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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Savage Attack In Afghanistan; Limbaugh Is "Contagious"; U.S. Soldier Kills 16 Afghan Civilians; 45 Women, Children Killed In Syria; "Doonesbury" Abortion Series; It's Tourney Time!; Foxworthy Joining Romney On Trail; Killing Spree In Afghanistan; Big Advertisers "Avoid" Right Wing Talk; U.S. Soldier Accused of Afghan Massacre; "Kony 2012" Creators To Respond

Aired March 12, 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 very good morning to you, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We are bringing you the news from "A" to "Z." It's 6 a.m. here in the east.

Coming up this hour, a U.S. soldier's cold-blooded killing spree in Afghanistan. It is threatening the mission there this morning. We're going to talk to someone who served on the front lines in both Iraq and Afghanistan, what needs to be done in order to diffuse the anger.

BANFIELD: The Rush Limbaugh scandal just won't go away. In fact, the word contagious now emerging. The advertisers have been jumping ship, and now the radio bosses are getting a little nervous, too.

And not just about Rush, other shows just like his. John Avlon is going to join us on a move that could really have a huge effect on right wing talk radio.

SAMBOLIN: It is one minute past the hour. Christine Romans is here with the check of the stories making news this morning. It is a tough news morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: It really is. I mean, I want to start in Afghanistan where it's, quite frankly, a lit fuse this morning.

U.S. soldiers are warned this morning anti-American sentiment is rising after an American soldier went on a shooting spree early Sunday morning killing 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children.

And in Syria this morning, 45 women and children have been slaughtered in a terrifying massacre there. Rebel groups say government forces stormed the City of Homs going house to house, stabbing women and children and then burning their bodies.

Syria's government is blaming the killings on armed terrorist groups, not the government. Rebel groups are claiming more than 100 people were killed Sunday in government crackdowns.

The Doonesbury comic strip pulled from several U.S. newspapers this morning outrage after that popular comic strip tackles Texas' new law requiring ultrasounds before abortions.

Let's dance, the NCAA tournament is set and it is Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Michigan State earning the top seeds in their regions. Kentucky is the favorite to go all the way. The madness will begin on Thursday morning.

Mitt Romney enlisting the aid of comedian Jeff Foxworthy on the campaign trail today in Mississippi and Alabama. Those two states hold their primaries tomorrow.

Rick Santorum hoping conservatives can deliver him some critical delegates after winning Kansas over the weekend, Mitt Romney, Jeff Foxworthy.

BANFIELD: Oil and water, I don't know. Can you see what Jay Leno --

ROMANS: I think he's trying -- between the grits and the y'all and trying to show his down home self a little bit in the south.

BANFIELD: Some say that. Some say pander. Did you watch the clips?

ROMANS: They were great.

BANFIELD: I think that would be fun late night TV coming, my thoughts.

ROMANS: There's always a lot of fun late night TV in the primary season.

BANFIELD: All right, thanks, Christine. Get you up on your big stories of the day, and right now nobody knows for sure if a tragic house to house execution style shooting spree by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan is going to really wreak havoc on America's mission in what is already a very unstable country.

U.S. soldiers are now being warned that anti-American sentiment is again on the rise. President of that country is calling the shootings unforgivable. In the end, we've got a count so far, 16 Afghan civilians killed and, among them, nine children.

Barbara Starr is live at the Pentagon for us morning. My thought is that the investigation is only just beginning right now -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Ashleigh. By all accounts this soldier about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning on Sunday walked out of his base in a remote area of Kandahar Province in the south, went to villages nearby, and conducted these killings.

Brutal business, very tough. I mean, you know, just think about this one little area where the U.S. troops were operating. They were there specifically to not just route out the Taliban, but to help the people who live in that area, to convince them that they would be kept safe, that they could proceed with their lives.

This was all about trying to be the one voice of safety and stability for the people in that region. And, of course, it has gone so terribly wrong. U.S. commanders we're talking to absolutely heart sick, a real punch to the gut on this one.

They are promising a full investigation. So far, no one can say what the motivation was of this soldier to do what he did.

BANFIELD: So maybe it is one soldier, maybe it is a mental instability, but the facts don't always translate on the ground among Afghans where communication is sketchy at best and Taliban is always exacerbating things.

What is the thought about our departure plans for 2012 and then the long-term basing plans in Afghanistan?

STARR: Well, look, the Taliban are already claiming that there will be violence, that there will be retaliation, really obviously trying to stir things up. That is to be expected in Afghanistan.

Rudimentary communications, it may be several days before word of this really filters out across the country. So I think that is one of the typical concerns is that you could see a delayed impact in towns and villages and cities across Afghanistan as word of this begins to filter out.

Right now, no change, we are told, in the U.S. strategy, which is -- the NATO strategy, which is to have operations wrapped up by the end of 2014. The U.S. continuing its drawdown of its forces between now and then.

But, look, the practicality is, this is going to put a lot of pressure on the U.S. and on NATO to really show some progress and get things wrapped up in Afghanistan.

BANFIELD: What about the base where this soldier's from, Lewis McCord in Washington State. This was also the base where four soldiers went on a thrill-killing spree, were jailed in 2010.

Is there an issue with the base or is it really this province area, which is so troublesome that may just be causing this kind of potential for violence?

STARR: Well, I think you'll find that that other incident was in a different location in Afghanistan. There have been issues at this base in the past as there are many places.

You know, I think what people are going to want to be careful to really figure out first when this soldier really started serving out of Lewis McCord in Washington.

Did he recently arrive there and deploy to Afghanistan, is there some longer history here? Are there ties to be made? Are there command problems there? All of these things will be looked at -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: All right, Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon this morning. Also want to let you know that the Afghan parliament has actually issued a statement and I'm going to read it for you now.

"We strongly request that government of America to give punishment for this wild act and have a public trial in front of people of Afghanistan."

I'm sure that that's the way it would work, likely the trial might be on U.S. soil, but certainly that soldiering is going to face some kind of American justice probably U.S. military justice.

SAMBOLIN: And at 6:30 Eastern, we're going to get some perspective on the tragedy in Afghanistan when we're joined by Thomas Cotton. He served as a U.S. army captain in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is currently returning for Congress in Arkansas. We'll talk to him about that statement, as well.

BANFIELD: Every morning we like to give you an EARLY START to your day by getting you up to speed on stories big tonight. Let's start with this one.

Slain war reporter, Marie Colvin will be laid to rest today in Long Island. "The Sunday Times" journalist was killed last month during the shelling of the Syrian city of Homs.

Many Syrian-Americans attended Colvin's wake although they didn't even know her personally, just to thank her for giving a voice to the people struggling for freedom in that country.

SAMBOLIN: A key ruling expected today in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case. A judge is expected to decide how much information prosecutors must share with Sandusky's lawyer, including exact times, dates, and days of the week when the alleged abuse took place.

BANFIELD: "Invisible Children," the group behind that viral "Kony 2012" video, which has exploded on the web with close to 73 million views, is now expected to release another video and they plan to do it today.

This one is one that can answer critics' questions who have been asking about the group's management, the group's motives, and their money. The creators joined CNN's Don Lemon last night and had this to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BEN KEESEY, CEO, "INVISIBLE CHILDREN": Going to release a 10- minute video that clicks through some of the questions where we say, here's all the answers, here's all the figures. You know, there's nothing to hide. "Invisible Children" has been transparent since 2004 when we started. That's our intention. We want to show that this campaign is a part of a strategy and model that's comprehensive and that we stand by it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: That video was posted to bring attention to the atrocities committed by Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony.

BANFIELD: It's 9 minutes now past 6:00 in the morning on the east coast. Still ahead, Rush Limbaugh's scandal is becoming contagious. Advertisers have been jumping ship and now radio bosses are making some very controversial moves and it could affect other right wing talk shows, as well.

SAMBOLIN: And Tiger Woods, look at this, he was carted off the course. This is just weeks before the Masters. Will he or won't he play?

Let's get a quick check of your travel forecast with Alexandra Steele. Good morning to you.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning to you guys. All right, let's take a quick peek around the country. Severe storms today. Really late this afternoon and tonight in the upper Midwest, maybe an isolated tornado, some hail, gusty winds.

Some showers in the south, but the story, record heat potentially today from Chicago, 67, all of the way to Boston, New York, Albany, could all flirt with records today so the heat is certainly on.

It's 44 in Seattle and Portland, some rain coming in there today. EARLY START continues right after the break. Meet you back here then.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is now 14 minutes past 6:00 on the east coast. And Christine Romans is busy looking into the top stories of the day, bringing us our headlines for this morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And the top story no question is what happens out to Kandahar, a U.S. soldier is being investigated for murders. There are many murders there and there's worries that anti- American sentiment is rising this morning after reports of that door- to-door shooting spree.

Afghanistan President Karzai calling the slaughter unforgivable. The Afghan parliament just issued a statement a short time ago calling for the U.S. to hold a public trial in front of the people of Afghanistan. We'll continue to follow this story all morning.

Meantime, Mitt Romney will be joined by the king of redneck jokes on the trail today. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy planning to campaign with the GOP frontrunner in Alabama and Mississippi. Those two states hold primaries tomorrow.

And demand for Apple's new iPad is off the charts. Are you surprised? Pre-orders are already sold out. Apple's Web site showing March 19th as the earliest possible ship date for your online orders. If you want one on March 16th, the official launch date, you're going to have visit an Apple retail store and wait in line.

A setback for Tiger Woods. He was forced to withdraw after 11 holes at the WGC Cadillac Championship in Miami yesterday. Pulled out with an injury to his Achilles. Tiger had to be carted off the course, folks. Later, he released a statement saying he felt tightness in the tendon when he was warming up. The Master's is just around the corner.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, I'm reading about him here. He said, "In the past, I may have continued to play. But this time I decided to do what I thought was necessary." They said he was looking really good, too.

ROMANS: He does not want to jeopardize the next few weeks.

BANFIELD: The masters, a few weeks?

SAMBOLIN: Two weeks away.

BANFIELD: What is happening with this year?

ROMANS: I know. It's already March Madness.

BANFIELD: It's crazy.

ROMANS: Leap forward -- no, it's a leap year and we spring forward.

SAMBOLIN: Have you adopted yet?

ROMANS: No, I have not. I lost count --

(CROSSTALK)

BANFIELD: Isn't it hard going to bed in 5:00 in the afternoon when you get that extra hour of daylight?

ROMANS: It's hard going to bed no matter what.

BANFIELD: Thanks, Christine.

Sixteen minutes now past 6:00. And still ahead, this is big, folks. It's being called a talk radio bomb. Close to 100 advertisers are making it known that they're nervous about Rush and other strident radio talk show hosts. So, what does this mean for all that polarizing media out there and what about TV? Is that close behind?

SAMBOLIN: Take a look at these pictures. High risk, high drama. An Italian coast guard chopper battles the element to save a shipwrecked crew.

The outcome? We're going to tell you.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Twenty minutes past the hour. Welcome back to EARLY START.

"Saturday Night Live" had some fun at Rush Limbaugh's expense.

BANFIELD: And it might have been very funny but the truth of it is that sponsors are really bailing in the wake of his comments about that law student Sandra Fluke.

(BEGIN VDIEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am not worried because I have new, better sponsors, great American companies like -- Sherman's imitation mayonnaise, it might not be mayonnaise but it is a bargain. The Syria tourism board. Ah, no, there's nowhere to hide! Syria.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Once again, it may have all been laughs on Saturday night but the truth is there are some signs this morning that all talk radio is starting to feel the effect of what's been going on with Rush Limbaugh.

No one knows that more than the guy who has been writing about it. Joining me now, John Avlon, senior political columnist for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast," and CNN contributor.

Normally, I have you here on a panel, John Avlon, but today I got to catch you up on all the stuff you've been writing about because this is big -- this is big time. This isn't just a bunch of advertisers saying I'm pulling out. This is now the distributors talking.

JOHN AVLON, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: That's right. So on Friday, Premier Network which distributes Rush and many other talk radio folks, especially on the right, sent out a memo to their stations saying, look, we've got 98 major advertisers. These are big names, things like McDonald's, Subway, GEICO, Ford, saying that these advertisers no longer want to have their ads played an radio shows which could be deemed offensive or controversial and then they explicitly listed the shows that would fall under that, not just Rush but folks like Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, Mark Levin.

So, this really could send a fascinating message to the phenomenon of polarizing, hyper partisan talk radio, because at the end of the day, it's all about follow the money. And this is not a censorship. This is a free market working out. The key advertising demographic, the most prized is women age 24 to 55. Those are exactly the folks who have been most offended by some of Rush's most recent comments.

So, the potential repercussions are really fascinating and will be felt.

BANFIELD: And you just pointed to that memo. I want to read a little piece of it, that Premiere Networks put out. Quote, "We specifically ask that you schedule their commercials in day parts or programs free of content that you know are deemed to be offensive or controversial. For example, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity," among some of htem, and you mentioned some others as well.

Do you think this is just sort of a temporary way for a lot of these big advertisers, like the car companies, the insurance companies, the big restaurant companies, to just leap over the problem spot? Or do you think this is more staying power? Without pulling out the commercials completely, they're looking to be moved away from these contentious broadcasters?

AVLON: Once advertisers leave, they rarely come back.

BANFIELD: But are they really leaving? I guess that's my question. Are they leaving?

AVLON: I think it's a sign that they are responding to pressure from consumers. And that's what's fascinating in all of this. This is consumer-driven. This is social media-driven.

Because the power of social media, folk can create a grassroots protest among content they find offensive very quickly and that will make its way to the advertisers who at the end of the day will do what their consumers encourage them to do. So, this is really a fascinating new development in ways that consumers can hold advertisers accountable.

BANFIELD: And I think what's really interesting, especially since you wrote the book called "Independent Nation" -- I want you to get your independent hat on because while, yes, this is the free market dictating what's going on with Rush and products of the ilk, it's also, you got to admit, being driven by a lot of politicos. And to that end, people have been very critical that the leftist, you know, radio talk show hosts don't get nearly the scrutiny.

Bill Maher, by the way, commented on this because he said strident things about conservative women. And just have a listen -- I never expected him to hear him somewhat come to the defense of Limbaugh. I don't know if he really is. But listen to what he had to say about this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL MAHER, COMEDIAN: I don't like it, that people are made to disappear when they say something or people try to make them disappear when they say something you don't like. I'm not defending him. I'm defending living in a country where people don't have to be afraid, that they might go out of the bounds for one minute. Do we all want to be talking like White House spokesmen?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: He made such a good point, John. Do we want people to be so homogenous because they fear what's going on? And I guess that brings up that last issue, and that is -- is this really the free market or is this a bunch of pushing and shoving by people who have an agenda?

AVLON: No, this is not about First Amendment rights. This is the free market working out with new pressures that allow consumers to hold companies accountable for where they advertise. I appreciate the point Bill Maher is making. I also appreciate the point that a lot of folks on the right may try to defend Rush by saying, look, left wing talkers can be just as hateful and polarizing in the past and they haven't gotten the same kind of criticism -- fine.

Take a look at the larger demographic changes that are going on. Women, younger people leaving talk radio because they find the hyper- partisan, polarizing attitudes so alienating to the way they would rather have politics talked about. So, there's potentially a sea change here away from these hyper-partisan talkers who disproportionately dominated the debate we have in this nation over the past several decades towards something different, something new.

BANFIELD: Hey, John.

AVLON: Yes?

BANFIELD: Five seconds left. But I have to ask if TV is next. This is radio we're talking and TV is somewhat partisan are well. Are we next?

AVLON: Look, the rise the partisan media I think may have hit a high watermark. There would be a backlash, people looking for something more independent, a little less predictable, and a lot less hyper partisan.

BANFIELD: All right. I love what you've been writing. And it's fascinating stuff. You're getting to the nitty-gritty and the business angle of it, and I do love that. Thanks, John.

ALVON: Thank you.

BANFIELD: See you.

SAMBOLIN: Twenty-six minutes past the hour.

Coming up on EARLY START: U.S. soldier kills 16 Afghan civilians. We'll be joined by Thomas Cotton. He served as a U.S. Army captain in Afghanistan and Iraq. We're going to get his perspective on all of this.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: It is 29 minutes now past 6:00 on the East Coast. Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA: I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

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

It is not clear if the U.S. mission in Afghanistan will be jeopardized by the killing of 16 civilian by an American soldier. President Obama has called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to offer his condolences. Karzai, however, calling the attack unforgivable.

And the Afghan parliament has issued a statement. They want the U.S. to hold a public trial in front of the people of Afghanistan.

Invisible Children, that is a group behind the viral "Kony 2012" video. They're planning a follow-up to answer critics that question the group's management and their motives. The video about a wanted Ugandan warlord is closing in on 73 million views.

BANFIELD: The Italian coast guard is rescuing 19 crew members on board a cargo ship after that ship ran aground off the coast of Sicily. Coast guard helicopters battled heavy rain, high winds to try to carry out this harrowing -- look at these pictures -- harrowing operation. The crew is safe and in good condition, we're happy to report.

And don't be surprised if you hear a few redneck jokes on the campaign trail today. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy -- yes, Jeff Foxworthy will be stuffing with Mitt Romney in Alabama and Mississippi. Those two states are holding their primaries tomorrow, and just wait for the late night comedians.

SAMBOLIN: Thirty minutes past -- 31 minutes past the hour here. Right how, President Obama and military rushing to diffuse a potentially explosive situation in Afghanistan. NATO says one U.S. soldier is accused of killing 16 civilians. That attack took place early yesterday morning in Kandahar province. It is an area known as the birth place of the Taliban.

What prompted the attack? That is still unknown. But it could further inflame the tensions after last month's burning of the Korans.

Thomas Cotton served as a U.S. Army captain in Afghanistan and in Iraq. He is currently running for congress in Arkansas. He joins us this morning.

Thank you so much for being with us.

I want to start with you serving on the front lines. You were in both Iraq and Afghanistan. What did you feel when you heard this story?

THOMAS COTTON, FMR. U.S. ARMY CAPTAIN IN AFGHANISTAN AND IN IRAQ: Well, I felt like so many American leaders, that it's a terrible tragedy and I wanted to extend my condolences to the families. Obviously, the loss of family and loved ones anywhere is a terrible tragedy. And also, express regret, but also ensure that the American people and people around the world know this doesn't reflect on the American military. This is an extremely rare circumstance and the American military is the most disciplined and professional and humane military in the world.

SAMBOLIN: If we could talk about some of the details emerging, there are some reports that this soldier actually walked a mile or two off base. Is that something that's easily accomplished?

COTTON: No, it's not easily accomplished. It would definitely require some kind of plan and attention (INAUDIBLE). You know, all bases have perimeters and those perimeters are guarded 24 hours a day. So it's possible but it would definitely require some kind of design and planning.

SAMBOLIN: And as you heard all of the details and you watched with the rest of us, there were some reports that perhaps it was more than one soldier. What do you think about those reports?

COTTON: No, I read some of the reports. Obviously there's an investigation being conducted by the military. And I think on that front, we just need to wait until the investigation is complete. From what I have seen, it seems to be the work of, you know, one lone soldier.

SAMBOLIN: We don't know the name of that soldier, but here's what we do know about him -- married, father of two. It's also reported that it was his fourth tour of duty. And as you said, it's very early in the process here, the investigation.

But a lot of folks are talking about post-traumatic stress and the effect of multiple tours on a soldier's mental health. What do you think about that?

COTTON: Well, any tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan obviously is very stressful not just for the soldier but for families at home. There have been hundreds of thousands of soldiers over the last 10 years that have made multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan without committing any kind of crimes like this.

So, I think it's possible but it's not something that necessarily directly attributable. We'll have to wait again, until the investigation is complete. But I think, like a school shooting sometimes, you can't really know what the motives of someone who commits a crime like this is.

SAMBOLIN: Is there something in place to check a soldier's mental health? Does the military have something in place?

COTTON: Yes, absolutely, Zoraida. The military, from the lowest level to highest level, takes post-traumatic stress syndrome very seriously. We have battle buddies systems in place where you're on the front lines with your soldiers, they know you, they live you 24 hours/7.

And their leadership also takes very seriously. They're monitoring soldier health and well being on a constant day to day basis.

There are lots of systems in place to kind of check for soldier mental health and well being.

SAMBOLIN: There is a wave of condemnations on the attack. President Obama offered his condolences to the victim's families. He also said the incident doesn't represent the exceptional character of our military.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the suspect was clearly acting outside his chain of command. NATO Commander General John Allen called it deeply -- a deeply appalling incident.

But you know what? We're looking a all of the images. We had a reporter there who was telling us about a toddler being shot in the head and perhaps burned. And so, as we look at all of these images that we're seeing from that area, the protests that are happening on the ground -- how does this affect the relationship with the Afghan people and soldiers who have to -- who have to stay there?

COTTON: Well, it has the potential obviously to have a very negative impact but it doesn't necessarily have to have that kind of impact. I think the response should be measured and calm and we have seen that response from American leadership and also from some Afghan leadership as well.

Governor Wesa, governor of Kandahar province, who has to work every day with American forces because this is the home of the Taliban, has called for calm. He's asked for no protests. He said the protests obviously wouldn't be productive.

Right now, we need to let the investigation carry its course and the American troopers on the ground there will keep doing what they do every day, which is work with Afghan civilians hand in hand to try to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thomas Cotton, thank you so much for joining us this morning. And good luck with your campaign.

COTTON: Thank you, Zoraida. I appreciate it.

BANFIELD: Thirty-five minutes now past 6:00.

Mitt Romney says he likes grits. His opponents say he lacks grit. So how does the decision in the Deep South make things better or worse for him and could tomorrow night be a serious game changer?

SAMBOLIN: But first, let's get a quick check of your travel forecast with Alexandra Steele.

Good morning.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning to you, guys.

All right. A few hot spots to be careful of today, especially around the Upper Midwest. We could see severe storms, isolated in nature, but strong winds, damaging hail, isolated tornado. Pacific Northwest will see some rain, some snow in the higher elevation and some really gusty winds. Showers here in the Southeast, a few big hubs impacted.

Forty minutes at the very least today at around Chicago and Midway. Indianapolis, Detroit, Atlanta, Portland.

The other big story -- the heat, 20 to 30 degrees above average at the very least and a very warm week. That's more weather ahead.

EARLY START continues right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: It is 40 minutes past the hour.

In the next 36 hours, Newt Gingrich's campaign could be resurrected or just crumble.

BANFIELD: Or none of the above, really. I mean, at this point, who knows? The former speaker hope for a little bit of Southern comfort heading into tomorrow's primaries and admitting that he definitely needs a strong showing in Alabama and Mississippi in order to forge ahead. But then again, he's got the money, so why dump out? He's not passing up the opportunity that he takes serious shots at Mitt Romney.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Romney camp has been trying to sell since last June that I should get out of the race and that the Romney is inevitable. But the fact is Romney is probably the weakest Republican frontrunner since Leonard Wood in 1920 and Wood lost on the tenth ballot.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Pretty strong words.

So, here to talk about that -- from Chicago, conservative columnist Lenny McAllister. From Washington, "Roll Call" political reporter David Drucker. And here in New York, Democratic strategist John Hlinko.

All right, you three, so those are pretty strong words -- the weakest Republican frontrunner? I mean, that's strong stuff from a guy who is probably on the brink at this point if he doesn't do real well in Mississippi and Alabama.

Lenny McAllister, does he have to do real well or does he have to win them?

LENNY MCALLISTER, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: No, Newt Gingrich has to win them. He has to be able to show some type of home turf. If it's South Carolina, which January seems like it's forever ago, in Georgia, which is his home state when he was a congressman, he needs to have some type of real home turf. Otherwise, saying that there's a weak front-runner when you're behind him like a 3-1 delegate count only shows how much weaker you are as a candidate. He has to win on Tuesday.

BANFIELD: So, Dick Gephardt, the former house speaker and Democratic presidential candidate was on the Sunday morning talk shows. He was on with Candy Crowley. He had something pretty specific to say about how on the bigger picture, the general election, you got the tourist and the hair thing going on, where all of these conservatives or the hairs are battling it out and duking it out and then the tortoise is just slowly watching things get a little bit better.

Have a listen to Dick Gephardt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK GEPHARDT, FORMER HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: If the economy is still going forward even at 40 miles an hour, 50 miles an hour, I think most people will stick with President Obama. I think people look at politics like they hire a plumber. I hire you to fix the bad pipe. If you fix it, I'll rehire you. If you don't fix it, I'm not going to rehire you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: And that all sounds fine until you look at the head- to-head match-ups. Look at this recent poll by "Washington Post" and ABC. Guys, this is something else. Head-to-head match-ups between Romney and Obama? Uh-uh, Romney has got him by two points. Not so much for Santorum. Santorum is trailing by three.

But you know something, John Hlinko, those numbers don't always lie, they don't always tell the truth either. But what do you make of that?

JOHN HLINKO, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, at this point, even if the election were held today according to the polls, it would be a close race. It could go either way. I think the real key is what Congressman Gephardt said -- how does the economy keep moving in the next few months? Do we have another dip or do we continue having strong job or relatively strong job growth? Does the unemployment rate go down?

If the things are heading in the right direction and they are looking good, President Obama will win re-election.

BANFIELD: And gas prices probably will factor in heavily, right?

HLINKO: Yes. Big time. I mean, that's -- the thing about gas prices is, that's something that impacts people on a daily basis. If there's -- you know, if war breaks out in Iran, if there's continued instability in the Middle East or it accelerates, and we start seeing $5 or higher a gallon gas, you know, people notice that. And that makes an impact and that could hurt President Obama's chances.

BANFIELD: All right. I'm doing to do a right turn here and I want to direct us all to what you were doing on Saturday night. I have a feeling it was either "SNL" but definitely HBO. "Game Change" aired on HBO Saturday night, and the movie about the book that was real rough on the McCain/Palin campaign. Particularly on Sarah Palin, outlining that she essentially knew almost nothing about the national scene, the international scene.

And Nicolle Wallace, who was her senior adviser, actually spoke on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos, about -- I'm always worried, I always wonder how much artistic license do these screenwriters take with these stories. But she kind of set the record straight according to her version of it. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICOLLE WALLACE, SENIOR ADVISER, MCCAIN/PALIN CAMPAIGN: True enough to make me squirm, but, you know, this isn't a movie about campaign staff, and this isn't really a movie about McCain and Palin. This is a movie about the fast gray area in which 99 percent of our politics actually takes place.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: I kind of beg to differ, David Drucker. I feel like this is a movie that's going to have a lot of people real worried about the caliber of candidates and how they can squeak through. And if she's saying it was real enough to make her squirm, it makes me squirm.

DRUCKER: Well, look, I think the movie was boring, because we didn't really learn that much that we didn't already know.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Not unless you didn't read the book and not everybody read the book, but a lot of people watch HBO.

DRUCKER: But there was no -- look, the acting was great, but there was no drama in the story. We knew where everything was headed. We maybe saw a few glimpses behind the scenes, if it's true, and maybe it is true. I thought it was a movie, you know, for Washington, by Washington in the sense that I found the drama at the political consultants --

BANFIELD: David Drucker, how can you say that when the movie outlines -- for those again who didn't read the book -- that she didn't know there was a North and South Korea, that she didn't know what the Fed was. I mean, those are pretty big revelations for a broader audience than the book readers.

DRUCKER: Well, yes, possibly so. But, again, I just don't think that it's going to have a large impact. I think it's something you and I are talking about. I don't think the rest of the country is really going to care. And I think, you know, part of the reason is it's not as though everybody already thought that the former governor of Alaska was a genius, and now, we're finding out we were all hood winked.

You know, we knew that maybe there were certain things she didn't know. Maybe we know that now in a little bit more detail, but this was not revelatory. And she is not a candidate for president. Had she been a candidate for president, this could have been possibly damaging or much bigger news. But I don't --

BANFIELD: David Drucker, yes, because she did say last week, well, I wouldn't take my name off the ballot.

DRUCKER: Well, she always says that. She always says that. And if she was serious, she would not have resigned as governor of Alaska.

BANFIELD: David Drucker, John Hlinko, and Lenny McAllister, always good to hear from you and hope you'll come back again. Thanks, guys.

DRUCKER: Thanks, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Nice to see you.

SAMBOLIN: Forty-six minutes past the hour here. Christine Romans is here to check the stories that are making news this morning -- Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, ladies.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS (voice-over): Let's start in Afghanistan, this morning, where major concerns from the president of that country, Karzai, calling the killing of 16 civilians unforgivable. A lone U.S. soldier is suspected of going door to door in Southern Kandahar yesterday morning and opening fire on families.

The Afghan parliament issued a statement they want the U.S. to hold a public trial in front of people of Afghanistan. President Obama calls the incident shocking and tragic and has called President Karzai to offer condolences.

Meantime, a terrifying massacre in Syria. Forty-five women and children slaughtered in the city of Homs. Syria's opposition accusing government forces going house to house, stabbing women and children, and then, burning their bodies. But, the Syrian government is blaming the killings on, quote, "armed terrorist groups."

Invisible Children, the group behind the viral kony 2012 video planning a follow-up to answer critics who question the group's management and motives. This video about wanted Ugandan warlord is closing in on 73 million views.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS (on-camera): Wow. Unbelievable how that has taken over the --

BANFIELD: Exponential.

ROMANS -- public conversation. It really is.

BANFIELD: And you were reporting on Friday, by the morning show, we were something at something like 40. By midday, they were at 60. And now, they're up at 75. Just remarkable.

SAMBOLIN: Truly viral. All right. And you wanted to clear up the Masters, right?

BANFIELD: Oh, we were talking -- we're talking about the Masters, you know? and needs maybe a few weeks off?

SAMBOLIN: Three and a half weeks.

BANFIELD: Right. April 5th is the first round of the Masters.

SAMBOLIN: I misspoke. Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

Soledad O'Brien joins us now with a look at what is ahead on "Starting Point." Good morning to you.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST, "STARTING POINT": Hey, good morning, ladies. This morning on "Starting Point," we're going to walk you through critical race theory. We had kind of an argument about it on Thursday with the folks from Breitbart.com. This morning, we'll talk to the woman who literally wrote the book about critical race theory and discuss what it actually us.

Also, did you see this videotape of this flight attendant basically freaking out on a plane, an American Airlines flight? Finally, she was refrained by the other passengers who jumped up and had to hold her down? We're going to talk to one of those passengers who was able to restrain the flight attendant, asking exactly what went down on that flight.

Also, we're talking to the creator of what is basically the "Daily Show," but focused on Iran. He's a south by southwest doing a presentation, which is going to talk about a plan to try to end internet censorship. Those stories and much more coming to you right at the top of the hour on "Starting Point." We'll see you then.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The problem is (INAUDIBLE) they're rooted not in the 21est century but in the 19th century. Kids need to create their own world. They need to have risk. They need to have the opportunity or failure. They need to see what happens when they're creating something singular, and they try and link it with a community.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If we can really hone our understanding of being an inquirer along with our students, then we can bring a little bit of blue into every other school. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That passionate, they're practical, and they're inspired. And that's the kind of energy that you want in a great school.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: We're hearing such a great dialogue.

ROMANS: I know. I know.

(CROSSTALK)

SAMBOLIN: We all have kids and we're sitting here at break --

ROMANS: She's over here. She's over here

SAMBOLIN: About saving for college.

BANFIELD: It's 6:53, folks. Parents, listen up. Don't go into bankruptcy to put your kids in school. Basically, that's what you mean, isn't it?

SAMBOLIN: That's basically it. Yes. So, Christine Romans is here. She's going to talk about this, you call it a real threat to the U.S. economy also.

ROMANS: There's a bankruptcy group that has a new report saying that they're seeing signs in their practices just like the mortgage crisis, when people are having trouble handling their mortgage debt. Now, it's families having trouble handling their student loan debt. And it's not just students taking on the debt, it's their parents taking on the debt, too.

I mean, imagine, if you're borrowing, you know, 30 something thousand dollars for your kids college, it's going to be $50,000 that you're going to have to pay back when you're also trying to save for your own retirement. So, look, I mean, this is a real issue right now, and it feeds into this whole conversation about whether college is worth it or not.

Oh, by the way, in bankruptcy you can't get rid of student loans. Just so you know, in bankruptcy, there's alimony, there's restitution for, you know, for something that happens in the court, there's a child support and student loans. But here's another statistic for you. $650,000 more in earnings over the course of your lifetime if you have a college degree.

BANFIELD: That's huge.

SAMBOLIN: So, clearly it's worth it.

ROMANS: It's worth it if you can manage the debt properly and if you don't let this student loan, you know, mess get you down in the very early going. You know, 27 percent of kids graduates with student debt are not paying their bills.

SAMBOLIN: You said earlier, which I thought was interesting, a third, and a third, and a third. This is how you pay for college. So, explain that, and then, tell us how to do that?

ROMANS: Look, moms and dads, it's not your responsibility to pay 100 percent of your kid's education. It just isn't. You probably can't, right? So, you need to think that the kid has got to save a third. The kid has got to get student loans for a third, and then, you can work over a third. And if you, from very young -- and I'm not -- look, I didn't make this up.

A lot of personal finance people say this is how you have to think of it because American families just can't afford to put their kids through school, especially if they have more than one kid., you know? So, you've got to start very young thinking of how you're going to parcel out this expense.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: It's not depressing, it's inspiring, because look, if you get the degree, the studies show you're going to make lot more money over the course of your lifetime.

BANFIELD: It is true.

It is five minutes now before seven o'clock, and there is a critical piece of video that we need to show you after the break because you will not believe what's going on in the coast of Perth, Australia. Why do you care? Because it's sharks.

SAMBOLIN: Just in case you want to go swimming there.

BANFIELD: Sharks. That's all I need to say.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Are you having trouble getting started on this Monday morning? Just be thankful you're not in the middle of this.

BANFIELD: Remit payment for this ticket. It is incredible viewing, folks. A shark feeding frenzy. Beaches off the Perth, Australia, closed after a chopper spotted dozens of sharks circling just a few hundred yards from the shore.

SAMBOLIN: Yum-yum.

BANFIELD: Dang, you don't want to be swimming in that pool, my friends. No, you do not.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: That is EARLY START the news from "A" to "Z." I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien starts right now.