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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Afghan Officer Kills 2 U.S. Service Members; Wisconsin Moves to "Toss Up"; Keystone Pipeline Breaks Ground; Verdict Expected For Russian Punk Band

Aired August 17, 2012 - 05:00   ET

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


ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Battleground Wisconsin. It used to be Obama country in the race for president. Now, it's a toss-up.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Aerial assault. Firefighters take to the sky in an all-out fight against devastating wildfires.

SAMBOLIN: Diplomatic standoff. Police surround an embassy building in London with a wanted man, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange holed up inside.

Good morning to you. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: Glad you're here. I'm John Berman. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SAMBOLIN: We begin this morning with breaking news. This morning, a uniformed Afghan police officer has killed two U.S. service members in the Farah province. The U.S. military says the man turned his weapon on the troops before being shot and killed himself. It is the latest incident in a string of similar attacks on U.S. forces.

And it follows a Taliban statement that the group has infiltrated Afghanistan security forces, which CNN cannot verify. The incident is under investigation, and, of course, we will bring you the latest details as they develop.

BERMAN: It's been a tough, tough week in Afghanistan.

Politics now and the Paul Ryan factor. A new poll shows there's now a much tighter race in a key battleground state, Wisconsin.

A new CNN poll of registered voters in Wisconsin finds that 49 percent say they back President Obama, with 45 percent saying Mitt Romney. That is within the margin of error, and that means Wisconsin, which has been leaning toward President Obama, is now up for grabs.

John King shows us how this could swing the race. He does it on the magic wall for us this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We have Wisconsin and its 10 electoral votes leaning towards the president. But now, because of our new poll, because of the Paul Ryan pick, because of our reporting in the state, we're switching Wisconsin to a true toss-up state, which makes the math closer. It takes 270 to win. The president now has 237 electoral votes, those are dark blue and the light blue states. Light blue, leaning Democratic, dark blue solid Obama.

Governor Romney at 206 right now, a little bit behind, but moving Wisconsin tightens the math a little bit.

So, look at what you have left. Under any scenario, people tell you Governor Romney has to win Florida to get to the White House, probably has to win Ohio. If he can do those two and he can ad Wisconsin, look what that would do. That would give you a much more competitive race, and in fact, would give Governor Romney the advantage if he can do Florida, Ohio and now Wisconsin.

If you look at the map, that's one way to look at it. Here's another way to look at it. You come out to the national map and go back to 2008. If you look at this part of the country, the Midwest was absolutely pivotal for President Obama's huge electoral victory. Look at all that blue here.

Why are the Romney forces confident they can do better in the region this time? Look at -- let's got to 2010. Look at the senate races across that same region, all red, meaning all Republican. That's why they think the Ryan pick, plus the economy helps them out in the Midwest region. And again, if you come back to the electoral map, finally as we finish up, if you can put Wisconsin in play, you can put Ohio in play for the Republicans, if Governor Romney can carry Iowa as well, look at that, that would dramatically change the map from 2008.

The Midwest key now, key now, part of the Ryan pick and key to Governor Romney's strategy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: That was John King. You know, Wisconsin is a state the president won by 14 points in 2008, but it has been close in the past. In 2000, Al Gore beat George Bush by fewer than 6,000 votes, so it can be close in Wisconsin.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Three minutes past the hour.

Mitt Romney says he never paid less than 13 percent in personal income taxes over the past 10 years. In an effort to defuse criticism over his refusal to release more tax returns, Romney told reporters in South Carolina that he re-examined his records.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I did go back and look at my taxes, and over the past 10 years, I never paid less than 13 percent. I think the most recent year is 13.6 percent or something like that. So, I paid taxes every single year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Romney went on to say that Senator Harry Reid's charges that he did not pay those taxes are false.

President Obama's campaign quickly reacted with this statement, quote, "Mitt Romney today said that he did indeed go back and look at his tax returns and that he never paid less than 13 percent in taxes in any year over the past decade. Since there is substantial reason to doubt his claims, we have a simple message for him: prove it."

Romney has released his 2010 filing and a 2011 filing estimate with a pledge to release the full document, but says there will be no further tax disclosures.

BERMAN: Many families dealing with the agony of losing their homes this morning and everything in them as the West Coast wildfires, they continue to rage. Dozens of large fires are burning in 13 states west of the Mississippi, most of them in California, Nevada and Idaho. In western Washington state, there is a new concern, lightning. Much of the region is under a rare fire weather watch.

Still, fire commanders there are cautiously optimistic. They declared the Taylor Bridge Fire 33 percent contained last night, and they hope to have the 22,000-acre fire completely contained by Sunday. That is their hope.

Meteorologist Rob Marciano is in Cle Elum, Washington.

And, Rob, a handful of evacuees were allowed to go back to their homes, right?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, just a few, John, but the residents who live in the homes just behind me, they have not been allowed to go back and probably won't be allowed to go back for quite some time.

Take a look at the glow in the hills. This is just beyond what's called Hidden Valley. We're on the northern flank of the fire there. You can see the glow, and in some cases, the flames lighting up the tree tops on this part of the fire.

As you mentioned, 33 percent containment, but still have some work to do here before they can really say they've got a handle on this thing. And, of course, the heat continues to build and that's become a huge, huge issue there. So, firefighters dealing with the heat, the low levels of humidity, and at times, unpredictable winds.

As you mentioned, there have been a few people that were allowed to go back home. We caught up with a couple that had not gone back. They're lifelong residents. And they talk about what it's like to lose their home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY PUTNAM, HOMEOWNER, CLE ENUM, WASHINGTON: We built 14 years ago and we've been up on the property for 20 years. It's just hard to comprehend when you lose, you know, your home and where you've lived. That's our dream place. I'm going to be buried up there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARCIANO: He talks about Cle Elum with such passion.

The building behind that, Larry, he actually built. That's a senior center, and he built it, kind of overbuilt it in anticipation for it being used for instances like this. The Red Cross is using that as a shelter. There you see some of the dramatic pictures coming out of Cle Elum, Washington.

The heat the big issue, not only here, but across the west side of the Cascades. Take a look at some of these record-high temperatures, and in some cases, just plain old hot weather in areas that typically this time of year would see temperatures in the 70s and maybe touching 80 degrees -- 105 in Medford. Portland hit 100. Vancouver, Washington, hit 100. And Seattle hit 91 as did Olympia.

We have some heat warnings again today for the same area. Temperatures expected to get close to 100 degrees, excessive heat warnings out for the west side. Red flag warnings out as well along with fire weather watch

The red flag warnings have been posted really for the past couple weeks, but when you add a fire weather watch, that means we anticipate that fires could easily be ignited, guys, over the weekend. Why? Because we've had the heat obviously.

But now the threat for thunderstorms will be picked up Saturday and Sunday, and that could mean lightning strikes that could cause more fires, not only east of the Cascades, where it's typically dry, but on the west side where the sun and the heat has been baking that area that has some similar growth that could ignite quite rapidly.

So, we're concerned right through the weekend, even though we have 33 percent containment there.

BERMAN: Watching that weather over the weekend. Rob Marciano in Washington, thanks very much.

SAMBOLIN: Seven minutes past the hour here.

The West Nile aerial assault begins in Texas. Dallas County conducting aerial spraying in order to control the mosquitoes and hopefully put a stop to the West Nile epidemic. At least 230 people there have been infected. Ten of those people have died.

In neighboring Oklahoma, 61 people have been infected with the West Nile. Three people have died.

BERMAN: A 10-year-old boy is dead and a search is on for a 6-year-old boy. They were both swept away into the Merced River at Yosemite National Park. They were taking a break from hiking with their family Wednesday when this tragedy happened. The 10-year-old is the park's third drowning victim this year.

SAMBOLIN: Poor families.

Two workers had to be rescued from an expanding Louisiana sinkhole. The sinkhole first appeared two weeks ago in Assumption Parish, Louisiana, and has since grown to the size of a football field. Look at it.

BERMAN: This thing's been amazing.

SAMBOLIN: Unreal.

So, officials say the two cleanup workers were in a boat tied to a tree when another 50 feet of earth gave way.

BERMAN: Look at that.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my gosh!

Operations at the site have been suspended because this is very dangerous.

BERMAN: And this has been going on all week.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, and it just keeps on growing. Look at the size of that thing.

BERMAN: All right. Nine minutes after the hour.

U.S. customs turns into a giant shoe closet after they seized thousands of fake Christian Louboutin shoes in Los Angeles.

Did I say that right?

SAMBOLIN: You did.

BERMAN: The nearly 2,000 pairs of counterfeit red sole shoes could have raked in $18 million if they had reached the underground market. I don't even know what these shoes are, nice shoes?

SAMBOLIN: Yes, they're very expensive, and the tell tale is the red sole there. When you have a red sole, you have a Louboutin, and you sit, you don't walk, because they're very, very high heels.

BERMAN: Five shipments of these have been seized between July and August, so I guess that's a big deal.

SAMBOLIN: Not surprising that it would rake in $18 million.

All right, nine minutes past the hour.

One of the world's most controversial figures, Julian Assange, granted asylum in Ecuador's London embassy, asylum that Great Britain refuses to honor. Who will blink first? We're going to go live to London for more details, coming up.

E spark cash card from capital one,

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. It is now 14 minutes after the hour. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. Nice to have you this morning.

Well, there is a standoff outside an embassy in London right now. One of the most controversial men in the world is inside. Julian Assange has been granted diplomatic asylum in Ecuador, but really, nothing has changed for the WikiLeaks founder.

British authorities say safe passage is simply out of the question. Police have surrounded the Ecuadorian embassy in London where Assange has been hold up for the past two months to avoid extradition to Sweden, but WikiLeaks says Assange will make a public statement outside the embassy on Sunday.

CNN's Atika Shubert is following the diplomatic standoff. She is live in London right outside of the embassy.

Paint a picture for us and what exactly is happening.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, seems like all parties are raising the stakes, not only is WikiLeaks saying that Julian Assange will come out, will be in front of the Ecuador embassy making a live statement on Sunday, his first public appearance in months, Ecuador has now called an emergency meeting of south American nations to discuss this diplomatic standoff.

And as you can see behind me, there are plenty of British police here ready to arrest and extradite Julian Assange, should he come out of this embassy. And Britain insists that they do not recognize this diplomatic asylum and that they will continue to pursue him and extradite him to Sweden.

Here's how William Hague, foreign minister, put it yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: We remain committed to a diplomatic solution that allows us to carry out our obligations as a nation under the extradition act. It's important to understand that this is not about Mr. Assange's activities at WikiLeaks or the attitude of the United States of America. He is wanted in Sweden to answer allegations of serious sexual offenses.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUBERT: Now, Britain insists it's not going to storm into the embassy and arrest Julian Assange, but this sort of protracted negotiations and diplomacy means that he could be in there for a very long time.

SAMBOLIN: And, Atika, Assange is still the subject of a criminal investigation here in the United States. What's the latest there? SHUBERT: Well, what I want to do is actually play you a clip from Ricardo Patino, who is Ecuador's foreign minister, and his description of what Assange faces in the United States.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICARDO PATINO, FOREIGN MINISTER, ECUADOR: That the judicial evidence shows clearly that if extradited to the U.S., Mr. Assange will not have a fair trial, he will be tried by a special or even a military court and a cruel treatment would be applied and he may be sentenced to life imprisonment or death.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUBERT: Now, that sounds very scary, but the truth seems to be somewhat more mundane. There does seem to be a grand jury investigation into Julian Assange as the WikiLeaks founder and editor, but there's no conclusive evidence of an indictment so far or where that investigation is going, and even if he faces any criminal allegations at this point. So, it's still very murky details, some investigation, but we just don't know what he faces in the U.S. at this point.

SAMBOLIN: Wow, there is so much drama surrounding this case and Scotland Yard is actually out there 24/7?

SHUBERT: That's right. Police have been out here throughout the night, into the day. They're here, I think mostly for protesters, but obviously, on the steps outside, they could be arrested, and Julian Assange also has supporters who are also here night and day.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Atika, thank you very much.

BERMAN: I think this story is fascinating, a diplomatic standoff, like something out of the Cold War.

SAMBOLIN: And all these entries weighing in as well. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

BERMAN: All right. Seventeen minutes after the hour right now. And let's get you up to date.

Some big election news to tell you about. CNN is now calling Wisconsin, Paul Ryan's home state, a toss-up. In a new CNN poll of registered voters in Wisconsin, 49 percent say they'd back Barack Obama, the president, with 45 percent supporting Mitt Romney. That is within the margin of error.

Wisconsin hasn't voted for a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan.

SAMBOLIN: And in a show of solidarity, President Obama and Mitt Romney will not run campaign ads on September 11th. Similar steps were taken during the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns. Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC, has also agreed not to run any spots. The pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, did not immediately respond regarding their plans.

BERMAN: I think it's a safe bet they won't.

SAMBOLIN: Probably not.

BERMAN: Amy suicides to report. More than a death a day in July. A new report says a record 38 active-duty and reserve soldiers killed themselves last month. That total is up from 24 in June. That's bad enough.

So far, 187 active-duty and reserve soldiers have taken their lives in 2012.

SAMBOLIN: The suspect in a shooting at the Family Research Council's Washington, D.C., office has been ordered to undergo a mental health exam. Twenty-eight-year-old Floyd Corkins is being held without bail. He is charged with assault with intent to kill. Corkins allegedly said he hated the conservative group's politics before he opened fire, wounding a security guard.

And a suspect's family told authorities he has strong opinions about gay rights. Corkins had volunteered at a center serving the LGBT community.

BERMAN: A horse-drawn carriage ride in midtown Manhattan goes terribly wrong. The horse was spooked. It broke the carriage in half and then went galloping up Broadway yesterday afternoon.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness!

BERMAN: This all happened right outside our building here at CNN. At one point yesterday afternoon, I was here and everyone had their noses pressed to the windows looking outside, seeing what was going on.

Well, thankfully, the two passengers and the driver suffered only minor injuries, but this was a really stunning sight to see.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness. I always worry about them getting spooked, right? Too much going on.

Nineteen minutes past the hour. And we're getting an "Early Read" on your local news that is making national headlines.

BERMAN: We're going to start with "The Boston Herald," my hood. In a controversial wind farm project it gets the all clear from a key government agency.

What happened here is the FAA says the Cape Wind project's 130 turbines, they say they will not interfere with air traffic and can proceed. This has been a controversial project. It's planned for the Nantucket Sound. This could be the nation's offshore wind farm.

It's faced political and legal criticism for years, and what's really interesting is it's pitted people who you might think are environmentalists, might be in support of wind farms, against the project. The Kennedy family, of course, Ted Kennedy, the late Ted Kennedy, who we like to say was an environmentalist, was opposed to the wind farm in Nantucket Sound. A lot of people think it would hurt property values in Nantucket and the cape, and also it's an eyesore.

SAMBOLIN: An eye sore. I imagine that.

All right. So, let's move on to "The Livingston Daily." A 12-year- old Texas boy is told he is too big to play pee wee football. Elijah Earnhardt stands more than 6 feet tall. There he is right there. Tips the scale also at nearly 300 pounds.

The league's president says the rule is that any seventh grader that ways more than 135 pounds is barred. He also says Earnhardt has gone to meetings and was advised, so he doesn't understand why there's an issue with all this.

Earnhardt's mother says he was allowed to practice for three weeks and she plans to protest. Why was he allowed to practice but he's not allowed to play is her argument.

BERMAN: You know, you feel badly for a kid caught in the middle of this and you hope he gets to play somewhere.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, something somewhere.

BERMAN: For an expanded look at all of our top stories, head to our blog, CNN.com/EarlyStart, worth checking out.

SAMBOLIN: And if you've got mouths to feed and you're out there looking for a job, unfortunately, the odds are not in your favor lately. Am I telling you anything you don't know? We're going to have a complete story coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: We're minding your business this morning.

And U.S. stock futures are trading flat this morning ahead of today's market open, that's after Facebook's stock fell 6 percent on Thursday.

SAMBOLIN: And joining us now is Poppy Harlow to talk about some interesting stats on jobs.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. This has to do with how the job recovery, we're seeing it edge up slightly each month, is favoring single people. So really interesting numbers out from the Labor Department.

So, you ask, why is that? You know, companies can't technically favor someone if they're single or married, and they're not. There's a number of things going on here.

When you look at the data, here's what it shows you. During the financial crisis, single people lost 5 million jobs and they have regained 90 percent of those. Married people lost 6 million but they've only regained 22 percent.

So, what's driving that? A few things here. An economist at the University of Chicago pointed out, look, married people can take more time generally looking for the job they want, the right job. They've got generally that second salary to bank on.

Also, people 35 and under are getting hired more. People between 35 and 55 are having a harder time getting jobs, so younger people are more often single. Also, flexibility. Someone that is younger will move somewhere else for a job. They're also going to be willing to take a lower salary.

And this Pew study was so interesting, guys. It said that almost half of adults under 35 have taken jobs they don't want just to pay the bills. They're more willing to do that.

And also, this has to do with marriages are down. Marriages were down 5 percent in 2010, and that continued last year, it's continuing this year. So, there's just more single people out there. But I think a big, big driver of this is just younger people being a whole lot more flexible.

BERMAN: That's a really interesting statistics there.

HARLOW: Isn't it interesting?

BERMAN: So, I have two kids, twin boys, 5 years old. I love them a lot, but they're not easy and they're not cheap.

HARLOW: So expensive. And child care is just -- it's killing a lot of families in this country, especially when they're taking jobs that pay less after the recession. So, this new report came out on Thursday that child care in America report. What it showed is that in almost half the states, the cost of center-based child care -- so not even a private nanny -- for one kid exceeded the annual median rate. And if you talk about two children, the cost of that exceeded your annual rent in all 50 states.

So, let's take a look at 4-year-olds. The cost of child care for 4- year-olds went up 4 percent in the last year. In Mississippi, it's $3,900 a year. In Massachusetts, it's almost $12,000 a year.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness.

HARLOW: And then they took a look at the different states. And in terms of least affordable states, it takes the median income and compares out the cost of child care. New York, no surprise, is the most expensive, but then it's followed by Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado and Illinois. And when you're talking about 11 million kids under age 5 in child care in the U.S., you see why this is hurting so many families. They often have to make the decision, do I work --

SAMBOLIN: Exactly.

HARLOW: -- or do I stay home?

BERMAN: Daunting.

SAMBOLIN: I'm really surprised at some of the states you have on there.

HARLOW: It's because the median income there is lower.

SAMBOLIN: Ah, OK, all right.

BERMAN: All right. Poppy Harlow, thank you very much.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Sure.

BERMAN: It is daunting ,daunting information.

All right. Do you ever get annoyed by people who talk on their cell phones while they're out to eat?

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my gosh, yes, yes!

BERMAN: All right, well, one restaurant has a plan to crack down on these table talkers.

SAMBOLIN: You should check your phone in at the door.

BERMAN: Well, listen to this! Check this story out coming up next, and this could save you some money, too.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN (voice-over): Wisconsin up for grabs. Good news for Mitt Romney after the Paul Ryan pick.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Fight for the right to rock. A free speech battle in Russia. A female punk rock band set to find out if they'll be sent to prison for slamming Vladimir Putin.

BERMAN: And Bill Clinton meet Bill Clinton! The former president has lunch with the Ugandan boy named after him. I wonder if they're going to end up (INAUDIBLE).

SAMBOLIN: Oh, look at that sweet picture when he was born and then older. That's very sweet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN (on-camera): Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. Happy to have you this morning. Thirty-two minutes past the hour.

Ten key electoral votes that the Republicans haven't had since 1984. Big election news for you this morning. CNN now putting the state of Wisconsin in the toss-up column. Obama at 49 percent and Romney at 45 percent. That is within the margin of error. It appears the Paul Ryan pick may be paying off, at least for now.

CNN political director, Mark Preston, live in Washington. Good news for the Romney camp, at least for now.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, no doubt about that, Zoraida. And in the past 30 minutes or so, we've received a memo from the Romney campaign which talks a little bit further about the benefits of the Paul Ryan pick. In fact, they've said in less than a week, they have raised more than $10 million online. They have signed up 45,000 new volunteers.

Now, Zoraida, let me note that this is not the fundraisers that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney attend every day. This is online donations. And the Romney campaign, Zoraida, says that this is directly related to the Paul Ryan pick.

SAMBOLIN: Gosh, I wonder if there's an average that people are donating. That's a lot of money in a very short period of time. But let's switch gears here to Romney's tax returns. They're now back in the spotlight after comments that he made at a press conference. What can you tell us about that?

PRESTON: Well, we have new details right now from Mitt Romney's taxes, or at least that's what he's telling us. Yesterday in South Carolina, he was asked the question again, and he provided further details about his tax returns. Let's listen to what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I did go back and look at my taxes, and over the past ten years, I never paid less than 13 percent. I think the most recent year is 13.6 or something like that. So, I paid taxes every single year. Harry Reid's charge is totally false.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESTON: And who Mitt Romney's speaking about right there is the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, who has come out and said that, in fact, he has learned that Mitt Romney has not paid taxes. Harry Reid has put a statement out through his spokesman questioning Mitt Romney's information there, that in fact, that he has paid those taxes.

Let's take a quick look at this on the board, and I'll just paraphrase it. Harry Reid says we'll believe it when we see it. Until Mitt Romney releases his tax returns, Americans will continue to wonder what he's hiding. Zoraida, I have to tell you this, there's no question about this, this will be an issue all the way up to Election Day.

Democrats are glad about it. It will come in and out of the discussion, but the fact of the matter is, until and if Mitt Romney releases those tax returns, Democrats will continue to talk about it. SAMBOLIN: Yes, and they'll continue to talk about it, because they'll continue to bring it up. Mark Preston live for us in Washington, D.C. Thank you.

BERMAN: And we are following some breaking news this morning. A uniformed Afghan police officer has killed two U.S. service members in the Farah province. The U.S. military says the man turned his weapon on the troops before being shot and killed himself. It is the latest incident in a string of similar attacks on U.S. forces.

It's been a very tough week in Afghanistan. This comes a day after seven U.S. troops were killed in a helicopter crash there. The incident is under investigation. We'll bring you the latest on today's developments as they materialize.

SAMBOLIN: Well, it's begun. The controversial Keystone XL Pipeline has broken ground. Construction officially started near Livingston, Texas. It was met with heavy protests yesterday. At least one group has threatened sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience. Approval for the international portion of the pipeline is still pending there. President Obama rejected that permit in January over concerns a rupture might threaten a sensitive aquifer in Nebraska.

BERMAN: Two Michigan brothers who spent almost 25 years in prison for a murder they say they did not commit are free, thanks to Facebook, and now, they're talking. Raymond and Timothy Highers (ph) say they were in the Detroit neighborhood the night a drug dealer was killed back in 1987, but a witness was wrong about them fleeing a scene.

A chance Facebook exchange in 2009 led to new testimony from a man who says he was one of the teens who ran, not the Highers. Did the brothers ever consider a plea deal? Here's what they said on CNN's "Out Front."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THOMAS HIGHERS, MURDER CONVICTION OVERTURNED AFTER 25 YEARS: Something was asked to our attorneys at the time, and they didn't even consider it. There was no doubt in our minds that we wasn't going to do that. So, when they told us there was a plea on the table, we said absolutely not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Under a Michigan law, a judge still has to review the Highers' conduct in prison in a new trial, even if their convictions were set aside.

SAMBOLIN: President Bill Clinton reunited with Bill Clinton? Take a look at this picture or pictures. Fourteen-year-old Ugandan native, Bill Clinton, who was born the same month Clinton first visited the East African country was reunited with the former president during his recent trip. President Clinton encouraged his young namesake to stay focus on his dream of getting a medical degree and even offered to fund his education.

BERMAN: That's really a nice picture.

SAMBOLIN: That's priceless.

BERMAN: All right. So, did you ever sit through a meal next to someone who was yapping on their cell phone the whole time or sitting across from a friend who's just looking at their cell phone the whole time? Well, one Los Angeles restaurant feels your pain. Abah (ph) Restaurant is offering a five percent discount for leaving your phone in this box for the duration of their meal.

Get this, they estimate that 40 percent to 50 percent of their customers had opted in and ditched their phone since they started the offer. So, you save money and do something you should be doing anyway.

SAMBOLIN: This is an excellent idea, and I hope it rubs off across the country and people start offering it, make it a rule. You cannot eat at my establishment if you take your phone to the table. Isn't that terrible? You can't have dialogue with people even at your own table.

BERMAN: Right. I mean, if there's an emergency, you have to pick up your phone, you have to pick up your phone, but don't you sit there and --

SAMBOLIN: What did we do before we had cell phones, right?

BERMAN: I don't remember. I couldn't survive.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Sure you could. Thirty-eight minutes past the hour.

Outrage around the world as members of a Russian rock band wait to learn their fate in court. The free speech controversy coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. It is 42 minutes past the hour. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. Glad you're with us.

There is outrage across the globe this morning as members of a Russian punk rock band learn their fate in court. Three members are on trial for protesting inside Moscow's biggest orthodox cathedral. They rushed in, did a dance -- you just saw it at the altar -- and called for Russia to be set free from President Vladimir Putin. We're expecting this verdict very soon.

Each of them now faces up to seven years in prison for this stunt, and protesters in support of the band are happening all around the world today. They were happening yesterday, too, in New York. Superstars like Madonna and Paul McCartney are calling for their release. Our Phil Black is at the courthouse on verdict watch in Moscow. Let's hear him. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In an hour's time in a court just down the road, a judge is about to be reading a verdict in the case against three women that have become known around the world as Pussyrat. The prosecution of the case is recommended a three-year sentence. Under the law, they could get seven years.

They've already spent five months in custody, and during that time, many Russians, religious and non-religious, have been debating what would be an appropriate punishment for their alleged crime. The charges, hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. The women deny that. They insist they didn't mean to offend anybody, They say, their act was just a political one.

But whatever the result, it's going to be interpreted by many people here in Russia and beyond as an indicator of the Russian government's tolerance for dissent. The impact of that performance in Moscow's main cathedral, which only lasted a few minutes, has been far greater than those women could have possibly imagined.

Pussyrat's name, their colorful outfits (ph) have become powerful symbol of protests around the world.

(on-camera) and it's why many people are going to be watching today's judgment with great interest.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: All right. That's Phil Black on verdict watch for us in Moscow. This is all going on this morning, so stay tuned.

SAMBOLIN: And it's viral. I mean, everybody's weighing in on this controversy here. Forty-three minutes past the hour. Let's get you up to date.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Big election news to tell you about. The VP bounce. We're calling it a bounce here. CNN now calling Wisconsin, Paul Ryan's Home state, a toss-up. Look at this. In a new CNN poll of registered voters in Wisconsin, 49 percent say they back President Barack Obama with 45 percent supporting Romney.

That is within the margin of error. Wisconsin is now the eighth state CNN considers a true toss-up.

BERMAN (voice-over): Some more election news. Vice President Joe Biden's debate prep partner has been picked. Sources tell CNN, Congressman Chris Van Hollen -- he's been on our show this week -- will play VP candidate Paul Ryan. Ryan is the House Budget Committee chairman. Van Hollen is the committee's top democrat, so they know each other well.

President Obama's debate partner will be Senator John Kerry from Massachusetts, so he knows Mitt Romney. The Romney campaign has not announced their prep team, but here's betting (ph) Rob Portman plays a part. He has helped Republicans prepare for debates for years.

SAMBOLIN: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. received a special visit Thursday at the Mayo Clinic. Longtime friend, Congressman Patrick Kennedy, traveled to spend time with Jackson who is undergoing treatment for bipolar disorder. Kennedy, who received treatment for depression at the same clinic told NBC News it was clear that Jackson has been dealing with deep depression but is confident that he is finally making some progress.

An enormous and terrifying find inside one Milwaukee home. Look, folks. A 70-pound alligator. The reptile is now with animal control after it was removed from a south side home. The gator named Wally is a 5 feet long and was living off fish, crickets, ew (ph), and frozen rats. Sorry if you're in the middle of breakfast. The owners say they didn't know keeping an alligator as a pet is illegal.

BERMAN: Looks like a nice alligator.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, very friendly, I'm sure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN (on-camera): All right. So, talking more politics now. This is the part of the campaign where the candidates like to charge each other with dipping to new epic lows, and it's also the part where the media likes to wonder if it's the most negative campaign ever. So, I wanted to help answer that question. Is it the most negative ever? Well, no.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN (voice-over): Mitt Romney, the ad implies he was more or less responsible for a woman dying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And she passed away in 22 days.

BERMAN: A stretch, to say the least. Barack Obama, the ad says he wants to end welfare reform.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You wouldn't have to work.

BERMAN: Not really true, either. No, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama do not agree on a lot, but they do agree this campaign has become positively negative.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's so much negativity and so much cynicism.

MITT ROMNEY (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What's different this year is that the president is taking things to a new low.

BERMAN: Different? Different than, say, Mitt Romney's campaigns against Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you calling Mitt Romney a liar?

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Yes.

BERMAN: Or for that matter, Barack Obama's campaign against Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Shame on you, Barack Obama.

BERMAN: If history has taught us anything, it's that every campaign in history seems like the most negative in history.

JOHN ROBERTS, FORMER CNN ANCHOR: 2010 likely to have the most negative campaign ads ever.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The most negative campaign in memory!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The most negative campaign any of us can remember.

BERMAN: Yes, negative campaigns existed even before Super PACs. Lyndon Johnson implied Barry Goldwater would start a nuclear war. Grover Cleveland accused of having a child out of wedlock -- ma, ma, where's my pa? Andrew Jackson accused of killing a man and having a wife who was a bigamist.

John Quincy Adams, it was said he procured prostitutes for the Russian czar. Thomas Jefferson? John Adams' supporters once said his election would result in murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest. So, until we get charges of robbery, nuclear war starting, or prostitute procuring, maybe this will have to wait.

ROMNEY: The president is taking things to a new low.

BERMAN: They might be mean, cruel and cynical, but negative campaigns are not lights on history, they are our history.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN (on-camera): So to me, the one thing that does seem different about this campaign, it's not that the negative campaigning started so early, it's that the complaining about negative campaigning has started so early.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): Oh, I had a full conversation about this yesterday. I was in Detroit, and you know what was the question, do you think this is the most negative campaign? But apparently not. History shows us that this is pretty mild.

BERMAN: This is how we roll in America.

SAMBOLIN: Wow! Thank you for that.

BERMAN: All right.

SAMBOLIN: It's nice to put that in perspective.

BERMAN: Forty-eight minutes after the hour right now.

And the printer, it's not jammed, it's hammed.

SAMBOLIN: What?

BERMAN: How the meat of the future may come from your printer?

SAMBOLIN: Oh, no way.

BERMAN: Way! And if you're leaving the house right now, you can watch us any time on your desktop or mobile phone, just go to CNN.com/TV.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. It is about 51 minutes after the hour right now. I'm John Berman along with Zoraida Sambolin, and we are taking a look at what is trending on the web this morning.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Would you eat printed meat?

BERMAN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: The answer's no, right? But let me try to explain this to you. According to CNet, the billionaire founder of PayPal is investing at least a quarter million dollars into a start-up company that is developing something that is called bioprinting, not like printing on a machine. Basically, they're looking to serve up slabs of meat that are made on a 3D printer.

It's really a hard concept to wrap your brain around. The goal here is to produce meat in a more economical and humane way than growing livestock. Scientists have already been experimenting with bioprinting for things like organ transplants. I said bring in Bill Nye "The Science Guy" to explain this one to me.

BERMAN: You know, I read this like three times, and I still don't really understand. I don't think it's like an HP printer.

SAMBOLIN: No, it's not that.

BERMAN: You know, that's going to be laser jetting out your meat, but it's basically a machine that can fabricate meat from the scellular level. I don't even know what that means.

SAMBOLIN: Sounds really yummy, doesn't it?

BERMAN: Delicious, though.

SAMBOLIN: Appetizing.

BERMAN: All right. #awkward. Actor, Robert Pattinson was giving an interview to "New York Times" journalist, David Carr, and it got a little weird when the reporter drew a parallel between Pattinson's troubles with Kristen Stewart and Charles and Princess Di. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, if you and Kristen have trouble, it's like Charles and Di having trouble or --

(LAUGHTER)

(BOOING)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think this would lead to --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Next question.

(LAUGHTER)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: In defense of David Carr, they were actually -- Robert Pattinson brought up the subject of the royals. He wasn't talking about his own relationship. What he said is that in America, we treat actors like the royals because we all want them to be, you know, royalty. We have something to follow.

And then he said, the only difference is that actors live in a world of meritocracy and that in and of itself was actually controversial there. So, David Carr was taking it to a whole new level there. Obviously, Pattinson not overly joy to talk about his breakup with his girlfriend.

SAMBOLIN: And also, that it was very much in the public eye. Everybody, you know, knows all of the details. So, anyway, but it was awkward.

All right. The campaign rhetoric is heating up and the late-night guys are taking names.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": Joe Biden has a new slogan -- "change you can believe in!"

(LAUGHTER)

LENO: You all be in chains. You all be in chains!

(LAUGHTER)

LENO: Well, even though he made a number of gaffes this week, President Obama says he's sticking with Joe Biden as his running mate and Biden is thrilled. Of course, he's thrilled. Do you want to be looking for a job in this economy? I don't think so. I don't think so.

(LAUGHTER)

LENO: And Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are now campaigning separately. They didn't want to, but Chick-fil-A threatened to pull their campaign contributions. You know, they were getting a little too close, little too close.

(APPLAUSE)

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Do you have Paul Ryan fever?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, who doesn't?

LETTERMAN: Oh, man. He looks like a guy who owns his own chain of nursing homes, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

LETTERMAN: Paul Ryan likes to catch a catfish barehanded. Anybody ever done that? Actually, he'll wade into a river and catch with his bare hands, take just a giant and pull it out with his bare hands. Chris Christie likes to reach into the tank at red lobster. That's what he likes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: You know, when I found out about Paul Ryan and the noodling, I thought about you, because you've actually done that.

BERMAN: I have -- I didn't know Paul Ryan was a noodler, catches barehanded.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BERMAN: It's important thing to do.

SAMBOLIN: Something the two of you have in common now.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: -- as like him.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, no. I bet you don't.

All right. Fifty-five minutes past the hour.

Coming up, a key battleground state that President Obama won in 2008 is now considered a toss-up. Could a Republican take the stage? You are watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)