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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Arizona Gunman Gets Life Sentence; Hurricane Ernesto Slams into Mexico; Romney's Negative Numbers Rise; President Pleads For Drought Relief

Aired August 8, 2012 - 05:00   ET

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


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Life without parole. Tucson gunman Jared Lee Loughner cops a plea deal and spares Gabby Giffords and his other victims the order of a trial.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: A hurricane slams. Ernesto slams Mexico, and oil platforms on the gulf could be next.

HARLOW: And a standoff at the Hoover Dam. A SWAT team called in after a driver runs through the security gate.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Poppy Harlow, in for John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: Very nice to have you this morning.

HARLOW: Good to be with you.

SAMBOLIN: I'm Zoraida Sambolin. It's 5:00 a.m. here in the East. So, let's get started.

Up first, the shooting rampage in Tucson, Arizona, takes a dramatic step this morning. Jared Lee Loughner now facing a lifetime in prison after pleading guilty to a shooting that killed six people and almost killed a former member of Congress, Gabrielle Giffords.

Under the plea deal, Loughner will be sentenced to life in prison with no parole but will avoid the death penalty. The U.S. attorney prosecuting the case says Loughner's mental state was a big factor in this decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN LEONARDO, U.S. ATTORNEY: The doctors who have treated and observed Mr. Loughner since the shooting agree that he suffered from a severe mental illness. That is severe schizophrenia at the time of the shooting and before the shooting. The fragility of his continued competency to stand trial was taken into account.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Kyung Lah is live in Tucson this morning.

Kyung, we're used to seeing Loughner's picture that we just showed on the screen. You saw him in the courtroom yesterday. How did he look to you?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He looked very different. At least his demeanor was very different. When he first came into the courtroom for the hearing, he did look out at the public galley. And he had a bit of an unusual look on his face. He had a bit of a sneer as he was looking out at everyone.

But overall, his demeanor was very calm. It's important to point out, because of all that medication that you just heard the U.S. attorney talking about, Zoraida, he is heavily medicated. That's what his doctors testified to.

Earlier in previous hearings, he had smiled when the charges were read against him. He had also had loud outbursts and had to be tackled by guards. This time, he was able to communicate with the judge. He was able to respond to questions.

And so, this was a bit of a different person. And he also said 19 times, I plead guilty. His mother sat right behind me. She did cry as her son said that each time.

And it's important to understand, also, that there were victims in the courtroom. And they also responded every time that he said that as well.

Here's what one victim told us shortly after the hearing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUZI HELMAN, SHOOTING VICTIM: This is the system doing its best. It's not a perfect solution. The perfect solution is one that we can't have. What we want is not available to us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Wow.

LAH: And that is the woman who brought 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green to the "Congress on Your Corner" event. She is the youngest victim of the six people who died. We also did get a statement from Mark Kelly. He is the husband of former Congressman Gabrielle Giffords.

And here's what he says. He says, quote, "Gabby and I are satisfied with this plea agreement, avoiding a trial will help us and we hope the entire southern Arizona community to continue with our recovery and move forward with our lives" -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: That was really tough to watch them grapple with that. Thank you so much, Kyung Lah.

And coming up at 6:30 Eastern, we'll talk to retired Army Colonel Bill Badger. He helped disarm and bring down Loughner even after he took a bullet.

HARLOW: Well, the gunman who killed six people at a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb left no obvious clues about his motives. FBI teams have gathered some evidence from the home of Wade Michael Page.

But Oak Creek's police chief says this case is unusual because mass murderers typically leave some sort of clue -- obvious letters or something else about their plan. Page did not.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHIEF JOHN EDWARDS, OAK CREEK, WISCONSIN POLICE DEPT.: You look for the obvious, you know, somebody said he said this. He posted that. He did that. We're not finding anything like that. We may end up with just a lot of facts of what he's involved with, who he may be associated with. But we may never know that motive because he died. That motive died with him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Also interesting development this morning. "The L.A. Times" and other sources are reporting that police have arrested page's former girlfriend on a gun charge. Officers found an authorized weapon in the home of Misty Cook, the home that she once shared with the Sikh temple shooter. The Anti-Defamation League reports that the 31-year-old waitress shared his Page's interest in the white power movement and was active in at least two neo-Nazi organizations.

SAMBOLIN: A man from Ohio is facing arrangement today after police say he was caught packing a pistol at a showing of "The Dark Knight Rises." Police in West Lake say 37-year-old Scott Smith had a loaded 9 millimeter handgun and three knives in a bag on Saturday. Smith's lawyer claims he had no intention of using the weapons. He merely wanted to protect himself in case someone tried to imitate last month's deadly shooting at a theater in Colorado. Authorities say he did not have a concealed carry permit for that weapon.

HARLOW: And hundreds of tourists on the run this morning after hurricane Ernesto slammed into Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The storm came ashore packing, winds of -- get this -- 85 miles an hour. And Ernesto became a minimal hurricane as it passed along the Honduras coast. Parts of the country could see up to a foot of rain from it.

Let's go straight to Alexandra Steele. She is tracking this all in the CNN weather center in Atlanta.

Give us a sense of how serious this is.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: All right. Well, good morning, guys.

Well, we no longer have hurricane Ernesto. The latest advisory just out moments ago has downgraded it now to a tropical storm. So it is tropical storm Ernesto.

It was the first landfalling hurricane, though, from the Atlantic. But we could see it emerge as a hurricane once again.

So here's the latest. Now, again, down 70 mile per hour winds. From the center of circulation, about 35 miles out from the center, that's where we have the 70 mile per hour winds. Not 80 now. Also, it is moving west at 15 miles per hour. And that track and that movement is expected to stay.

So here's what happened. Here's the Yucatan Peninsula. It came ashore as a hurricane, minimal hurricane. But what we're going to see now, because, of course, any interaction with land does weaken it. A hurricane or tropical storm needs these warm waters to kind of give it its energy. So, of course, the expectation was for it to weaken. It has.

But it will emerge here into the Bay of Campeche, the very warm waters there, emerge as a hurricane once again and make a second landfall as a hurricane in Mexico as well. All this expected to happen the next day or two.

In terms of rainfall, especially through the Sierra Madre Mountains, that orographic lifting helping to enhance the rain. Here's a look at forecast rain totals. There's the Yucatan. You could see more than a foot around the mountainous areas.

Of course, very strong winds we're seeing now and the rain. But it is a swift mover. What we are going to see, though, is no impact to U.S. soil of any kind. Just a Mexico scenario. But we will see a second hurricane once again emerge one more time and then continue and then weaken and then finally dissipate.

Back to you.

SAMBOLIN: Wow, it's very busy. Alexander Steele, thank you.

It is seven minutes past the hour.

A man blows past a Nevada check point approaching the Hoover Dam, sparking a standoff.

Take a look at this. He couldn't outsmart a SWAT team. They raised a barrier, trapping the man's vehicle between the barrier and their truck. He had nowhere to go. So he surrendered peacefully.

No word this morning on why the man did not stop at the checkpoint.

HARLOW: And this just in. Gas prices on the rise for a tenth day in a row. The average for a gallon of unleaded, $3.65, and a lot more than that here if New York -- that's for sure.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, a lot of places around the country.

So, I'll see your Romney Hood and raise you an Obamaloney. Seriously.

HARLOW: Really?

SAMBOLIN: The race for the White House taking a bit of a childish tune this morning. What did you say? The two candidates going tit-for-tat, coining phrases, to cut each other down. It started yesterday when the president attacked Mitt Romney's tax plan. And it didn't take long for the GOP candidate to return the behavior.

Behold the state of presidential politics in 2012.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's like Robin Hood in reverse. It's Romney Hood.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If I were to coin a term, it would be Obamaloney.

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

SAMBOLIN: So, we'll see if the name-calling continues today. The president travels to Colorado for a two-day, four-stop visit. And Romney holds a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. That's scheduled for a little later this morning.

HARLOW: Well, a scoring controversy in women's gymnastics in the Olympics involving American Aly Raisman. Plus, a scare in weightlifting. The reigning Olympic champ drops a 432 pound weight on his neck.

SAMBOLIN: Ooh. That can't be good.

HARLOW: He's OK.

The video and all the highlights from London, straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Our floor director is dancing to the music here. We just love it.

HARLOW: Almost as good rhythm as Hillary Clinton. Oh, that's coming up later.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: I don't know if that's good or bad.

All right. Welcome back to EARLY START. It is 13 minutes past the hour.

HARLOW: I'm Poppy Harlow.

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

USA women's gymnastics finishing on a high note in London yesterday. Aly Raisman winning gold in the floor exercise and taking home bronze on the beam -- but not without some drama surrounding it.

Fellow American and all-around champ Gabby Douglas didn't fair as well. She took a fall on the beam to finish seventh.

Amanda Davies live in our Olympic bureau.

So, let's start with Aly Raisman there. What happened?

AMANDA DAVIES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. Sunny Olympic park. Today is the day 12.

Yes, U.S. captain Aly Raisman, she's largely been overlooked in the last few days because of everything else that's been going on with Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber. But she's now matched Gabby in terms of gold medals won after the gold on the floor. She also took the bronze on the beam as you said.

Disappointment, though, for Gabby Douglas. She'd been saying that all the distraction of everything that had gone before or after that individual all-around title and once again for her second individual event, she really struggled to register.

Also, a little bit of concern about Jordyn Wieber. She didn't put in a particularly good performance and then was spotted leaving the arena with a supportive boot on her foot. There's some suggestion Jordyn Wieber might have aggravated an existing stress fracture.

So, really a sad end to the Olympic Games for her given everything that's happened over the last couple of weeks as well.

SAMBOLIN: But we were talking about Aly Raisman and some controversy surrounding her. What was that all about?

DAVIES: Yes. There was controversy about her score. We'd seen before in the all-around that -- to do with tying of scores. It was -- this time, it went in her favor with her performance on the beam. She had gone before and missed out narrowly on a bronze medal.

But here we are today, she did get the medal. So, she was very pleased about that. The USA gymnastics were very pleased about that as well.

SAMBOLIN: No kidding. As were her parents. They've been a big part of these Olympics as well.

So, it's a big day on the track for the Americans as well, including a photo finish in the women's 100-meter hurdles final.

DAVIES: Yes. That was last night. It was a bit of a cruel end, really, to the athletes on the track. People watching on TV had seen that Australia's Sally Pearson had taken the 100 meters hurdled gold ahead of America's defending champion, Dawn Harper.

But the athletes were left to stand and wait in the rain, watching up at the big screen with their fingers crossed. There was quite a considerable wait. In the end, it did show that Pearson had taken the gold, much to her delight. Dawn Harper was very happy with her silver as well. Celebrating.

No medal -- no love lost for Lolo Jones after all the buildup and the angst in the camp. She kind of walked off the track without even congratulating the medalists.

It's a very big day again today for the U.S. women on the track because of the 200 meters final. Of course, it was the Jamaicans who dominated in Beijing. But this year, the U.S. could do a one, two, three themselves. Allyson Felix is in contention, hoping it will be third time lucky for her. Sanya Richards-Ross, she's also looking to add to her 400 title.

And then Carmelita Jeter off to her silver in the 100 meters. And she's spurred on by the fact that she's had a cheetah named after her this week after her success there.

SAMBOLIN: Well, yes, that's kind of cool, huh? We're going to be talking to Jackie Joyner-Kersee a little bit later about those races coming up.

Amanda Davies live in London for us, thank you very much.

HARLOW: Well, a pretty scary moment at the games. 2008 weightlifting gold medalist Matthias Steiner -- got to see this video -- he drops a 432-pound barbell on his neck.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, gosh!

HARLOW: This happened yesterday. Amazingly, he was able to get up on his own. He, of course, had to withdraw. He was taken to the hospital for x-rays. So, we don't have any final reading on any impact.

But good that he could get up and walk away. That is a good sign. Obviously, we'll be following it. Unbelievable.

But you were saying they're so strong. Those neck muscles from so strong. If anyone can sustain it, someone like him.

SAMBOLIN: Boy, I hope so. That looks horrifying though. Terrible. We wish him well.

Seventeen minutes past the hour here.

Checking the medal count, very important. China has the most medals, 73. And the most gold, 34.

We're not far behind. Team USA has 70 total medals, 30 of them are gold.

And Great Britain and Russia each have 48 total medals. And today's big events, it's a historic USA versus USA matchup for the women's beach volleyball gold. Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh Jennings face Jen Kessy and April Ross for the Olympic crown. May- Treanor and Walsh are going for their third gold in what they say will be their final match together.

Also, Team USA's men's basketball team takes on Australia in the knockout phase of the games.

HARLOW: All right. Well, it is 18 minutes after the hour.

Let's get you up to date on the morning's top stories.

First off, Tucson massacre suspect Jared Lee Loughner will be sentenced in November for killing six people and wounding 13 others. He pled guilty yesterday to 19 different counts in court, in exchange for a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.

It was January last year when Loughner shot then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the 18 other victims. Giffords is still recovering from a bullet in her brain.

SAMBOLIN: Heavy gunfire, rocket propelled grenades going off. Fighting raging in Aleppo and Damascus and other hot spots in Syria as well.

This amateur video is showing heavy clashing and several explosions. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of this video.

Opposition groups say at least 170 people were killed across the country. This was just yesterday. All this as the former prime minister, who bolted Syria, arrived in Jordan.

HARLOW: I think this is a really interesting story. Twitter is now agreeing to comply with the New York Police Department, handing over information about a Twitter user that officers say threatened to attack a Broadway theater. Police say the user claimed to be planning an attack on Mike Tyson's one man show, somewhat similar to the movie theater massacre just a few weeks ago in Aurora, Colorado.

Twitter had initially refused to cooperate with police saying that it wasn't a threat. Yesterday, though, the NYPD issued a subpoena.

SAMBOLIN: CIA director David Petraeus shooting down vice presidential talk this morning. That buzz started after a story surfaced yesterday on the "Drudge Report" saying President Obama was overheard whispering that Mitt Romney might pluck the retired four- star general from his administration.

A CIA spokesman for Petraeus says the director feels privileged to serve in his current position and will not seek elected office.

HARLOW: And J-Lo suing her former driver for 20 million bucks, accusing him of trying to blackmail her for nearly $3 million. That dispute began back in April when the driver sued Lopez and her management for breach of contract when they dropped him from providing security for a video shoot.

It is 20 minutes past the hour. We're getting an early read on local news making national headlines.

The FAA is now imposing stricter rums on airline traffic after the really scary near collision at Reagan National Airport. That was last week. We told you all about it.

This is coming to us via "The Washington Post." So, what they're doing here is the FAA is temporarily banning aircraft from flying in opposite directions as they arrive and they depart from the airports.

This is going to affect all of the airports across the country. Last week, an air traffic controller accidentally sent two commuter flights into the path of a third jet that was inbound. That is what caused a near collision.

The FAA says a suspension of two-way traffic is being taken out of an abundance of caution while it considers other measures. They say that this is standard practice. This is absolutely standard practice.

But I thought one of the interesting things that they found here is the real problem was a lapse in communication --

HARLOW: Of course.

SAMBOLIN: -- between air traffic controllers, exactly, flying in air space that's just a little to close. So, hopefully, they'll look at that.

They also said that somebody who's overseeing operations in towers should not be managing administrative tasks.

HARLOW: I would agree.

SAMBOLIN: Which they were doing.

HARLOW: That stood out to me in the article as well.

I thought about this landing last night. I was coming back from Wisconsin. We were landing at LaGuardia. I was on a commuter jet.

I thought about this. So, I'm glad to hear the abundance of caution.

SAMBOLIN: Absolutely. Until they figure it out, right?

HARLOW: How about for good?

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

HARLOW: Yes, this story really struck me this morning. All the major U.S. pro sports leagues and the NCAA -- so the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL, they are all suing -- this is interesting -- over a law that would allow sports betting in the state of New Jersey. It's in the "New Jersey Star" ledger this morning.

Here's what's going on. They filed a federal lawsuit. The federal lawsuit came in court on Tuesday, basically to block New Jersey from allowing this sports betting to go on.

You know, it's interesting. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, is a big proponent of sports betting. Obviously, they want to help Atlantic City be revitalized. This would do that.

Chris Christie thinks they're going to prevail. He said it's going to be a big fight in court. But Chris Christie came out and said I don't believe the federal government has the right to decide that only certain states can have sports gambling.

And, look, Zoraida, he's pointing to the fact that Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana have legal sports betting. And, frankly, he wants a piece of the pie, the tax revenue for New Jersey.

SAMBOLIN: A lot of money. And he doesn't back off from a fight either.

HARLOW: He doesn't ever back of from a fight.

SAMBOLIN: To the bitter end.

HARLOW: Exactly.

SAMBOLIN: So, for an expanded look at our top stories, head to our blog, CNN.com/EarlyStart.

HARLOW: It is still tough out there. We're talking about jobs, of course. There are a few signs if you are looking for a job, things might be getting a little brighter. Why it might be a good time to start sending out that resume again. We'll explain.

SAMBOLIN: Good news. I love that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. Twenty-six minutes past the hour.

We are minding your business this morning. Poppy has some good news to tell you about the economy.

HARLOW: Pretty good, yes.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. But let's check in on the markets first. U.S. stock futures are trading lower right now. But it was a solid day in the markets yesterday, right, Poppy? So, good news there.

HARLOW: It was. It was. We had a good day for the market across the board. Futures are pointing lower this morning.

Let's take a look at the close. Look at the S&P 500, close above 1,400 for the first time in three months. You care about that because your 401(k) will likely track that very closely.

Investigators are taking a breather from the debt crisis in Europe and slow growth here in the U.S. But August is historically a pretty rough month for the markets. It's still early. So, we've got a few weeks yet to see how the month plays out.

Let's talk about jobs first. Good news for the job market. U.S. employers posted the most job openings in four years in June and layoffs fell as well. That's according to a new report just out from the Labor Department. This could signal a pickup in the job market for the fall. That's very key in this election, of course.

Keep in mind it usually takes one to three months to fill a job. Competition is very tough. There are about 3.5 people looking at every single job that is open.

And let's talk about the housing market, probably your biggest asset. More signs that the housing market is slowly picking up steam. Home prices rose in the second quarter by 6 percent from the first quarter. That's the biggest jump we've seen in seven years according to new data out from Core Logic.

The rise in home prices is mostly because there's actually, believe it or not, the beginning of a shortage of homes for sale.

SAMBOLIN: Wow.

HARLOW: You've got mortgage rates at a 60-year low. Demand is picking up, a little more evidence that housing is slowly picking up.

But, you know, I say, Zoraida, on all this -- jobs and housing, it all depends on where you are and what your position is. We can give you the numbers and say jobs look better, your chance for getting a job is better. But, you know, it all depends on your personal situation. So many people I talk to every day are struggling.

SAMBOLIN: You're absolutely right.

It is 28 minutes past the hour. Ahead on EARLY START, a school's controversial plan to give teen girls pregnancy tests under fire now. That story is straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If I were to coin a term, it would be Obamaloney.

HARLOW (voice-over): And the political puns keep on oncoming. Romney Hood versus Obamaloney. What do voters think about all the name calling? New polls out this half hour.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): And could a dry summer cause a blue Christmas? How the deep drought is already affecting the holidays and why it may be cheaper to pop for a phony tree this year.

HARLOW: He couldn't get the cash so he settled for a yogurt parfait. We're not kidding. a bizarre break-in at a McDonald's and maybe the easiest arrest ever.

SAMBOLIN: I love the yogurt parfaits.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW (on-camera): Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Poppy Harlow in for John Berman.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): It's nice to have you this morning. I'm Zoraida Sambolin. It's nice to have you as well. Thirty-two minutes past the hour. Romney's poll numbers are ticking up, but not the way the campaign would like. In a brand-new poll released overnight by "The Washington Post" and ABC News, Romney saw his unfavorability rating jump four points since May from 45 percent to 49 percent.

And the president, well, he remains steady with 53 percent, feeling favorable towards him and 43 percent with an unfavorable view. CNN's political editor, Paul Steinhauser, is joining us now. It is so nice to see you. So, Paul, how crucial are -- actually, let's talk about those poll numbers, because I think you have some additional ones for us as well.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Yes, because those are all Americans. What about independent voters? Democrats, Republicans, those independents who could decide who wins in November. Take a look at this, and it's a similar story. Mitt Romney's unfavorable numbers in negative territory.

You can see that right there, 37 percent favorable, 50 unfavorable. Basically, the opposite for President Obama. And Zoraida, we've seen this in some other polling as well. You know, when it comes to the economy, Mitt Romney has a slight advantage, but when it comes to favorability, he has a deficit.

And we've seen that maybe grow a little bit over the last month or two. Maybe it has to do with all those negative ads from President Obama's campaign team, maybe not. Mitt Romney gets another chance maybe to reintroduce himself at the Republican convention just a few weeks away.

SAMBOLIN: Those independent votes that you were talking about earlier, those are really crucial to both candidates.

STEINHAUSER: They really are. Independents are so crucial. And remember, also, the battle for the White House is not a national battle but a battle for states and their electoral votes. Take a look at this. Brand-new numbers out just in the last hour or two on some crucial states. Let's talking about Virginia. Both campaigns, both candidates are spending a lot of time there.

This is from CBS/"New York Times" and Quinnipiac University. The president with a very slight advantage, you could say, four points in Virginia. In Wisconsin, the president with a six-point advantage. He won both those states four years ago. He also won Colorado four years ago. This poll indicates Mitt Romney with a five-point advantage in Colorado.

Where is President Obama today and tomorrow? Colorado. I guess, who else is there? Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio, who a lot of people are saying may be the next -- may be Mitt Romney's running mate. He is there to bracket President Obama all day today in Colorado, Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All that speculation.

STEINHAUSER: Oh, yes.

SAMBOLIN: That's what everybody wants to know who's that VP pick. All right. I want you to tell me whether this is true or false. I want to talk about Romney's new welfare commercial. I think PolitiFact gave it a pants on fire. And I want to know what you say about it, because it's basically the welfare reform act, and they're taking the work out of welfare, true or false?

STEINHAUSER: You know, a lot of people are saying it's false. PolitiFact came out, as you mentioned, with their pants on fire. And there's proof right there. It seems to be some good evidence for that. Take a listen to the ad and then we'll talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Obama quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements. Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check and welfare to work goes back to being plain old welfare.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEINHAUSER: Here's the thing. The Obama campaign is saying, guess what? When Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he supported, he supported those changes as well. They also say that some Republican governors are very much in favor of these changes. And maybe the ad is also trying to drive a wedge between President Clinton, very popular still with Americans, and President Obama.

Take a listen to this statement from President Clinton just a couple hours ago. "Governor Romney released an ad today alleging that the Obama administration had weakened the work requirements of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. That is not true. We need bipartisan consensus to continue to help people move from welfare to work even during these hard times, not more misleading campaign ads."

So, a lot of pushback from the Obama campaign on this one -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. I know the Clinton camp also says that the different states have a right to go and then try to figure out how it works for their particular state. Paul Steinhauser live in Washington, D.C. Thanks for being with us.

STEINHAUSER: Thank you.

HARLOW: Hurricane Ernesto has now been downgraded to a tropical storm, but it's still packing quite a punch. It struck Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as a category 1 hurricane overnight. Winds of about 85 miles an hour. The storm also bringing very heavy rain.

Alexandra Steele is monitoring Ernesto's progress this morning from the CNN Weather Center in Atlanta. So, it's getting a little better, right, Alexandra?

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Oh, yes. And you know, what we're going to see, just a Mexico affair, a very small, tight center of circulation. As you said, it is no longer hurricane Ernesto. Tropical storm Ernesto meaning 70-mile per hour winds now, not 80-mile per hour winds.

And you know, we can see right here. Here it is. Made landfall last night in the Yucatan Peninsula, but you can see how small and tight this center of circulation is. Only about 35 miles out from the center are we seeing those 70-mile per hour winds. So, what we'll see, winds, heavy rain, especially in the mountains, maybe a foot of rain and mudslides, landslides.

Those will be the biggest impacts. Here's the track. Again, right now, we're seeing it on the Yucatan Peninsula, but it will emerge here in the Bay of Campeche re-strengthen as a hurricane and then make a second Mexico landfall as we head toward really tomorrow night into early on Friday.

So, no U.S. impacts, but, again, it is the first land falling hurricane of the Atlantic season. We'll have more on that coming up as well.

HARLOW: All right. Thanks so much, Alexandra. Appreciate it.

Well, moving on to other news this morning. Jared Lee Loughner will spend the rest of his life in prison, no chance of parole, entering guilty pleas in connection with last year's mass shooting in Tucson in order to take the death penalty off the table. Six people were killed in the shooting, 13 others wounded, including then Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

One survivor talked about the need to be more compassionate towards the mentally ill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RANDY GARDNER, SHOOTING SURVIVOR: It's truly sad that he didn't receive attention prior to this. My thinking is, we really got to, you know, kind of be our brother's keeper here and reach out when we see people struggling.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: But for one survivor, there was no closure yesterday. Susie Hillman who was shot three times trying in vain to protect nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green who died that day says the wound will always be open.

SAMBOLIN: More than 20 suspected Islamic terrorists killed by Egyptian air strikes in Sinai overnight. The attacks follow clashes between armed gunmen and Egyptian security forces at check points near the Israeli border. Last Sunday, 16 border guards were killed at the hands of suspected Palestinian terrorists.

HARLOW: A school in Louisiana is now asking attorneys to review its controversial pregnancy policy after the ACLU publicly challenged it as unconstitutional. The policy forces girls suspected of being pregnant to be tested. Any student who is pregnant will be kicked off campus.

The school says it will make any necessary revisions so that that policy is in compliance with constitutional law.

SAMBOLIN: Thirty-nine minutes past the hour. Still to come, record heat and a lack of rain are already having an impact on the price that you pay at the supermarket. Why this summer's drought could make for a Charlie Brown Christmas? You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. It is 43 minutes past the hour. We're happy you're with us this morning. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

HARLOW: I'm Poppy Harlow. What is that music? It's like 1980s.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: I'm not sure what that tune is.

HARLOW: Good morning.

(LAUGHTER)

HARLOW: President Obama is pleading with congress to step up relief for U.S. farmers suffering under what has become a historic drought. The White House yesterday announced $30 million in new drought aid for individuals and businesses. But Obama says that's not going to be enough. He wants Congress to pass a $500 billion farm bill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- needs to pass a farm bill that will not only provide important disaster relief tools, but also make necessary reforms and give farmers the certainty that they deserve. That's the single best way that we can help rural communities, both in the short term, but also in the long term.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Experts are now saying that this drought could bring the smallest corn crop in six years. That could drive up food prices all over the world. Alexandra Steele is live in Atlanta. Alexandra, the U.S. has suffered from one of the hottest and driest summers on record. I come from Minnesota where, you know, very close to where a lot of that corn comes from.

Corn and soybeans are key right now. Give us a sense of just how bad this is in comparison to past years and past droughts.

STEELE: Well, you know, Poppy, it's not just a few states. Let's talk a few states compared to years past.

HARLOW: Right.

STEELE: Really, it's so much of the country, the aggregate as a whole. So, here's the country. Anywhere you see this dark red is really, very extreme drought. But you can see almost all of the country under some sort of drought. I just want to show you two key states. Places like Missouri, one year ago, they had no drought of any sort. And look at where they are.

About 100 percent of the state under some sort of drought. That was Missouri. Take a look at Illinois, a similar scenario. Again, last year, zero percent of the state. This year, 100 percent of the state in some type of drought. So, you can see incredible in terms of the scope and also the extreme nature of it all.

All right. I want to also show you, this is the entire country and taking a look at the percentage of drought and you can see, the only worst year we've ever seen was 1934. Over 60 percent of the country now in some sort of moderate or greater drought. Of course, heat and drought go hand in hand, and certainly, one exacerbates the other. The Midwest, just talking about the Midwest alone from April to June, seventh warmest, ten driest in the U.S.

It was the third driest June in 118 years. So, top ten warmest. So, really kind of record breaking. And now, as we look out -- look at the heat and look at the drought and the dry conditions, now, this is the tendency for the period all the way through the end of September. So, what will happen? We know how bad it's been.

Is there relief? Is there help? Is there rain? Is there cooler temperatures? And really, the answer is no. Anywhere you see the brown, this is where we're going to see drought persisting or even intensifying through the period as we head until the end of September.

So, with that, looking at the temperature profile, looking out through the computer models through October, look at how much of the country is above average, meaning warmer. And now, of course, look at how much of the country stays drier than average as well. So, of course, part and parcel to this drought, the heat, the lack of rain.

They work hand in hand and certainly exacerbate each other. We've seen it. We're seeing it. And the problem is, Poppy, we're going to see it as we head out through the fall.

HARLOW: Yes. That's the big concern. I mean, just looking at the numbers, the forecast now, corn output could be cut by 15 percent. August, this is the critical month for soybeans. So, if he could get some rain in the next few weeks, that would be a big help. But what I'm hearing you say is that no matter what, this is going to affect us all the way into Christmas?

STEELE: That's right. Even the Christmas trees that are being grown in Wisconsin, in Minnesota, in Illinois, supposedly being affected now. Now, older Christmas trees, more mature ones, it takes about seven to ten years for a Christmas tree to kind of develop. Older trees are more drought resistant.

The newer trees that have recently been planted are going to be affected. So, potentially, they're shorter and not as full. And of course, we'll pay higher prices because there may be few of them. That's looking down the pike five to seven years from now so possibly being affected.

HARLOW: Oh, my gosh. Well, thank you so much, Alexandra. Appreciate it. We'll continue our conversation on this record breaking drought.

Coming up at 7:30 a.m. this morning on "Starting Point," we're going to be talking with agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack.

SAMBOLIN: Forty-minutes past the hour. Let's get you up to date on this morning's top stories.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): The next time we will hear from Tucson shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, will be in November at his sentencing. Yesterday, he pled guilty to 19 charges in order to avoid the death penalty. Loughner also waived his right to pursue an insanity defense.

Loughner killed six people, wounded 13 others outside an Arizona supermarket 19 months ago. Among his victims, then Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

HARLOW (voice-over): Violent threats at a Madonna concert have pushed authorities in Russia to step up security. Officials say they received a threat of an attack against fans and performers at Madonna's show scheduled in St. Petersburg for tomorrow.

U.S. officials are urging any Americans headed to that show to remain aware of their surroundings, be vigilant of themselves, of course.

SAMBOLIN: So, leave the cash, take the yogurt. A strange break- in caught on camera at a McDonald's. This is in Indiana. The suspect seen there on surveillance video trying to steal a cash register. Yes. No luck. So, he decides he's going to settle for a few yogurt parfaits from the refrigerator. There he goes.

One of the arriving officers recognized the suspect on the video as a man named Christopher McLaughlin . And just then, guess what happened, McLaughlin walked by the store. Police say he was covered in broken glass that matched the broken windows at the store. And he had yogurt parfait all over his mouth. Just kidding.

HARLOW: At least he wasn't hungry.

(LAUGHTER)

HARLOW: She's kidding.

All right. Well, this is reassuring. Imagine you're on a plane, look out the window, and you see this. That does not look good. A note on a broken wing saying, "We know about this. We know. It's OK". The airline's story and the backlash, straight ahead.

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SAMBOLIN: Oh, my God! We are freaking over this story.

(LAUGHTER)

HARLOW: We don't like to fly.

SAMBOLIN: No. Welcome back to EARLY START. Poppy Harlow along with Zoraida Sambolin. We're happy you're with us this morning. We're looking what's trending on the web. I know you fly a lot. So, how would you feel if you looked out of the window of the plane and you saw this? Take a look at that.

So, first of all, that's the wing, right? And it's clipped there. And then, there's a little note that says, "we know about this." A passenger on Alaska Airlines saw this. She looked out the window and saw what looked like a damaged area, clearly, it does with that handwritten note on there. This happened July 28th.

It sparked, as you can imagine, a huge backlash on Twitter and on social media. The airline says the plane is safe and there was absolutely nothing to worry about. They have apologized. A spokeswoman says a maintenance technician wrote to let the flight crew know that it was an approved repair.

HARLOW: Right.

SAMBOLIN: So that nobody would then, you know, saying, hey, you got to look at this. They said the message was the result of someone's good intentions, but the note was not appropriate and did not follow company procedures. Apparently, the note was immediately removed once they landed.

HARLOW: Right. Right.

SAMBOLIN: Alaska has apologized for any alarm that that moment may have caused.

HARLOW: And we fly so often, but neither of us really loves to fly. And I would like to see full wings every time I fly.

SAMBOLIN: You've got to think that somehow would affect the plane, right? But it does not.

HARLOW: But it didn't. It didn't. They wouldn't have let it fly if it wasn't safe. I mean, we know that. So, yes, big apology from the airline on that one.

All right. So, Hillary Clinton, we teased this earlier, she got her groove back. Take a look at the secretary of state in Johannesburg, South Africa, dancing. Look at that. A little -- wow. A little dancing from Hillary Clinton. This was right after she was actually caught showing off her moves in Malawi.

This is her dancing at a dinner hosted by her South African counterpart. It looks like she had a great time.

SAMBOLIN: I love that she lets her hair down. I love that.

HARLOW: I do. And she's got some rhythm. I think she's got a little more rhythm than Pete, our floor director.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: Very nice. All right. Fifty-five minutes past the hour. Late night laughs. Stephen Colbert has found the formula for choosing a vice presidential nominee. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": Everybody wants to know who Romney will pick. Well, now, there's a new way for us to figure it out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Perhaps you can just look to Wikipedia, because the day before Sarah Palin was named as John McCain's running mate, her Wikipedia page was updated 68 times.

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COLBERT: Sixty-eight times. Well, that's impressive. Considering that once she was on the ticket, she did not edit herself once.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: So, the number of times a Wikipedia page has been edited predicts the chances for the VP slot. Folks, that means we could be looking at vice president season 6 of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

(CHEERING)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN: All right. Our top stories straight ahead, including Ernesto's changing fortunes. A tropical storm that briefly reached hurricane status is now back to a tropical storm again. But don't count Ernesto out just yet. We're tracking the storm that's putting a real damper on vacation hot spots.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW (voice-over): Life without parole. Tucson gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, tops a plea deal and spares gabby Giffords and his other victims the ordeal of a trial.

ROMNEY: If I were to coin a term, it would be Obamaloney.

HARLOW: Mitt Romney hits back hard. The candidate trying to mask the president's Romney Hood quip with a one liner of his own.

And a frightening moment at the Olympics. A champion weight lifter loses his grip on the barbell.

(END VIDEO CLIP)