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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

George Zimmerman's Attorneys Quit; Rick Santorum Suspends GOP Presidential Campaign; 8.6 Magnitude Quake Off Indonesian Coast; North Korea Fuels Rocket; Trapped Miners Rescue Under Way; Wildfires Threaten New York Nuke Lab; GSA Nixes Upcoming Vegas Conference; Obama Pushes For Buffet Rule

Aired April 11, 2012 - 07:00   ET

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


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: That would be our money.

It's Wednesday, April 11th. STARTING POINT begins right now.

Welcome, everybody. Let's get right to that breaking news coming to us from Indonesia this morning. An 8.6 earthquake hitting off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The video just in to CNN shows the powerful quake being felt in Banda Aceh. You'll remember that's the capital of the Aceh province which was devastated back in 2004 in the tsunami that hit around Christmastime. People there evacuating to higher ground. Tsunami watch issued for much of the Indian Ocean area. Many residents have been ordered to leave those low-lying areas. Let's get right to Kathy Quiano. She's joining us in Jakarta by phone. Kathy, describe for what are you hearing and seeing from regions most at risk?

KATHY QUIANO, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): We heard that the very strong quake, a magnitude 8.1 according to officials just hit the area. Now, it's not clear this is an aftershock. The area has been experiencing those after the first quake hit. Some residents were told -- went back to their homes and shopped but again moving to safer ground after this very, very strong aftershock.

Indonesian authorities also say they're not lifting a tsunami watch or warning yet and still telling people to stay away from the coastline if possible and higher ground. There are no reports that a tsunami watch was from the first quake, but officials still watching and monitoring and telling people not to return to areas near the coastline so maybe their homes and their shops.

O'BRIEN: Hey, Kathy, how long before they know, because we can remind folks about the 2004 earthquake and subsequent tsunami? That was a 9.3 magnitude earthquake, so we're talking about the first earthquake in Indonesia today at 8.6. You just talked about an 8.1 potential aftershock. Back in 2004, 9.3, ultimately something like 230,000 people were killed. The damage was spread across to 14 countries. The waves were described in some areas as high as 98 feet. And Banda Aceh, of course, sustained some of the worst damage. How long before they know if a killer wave, and that's no exaggeration, is coming that direction once again? QUIANO: Well, earlier officials told us that they were going to wake about an hour and a half to two hours after the first quake hit. That's calculations based on the distance of the epicenter from the coastline. They were saying a tsunami would have hit certain arias of the coast of Aceh already but so far as I said again there have been no reports of that happening. So they were saying that about this time actually at about 6:00 local time they were going to lift the warning but with this new aftershock or earthquake that just hit a few minutes ago that might change. And we just expect the agency and officials here to keep the tsunami watch on for a bit longer.

O'BRIEN: All right, Kathy Quiano joining us from Jakarta. Thanks for watching it. We'll keep checking in with you.

Let's introduce our panel this morning. John Fugelsang is with us, he's a political comedian, Will Cain is a columnist for TheBlaze.com, and Ryan Lizza is in Washington, a correspondent for "The New Yorker." Whenever I see pictures of this, especially if you're looking at something like Banda Aceh, I spent a lot of time covering that earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that came in. I was based in Thailand. And the damage was not to be believed. The water line, especially in Indonesia, was just -- devastating doesn't even come close to it. So I'm always surprised it's an inexact science when the tsunami could hit, because they're sort of waiting to see when they can clear people.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: For something with such devastation, unfathomable. Your experience is untranslatable to the three of us. I certainly didn't. The number, 230,000, that's just --

O'BRIEN: In 14 countries.

CAIN: That's impossible for me to wrap my mind around.

O'BRIEN: The weird thing, even in the Japanese earthquake, planes would buzz by and say, tsunami warning, tsunami coming, tsunami coming and that could be, you know, six inches or could be multiple feet. You just don't know. It doesn't look like anything. We would sit there and try to decide, do we run or do we stay with our live shot because often the warnings were don't turn out to be anything. Crazy.

JOHN FUGELSANG, COMEDIAN: In the case of Phuket people had no way of knowing. My manager was on the beach in Phuket and the folks on the beach had no idea it was coming. Knew the earthquake was coming but it receded out so far people began running down to it, running to the waves just before it happened and he saved one child and was an able to save another child. Those of us in the first world have no idea the effect of that earthquake. The photos on TV did no justice to it. Devastation I think is often like that you sit there and you could spend the entire time reporting it saying, the pictures you're seeing are not close at all to how bad this is. It's incredible.

We'll keep watching and tell everybody as we follow. It'll be interesting to see if the 8.1 that Kathy was reporting after the 8.6 original report was a new earthquake or was that an aftershock. We'll keep watching it for you.

Other story we're watching this morning, of course, is the latest in what is happening in George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. Big question today, where is he, George Zimmerman? Everybody wants to know. His attorneys had this bombshell announcement that they're dropping the case. I spoke to them a few minutes ago. They said against their advice, Zimmerman had reached out to talk to the special prosecutor Angela Corey. They said they were not revealing a confidence in telling us that because that's the advice they will give to any client, anything has to go through them. In the middle of negotiating these conversations with the special prosecutor when the special prosecutor called them and said, you know your client called us. They hadn't been able to reach him and all so apparently he was reaching out to some news organization, as well.

CAIN: Yes, well, they might not have broken a privilege or confidence in relaying that information to you or Ashleigh or Zoraida this morning. They might have when they talked about his mental state. They're speculating on his mental state. Everything we're hearing this morning, I think we're going to have a conversation later with Jose Baez, this is really walking the line on attorney-client privilege, speculating on his mental state.

O'BRIEN: You've never met in person.

FUGELSANG: Calling these guys his lawyers is questionable at this point. I mean --

O'BRIEN: I think ex.

FUGELSANG: They left the window open. They said if he wanted to come back, they would represent him yet again.

O'BRIEN: Here's a little bit of the interview I did and we'll talk on the other side. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG SONNER, GEORGE ZIMMERMAN'S FORMER ATTORNEY: Ethically the prosecutor said we can't talk to you, we know you have representation so we can't talk to you, which is the right thing to do. They tipped us off, so it was all done aboveboard and, you know, just so that we remain aboveboard we couldn't go on doing interviews and talking about the case as though we were representing George Zimmerman when sometime around -- sometime on Sunday something changed. As of Saturday, everything -- you know, the relationship I had with George Zimmerman, that we had with George Zimmerman was good. We were proceeding, we were going on the shows and speaking out on his behalf and we were going to continue to represent him whichever direction the case went in the legal forum. And that stopped. And he failed to return phone call, failed to return texts.

O'BRIEN: Any clue --

SONNER: I'll call you after 9:00. O'BRIEN: Any clue as to what happened from Saturday to Sunday or anything that happened on Saturday that tipped you off to what happened on Sunday?

SONNER: No, nothing that I can tell, only, you know, that there was a website set up where he started collecting money and, you know, he started contacting people outside. He was trying to call the prosecutor. All these things, I mean, him setting up his own website was fine because that makes sure -- I don't have any -- I never touch his money, and that's good for me. The contacts with other people, probably would have been better if he waited a little while before he was making contacts. And when he -- when he wanted to make his statement to the prosecutor's office, I didn't have a problem with him doing that either. There was just a process to go through. Why, you know, and what happened over that period of time, I've been in contact with family and so on, I don't have any answers as to what's going on.

HAL UHRIG, GEORGE ZIMMERMAN'S FORMER ATTORNEY: Let us make it also clear, the website that we set up that we set up in conjunction with his father so that any money collected through that website would go directly to an account that we didn't have the ability to touch or do anything with that was a family funding website, as well.

O'BRIEN: So how often were you talking to him before you lost contact obviously between Saturday and Sunday? Were you talking to him a couple times a day, five times a day?

SONNER: It would depend on the day. Sometimes it would be a couple times. Sometimes it would be more than that. Sometimes it would be just one time a day. But just to keep contact of what we were doing with the case, what we were doing as far as going on the different program, doing the interviews and trying to raise the public perception to trying to encourage the public to look at the evidence instead of jumping on the bandwagon to just, you know, sentence George Zimmerman to prison or whatever else they wanted to do. To hear the facts of what happened and show that, you know, he really was acting in self-defense that night.

O'BRIEN: Have you heard from George Zimmerman ever since you've held that press conference?

UHRIG: No.

O'BRIEN: It's interesting. So you talked --

SONNER: No times two.

O'BRIEN: I gathered. You have talked about at the press conference that you believe that he seemed distraught to you. Are you worried about his emotional state and his physical safety right now?

SONNER: Yes, I'm still concerned about George and his mental state and his physical safety. He was -- he is a good man, something -- a very tragic situation happened. It's been very distressful to him. I believe in his innocence. I believe that he was, in this whole thing, that he was the victim and he -- of this, you know, when he was attacked and defended himself. And now he's become the victim of basically the media has put an improper spin on this case. And you know, my concern is for him.

And if he would want us to come back and represent him, we'd be glad to represent him but at this point he's making that impossible for us to ethically come out and say we represent George Zimmerman. Then the next question is, when was the last time you talked to him? We haven't talked to him and had communication in nearly three days now and we're left with no other -- nothing ethically we could do except remove ourselves from the case.

O'BRIEN: So when you say you're worried about him, are you worried that someone could injure him? Are you worried that he could harm himself?

SONNER: I'm worried that someone is going to injure him. I don't have any indication he's going to harm himself.

O'BRIEN: You said that you --

UHRIG: There have been -- you know what, there have been a lot of people, a lot of folks in the blogosphere and so forth who made statements way beyond responsible saying if no one else does we'll get justice for Trayvon. Those sorts of statements are troubling. We don't know, of course, from any one of them whether they're just a lot of talk or whether there's someone who has that kind of intent but if I were George Zimmerman I'd be very concerned about it.

O'BRIEN: Do you know who he's been getting advice from? Obviously we've had an opportunity to talk to some of his neighbors and his friends who clearly were in some kind of contact with him and then they would come on the air and talk to us. Who is he talking to if he's not talking to you?

SONNER: I don't know. I would just be speculating if I did because he's cut off contact with us. And, you know, if he wanted to -- I would have appreciated if he would have said, I think I'll listen to this person and not you and I don't want you to represent me anymore. That would have made things a lot easier. Instead it was just I'll call you at 9:00, then 9:00 comes and goes and there's no phone call, no text, no e-mail. And because we have never met face to face, it was all communication through the telephone and text messages and e-mail and that's just been stopped at this point.

O'BRIEN: And have you talked to his father and I know his brother, as well, have been vocal in the media and sort of asked them, hey, you know, what's going on? Where is he?

SONNER: Yes, I spoke -- well, I've never spoken with the brother, but I've had regular contact with his father, and they didn't have any information to share with me on that of why he's not calling me back either.

O'BRIEN: You said something interesting yesterday, Mr. Mr. Uhrig, you said for those who think you'll find him he's far away from Florida, of course, that meant for many trying to decide was he on the run? Was he hiding for his safety in the United States? Has he left the United States? Can you elaborate on that for me?

UHRIG: Sure, a lot of people are quick to jump to conclusions and usually the conclusions that they had before they heard the facts. All I was trying to represent is for those people who might be thinking about staking out family members' hopes or friends' homes and either endangering them or causing them any distress, there's no point in doing that. He hasn't left the country. He's not going to flee. He wouldn't have called the prosecutor's office and asked to come in and tell his side of the story if he was fleeing. Clearly he has represented to us, routinely that if he is charged, he will turn himself in. We have no doubt, no reason to believe he's changed his mind about that. But the fact that he's hiding for his own safety shouldn't be interpreted to be that he's hiding from the authorities or planning to flee.

O'BRIEN: You have said you have seen evidence that could change the course of public opinion. And I know you don't want to get into the specifics, but can you categorize it for me? What can you say about that evidence? Is it physical evidence from that night that the police are holding onto? Is it someone's version of the stories as an eyewitness that might come forward and say something? What are you talking about?

SONNER: There's a lot of evidence that hasn't been released yet. I think once everyone sees that, if they'll even look at it, because, quite frankly, there's evidence out there and no one is paying -- is looking at all the evidence. They're taking bits and pieces and drawing the conclusion that there was a murder and there wasn't. George Zimmerman acted in self-defense but when all the evidence is brought out by the police and everyone sees the whole picture they'll see that George Zimmerman acted in self-defense and there are things we know that we've agreed not to disclose and I'm not going to disclose that now either.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Attorneys Hal Uhrig and Craig Sonner, they used to represent George Zimmerman telling us today they no longer represent him. They haven't talked to him since Saturday, haven't had a conversation that was scheduled for Sunday and they are dropping him as a client. But as you said, John, it's always open so that could change.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT," lesson number 98 why you shouldn't walk and text, because there could be a big giant black bear in front of you. This is the bear. Yes, that one right there. That's Glendale, California. It's our get real this morning.

Plus Rick Santorum bows out. Says the work, though, isn't over. Does that mean he'll jump on Mitt Romney's bandwagon to unite the party? We'll talk to the Santorum campaign about the next step.

And if you're heading out to work you don't need to miss the rest of the show. Check out our live blog at CNN.com/startingpoint. Here's John playlist, the "Velvet Underground." Do you love the song? I do. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Many Republicans didn't feel that Santorum could win the general election and that coming out against birth control lost him the female vote, and coming out against internet porn lost them the male vote.

(LAUGHTER)

It's hard to win when you lose both the male and the female votes. Those two blocs are pretty strong, yes. Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Jay Leno -- so much fodder when it comes to the election year. Santorum called his bid for the presidency a miracle after miracle. But this morning, the former senator is out of the presidential race. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We made the decision to get into this race at our kitchen table against all the odds, and we made a decision over the weekend that while this presidential race for us is over for me and we will suspend our campaign effective today, we are not done fighting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Big question now is can you go from saying Mitt Romney is the worst Republican in the country to take on President Obama to then saying everyone should go vote for Mitt Romney? Alice Stewart is the national press secretary of Senator Rick Santorum's 2012 presidential campaign and joins us this morning. Nice to see you. Thanks for talking to us. We heard Senator Santorum say last night he's not done fighting. What literally does that mean? Not done fighting.

ALICE STEWART, NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, SANTORUM 2012 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: Well, he has a lot of work yet to do. He had a nice conversation with Governor Romney yesterday and vowed to do what he could to help, help coalesce conservatives, both social and fiscal conservatives, to rally behind the presumptive nominee which more than likely appears to be Governor Romney because job number one is to defeat Barack Obama in his big government ways.

But more importantly, just as important as defeating Barack Obama, we also need to help elect Republicans up and down the ballot. We need to elect conservatives in the House and Senate because it's critical that we have not just in the president -- the White House, but throughout Congress we need conservative voices and we need conservative causes pushed because we don't need to further agendas like Obamacare and the Buffett rule. These are not the direction we need to be going in. And Rick will fight to make sure we have a conservative voice in Washington.

O'BRIEN: It sounds like you're saying there's opportunities for help on a lot of fronts. Will he stand up and endorse the former governor, Mitt Romney, who was at one point sort of an archenemy, I guess? He didn't say that in his remarks yesterday.

STEWART: Well, certainly they were competitors over the past several months and what you do is you show the contrast. But what he assured Governor Romney yesterday is that they'll have conversations in the next few days and weeks to come, and he has vowed to do whatever it is that Governor Romney needs to help him defeat Barack Obama in November because that's important, and whatever he needs him to do, whether it's speaking, acting as surrogate work.

But Rick has made a great name for himself and set himself up to do great things for the conservative cause in this country and he can go out and reach out to conservatives both the evangelicals and social and fiscal conservatives and bring them together because that's truly what we need. The Obama reelection campaign is going to be a tremendous force. They've got a great amount of money and not to mention the fact he's got the power of the incumbency behind him. So we need to rally behind the conservative cause and Republicans need to get together to take on Barack Obama.

O'BRIEN: So when you look at analysis of how the race went and you pointed out sort of looking back what people say about Senator Santorum, others say he elevated social issues on the campaign and in some ways, pushed the governor Romney to the right on these issues all on the record, and that, in fact, Governor Romney could pay the price for that later. Do you think that's a fair assessment?

STEWART: Rick ran his own race, and what he did, he stood up for the views and values he stood for and showed the contrast, you know, how that affected Governor Romney will, you know, remains to be seen. What he did, he showed that Rick was a consistent conservative on these issues. And at the end of the day what it boils down to is that Mitt Romney has more of the popular vote. He certainly has more of the delegates, and he's in a good space to get the magic number of 1,144 sooner rather than later. And he has earned the spot where he is and earned the support of the Republican Party and it's incumbent upon the rest of us to rally behind him to work together as a team to beat Barack Obama.

O'BRIEN: How do you undo some of the things said? I'll play a little chunk, kind of a best of or worst of depending on how you look at it and answer on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: I'd love to get one-on-one with Governor Romney and expose the record that would be the weakest record we could possibly put up against Barack Obama.

Governor Romney is on the same page as President Obama. He didn't tell the truth about what he did.

Do you really believe this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as a president of the United States?

He is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: He was talking about health care, as you know, on that last one but those are going to be, one, tough to take back, two, certainly going to appear in ads that the Obama campaign is running, I would guess, right?

STEWART: As you know, Soledad, that's in the heat of a primary and the job of all the candidates is to show the contrast where Rick defers from Governor Romney. That's exactly what he was doing. But as we stand now, the most important thing we can do is to put up the strongest Republican to beat the president and that's exactly --

O'BRIEN: But he's not going to say none of those things were true. He said Governor Romney is on the same page as Barack Obama on these issues. He didn't tell the truth. Do you really want to elect a Wall Street financier? He can't get up and say, you know, those weren't true, right?

STEWART: The fact moving forward is that what Rick is going to do is he doesn't have to go back and retrace his steps. The job now is to look forward and what we can do to empower Mitt Romney to coalesce and bring conservatives together, because he has said now he wants to repeal and replace Obama care, and that's important, as we're hearing with the Supreme Court arguments that hopefully the Supreme Court will strike down the individual mandate because that's important. And Mitt Romney has vowed that he is going to do what he can to repeal and replace Obamacare. That's going to be an important step.

And he is certainly, as the polling indicates, people trust him more to handle the debt and deficit in this country and that's what people are concerned about as we traveled across the country. People talked about jobs and the economy and repealing Obama care. And Mitt Romney already has the support of people across this country that he can do a better job than Barack Obama in these key critical issues that people want to see a change in Washington.

O'BRIEN: But it sounds to me, Alice, what happens now when you move out of sort of the primary, you reset, you know. And that's kind of an Etch-a-Sketch thing, the same point the governor's people were making when they talked about Etch-a-Sketch, that was then this, is now. We hit the reset. We shake the Etch-a-Sketch and we start again talking to different audiences. Is that what you're saying to me?

STEWART: No. What I'm saying is the people have spoken. As we said, we've said yesterday in his speech that he made the decision to spend the campaign based on personal issues but also political reasons. Looking at the delegate map it didn't appear the numbers would add up and the people have spoken and decide that Mitt Romney is --

O'BRIEN: That's what I get. I hear you on that --

STEWART: So it's incumbent on us to do what we can to empower him and bring continued support behind him in whatever is necessary to take on the president.

O'BRIEN: How do you say someone's the worst on something then turn around and say I embrace him and now he's the best on something?

STEWART: As you said, what Rick was referring to in that particular sound bite was on Obamacare.

O'BRIEN: I'll read a different one. Let's pick a different one. "Governor Romney is on the same page as Barack Obama on all these issues. The weakest record we could put up against Barack Obama is Governor Romney." How do you say that one day and the next day turn around and say, yes, you know, I'm resetting? That wasn't true.

STEWART: The key is looking forward. The key is doing what we can to rally behind Mitt Romney. As I said, I'll repeat it again, the people have spoken. They made it quite clear they trust governor Romney to take on Barack Obama and we need to do everything we can to rally behind him and give him the support he needs and polling has indicated people trust that he is better suited and has the ideas to take on the debt and deficit than the president.

And that's what people are concerned. They want someone in there not who is going to impose the Buffett rule and tax the wealthy creating jobs or want someone that will force health care on them. They want someone who will create jobs and turn the economy around and not force big government on them and they have seen that Mitt Romney is the best person to do that and Rick will do everything he can to make sure that he can get that job done.

O'BRIEN: Alice Stewart is with the Santorum campaign. Thanks for talking with us. We appreciate your time.

STEWART: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, an oblivious texter wanders right into a bear. You're going to want to stick around as we "Get Real" this morning. We leave you with Will's playlist, Robert Earl King "Feeling Good Again." You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody.

Breaking news to start with this morning, a massive 8.6 magnitude earthquake has struck off the coast of Indonesia. Some new video coming in to CNN this morning shows the impact of the quake in Banda Aceh.

If that name sounds familiar that's, of course, the scene of that catastrophic earthquake and tsunami back in 2004. So today people in the low-lying areas are being evacuated to higher ground.

The quake triggered a tsunami alert for much of the Indian Ocean and there are reports that there's been at least one powerful aftershock, a magnitude 8.2 earthquake.

Indonesia's president of Indonesia says there are no reports at this point of any damage or any casualties so far in the Aceh Province and of course, you'll remember back in 2004 that earthquake was a 9.3 magnitude quake.

And the swells of water in some places of the 14 countries that were affected back in 2004 were as high as 98 feet, 30 meters or so reporting.

Going to update you on the stories throughout the morning, got to get to the rest of the headlines first though, Christine Romans has that for us. Hi, good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad. Some other stories we're watching this morning.

New developments from North Korea, the communist country has begun fueling a long-range rocket for a planned launch sometime this week. Pyongyang insists that this rocket is designed to put a satellite in orbit and not as the U.S. and South Korea believe to test a missile.

That could carry a nuclear warhead as far as Hawaii and Alaska. U.S. officials say North Korea's launch would violate a U.N. resolution and have threatened to take appropriate action.

The race to save nine trapped mine workers in Peru. Rescue crews scrambling to get these miners out. Peru's president is at the mine right now. He's leading the rescue operation and told the miners they could be free in hours.

They've been stuck underground for seven days after a collapse at that mine. The men are reportedly in good health. They do have access to oxygen, food and water. But they have been trapped now for seven days.

Dozens of wildfires raging all along the east coast this morning scorching thousands of acres. Officials say close to 100 fires are still burning just in Florida.

Firefighters also put out a fire on eastern Long Island, on the grounds of the Brookhaven National Laboratory. It's a nuclear physics facility. Several homes were damaged in that area, as well. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declaring a state of emergency there.

The GSA is canceling an upcoming conference in Las Vegas in the wake of its spending scandal. The GSA now under investigation for spending more than 800,000 taxpayer dollars at a prior conference in Vegas in 2010. Eight GSA workers have been removed. The now acting administrator says the GSA is working to restore trust.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're committed to doing all that we can to make this situation right and to restore trust with our client agencies and with the nation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: The GSA is also suspending an awards program. Employees of the agency were given iPods, digital cameras, and other electronics. Congressional investigators say that violates the employee gift limit -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right, well, I'm not surprised. They're canceling that conference.

ROMANS: Yes, me either.

O'BRIEN: Actually surprised they're announcing it now as opposed to last week. All right, Christine, thank you.

Well, the timing of Rick Santorum's exit from the Republican race comes just as the president hits the road to sell his plan for the economy and taxes.

Two issues which could very likely define the 2012 presidential rails. The Obama camp already on the attack against Mitt Romney and the head of the president's re-election team, Jim Messina says this.

"While calling himself the ideal candidate for the Tea Party he promised to return to the same policies that created the economic crisis and has alienated women, middle class families and Hispanic Americans."

Messina is talking about Mitt Romney. Jen Psaki is a former Obama White House Deputy Communications Director joining us this morning. It's nice to see you. Thanks for being here.

When you see what Jim Messina says, should we all take this as a sign of where the president is going to attack Mitt Romney? Appeal to women, appeal to middle class voters, appeal to Hispanics, is that it in a nutshell?

JEN PSAKI, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, Soledad, first I'll say that Rick Santorum obviously ran a formidable campaign on a shoestring budget and it really speaks to the strength of his candidacy.

But also the weakness of Mitt Romney's as his inability to connect with people across the country that the primary went this long. What you saw from what Jim Messina's comments and what you'll see from the president is laying out the choice that the American people will have in November.

Who are you fighting for? What are you going to do to help the middle class continue to prosper and that's what this campaign is going to be focused on for the next eight months we have to go here. O'BRIEN: Just talking a few minutes ago to Alice Stewart from the Santorum campaign and also the polling supports, which she says is the focus is going to be economy, economy, jobs, and economy.

When you look at polls and here's an ABC News poll about the economy and people are asked who do you trust on the economy, it's Mitt Romney who leads, 47 percent to President Obama who is at 43 percent?

If, in fact, that's the focus, people aren't polling saying women's issue, not saying middle class issues specifically. They're not saying Latino issues, isn't this a big problem for the president?

PSAKI: Well, look, the president inherited the worst economic crisis in a generation and millions more people are working today because of the bold steps that he took.

Another interesting number in that poll was Mitt Romney is -- has a double-digit deficit on his inability to connect with the challenges people are facing. People don't think he has empathy.

They don't think he understands the challenges that middle class families are dealing with every single day. And that's a real problem for him as he looks ahead to the next few months.

CAIN: Hi, Jen, Will Cain. Soledad pointed out the president's strategy will be at least in part to appeal to Hispanic and appeal to women, to talk to these various groups across the United States.

But also one of the things we know now one of the strategies is going to be talk about the Buffett Rule and fair share, paying your fair share in taxes. Would you please define for me what "fair" means?

PSAKI: Well, we could talk about that all morning. I will say that the Buffett Rule, you saw the president talk about this yesterday. Tax law is complicated. This is really simple. There's no reason that my mother-in-law who has been a teacher in Cincinnati for more than 30 years should be paying twice the rate of Mitt Romney.

This is not his full solution for tax reform. He wants to do a lot more, but this is a down payment. It would save $47 billion, which is small. But, you know, it's nothing to sneeze about and it also instils fairness. What it means is everybody paying their fair share, everybody contributing.

CAIN: But you just repeated fair. I think this is the problem. Fair seems to be a highly subjective word. You said fair means paying your fair share. That doesn't help me define what fair means in an objective sense.

PSAKI: Here's what we know is not fair. Mitt Romney is paying a 14 percent tax rate. Middle class families are paying a 30 percent tax rate. That's not fair.

O'BRIEN: So when you talk to somebody like -- PSAKI: Define fair pretty easily.

O'BRIEN: Let me before our panel gets into it and I have to break it up, Jen. Let me ask you a question about what Orrin Hatch said about the tough Buffett Rule.

Well, he says, essentially at the end of the day, this is class warfare. He said it's a dog that just won't hunt. It was designed for no other reason than politics.

There's no economic rationale for it. I hope the president will stop the class warfare and start leading by putting out real proposals to bring down our debt and reform our broken tax code.

PSAKI: Well, here's an area where they agree. President Obama absolutely wants to reform the tax code. He has called for that. He has announced a number of steps he wants to take.

But, there's no reason why millionaires should be paying a lower tax rate than middle class families. That's the question I would pose back to Senator Hatch. Why is that fair? Why is that a rule we should keep in place in the tax law?

FUGELSANG: Jen, the problem a lot of progressives have with President Obama is that he ran in 2008 promising to make the rich pay their fair share.

The American people overwhelmingly signed on for that agenda and then it didn't happen. And now he's running on it again. Why does this president, never and I never, bring up the fact that the American people in 2008 voted for exactly what he's campaigning on right now?

PSAKI: Well, I think putting in place the largest tax cuts, middle class families, 160 million families benefited.

FUGELSANG: Not talking about that but increasing revenue and letting the Bush tax cuts inspire. At the end of the day, this is Bush's tax increase. These were designed to expire in 2010.

PSAKI: When they expire in January, it will be $160 billion in revenue. That's something he is absolutely committed to making sure happens.

FUGELSANG: OK, but he doesn't bring up the fact that the American people signed on for this and it makes a lot of people question whether he's committed to it.

O'BRIEN: Let me add to that, Jen. I think what John is getting to is that where there is some frustration among people who four years ago were Obama supporters and forbid Obama supporters who look at a track record of saying some of these things weren't done. How do you deal with those voters if you look at the actual polling the president has chipped away at some of these.

PSAKI: Well, you know, if you look at the speech the president gave when he won the Iowa -- the nomination or not the nomination, but won the Iowa caucuses, he has delivered on every single one of those promises, putting affordable health care in place, passing a middle class tax cut, ending the war in Iraq.

There's more work that needs to be done. That's why he needs to have another four years in office. He has done a number of things to make this country better, make this country better for middle class families.

RYAN LIZZA, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORKER": Jen, it's Ryan Lizza with "The New Yorker." How are you doing?

PSAKI: Hi, Ryan.

LIZZA: One question, jut going back to what you said about inheriting the economy from Bush, do you think at a certain point that argument just loses its salience?

Almost three and a half years into the Obama administration, at what point do the American people just say, you know what? We don't care what he inherited. We want to know what he did himself and do you start to use that argument?

PSAKI: The thrust of what the president talks about on the campaign trail and when he's out doing official events is about the steps he has taken since he came into office, the difference they've made and what we still need to do moving forward.

What I meant when I said inherited was, he came into office as we know and history tells us when the economy was in the worst state it had been about in a generation. That's just the facts.

So I don't think it never has been, I don't think it will be his focus to talk about what happened during the Bush administration. He's going to talk about the steps he has put in place and what it meant for workers and why people need to keep him in office.

O'BRIEN: Jen Psaki joining us this morning. It's nice to talk to you. Thanks for being with us.

PSAKI: Great talking to you. Have a good day.

O'BRIEN: Likewise, I appreciate that.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, we're going to take you inside that massacre in Afghanistan that happened allegedly at the hands of an American soldier.

The first western reporter to go in and visit the villagers and talk to the children there who were witnesses will join us up next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Our get real this morning. We have seen. We have talked about the pitfalls of texting while you are walking. People don't do it even they do it all the time. Who could forget the woman who is texting not paying attention and she fell into the fountain?

Remember that poor woman? There she is, awful, right? Then there was a woman we talked to on the show. She was texting and she fell into -- off a pier and had to have people jump in and rescue her.

FUGELSANG: Explains all of this, by the way.

O'BRIEN: Then there was this, a guy walking down a driveway. Take a look. You could see him right there, going the other way, if you will. Yes, yes, that would be a black bear.

LIZZA: They caught this on video. I had no idea.

O'BRIEN: Yes, so there's been a black bear in Glendale, California, and he suddenly realizes this bear is heading down -- the bear loves meatballs and digging into people's garbage.

CAIN: They know him well. I didn't realize that. He was a friendly bear.

O'BRIEN: What they said was he was a bear who's digging into people's garbage, digging meatballs. Apparently, it was something that he liked. They were able to catch him and they --

LIZZA: You know what's good about it. This guy was telling his boss he was late for work. If that boss did not trust him, he trusts him now.

O'BRIEN: That was me. That was me. There was a bear in my house. The funny thing, have you read the tweets from the bear? So someone has set up -- tweeting for the bear. And his name is Glen Bearian, need a spokesbear?

I look cute on TV. I can sell more than just delicious meatballs. They eventually shot him three types with a tranquilizer gun and hauled him deep into the Angeles National Forest and he tweeted maybe they took a wrong turn and ended up in my forest.

Running for a president, vote Glen Bearian, 2012 presidential election. Read my lips -- you don't think these jokes are good, John?

FUGELSANG: No, I don't. No, I don't.

O'BRIEN: I think this is hysterical.

FUGELSANG: Well, it's charming. I feel bad for the bear because Glendale is a nice place. The schools are fantastic. It's so hard for a bear to move into that neighborhood.

O'BRIEN: I thought it's great and now, of course, he's safe. People really worried about the bear, he's fine.

FUGELSANG: Animal control was called to the scene. He's been there for awhile seeing him for quite a while. I'm afraid we'll see a lot more in this country. CAIN: They knew his appetite.

O'BRIEN: He knew the schedule of the dumpster trucks. They could tell he knew what homes to hit on what days because of the schedule, a smart bear.

FUGELSANG: Bears have calendar apps.

LIZZA: I can barely get enough of these techs.

FUGELSANG: I'm out of here.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, we're going to take you inside the Afghanistan massacre that happened allegedly at the hands of an American soldier.

The first western reporter to visit the villages and talk to the children there will join us up next. We're back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We've been talking about the breaking news happening off the coast of Indonesia. People are now worried about a potential tsunami possibly hitting some of the countries off the Indian Ocean.

As we mentioned, 8.6 quake rattling Banda Aceh and there are fears there could be another tsunami like the one that Banda Aceh experienced back in 2004.

Erin Burnett has been vacationing I believe in the Maldives. She joins us by phone. Hi, Erin. First of all, what did you feel? I assume you're OK.

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, CNN'S "OUTFRONT" (via telephone): Yes, actually we didn't feel anything here although I've talked to some people obviously they were saying they could feel it in India and other places.

But there was obviously immediate concern about tsunami. I can tell you, Soledad, sometime in the next 3 or 4 minutes, whatever. At this point, we anticipate a small sort of a wave will be hitting the capital of the Maldives.

But of course, this country was really devastated in 2004 with the tsunami like so many others. So there are a lot of concerns and what I think what strikes me the most is essentially the lack still of a warning system and national participation.

I've spent the past hour in the command center where I'm staying and seen how they are preparing and it's actually been pretty amazing to see how it is so self-sufficient because there isn't a warning system.

O'BRIEN: Yes, you know, it's so interesting to see that everyone is standing around waiting to see if there will in fact be a wave and how big that wave potentially could be.

Back in 2004 as you remember I know, the wave was as high as 98 feet in some places. Do they have any sense what kind of wave you could be looking at? What does small mean?

BURNETT: They actually don't. They are looking back in 2004 here on the island. I'm on the Maldives. The wave was about four feet, which completely in this country where the islands are only a couple feet above sea level had wiped out everything.

They don't know and what they actually coupled together. I went in the command center where they were trying to figure things out with the general manager of the resort where I am staying. They had CNN on which is an important source for them, which you think is pretty amazing.

You know, they were talking about CNN is the place they turn to. They also have an alert that they get immediately from the USGS. The USGS is clearly the number one source. The other sources whether it be Australia, India, the capital of the Maldives is not something they could look -- have to rely on at all.

There have been resorts in the Maldives that have already evacuated because they are not sure how big the wave is going to be and they were afraid and they evacuated.

They felt from the information they had that they didn't need to evacuate us here. This is based off talking to source these have and all this information that they pull together rather than a scientific knowledge.

O'BRIEN: Everybody is watching this. Erin Burnett who is stopping her vacation in order to fill us in on what's happening in the Maldives where she is. Erin, thanks for the update. We appreciate it. We got to take a short break.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case has a big announcement she says within 72 hours she's going to tell us what she will be doing. She's going to make a move.

Also we talk to George Zimmerman's attorneys this morning. We'll tell you what they said and our SOB as in Soledad O'Brien Award, sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. This time it's bad for the worst bridezila ever.

A woman fakes cancer so she can get the dress of her dreams, really? Got to hear this story. That's straight ahead. You're watching STARTING POINT. Short break. We're back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome, everybody. We start with breaking news, there are fears that maybe another big wave is coming, a tsunami watch now for the entire Indian Ocean. And 8.6 magnitude earthquake has hit off the coast of Indonesia. People now are heading for higher ground. It was, of course, the same region that was hit so hard back in 2004.

George Zimmerman's legal team has quit right when the special prosecutor says she has an important announcement to make within 72 hours. The lawyers tell me that George left them no choice. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRAIG SONNER, GEORGE ZIMMERMAN'S FORMER ATTORNEY: Well, we haven't talked to him or had communication in nearly three days now. We are left with nothing ethically we could do except remove ourselves from the case.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Lots of news this morning as Rick Santorum drops out of the race. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: While this presidential race for us is over for me and we'll suspend our campaign effective today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)