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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Interview with Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida; Marine Sgt. Faces Discipline For Obama Critique; Rick Santorum Criticized for Campaign Remark; Interview with Santorum Press Secretary Alice Stewart; Bank of America Becomes Your Landlord; Gingrich Staying in the Race

Aired March 23, 2012 - 08:00   ET

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


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Florida lawmaker who says she's tired of burying young black boys.

Plus, she abused cocaine until the very end. Whitney Houston's autopsy reveals her final moments.

And a ban on hugging. A middle school that's telling kids to stop showing the love.

It's Friday, March 23. Give somebody a hug.

STARTING POINT begins right now.

(MUSIC)

ROMANS: Abby Huntsman's playlist. Is it Janet Kramer, Jana Kramer?

ABBY LIVINGSTON, POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Jana Kramer?

ROMANS: Jana Kramer, "What I Love About Your Love."

I'm Christine Romans, Soledad O'Brien is off today.

We got Abby Livingston, the political commentator and daughter of Jon Huntsman. Mac Lamont Hill, professor at Columbia University. And Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for "New Yorker".

The calls for justice growing louder this morning after the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood -- an armed neighborhood watch captain. The strong emotions which has gone national spawning rallies from Los Angeles to St. Louis to Charlotte, North Carolina, all coming home last night to Sanford, Florida. Take a look at the pictures.

Thousands gathered not far from where on the 26th of February, Trayvon, returning with a bag of candy and iced tea, was shot dead. That gathering taking place just hours after Sanford's police chief temporarily stepped aside but did not step down. Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Trayvon's family addressed the crowd with some inspirational remarks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BENJAMIN CRUMP, TRAYVON MARTIN'S FAMILY ATTORNEY: You don't know what you're doing tonight. You just don't know what this means. It is a movement. It is a movement. It is the Trayvon Martin movement for justice and it won't stop until justice is done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida joins us now. She attended that rally in Sanford, Florida. First -- welcome to the program, first.

So your thoughts after attending that last night and what was happening there and how people are feeling this morning?

REP. FREDERICA WILSON (D), FLORIDA: Oh, it was simply tremendous. Good morning. It was overwhelming. Thousands of people, I hear estimates as high as 35,000.

I stood on the stage and looked out into the audience. I could not even see the end of where the audience stopped. Everything was peaceful. Some people were crying. They were holding each other's hands. They were holding up signs. It was wonderful, simply tremendous.

ROMANS: I mean, it's certainly become a movement. This is not a Florida story. This is not a Sanford story. This is something across the country people are talking about with their kids and with their neighbors and with their colleagues at work.

And I think when you look at it sort of -- we've shown a map of the rallies, but it's something that's spreading.

I know this weekend will be another big weekend for people joining together to talk about this. Last hour, we spoke with Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. This is what he said to us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. RICHARD LAND, PRES., SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION: The white clergy are going to want to make certain that justice is done but they don't want to rush to judgment and use the racist term without real justification because there is racism in our society, and when we scream racism at the drop of a hat, it cheapens the term and makes it more difficult to deal with racism when there really is racism.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: What's your reaction to this? So many people looking at this situation and saying, you know, race played a role here. This young man was wearing a hoodie and he was a 17-year-old black man -- black young man.

What do you think about Richard Land's comments?

WILSON: I have so much experience in this area. I have a mentoring program that's 20 years old for black boys run by men and this happens over and over and over again.

It's racial profiling. This isn't something that someone is pulling out of a hat. It happens all the time. It is happening as we speak. Racial profiling happens in our nation, in our state of Florida.

Trayvon was from Miami, Florida. It happens every day. We're not trying to make it racial. It is racial.

MARC LAMONT HILL, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: One of the things you talked about was the amount of energy that was in the crowd and all of the people around the country galvanized around this issue. Where does that energy go if justice isn't served? If somehow Zimmerman isn't charged or convicted or arrested -- what do you think the national response is going to be?

WILSON: Well, I am afraid to even think. I don't want to think back to the '60s when people burned down cities. So, as we move around and we talk with people who are participating in rallies, we've got to prepare them as they move through this process as to what the outcome might be.

There is no way I can see a grand jury not indicting this man. However, it's my understanding the grand jury is all white. I think that needs to be changed first of all. I think it should be a jury of his peers, someone who looks like him or looks like his family members, his mother or father.

And I think that the energy -- we'll have to find a way to transform this energy in making this a better country for little black boys. We've got to all become mentors.

ROMANS: The NAACP is down in Florida, collecting stories from the community right now. And the police chief yesterday gave a speech and then said he would step aside. Listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL LEE, SANFORD, FLORIDA POLICE: It is apparent that my involvement in this matter is overshadowing the process. Therefore, I have come to the decision that I must temporarily remove myself from the position as police chief for the city of Sanford.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Is there palpable friction between the black community and authorities in Florida in Sanford now?

WILSON: That's an insult for him to say that he's temporarily removing himself. He needs to be fired. He needs to be removed. That's a temporary situation.

He's still being paid. He probably still is a part of the investigation. He needs to be terminated.

And those people in authority who refuse to terminate him, perhaps they need to be terminated. That's the only way justice is going to be served.

RYAN LIZZA, THE NEW YORKER: Representative --

(CROSSTALK)

LIZZA: Representative Wilson, Ryan Lizza with "The New Yorker." Can I ask you a question about President Obama in this case? We haven't heard from President Obama on this. You remember in 2009 when we had the incident in Boston with an African-American professor and a white police officer. The president got involved. He brought these people to the White House.

One of the promises of President Obama during his campaign was about unity. It seems like a moment where he could step in and have something important to say. Would you like him to do that?

WILSON: Let me say this to you. I just finished a case in Miami-Dade County where nine black men were shot dead by nine police officers in nine months.

And the Justice Department came to Miami to investigate it. It took them about six months. I never seen the Justice Department respond so quickly and I've been doing this most of my life with black boys being killed across the state of Florida.

And the president is speaking through his Department of Justice. They were on board less than three weeks after Trayvon's death. So, the president is speaking very loudly and very clearly in this instance.

ROMANS: You know, you mention that you have a mentoring program. I want to bring something up. And I want us all to talk about it quickly. This weekend, NPR's correspondent in Boston, Corey Dade, who's African American, put out an editorial that tells kind of a profound angle to this story. This is what he said.

"I'm a black man. This is one of the realities that I have lived. My parents prepared me for it. To be sure, my parents taught me to transcend matters of race.

However, they also gave me the talk. For other boys coming of age, parents may end up having a talk. It's a lecture about sex, drugs, alcohol or Internet porn. The right for black boys is rigorous. We're drilled on a set of rules designed to protect against suspicions too often associated with the color of our skin."

Are there two different talks happening across America? The talk that parents have with their black sons like Trayvon and the talks the parents have with their white sons who will face a different reality?

WILSON: There has to be. We have to prepare these boys for reality and what they're going to face.

In our program, we teach the boys how to react to law enforcement and that gentleman was playing like he was law enforcement. But you -- the first thing we tell them is to freeze. Never run from the police.

Always make sure that they can see your hands. Speak clearly. Ask questions if you have to. And try to call attention to what's happening to you so you're not alone.

ROMANS: Do we have to teach young boys this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, that's the point.

ROMANS: That we have to teach this, it's heartbreaking.

WILSON: Yes.

HILL: Right. That's the sad part. To some extent there aren't two different talks going on. You don't have to have the talk necessarily with young white teens about those things because their race won't be a barrier to police brutality or getting a job or to do these other things.

ROMANS: You're talking about other stuff?

HILL: Yes, you have to talk to all kids. But there's a different kind of conversation when it comes to black boys because their bodies are seen as a sight worthy of lethal force and unlawful arrest and all these other things. And that's the point.

Even if the police aren't racist in their mind and even if the criminal justice system in this instance wasn't committing some conspiracy to arrest black boys, the points are the assumptions and all the scripts we have about black men in society play into our minds when we decide to see a boy on the ground dead and still test his body for drugs and alcohol, and not the shooter. We let the shooter go.

All these things only happen when there's a black body on the ground as opposed to someone else.

ROMANS: The whole -- I mean, the whole idea of two conversations happening, two different dinner table conversations happening across America --

HILL: It's heartbreaking.

ROMANS: Last thought, Congresswoman?

WILSON: That's because -- that's because there's this tension between black boys and law enforcement. It's a tension that's been there for generations. It's not a perceived tension. It's a real tension.

And I have a son who is 30 years old. As soon as he got a driver's license, I gave him a cell phone because I knew he was going to need it because he was going to be profiled and he was. And even now he tells me when he's riding in a car and a police officer is riding behind him, he's nervous because he doesn't know what he's going to do. He knows that he's a victim. So, that's the life of black America for black boys in it.

ROMANS: All right. Frederica Wilson, Congresswoman, thank you -- from Florida -- thank you.

Deb Feyerick has some other headlines for us to get to this morning.

Good morning, Deb.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine. Good morning, everyone.

Well, the Army staff sergeant accused in massacre of Afghan civilians will be formally charged today. Robert Bales faces 17 counts of murder along with six counts of attempted murder and assault. If convicted, Bales could face the death penalty.

A major hurdle facing military prosecutors is that the Afghan victims were buried quickly in keeping with Islamic tradition and as a result, the prosecution lacks forensic evidence in terms of the autopsy in the case.

Meantime, we're learning that before joining the military, Bales engaged in securities fraud while working as a financial adviser. According to financial records, Bales failed to pay a $1.5 million judgment for defrauding an elderly client in a stock scheme.

And Japan's defense minister says he's ordering his military to prepare a missile defense system now that North Korea is planning a rocket-powered satellite launch next month. South Korea considers the plan launch an attempt to develop a nuclear armed missile. U.S. warns it could jeopardize a food aid agreement reached with Pyongyang in early March.

With gas prices rising, President Obama is defending his energy policy and focusing on a hot button political issue, the Keystone Pipeline. He's refused to fast track the entire project that would bring more oil down from Canada, but he is backing a part of the pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas. The president says the southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline is a priority.

Newt Gingrich pouncing on that plan.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Today, the president announced he was going to open up half of the Keystone pipeline.

(LAUGHTER)

GINGRICH: This is the pipeline to nowhere.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FEYERICK: Gingrich has made $2.50 a gallon gas the center of his campaign.

Minding your business, gas prices inching higher. The national average now $3.89 a gallon for unleaded. The price of gas has increased for 14 days in a row now jumping more than 18 percent so far this year.

And as prices go up, we're hearing more about gas thieves -- one near Sacramento, California. Look at this. Caught on tape stealing thousands of dollars worth of fuel.

Check out the surveillance tape. Police say the thieves used a bread truck with a hole beneath it and then simply drove it over the underground tanks and then they pumped the gas directly into a 1,000- gallon tank in the back of the van. One of the suspects was arrested. The other got away.

And remember the signs in school "hugs are better than drugs." Well, one school bans both now. According to (INAUDIBLE) in New York, a middle school principal in New Jersey got on the loud speaker last week and declared that hugging is no longer allowed. This is apparently in reaction to excessive hugging in the halls.

The superintendent says despite the rule, students who will hug will not be suspended. One parent had an emotional reaction saying it's stupid; another saying that's how we grew up, with affection. You hug. You kiss.

So any way, at least they don't risk being kicked out of school, but they have to sort of make sure they know where their hands are at all times.

ROMANS: Well, my kids are, you know -- one is in kindergarten. Let them hug. By middle school, maybe they shouldn't be touching each --

FEYERICK: What? You're hugging friends. It's one thing. If you're hugging a total strangers, catching them off-guard, that's totally different.

LIZZA: There was some kind of problem there.

ROMANS: I have a feeling that (INAUDIBLE), there is something behind hugging. Something else behind the hugging. All right. Thanks, Deb.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, Whitney Houston's autopsy revealed cocaine played a role but it wasn't the only drug in her system. We're going to have details of that autopsy report next.

Plus, Bank of America unveiling a new rental program to help borrowers in danger of foreclosure. So, instead of kicking you out of the house they shouldn't have given you in the first place, they're going to have you pay to live in the house -- whatever. Is it really helping homeowners?

This is Marc Lamont Hill's playlist, Bob Marley's "Turn the Lights Down Low."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Well, I thought this was from your playlist, but it's not from your playlist. We're back at STARTING POINT. We're taking a look now at what happened in the last moments of Whitney Houston's life. She used cocaine until the very end. New details on Whiney Houston's death this morning. Los Angeles County coroner's office said that she drown accidentally and that drugs and heart disease played a role.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG HARVEY, L.A. COUNTY CORONER'S OFFICE: We believe that something happened that caused her to go down. And, we know that when she slipped under the water, she was still alive. We have evidence of drowning. So, there was water in the lungs so that substantiates that finding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Houston's sister-in-law, Patricia Houston says, quote, "We are saddened to learn of the toxicology results, although, we're glad to now have closure." Joining me, Carlos Greer, reporter for "People" magazine. So, that's the statement from the family. I can only imagine, this is difficult for them.

So many have been saying that she was in a good place and that she was sober. Having some champagne, maybe, but sober. She was still really struggling with cocaine.

CARLOS GREER, REPORTER, PEOPLE MAGAZINE: Right. A lot of people did think Whitney Houston was on the mend. She was in rehab as early as May of 2011. She was excited about making this film "Sparkle," and even making new music. So, a lot of people were hoping that cocaine wouldn't be the cause -- wouldn't be a cause of her death.

But I was actually in L.A., so it wasn't a huge shocker. I was in L.A. a few days before she died and for the Grammys, and a lot of people were talking about how Whitney was out of it and describing her behavior as erratic and saying that she was possibly on something, and unfortunately, it appears that something was possibly cocaine.

ROMANS: Some people were telling you -- what people were telling you what they were seeing in the behavior of Whitney Houston the days before she died makes this particular autopsy report no surprise.

GREER: Exactly.

ROMANS: There's this also on here cocaine, marijuana, Xanax, Benadryl, Flexeril, which we're told as a muscle relaxant. The friends around her said that she was sober notwithstanding the reports that you were saying that she had erratic behavior. Is this -- there was Hollywood sober, Whitney sober, and the sober to the rest of us think. This is a woman who always really struggled with her addiction.

GREER: She really did. She struggled with her addiction for at least 20 years, especially within the past ten years she's been in and out of rehab. We've seen it when she went on Oprah and had that huge Oprah moment where she was very candid about her drug use. And so, this was a woman who was struggling with her sobriety. And even sources told "People" that as early as October, they were trying to get Whitney back into rehab, but she wanted to do it on her own.

ABBY LIVINGSTON, CONSERVATIVE COMMENTATOR: I have a question about this TMZ report that came out, I think it was last night, saying that an individual removed all traces of cocaine before authorities got to the room, and they even, they say took off sheets of the bed. Is this a nonstory or is this something that could play out in days to come?

GREER: This leads (ph) lot of speculation, lots of rumors. I'm sure -- I mean, the investigation continues. The coroner's office they have -- they have said that they don't know -- they haven't released any information about cocaine actually being in her room.

ROMANS: That's right, because I guess, if you're still investigating this, at some point, do you investigate the drug dealers, do you try to find out where she got the illegal drugs?

LIVINGSTON: And they say in this report that the person, apparently, that gave her the cocaine was the one that hid it all before authorities got there. Who knows how true of this all is, but --

(CROSSTALK)

GREER: But the fact of the matter is, Whitney Houston, she's Whitney Houston. She's a huge pop star.

ROMANS: Right.

GREER: So, she had a lot of yes people around her.

ROMANS: I'm sure.

GREER: And this is one of her dealings.

ROMANS: Carlor Greer, thank you so much, "People" magazine.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, new fallout for that U.S. marine who criticized President Obama on Facebook. Why he could now be in serious trouble with the military.

And remember those controversial ads from Rebook? "Cheat on your girlfriends, not on your workout? Now, a new development, thanks to social media. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: There you go. This is Ryan Lizza's playlist. "Come on Feel The Noise."

(CROSSTALK)

RYAN LIZZA, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: -- of the Illinois primary

ROMANS: I like it. I like it.

All right. The military started disciplinary action for the marine who Criticized President Obama on Facebook. Sgt. Gary Stein founded the Armed Forces Tea Party and wrote on the group's page that he wouldn't obey the president's orders, and in other post, "Obama is the domestic enemy our oath speaks about." Stein says the military's reaction is an infringement on his freedom of speech.

And this Reebok ad has caused an awful lot of controversy. "Cheat on your girlfriend, not your workout." Now, they're being pulled. The company was hit with the barrage about rage on Twitter under hash tags like layman and customer lost. So, they're dumping that campaign.

Cheaterville.com, a website dedicated to exposing cheaters around the world to great pleasure in spreading the ad across the web.

HILL: I like the ad.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: It's a clever ad. Maybe, it's in poor taste to somebody, but I think it's a fun ad. (INAUDIBLE)

LIVINGSTON: You can't take it too seriously. You just can't.

ROMANS: Yes. All right. And the 2012 CNN Heroes campaign starting right now. Do you know someone who's making a big difference in the lives of others? Our own Anderson Cooper shows us how to get the word out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, we gather to honor the best that humanity has to offer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you join us, we'll be unstoppable.

COOPER: CNN Heroes is just looking for every day people who are changing the world. How do we finds these extraordinary people? With your help. You can nominate someone right now at CNNHeroes.com. Maybe your hero is defending the planet by protecting the environment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People really care, and I'm one of them.

COOPER: We're helping people overcome obstacles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There will be no man left behind as long as we are this nation.

(APPLAUSE)

COOPER: But finding a unique approach to solving a problem. Whatever their cause, nominating a CNN Hero is easy. First, go to CNNHeroes.com then click nominate. We ask for some basic information about you and your nominee. Then, tell us what makes your hero extraordinary.

(SPEAKING DIFFERENT LANGUAGE)

COOPER: How are they changing lives for the better?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You done a great job.

COOPER: It's really important to write from your heart, because it's your words that will make your hero's story stand out. A couple of tips, please don't nominate yourself. It's against the rules. It's not necessary to nominate someone over and over. We read each and every nomination. Really, we do.

And be selective. Those honored as CNN Heroes are truly dedicating their lives to serving others. After you told us about your hero, click submit. It's that simple and that worthwhile. So, nominate someone deserving today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you so much for this incredible honor. This has been the greatest night of my life.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT, Rick Santorum supporting President Obama?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Instead of taking a risk of what may be the Etch-A-Sketch candidate for the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Did he really mean that? His campaign joins us live to respond.

And extreme road rage begins with a parking lot brawl, ends up with a woman getting run down by a van. We've got the video. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Total consensus on the panel. We all like the song. Can't get enough of Adele. Adele never gets old.

HILL: I'm going to put this on my workout playlist. I'm putting this on there. I don't cheat on the workout.

ROMANS: Nothing like a song about a bad breakup to get you going.

We're going to talk to Alice Stewart in just a bit about Santorum's comments that voters should pick President Obama for a second term over Mitt Romney. First let's get to Deb Feyerick for some news headlines this morning. Hey, there, Deb.

FEYERICK: Hey there, Christine. Well, new this morning, U.S. officials confirm the alleged gunman in the shooting that killed a rabbi and three Jewish children in France was on the no-fly list here in the U.S. Senior U.S. officials say 23-year-old Mohammad Merah was listed as a terrorist. Merah is accused in two other deadly attacks.

Mississippi's attorney general once again asking the state Supreme Court to overturn 200 pardons issued by former governor Haley Barbour. He's arguing the case needs to be reopened because the private, personal rights of the victims were violated by the pardons. Attorney General Jim Hood insisting that's a violation of Mississippi's crime victims' bill of rights.

An overnight explosion rocks a silicon plant in Portland, Oregon. Two workers were inside a chemical reactor doing maintenance when the explosion happened. The fire department says a stream of oxygen hit the reactor, causing that blast.

Extreme road rage caught on camera. Two women throw down in a parking lot in California. A pedestrian reaches into a fan and punches a driver repeatedly. The driver gets revenge running the pedestrian down in her van pinning her against the wall. The pedestrian was treated for non-life threatening injuries. The driver was arrested.

And a woman arrested for allegedly attacking Kim Kardashian. Reality star was attack, hit with a white powdery substance. Authorities say it was cooking flour. Witnesses say they heard a woman saying something about fur before she tossed the stuff. Kardashian declined to press charges, instead joking, quote, "Like I told my makeup artist, I wanted more powder." So at least she a sense of humor about it, Christine, unlike those other two women in the parking lot.

ROMANS: What a way to start a Friday. Thanks, Deb.

Mitt Romney's opponents haven't put down their toys for a second straight day. The Etch-a-Sketch is back. The must have in prop. You remember right here on this show, one of Romney's advisers said when it comes to the fall campaign, everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. Yesterday Santorum, who is hoping to make up ground in the delegate count with a win tomorrow in Louisiana, suggested if he's not the nominee, the U.S. should stick with President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We might as well stay with what we have instead of taking a risk of what may be the Etch-a- Sketch candidate for the future.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Alice Stewart is the national press secretary for the Santorum 2012 presidential campaign. Does he really believe that voters should choose Obama over Mitt Romney if that's the choice?

ALICE STEWART, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, SANTORUM PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: Thank you for having me on to talk about this. What he was referring to in the context of a statement was that he's worried that voters will have that feeling. What we need in order for the GOP to win is we need to have a choice. We need a clear vision different from what we currently have. With Mitt Romney, it's the same vision, and it's one that's not the right direction for this country. And he was worried that voters would have that feeling.

What we have with Mitt Romney is a mirror image of Barack Obama. Both believe in government takeover of health care, cap and trade, Wall Street bailout. We need a candidate as nominee for the Republican party that's a contrast to what we currently have and that's what Rick Santorum is. He wants to, first and foremost, we don't celebrate the second anniversary of Obamacare, we need to have a candidate who will vow to repeal and replace Obamacare. We can't honestly take Mitt Romney's word that he's going to repeal and replace it when he's the one that wrote the model, the prototype in Romneycare.

ROMANS: Certainly this morning that comment on the campaign trail getting a lot of traction, that Senator Santorum would say the choice is Obama over Mitt Romney. And this is what Mitt Romney had to say. His political director gave this statement, "As Senator Santorum continues to drag out this already expensive negative campaign, it is clear that he's becoming the most valuable player on President Obama's team." And then Newt Gingrich also reacting in Baton Rouge last night. Let's listen to what Newt Gingrich had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is no doubt in my mind that if the choice is Governor Romney or Barack Obama, we would have no choice. Barack Obama's reelection will be a disaster for the United States, and we have an obligation --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Reince Priebus has also been on this program talking about beating Barack Obama as the goal of the party. It would seem your candidate's position is counter to the unity of the GOP.

STEWART: Rick has made it abundantly clear once a nominee is chosen he'll stand behind the nominee and do everything we can to replace Barack Obama. That's what the beauty of the primary process is. It's to have candidates out there with differing messages and also different points of view on key issues. Rick is out there to show the contrast. He's out there to show that he's the only consistent conservative in this race in terms of the key issues that people are concerned with.

ROMANS: During the primary season he thinks the choice is Obama over Romney if that's your choice, but when it's the general election, he will say Romney. STEWART: As I said, Rick has made it clear that once the nominee is chosen, he'll stand behind it. We're confident as the delegate math continues that Rick will be the nominee. We feel we have a clear path to victory in this case. Romney is outspending us in areas 21 to one. He's been running for president for more than six years and he's up against the ropes. He has not energized the base. That's why Rick Santorum is doing so well and his message is resonating with people.

ROMANS: That may be true, but he has twice the delegates right now. When you look at the delegate math, under the best possible scenario for Senator Santorum, he could be a spoiler. He could be a spoiler for Mitt Romney.

But the strategy has been to rally conservatives for Senator Santorum, and that seems to be turning a little bit. Romney has been snagging conservatives lately. Yesterday Jim DeMint, this is what he said. He's considered a tea party king maker. He said "I'm not only comfortable with Romney. I'm excited about the possibility of him being our nominee." So the conservative strategy, do you still think that you're going to be able to consolidate more delegates and be that spoiler?

STEWART: Well, who's to say Newt Gingrich isn't the spoiler? We're appealing to conservatives and Tea Party leaders to rally behind the true consistent conservative in this race and that is Rick Santorum. We need to show the stark contrast between the only candidate in this race that can debate the issue and show the contrast with Barack Obama and that's Rick. He's the only one that hasn't been a father, grandfather for Obama care. He has not supported any of the bailouts. He's not supported cap and trade. He has fought vigorously against big government spending as a member of the gang of seven in D.C. He has fought vigorously against big government spending. He is the one that can show the true contrast against Barack Obama as opposed to Mitt Romney, who is a mirror image of the president.

ROMANS: Alice Stewart, thank you for dropping by. Have a great weekend. Thanks, Alice.

STEWART: Have a great day.

ROMANS: Do you guys think the conservative strategy is still working?

LIVINGSTON: I was envisioning an ad from the democratic side. They don't have to do any work. All they have to do is replay comments made by Republicans from the party. I do think that's harmful. I know you probably disagree with that, but I do think it will be harmful.

LIZZA: No. Compared to 2008 when the long democratic primary in the end it did seem like it strengthened Barack Obama as a candidate. Not sure we can say that about Mitt Romney in this long primary. Not sure we can say this process has strengthened Mitt Romney.

LIVINGSTON: We never got to the point where Hillary would say I would support Obama over the opponent. LIZZA: As negative as that race got, it was never as negative and nasty as this race it.

HILL: That was the worst spin I've seen in a long time to explain that. She essentially said everything Rick Santorum saying right now will be different in the general election. You asked a great question. She was saying he has an etch-a-sketch.

ROMANS: I think Republican voters right now don't want to see a different game in primaries than in the general. They want to beat the president. They want to beat the president.

LIZZA: Santorum has every right to stay in this race. My view is layout a calendar, 50 states plus the territories vote. Why shouldn't he be allowed to stay in until the end and see what the delegate count is at the end?

LIVINGSTON: He's come this far.

HILL: It's not about being allowed to. It's about what's good strategy for your party.

LIZZA: He represents --

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: You're right. It's great conversation.

HILL: Ralph Nader on the right.

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT, Bank of America coming up with a plan for homeowners in distress. They take your house and then you pay and you stay. Really? You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Bank of America is getting into the landlord business. It's launching a pilot program that lets homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure hand over the deed to their house then sign leases to rent the house back from the bank at market rate. The program is being tested in Arizona, Nevada and New York.

What I like to say about banks and especially in the banks in the mortgage business, they don't do anything that's not good for them first of all.

LIZZA: Yes.

ROMANS: And some of these states they have such a backlog of foreclosure activity this is a way for the banks to keep getting money out of homes that many people are going to stop paying their bills.

LIZZA: Yes.

ROMANS: I mean, they could be just a dead empty property for some of these people. HILL: That's exactly right, it's a pragmatic thing. I mean here in New York, you know it would literally take decades to get all the people out --

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: Because it takes a court to actually rule on foreclosures in some of these states. So there is this crazy backlog.

HILL: That's exactly right but the first thought might be that this is a good idea because people can save their homes. But what this is really about again is big banks making more money. What we should have developed is not a plan to get people in their homes but not own the homes but to develop a plan to stop people from getting foreclosed. That's a plan we should have develop. That's a plan that we can still develop and I would like to see our energy put there instead of turning the mortgage industry into rent-a-center, you know, which is not the way to go.

ROMANS: Rent-a-center.

LIZZA: Yes well, I mean, the question hinges on whether the -- the homeowners can actually afford the new rents.

ROMANS: Right.

LIZZA: It's a promising program. It is sort of a national scandal that we never figured out the foreclosure crisis in this country that is dragging down the economy.

ROMANS: Well, it would have been nice if we could have got people paying something to the banks a long time ago before they got foreclosed on.

LIZZA: Yes.

ROMANS: You know there were sort of this inactivity in some cases -- for years, consumer advocates and homeowner advocates have been saying you know we've got to keep people in their houses. A lot of people have been kicked out long ago and will never benefit from a program like this.

LIZZA: Yes well and it seems like a little bit too little too late. And it's a thousand homeowners -- this is a pilot program.

LIVINGSTON: I was just going to say that. Why did we not see this three years ago?

ROMANS: I know.

LIVINGSTON: You know three years ago and this is really at the height --

LIZZA: Well, we haven't seen it from the banks and frankly we haven't seen it from our government. We haven't seen it from the Obama administration. Every housing plan that they put out just -- was not ambitious enough to solve the problem.

ROMANS: Well there are going to be some new guidelines that I think are going to be interesting with this big mortgage servicing, you know, settlement that they had.

LIZZA: Yes.

ROMANS: And so from now on you are supposed to have one point of contact when you call a bank. You know what I hear from people as they're going through the foreclosure process, they call the bank then they call another part of bank. Because they don't know who to talk to, they are sending in their bills but the -- the mortgage was sold to somebody else.

I mean, it's just a complete mess. That's going to be illegal for that to be a mess from now on. Like you have to have a person you can call at the bank.

HILL: It needs to be illegal. And more importantly I think there needs to be a long-term plan toward again, regulating these banks. I mean at the end of the day, that's what's -- that's what caused all of this.

It's not a mystery what caused of this. It's predatory lending. It's deregulation of banks. We need to get our hands back on the wheel we need to fix the problem so that stuff like this doesn't just become a band-aid.

ROMANS: I know. Poor Bank of America; first sloppy lending got people in the homes they couldn't afford and then sloppy foreclosures and how they have to stop foreclosures and now even they try --

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: -- now they try a pilot offering the world that we're skeptical of.

LIVINGSTON: Yes. You can rent your own house.

HILL: I know this great house that's not far from where you are now. I mean come on it's awful.

ROMANS: All right.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, Newt Gingrich says an open convention would be exciting. He calls it "Hogs Heaven" in fact. But doesn't that go against the call for uniting this party? His campaign joins us next.

From Ryan's playlist Spice, "Comfort Me."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Looking ahead to the Louisiana primary Saturday, Newt Gingrich needs a win. So far he's won only two states, one of them his home state. But he stands firm on not dropping out of the race. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am staying in the race because I believe we ought to have a conservative who is serious, who has had national achievements and who doesn't write his policy on an Etch-a-Sketch and zigzag back and forth wildly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Here is that Etch-a-Sketch again.

Joining me now, Bob Livingston, he's a former Congressman who represented Louisiana for more than 20 years and he's supporting Gingrich for president. Good morning, sir.

BOB LIVINGSTON, FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: Good morning, Christine.

ROMANS: So how is he going to do in Louisiana? Polls have him third behind Santorum and Romney.

B. LIVINGSTON: I think if people stop and think about the performance of both Romney with Romney care and this etch-a-sketch issue, and then Santorum who says that he would recommend people vote for -- or recommend people to vote for Obama before Romney, I think that they have inflicted so many wounds on themselves, that -- that they will understand that the most important thing is a record of performance.

Newt has that. When we was Speaker he cut taxes, he cut spending, he eliminated programs; he brought in welfare reform and he left a balanced budget and -- and he's got the record of performance and not just talk.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: But with all that in mind, what happens if he loses Louisiana?

B. LIVINGSTON: Well, frankly he has been dragging in the polls but he's been campaigning there all weekend, all week long. And I think that people in Louisiana will understand that frankly he is the only guy that can go toe to toe with President Obama in the debate. The other guys have made mistakes.

And -- look, I'm -- I'm not like Santorum. If Romney ends up with a nomination, I'm for Romney.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: What do you think that Santorum (inaudible) for you in the other party. I mean that's -- that's my question for the GOP. I mean what does that -- it's been a long, hard battle here in this primary season. What do you -- do you think that damages party unity?

B. LIVINGSTON: I'm not going to try to be a bad spinner like Marc mentioned about the previous call (ph) -- the fact is that there -- there is one unifying factor. And that is President Obama. Every Republican and many -- most Independents want Obama out of the White House and that is the unifying factor. We will come together.

ROMANS: I want to talk about -- so Newt's in third place with 135 delegates. It's going to be tough for him to mount a comeback certainly as a front runner. And last night Piers Morgan asked him how he would feel about an open convention. I think, I don't know, I've going to use the word "giddy" to describe it. But listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GINGRICH: That would be the most exciting 60 days of civic participation in the age of Facebook and YouTube. I mean, you would be in "Hogs Heaven". Every night would be exciting. The convention would be the most exciting convention in modern times. And whoever became the nominee would have the highest attendance the highest viewership in history for their acceptance speech and we would have compressed the Obama attack machine to 60 days.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Do you agree with your friend Newt Gingrich that we -- an open convention would be exciting and good for the party?

B. LIVINGSTON: Well you guys on CNN and all the other media would have a lot to talk about and you would be talking about Republicans. You would not be talking about Obama. So yes, I think that it would be possible.

We've done it before in other eras. We've never done it in an environment of Internet and television and the radio, talk shows and so forth. But I don't think it would be devastating. I think it could be very, very positive. It could be an explosion.

But on the other hand, again, there is a unifying desire to get rid of the incumbent in the White House and to turn this country around. And Newt has turned the country around when he was Speaker of the House against the wishes of Bill Clinton, the most popular Democratic president of modern times.

A. LIVINGSTON: Congressman, I want to know what you have to say about people that say, you know, Gingrich has been very open about his feelings about Romney and being a weak nominee and he can't debate against President Obama. Why does he not get behind Santorum and, you know, create this united front with conservative backing? That still would be a lot more threatening to Obama than the situation right now.

B. LIVINGSTON: I think you'll have to ask Newt why he does what he does. I'll simply say that I think Newt is the best campaigner and the best debater. He has been on top twice and he's come up and I think he can come up a third time. He's like Rocky Balboa and the Eveready bunny. You knock him out and he comes back.

But it's going to take a good vote out of Louisiana this next -- actually tomorrow to turn it around for Newt. Otherwise, I guess we'll see some changes but if Newt does well, I think he could be back.

ROMANS: All right. Congressman Bob Livingston, thank you so much for joining us. Have a wonderful weekend.

B. LIVINGSTON: Thank you. You too.

ROMANS: The "End Point" with our panel is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Time now for the "End Point". We'll start with Marc.

HILL: Rick Santorum needs to go home. He's done me a huge favor, you know what I mean. I'd love for him to stay. But if I were a Republican, I would be irritated right now.

He's bringing down the party. He's spreading an awful message. Every other week he says something offensive, xenophobic or racist. On top of that, he's destroying the party and he's keeping Barack Obama's chances alive.

ROMANS: All right. Abby.

A. LIVINGSTON: You know --

ROMANS: Follow up that enthusiasm.

A. LIVINGSTON: There's been a theme today with the stories we've covered, there's been a lot of divide whether it's with Trayvon Martin or with politics. I think this is a time where our country needs to come together, you know. We're all Americans. We need to kind of rise above politics; rise above, you know, racial differences and say, you know, we're all in this together.

ROMANS: Ryan?

LIZZA: I shouldn't do this as a journalist but I want to endorse the Newt Gingrich strategy of making the Republican convention the most interesting thing to happen in 50 years. I mean it really would be epic to go into that with an open convention.

ROMANS: I love it when you do things you shouldn't do.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: Nice to see all you guys.

"CNN NEWSROOM" with Carol Costello begins now. Good morning Carol.