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Afghan Delegation Comes Under Attack; Closing Arguments In Rutgers Case; NYT Poll: Obama Approval Rating Plunging; Romney Going For Southern Sweep; Louisiana: 15 Inches Of Rain In Six Hours; Death By Burger?; Death by Burger?; The Southern Sweep; Delta Jet Veers off Taxiway In Atlanta; Protests Over Afghan Massacre

Aired March 13, 2012 - 06:00   ET



ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. It is 6:00 on the dot. Welcome to EARLY START, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Zoraida Sambolin. We're very happy that you are joining us. We're bringing you the news from A to Z. It's 6 a.m. in the east so let's get started here.

BANFIELD: Pretty scary out there about consuming red meat, your burgers, your steaks, and all the rest. Apparently now the study is saying red meat being blamed for one in 10 early deaths.

SAMBOLIN: The so-called soccer mom madam trying to get out of Rikers Island. She is accused of running a brothel for the rich and the powerful, but her lawyer claims that she is broke now.

Eighty four delegates are up for grabs in Alabama and Mississippi today. Primary voting begins in just two hours and the polls show Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in a dead heat in both states.

BANFIELD: An Afghan delegation apparently coming under attack this morning by militants in that same village where a U.S. soldier allegedly massacred 16 civilians. We're live in Kabul in just a moment.

And after four days of deadly fighting, a truce between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza strip. The ceasefire was mediated by Egypt.

The defense has rested its case in the trial of a former Rutgers University student who is accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate encounter. Closing arguments expected to begin today and then the jury could get this case as early as the end of the day.

SAMBOLIN: President Obama's approval rating plunging fast in the last 30 days. In the latest "New York Times"/CBS poll, 47 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's job performance. Only 41 percent approve. Just last month the president's approval rating hit 50 percent in this poll. And this just in at 2 minutes past 6:00 in the east coast, gunfire, rocket fire apparently erupting in Afghanistan at a service, a funeral service in for 16 of those villagers who were allegedly murdered by a U.S. soldier.

The Taliban is firing back this morning, threatening to behead Americans anywhere in that country. Let's go live now to the CNN's Sara Sidner in Kabul.

Sara, we're hearing about like small arms fire, but also rocket propelled grenades including really high level officials in that country.

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, apparently, one of the officials that were attending this particular funeral was the brother of Hamid Karzai and there were several other high level officials at this funeral.

We heard from a council member in that area where this massacre occurred on Sunday saying that suddenly they heard what sounded like rocket propelled grenade attack going on and that was followed by some small arms fire.

We understand that there are several Afghan soldiers who have been wounded. We're hearing reports that one may have perish, but we do not have that confirmed at this point.

And we also want to point out that this comes on the heels of the Taliban this morning sending an e-mail. We also received an e- mail from the Taliban saying that they are going to seek revenge for the killings of those civilians by allegedly by a U.S. soldier on Sunday by beheading any Americans in the country anywhere.

So we're getting some strong words from the Taliban. We're hearing that there is now some violence again in that village where all of this -- where this massacre happened on Sunday. I do want to also mention that we are finally seeing protests due to the killings of 16 civilians including nine children and three women.

But the protests were happening in eastern Afghanistan, in Jalalabad. There are hundreds of people, mostly university students took to the street. They were chanting, but there was no violence there, but they did manage to close down the road from Jalalabad to Kabul and that road officials are trying to reopen at this time -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Critical route there as well. Sara Sidner live us in Afghanistan. Thank you for that.

SAMBOLIN: Turning to politics now. The polls open in two hours in Alabama and Mississippi and Mitt Romney says the Republican Party is doomed in November if it doesn't choose a nominee soon.

Here's how today's races are shaping up. New American Research Group poll shows Romney leading Newt Gingrich 34 percent to 31 percent that's in Alabama. That's a statistical dead heat there.

Rick Santorum well behind in third place. Similar story in Mississippi for you. Romney leading Gingrich, 34 percent to 32 percent. That is a statistically tie. Santorum is trailing by double digits, still gently suggesting, Gingrich, get out of the race.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Do well down here in South Carolina, Georgia, but he hasn't done well anywhere else. He hasn't had second place. We need somebody to run across this country.


SAMBOLIN: That was tough to understand. CNN political editor, Paul Steinhauser live in Gardendale, Alabama, for us. This is a statistical dead heat, but this is Gingrich's home turf. What does he need to do to skew those numbers?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: He needs to win to be honest. He needs to win here in Alabama. Zoraida, he needs to win in Mississippi. He needed to win last week on Super Tuesday in Georgia. It is where his former state. He did do that.

He's polling well. You just showed those two polls from the American Research Group. Other surveys as well indicate Gingrich as of now holding well here in Alabama and neighboring Mississippi.

But so important for him to continue on, you know, at one time his campaign said if he didn't do well here in Alabama and Mississippi that could be the end. But it sure doesn't sound like that from him. Take a listen to what the former House speaker has to say.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We stayed in the race for two reasons. I do not believe the other two candidates can beat Obama and I believe this race is most important in our lifetime, and I will not leave the field.

Second, when we win, we can't just beat Obama. We have to win in a principled way on a big enough agenda with enough momentum that we can actually change Washington decisively or we are not going to get this country back on the right track. I think I'm the only candidate who can do that.


STEINHAUSER: That sure sounds like a person who is staying in the race to me regardless of what happens here. But again, if he doesn't do well here in Alabama and Mississippi, you're going to hear a chorus of cheer or criticism for him to get out of the race.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, that's a big question. I have another question for you. The Foxworthy effect, right? He's been stumping for Romney. Have you seen that? STEINHAUSER: Yes, yesterday, all day yesterday, Jeff Foxworthy who is pretty darn popular down here in the south for many, many years. Yes, he endorsed Romney a couple of days ago and he stumped with Romney in a couple of events across Alabama here.

Listen, this is part of Romney's, I guess, charm, trying to show that he can relate to southerners, talking about his love of cheesy grits, campaigning with Foxworthy.

Seriously, though, he's been endorsed by the governors of both Alabama and Mississippi. But the Romney campaign and the candidate himself trying to lower expectations here, he says this is an away game for himself. If he does better than expectations, he will be happy -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right, Paul Steinhauser live in Alabama. Thank you very much.

And you can keep it on CNN now through November for the best political coverage on television. In the 7:00 a.m. hour on "STARTING POINT," Soledad O'Brien will be joined by Jackie Cushman, the daughter of Newt Gingrich. She's been campaigning really hard for her dad.

And CNN's coverage of the Mississippi and Alabama primaries begins at 7:00 p.m. Eastern tonight with Erin Burnett that is followed by complete live coverage of the results beginning at 8:00 with Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and of course, the best political team on television.

BANFIELD: It is 7 minutes now past 6:00 on the East Coast. A disturbingly familiar site in Louisiana, torrential rains leaving some communities there under water. Take a look at your screen as much as 18 inches of rain falling in parts of Southern Louisiana.

Hundreds of people had to be rescued. We're going to take you live to the CNN Weather Center to get updated on this one. Meteorologist, Rob Marciano, doing the job for thus morning.

I hate seeing pictures like that and I keep thinking this is only March. It doesn't seem right at this time. Never seems right though.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Right, you think this came from a hurricane. It's nothing like that, but it was a thunderstorm that really saddled Indiana and flooded those areas. The problem with that spot of the world, it's pretty flat.

So flash flooding unlike other areas that kind of comes and goes real quick. It sits around for a little bit longer. So they actually have flood warning across much of South Central Louisiana for a good chunk of today until that water drains out.

Showers across the I-95 corridor, these aren't very heavy rain producers. They're all responses of heat that built up yesterday and will continue to be hanging around today.

It's 73 degrees in Newark. It was 71 degrees in Central Park. Some of the current temperatures in the northeast today are above what your normal high would be so very, very tropical.

Portland, we're seeing some snow. Snow all the way down to the beach to Western Oregon so that's where your colder air is, but in the central part of the country, more warmth today.

As a matter of fact, the eastern two-thirds of the country will keep the warmth in place. I don't really see it ending any time soon. It's 65 in Chicago for high temperature, well above average by about 20 degrees.

It's 71 degrees in New York City and almost 80 degrees in Kansas. That's a quick check on weather.

SAMBOLIN: Cookie crazy weather.

BANFIELD: You really don't see an end to this honestly?

MARCIANO: Not for the next several weeks. The longer trend shows this ridge of warmth hanging tough.

BANFIELD: And all that cold air from Canada no effect?

MARCIANO: Apparently, ever since you got here that's all the export.

BANFIELD: Did you catch that was the word of the day, by the way?

MARCIANO: I didn't recognize it, but I like it.

BANFIELD: The crew is only half there this morning. They're just tired. Thank you, Rob Marciano. Nice to see you.

Still ahead, you know that burger you were planning on for lunch or dinner or maybe even breakfast? Think twice, my friends.

SAMBOLIN: Do you think you could eat bison instead?

BANFIELD: Red meat too, it's a red meat problem and this study is a serious study, folks. You may have heard this before, but you need to listen up to time because it's literally taking years off your life.

SAMBOLIN: I can't wait to hear about that.

And FEMA denies a town where a tornado killed seven people and levelled 100 homes. Why did they deny them aid?


SAMBOLIN: Good morning, New York City. It is 54 degrees right now and a little bit later today it is going to be 68 degrees. BANFIELD: It's 13 minutes now -- 14 minutes past 6:00 on the east coast. Welcome back to EARLY START. All that nice weather may be starting to think about barbecuing.

If you're thinking about barbecuing hamburgers, you might want to think again about dinner tonight after you hear this next study. Apparently, eating just one serving of red meat per day will increase your risk of dying young, period.

Senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, joins us now from Atlanta with the details on this. Elizabeth Cohen, I love you.


BANFIELD: I hate that you come to me with these stories. Here's why, I love red meat. I love bacon. I love hot dogs and all the things I'm supposed to not love. And I've heard before they're bad for me so why is this different?

COHEN: All right. This study is different, Ashleigh, because it is a particularly large study. We're talking about more than 120,000 people studied in this Harvard study. Doctors and nurses, all right? So they asked these doctors and nurses how much meat do you eat and then they followed them for 25 years. So they could see who died in that 25 years and who didn't.

So, let's look at the serving size. Folks who have a serving of meat, and this is what a serving looks like.

BANFIELD: I can't see it.

COHEN: Three ounces. There it is. That's three ounces. OK?

So, keep in this mind when I tell you this is --



COHEN: -- I'm about to tell you. That's tiny.


COHEN: Or two slices of bacon, that would be the processed meat serving. Two slices of bacon. OK?

So, keep these in your mind visually and then look at these numbers. Folks who had one of those servings a day of meat had an increased risk of dying during that study period of 13 percent.


COHEN: Thirteen percent more likely to die during that 25-year period.

If they had a serving of processed meat like that bacon, they had a 20 percent increased risk of dying during those 25 years.

So that's a pretty big increase considering that just eating that once a day. I mean, that's not a huge amount.

BANFIELD: Two little pieces of -- who has two pieces of bacon? I mean, that's bacon bits.

COHEN: I want to know who eats a three three-ounce steak. I mean, really --

BANFIELD: That's called leftovers. That's a nibble.

I hate to say it. And that's a big problem. I mean, Americans are eating way too much. And sometimes I think that's what's killing us opposed to red meat.

So, get down to the brass tacks here: how much can we -- if we're absolute junkies on the red meat, how much can we eat before we become lethal?

COHEN: You know what, Ashleigh? All good questions get three answers. I'm going to give you three answers to that good question that you just asked, because there is no one answer.

First, I'm going to tell you what a commentator said, a guy named Dean Ornish. You may have heard of him.

BANFIELD: I like him.

COHEN: He advocates for vegetarian diet. So, he said, "Is red meat bad for you? In a word, yes."

OK, that's what he has to say. Just don't eat it.

Now, the American Meat Industry has something very different to say, they say, "Red and processed meat continues to be a healthy part of a balanced diet."

The third answer comes from the guy who actually did this study and he said, look, you don't have to be a vegetarian but for every portion of meat that you replace with chicken, with fish, with nuts, with beans, you are going to be better off and live longer. That's how he put it.

BANFIELD: Oh, so, it's just that thing again that we always hear, just be balanced, be careful and don't eat too much?

COHEN: Well, just realize that every time you say no to meat and say yes to fish or nuts or whatever --

BANFIELD: Or a legume.

COHEN: -- you're increasing your lifespan, or legumes, but you're increasing your life span, according to this study.

BANFIELD: That was the word of the day a few shows back. That would have been helpful.


BANFIELD: Elizabeth Cohen, it's always good to see you. Thank you.

COHEN: To the bad news.


SAMBOLIN: I was hoping it was only processed meats.

BANFIELD: I know. I know. Probably, look, how many kids eat hot dogs on a regular basis?


BANFIELD: How many kids have bacon on their burgers? How many of us have -- I think Christine Romans has bacon every day.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, she does.

I asked her if you had yourself checked out by a doctor because, yes, you do this almost on a daily basis and listen to that. But we can train our kids.

BANFIELD: Look at her smiling. You're smiling and you're teeny-weeny skinny mini with all those bacon and eggs.

ROMANS: Sanjay and Elizabeth are always e-mailing me. They walk by in the studio. They see what I'm eating, they're like -- just stop. Just stop. Stop.


BANFIELD: I know what keeps you thin and healthy, it's that you're constantly working on top stories, aren't you?

ROMANS: Yes, as a matter of fact.

And, look, I want to get to what is going on right now, because it's 18 minutes past the hour.

Let's check on the top stories making headlines this morning.

I want to start in Afghanistan. Rockets and gunfire erupting as an Afghan delegation attended a funeral in a village where Sunday's massacre occurred. That delegation included the brother of President Hamid Karzai. The Taliban have vowed to avenge the killings by beheading Americans.

No federal aid from FEMA for tornado-ravaged Harrisburg, Illinois. The city's request has been rejected. Seven people were killed, 98 homes leveled in Harrisburg during last month's killer storms. The city's mayor says he simply does not understand this decision, but FEMA claims that state homeowners insurance and local charities will be able to cover the damage.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company will pay the city of San Bruno, California, $70 million as compensation for that 2010 gas pipeline explosion. That explosion blew open a crater 72 feet long, 26 feet wide. It killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes.

The New York mother of four who's accused of being a high-end madam, she's broke. That's according to her attorney. He's offering his own loft as bail so Anna Gristina can get out of jail. The judge will consider that offer at a hearing on Thursday -- Ashleigh and Zoraida.

BANFIELD: All right. Nineteen minutes past 6:00. Thanks for that, Christine Romans.

And still to come on EARLY START, the United States going after China and this one's a weird one. It's all about rare things that you find in the ground that are critical to our everyday existence.

SAMBOLIN: Former Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich has a new home, federal prison. We're going to chat with somebody who has been there on what he can expect.

You're watching EARLY START.


JEFF DUNHAM, COMEDIAN: Hi. I'm comedian Jeff Dunham. And I'm on the road with my character about 140 days a year. Yes, he's (INAUDIBLE).

Usually, we're on the bus in the city, but making a big jump across the country. Just for the sake of schedule, we got a private plane now.

There a few creature comfort on the bus, aren't there?

Yes, let's see. Your coffee machines. Yes, he likes to ground his own beans.

And then there was (INAUDIBLE) I like that.

And radio-controlled helicopter, I don't get that.

I have helicopters on the road and I fly them in these big arenas and it's always fun. And built the big ones, too.

Yes, kid's helicopters. This idiot flies in real helicopters that he built himself. He's a moron.

This is Rhody (ph), my giant Doberman pincher. I bring her on stage. She does one trick. She's a total tax deduction.

Well, that's it for me and my little guys. We'll see you out on the road sometime.

Hold it. That's all I get is the closing?

That's it.

You jerk.



BANFIELD: This just in. Pictures from our Atlanta affiliate WSB.

That's a Delta plane. If you think it looks like it's on an angle, it is. It veered off the taxi way a little earlier on today. It's a passenger plane, but apparently there aren't any passengers on board because it was undergoing maintenance.

We're not sure if it was being driven or towed, but something went wrong. And it went off the taxi way. It's not impeding any traffic in Atlanta Hartsfield Airport at this point. But we are told that maintenance officials are trying to get it out of there.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson said that this was just something that happened with maintenance only. This was not, again, any passengers on board and all is good if you're flying in and out of Atlanta today. You might see that but it's not going to affect your flight as of now.

SAMBOLIN: Nobody was on board that plane.

BANFIELD: Well, other than the people --


BANFIELD: I was worried about that.

SAMBOLIN: Everybody is OK, right?

BANFIELD: So far, so good. Yes.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Minding your business now.

Christina is here watching a new trade spat brewing between China and the United States. It's rare earths. We need them for just about everything and they're controlling them.

ROMANS: Yes, rare earths. You may have never heard of this. Rare earth minerals, at 17 different elements that are incredibly important to the U.S. military, complex weapon systems, your computer, basically you name it.

I mean, I'm going to show you a list of things that they're in, but rare earths are used to make fiber optics, hybrid cars -- I mean, so many things that the economy depends on.

Why is this a trade spat between the U.S. and China? Because China controls the mining and the production of these rare earths. A lot of countries that have them, the U.S., Canada, Australia, places that do a lot of mining of these things.

Over the past 20 years, you know, China has dominated the markets has flooded the market with rare earths. It's sort of taken over the business. And now, this administration is concerned. It's concerned about the supply, it's concerned about the fact that China has actually said about its own environment and environmental protection, it's going to limit the amount of rare earths it's exporting.

So, China controls something that we all need, for example, in the cockpit of a fighter jet and we need it, they're limiting it, that's something that concerns the government.

You know, I tell you, 2005 was the first time that some contractors to the Pentagon started calling me, started calling us at CNN and saying we're concerned about rare earths.

BANFIELD: Really? 2005?

ROMANS: 2005 was the first time we started reporting on this.

BANFIELD: How about 1990? Where were they in 1990.

ROMANS: Well, because I'm tell you, China -- and you and I were talking about this over the break. China thinks in 15 and 100 years economic security plans. The United States thinks in election cycles, right?

So, China has laid out a strategy for its economy to grow, to get people to work, to get modernized industries, to move into the future, into the next century. And the United States, this has sort of happened under our noses.

BANFIELD: (INAUDIBLE) trading partner. Canada is mining like crazy in Canada.

ROMANS: Well, I'll you what? By 2015, I think some more of the mines will be up and running in Australia, Canada, the United States because the writings on the wall, quite frankly. There are companies and countries that need to secure these resources.

SAMBOLIN: To catch up with the demand.

ROMANS: To catch up. And, you know, and look, it has to do with the prices of rare earths. I mean, rare earth mineral prices have declined a little bit lately. But what is the -- you know, we are free market, right? China is not.

We are a free market. So, market forces decide whether or not we're going to, you know, start a mining operation. In China, the government says this is a priority. We're going to do it, and they did.

BANFIELD: Fiber optics. Me thinks that will change.

All right. Christine, thank you.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you.

BANFIELD: Twenty-seven minutes past 6:00 on the East Coast.

Mitt Romney has a warning to GOP voters. You don't decide soon and you're going to get Obama. That's that. He's hoping the wrap things up in the South tonight. We've got big coverage on it.

Also, it was Adele's year at the Grammys. But Taylor Swift has topped her and topped everyone else, Gaga included, as music biggest money maker. Want to know how much this young woman played? I'm going to tell you in just a few moments.


BANFIELD: It is 6:31. Nice to have you back with us. This is EARLY START. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

Time to check the stories make news this morning.

Voting begins in 90 minutes in Alabama and Mississippi. The polls show both primaries are toss-ups between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Hawaii, American Samoa hold caucuses tonight. A total of 110 delegates are at stake in the four races today.

Afghan militants launching rocket attacks and opening fire as a high-level Afghan delegation attended a funeral in the Panjwai district where Sunday's massacre took place. One report says the Taliban's threatened to avenge the killings allegedly by a U.S. soldier by beheading Americans anywhere in that country.

BANFIELD: In the mean time, a defense secretary is embarking on a five-day tour of Asia and the Middle East. Right now, he's en route to his first stop this morning, an air base in Kyrgyzstan.

SAMBOLIN: And Taylor Swift, the top music moneymaker, that's an understatement. The country singer is Billboard's number one earning artist, beating out U2, Lady Gaga and Lil' Wayne. Twenty-two-year-old Swift earned over $35 million in 2011.

BANFIELD: All right. If you ask Mitt Romney, there's a lot more than just 84 delegates at stake when the polls open up in Alabama and Mississippi in 90 minutes. He's now sounding a serious warning among the GOP, saying -- guess what? You're going to get a President Obama in November if Republicans don't settle down and just pick one nominee and pick soon.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If we go all of the way to the convention, we would be -- we would signaling our doom in terms of replacing President Obama. We need to select someone to become our nominee, get that person nominated and get focused on President Obama and get him out of the White House.


BANFIELD: And he's not doing too badly either, if you look at some of the new polling. The American Research Group poll has him kind of neck and neck, as a matter of fact, in Alabama. While Gingrich is leading him 34-31, it's within the statistically margin. So, it's a dead heat.

And in Mississippi, he's doing even better. He's leading Gingrich, 34-32 percent. Again, within the margin.

But, hey, those numbers ain't bad if you're from way up north and you're talking about grits and trying to say y'all to carry votes down in the South.

Live from Washington, Republican strategist Matt Keelen is joining us now to talk about these numbers and more as well. From Gardendale, Alabama, CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser is with us live. And in Washington, Democratic strategist Linda Moore Forbes.

Paul Steinhauser, since you're the numbers guy, I want to start with you. Those numbers are not bad. And those are typically not the kind of voters that go for a guy like Mitt Romney.

So, why is he polling so well in the Southern states?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Yes, not bad at all. Very surprising. And these other polls also indicate that he's basically neck and neck with Gingrich and Santorum here in Alabama, and next door in neighboring Mississippi.

You're right, Ashleigh, listen, a lot of social conservatives down there, a lot of Tea Party supporters as well, usually groups that Mitt Romney does not do well with. But there are also a lot of -- maybe more moderate Republican voters as well in both states that maybe look to Mitt Romney as the person who can win the nomination.

He's been lowering expectations. You mentioned that. He said it was an away game down here. So if he does well, even if he doesn't win but if he performs strong here in Alabama and Mississippi, it's going to a win for him regardless. He's going to take home a bunch of delegates.

But it's not going to end. You play a sound for Mitt Romney. It is not going to end here in Alabama and Mississippi. This thing is going to go on for a while.

Gingrich and Santorum not buying that argument from Mitt Romney, that they need to get out for the good of the party -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: I like when you talk about the way, and there's the win when it comes to the delegates and a win when it comes to ending this darn thing already. So, to that end, I want to throw up the demographic of the Southern voter. We've broken some really interesting statistics based on exit polls in 2008.

You kind of have to look at your screen if you're brushing your teeth right now, folks, but take a peek. In Mississippi, the typical Southern voter -- 30 percent has no college education, 81 percent made less than 100 grand, and 69 percent are born again or evangelicals.

And over in Alabama, not a lot whole different, but college education scoots up to about 58 percent. Again, 82 percent making less than 100 Gs, and 77 percent born again or evangelicals.

So, the question obviously would be, at this point, if Mitt Romney can secure either one or two of these states, has he finally gotten the brass ring? Has he been able to secure that uber conservative vote that's eluded him for so long, Matt Keelen?

MATT KEELEN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Ashleigh, I do think that if he wins one or two of these contests, he's going to go a long way in putting Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in the rearview mirror where he can just start really concentrating on the president.

Look, these are two states are key to Republicans all across the board, and every contest that we're going to be facing. If Mitt can go down and win in Mississippi, he's to have a good night. He's going to win the other two contests in Hawaii and American Samoa.

BANFIELD: Matt, I'm not sure I understand why Rick Santorum isn't doing better. This seems to be his core voter. He's done better in the Midwest with this core voter. What's going on in these states?

KEELEN: Ashleigh, it's a clear case of until one of these guys, Santorum or Gingrich, get out of the race, they're going to have a real tough time coalescing enough votes to beat Romney because he's got 35 percent, 34 percent.

BANFIELD: All right. I want to switch gears a little bit now to gas prices because while maybe gas prices are factoring in somewhat into the campaign for these guys right now, they're certainly going to factor in probably pretty heavily for the general election.

Take a look at some of the stats from years gone by of what happens when gas prices go up 50 percent -- excuse me, 50 cents plus. What happens to the guy in the White House?

If we can throw up our chart it begins in 1980 -- we don't have it? Oh, rats. We did such awesome work. I'll summarize for you. It stinks.

If you're in the White House, 1980, in the White House, gas prices go up 50 cents, you're out. Except for I think it was 19 -- 2004 because it was the first election post-9/11. Also, we were in two wars.

So, Linda Moore Forbes, yikes! We are in a bad way when it comes to gas prices. Do you think this is going to be the single most important narrative for whoever this candidate is going to be up against Obama?

LINDA MOORE FORBES, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think it's going to be one big issue. The economy in general obviously is a big issue, too. I don't believe we've ever re-elected a president with 7.5 or above unemployment rate, either.

But this is a very difficult election with a lot of tough issues. Foreign policy could weigh into this, too, if something critical happens with Israel and Iran.

So, with so many challenges on the board, I think this is why you're also seeing the volatility in the electorate. They're seeing so many challenges out there on the economy, gas prices, foreign policy, all the difficult things that have been happening in Afghanistan lately -- very unfortunate things.

So I think that gas prices are huge and there's only so much a sitting president can do about that. But what we're seeing is President Obama has taken a hit -- I would say, unrightly so -- by the Republican candidates stirring up the notion that, you know, they are going to have the magic bullet to drive gas prices down in a way that honestly they couldn't if they weren't.

BANFIELD: And just in the last few weeks, we're just seeing these stats out this morning the polls showing that his approval rating has been dropping. So, it remains to be seen how far it will drop or if it will rebound.

Matt Keelen, Paul Steinhauser --

FORBES: But I --

BANFIELD: Go ahead, quickly?

FORBES: What we're seeing here is that the Republicans are really -- in their campaign, they've really been attacking President Obama day in and day out. We haven't seen President Obama engaging in a campaign yet. And I can tell you flat out that when President Obama engages --

BANFIELD: I think the different -- I've seen it. I've seen it when he's out on his stump. I've seen it. Maybe you're not hearing it because you've got the demo echo going.

I got to run. I got to pull it off there, guys. But we'll have you back for sure.

KEELEN: Thanks, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Thanks to all three of you.

SAMBOLIN: Thirty-nine minutes past the hour.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has a new home. He's headed to his new home, federal prison. We're going to talk to someone who has been there, done that, and what's the former governor can expect.

You're watching EARLY START.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why did we start a school in I think it started with our own conversations art our own educations and how hard it was for us to find our own perfect place in the world, wishing our school had done a different job, better in some ways than it had, and wanting to know if there could be a better way to do it. And then maybe then doing some research, finding out that there's a bunch of people out there that think there's a possibly better way to do things.



BANFIELD: Good morning, Chicago. What a beautiful picture. Lovely on the streets. It's awfully quiet at 6:43 Eastern Time. It's going to be 75 degrees in Chicago today.

SAMBOLIN: That's the Chicago river right there. Beautiful site. Miss home.

All right. The country knows him as Blago. But on Thursday, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich will have a new name. He'll be prisoner number 40892-424.

And even though his wife begged the judge to be lenient saying, quote, "I ask you humbly with the life of my husband and the childhood of my daughters, in your hands, be merciful," he will serve a 14-year sentence for corruption at a federal prison in Colorado.

What can he expect on the inside?

Well, joining me now is Larry Levine, founder of Wall Street Prison Consultants. He has served 10 years in nine different federal prisons.

So, you have quite a bit different perspective there. Thanks for being with us this morning.

Blago is not expected at that prison until Thursday. What can he do to get through this and what can he expect on his first day.

LARRY LEVINE, WALL STREET PRISON CONSULTANTS: Well, let's talk about his first 30 minutes. He'll know that he's not in control of anything when they fingerprint him, take his picture and tell him to take his clothes off, throw 'em on the floor. They make him bend over and cough and basically do a search on him. Let's say make sure he doesn't have a machine gun or something hidden up his back end.

But really, the federal system is boring. He's going to be living Groundhog Day, day in, day out, working menial jobs. Probably the first thing they'll give him is a job because they like to demean these people. Maybe have him clean the toilets, clean the showers for 12 cents an hour.

SAMBOLIN: Now, this is -- this is a low security prison. What does that mean?

LEVINE: Well, it's an FCI. It's not a USP, and it's not a camp. It's low FCI. He's going to be living in a dormitory with other inmates. There are no cells to speak of. But at the same time, don't kid yourself with the word low, because there are people that have worked their way down in custody.

So, you have dangerous people there. And, he gets out of line. I mean, he's an arrogant guy. I can see somebody possibly putting their fist in his face or something, knocking some of those pretty teeth out. It could happen.

SAMBOLIN: Well, he's got a lot of notoriety coming in. I suspect a lot of people are going to see him as a celebrity. How do you think they'll react to that?

LEVINE: Well, you're going to have three classes of people. Some people are going to say here's another inmate. Other people are going to be sucking up to him. And the other people, you know, they're not really going to care. You've got a lot of people of notoriety in there.

His problem is the stuff. He's going to be under the spotlight, and people are going to be watching him. So, what other inmates are going to be able to get away with, he's not going to, because everyone is going to have their eyes on him.

SAMBOLIN: Now, there's a word currency that we talk about when folks are in prison. Can you tell us about that?

LEVINE: Currency could be anything, let's say, used to be matte (ph) wall, cigarettes, postage stamps. Anything that can be used for bartering and for trade is considered to be currency. I mean, if I was him, I might cozy up to some of the Hispanic inmates that work in the dining hall that could get him some special food they stole out of the dining hall so he doesn't have to eat the garbage they're going to give him normally.

SAMBOLIN: So, what do you think he'll miss the most as he's headed in?

LEVINE: Probably his wife, his children, his family, his freedom. I mean, he's going to go to be using a telephone, let's say, for 15 minutes at a shot, 300 minutes a month. He'll only be able to visit with his family four days a week, and that's if they come every week, and I think maybe they only get seven or eight visiting days a month there. He's going to be out of control. He's going to have kids fresh out of the military working for the BOP, Bureau of Prison, telling him what to do. SAMBOLIN: Now, there was some talk about whether his wife and his two young daughters would move to that area. Do you know anything about that?

LEVINE: I really heard that they're not, but I understand the reason he went to that institution, it's in a major metropolitan area. I mean, the view is great. It's like a million dollar view. They have a lot of visits there. They've got the drug program there. When he finally gets eligible to go to a camp, they've got the camp right there. But I heard that she's actually going to commute.

SAMBOLIN: When do you become eligible?

LEVINE: Well, he's got a 14-year sentence. He's not going to be eligible really until his last, let's say, 30 months in custody. They plug you into that at the end. And he may not even get into the program.

What kind of advice would you give him since he does have 14 years that he's facing?

LEVINE: Well, he's Well, you know, there's no conjugal visits in the fed. And if I was him, I'd do what I'd have to with my wife because 14 years is a long time.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Larry Levine --

LEVINE: I would --

SAMBOLIN: Go ahead.

LEVINE: But, you know, what I would do is maintain respect with people, don't do somebody else's time. Do your own time. Don't get caught up in the drama. Don't get caught up in the politics. Be extra polite. And maybe before you go in, governor, put all the names, addresses, and phone numbers.

People you want to contact, pictures, things that you need, get it ready to mail in to yourself, because you're going to learn, you can't rely on other people. You're going to have to rely on yourself. And the biggest thing inside, don't become a rat. Don't become a snitch, because you're not going to get any respect anywhere.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Larry Levine, Thank you for joining us this morning.

LEVINE: Glad to be here with you.

BANFIELD: That is a long sentence, folks. When it's federal, you don't get a whole lot of benefit. You serve just about all of it.

Soledad O'Brien is joining us now with a look at what's coming up on "Starting Point." Hello, Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN HOST, "STARTING POINT": Hey, good morning to you. Coming up this morning on "Starting Point," we're going to talk to Sandra Fluke. She's our guest. Of course, she's right at the center of the whole controversy over birth control. She's written a new op-ed on We're going to discuss that with her and talk about how she feels the message is being lost, in her words.

Also, we're going to talk to a guy who is the star of a new reality show that's coming out. It's called "The Shahs of Sunset." It's kind of like the "Jersey Shore," except it stars Iranians. Of course, the big question is, is this destined to be a hit or a complete train wreck. We're going to talk to him about that as cast member straight ahead this morning. That's on "Starting Point" right at the top of the hour. We'll see you back right after this commercial break.


SAMBOLIN: It is 52 minutes past the hour. Time to check the stories making news this morning. Here is Ms. Christine Romans.

ROMANS: Good morning, ladies. Let's get back to that Delta Airlines jet you were showing pictures of.


ROMANS (voice-over): No passengers on board, but it has veered off a taxi way this morning at Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. The airline says mechanics were testing the engines when they experienced a problem with the braking system. No reports of injuries or delays there.

The massacre of 16 Afghan civilians in their homes allegedly by an army staff sergeant is drawing new protests this morning. Hundreds of students demonstrated overnight in Jalalabad. An Afghan delegation visiting that site of the killings reportedly came under attack from militants. The Taliban has threatened to behead the U.S. soldier in response to that massacre.

Primary voting begins in just over an hour in Alabama and Mississippi. Eighty-four delegates at stake with polls showing Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in a dead heat in both of those states. Hawaii and American Samoa hold their caucuses tonight.

And gas prices, up, up, up to $3.81 a gallon. The national average picking up another four cents -- four tenths of a cent, rather. High gas prices are likely here to stay. Analysts say, you know, we can expect $4 to $5 gas through the summer. We're only about 30 cents shy now of the all-time high for gas prices setback in July 2008.


BANFIELD: Thirty cents shy, really?

ROMANS (on-camera): Thirty cents shy.

BANFIELD: Do you think we can make it up there this summer? ROMANS: Yes. I think there's a pretty good chance you could. And in some parts of the country, guys, you're already seeing really high gas prices. It depends on where you live.

SAMBOLIN: -- really mad, you know, because there's nothing you can do about it.

ROMANS: Well, it's interesting, in the campaign drill, Newt Gingrich is saying, you know, look, vote for me, it's $2.50 gas. The president is saying that campaign promises to lower gas prices are phony. So, this is something that is now become a real part of the political conversation.

BANFIELD: Again, Prius, Volt, get an electric car. Thanks, Christine.


BANFIELD: So, she was a restaurant critic at the Grand Fork Herald, still is, but she's also now an international sensation. How one granny's restaurant review of the olive garden went viral and what she thinks viral means. You're watching EARLY START.


SAMBOLIN: Eighty-five-year-Old Marilyn Hagerty, a restaurant critic for the "Grand Forks Herald" has become an internet sensation after her glowing review of the new olive garden in town went viral. Actress and comedian, Jane Lynch, guest hosting on "Piers Morgan Tonight," talked to Hagerty about her new-found celebrity.


MARILYN HAGERTY, RESTAURANT REVIEW WENT VIRAL: It just seems like it's a dream. It doesn't seem like it's real. It seems like something that I'm just sort of -- I'm going to wake up and this didn't really happen.


BANFIELD: By the way, her review is really good. She loved the decor, Tuscan, farm house, and she loved the food. And it was a sweet review. A really adorable review. Her son, who's a "Wall Street Journal" reporter, told her that her review went viral and her response was, what does that mean?


BANFIELD: What's viral? Adorable. Adorable.

SAMBOLIN: Very sweet.

BANFIELD: Well, that is the news from "A" to "Z," everybody. It's nice to have you with us. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

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