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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Zimmerman Seeks "Stand Your Ground" Hearing; Veterans Charity Sued By California; Romney Battleground Bus Tour; Heat Wave Hampering Us; Hot And Bothered; NASA Moon Lander Fail; Mars In Living Color

Aired August 10, 2012 - 07:00   ET

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


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Here were go. Breaking news on this Friday. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm John Berman. Soledad is off this week. And our "Starting Point" breaking news, three American soldiers shot dead by a man in a Afghan security uniform. We're live at the Pentagon with the details which are developing.

BALDWIN: Also this morning, first prayer, CNN exclusively going inside the Sikh temple open this morning for the very first time since the gunman's deadly rampage there.

BERMAN: Politics battling buses. Mitt Romney is touring swing states this weekend, and the DNC will follow him in a ride of their own. Tom Perriello is leading of the tour. He joins us live. Plus, RNC chairman, Reince Priebus and Virginia's lieutenant governor, Bill Bolling.

Also ahead, NASA's scientist, Jim Garvin, and, you know their faces and more, Team USA's gold medal swimmers, Nathan Adrian and Ricky Berens.

BALDWIN: And more. Dot, dot, dot. Thanks for being with us on this Friday, August 10th. It's going to be a good one. "Starting Point" begins now.

Our starting point here, breaking news out of Afghanistan. Here's what we know. A man wearing an Afghan military uniform open fire on U.S. troops killing three soldiers in the country's southern Helmand province.

BERMAN: CNN's Chris Lawrence is live from the Pentagon. What are your sources telling you about this attack this morning?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, they say they are still trying to figure out whether this was actually a true Afghan police officer or someone just wearing the uniform. Although the Taliban is claiming that this was an actual Afghan policeman who lured these three soldiers to his residence or to a party and had planned to kill them for some time.

Again, U.S. military officials are now confirming that part of the detail. But again, it speaks to a larger issue, which is trust in the fact that if this is a so-called green on blue attack, where Afghan troops turn on their American allies, it would be the third time just this week. In fact, in the big picture, there have been more attacks already this year of that kind than all of last year, John.

BERMAN: All right, Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon, the story developing at this moment. We know you'll stay on it here.

A CNN exclusive this morning, inside the Wisconsin temple where six people died and three others wounded. This is video shot exclusively by CNN. It shows a stark reminder of this attack, a bullet hole that punctured the door leading to the main fare area. That remains. Members say it will stay as a reminder of what happened.

BALDWIN: A reminder. Ted Rowlands is live outside of Oak Creek high school where a memorial service will be held a little later today. And ted, just back to the temple. I know you've been inside the temple and talking to a lot of members. What are they telling you?

TED ROWLANDS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they are very emotional, as you can imagine, going into that temple was very emotional. We saw where each of the four victims were killed inside that temple. We also saw a pantry where 16 women and children were crammed inside for two hours, some of them injured, not knowing if the gunman was going to come back to continue to shoot. We also talked to family members that were in the temple. One of the sons that lost his father talked not only about the victims but also addressed the shooter.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMARDEEP KALEAK, TEMPLE MEMBER: Simply put, our families, his mother, who left behind two beautiful boys and was the only mother -- imagine losing your mother. Our father, the four other victims, the people shot and in the hospital, the police officer that did his job, they are heroes. They are living the American dream. The other person was a coward. And at the end of the day, he should always be remembered as a coward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROWLANDS: And today, brooke, we are expecting thousands of people to come here to oak creek high school where all six victims' bodies will be out in the gymnasium. People will have a chance to pay respects.

BALDWIN: Hearing that man speak, I can't help but shaking my head at this whole thing. Ted Rowlands, thanks so much.

This weekend Mitt Romney begins a bus tour through four swing states, Virginia, North Carolina, and Ohio. And Democrats are tagging alone. In less than three hours, the Democratic National Committee is kicking off its own bus tour in Virginia that will mirror Mitt Romney's trip. BERMAN: They plan to tell voters they think Romney would in their words put the middle class under the bus. Of course they have a bus to prove it there. Tom Periello is an Obama campaign surrogate. Congressman, the bus getting ready to go, yesterday it was parked in front of the RNC headquarters, the Republican National Committee, kind of a stunt there. Is this a mature way to go about campaigning?

TOM PERIELLO, (D) FORMER VIRGINIA CONGRESSMAN: When I'm talking to voters, what they really care about, what they are saying is what is going to cost me? Independent tax analysts have made clear Mitt Romney's plan will raise taxes on the middle class over $2,000 a year while cutting his own taxes by $4.5 million a year. Ultimately what matters is not the stunts but the facts. But we sometimes like have to have fun on the campaign trail.

BERMAN: What matters right now is the economy. They are telling us that every day. CNN has brand-new poll numbers out on the economy and they could be troubling for the Obama team. Only 36 percent of the country right now thinks that things are going well. That's down from 43 percent from April. Only 19 percent think the economy is starting to recover, and that's down from 24 percent in April. Congressman, the question is this, people say things are getting worse. Are they right?

PERIELLO: I think People are asking the question, who's going to get us out of this mess. They are looking for solutions. The more they learn about Mitt Romney the more trouble they got. When he was governor, Massachusetts was 47th out of 50 in job creation, not the leadership people are looking for. They understand that Barack Obamas understand the middle and working class and fighting for people like them and Mitt Romney's message, I'm going to raise your taxes and cut my own. So I don't think that's the direction people are looking to go.

BERMAN: Congressman, the president has been in office for nearly four years and if people continue to say things are getting worse and especially this summer, things are getting more worse, doesn't he bear some responsibility for that?

PERIELLO: I think he's taken a lot of responsibility for that and been able to produce a significant growth in the manufacturing sector, getting America back to building and growing things again. We've had month of month -- the Republican Congress is unwilling to pass the jobs Bill he's had on their desk over a year. They went on a five-week vacation for themselves without passing his jobs bill. I think the more people are learning about the facts and substance, they are seeing conservative agenda that will raise taxes and get in the way of that kind of job growth.

BERMAN: Congressman, another thing we're seeing a lot of in this campaign is ads, commercials. And people are talking about them. And the Obama team has a new ad out dealing with Mitt Romney again in the issue of taxes. Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mitt Romney paid 10 percent in taxes, five percent, zero? We don't know but we do know he personally approved over $70 million in fictional losses to the IRS as part of the notorious son of boss tax scandal, one of the largest tax avoidance schemes in history. Isn't it time for Romney to come clean?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: I do want to point out to the audience, you might have seen a CNN logo, that is quoting an op-ed, an opinion piece, not a news article. The first phrase in that ad, did Romney pay 10 percent in taxes, five percent, zero percent? We don't know. That sounds like the language that Harry Reid has been using, questioning he has sources saying Romney paid no taxes and the president is trying to distance himself from that. Isn't this the same type of open-ended question without proof that's being asked in the ad?

PERIELLO: It actually sounds like the question the voters are asking. Mitt Romney has to remember the vote belongs to the people. He's asking the American people to hire him and going to the job interview and saying, American people, hire me, but I won't tell you anything about what I did in Massachusetts. I'm not going to tell you about my taxes and don't want to talk about my Bain history and voters are saying, are you kidding me? You want to be president of the United States and you're not going to come clean and tell me what's going on. So this is a job interview with the American people. When you go into that, you have to be ready for Americans to ask questions.

BERMAN: But you're asking a question without any proof. Did Romney pay taxes? Why don't you ask, did Romney rob a bank? I don't know. There's no evidence here.

PERIELLO: This is a matter of very clear precedent. Every modern president has released their taxes because they understand it would be arrogant to go out to the American people and say I want you to hire me but I'm not going to tell you anything about my past.

Mitt Romney is saying, I'm going to raise taxes by $2,000 a year, give myself a $4.5 million tax cut, but I won't tell you what my tax history is. Behind the 30-second spots, working and middle class Americans are asking serious questions and not liking the answers they are getting from Mitt Romney, so they are getting a little defensive. Ultimately this comes back to the kitchen table. People want to know who's going to help when it comes to turning this economy around, and they are not liking the answers they are getting from Mr. Romney.

BERMAN: One of things Mitt Romney will be doing in the next few days is he'll be picking a vice presidential nominee. One of the names we've heard a lot is Paul Ryan, who a lot of conservative commentators says has big ideas to fix the economy and address the entitlements and deficit. What do you make of the so called Ryan plan? Is this something you would like to have as a target as a Democrat?

PERIELLO: I definitely think it's a conversation progressives want and Democrats want. This is an effort to really get rid of Medicare as we know. A lot of the same things we've seen from Romney where the middle class has to pick up the tab for more high end tax cuts for the rich. Paul Ryan's budget got the Catholic nuns upset and got them on the busy. Now the ad about welfare has the nuns upset. If they are trying to win states like Ohio, with a lot of catholic voters and getting the catholic nuns upset, that's a debate that will be healthy.

BERMAN: Your advice to him would be don't pick Paul Ryan. Pick someone like Rob Portman.

PERIELLO: As you say, he has to make his decision who he's excited to serve with. He needs to pick someone he thinks would be ready to lead this country in the event of a crisis that happens. So you know, these should be seen as serious picks, and they should be seen as reflecting on the kind of leader that the candidate is trying to be.

BERMAN: Tom Perriello, thanks for joining us. And coming up in 20 minutes we'll be talking to Reince Priebus and get his view.

BALDWIN: We'll also see what he thinks about Paul Ryan and what he told NBC's Chuck Todd last night.

But ahead this morning, after years of protest and lawsuits, this controversial mosque in Tennessee, Soledad did a documentary on this, it is set to open this morning in a very volatile time for places of worship. So mosques across the country, they are on alert as prayers begin. We'll go live to Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

BERMAN: Breaking his leg but not breaking his stride, an American runner refusing to let down his teammates and finishing his leg of the relay on one leg. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everybody. Aiming for the gold this morning. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt thrills the crowd with a gold medal race in the 200 meters. Jamaica swept the medal stand. For Team USA the women's soccer team winning its third consecutive gold medal. It was fantastic. They beat Japan 2-1, avenging the painful loss to the Japanese in last year's World Cup.

In the medal count that puts team USA on top with 90 medals total and most golds also, 39. China, Russia, and Great Britain follow.

You have to look at this, an unbelievable story. American Mateo Mitchell finished his relay lap on a broken leg. He had 20 meters to go in the prelims and the adrenalin must have been flowing. It's hard to tell when it happened or even that anything is wrong. But Mitchell finished the lap and limped to the side to watch the Americans finish the race and qualify easily for the final. A few hours later doctors confirmed he ran the last lap with a broken left fibula. Unbelievable.

BALDWIN: How? Just how? BERMAN: Guts.

BALDWIN: Amazing.

Now this -- after two years of legal battles and bomb threats, vandalism and protest, the Tennessee Islamic center will be holding its first prayers before the close of the holy month of Ramadan. But a national Islamic group is warning mosques to be on alert after a mosque in Joplin, Missouri, burned in a possible arson case.

CNN's George Howell got an exclusive look inside the mosque and is live with the very latest. George, good morning. Big day for folks there.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brooke, indeed a big day. We were first visitors inside this mosque, a big facility, a lot of room there, 12,000 square foot facility that is much larger than the older mosque members have outgrown. You have to consider, this is a long time coming for members of this mosque. Two years after a lot of controversy. Back in 2009, that's when the land purchased. 2010 construction started. Then a lawsuit brought on by some who feared this mosque brought a risk of terrorism to the community.

Later a local judge stepped in and stopped the permitting process. But then a federal judge stepped in this year and ordered today to continue on. Brooke, as you mentioned. This mosque has been the focus of vandalism and arson and even a bomb threat. When you talk to members here, they say that is brought on by people outside this community. They say they are accepted in the community but people outside are trying to mischaracterize their religion. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is an agenda nationwide unfortunately that enable Islam and Muslims to be not what they are, but because of the act of a few people, they are labeling the whole religion to be that way. It is unfortunate but it is true, and it's un-American as well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: Reporter: Brooke, we know the first prayer service will happen at 1:10 central standard time. A lot of people here are anxious to have that moment for the first time.

BALDWIN: We'll watch as the doors open. George Howell thank you in Murfreesboro. This Sunday, Soledad O'Brien chronicles the fight, it's called "Unwelcome, the Muslims Next Door." It airs Sunday night at 8:00 eastern.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the Justice Department will not pursue criminal charges against Goldman Sachs for selling risky home loans to investors, but they may not be in clear just yet. Also, we have some pretty stunning pictures this morning. Here it is, the Mississippi River. Is it running dry? How bad is the drought at one of the nation's most important waterways? More on that. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. And we are watching your money and Goldman Sachs is off the hook. The Justice Department deciding not to pursue criminal charges against the financial giant or its employees despite accusations they bet against the subprime mortgage securities it was selling to clients. Justice officials say the burden of proof couldn't be met to prosecute Goldman, but they are keeping the option open if they can gather more evidence.

BALDWIN: Here we go, gas prices, yep, going up again, the national average price rising another cent to $3.67 a gallon. Over that time the average jumped just about 19 cents.

BERMAN: A Louisiana charter school agrees to reverse a controversial pregnancy policy pending board approval. What the new policy will be isn't clear. The ACLU went over Dell High charter school over the policy which expelled pregnant students from campus and forced pregnancy tests of those suspected of being pregnant.

BALDWIN: We had the woman from ACLU on saying it can't be. But the school said they never had complaints before.

BERMAN: They didn't even know it was an issue and now they do --

BALDWIN: It's an issue and they are doing something about it.

BERMAN: We're going to talk about a deadly week for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the latest breaking news on an overnight attack that left three American soldiers dead.

BALDWIN: Also ahead, the Donald, he's announcing he will have and I'm quoting, a major role at the Republican national convention in Tampa. What exactly does that mean? I know you were talking to folks about this last night. We'll get your information. We're going to talk to the chairman of the RNC, Mr. Priebus. He will join us live, next.

BERMAN: And send us your end point, that's about a 20 second video with your thoughts. It's easy to upload. Head to CNN.comstartingpoint and you can see it played on the air later in the show. We're back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everybody, I'm John Berman.

BALDWIN: Good morning, I'm Brooke Baldwin. Soledad has the week off. Let's begin with this breaking news out of Afghanistan. A deadly 48 hours for Americans there. NATO says three U.S. service members died after this gunman wearing an Afghan military uniform open fire in the southern Helmand province. Here's the thing, the Taliban is taking responsibility for an attack earlier this week that killed four Americans when an insurgent detonated a suicide vest in Kunar province. Three U.S. service members and an aide and interpreter were killed.

BERMAN: In Aleppo, the opposition taking heavy artillery fire overnight from government troops. APB says Syrian armed forces are tracking down rebels and inflicting "heavy losses." At least 134 people were killed across Syria yesterday, including 47 in the fighting in Aleppo.

BALDWIN: An Ohio man will be arraigned on weapons charges after allegedly attending a screening of the new batman movie armed with a gun, ammunition and knives. He is facing two counts of carrying a concealed weapon and another 19 counts of carrying weapons under disability. His attorney says Smith was carrying the gun to protect himself. Prosecutors say he was under the influence of prescription medication when he went inside this theater in West Sake last Saturday night.

BERMAN: A judge issued no ruling about unsealing the full court record in the case against Colorado movie massacre suspect James Holmes. And 17 news organizations, including CNN, want access. There was also a strange moment during the hearing. A woman who had to be escorted out after blurting out in the courtroom that she had vital information for the defense. Don't know what was going on there.

BALDWIN: George Zimmerman's lawyers confirm they are planning to seek a hearing for a stand-your-ground defense if they actually get the hearing and the judge agrees to the Florida's defense lawyer that it applies in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman could walk free.

Another new development here, prosecutors mistakenly released a photo of Trayvon Martin's body and along with Zimmerman's school records. Last month, the judge ruled those items could not be seen by the public.

BERMAN: One of the nation's largest veterans charity sued by the state of California. The organization, "Help Hospitalized Veterans" is accused of engaging in fraudulent fundraising.

California's attorney general seeking to recover $4 million that she claims was diverted from veterans programs. According to the charity's own tax records, "Help Hospitalized Veterans'" president, Michael Lynch is paid an annual salary of $389,000.

The lawsuit alleges he used donations to pay for two country club memberships at a cost of $80,000. And our Drew Griffin tried to track him down for a comment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: I've got to ask you about the money though. I mean, that doesn't answer any of the questions about the money that they are -- that's it?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: In its complaint the state of California claims "Help Hospitalized Veterans" used bookkeeping gimmicks to inflate how much it spent on veterans' services resulting in false filings to the IRS.

We're going to move on to politics now. Mitt Romney hits the road this weekend. The Republican candidate is going to visit four swing states, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio.

Democrats will trail his trip on a bus tour of their own starting in about two hours now.

BALDWIN: Now these tours come as a new CNN/ORC poll shows President Obama leading Romney by a full seven points. You see the numbers here, 52 percent to 45 percent.

Reince Priebus is the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Reince Priebus, good morning to you.

REINCE PRIEBUS, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Good morning.

BALDWIN: Let's talk about your guy. Let's talk about Mitt Romney. We showed the CNN/ORC numbers, you know, the president is up seven points. Fox poll, there is a nine-point spread with Obama leading that one as well. Reince, it is August. Is Romney slipping?

PRIEBUS: No, I don't think so at all. You know, I think that there's a lot of work to do. I think that the stark contrasts are very clear.

I think if you look underneath those polls, you see that when people are asked whether Barack Obama fulfilled his promises in regard to the economy and jobs, people know that that's not true.

You know, we're going -- we're leading into a big convention here coming up at the end of August. I think that we're going to have a great fall.

I think it's going to be very clear that we're not better off today than we were three or four years ago. That messaging is the messaging that you're going to hear for the next three months. I feel very good about where we're at.

BALDWIN: So you may be looking underneath polls, but we're going to look at another poll because these are the hard numbers. I just want -- with regard to independents specifically, Reince, you see these numbers unfavorable numbers here up from 40 to 50 -- let me see, up from 42 percent to 48 percent.

That's all Americans. But we have independents, and I know those are up from 40 percent to 52 percent. How do you explain that? PRIEBUS: Well, I think that there are probably two different strategies here at play. I mean, obviously, we went through a Republican primary. So Governor Romney had to spend a lot of his primary dollars in that primary.

The Republican National Committee and Mitt Romney now together have more money in the bank, actually I think twice or three times the money in the bank that the DNC has.

So we're going to be spending all of our money now that you're starting to see happening around the country just starting actually. And you'll see us being able to outspend our opponent at the end whereas Barack Obama outspent us tremendously over the past year.

So what you're seeing is the effect of millions, tens of millions of dollars that have been on TV now I think that table is going to be turned and this has been widely reported and debated. We're going to be in a better position at the end than the president and the president has been in a better position than us. Now it is our turn to tell our story.

BERMAN: Chairman, it's John Berman here. There are polls on favorability, which show that Governor Romney is in a worst position in terms of unfavorability than any nominee since 1984.

That's according to some ABC News polling. Romney has been running for president since 2007. He spent a lot of money, but as time goes on, the unfavorable opinions of him are going up.

So, I mean, you know, it's not like he hasn't tried to make people like him. Why can't he connect with the voters?

PRIEBUS: I think first of all, explaining those numbers are very easy, John. I mean, just because Governor Romney ran in '08 and he's running now, doesn't mean Governor Romney was on television for four years running around on Air Force One and spending money in advertising.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, it's very easy to see. If President Obama hadn't had spent tens of millions of dollars on negative advertising, some of this which you know is completely untrue, all over the country for almost an entire year, well, it has an effect.

But the good news for us is that we now are in a position to outspend them on television and tell our story, tell Mitt Romney story starting with our convention going through the fall and turn the tables.

I mean, that's what campaigning is all about. I think that we're in a great position because we have the facts on our side. The president can't -- they can divert and they can lie, but the fact is they can't change the truth as to where we are in this economy. The truth is great because it's on our side.

BALDWIN: Let's talk about positions as in buses. Can we talk about the buses now?

PRIEBUS: Sure.

BALDWIN: Because, you know, this weekend, right, it's actually the Democrats who are shadowing the Republican, Mitt Romney's bus as he kicks off his bus tour tomorrow in Virginia.

We have seen it before though where you've had the Republicans' bus shadowing the Democrats. So this isn't new. But I'm going to pose the same question to you that we posed to an Obama surrogate last hour. Isn't this a little immature? Come on now.

PRIEBUS: Yes, I don't know. You know, I mean, it's pretty typical political stunts. I mean, the fact is we put a Romney sticker on their bus yesterday. It was parked outside of our office.

These are things -- this stuff happens. The fact is these are things that go on. I don't begrudge him at all. The fact is I think it gives us a real opportunity to show the difference between what their records is and what the truth is.

If we just spent all of our time flashing up Obama speeches and all of his promises and just put the facts on the screen, we'll win this race hands down. I think it's incumbent on us and I think the challenge for us in which we try to take very seriously is just staying on message on the economy.

Where are we on jobs, the debt and deficit? What did this president promise he would do with the tax dollars? Where are we as a country? Quite frankly and we all know the truth, it doesn't square.

So we have to stay on message and tell the truth as to where we are in the economy and what this president promised and we win.

BALDWIN: I appreciate Reince you can laugh a little bit with us --

PRIEBUS: It was great.

BALDWIN: We appreciate it. I do -- talking about the truth. We have to talk about taxes and I know a lot of Americans, the latest CNN/ORC poll saying something like 63 -- here it is, 63 percent of the Americans say yes, Romney should release his additional tax returns and it's a subject --

PRIEBUS: We're going down this road again.

BALDWIN: We're going down this road, friend. This is the subject of a new Obama campaign ad as well. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAEL: Did Romney pay 10 percent in taxes, 5 percent to zero? We don't know, but we do know that Romney personally approved over $70 million in fictional losses to the IRS as part of a notorious son of boss tax scandal, one of the largest tax avoidance schemes in history. Isn't it time for Romney to come clean?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Come on, Reince, it's a perfectly valid question. It's 63 percent of Americans say -- they want to see tax returns. Why shouldn't they deserve to see them, transparency?

PRIEBUS: I can think of a million interesting questions. I wonder --

BALDWIN: How about the answer though?

PRIEBUS: It's ridiculous. I mean, he's released two years of taxes and releasing 2011. He released 500 pages of documents.

BALDWIN: Americans say that's not enough.

PRIEBUS: The fact of the matter is any second that we spend not talking about the fact that this president failed in his mission, the mission to fix this economy. He campaigned on this economy and hasn't accomplished a darn thing. We're worse off. That's the issue and I'm not spending any more time talking about this issue.

BERMAN: I'm sure you'll want to talk about this instead. How about Donald Trump? Because there have been reports that Donald Trump will have a major role at the Republican convention.

I confirmed with an aide overnight that Mr. Trump says he will have a major role at the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa. Will you please, Chairman, tell us what that role will be?

BALDWIN: What does that mean?

PRIEBUS: I'm sorry, well, for one thing, Donald Trump is a good friend I think of our party and I'm thankful to Donald Trump for all the work that he's done for us and for Governor Romney. So I do agree that he's been very --

BERMAN: So what's he doing at the convention?

PRIEBUS: I don't -- I don't know right now what he's going to do at the convention. But I do know that he's important to us and I know that he's somebody that we appreciate because he's telling the truth as far as where we're at in this economy. That's what we need to talk about.

BERMAN: Is this a good message you send for a guy who is still a birther and still calling for the president to release his college transcripts? Is that the kind of guy you want on the podium during the Republican convention?

PRIEBUS: I have been from the very moment that I've been chairman of this party very clear as far as where I stand on that issue. It's just as much of a distraction as it is for people to ask for more and more tax returns and all of these other issues. The fact of the matter is, this election is coming down to one thing, are people better off today than three or four years ago? Did this president fulfill the mission and meet his promises, the answers are no to those questions.

BALDWIN: All right, Reince Priebus, we'll see you in Tampa. Thank you.

PRIEBUS: All right, looking forward to it.

BALDWIN: Still to come this morning here on STARTING POINT, old tires and dead fish washing up. The Mississippi a lot less mighty these days, is this epic drought now slowing down cargo? We'll have a live report for you on how it's costing all of us next.

BERMAN: The red planet in full glorious color, stunning 360 photos of mountains and valleys from 150 million miles away. One of the lead scientists on the "Curiosity" mission on what the pictures will tell us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everyone. It is official, July was the hottest month in more than 100 years.

BALDWIN: And it felt like it.

BERMAN: It felt like it. The average temperature across the U.S., 77.6 degrees, that's more than three degrees above average. The warm July helped make last year the hottest ever since record keeping began in 1895.

BALDWIN: Take a look at this map with me. You can see the latest drought map we have for you. You can see all of the different colors.

The issue is the country suffering through one of the worst droughts, as Berman just said, in half a century. You see the dark red area in the middle of the country there. That is where it is most dry, right smack dab along the Mississippi River.

And that is precisely where we find Martin Savidge live with us this morning. Beautiful pictures there, Martin, in Memphis, Tennessee this morning. Pretty pictures, but it's causing a bit of a challenge I understand for some of the boats. Explain.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, really. Good morning, Brooke. Good morning, John. What a difference a year makes, I mean, we were here during the height of the flooding here in Memphis, Tennessee.

If you were to look behind us now, I mean, it looks nice. Let me give an example of just how severe the flooding was. Right off here to the right, that is what they referred to as Mud Island. That's just below the base in that big glass pyramid there.

And you see the flagpoles on that island. The water was up just about to the base of those flagpoles. That's how much there was and now well it's nothing like that at all. In fact, take a listen to some of what we found yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAVIDGE: You might think this is some kind of desert just outside of Memphis. It's not. I'm actually standing on the exposed bottom of the Mississippi River. That's how dramatic the drought impact is being felt here.

Hard to believe a year ago, we were talking about record flooding. Now they are worried about a record low. The river was three miles wide here and down to 3/10 of a mile and that's causing all kinds of problems. There are some benefits.

Take a look over here, new beach front. In fact, some have equipped that the Mississippi River has more beaches than the entire state of Florida, which would be funny if it didn't have an impact on trade.

A lot of stuff we use goes up and down the Mississippi River. We're talking steel, coal, ore, and grain. The problem is now a lot of those barges had to lighten their loads and even doing that, they are still running aground.

There is a real fear there would be a possibility of closing the Mississippi River. If that happens, well, all of that product that used to be carried cheaply by barge is now going to be carried more expensively by truck or train. And guess who's going to pay for all of that?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAVIDGE: And a quick mathematical equation of barges here. You know, they've had to raise these barges about 3 feet in order to navigate the lower river.

To raise a barge one inch, you have to take off 17 tons. To raise it a foot, you have to take off 200 tons. Excuse me. So that's an example of just how much cargo is not going down this river.

BALDWIN: Pick my jaw up off the --

BERMAN: Amazing pictures.

BALDWIN: Stunning pictures. To see you in the bottom of the Mississippi and to think that it could be closed. Martin, just quickly, has that ever happened before?

SAVIDGE: It happened in 1988 for a while and they are fearful it could happen. The Army Corps has made a lot of improvement since then. But here's the thing, the river is expected to drop another 2 feet to 3 feet and that would break the record for low here in Memphis. After that, all bets are off as to what's really going to happen.

BALDWIN: Martin Savidge for us along the Mississippi. Thank you, Martin.

BERMAN: Really, amazing pictures. I haven't seen anything like that. We have some more amazing pictures coming up of a much happier variety.

Coming up on STARTING POINT, a postcard from Mars. The "Curiosity" rover sends back his first 360 degree panoramic shot revealing --

BALDWIN: In color.

BERMAN: Very colorful planet. You're watching STARTING POINT.

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BALDWIN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. The Morphius unmanned moon lander crashes and burns during an engine test Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center. No injuries were reported during the failed test. NASA believes it was a hardware problem with the lander's guidance navigation control system.

Meantime, stunning new pictures of Mars this morning courtesy, of course, of "Curiosity". Take a look here with me. The first color panoramic view, I'm talking 360 degrees here, of the gale crater vista courtesy of the rover.

And this mission as you and I both know, this is just getting started. Jim Garvin is a member of the "Curiosity" team and a chief scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

He also served as the chief scientist here for the "Curiosity" Mars exploration. Jim, good morning. I think that the excitement over all of this is so palpable and it excites me and my inner space geek.

So let's just begin with the 360 pictures, the color pictures. Walk me through what exactly you see.

JIM GARVIN, CHIEF SCIENTIST, NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER: Well, we see a marvelous landscape, just ripe for fantastic science. And a great place to start. It may remind you of the deserts we know in California, the Middle East, even places like Hawaii and Iceland, and that's kind of what we're looking for.

But most spectacularly, Brooke, is the landscape in the distance where we see the Mt. Sharp, where really our destination for this unbelievable science journey.

BALDWIN: And so right now, "Curiosity," this rover, this big bad SUV, as one of our guests called it earlier this week, is basically sitting there and going through checks, right? And when does it actually start the experimenting? What does it get to Mt. Sharp? GARVIN: Well, first, the checks are really important. We have 10 powerful science experiments and all kinds of engineering gear. I mean, it's kind of the science engineering Olympics on Mars.

And we have to warm everyone up. One of our key experiments is an inboard laboratory on the rover. So we checked her out yesterday, looking really great. This is only a low resolution sample of this beautiful color panorama of what we'll be seeing.

Now the shores of Mount Sharp are about 6.8 kilometers away. It's going to take quite a while to get there and we have a lot of work to do locally. In fact, we'll be sniffing the air within the next 10 days to see what chemicals are in the air.

BALDWIN: Wait, wait, wait, sniffing the air? How does that work?

GARVIN: Well, we have an instrument that can measure parts per billion of the chemical constituents of the Mars atmosphere, and we're going to be taking a little taste to see what's there for the first time at this scale in human history.

BALDWIN: Can we go back to Sunday night, Monday morning, and then the big scene inside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory? You were there. You were part of the excitement. And something I learned this morning, there is a bit of a peanut tradition. Please explain.

GARVIN: Well, at JPL, you know, with a nearly 50-year record of unbelievable planetary exploration, about 40 years ago, the tradition began of opening peanuts when a keen event in planetary exploration occurred.

And so we passed the peanuts around for good luck right before opportunity landed. And of course, some of the pebbles under the rover deck remind us of those peanuts so it's all a good thing.

BALDWIN: And finally, Mohawk guy. CNN talked to him just yesterday. Let's roll the sound.

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BOBAK FERDOWSI, NASA ENGINEER: The thought that in some way of kids and other people that are motivated to come work here because they see me and they say, that guy can put stuff on Mars, maybe I can too. I would like to say it takes all types to make these missions work.

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BALDWIN: Have you been just overwhelmed by the excitement? And I'm not just talking about his Mohawk, but the whole deep space exploration, really just this outpouring in the last couple of days I'm sure globally. What does that mean for you and NASA?

GARVIN: Well, it means so much for all of us, because this is an 11-year journey. The engineers at JPL and across world that built this, you know, they have been working for 11 years, training for if you will the engineering science Olympics.

Now we're there. Now we have the fun part, doing the science we have all waited so patiently. So we're ready. We're excited. Mars is home now for us.

BALDWIN: Hopefully fun translates into funding down the road. I know that's a big issue with NASA. Jim Garvin, thank you for getting up so early. It's so exciting for us early this morning. We appreciate it. Thank you -- John.

BERMAN: Really exciting.

Ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, we are locked in one nasty presidential race. And yet the most effective weapon on the campaign trail is still an old reliable, a candidate's name from Hoovervilles to Obamaloney, an illustrated history ahead.

And domination in the pool. Heart throbs out of the pool. Read everyone, Team USA, gold medal swimmers Nathan Adrian and Ricky Berens join us live. STARTING POINT, back in a moment.

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