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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Mitt Romney Wins Ohio Primary by Small Margin; Interview with Tim Pawlenty; Super Tuesday Split; GOP Fight To the Convention?; Netanyahu: No Decision On Iran; Palm Springs Is Windy City; Mercury Warning In Beauty Creams; "Sorry" For Bounty Program; Stun Gun Soccer Gaming Buzz; Businessman Bids On Limbaugh Ads; One Advertiser Steps Up to Support Rush Limbaugh; Rick Santorum Vows to Fight On

Aired March 7, 2012 - 06:59   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, ladies. Thank you. It was not exactly a super as he had hoped. Mitt Romney does not deliver the knockout blow that he was hoping for on Super Tuesday. The race is tight, though, with Rick Santorum hanging in the critical state of Ohio. And Newt Gingrich, he won Georgia. That was no surprise, but he's still a survivor. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When it comes to this economy, my highest priority will be worrying about your job, not worrying about saving my job. I stand ready to lead our party, and I stand ready to lead our nation to prosperity.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have won in the west, the Midwest, and the south, and we're ready to win across this country!

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through. I'm the tortoise. I just take one step at a time.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

O'BRIEN: Bunny rabbits, tortoises. Look who is voting, though, in Wasilla, Alaska. That's Sarah Palin casting her vote. Talking about a possible game change on the convention floor maybe.

And life is short, have an affair. That's the theme you might be hearing a lot on advertising on Rush Limbaugh's show. No joke. There's a Web site that encourages cheating on your spouse. As advertisers are departing, Rush's show, I think he's up to 20 lost advertisers now. This Web site is volunteering to step in with a major ad buy. We'll see what he says.

Those are your starting points for Wednesday March 7th, 2 012.

(MUSIC)

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Oh, the Jersey's coming out this morning. Newark Mayor Cory Booker joins our panel. You know, if you give up the whole political thing you could co-anchor the show. If you decide presidential bid is not that interesting, we would love to have you.

CORY BOOKER, MAYOR OF NEWARK, NEW JERSEY: You don't get love a bad name.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. See, he flatters me. You guys don't flatter me. We love having you. You've advised the Bachmann campaign and Romney campaign. Ron Brownstein, you're so far. Nice to see you this morning.

Lots happening. Tim Pawlenty, of course, the former Minnesota governor and also former presidential candidate will be joining us this morning. Alice Stewart, she's with the Rick Santorum campaign, the press secretary. She's going to talk to us as well. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee will talk to us. And Kevin DeWine is chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, he is slated to talk to us as well this morning.

We're going start by looking right at the numbers. Mitt Romney landed six victories on Super Tuesday. It was a nail biter in Ohio, 38 percent to Santorum's 37 percent. Ultimately like the difference of something like 12,000 votes, so not very much. He also took Idaho. He took Alaska and Massachusetts and Vermont and he took Virginia. There was no surprise there. Rick Santorum claimed Oklahoma and Tennessee. He had been leading in the poll there for a while there. He also took North Dakota. Newt Gingrich coasted to a very easy win in the state of Georgia. Gingrich and Santorum are vowing to fight on as Romney is now turning his attention to president Obama as we've said before, here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And 24 million Americans are still struggling for work. They are high fiving each other in the West Wing, but, my friends, the truth is eight percent unemployment is not the best America can do. It's just the best that this administration can do.

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have won in the west, the Midwest, and the south. And we're ready to win across this country.

(APPLAUSE)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We are going on to Alabama.

(APPLAUSE) GINGRICH: We are going on to Mississippi. We are going on to Kansas. And that's just this week.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: I love what he went on to talk about the bunny rabbits and the tortoise, nice and slow and controlled. Delegate count, 404 for Mitt Romney, Santorum has only 165, Newt Gingrich, 106, Ron Paul with 66. No actual wins in any primary though. And 1,144 is the number to watch for. That's the number of delegates need to clench the nomination.

We begin this morning with Tim Pawlenty. He's the for Republican Minnesota governor and the national co-chairman of Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. Thanks for talking with us. We appreciate your time. What did you think of last night? Ten states, big picture, give me your assessment.

TIM PAWLENTY, (R) FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Soledad, when you're running in 10 states against three other competitors and you win six out of the 10 and do well on the other four, that's a pretty good night for Mitt Romney. He maintains the front-runner status. And when you look at the delegate count, he has three times as next closest competitor. So he's campaign is on a trajectory to the nomination.

O'BRIEN: So let's talk about the strategy. The words I was hearing at the beginning of the week is coalescing, coalescing and then he got big endorsements, Cantor endorsed. When you look at the exit polling you don't see those conservatives coalescing as voters. Is that a problem?

PAWLENTY: Well, when you -- first of all, endorsements, of course, matter a little but they don't matter a ton. When you look at the big states that have had open primaries, Florida, you look at Michigan, Ohio last night, Mitt Romney does very well. He wins those states. In fact, he's won in every region of the country for a number of reasons.

One, he's most likely to beat Barack Obama, and that's not just spin. That's what the numbers show.

Two, he's got the best message and experience on the private sector economy not having spent his whole life in government.

Three, he's not Washington, D.C. like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. He's spent their whole life in Washington, D.C. or in a parasitic relationship with it. And if the problem is Washington, D.C., then you need to send somebody from outside of Washington, D.C. to fix it. That's Mitt Romney. I think those are some of the reasons he's doing well and is going to be the nominee.

O'BRIEN: Can I add a number four? He's got goo-gobs of money. That would bring me to the question, then, why is he not further ahead? Why was Ohio just a squeaker?

PAWLENTY: Well, a few weeks ago he was double digits down in Ohio. So the fact that he closed that gap in a few weeks and won I think is a testament to the fact that he's got resilience and strength and momentum. So I don't look at Ohio and say what a disappointment. I look at Ohio and say, my goodness, what a positive result. He was 14 points down three weeks ago according to one poll, and to win it last night was remarkable.

It's a four-way race. You've not going to be correlated and earn every vote in every race. He's doing that. I think you look at those numbers in a reasonable person would conclude he's the best candidate and most likely to be the nominee.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Governor, good morning. Ron Brownstein. Underscoring Soledad's point, consistently last night as we have seen throughout, governor struggling with evangelical Christians, middle income Republicans, struggling with those who consider themselves the most conservative. Do you say any way for him to breakdown that very entrenched division in the party? Do you see any signs of that eroding, or is your camp going to have to live with this throughout the primary season?

PAWLENTY: Well, Ron, as William F. Buckley used to say, we want the most conservative candidate who can also get elected. And Mitt Romney is conservative. If you look at his record of cutting taxes, growing jobs, cutting spending and the like, it's a conservative record but he can also get elected. The other candidates are viewed as less electable.

So when this field narrows, the party will unite, coalesce. It's a coalition. Mitt Romney has the capability and the merits to coalesce and unite this party and he will. But it's not going to happen until the field narrows more fully.

BRETT O'DONNELL, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Governor, I want to ask you about the next 10 days. The next ten days is scheduled just to follow along sort of what Ron was getting at. The next 10 days don't seem that favorable for the governor. What's the strategy heading into some of the southern states to try and get those conservatives to coalesce around him?

PAWLENTY: Sure. Well, the next states coming up are more of a challenge for Governor Romney. I think that's clear. I think if you look at the likelihood of various campaigns doing well in the states, these wouldn't be his strongest states. But he does have momentum and he does have a great record. He's a great candidate. And he's got that electability argument. There's no question about it who is best is it waited to beat Barack Obama. That's the main objective for conservatives and Republicans, it's Mitt Romney.

And you look at Ohio as a bellwether of that, last night when women and other important grouches came to his campaign and supported him over the candidates that's another measure of his electability and his ability to beat President Obama. CORY BOOKER, MAYOR OF NEWARK, NEW JERSEY: Governor, good morning, it's Cory Booker. You said it's fortunate he did well given a four-way race. In reality, isn't he lucky it's a four-way race? If Newt Gingrich dropped out wouldn't people coalesce around the other conservative alternatives and having a four-way race benefits him going into the convention?

PAWLENTY: Mayor, I'm still a little miffed at you at some of the cheap shots you took at me at the gridiron club last June.

(LAUGHTER)

BOOKER: I could repeat the jokes right now but they were kind of off color.

O'BRIEN: You will have to tell us a cleaned up version later. Look, I've lost control of my show.

BOOKER: I try to give him a honoree minority status. Some people say he's too vanilla.

O'BRIEN: You made him an honoree black man? Congratulations, sir. Answer the question.

PAWLENTY: Governor Booker -- Governor Booker said I was too vanilla. And I asked him if he was playing the race card.

BOOKER: If you keep calling me Governor Booker -- we have a very meek soft-spoken governor in our state. I think Chris Christie might be coming after you for that.

PAWLENTY: Good point. On your question, Mayor, look, the -- it kind of cuts both ways. I think if you look at narrowing the field, some people say Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are a dividing part of the vote. But it's more complicated than that. If you look at the cross tabs of various religious groups, Catholics, women, working women, single women and how that all sorts out actually you can make a case that if the field narrows I think in many of the states coming up, not this next round but beyond that, Mitt Romney would don even better.

O'BRIEN: Governor Pawlenty, nice to see you. We appreciate your time. If you want me to smack the mayor for you, just let me know. I'm that close to you. I can do it for you, sir.

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Thank you.

All right, let's check in with Christine Romans. She's got some of the exit polls we were talking about diving a little deeper for us. Good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm diving into the Tennessee. There's a lot of talk about Ohio, but Tennessee really shows the two choices in the Romney-Santorum fight here, if you will. Look at ideology. In Tennessee for those who consider themselves conservative, they went for Rick Santorum. Somewhat conservative or consider themselves a moderate or liberal Republican, they went for Mitt Romney. Opinion of the tea party, support it or neutral on it, Santorum. They oppose it, went for Mitt Romney. Anything that is middle of the road, quite frankly, people go for Mitt Romney.

What about top candidate quality? Really tells a story also of these two candidates in the south. It might be interesting as we go further into some more of these torn primaries. For those who want experience, Mitt Romney is their guy. We've seen that in other states. For those who want character, Rick Santorum is their guy -- 65 percent of those who say top quality is character went for Santorum. For those who wanted a true conservative, no real surprise, 53 percent went for Santorum, and then Gingrich is second at 22 percent.

And for those who say they want their candidate to beat the president, Romney win thons count again, 40 percent. But Gingrich comes in second at 32 percent there. So a little foreshadowing maybe of what some of the issues might be for the front-runner Mitt Romney and Santorum, who has been on his heels as they continue in the south. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: I find these exit polls so fascinating to talk about them all morning. Christine, thank you very much.

We have a visitor today. Carlos Diaz joins us with our sister network, HLN. I'm surrounded by handsome men.

CARLOS DIAZ, HLN CORRESPONDENT: Three out of four. All right --

O'BRIEN: Modesty, I like that even better.

DIAZ: Thank you. Let's start with breaking news. Six soldiers from the U.K. are missing and presumed dead after an explosion in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. A defense official says the incident took place while the troops within were on a security patrol in an armed vehicle. It would represent the worst loss of life for British forces in Afghanistan in six years.

Also new this morning, violent raids in Syria today. Soldiers storming rebel held villages with tanks. Government forces blasted a bridge that wounded refugees were using to escape to Lebanon. Nearly 8,500 people were reportedly killed in the year-long crack down, mostly civilians. President Obama is now reportedly working to give humanitarian assistance to Syria's opposition.

Meantime, former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan is in Cairo today meeting with the Arab League, added as part of a special envoy heading to Syria Saturday to try to convince President Bashar al-Assad to end the violence.

A major upset on Super Tuesday. Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a two-time presidential candidate, was defeated for the first time in 16 years in his newly drawn district in Ohio. With about 90 percent Representative Marcy Kaptur tops Kucinich 60 percent to 36 percent in the 9th congressional district. Kaptur has been a frequent close ally of Kucinich during their time in Congress. Now, Kaptur is going to have to go on and face a familiar name for that district's congressional seat. Remember Joe the plumber from the 2008 campaign? Well, last night he won his congressional primary in the 9th district, a narrow 51 percent to 48 percent victory over auctioneer Steve Kraus. Wurzelbacher became well-known in 2008 for asking then senator Obama a question about working class tax rates.

Well, the wait is over. The new version of the iPad set to be announced today. And since Apple of course won't confirm any details, here are some of the rumors that we have right now. A brighter, more clean retinal display and a higher resolution. You also have got faster graphics and faster chip. Videos will air with better quality. It will run on 4g, via, Verizon's LET network. And apparently be called the iPad HD, not the iPad 3. The official announcement is happening today at 1:00 p.m. eastern in San Francisco.

Sadly to report this morn for Colts fans, the Indianapolis Colts reportedly plan to release star quarterback Peyton Manning today. The announcement is expected at a news conference today at noon eastern. Manning has played his entire career, 14 seasons with the Colts. He won the Super Bowl, he's meant a lot for the city. He's had three neck surgeries in the last year and a half. Still, he's about to become the most coveted free NFL agent ever. So it's going to be a big day in Indianapolis.

O'BRIEN: Hasn't he recovered from that neck surgery?

DIAZ: There is like a Zapruder film of him at Duke University actually throwing a football 50 yards. So the people are saying he looks better now.

O'BRIEN: Right. That's sad. That's sad.

BROWNSTEIN: I don't see how they can do it. He's been there all that time and built that stadium.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: You're hard core on that.

BROWNSTEIN: In modern sports, given the size of the contracts, learning how to cut the ties is as important as the original signings in the first place.

BOOKER: I've seen Andrew play. He's going to be an incredible addition.

BROWNSTEIN: But is he too vanilla?

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: I can't believe you said that. And he said you're playing the race card. That's funny.

(LAUGHTER) Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the Saints coach and owners taking the blame for those bounties in the NFL for big hits. We'll tell you what they're saying this morning.

Plus we showed you running into Sarah Palin at her hometown polling station. Not only is she not ruling out a presidential bid in 2016, she also had something to say about Rush Limbaugh's critics. We'll tell you about that.

And our get real this morning. Have you ever been hit by a paint ball? That hurts. It hurts. It like leaves a welt on your arm. Now there's an updated version of paint ballgames. It's players armed with stun-guns. Come on. That's our "Get Real" this morning. We leave you can Carlos Diaz's play list. Prince, "Let's Go Crazy." I like this.

(MUSIC)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: Wow, I would not pick this for Ron Brownstein.

BROWNSTEIN: I just thought it was the question that Republicans will be asking about Mitt Romney this afternoon.

O'BRIEN: This is Three Doors Down, "Kryptonite." I'm sort of surprised. We've known each other a long time, like years and years and years.

BROWNSTEIN: I think it's what they will be asking Mitt Romney, superman, just barely maybe?

BOOKER: A mild mannered man.

O'BRIEN: You can see our play list every morning on our Web site, CNN.com/startingpoint. I also put my blog up there. It was written in like four minutes, so be kind. We're going to talk about questions about whether this race, this long race, is good or bad for the GOP. CNN spoke to Sarah Palin last night. She was voting in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, and here's what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH PALIN, (R) FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: There are five men running for president, and I think Barack Obama is the worst choice, the last choice. So the four in front of him as they duke it out in the arena of ideas and solutions to propose, the more of that the better.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: So do you think that's true, the more the better? Sometimes there's evidence, she's now said the more the better. We heard it before from Reince Priebus said it's a good thing, it vets the candidates. You get to see them. You're shaking your head no.

BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely. As polls show this week, Romney at this point in the race has the weakest favorable/unfavorable ratio of any nominee with one exception, Bill Clinton in 1992 when hit with allegations about the draft and Jennifer Flowers. Romney's approval rating has been dropping among independents and conservative voters. It's a neat trick to manage both of those groups moving away from you at the same time. In some cases 2008, Obama-Clinton probably did strengthen them and get them known many more states in which they ultimately contested. But in this race it's hard to argue the way this has unfolded had benefitted the Republican chances of beating President Obama.

O'BRIEN: You know a bit about nasty political races.

BOOKER: Anybody who says they would prefer to see a long tough campaign is trying to spin so much they might be getting nauseous. Mitt will probably want everybody out and start campaigning against Barack Obama.

O'BRIEN: I think each individual would, but for the party as a whole.

BOOKER: It's not. It's hurting the brand of the Republican Party. I think that the debates are it getting ridiculous. I think to see this kind of ongoing punishing campaign going on between people over issues that most Americans aren't concerned about. The fact that we're talking about everything from birth control to other social issues takes away from the core issue of the day, which is the economy. So this is hurting the Republican brand. It's hurting the eventual nominee, and I'm sure most Republicans are thinking they wish it was over.

O'BRIEN: I thought the tone of the speech. When you heard Mitt Romney give him -- I was almost going to say concession speech and that was a little Freudian -- well, we've got a long haul ahead of us and we're going to step by step and door -- it wasn't -- it wasn't the speech of a man who last night won six out of 10 primaries.

O'DONNELL: Yes. Well, I mean, the one thing I will say is coming out of South Carolina I did think that that battle actually sharpened Mitt's message. I think along the way this would serve to sharpen his message. If we're talking about this in June, then I do think it's a problem.

BROWNSTEIN: It is worth remembering. The one candidate favorable/unfavorable as weak at this point in the process was Bill Clinton in 1992. So it can be overcome. Romney has been pulled to the right in a number of issues. Immigration and Latinos, those numbers this week on Latinos are scary for Republicans.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead, we're going to talk to the RNC's Reince Priebus. We're going to ask him once again, is this good or is this bad? We're also going to talk about playing through the pain, talk about what we understand in sports. Did you see this? This is our "Get Real" this morning. These are people with stun guns, basically paint ball with stun guns. It's insane. I'm going to leave you with my play list. H is my daughter's play list, the Rolling Stones "Brown Sugar". I thought, oh, you're a cool little girl.

BOOKER: Old school.

O'BRIEN: For an 11-year-old.

(MUSIC)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Much more ahead this morning on STARTING POINT. It looks a little bit like a crazy sci-fi movie. A sandstorm, this is a sandstorm has shut down an interstate.

And breaking vows and backing Rush, a website for cheaters. Yes, no joke. They're making an offer to buy up the advertising. That's like kind of a mixed blessing there, I guess. We're going to talk to the CEO of that Web site called ashleighmadison.com.

And Rick Santorum scores a hat trick, his wins exposing Mitt Romney's weakness with many conservatives. We're going to talk with Santorum's spokesperson straight ahead, how they're feeling the morning after.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We've got a short break, back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: For this administration, the unemployment number is just another inconvenient statistic standing in the way of a second term.

But those numbers are more than data on a spreadsheet. They're worried families and anxious faces. To the millions of Americans who can look around and see only jobs they can't get and bills that they can't pay, I have a message, you have not failed. You have a president that's failed you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Well, the big headline from Super Tuesday, there was no big decisive win. Mitt Romney took the most states and most delegates. He won Ohio. He won Idaho. He won Virginia, Vermont, Alaska and Massachusetts.

Rick Santorum took home North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Newt Gingrich as predicted took his home state of Georgia. So here is the total delegate count as it stands right now.

Mitt Romney has 404 delegates. Santorum with 165 delegates. Gingrich with 106 and Ron Paul with 66 delegates. That means it's very long way off to the magic number as we keep pointing out of 1,144.

Let's get right to Reince Priebus. He is the chairman of the Republican National Committee. It's nice to see you. We're going to name a chair after you, we have you on so often. It's nice to have you.

REINCE PRIEBUS, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Happy to be on. Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: We appreciate that. Would love to have you in person one day when you're in New York. Listen, the last time we spoke, you said, listen, you think fights are good because they help really hone everybody's message and people benefit from sort of a tough primary fight.

But then the conversation seemed to be turning to coalescing around a candidate. And I think the polls from last night, exit polls, don't show coalescing. So where do you think things stand right now for the party?

PRIEBUS: Well, I think you've captured the big part of this, which is a combination between the chase for delegates and the inevitability of winning.

And I think as these big primary days goes by and we get through the month of March, I think you're going to see whether or not we have a real frontrunner.

That's combining both winning and key battleground states and adding up the appropriate amount of delegates for people to start running the math and saying, look, we've got a frontrunner here.

So I think that's important. I don't think we're there yet, but I do think it's important for the race and the analysis moving forward, that we look at both of those things.

O'BRIEN: Sarah Palin said when she was interviewed, I guess they nabbed her while she was trying to vote last night. She said, listen, I think a fight is good. Here's a little bit of what she said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- the open convention question, if we wind up with an open convention, if someone wants to place your name, throw your name into the hat, would you stop them? Would you be open to that?

SARAH PALIN, FORMER ALASKA GOVERNOR: As I say, anything is possible and I don't -- I don't close any doors that perhaps would be open out there. So, no, I wouldn't close that door and my plan is to be at that convention.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: My plan is to be at the convention. That came after she said a fight is good. Listen, there are five people who are all fighting and she thinks, obviously President Obama in her mind is the least good candidate of all of them. What role do you potentially see for her at the convention?

PRIEBUS: I don't know yet, Soledad. We're not planning any of the convention right now or the program or, you know, certainly Sarah Palin, Governor Palin has a big voice in America and in our party.

And we respect her a whole lot, but I personally don't see a brokered convention at all. I think that this is so far off. We're not anywhere near where we were even in nominating Bush 41 or Bush 43. They weren't even the nominees until the end of April.

We're in the beginning of March. Everything we've talked about before still stands. As far as like, you know, the idea that a tough primary isn't good for a party, I had our research department just find a few of the headlines from 2008. And in those headlines some of those, for example, the "New York Times," a present from McCain, as the other side fights.

The "Boston Globe," McCain media adviser says Democrats are hurting themselves. We all know how that turned out, Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama and legendary primary battle, but ultimately Barack Obama winning pretty easily.

So don't always assume that a primary fight is a bad thing. In fact, I think it's the opposite. I think it's going to be great for our party.

O'BRIEN: But, you know, what was interesting there on the Democratic side, the engagement only grew and grew and grew. The angrier the fight became, more people were engaged in their person going to the polls. When you look at the actual number of people who are turning out it's down. I think Ohio was up a little bit.

PRIEBUS: Ohio was actually up 150,000 voters from 2008.

O'BRIEN: Everywhere else, though, I think the averages is down like 9 percent so --

PRIEBUS: Michigan was up the early states were up. I think there's also some dynamics, Soledad, too, like in Virginia. Yes, I mean, the voting was down, but you also had only two candidates on the ballot.

So, I mean, I also think you had primaries in both the Democratic side and the Republican side in '08 so that you had both sides coming out and voting.

So I mean, comparing the two, I know that's something that's pretty common now, that people are comparing the numbers. But I don't think it's exactly fair, either.

O'BRIEN: Apples and oranges.

PRIEBUS: -- comparing one side to both sides of '08.

O'BRIEN: OK, all right, Reince Priebus. Nice to see you. Thanks for being with us.

PRIEBUS: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Let's get right to Carlos Diaz. He's got headlines for us. Good morning, again.

CARLOS DIAZ, HLN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning again. No pictures this time, please.

O'BRIEN: I was snapping pictures, for Twitter. Come on.

DIAZ: That's fine. Good angle. I like it.

Israeli's prime minister is insisting that no decision has been made on whether or not or when to attack Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu told Senators today that he doubts that sanctions against Iran will prevent it from pursuing its nuclear weapons program.

Netanyahu also told lawmakers, quote, "We have great friends in Washington." President Obama pushed for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in a news conference yesterday, just one day after meeting with Netanyahu.

A 30 to 50-mile-per-hour winds slamming parts of Palm Springs, California. Police shutting down roads because of blowing sand. Forecasters warning, drivers that the blowing dust and sand could reduce visibility to near zero at times. And no reports or accidents or injuries have been reported yet.

And your "A.M. House Call," new warning from the FDA, mercury discovered in anti-aging and skin lightening creams and soaps. These products are made overseas and sold in the U.S., mainly in Latino, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern neighborhoods. The products claim to remove age spots, wrinkles and other blemishes. Mercury is highly toxic. Exposure can cause brain and kidney damage. The FDA is reporting several cases of people suffering symptoms of mercury poisoning.

And we have full disclosure now from the New Orleans Saints. Team officials admitting that players were paid bonuses for vicious hits. In a joint statement, Coach John Peyton and GM Mickey Loomis apologized for the bounty system saying, quote, "These are serious violations and we understand the negative impact it had on our game."

"Both of us made it clear within our organization that this will never happen again, and make that same promise to the NFL and most importantly to all of our fans."

And attention all of you adrenaline junkies out there. It's an electrifying new sport called ultimate tack ball. It's part soccer, part rugby. What makes this so extreme, it's also part stupid because there are stun guns involved.

It's sport's first international tournament in Bangkok. Imagine that. It's in Bangkok. Stun guns tag about 10 percent of the power of taser stun guns used by police.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are really low voltage stun guns. They are used to be tack stun guns. They're really, really low voltage. I'll do it to myself. You get a little twitch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It hurts, but it's not enough to stop you from your adrenaline is pumping.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

DIAZ: The sport was created by three guys who wanted to create the most extreme of extreme sports. It's great because, you know, these guys are crazy and they're already getting shock therapy. It's nice.

O'BRIEN: You cannot take a sport seriously where the ball is this big. It reminds me of like when my sons play with the big medicine ball. Come on. That's so silly and that hurts. Paint ball hurts.

DIAZ: You throw a stunner in there as well! It's not just the paint ball.

O'BRIEN: It's shocking it's in Bangkok. Yes.

Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT." We're going to talk about this web site for cheaters. They made an offer to Rush Limbaugh. You know, his advertisers are bailing. It's up to more than 20 have really fled.

Now they say they will buy up all of his advertising space. We'll see what they have to say about that this morning.

And back to Carlos Diaz' play list. Listen to you. Van Halen, "Panama." You're watching STARTING POINT. Short break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: What does it say about the college co-ed 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)

O'BRIEN: No, actually, technically, it makes her a woman who would like to have her contraception covered, is what it makes her. Those comments, of course, from Rush Limbaugh, creating a bigger and bigger firestorm.

President Obama kind of weighed in on how Mr. Limbaugh -- the words he used to describe the Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I don't know what's in Rush Limbaugh's heart so I'm not going to comment on the sincerity of his apology. What I can comment on is the fact that all decent folks can agree that the remarks made don't have any place in the public discourse.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Rush Limbaugh's lost more than 20 advertisers since he made those comments. You can see the list on the screen right there, but one company is stepping up to support him.

Noel Biderman is on our panel this morning, he's the owner of Ashleigh Madison web site, which connects married people to other people who want to have affairs.

I actually did not believe this existed so I was checking it out this morning. It is true. In fact, your tag line I believe is something like, we're the best site in infidelity or some version of that. Is that right?

NOEL BIDERMAN, CEO AND FOUNDER, ASHLEY MADISON: Soledad, it's actually life is short, have an affair.

O'BRIEN: OK. There's another version, too, that I saw. So explain to me what the plan is. He's lost 20 advertisers, which means there's lots of ad space to buy up. How much money are you willing to put up? How much do you want to -- do you want to buy all of his advertising space now?

BIDERMAN: Yes, we're totally willing to step into the void left by other advertisers, you know, fleeing. I'm happy to have Ashleigh Madison users join from 10 million Rush Limbaugh loyal users. It seems like a great marriage. If it costs $2 or $3 million, happy to pony up.

O'BRIEN: No marriage -- no pun intended, I guess, is what I'd say.

In all seriousness, the advertisers are leaving Rush Limbaugh's show because of the words that he used. They were deemed to be inappropriate, offensive, et cetera, et cetera. So how does that fit nicely in another company's marketing strategy? You say that works great for us. Why?

BIDERMAN: We always court controversy to Ashley Madison. In 2007, when we started a national campaign with Howard Stern, they said, women are going to be offended and not come to the service. To this day, we have never acquired more women through any other medium, whether it's TV advertising on CNN, FOX, and Howard Stern. I don't think those are accuracies.

Listen, blue and red states, people cheat in both of them. Republican, Democrat, men, women, everybody is prone to having an affair. The bottom line, my audience sits with his audience and I'm happy to advertise with him.

O'BRIEN: But you've been turned down before by that show because they are not that happy to have you as advertisers. You've been turned down on moral grounds. Is there any indication that, in fact, they're going to take you up on your offer, even with the 20 or so-odd advertisers that are leaving?

BIDERMAN: You know, he's in business, just as I am. So has the right, and if he wants to express himself that way -- it sounds like he regrets some of the comments he made, but that is his right. So being in business, he needs to operate, and I'm there to support that business operation if he wants those dollars.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Isn't the point of this, what's happening right now. I mean, whether or not you have any expectation that he will accept your offer, isn't the point of making the offer that what we're doing right now, which is talking to you and you're advertising yourself on national TV for nothing?

BIDERMAN: No, the point of the offer is to try and get an Ashley Madison that I think is beyond creative and most importantly really effective. And letting people know there's an alternative platform out there in having an affair versus the workplace or a single dating site where so many affairs do take place. That is my opportunity to speak to 10 million-plus people. I would welcome the opportunity a million times over than just the two minutes on camera traded right now.

O'BRIEN: Do you have a position in this whole debate? Do you support Rush Limbaugh on this? Do you support Sandra Fluke in this?

BIDERMAN: You know, I think you're going to ask me, as a person, you know, who believes in tolerance and that everyone should be able to do what they want to do, I would definitely say my vote would go with Sandra's position and I would support that. as a business operator, who believes in First Amendment rights and the opportunity for business to exist and people to express themselves as people see fit -- and if he wasn't controversy, Rush wouldn't have the following he does -- I support his ability to say what he wants to say and then apologize thereafter if that's his prerogative. I think there's this kind of game that goes on in America all the time.

So, Netflix, other people pulling out from their advertising, who do you think they were going to advertise on in the first place? You need to know your medium. It doesn't sound like most people do.

O'BRIEN: Well, it's interesting. Noel Biderman is the Ashley Madison CEO. I appreciate you joining us this morning.

I had no idea this existed.

(CROSSTALK)

BIDERMAN: Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: You bet.

BRETT O'DONNELL, DEBATE COACH: -- got along without it.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's the level of shamelessness in this country.

O'BRIEN: It's crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is getting frustrating to me.

O'BRIEN: It was really odd.

BROWNSTEIN: It's sickening. And I would rather see advertisers leaving. We should leave. We should be voting with our feet but we give attention to people the farther they push the envelope. I see from unbelievable reality TV show, which is gaining such a premium, to disgusting comments made like this, we, as Americans, shouldn't let cynical businesspeople take advantage of news this way. Forget that.

We should be making decisions to watch shows, to frequent things and to understand that we have media and market power with the choices that we make. And when we watch things like that, we're creating a nation that is, you know, a lifestyles of the rich and shameless, as opposed to the core values of this country which, to me, are getting just bludgeoned by reality TV.

(CROSSTALK)

O'DONNELL: All I'll say to that is, ditto.

O'BRIEN: All right, still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the Santorum campaign is going to join us. We're going to talk with them right after this short break. Stay with us.

(THE NEXT LIST)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: Let's listen to this for a bit. Bruce Springsteen, "City of Ruins."

(MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: I love that. I love that. We're rocking out this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's really great. A Bruce-ologist at the end. (LAUGHTER)

O'DONNELL: Yes, yes --

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: No, Ron Brownstein is your Bruce-ologist.

BROWNSTEIN: We got the new album yesterday.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: But we have to talk about politics.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Mitt Romney is squeezing out a win in the crucial state of Ohio -- is what we're looking at this morning. A state that is truly considered to be a bellwether, true gauge, many people say, of the entire nation. But it was a very narrow margin. He captured 38 percent of the vote compared to Rick Santorum's 37 percent of the vote. Santorum countered with wins in Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota, raising fresh concerns about Mitt Romney's ability to win over conservative voters.

That is why Rick Santorum last night was vowing to fight on.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R), FORMER PENNSYLVANIA SENATOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This was a big night tonight. Lots of states. We're going to win a few. We're going to lose a few. But as it looks right now, we're going to get at least a couple of gold medals and a whole passel (ph) full of silver medals.

(CHEERING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Alice Stewart is a national press secretary for Rick Santorum's presidential campaign. And she joins us this morning.

Nice to see you. Thanks for talking with us. We appreciate it.

Let's start, if we can this morning, with the big picture. He, the candidate himself, called it a silver medal that he won. Three big wins though. Assess, overall, last night.

ALICE STEWART, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, RICK SANTORUM PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: It was a tremendous victory for our cam pain. For us to have the resources that we have and for Rick to do so well, it's a tremendous victory. Claiming three states, important states, that's great news for us. When we're going against someone like Mitt Romney, who is outspending us sometimes six, up to 12 times as much as us, with the name I.D. he has, for us to be giving him a run for his money in an important state like Ohio, that should raise some serious concerns for Mitt Romney. This just reinforces the fact that the message that Rick Santorum is putting out there resonates with the people. It's a matter of getting it out there, getting him face to face with the people.

(CROSSTALK)

STEWART: The people see that he has the right message and he is a real person and he has real ideas and real solutions that will help. What they want more than anything --

(CROSSTALK)

STEWART: -- someone who will create jobs and help the economy.

O'BRIEN: If you had any money, do you think you could have won? Because as you say, I think the numbers in Ohio, 3.8 million. If you look at the Romney spending super PAC and campaign compared to, I think, roughly $1 million for your campaign and super PAC added in together. So you raised, in February alone, some $9 million. Are you saying with a bigger war chest you could have won?

STEWART: That would have certainly been a tremendous help to our campaign. While the message is the number-one factor, money helps to get the message out. But what we faced was the negative campaign attacks by the Romney campaign, which was very harmful. But people are beginning to see -- they're looking at Mitt Romney and they see he is not the solution. He is not the answer to what we need. For him to have the resources he has and not be able to sweep these states, that goes to show that he's not what people are looking for.

And the most serious thing that has come to note lately is the fact that he has not been honest with the people of this country about where he stands on the individual mandate. He wrote the model for Obama-care with Romney-care. He has been telling people all along, I never said it would be good for the country. Now we've seen op-eds. We've seen him on several national programs in 2009 where he touted the fact that President Obama embraced his Romney-care. He's glad to see it's being implemented on the national level. He has not been honest with the people of this country and they realize that now. They're going to started turning against him.

O'BRIEN: Brett?

O'DONNELL: Hi, Alice. It's Brett here. Good to talk to you.

STEWART: Hey, Brett. You, too.

O'DONNELL: You guys had a great night last night. The question is, though, you still are behind in the delegate count and so what is the path forward for Senator Santorum in getting to 1,144?

STEWART: Well, as you know, it's -- we're a far cry from anyone reaching the magic number of 1144. What Rick's going to do is what he's been doing, getting out there face to face with the people. We'll be in Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, be in the key states that are coming up leading up to the caucuses Saturday and certainly next week.

But what he does best is that one on one retail politics. He likes to talk to the people. A lot of times people will see him on television or read about him in the paper, but what really seals the deal is when he goes out there, delivers his message in person, and they see that he has the right views and values that they represent, that they want in someone that represents them. He's consistent on the issues.

And when they look back at his record they see that what he says today is what he's done in the past. The best way to view how someone will act in the future is to look at their past. He's been consistent, unlike Mitt Romney, who has flip-flopped on many of the key issues, from certainly Obama-care to cap-and-trade and on life issues and traditional marriage. These are things that people see. They look at the record and say, well, how do we know they're not going to go back to the middle again? Rick Santorum has been right on the issues from day one and that's what conservative voters want.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm dying -- I'm dying to ask this question. You're on the frontlines, and this is a great privilege for me to ask somebody who's being prodigiously punished by Citizens United by a lack of equal playing field. You guys are fighting this well but being outspent two, three, four, sometimes seven, eight, nine, 10 to one. How does it make you feel about Citizens United and the way we're doing campaign financing? Is it really fair?

STEWART: You have to hand it to any candidate that can raise money. But the key is, the one thing to note about what rick has, he has large number of small donors, and that's what we want. We can continue to go back to the well and get those contributions, and that's what we're doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But do you think we should reconsider Citizen United? Do you think we should reconsider the way we do this because it doesn't create fair elections? It doesn't create an equal playing field for somebody who's being hurt by the way the system is set up now?

STEWART: Well, certainly, the onslaught of money that we have from PACs and super PACs is impacting the election. We should have the campaigns putting their names on ads and issues that they put out there. But what's the most important, while money is key, what we're looking at and what we focus on is getting the right message out to the voters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But you all would support changing -- you all would support changing the law?

STEWART: Well, the key thing is -- while there's many aspects of campaign finance that certainly do need to be addressed, and super PACs are one of them, all of that, you know, certainly needs to be looked at. What we're focusing on right now is doing what we need to do. That is going out there and racking up as many delegates as we possibly can, campaigning in these states coming up on the primary calendars. That's the number-one focus right now.

O'BRIEN: Alice Stewart is the national press secretary for the Santorum campaign.

Thanks for talking with us this morning. We appreciate it.

We have to take a short break. We're back in a moment.

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