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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Iran Testing "Nuke Trigger"?; Unrest In Syria; Solar Blasts Slamming Earth; Interview with Joe the Plumber; Apple Unveils New iPad; Solar Storm Blasting Earth; Forbes "Billionaires List"

Aired March 8, 2012 - 06:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: A good Thursday morning to you at one minute past 6:00. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from A to Z. We're very happy you're with us. Let's get started here.

We have new satellite images showing Iran may be covering its tracks at a suspected nuclear site. Of course, this is happening the same week that Iran tells inspectors, come on in, we have nothing to hide.

BANFIELD: It could be a sunny day, but that is not always a good thing even when it looks this pretty. This is the biggest solar storm in years and it's slamming earth.

The peak of the problems could exist in about one hour. Incredible pictures of explosions from the sun. It could affect our grids and our power grids and our satellites. We're going to update you.

SAMBOLIN: And this is, like it or not, you're going to buy one anyway. I don't know. Maybe you are, maybe you aren't, but Apple puts the rumors to rest and shows off their brand-new iPad. It's a much sharper screen and Siri, sort of. We'll see if it is really worth the upgrade for you.

BANFIELD: First thing this morning, though, at 2 minutes past 6:00, let's get you caught up on the big story.

And that's Iran, is Iran hiding something, and if so, what? Diplomats are telling CNN that these new satellite images are showing something kind of stealthy. The Iranians doing a big cleanup job at a suspected nuclear site, a clean-up job.

What would they be trying to clean up? Some suspect it's actually a nuclear trigger testing area. Earth moving vehicles were seen carting away all sorts of bits and pieces of soil, possibly contaminated soil and not sure what is in the soil.

But Iran has just agreed to allow the U.N. weapons inspectors into this space just this week curiously enough after saying before it was completely off limits. So a lot of questions are being raised about this. Because this is the kind of thing that Israel gets very nervous about and could push them closer to an attack. Senator Dianne Feinstein met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

And she told Erin Burnett that Israel has not yet made the decision to attack, but that it may not just take a whole lot more.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: I believe that Israel will attack. I believe that it is important that diplomacy be given an opportunity. Israel believes they are prepared to handle it. Now, what happens after an attack is another story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: So, joining us live to talk about this, our Barbara Starr who is live at the Pentagon. Every time we get a report like this, it sends shivers through the community and gets people very nervous.

But in the end, these are satellite pictures, to my knowledge, I have not seen or heard anything about dirty intelligence on the ground finding out exactly what the Iranians have been up to, but what do we know about the clean-up job?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ashleigh, the problem with this site. It's called Parshin. It's southeast of Tehran, is that inspectors, nuclear inspectors haven't been there since 2005.

They have intelligence that tells them Iran had been conducting tests there, explosive tests that could lead them to be able to make a trigger for a nuclear bomb. So, that's the concern.

This is a site that would theoretically be another element in the Iranian chain of events that would allow them to assemble all the parts that would lead them to make a nuclear bomb and that's what Israel says it cannot allow.

It doesn't want Iran to even have the capability, of course, to be able to assemble a bomb. When Senator Feinstein talks about this, an awful lot of people listen.

She is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, of course, and she has got some pretty good sources and access to the latest intelligence.

And, of course, after this week, to the thinking of Israeli leaders who have been in Washington talking about this -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: When she speaks, I listen and when the IAEA speaks, I listen as well. I think most people do and they have said. That organization and its director general have had pretty clear language on what is going on. I think (inaudible) said that Iran is not telling us everything. It's declared a number of nuclear facilities. But I can tell that for some they're peaceful, but, for others, we have an indication that there could be a relevance to the development of nuclear explosive devices. That is serious. That is really serious when they say those kinds of striking words.

STARR: Absolutely. This is the sort of game that's been going on for years now with Iran. So they led inspectors into some places after they cleaned them up, places maybe, this is a site, for example, Parshin, very large, very complex and multiple buildings, multiple areas.

You can let inspectors into a very small portion of this and not let them see what is really going on there. The inspectors know this. This is why satellite imagery is so important to look at, collecting intelligence on the ground.

There are all kinds of methods that they learn to assemble the data that they have. Iran letting them in is just one part of it and the real lesson here is that there is this great uncertainty about what Iran is really up to.

BANFIELD: Yes, letting them in, but so many say it's still just a cat and mouse game. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thanks very much.

STARR: Sure.

SAMBOLIN: Let's move on to Syria now. There is no let up to the government crackdown on the opposition there. Explosions rocked several cities overnight again. Syria's oil minister is now the highest ranking government official to defect from the Assad regime to the opposition.

He revealed it in a YouTube video. U.S. intervention in Syria was a hot topic at the Senate hearing yesterday with Senator John McCain saying that the United States must do something to stop the slaughter.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: We look back, if we fail to intervene years from now and thousands and thousands of Syrians have been massacred while we stood by because we can't address the issue. We can. We're the best military in the world.

I understand the strain on American military, I understand the sacrifices made by American families, but I also understand if the proudest part of American history is when we have tried to help other people achieve the same goals that we so passionately articulated when we declared our independence.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The United States cannot be the world's policemen. We still have men and women dying in Afghanistan. We are trying to get out of Iraq.

We played a role in Libya. We see the Middle East exploding. The key is to get the United Nations to pass a resolution, which enables the Arab League to go in there. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Two very different schools of thought there. The Obama administration is now weighing possible military options in Syria.

We're going to have more on the growing crisis in Syria later on "STARTING POINT" at 7:00 Eastern Time. Soledad O'Brien talks with Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent.

BANFIELD: Normally it's a good thing when you have a sunny day, but this may not be the sunny day that you want. It's a sun storm actually. Stunning images from NASA. Take a look.

Beautiful, absolutely beautiful, but not nice. Big solar storm, the biggest in years with hot shots shooting out of the sun after traveling at 4 million miles an hour through space.

They're hammering us right about now. In fact, I think just in minutes, we're about to see the worst of it. Northern lights, they are pretty, and they may be prettier, but Rob Marciano, it's not about pretty light shows at this point. We're talking power grid.

SAMBOLIN: It may be about pretty because I was tweeting this out and saying, Rob, tell us what is up and he's like, don't worry your pretty little head, really?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I meant that in the nicest way.

BANFIELD: If you lose power, you're not going to like the pictures.

MARCIANO: Just keep two things handy in the next 24 hours, candles and a map. We're going to survive this thing. All right, guys?

Good morning, guys. Here's a breakdown. This is the biggest impact from a solar flare that we've seen since 2006. Now there are two phases of this. By the way, this is the sun spot that it came out of.

We're at an increasing cycle of sun spots. It's an 11-year deal. We're going to peek it out in the next year and a half. So expect more of this kind of stuff and we'll give you warnings as it happens and this sun spot will remain pointed at earth for the next few days, at least.

We may get another flare up and there's two phases to this. One, when the solar flare hits or erupts, you get a radiation that hits the earth almost immediately.

That causes radio blackouts and then you get this plasma, basically, and particles that moves like three to five million miles per hour and gets here a day and a half to three days later.

That's what's arriving right now. That's what causes the northern lights and that's also what causes the satellite interruption and GPS interruption. So your GPS map may be affected and also can zap the power grid. So those are the two things that we're at risk to over the next 24 hours and then by tomorrow morning things will calm down and last, we get another eruption of a solar flare. So again, power grids, GPS satellites interrupted.

The brilliant auroras may be seen as far south as, well, maybe in some cases, St. Louis, but we have a full moon that is happening and you have to get away from city lights. But I think Minneapolis, Milwaukee, you'll see them tonight.

And by the way, it's windy across the northeast. The winds will pick up today and keep temperatures actually well above average and you'll have that much more to enjoy the northern lights with.

BANFIELD: The aurora borealis, I grew up with that, Rob. Honestly, I see that on a regular basis and not until I came south did I realize that is really special.

MARCIANO: There's nothing like it. It's a spiritual experience.

BANFIELD: It really is. All right, thanks, Rob.

SAMBOLIN: Still ahead, you know him as Joe, The Plumber and he may soon be "Sam, The Congressman." He just won the GOP primary in Ohio. He's going to join us, coming up next. You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Good morning, Columbus, Ohio. Courtesy of your network, WBNS. We're giving you a tower cam shot there, 61 degrees, currently, a little bit of rain in your forecast and dropping a few degrees to 59 later today. It's nice to have you with us this morning.

SAMBOLIN: Remember "Joe, The Plumber?"

BANFIELD: You bet you.

SAMBOLIN: He is back. He was the man who is thrust into the spotlight by presidential candidate, John McCain, four years ago. He is now on the campaign trail himself.

He won his congressional district in Ohio. Samuel Wurzelbacher is his real name and this is how most people remember him in 2008 confronting then candidate Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMUEL WURZELBACHER, "JOE THE PLUMBER": My name is Joe Wurzelbacher.

BARACK OBAMA, THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Good to see, Joe.

WURZELBACHER: And I'm getting ready to buy a company that is making $250,000, $270,000 $280,000 a year.

OBAMA: All right.

WURZELBACHER: Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Well, he was famously called Joe the plumber. His name is Samuel Joe Wurzelbacher and he is joining us this morning.

Thank you for being with us.

WURZELBACHER: Thanks for having me.

SAMBOLIN: So, in 2008, you were John McCain's secret weapon. He cited you as someone being harmed by Obama's tax plan. How was that like for you?

WURZELBACHER: Well, I don't know so much as John McCain's secret weapon, there is no interaction between us. I just happened to be tossing the football with my son, I wanted to buy a business, and it came down to the principle of the matter. I don't think the federal government gets to decide who's rich and who's not.

SAMBOLIN: What do you do for a living now?

WURZELBACHER: Well, for the last four years I've gone around building houses, taking trees down, plumbing, and speaking at different events around the country encouraging Americans to really get informed on who they're going to vote for. Stop voting on 30-second sound bites, and make sure their vote counts and then really exercise their civic responsibility as an American.

SAMBOLIN: And what do you think or how do you think that qualifies you to run for Congress?

WURZELBACHER: What qualifies me -- one, I'm an American citizen. Two, you know, I'm very much involved in the process of what's going on.

I guess my question would be, what qualifies the current politicians who are killing our country, Republicans and Democrats alike.

I'm sorry, it just seems like a silly question.

SAMBOLIN: Well, no. I mean, you're running for Congress. So, people want to know what your qualifications are, your breadth of experience in order to lead.

WURZELBACHER: Breadth of experiences. Yes, I've worked all my life. I mean, see these hands right here, there's calluses on them. I worked last 25 years to having to make results to feed my family, pay my bills.

Politicians, you know, they live off the backs of broke taxpayers. They constantly take advantage of us. They don't get anything done. There's never-ending money from the taxpayer, not if American people are stepping up.

My qualifications is I'm an American and I've served my country in the military, and I'm going to serve my country in Congress. The whole idea from our Constitution and the creation of our country is for people to come out of the community, represent their constituents, their fellow Americans, and then go back to the community.

Right now, unfortunately, you've got career politicians that lose touch with reality of what is America, you know? So, I have lots of qualifications.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Let's talk about the GOP nomination that you wanted. It was a really tight margin -- 51 percent of the vote compared to your opponents, 48 percent. And you had a lot of money, six times the amount of your opponent.

But now, you have a really strong incumbent to face -- the Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur. She defeated Kucinich in her primary. She's considered a conservative Democrat. She's defeated every Republican challenger that she has faced since 1982.

How do you think you're going to win this?

WURZELBACHER: Well, you know, that's the first time I heard her called a conservative Democrat. Listen, Marcy likes to tout her experience and wisdom and dealing with appropriations and the budget.

I believe that's a bad thing for her just on the simple fact that we just had $111 billion spike in the health care law that she proudly supported, which goes against our Constitution. She's shown a willingness to undermine the very fabric and foundation of this country.

As far as defeating her is going to take hard work, you know, just getting out there and meeting the people and talking to them, letting them know the key to prosperity is tax reform and getting rid of some of the regulations that have killed the automobile industry and she's been behind that.

So, there's a lot of things out there that we can talk about and make sure that people here in the ninth district understand that actually want to work for them. I talk about hiring me, because when you vote for people, you make that vote and you go away. When you hire somebody, you actually expect good results --

SAMBOLIN: You know what? I want to talk about -- I want to talk about the district that you're competing in. It goes from Cleveland to Toledo, right?

WURZELBACHER: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: Very Democratic in that area.

WURZELBACHER: Correct.

SAMBOLIN: The challenge for you because you're a conservative Republican. So, it brings up some comments that you said and I want to share them with you. In an interview in 2009 in "Christianity Today," you made comments about gay people. We're going to put them up there for everybody to see.

"Queer means strange and unusual. It's not like a slur, like you would call a white person a honky or something like that." You also said, "I've had some friends that were homosexual and I mean, they know where I stand and they know that I wouldn't have them anywhere near my children. But at the same time, they're people and they're going to do their thing."

Have you changed your positions on this at all?

WURZELBACHER: So, this is TMZ. This isn't CNN is what you're saying.

SAMBOLIN: Of course, it's CNN.

These are things you said that I would like to know if you still stand by them or if you have change your positions on them.

WURZELBACHER: No, I want everybody to have a job. Americans, as far as that goes. Republican, Democrat, union, non-union --

SAMBOLIN: What about these comments that you made? Do you stand by these comments?

WURZELBACHER: Listen, in my dictionary and in everyone's dictionary from the 1970s, the word queer did mean strange and unusual. There was no slur to it. Do you challenge that?

SAMBOLIN: No, I'm just -- I'm questioning whether or not you still stand by these positions on homosexuality --

(CROSSTALK)

WURZELBACHER: I'm trying to get where you're coming from? What context are you using this in?

SAMBOLIN: The context that I'm using --

WURZELBACHER: Come on. You're trying to do a gotcha moment, it's quite obvious.

SAMBOLIN: No, no, it's not a gotcha moment. These are things that you said and I think people voting for you should have an opportunity to understand whether or not you have changed your positions on these two issues here.

WURZELBACHER: Well, I'll tell you what? I have spoke with Jimmy LaSalvia over at GOProud and I'm in an agreement that I'm going to work towards all Americans, homosexuals, straight. They want jobs. That's what it comes down to.

I'm allowed to have my opinion as an American but it seems the left is very tolerant when you have an opinion other than what they state. SAMBOLIN: Well, when you decide to run for political office, then all your opinions actually come back and, you know, sometimes we need to explain them. We appreciate your time this morning.

WURZELBACHER: My opinions are mine.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Samuel Wurzelbacher, thank you for joining us this morning.

WURZELBACHER: Thanks.

BANFIELD: And coming up, 21 minutes past -- it is the new iPad. Not the iPad 3, not the iPad H.D. So, what is different about this thing and should you dole out the big bucks or are they even big bucks to get one? We're going to get you all the info you need to know on the big new gadget.

Also, speaking of bucks, how about the bank fees? Does that bug you? Because we've got yet another new report of a bank that wants your money. And then it wants you to pay to get your money. We'll explain.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Twenty-four minutes past the hour.

The wait is over, almost. Apple finally rolled out the new version of the iPad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIM COOK, CEO, APPLE: Everyone's been wondering, who will come out with a product that is more amazing than the iPad 2? Everybody has been wondering this. Well, stop wondering. We are.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Oh my Lord. If you squint, that almost looks like Steve Jobs. That's so spooky. But that's Tim Cook. Oh, even the black shirt and everything.

So, anyway, we've got everything you need to know about the new iPad, including the name and all the gadgety stuff that it's going to offer.

Our Bridget Carey is doing the job for us this morning. She's the senior editor of CNET.com.

You're back. It's good to see you back so quickly with all the details I was trying to mine out of you yesterday. What's the biggest headline?

BRIDGET CAREY, CNET: Well, it's all about the screen on the new iPad, which is just called the new iPad. It's not, you know, any special name to it. BANFIELD: No 3 or H.D. or no wowsa.

CAREY: Yes, it's surprising. Very surprising.

They're just going to call it the third generation of the new iPad and it's all about the screen. They put so many pixels in this guy that it is just better than any laptop screen you have out there.

BANFIELD: Seriously? Any laptop?

CAREY: It's just probably one of the best screens out there. That's what they're trying to sell on.

Also, it's a faster processor inside. So, when you compare or combine the screen and the processor, that equates to better gaming on it. That's another point they're trying to sell on.

BANFIELD: So, is this a big thing for gamers or does it apply to me who only uses my iPad for games when they're for my 6-year-old who doesn't need to see something really clear?

CAREY: You hit the point. You know, it's something that Apple is really trying to sell on. But most hard-core gamers want to go to their Xbox or their PlayStation.

BANFIELD: Yes.

CAREY: But, you know, Apple is trying to raise the bar another level now.

BANFIELD: OK. So, I keep wondering the telephone, the cell phone aspect is going to hit the iPad. The USB port, which drives me bananas, it doesn't have one. What about all that other stuff. And how about Siri, while we're at it?

CAREY: Yes, there is no Siri, the magical assistant you can talk to on your iPhone is not on the new iPad. Instead, they have a voice dictation app. So, if you want to talk out your e-mail, it will translate speech to text.

BANFIELD: Well, do we know how good it is? I used those products before and apparently I asked people to marry me, when I asked for like a hot dog. So, how good is it?

CAREY: Well, we'll have to see when it comes out. It's going to come on Friday, March 16th.

BANFIELD: So, we don't get to test it yesterday, we just get to hear the big speech.

CAREY: Exactly.

BANFIELD: Nobody got one in their hands?

CAREY: Well, you know, at the event, people got to play around with it and so far, so good. You can never really know until you spend some quality time with it.

BANFIELD: Hey, Bridget, yesterday, I asked you about the free samples. Are they going to be handing out those free samples?

CAREY: That's what I'm trying to find out myself, yes.

BANFIELD: You and me both, girl. I don't know if I can shell out anymore money for products. Honestly, they just keep updating every year and I just get depressed.

CAREY: You don't have to buy a new one if you already have an iPad 2. It's a situation where if you've been on the fence, might as well get it, the same price as it was before. If you had an iPad 1, the original one, then you might want to upgrade.

SAMBOLIN: That's a good point.

BANFIELD: When it comes and you get it in your hands, we can have you back, you can do a demo.

CAREY: Will do.

BANFIELD: How does that sound?

Thanks for coming in. Good to see you again.

SAMBOLIN: I like that she says if you have a newer version, that's good.

BANFIELD: I like that she's that smart, that fast. It usually takes me a year to figure out what I have to work with and something else comes out with more to learn. I'm a slow curve, folks.

SAMBOLIN: Twenty minutes past the hour here.

Still ahead, win, lose or drop out. Why Newt Gingrich may be the most important man in the GOP race in the next week.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is 31 minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We're very happy you're with us this morning.

It is time to check the stories making news.

New satellite images raising more fears about Iran's nuclear programs. Two Western diplomats tell CNN that satellite images show large trucks and earth moving vehicles at a suspected nuclear testing site. The timing is really important here. U.N. inspectors have tried and failed to get into that site before. Tehran only decided on Monday that they would be let in. Did you hear about the angry sun? It is a stunning image from NASA of solar flares erupting from the sun after speeding through space at 4 million miles an hour. They are bombarding the earth right now. Experts say it may disrupt GPS, even ground some flights today.

On the brighter side, it's making a magical northern light display.

BANFIELD: Free checking for Wells Fargo customers may soon be a thing of the past. Bank announcing a $7 a month service fee in six more states. Wells Fargo stopped offering free checking for new customers back in 2010. But officials haven't disclosed which state are going to be affected by the fee.

The 700 Club's Pat Robertson has something very controversial to tell you. He is now saying that he wants to make marijuana legal. I said legal. Robertson says we should treat marijuana like we treat alcohol. He says he has never used the drug and does not intend to, just believes that the war on drugs has been a failure.

SAMBOLIN: Fascinating.

BANFIELD: Fascinating. Didn't see that one coming.

SAMBOLIN: No.

Thirty-three minutes past the hour.

After only winning his home state of Georgia on Super Tuesday, Newt Gingrich is putting all his chips on the Deep South in the next week. He has decided to ditch Kansas for Alabama and Mississippi, and that decision to stay in the race, not double down, may be a huge factor for everyone.

Let's talk about this. Joining us now: former spokesman of House Republican Conference, Gretchen Hamel, Democratic Strategist Tim Punke, and national political reporter for "Politico," Alexander Burns.

Thank you, all, for joining us this morning.

Alexander, I'm going to start with you.

Gingrich the kingmaker is what he is being called. Tony Perkins, president of conservative Family Research Council sent out an e-mail last night -- I'm going to read it here.

"Gingrich has never been in a more influential position in deciding the outcome of a nomination: he could be a kingmaker if he stepped out of the race and threw his support to another candidate."

Remember Erick Erickson and other prominent conservatives said the same thing about Rick Perry. The very next day, Rick Perry dropped out of the race. Do you think Gingrich will take his advice?

ALEXANDERS BURNS, POLITICO: Yes, Zoraida, if Gingrich were to go in the kingmaker direction, it will be sort of contrary to all the personal qualities that he's exhibited in this campaign. That victory speech, as he called it in Georgia on Tuesday, was just very self- indulgent affair, sort of heaping praise on himself for winning his home state.

But, you know, going forward, Gingrich clearly has some personal, political decisions to make. The longer he goes on in this race, the more he is just staking his, not just his political future, but his entire professional reputation on maybe being the Southern regional candidate against Mitt Romney. It's not clear that's going to be a good tradeoff for Newt Gingrich and maybe he could win some more points with his party, more points with his conservatives if he sort of takes one for the team.

SAMBOLIN: And a divided party continues. So, you think he'll stay in?

BURNS: I think that right now, Newt Gingrich is full speed ahead. I think if he loses in those two Southern primaries next week, it's going to be a much, much tougher road to hoe.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Gretchen, next stop is Kansas where recent legislation on abortion brings up the issues raised in the contraception battle, right?

Charles P. Pierce, columnist for "Esquire" magazine, says this about the battle. "Mitt Romney once again is going to have a golden chance to have a reverse the pro-choice position that helped him get elected governor of Massachusetts, thereby cementing his reputation as an unprincipled opportunist that nobody on either side of the question trust. Thus will be presented with the question of which yawns more ominously for the Republicans, their gender gap with women or their punitive frontrunner's credibility gap with almost everyone.:"

You're a conservative woman. We know you are also a baseball fan. Why? Because we checked one of your pages. You had a countdown clock on your Web site to when pitchers and catchers are actually showing up for spring training.

So, I'm going to put a little baseball analogy here. Two things heat up in October, the playoffs and presidential race. Can Romney hit the clutch for the conservatives?

GRETCHEN HAMEL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE PUBLIC NOTICE: Yes, I think he can. And I think, you know, looking at Kansas, looking at some of these states where, you know, the birth control has come up, you have to look at where Romney has played well. It made the difference in Ohio. He won the women's vote in Ohio and it made the difference.

Had Santorum not gotten off a winning message about religious freedom with this birth control mandate and actually talked about it, instead of talking about birth control and women's right, then he could have won Ohio.

But Romney is talking about what the majority of Americans care about right now. And that is the economy, the government spending, and how we get this nation back on track. We are tired of debating the old debates and I think November will be about what this nation wants and what the majority of the people want -- and that's good economy.

SAMBOLIN: All right, Tim, I'm going to switch gears here on you. An op-ed in the "Wall Street Journal," political expert Larry Sabato, he says -- he crunches some numbers and says, "Whether he's injured or strong by June, Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican candidate for president."

But one thing he is missing is money, right? We know that he is personally rich and a lot of people, big donors, have given him money. But he can't really identify with that small donor. He's lagging behind in those and "New York Times" quoted a voter as saying he is so rich, he does not need my support.

So, someone who is really good at reaching out to that small donor is your candidate, Barack Obama. So, I got a little show and tell here today.

Not only does he have contests that you can enter for small donation, but a ton of fun merchandise, right? Iphone covers, can koozies, dog sweaters, a mug with a long form birth certificate that says, "made in America". Even Santorum is getting the hint and he's selling sweater vests.

Do you have any advice for Romney what he can do, perhaps, to get those small donors to give him some money?

TIM PUNKE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: The can koozie is my favorite.

SAMBOLIN: Around here it is, as well, by the way.

PUNKE: I think one thing Romney can do is simply try to connect with the American middle class. Romney had so many gaffes recently from the $10,000 bet, to the friends with NASCAR owners, to simply completely being off message.

I mean, Romney's biggest problem I think over the last month is simply that they've gotten off track in terms of talking about the economy. Instead, they're talking about immigration or talking about these women's issues in the Rush Limbaugh. It's really gotten Republicans incredibly off track. And you're seeing that more and more in the favorability ratings.

I know one of the things we've been talking about is this idea that -- well, the long campaign is having an impact on everybody. But Romney's favorability ratings right now are 28 percent -- 28 percent. That's a terrible place to be right now and that's going to affect his fund-raising really across the board.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Alexander, Gretchen and Tim, thanks for joining us this morning.

HAMEL: Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: Congresswoman Michele Bachmann at 7:00 this morning on "STARTING POINT" -- her thoughts on the Rush Limbaugh controversy which continues. And, of course, a 2012 race, she will weigh in on that, as well.

BANFIELD: Thirty-nine minutes now past 6:00 a.m.

And, still ahead, there is something the surgeon general wants you to know about kids and smoking and here's a hint. It ain't good and it ain't getting better. Our Elizabeth Cohen is watching that closely. She's going to explain in just a moment.

You're watching EARLY START.

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SAMBOLIN: Forty-three minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

It's the new surgeon general's report and it focuses on kids and smoking. This is the first time since 1994 that they do a report like this.

The tobacco industry spends $10 billion a year on marketing. That's $29 million a day.

BANFIELD: And a lot of that advertising focuses on young people and young adults, and there's a good reason for it. Very few people start smoking after the age of 25. So, if you're in the business of tobacco, you've got to get them young, so to speak.

Senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is in Atlanta with some of the details of this report.

I think the headline, first and foremost, it's been 18 years since we had a report like this. But what is the takeaway from this? And what actually might happen with regard with kinds of advertising we're seeing out there, Elizabeth?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Ashleigh, this report picks off where Joe Camel left off.

Joe Camel, if you remember that from many years ago, the government said, you can't do that. It appeals to kids. It's cartoonish. You can't do that any more. And tobacco companies have abided by that.

But, now, there's a concern among anti-smoking candidates that the tobacco industry is doing more subtle things to appeal to young people. I'm going to show you three pictures that get to their point. This is from the Campaigns for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Look at this convenience store. You see the Marlboro advertising right next to the ice cream and the snacks. And anti-smoking folks say this is not a coincidence.

Here, for example, you see Marlboro next to the slushy folks or the slushy guy.

And then, thirdly, and this one, you're really going to really look at this to figure out what's going on. Ashleigh, if you look in the background, you see standing up are these brightly colored sticks. They're actually cigarillos. So, that's actually a tobacco product.

BANFIELD: Oh, come on.

COHEN: I'm serious.

BANFIELD: They look like Easter eggs.

COHEN: Those are Easter eggs in the foreground but in the background --

BANFIELD: Yes, but they look like Easter sticks.

COHEN: But it's a tobacco product and it's placed next to the chocolate. And there've been accusations by some, including the American Heart Association, that this is done on purpose, that the tobacco industry tells the convenience stores, hey, this is where we want you to place those products, and that is all part of getting young people to want to smoke.

BANFIELD: You know, I -- look, we got to give them their due here. R.J. Reynolds gave out a statement, and at least, David Howard, the senior director there, said it's guide and principle and belief that R.J. Reynolds (ph) that minors should never use tobacco products and adults who do not use or have quit using tobacco products should not start.

So, if they're saying those things, is this just all guess work possibly on the part of the surgeon general that those positionings and those adds? I mean, it could be coincidence. I guess, that's my point. Could it be coincidence if the altruistic statements are true?

COHEN: Right, let me read you another one. This is from Philip Morris spokesman. "Our tobacco companies market to adults who use tobacco." Well, I mean, that would be their position. Others would say, let's take a look at menthol. Menthol is a flavor, but it's also kind of an anesthetic. It kind of dulls the feeling of the throat, and it makes it easier for a new smoker to get the harsh smoke down.

They say that it's no coincidence that half of middle schoolers who smoke, smoke menthol. Half of them. And so, these advocates say, look, they're doing this on purpose, and they would like to see menthol cigarettes off the market entirely.

BANFIELD: I remember, they had like flavored tobacco a while back that they got rid of the cherry and all the rest, but I guess, menthol may be next on the chopping block.

COHEN: Right. But you know, there are flavored tobacco products, not necessarily cigarettes, but smokeless tobacco that have sort of these cool names and flavors.

BANFIELD: And of course, there's that pipe tobacco out there, too. It's all kind of gross to me, but not to others. So, we'll watch and see what happens. Thanks, Elizabeth.

COHEN: Thanks. BANFIELD: I wish you were bringing better news, but very interesting news, anyway.

I also want to mention that later on "Starting Point" with Soledad O'Brien in, let's see, about an hour from now, about 7:50 a.m. on the east coast, she's going to talk to Matthew Myers who's the president and CEP of the campaign for tobacco-free kids. Make sure you tune in for that.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: I can't believe she said middle schoolers. That dropped my jaw.

BANFIELD: You know what, I guess, earlier than that. I hate to say it. Elementary kids.

SAMBOLIN: Gee! All right. Forty-seven minutes past the hour. It's time to check stories making news this morning.

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SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Diplomats say new satellite images show Iran cleaning up a suspected nuclear site, possibly to cover up work on a nuclear detonator. U.N. inspectors have repeatedly been denied access to the military base in those specific images.

And the strongest waves arriving right about now. It is a stunning image, isn't it? This is from NASA. Solar flares erupting from the sun after speeding through space at four million miles an hour. They're bombarding the earth and sparking some amazing light shows. Have you seen them?

While pretty, experts say they may disrupt GPS, even ground some flights today. Rob Marciano says keep some candles nearby, just in case.

BANFIELD (voice-over): And take a look at that car, because Chrysler is recalling it, actually, recalling over 200,000 of the Jeep Liberty models. Companies saying that salt on the roadways could actually be so corrosive it could break the SUV's rear suspension. Recalled models are from 2004 and 2005.

So, go check your vehicle. In the meantime, the highway and traffic safety officials are investigating nine reports of lower control arm fractures in jeep liberties, as well. So, stay tune for more news on that.

"Forbes" magazine is releasing its annual report of the billionaire's list. I love this one. Topping it for the third year in a row, Mexican telecom mogul, Carlos Slim. He's got a net worth of $69 billion, if you are counting. America's richest man, Bill Gates, came in second and Warren Buffett who's usually on that list, too, rounds out the top three.

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SAMBOLIN (on-camera): And Soledad O'Brien is joining us now with a look at what is ahead on "Starting Point." Good morning.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At number four, Soledad O'Brien.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: I knew you were going to say that. You're buying breakfast.

SAMBOLIN: Don't you wish? Don't you wish?

O'BRIEN: I'm just lying. I'm just out and outline. Good morning, everybody. All right, coming up on "Starting Point" just about ten minutes, we're going to talk about Andrew Breitbart's last bombshell. It's video about President Obama in his student days at Harvard, but is it even a bombshell at all? We'll talk about that.

Plus, she is on the far right and another congresswoman on the far left, but the two of them, Michele Bachmann and Congresswoman Karen Bass are actually coming together, even though, ideologically, they're very far about. They're coming together about an issue that's very important to both of them. We'll talk about what they're doing for foster kids here in the United States.

And then, Rita Moreno we're going to talk to her. You know, she has won the cleaned up on awards. She's going to be our guest this morning. She talks about her new show with Fran Drescher and what else she is doing in her life. It's so fascinating. That's all ahead this morning on "Starting Point." We're going to see you at the top of the hour. EARLY START is back right after the commercial break.

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SAMBOLIN: Hollywood filmmaker, James Cameron, taking us on a new adventure. His next project, a trip to the very deepest part of the ocean, the challenger deep in the Mariana Trench.

BANFIELD: Only two other people have ever actually traveled that far down into the Mariana Trench, and you know, James Cameron has a special, itty-bitty submarine. Take a look at it. It actually looks pretty big to me, but in the grand scheme of things, it is pretty small when you go in that far down.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's true.

BANFIELD: Our Jason Carroll is one luck man, because he got the exclusive to head over to Papua New Guinea. I love that part of the world. It is beautiful, but I do not want to go that deep down in the ocean.

CARROLL: Yes. Not many people probably want to do that, and I can't blame them, but Cameron is different, simply because this is a man who's been involved with deep sea exploration for many, many, many years. He's involved and well-known in the scientific community. So, he's had a love for deep sea exploration, and you can see him.

He's built this along with the team of scientists and help from National Geographic. He's built this highly sophisticated submersible that's going to take him down some 36,000 feet below the surface. I mean, that's challenging --

BANFIELD: That's pretty deep town.

CARROLL: It is deep town. Pressure so deep we're talking 16,500 bits of pressure per square inch. I mean, think about the amount of pressure. There's no sunlight down there, but this is a man who is committed to exploration. He's committed to science, bringing back samples, and I spoke with him about what he hopes to accomplish when he's down there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CAMERON, DIRECTOR: I want to get down there and look around and image and use these 3D cameras and bring it all back so people can see what's there, you know? I mean, it's the last unexplored frontier on the planet. And when I was a kid, when I was a teenager, those unexplored frontiers meant so much to me.

And I kind of feel like our world is shifting into a post-exploration mentality like, OK, been there, done that. We've got it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARROLL: You know, really good point there. And I spoke to one of the microbiologists onboard and every scientist, everyone on board so passionate about this. He said, Jason, we already have specimens. He said that's going to keep me busy for years and years to come. That's because they've already successfully completed a dive to 26,000 feet. They're recovered specimens from there.

BANFIELD: And he said these are the new-age --

CARROLL: He is.

BANFIELD: If you can't do the math on 36,000 feet, you know, so take Mt. Everest --

CARROLL: OK.

BANFIELD: -- turn it upside down --

CARROLL: Correct.

BANFIELD: -- and add another mile. And that's how far they're going.

CARROLL: You know, another way to think about this. The next time you're flying across the country and you look down, chances are you're cruising at an altitude of about 36,000 feet.

SAMBOLIN: He could die, couldn't he? I mean, is he worried, is he nervous? What sense did you get?

CARROLL: Well, I know his mother is worried. He told me that his mother is worried about it, and his mother doesn't want him to dive any more. But, look, this is -- Cameron says it best, this is not about hope, it's not about luck. He says, it really is about science.

And you know, more than eight years of science has gone into this. This is not a vanity project by a man who's, you know, very successful in Hollywood and has the money. This is someone who's committed to science and exploration.

BANFIELD: And there will be a camera rolling.

CARROLL: And there will be a camera rolling, thanks to "National Geographic."

BANFIELD: I love it. We'll be able to watch them. Oh, Jason Carroll, you are a lucky guy to be able to get there first. I need that assignment, and you need sunscreen.

CARROLL: Yes, I know. I need a little bit here now.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Five minutes now until seven o'clock. Coming up on "Starting Point," Congressman Michele Bachmann is going to join our Soledad O'Brien with her thoughts on this whole Rush Limbaugh controversy, because she's had a few names thrown at her in the past. She's also going to talk about 2012 and a whole lot of other stuff that comes to Soledad's mind. You're watching EARLY START.

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SAMBOLIN: That's it for us.

BANFIELD: We're done. And you know what, that doesn't mean the show is done, though. The morning, we turn over to Soledad O'Brien. "Starting Point."

O'BRIEN: It's Friday. You're starting your weekend, but we're just getting underway. Good morning. Welcome, everybody to "Starting Point." (INAUDIBLE) new satellite images show Iran may be cleaning up a nuclear site before nuclear inspectors arrive. Could this push Israel over the edge? We're going to examine that question this morning.

Plus, sun shock. The largest solar storm in years is hammering the earth right now and could bring us dazzling lights and also could cause some serious problems from rerouting planes and knocking out power grids.

And Rush Limbaugh ditched again. Remember, the military who (INAUDIBLE) show on armed forces radio, but now, a very influence voices are saying, yank him off. Those are our "Starting Points" for Thursday, March 8th, 2012.