going to spend the morning meeting with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. Obviously, he's got a lot to discuss with them about the tension that's been going on and a little evident in the White House. Look at the body language there.

So, he met with President Obama yesterday. And the president had to say publicly, quote, "The United States will always have Israel's back." But that doesn't mean they agree on how to deal with this burgeoning issue of Iran and its nuclear program and development as such.

This has been a real sticking point between these two leaders. The president is encouraging Israel to exercise restraint and maybe give peace a chance. At least give sanctions and diplomacy a chance.

But Benjamin Netanyahu has a bit of a different spoke (ph) here. He was speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last night and says, basically, those sanctions you think might work, they're not.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: With nuclear weapons, Iran could threaten all of us with nuclear terrorism. It could put a nuclear device in a ship heading to any port or in a truck parked in any city anywhere in the world. For the sake of our prosperity, for the sake of our security, for the sake of our children, Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: He makes a pretty powerful argument.

But on the other side, Iranians say Israel probably has nuclear weapons while they don't admit to it. And, of course, wouldn't you know it, the GOP candidates weighing in. Did you think that was a surprise?

SAMBOLIN: No.

BANFIELD: Mitt Romney writing an op-ed on "The Washington Post" today, in fact, saying that, quote, :"While Obama frets in the White House, the Iranians are making rapid progress towards obtaining the most destructive weapons in the history of the world." Strong words on the stump.

SAMBOLIN: And it's 12 minutes past the hour here.

Two radio stations are now pulling the plug on Rush Limbaugh's program. Did you hear about this?

BANFIELD: Big surprise.

SAMBOLIN: KPUA in Hawaii and WBEC in Massachusetts. That's in reaction to three days now of those offensive rants against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke for her testimony on contraception.

You know, Limbaugh called her a slut and a prostitute. We played a little bit of it for you yesterday. Now, 12 advertisers pulled their business.

BANFIELD: Those are big names.

SAMBOLIN: They are big names.

BANFIELD: Look at those.

SAMBOLIN: And, you know, he should have written an apology. He told his radio listeners Monday that his apology was sincere. But that was before taking a jab at liberals.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I, again, sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for using those two words to describe her.

I descended to their level when I used those two words to describe Sandra Fluke. That was my error. I became like them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Two words.

BANFIELD: There were more words than just two words.

SAMBOLIN: I think you made a really good point. You said get her name right.

BANFIELD: Yes, get her name for starters. That would be smart.

But again, there were more than two words. He didn't just call her a slut and prostitute. He said put your sexual exploits online so we can all watch. There's more it than that.

(CROSSTALK)

SAMBOLIN: -- watch what he says.

So, his target Sandra Fluke said his statement doesn't change anything and there are a lot of prominent political voices weighing in as well. Everybody has an opinion on this one.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann on CNN's "PIERS MORGAN" and David Axelrod on "A.C. 360". Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: I have gone through myself and experienced more things said about me and I have never seen this level of outrage on the left about left-leaning commentators said about me.

No, really. I mean, honestly. If you're a conservative woman, it seems like there is no level of vitriol that's beyond the pale.

DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA CAMPAIGN CHIEF STRATEGIST: There's been a coarsening of our politics from left to right. I don't excuse anybody's inappropriate and vile language, whether it's aimed at someone on the left, right, middle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: You know, I've got to tell you, I put this out to Facebook yesterday to see how the general public was feeling about this. There's only one person who supported Rush Limbaugh. One.

BANFIELD: Yes. I have an e-mail from somebody named Michelle who said, what's your problem? Your outrage is famed. Didn't you have an issue with Bill Maher as he called conservative all sorts of -- conservative women all sorts of name.

But if you're watching, Michelle, I'm not sure if you noticed yesterday that I also brought up Ed Schultz who had a filthy way of describing Laura Ingraham, who is a conservative woman. He also called her a slut. And so, equal opportunity offender. No, it has nothing to do, nothing to do with --

(CROSSTALK)

SAMBOLIN: Using that word regardless.

BANFIELD: Yes. I don't care what party you belong to. I just don't think that's appropriate to take a political hit at somebody by calling them that name.

SAMBOLIN: Well, we're going to have somebody weigh in on this, who believes that this was an absolutely sincere apology and it had nothing to do with the advertisers pulling their money out. So we'll have that coming up for you at the 6:00 a.m. hour.

BANFIELD: Yes.

But right now, it's 15 minutes past 5:00 on the East Coast. Time to get you caught up on top stories this morning. It's a very -- well, actually, only half of Super Tuesday, half as super as it used to be, anyway.

But nonetheless, 419 delegates up for grabs in 10 states today. So it's a big day. Ohio is a big prize.

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are campaigning in the Buckeye State. In fact, yesterday, they were making last minute appeals to voters. And it looks like every vote could really matter. It could be a real squeaker.

According to a brand-new CNN/ORC poll, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are in a dead heat in Ohio. And not a statistic one, folks. Look at your screen -- 32 percent apiece.

In the meantime, the president of our country is speaking on Super Tuesday. The White House says that President Obama is going to hold his first news conference of the year today.

SAMBOLIN: Timing.

BANFIELD: I know. Isn't it everything?

SAMBOLIN: It is good timing.

BANFIELD: CNN is going to carry that live at 1:15 Eastern Time.

And Syrian forces are stepping up attacks on civilians throughout that country. There are reports of explosions and gunfire in the capital city of Damascus, just happening overnight. Hundreds of Syrian refugees crossing the border into Lebanon every day. Many of them families with small children carrying plastic bags filled with whatever belongings they could spirit out of that country and away from their home.

SAMBOLIN: It is his town, Chicago. But President Obama, his adopted town I should say, but President Obama has abruptly changed plans to hold the upcoming G-8 summit in the Windy City. The White House says the president will host world leaders at the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland instead. It was very last minute decision there.

And the NFL stepping up its investigation into a bounty system on the New Orleans Saints. Former Saints defensive coordinator Greg Williams admits paying bonuses for vicious hits. The league is looking at whether Williams did it with three other teams that he worked for. A lot of people are saying, hey, we've always known this has happened. What's the problem?

It's quite a story. Oh my gosh!

BANFIELD: Players are all taking part, pulling their money to actually create the funds for this.

SAMBOLIN: I cannot wait to se what they're going to do about this.

BANFIELD: I know, I know. And me thinks it's going to be a wide-ranging investigation.

In the meantime, speaking of investigation, there's a big one ongoing with the young man named T.J. Lane, who is the suspected gunman in the Chardon High shooting. He's due back in court today. There could be, could be, more charges on the horizon for that young man. And what about adult court? You'll find out in a moment.

SAMBOLIN: And President Obama is getting a major boost on the campaign trail, the ultimate Democratic ATM card. You're taking a look at a picture. It's Bill Clinton.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Oh, love this. This just in to CNN. We have some good news when it comes to gas prices.

BANFIELD: What did you just say?

SAMBOLIN: Good news.

BANFIELD: Really?

SAMBOLIN: For the first time in 27 days -- yes -- gas prices are actually falling. The average price went down three-tenths of a cent overnight, to $3.76 a gallon. I told you it's not great. It's good. So far, gas prices are up almost 15 percent since the beginning of the year.

I have to give you the yin and the yang here.

BANFIELD: Hey, that's great. I mean, we just didn't make the day 28 of increases. We feel better about ourselves.

SAMBOLIN: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: We are going to switch gears and talk about the big story we covered in Ohio, the teenager charged in the deadly school shooting. He's headed back to court today.

His name is T.J. Lane. And he is set to appear in juvenile court not adult court yet. It's another pretrial hearing. And he's admitted, according to police, to shooting three of those students who died. And then, of course, the shooting injured three others as well.

Prosecutors are moving to block the media's access to a lot of the records that relate to this young man, those juvenile records. They're also planning to move him to adult court.

Also today, funerals will be held for the -- the funeral for one of his Lane's alleged victims. Sixteen-year-old Demetrius Hewlin.

Our Martin Savidge is live in Chardon, Ohio, this morning with the latest.

So I have a question for you about the suppression issues. The reason the prosecutors are pushing to keep a lot of T.J. Lane's juvenile records quiet, my guess, is to make sure the people in that community who could potentially become jurors in this case don't formulate so many opinions before they actually end up in a potential courtroom.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. Yes. I think that is the real concern.

T.J. Lane here is, of course, still a mystery to many people. And a lot of this is trying to figure out what may have motivated him in the attack for which he has now been accused. And so, that's going to be argued at least by members of the media. CNN is part of that group that is trying to get records really that are pertaining to either abuse, neglect or dependency in the background or life of T.J. Lane.

Now, of course, he's a juvenile, 17 years of age. Those records are normally not made public in any way, shape or form.

What was interesting was that the assistant county prosecutor, Craig Swenson, he sort of wrote the reasons why he was opposed to releasing these records to the media. He said the family of T.J. Lane and T.J. Lane himself has been under great scrutiny, and that releasing these records would only increase that scrutiny by the media. He also said that the release of the records could have some sort of psychological harm against T.J.

And then the last thing he said, and this is really what raised the ears of a lot of journalists. It was -- he said, the worry is the quote-unquote, sensational and extraneous information could somehow impact the potential of the jury pool.

Well, when you say sensational and extraneous information, of course, that only makes the media that much more curious as to what could possibly be inside of those records.

The initial hearing is slated today for T.J. Lane. That will be at 3:00 this afternoon. It's expected the charges will be read against him. Three counts of aggravated murder. Two counts rather of attempted ag murder and one count of felonious assault. They'll also talk about bond. And they may talk about when and how to bond him over to try him in adult court.

BANFIELD: Yes. That was going to be my next question, and you just answered it for me. It's still to come and maybe not dealt with today. But most people in this profession say it's just about fait accompli in this case considering he's 17.

Marty, stay on that for us. I want to touch on this later with you in the next hour as well. Thanks, Marty.

SAVIDGE: All right.

SAMBOLIN: It is 24 minutes past the hour here.

And still ahead on EARLY START: you know the deadly storms across the Midwest? Apparently, there was a breakdown in the early warning system right before the twister that tore a hole through Branson, Missouri. Apparently, a call was supposed to be placed that never made it. We're going to get some more details for you on that.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is 28 minutes past 5:00 on the East Coast. Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

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

Super Tuesday is here, with 10 states, 419 delegates at stake. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are looking for those last votes in Ohio. The two candidates are in the dead heat in the critical Buckeye State in the latest CNN/ORC poll.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill this morning. He says Israel cannot wait much longer and must defend itself against a nuclear threat being posed right now by Iran. He's expected to get a warm reception there.

Another night of violence across Syria. Take a look. Explosions and gunfire rocking the capital city of Damascus, the massacre of civilians growing so dire.

Senator John McCain is urging the United States to lead an international effort to carry out air strikes on Syrian forces.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: If we want to stand by and watch Syrians being massacred in the most brutal and incredibly genocidal fashion, then that is a decision we can make. But please don't tell we can't do it. We can if have the will.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: He says shame on the United States for standing by. McCain is also calling on the Obama administration to begin arming Syria's forces.

BANFIELD: Officials in tornado-hit Branson, Missouri, say their tornado warning system failed, and that no one got a warning before that massive storm tore through. The code red system was supposed to call residents with a storm warning, but officials say that company did not turn it on.

Former president, Bill Clinton, has agreed to make joint appearances with President Obama at a series of campaign fundraisers. Bloomberg News is reporting that the 40-second and the 44th presidents will appear together at events in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN: And Happy Super Tuesday. In about 90 minutes, the polls start opening in 10 states by tonight. The Republicans could be a lot closer to choosing a nominee to take on President Barack Obama. Ten states, 400 plus delegates up for grabs on this Super Tuesday. Ohio is the big prize.

Romney and Santorum campaigning there yesterday. Sixty-three delegates at stake in this critical bellwether state. So, let's talk about this. A new CNN/ORC poll says Romney and Santorum are in a dead heat in the buckeye state. Romney is attacking Obama, while Santorum is desperately trying to take down Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He will be the weakest candidate we could possibly put forward on the most important issue of today.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is a campaign about whether young men and young women coming home from war could find a job when they get here or people who are graduating from high school and college could find a good job that's consistent with the skills that they developed. That's what this election is about. This is an election about the soul of America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: CNN political editor, Paul Steinhauser, is going to join us here live from Mount St. Joseph, Ohio, also, live from Washington, Democratic strategist, Penny Lee, and Republican strategist, Matt Mackowiak. Thanks for being with us, everyone.

All right. Paul, I'm going to start with you. As we said, you know, they're in a dead heat there. They're tied up in Ohio. It could be a late night. We're coming in at four o'clock tomorrow morning to start our show. We may have to wait for every district, right, to weigh in. So, what are the last-minute issues that could potentially sway this race?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: I'll tell you one thing that could make the difference here is advertising. I turn on the TV here last night in Cincinnati and my Lord, it's one Romney commercial after another, and that Super PAC that is backing Mitt Romney as well. They have been flooding the airways here in Ohio and have greatly outspent Rick Santorum.

And a lot of those ads you're seeing on TV here in Ohio are attack ads that kind of bring Rick Santorum down, and that may be one of the reasons. Remember, two weeks ago, Rick Santorum had a double- digit lead here in Ohio. Now, as you mentioned, according to our poll, it is dead even.

SAMBOLIN: What about the issues in that particular state? We understand unemployment is at 7.9 percent. One in four homes is under water. Who does that favor?

STEINHAUSER: Listen, the economy, of course, favors Mitt Romney, because his team all along, for over a year now, has been, I am the person who can fix the economy. I am the one who has the real world experience. So, as long as you're in a state where the economy matters the most, and this is one of them, then, it favors Mitt Romney.

But listen, there are also a lot of Catholics in the states. There a lot of social conservative voters as well, and they may appeal to somebody like Rick Santorum who really wears his religion on his sleeve.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Matt, let's stay with Mitt Romney here. Yesterday, Soledad O'Brien talked to Rep. Eric Cantor. He's a noted conservative. And she asked why he is endorsing Mitt Romney. Listen to this, and then, we'll talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: What we're beginning to see is a crystallizing of the party's position for the election against Barack Obama. And that is, we are pro-growth, bold, free market, individual liberty and economic freedom party. And so, what we're doing is we're coalescing around Mitt Romney's plan to actually address the economic challenges we have so we can see a growth-oriented future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: We know that the party wants the bloodbath to end. Nobody is in love with these candidates. Is the focus on the economy trying to show conservatives that there is something to love about Romney?

MATT MACKOWIAK, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, certainly, it is Romney strongest. You saw him, I think, yesterday in Ohio rolling out his new slogan, his new campaign motto of more jobs, less debt and smaller government. You are seeing both Romney and Santorum focus on the White working class. I think, two-thirds of the vote in Ohio is folks that make between $30,000 and $100,000 a year.

So, I do think you're starting to see the Republican Party establishment and even some conservatives line up behind Romney. And that process is really going to speed up if he does win Ohio, if he does have a good Super Tuesday. You know what's different in the 2012 race is that the Super PACs are allowing some of these candidates to continue running, because their providing air cover them when their finances may not be as strong as they would like.

So, Santorum really needs to win Ohio tomorrow -- excuse me -- tonight. And he may also be of interest to win Oklahoma and potentially Tennessee. Gingrich wants Santorum to not perform well, so that he can become the anti-Romney candidate.

So, everyone has something they're trying to get out of Super Tuesday, but I think the most likely scenario is that Romney performs well enough that you start to see the party coalesce behind him.

SAMBOLIN: Does Gingrich really stand a chance here?

MACKOWIAK: No. I don't envision a scenario where Gingrich stands a chance. I think he'll win Georgia, his home by a large margin, which will give him a reason to stay. He can stay in the race, but I don't see a path of nomination for Gingrich today. Now, that being said, if Santorum does not perform well on Super Tuesday and if he does not have a path going forward, Gingrich could be the final anti-Romney candidate.

But again, at this point, Romney does have a delegate lead. I think he'll win the most delegates tonight on Super Tuesday, and he'll be in the strongest position going forward.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Penny, there's something I want you to weigh in on here. It's an op-ed in the "Washington Post" from Marc A. Thiessen, a former speech writer for George W. Bush. So, let's put it on up here.

"If Romney secures a nomination, he will be far from the perfect standard bearer, but to paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you go to war with the candidate you've got. Conservatives are never going to love Mitt Romney, and we don't have to, but we can form an alliance of convenience with him."

He goes on to say that Romney can defeat your candidate, President Obama, and that really that is a priority, right? President Obama is bringing out the big gun here. Former President Clinton is joining him on the campaign trail. Is this because President Obama is concerned about Mitt Romney being the final standing one?

PENNY LEE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I think that they have been preparing for Mitt Romney all long. I think you've seen that over and over again while he's even out there, while the campaign has been organizing, that many of what the differentials have been is have been about Mitt Romney and what his record was within Massachusetts as to what he is actually now saying on the stumps (ph) and the inconsistency of his character.

So, I don't think it's going to be any surprise if Mitt Romney ends up being the nominee. But look, this president has a sound record in which he is going to be running for and has put into place the necessary campaign, and there's going to be a very hard-fought campaign. And so, you know, nothing is going to be taken for granted. It is going to be every vote out there is going to be fought for and fought for vigorously.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Paul, Matt, Penny, thank you for joining us. We'll see you again in the six o'clock hour.

MACKOWIAK: Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: And CNN Super Tuesday coverage begins tonight at 6:00 p.m. eastern with a special edition of "John King, USA." That is immediately followed by primary results coverage with the best political team on television at 7:00 p.m.

And it is a nice and early start for us tomorrow morning. Complete Super Tuesday reaction and results beginning at 4:00 a.m. eastern for you tomorrow morning. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back.

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SAMBOLIN: Good morning to you, Minneapolis. It is 31 degrees right now. A little bit later, 57 degrees. Not too bad.

BANFIELD: I'll bet it feels really cold. I'm just going to say -- SAMBOLIN: At 31, yes, but at 57, not so --

BANFIELD: With the wind chill? I learned that -- I learned that by living it.

So, listen, there's this story that came to our attention out of Minnesota. Minnesota has one of the larger school districts that somewhere around almost 40,000 kids in it, and they had this policy, to paraphrase it, it's kind of like a neutrality policy whereby any kids had a complaint that was sexual in nature, the teachers and administrators couldn't discuss it if it had to do with homosexuality. They had to stay neutral if it had to do with anything with regards to homosexuality.

Well, all of a sudden, there were all these bullying cases. People can call gay or fagots, and things happening with these kids, kids committing suicide, and many of those kids in their families were saying it's because they couldn't get any help from these teachers --

SAMBOLIN: Oh, no.

BANFIELD: -- because the policy was so nebulous, the teachers themselves had no idea what they could and couldn't do.

SAMBOLIN: They couldn't say anything.

BANFIELD: They dealt like they didn't know what they could or couldn't do, and the neutrality policy the way it was worded was confusing for them. So, it turns out now there've been a couple of lawsuits, and there has been a settlement. And it's curious to find out how we're going to do with the settlement? Whether they've actually come to any answers.

On the phone with me now to talk about this, Maria Elena Baca. She's a reporter who's been covering this story for the "Star Tribune" in Minneapolis. Maria, can you hear me?

MARIA ELENA BACA, REPORTER, "STAR TRIBUNE" (on the phone): I can hear you.

BANFIELD: So, I was just fascinated by this neutrality policy. And before I get to the settlement and the resolution of this case, how is it that they ended up with a policy that the teachers, themselves, didn't even understand?

BACA: Well, you know, it's funny, there has been widespread misunderstanding of policy, and the discussion (ph) actually is not quite accurate. It actually came out of a health curriculum policy from the last decade, and actually, it was 1995 that said that in health class, homosexuality could not be discussed as a, quote, "normal or valid --

BANFIELD: In health classes, but how did they extrapolate that to everything else that was going on?

BACA: Right. So, then, it was rewritten in 2009 to say that teachers had to remain neutral. It doesn't mean the issue couldn't come up. They just couldn't be positively or negatively when it came to issues of homosexuality.

BANFIELD: So, Maria, I was reading a piece in "Rolling Stone" magazine that outlined some of the instances that kids were complaining about. I mean, there were teachers, according to this report, that saw physical violence and even heard a report from a kid who said he was urinated on over the stall in the bathroom, and kids were told just to, you know, keep a low profile or that couldn't have happened.

It was probably water, or teachers that just sort of look the other way when this stuff happen, and it all had to do with kids who are being called gay or lesbians or other sort of derogatory words.

BACA: And you know, all of that information is also in the lawsuit. You know, I don't know what happened in those cases. I wasn't there. But, certainly, I have read the lawsuits and read some of those really horrific stories.

BANFIELD: It's terrible. Those are kids.

BACA: The policy itself did not prohibit teachers from intervening.

(CROSSTALK)

BACA: It was interpreted -- actually, it wasn't interpreted. The problem was, as you said, teachers found it confusing. And in practice, what I'm told is that there were some teachers who just chose not to do anything.

BANFIELD: So, in the same vane, though, Maria, a lot of kids and the people who complained about this said that if there were instances that involved bullying or physical violence or any kind of attack that had to do with racial slurs, those teachers were on it. They knew that they could get on it and they would get on it. But when it came to gay kids, they just left it nebulous.

BACA: I've heard the same thing.

BANFIELD: So, this lawsuit, the settlement of it, as I understand it , it deals with about a quarter million dollars in money that those complainants can divvy up, but maybe more importantly than the money, there are going to be some changes in policy, right?

BACA: Right. And, you know, to be completely fair to the district, those changes have been in the works for quite a while. You know, if you followed the district over the course of this school year, there are lots of changes in policy, in training, and procedures, and in the messages that teachers are getting as to how they should be reacting to this is (ph) going to happen.

BANFIELD: Everybody happy about it?

BACA: Well, I did the story earlier this year. Actually, just about a month ago where I spoke with dozens of students, many of whom said that things are getting better. I mean, it's still high school and middle school, and it's never going to be nirvana. But they do say that they feel like they can trust. They say that they know if they're in crisis, whether it's kids who are GLBT or whoever (INAUDIBLE) not, they feel like they're someone they can go to.

BANFIELD: All right. Maria Elena Baca, I appreciate you joining us this morning from "Star Tribune" in Minneapolis and thanks for, you know, bringing the story to our attention.

SAMBOLIN: It's a fascinating story.

BANFIELD: I know. Imagine that. I mean, especially these instances of violence that were witnessed by teachers who just felt either whether they had a personal opinion about it or whether they just didn't know what to do didn't do anything.

SAMBOLIN: That's terrible.

BANFIELD: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Forty-six minutes past the hour here. Have you heard of these NFL bounty hunters? Apparently, the players in the NFL were putting a bunch of money into a kitty, and then, they were being paid for vicious attacks. Crazy story. We're going to try to figure out what's going on and, you know, who is going to be held accountable for this. Will they have to pay now? You're watching EARLY START.

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SAMBOLIN: Still ahead on EARLY START, Nfl bounties for big hits. This started with the New Orleans Saints, but now, they're looking at more teams. The league could come down hard on the teams, perhaps, on the players as well.

BANFIELD: And also, Happy Super Tuesday, folks. Mitt Romney is telling those folks out there keep your eye on the prize, my friends. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

SAMBOLIN: And for an expanded look at all of our top stories, head to our blog, CNN.com/EARLYSTART. You can also like us on Facebook.com/EARLYSTARTCNN. And here's another option, you can follow us on Twitter @EARLYSTARTCNN. We'll be right back.

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BANFIELD: So, the National Football League is being rocked by some revelations about something called a bounty system that had New Orleans Saints players being paid for inflicting game-ending injuries on some targeted players, the bounty fund that all the players were paying into. Maybe not all, but certainly, a number of them paying into reached as high as $50,000.

Again, this is something they put together themselves to pay out to themselves. And the coach who ran it was named Greg Williams. He was meeting with league investigators yesterday and having to sort of cough up the information on this one, too. He's now defensive coordinator for the Rams.

But he issued a statement to New Orleans newspaper saying this, "It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong when we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it."

SAMBOLIN: League is investigating other teams now that Williams worked for. Among them, the Redskins, the Bills, and the Titans. So, Peter King, "Sports Illustrated" senior writer, expects all of the penalties to be really harsh.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER KING, SENIOR WRITER, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: I think it's going to be a huge scandal. I think it will involve multiple suspensions, some of them, a half or season or more in length involving coaches, players, and also, heavy sanctions toward one of the league's growing, exciting franchises, the New Orleans Saints.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: CNN's Ed Lavandera is following the developments, and he is live in Dallas. So, we heard Peter King say that this is going to be a huge scandal, but the players are saying, what's the problem, you know? We all know that this has been happening.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You've been hearing a lot of that over the last few days or since this scandal erupted last Friday. And many players are saying that this is kind of unofficially been going on and supported for many years in the NFL. So, there's definitely that group of players who are wondering why this is so overblown.

There's a former player at the Washington Redskins by the name of LaVar Arrington who now writes a blog for the "Washington Post" newspaper who wrote yesterday saying that, you know, he's kind of baffled by why everyone is so upset by this.

And we spoke with a man by the name of Coy Wire (ph) who actually used to play for Greg Williams in Buffalo about eight years ago. He said they kind of had a similar thing back then. It was mostly about performance, fumbles and interceptions and that sort of thing. He says that Greg Williams is one of the best coaches he's ever played for, but then he went too far in this particular case.

SAMBOLIN: So, what is the NFL doing about -- oh. We're listening.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COY WIRE, FORMER NFL PLAYER: You want to get an edge mentally. You want to break your opponent's will to win. And football is unique like MMA, mix martial arts or hockey. The best way to break your opponent's will is to break their body. And so, that sort of attitude and mentality is part of the game.

That's what's unique to football and why this is a touchy subject and we have to really figure out, you know, where do you draw the line, what kind of rules and regulations need to be drawn up to make sure that nothing goes too far anymore, that we can make a safer game for the future of the players.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAVANDERA: You know, one of the things that Coy Wire also told us about is that he was worried about how all these trickles down through the sport, not only from the everyone looks toward the NFL. What happens when college players see how these NFL players behave and then all the way down into peewee football, kind of creating that atmosphere where this is allowed to thrive.

SAMBOLIN: I think that that's a very valuable point, right, because it starts somewhere. We've run out of time here, but just very quickly I want to know, do you think that they're going to impose big fines on the league?

LAVANDERA: In the league statement last Friday, it said, you know, suspensions and fines are very likely, and everyone in the NFL community is expecting something very big here.

SAMBOLIN: I would imagine that's the way you're going to effect change here. Ed Lavandera, thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

LAVANDERA: You bet.

SAMBOLIN: And later on "Starting Point" at 8:15 eastern, Soledad O'Brien talks with former NFL player, Izell Reese, who played for Greg Williams. We'll see what he has to say.

BANFIELD: It is now 57 minutes after the hour, also known as three minutes to the top of the hour.

And coming up in our next hour, it is a Super Tuesday. Happy Super Tuesday. What did you get me? Actually, what did you get these guys? Because they want to know if they're going to come out on top. And, everyone wants to know if someone is going to drop out. You're watching EARLY START.

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