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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Afghan Officer Kills Two U.S. Service Members; Wisconsin Moves To "Toss Up"; Romney's Taxing Controversy; Blistering Heat Stoking Wildfires; Air Raid: Target Mosquitoes; Family Research Council Shooting; Assange Granted Asylum In Ecuador; Golden Strength

Aired August 17, 2012 - 06:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Battleground Wisconsin. This used to be Obama country in the race for president. Now, a toss- up.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Aerial assault. Firefighters take to the sky in an all-out fight against those devastating wildfires. We have a live report just ahead.

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN (on-camera): Good morning, and welcome to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. Happy to have you with us this morning. It is just about 6:00 a.m. in the east.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BERMAN: And we start with breaking news this morning. Two U.S. service members have been killed in the Farah province. The U.S. military says a uniformed Afghan officer 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 this follows a Taliban statement that the group has infiltrated Afghanistan's security forces, but CNN cannot verify that statement. This incident today is under investigation.

SAMBOLIN: And to politics now and the Paul Ryan factor. A new poll shows there is now a much tighter race in a key battleground state, Wisconsin.

In a new CNN poll of registered voters in Wisconsin, 49 percent say they back President Obama with 45 percent supporting Romney. So that means Wisconsin, which has been leaning towards President Obama is now really up for grabs.

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

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We had Wisconsin and its 10 electoral votes leaning toward the president, but now because of our new poll, because of the Paul Ryan fix, because of our reporting in the state, we're switching Wisconsin to a true toss up state, which makes the math a little bit 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 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 add Wisconsin, look that would do.

That would give you much more competitive race and in fact, we 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. If you come out to the national map and you go back to 2008. If you look at this part of the country, the Midwest was absolutely pivotal to President Obama's huge electoral victory.

Look at all that blue here. Why are the Romney forces confident that they can do better in the region this time? Look at -- let's go 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. Again, if you come back to the electoral map, just finally as we finish up, if you can put Wisconsin 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, part of the Ryan pick and key to Governor Romney's strategy.

SAMBOLIN: All right, thanks to John King there. Wisconsin is a state the president won by 14 points back in 2008. No Republican has won it since 1984.

BERMAN: Ronald Reagan. More politics now, Mitt Romney says he paid at least 13 percent in taxes each of the past 10 years. Addressing criticism over his refusal to release more of his tax returns, Romney told reporters about his tax revelation.

(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. The most recent year is 13.6 or something like that so paid taxes every single year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Romney went on to say that Senator Harry Reid's charges that he did not pay those taxes are false. President Obama's campaign responded with this statement. Mitt Romney today said that he did indeed go back and look at his tax returns and they never paid less than 13 percent in taxes 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 2011 filing estimate with a pledge to release the full document.

But he says there will be no further tax disclosures. President Obama has released 12 years of tax returns and by the way, so did Romney's dad in 1968.

If you're wondering what the average American paid in taxes in 2009 the CBO said it was 17.4 percent. So Mitt Romney saying he hasn't paid less than 13 percent, but you can get it's less than the average of 17.4 percent.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, but we had a lot of dialogue about that as to why. Because, you know, there are all of these tax breaks that he is able to take advantage of. So I'm just still curious as to when we will stop talking about this. I suppose not until he decides that he will release.

BERMAN: Mark Preston, our political director says never.

SAMBOLIN: Never, yes, all right. It's 4 minutes past the hour here. Medicare is, of course, also a key issue in this election for voters well above the 2010 health care law.

A new poll from the Keizer Family Foundation shows 73 percent of those surveyed said Medicare would be extremely or very important to their vote. That was tied with the cost of health care and health insurance also at 73 percent.

But less people found this extremely important. That was followed by Medicaid and providing health coverage for the uninsured and 59 percent chose the Affordable Care Act. We should mention the poll was conducted before Congressman Ryan selection as Mitt Romney's running mate.

SAMBOLIN: It is 4 minutes past the hour here. Many families are dealing with the agony of losing their homes this morning and everything in them as the west coast wildfires continue to rage.

Dozens of large fires, look at the map there, are burning in 13 states west of the Mississippi River, most of them, as you can see, 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 saying they 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.

Meteorologist Rob Marciano is in Cle Elum, Washington. Rob, that's good news. Yesterday, when he was talking to you, I think you were saying 10 percent contained.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, they've got a nice line of containment on some parts of the fire and along the south eastern flank. A few residents were actually allowed to go back at least look at their homes.

We're on the north eastern flank. You can see behind me some of the glow in the hills there. Residents who live in that area called the Hidden Valley. They will not be going back to their homes any time too soon.

So this is an area of concern. This is an area that the firefighters were working very hard yesterday trying to get a containment line set up here. We caught up with one survivor who described what it was like to escape the flames going from calm to chaos.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY PUTNAM, HOMEOWNER, CLE ELUM, WASHINGTON: The fire started over on the right-hand side and it shot over that mountain so fast, like I said, we were -- we went out to get our horses when the fire was clear over here, six or seven miles away.

I told everybody, don't panic or scare the horses. Let's take our time, we've got all day. All of a sudden a wall of flames came up over the ridge and you know, like 100 foot high. So then I said, OK, let's don't panic, but I think we better hurry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARCIANO: And they got out of there in a hurry for sure. They are not the only ones. Over 60 homes destroyed and many more structures than that. So the fire fighting effort continues.

The aerial assault is in full force, military choppers both Chinook and others getting into the act yesterday along with ground crews trying to establish containment lines and mop up areas that already have been burnt.

But they are dealing with heat, excessive heat yesterday and again today. Take a look at the high temperatures across parts of Washington and Oregon yesterday. It was excessive for sure.

Touching 100 degrees in some spots including the normally temperate zones of Portland and Vancouver, Washington, 100 there. Seattle 91, more in the way of heat today. Excessive heat warnings are posted again today so that is going to add to a fire danger along with low levels of humidity.

One more fly in the ointment, guys, tomorrow and Sunday a threat for thunderstorms in the baked and dry cascades. Range has issued a fire weather watch through the weekend.

That's what has residents and fire officials concerned as we try to get containment on this thing, but we still have other issues, mostly weather to deal with for the next several days.

SAMBOLIN: All right, we are going to continue to monitor. Thank you so much. Rob Marciano live in Cle Elum, Washington.

BERMAN: Down in Texas, the West Nile aerial assault has begun. Dallas County conducting spray to control mosquitoes and put a stop to the West Nile epidemic. At least 230 people there have been infected, 10 have died. In a neighboring Oklahoma, 61 people have been affected with West Nile and three people there have died.

SAMBOLIN: Very scary. The suspect in the shooting at the Family Research Council's Washington, D.C. office has been ordered to undergo a mental health exam.

The 28-year-old Floyd Corkins, you're looking at him there, 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.

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

And two workers have to be rescued from an expanding Louisiana sinkhole. This is just remarkable. Look at this picture. That sinkhole first appeared two weeks ago in Assumption Parish, Louisiana. It has since grown to the size of a football field.

Officials say the two cleanup workers were in a boat tied to a tree when another 50 feet of earth gave away. Operations at the site have been suspended because it's simply too dangerous.

BERMAN: This is huge and growing. We will continue to watch it. A terrifying crash caught on camera. Look at this, the car is obliterated and flipped down this mountain. This was during the Pike Peak International Climb. Miraculously --

SAMBOLIN: You would think the folks would be dead, right?

BERMAN: Right, but no. Miraculously, the drivers survived and what's better they talked to Piers Morgan last night. Check out their incredible nonchalance. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

YURI KOUZNETSOV, RACE CAR CRASH SURVIVOR: The moment when I knew it was all over for us is kind when we started to get towards the gravel and flying off the edge. I had a slightly delayed reaction, but pretty much after that it was tumble, tumble, try to hang on and hope for it to stop as soon as possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: Look at that, he says tumble, tumble.

SAMBOLIN: Like it's no big deal.

BERMAN: No big deal.

SAMBOLIN: I was shocked when I saw this. I thought for sure somebody in there had died. One of them has a sling.

BERMAN: Piers asked him if they would attempt racing again. They said probably not tomorrow but time will tell.

SAMBOLIN: I would definitely never go near that curve again. All right, too big for peewee football, a 12-year-old told he can't play because of his size. So why did the coaches let him practice in the first place?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. It is 13 minutes past the hour. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. Glad you are with us. Diplomatic tensions are rising between Britain and Ecuador with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at the center of this really interesting dispute.

Assange has been granted political asylum in Ecuador. The trouble is he can't get there without risking arrest. British authorities say if he leaves the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, they will extradite him to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations.

And this morning, there are words that Assange plans to speak publicly Sunday for the first time since March. CNN's Atika Shubert is live outside the embassy in London right now where it's all going on. Atika, how are things this morning?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wikileaks supporters are still here. The police are still here surrounding the embassy and as far as we know, Julian Assange is still inside.

He is -- Wikileaks has said on their Twitter feed that he will be making a live statement on Sunday, his first public appearance in front of the Ecuador Embassy. We'll have to see how British authorities react to that. The British foreign minister, William Hague, has already said, that as far as Britain is concerned, Julian Assange is not under political persecution and that he's simply wanted for questioning for sexual offenses in Sweden and that Britain has a duty to extradite him.

Here's what William Hague said yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: We will not allow Mr. Assange safe passage out of the United Kingdom nor is there any legal basis for us to do so. The United Kingdom does not accept the principle of diplomatic asylum. It is a far from universally accepted concept, the United Kingdom is not a party to legal instruments which require us to recognize the brand of diplomatic asylum by a foreign embassy in this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUBERT: William Hague making the distinction between political asylum and diplomatic asylum, basically saying that as far as Britain is concerned, they still have the duty to deliver Assange to Sweden.

BERMAN: You know, Atika, I can't take my eyes off the cops standing there outside the door, just waiting to see if they have any sign of Assange. But he is still under criminal investigation here in the United States. How are officials in this country responding to the controversy?

SHUBERT: Well, this is still -- still murky details about what exactly he's being investigated for in the United States. Of course, the leak of all of those documents, but is there a criminal investigation? We do know there's a grand jury investigation, but we don't know if there's been any indictment or what the evidence is against him.

This is what's fueled speculation overseas, including from Ecuador who granted him asylum on those grounds. Take a listen to what Ricardo Patino, a foreign minister of Ecuador, had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICARDO PATINO, FOREIGN MINISTER, ECUADOR (via translator): 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 military courts, and a cruel treatment will be applied and he may be sentenced to life imprisonment or death.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUBERT: Well, it looks like Julian Assange will make a direct challenge to British authorities by making his statement outside of the Ecuador embassy on Sunday.

BERMAN: All right. Atika Shubert, I'm sure you'll be there. Thank you so much. Joining us from London this morning.

Later on "STARTING POINT," at 7:15 Eastern, Soledad will talk to John Negroponte, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., now chairman of the Council of the Americas, one of the most experienced diplomats in the planet. He will talk about this diplomatic standoff.

SAMBOLIN: It will be interesting to what he has to say. His take on all of this.

Seventeen minutes past the hour. Let's get you up to date.

Big election news to tell you about. CNN is now calling Wisconsin, Paul Ryan's home state, a toss-up. Take a look at that. In a new CNN poll of registered voters in Wisconsin, 49 percent say they back President Obama, with 45 percent supporting Romney. So, that's within the margin of error.

Wisconsin has voted for a Republican for president since Ronald Reagan.

And five people are in custody this morning in New Orleans, in connection with the shooting deaths of two Louisiana sheriff deputies. Authorities say a shooting at a steel plant led officers to a nearby trailer park where they are ambushed. Two other deputies and two suspects suffered gunshot wounds.

Now, get this, a horse drawn carriage ride in midtown Manhattan, it went terribly wrong. The horse got spooked and broke the carriage in half and went galloping up Broadway yesterday afternoon. And it happened right outside our CNN studios. People were staring outside the windows here, with their jaws just hanging down.

Thankfully, two passengers and the driver, they suffered only minor injuries. They were treated at the nearby hospital.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, that's good. Because the first video there showed a guy lying on the street. So, happy to hear he's OK.

So 12-year-old Texas boy told he is too big to play pee wee football. There he is. Elijah Earnhart stands more than six feet tall and tips the scales at almost 300 pounds.

The league president says the rule is any seventh grader that weighs more than 135 pounds is barred. He also said Earnhart had gone to meeting and was advised about this. So, he doesn't understand why there's an issue.

However, Earnhart's mom said he was allowed to practice with the team for three weeks. So she now plans to protest that decision.

That's the odd thing here. Why do you allow this child to practice then say he can't play?

BERMAN: Just wanted to play somewhere.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, Mitt Romney trying to put all of the talk about his taxes to rest, saying he paid at least 13 percent in each of the past ten years. How does that compare to the rest of us. We're going to take a look, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: We are minding your business this morning. It's 23 minutes past the hour.

U.S. stock futures are mostly flat ahead of today's market open. Stocks ended higher on Thursday, although Facebook shares showed a 6 percent drop.

BERMAN: It's a big drop.

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

BERMAN: Joining us this morning is Poppy Harlow. She is here to tell us more about what Mitt Romney actually pays in Texas to Uncle Sam.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Yes. So, this debate has been going on and it's not going to end, frankly, before the election. This battle continues, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Romney has paid no taxes over the past 10 years. Romney took issue with that.

I want you to listen to what he said yesterday on this issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: OK. So what is his effective tax rate. Well, he's only released two years of information, 2010 and 2011.

So, here's what we do know. That his effective tax rate is 14.5 percent. Here's what you should know -- in comparison, 80 percent of the Americans, according to the Tax Policy Center py and effective a rate below 15 percent. You're probably scratching your head and saying I pay more than that. That's because the effective tax rate is lower than your tax bill. OK? It doesn't include credit and exemptions, et cetera.

So, also, if you look for average American families, the number that makes between 50,000 and $75,000, guys who pay an effective rate of 5.7 percent, family that makes $200,000 or more is going to pay about 10 percent effective tax rate. Then you add these other things on top of it.

So the Obama camp came out late yesterday and said prove it. We need to see more tax returns. Obama has released 12 years and interesting will in political history, Mitt Romney's father when he was running for office, released 12 years as well.

So, we need to see more information to know more than this. But what we can tell you 14.5 percent is his effective rate.

BERMAN: And, quickly, this all has to do with how Mitt Romney makes his money.

HARLOW: Absolutely, he makes his money off of money, as Warren Buffett puts it. Warren Buffet also pays a lower effective tax rate than some folks out there, because they make their money off investments, capital gains, what you made on stock investments, dividends. The law is the max those can be capped at is 15 percent. The Obama administration wants to raise that, Ryan and Romney said for some people they want to eliminate or at least significantly lower that.

BERMAN: All right. Poppy Harlow, thanks very much.

HARLOW: Sure.

SAMBOLIN: Twenty-five minutes past the hour.

Bill Clinton meet Bill Clinton, 14 years later. The former president reunites with his name sake. That story behind these adorable pictures just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Medicare ad wars. The Obama campaign targets Paul Ryan and his plan in a brand new ad. We'll have the first look at it.

BERMAN: And 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. We are on verdict watch right now.

SAMBOLIN: We're going to go there live as well.

And cruising in a vet, top down, with one of the greatest drivers on the planet. That is Jeff Gordon sitting next to me and he let me drive.

BERMAN: Wow.

SAMBOLIN: It was kind of cool. I know you can't see it there but I'm going to show you.

BERMAN: You look like a natural in that car.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. Well, I don't know if they will show you how unnatural I was at one point.

But anyway, welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It's about half past the hour right now. Very glad you're with us.

We're going to talk politics and Medicare wars because the Obama campaign just released a new ad this morning going after the man on the other side of the ticket who is number two on that ticket, Paul Ryan. Here's a first look at this ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message.

NARRATOR: Now Mitt Romney is attacking the president on Medicare? The nonpartisan AARP says Obamacare cracks down on Medicare fraud, waste and abuse, and strengthens guaranteed benefits.

And the Ryan plan, AARP says it would undermine Medicare and could lead to higher costs for seniors. And experts say Ryan's voucher plan could raise future retirees' costs more than $6,000. Get the facts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Both campaigns very much on offense on issue of Medicare which is fascinating.

CNN political director Mark Preston is live now in Washington.

What do you think, Mark?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, John, you know, that ad with run in seven battleground states, including Virginia, where Paul Ryan is today, as well as Florida, where he'll be tomorrow, and on Monday where Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will be together back again.

Yes, Medicare has become the issue of the campaign. The Romney campaign says they are going on the offense and they've tried the last couple of days, including yesterday, when Mitt Romney addressed it.

Let's hear what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With regards to seniors, those are people who are 55 years of age and older. Today's seniors, if you will. My plan presents no change. The plan stays the same. No adjustments, no changes, no savings.

The president's plan cuts Medicare -- excuse me, well, let's see -- there we go -- by $716 billion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESTON: So, John, who needs an iPad nowadays when you have a white board. I can tell you, the late, great Tim Russert, might want to give him some lessons, Mitt Romney on that white board as he's putting those numbers down.

But it just goes to show you that in addition to jobs and the economy, Medicare has become the big policy issue. As you said they are both going on the offense, Paul Ryan will be in Florida tomorrow, which is really ground zero for the fight on Medicare. The person at his side will be his mother, who herself gets Medicare.

BERMAN: You're breaking out your mom. That is serious, serious politics, Mark.

The other thing that's been happening, Mitt Romney and taxes. Yesterday, he said he's gone back and looked now and over the last 10 years, never paid less than 13 percent in his effective tax rate. This issue go away now?

PRESTON: Absolutely not. Look, this is a political football. It's going to go up and down the field until and if Mitt Romney decides to release his taxes.

Though he is giving us more details. Let's hear what he had to say about his taxes, John.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: 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've paid taxes every single year. Harry Reid's charge is totally false.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESTON: John, he's speaking about the Democratic Leader Harry Reid who lodged this very controversial charge that in fact he had learned that Mitt Romney wasn't paying taxes and in fact Harry Reid responded yesterday to Mitt Romney.

Let's take a look at what he had to say. Harry Reid said, we'll believe it when we see it. Until Mitt Romney releases his tax returns, Americans will continue to wonder what he's hiding. John, heading into Election Day, this is going to be one of the major issues we'll hear from Democrats.

BERMAN: All right. Mark Preston, live in Washington, great talking to you today.

PRESTON: Thanks, John.

SAMBOLIN: Thirty-three minutes past the hour here. The former president of the National Border Patrol Union has been indicted by a federal grand jury. Terence J. Bonner is accused of diverting union funds for personal travel and sports tickets and portable drives to store pornography. Bonner retired from the organization in 2010.

BERMAN: So, it's begun. The controversial Keystone pipeline has broken ground. Construction officially started near Livingston, Texas. It was met with heavy protest yesterday. At least one group has threatened sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience, approval for the international -- sorry, approval for the international portion of this pipeline is still pending.

President Obama rejected that permit in January over concerns that a rupture might threaten a sensitive aquifer in Nebraska.

SAMBOLIN: Environmentalists are all over that. And the West Nile aerial assault begins in Texas. Dallas County is conducting aerial spraying to control mosquitoes and put a stop to the West Nile epidemic. At least 230 people have been infected, 10 of them have died.

In neighboring Oklahoma, 61 have been affected with West Nile, three people have died.

BERMAN: All right. It is 35 minutes after the hour right now.

And you had the best day ever yesterday.

SAMBOLIN: It's so fantastic.

BERMAN: I'm extremely jealous. You got behind the wheel with NASCAR legend, Jeff Gordon. He talked about a lot. But most importantly, I want to see if he let you drive.

SAMBOLIN: He did.

BERMAN: Don't give it away, it's a tease.

The answer despite what Zoraida says, coming up.

SAMBOLIN: I have already told, folks.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: NASCAR, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.

Racing great Jeff Gordon is one of six drivers battling for two wild card spots this weekend in Michigan. But he's there to mark the 60th anniversary of a legendary car, one that's started his love affair with racing -- a true American classic, the Corvette.

I got to go for a ride with him and put the wedges to the pedal myself. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN: Wow. Yes. Yes.

JEFF GORDON, RACING DRIVER: That's all --

SAMBOLIN: It's that moment.

GORDON: That moment right there is why people have all kinds of power under the hood.

SAMBOLIN: What goes through your head when you're racing?

GORDON: My mind is focused on pushing the car to the limits.

SAMBOLIN: We have 86 wins, four-time cup champion, three-time Daytona 500 and the list goes on and on.

But everybody is talking about you as having had a bad year.

GORDON: Yes, I get frustrated because I want to win. But at the end of the day, I can move past it fairly easily.

I have a wonderful family. I have incredible resume. You know, great work I'm doing with my foundation, and I get to come out here and drive a convertible 427, 60th anniversary Corvette. So, life is not bad.

SAMBOLIN: What's the one thing nobody would believe about you?

GORDON: Everybody always thought for me I was this clean cut kid. I was a break dancer, skateboarder, BMX, you know, rider and --

SAMBOLIN: I didn't know you were a break dancer.

Don't worry about him. He is in very good hands.

GORDON: Listen, it's not her driving skills I'm worried about, it's the wedge, those wedges.

SAMBOLIN: He's worried about my shoes, the wedges make you uncomfortable, right?>

GORDON: The wedge has definitely make a little --

SAMBOLIN: I have a driver's license.

GORDON: Oh my gosh!

SAMBOLIN: So far so good, right?

GORDON: That's good. I like it.

SAMBOLIN: How long do you think you're going to do this?

GORDON: I've always said as long as I'm healthy, I'm enjoying myself and competitive, then I'll keep doing it. So, this might be a bit of a frustrating year but it's not that bad yet.

SAMBOLIN: What is the best advice you have ever gotten?

GORDON: Well, I think it applies in life to racing for sure. You know, in racing, you race people the way you want them to race you. I feel like in life, you treat others the way you want to be treated. You want them to treat you.

So that's something my parents taught me was, you know, you put out what you're going to get back. And that's the way I try to live my life.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN: I had such a great time with him. He is such a family man. We talked about everything under the sun. We talked a little bit about somebody who has been suspended in race car now for the first time ever for doping, for illegal substances in his system. He said, you know, I'm OK with the illegal substance or performance enhancing drugs but I'm worried about what could happen on the race track because he said performance-enhancing drugs would have to be for the car, wouldn't they? Because you can't bet me. So, it's a very cool moment with him.

But I thought about you, because the last story I went out to door, I bought your boys Viking hats, "How to Train Your Dragon," right?

OK. So, I want to take a look at this, because I said, he started racing when he was 5 years old, your twin boys are 5, right?

BERMAN: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: I got something for them.

BERMAN: I'm terrified.

SAMBOLIN: But you have to pay for it. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: So, how much will this set him back, because he needs two for the boys?

GORDON: OK. For the midget these days, for five and six year old, I bet you can get for maybe $1,500, $2,000.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So, that's bad enough, but it's the thousands and thousands of damage they would do to everyone in the neighborhood that I'm mostly concerned about. It's the thought that counts. It's very thoughtful of you.

SAMBOLIN: Fifteen dollars per child. And I brought back something else for you. It says "John, best wishes, Jeff Gordon."

BERMAN: It's great.

SAMBOLIN: But I want to show off mine.

BERMAN: Enough about you, let's talk about me.

SAMBOLIN: Because it says, "Zoraida, come back and drive my car on the race track, I have it in writing folks."

So, when he wins this weekend, I'm hoping he does, I'm going to go back -- I'll let you come out. You can take a look at the car.

BERMAN: That was a great story.

SAMBOLIN: A lot of fun.

BERMAN: It is 43 minutes after the hour right now.

We want to get you up to date, including on a developing story out of Afghanistan this morning. Two U.S. service members have been killed in the Farah province, the U.S. military says a uniformed officer turned his weapon on the troops before being shot and killed himself. This is the latest incident in a string of similar attacks on U.S. forces and it follows a reported Taliban statement that the group has infiltrated Afghanistan security forces.

BERMAN: Some progress in wildfire fights in California. The buck fire in Riverside County is now 90 percent contained. The Vallecito lightning complex fire in San Diego County is 71 percent contained. And dozens of large fires are burning in 13 states west of the Mississippi River. Most of them are in California.

BERMAN: Happening now, we're waiting for a verdict in a free speech case that sparked rallies around the world. A Russian court set to decide the fate of three members of 'female punk rock band. They face up to seven years in prison for performing a protest song that was critical of Russian president Vladimir Putin. You're looking at pictures of them right now.

Rallies have been organized in their support outside Russian embassies around the world, including in London and Washington, there was a demonstration here in New York yesterday. The band's plight has gotten the attention of Paul McCartney and Madonna.

SAMBOLIN: President Bill Clinton reunited with Bill Clinton. Take a look at these pictures. Fourteen-year-old Uganda native, Bill Clinton, who was born the same month Clinton visited the East African country, was reunited with the former president during his recent trip.

President Clinton encouraged his young namesake to stay focused on his dream of getting a medical degree and even offered to fund his education.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): That's very cool, huh?

BERMAN: Love those pictures.

SAMBOLIN: Take him up on that.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Someone named a cat after me once.

SAMBOLIN: What?

BERMAN: Did you meet the cat?

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: Yes. It was badly trained evil cat.

BERMAN: (INAUDIBLE)

O'BRIEN: I guess, it's not like a baby, is it?

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness.

O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning -- I know. I'm just telling you. Ahead this morning, in the wake of Arizona governor, Jan Brewer's, constitutional throw down. That's what they've been calling it with the White House over benefits for young illegal immigrants. We're going to be talking to Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

He's proclaimed himself the toughest sheriff in America. We'll ask him what he thinks about what happens next in this battle.

Also, Paul Ryan could be changing the race for the White House. The important battleground state of Wisconsin has turned from lean Obama to a true toss-up on the electoral map. We're going to tell you how the campaigns are responding to that this morning.

We're going to talk to Democratic congresswoman, Kathy Castor, from Florida. She'll join us live. We'll also speak to Republican congressman, Jason Chaffetz. He's back. He's from Utah, of course.

And, the picture perfect. The winners of the 2012 National Geographic traveler photo contest.

BERMAN: Wow!

O'BRIEN: The images, these are amateur photos.

BERMAN: Amateurs?

O'BRIEN: They are 12,000 from across the globe, and they are stunning. They are stunning. We're going to show you some of the 12,000 and also show you the winners as well. That and much more right at the top of the hour in about 14 minutes.

BERMAN: Very cool.

SAMBOLIN: That does not look like amateur work.

O'BRIEN: You know, maybe it's amateur work, but they're supposed to be amateurs.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thank you, Soledad.

So, she made Olympic history as the first American to take gold in judo, but she had to triumph over tragedy to get there. Kayla Harrison is joining us live. That's coming up next. Oops, there she is.

BERMAN: Love her, great.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Good morning to you, Atlanta. It is 73 degrees in your fine city. A little bit later, it will be 86 degrees. Look at that, the sun is coming up. It looks absolutely gorgeous.

This young lady here, she is part of Olympic history. Kayla Harrison won the first gold of medal in judo for the United States at the 2012 Olympics. You know her well. She set out to be an Olympic champion going into the games and she succeeded. And, she's only 22 years old. But her road to victory was filled with struggle and her story proves just how strong this young lady really is. Kayla Harrison joins us now. Congratulations.

KAYLA HARRISON, WORLD JUDO CHAMPION: Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: We are very excited for you. Love that you brought the gold along with you.

HARRISON: I don't go anywhere without it.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: That's good. I hope you have a team surrounding you all the time as well.

HARRISON: I mean, I can handle it.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. I'll bet you can.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: You can take them on. All right. So, you have had two goals in life. One was to win the world championship. The other one was to become an Olympian. You have accomplished them both now. How are you feeling?

HARRISON: Honestly, I'm on cloud nine, you know? So, I don't think my feet have touched the ground since I left London. It's sort of like I joke about it, but I don't dream at night anymore because all of my dreams have come true. So --

SAMBOLIN: Wow! We had a picture up of you when you were accepting the gold medal and you looked back at it and you said, oh, I haven't even watched the match yet.

HARRISON: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: So, you didn't watch that incredible moment? History- making moment? Why?

HARRISON: One I've been busy. And two, it's just -- you know, I usually watch video of myself to learn and to fix my mistakes, but as my coach has told me, you know, I just won the Olympics. There's no tournament to train for right now.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, let's talk about that. What is next for you then?

HARRISON: Immediately what's next is I'm going to go ring the bell at the stock market to start them off.

SAMBOLIN: Cool.

HARRISON: Other than that, we've got a lot of media plan, a lot of fun stuff planned. I'm going to, you know, Patriot games --

BERMAN: Whoo hoo!

HARRISON: -- and Red Sox games --

BERMAN: Whoo hoo!

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: That's my co-anchor in the background that you're hearing going whoo hoo there. He's very excited about the hometown girl here. I read here that you changed weight classes.

HARRISON: I did.

SAMBOLIN: You had to gain 30 pounds in order to move into another weight class. What made you make a decision like that?

HARRISON: You know, they -- I had been struggling for a long time to make the weight class that I was in and I was cutting probably about 20 pounds, and I was 17 years old. And when you're a 17-year- old girl, cutting 20 pounds is dangerous. It's not healthy. And so, they made the decision.

OK. We're going to move you up. You're going to go to the gym everyday. You're going to lift weights. You're going to get strong. You're going to get powerful and you're going to win. And I didn't believe them but, they were right.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. It ended up paying off for you. But society puts a lot pressure on women, in particular, when it comes to weight. So, did you struggle with that at all?

HARRISON: I did. You know, again, being 17, feeling like there was, you know, a certain body type I should be or certain way I should look or certain way I should dress and how I should feel about myself. It was hard for a while.

But, being in judo and being in a sport that you know, I was good at gave me the confidence to be like, you know what, I don't care what people think of me. I know how I look and I feel great about myself.

SAMBOLIN: And you struggled a lot throughout your life. You struggled to (ph) sexual abuse as well. How did you overcome that? Because that was with a coach, right?

HARRISON: Yes. Yes. Honestly, it wasn't just me, you know? I moved through (ph) when I was 16. And at that time, I was, you know, I was in a really bad place. I was at rock bottom. But, you know, my teammates got me up every morning. They made sure I went to (Inaudible). They made sure I went to practice. They made sure I ate breakfast. You know, they took really good care of me.

And my coaches and family, I mean, it was definitely -- it was them that sort of pulled me out of the ashes and made me realize that I had a second chance in life and I had an opportunity and I had something special. SAMBOLIN: I'm proud of you for the courage to talk about it, because it will help a lot of people out there. I can't let you go without asking about a wedding that you put on hold. So, do we have a wedding date?

HARRISON: Yes. My other bling.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, good for you. Congratulations.

HARRISON: Yes. So, I -- we -- you know, my whole life has been about the Olympics. I say, you know, I'm going to go to school after the Olympics. I'm going to get a real job after the Olympics. I'm going to get married after the Olympics.

But my fiance actually proposed last December, and it totally threw me off. I was like, wait, this isn't -- that's not what we planned. After the Olympics (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

HARRISON: But yes, we're engaged. We're really happy. But I'm still pretty young, so maybe in a few years.

SAMBOLIN: Enjoy the engagement for a while.

HARRISON: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Kayla Harrison, thank you so much. Congratulations to you. We're very proud of you.

HARRISON: Thank you, guys, so much.

SAMBOLIN: All right. We're going to take a quick break, and we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Just a few minutes left and as always, we wrap it up with "Best Advice."

SAMBOLIN: And today, we hear from famed writer, producer, and director, Larry Charles.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY CHARLES, WRITER, DIRECTOR, AND PRODUCER: The best advice I may have ever received was from Bob Dylan, actually. We were writing the script for this movie, "Masked and Anonymous," and he had a very strange line he wanted to put in the script. And I said, Bob, even in this movie, that line is going to be misunderstood.

And he said to me, what's so bad about misunderstanding. And I thought to myself, that is interesting. You know, we spend our whole lives just as we are right now trying to communicate, trying to be understood, trying to be clear, but he has spent his whole life in that mode. He's interested now in going past that, what kind of truth you can get to when things aren't understood so quickly.

And I found that to be a very interesting trusting of the instinct, ultimately, and that was a great piece of advice that I've held on to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Excellent advice. More advice, have a great weekend.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my God! I'm looking forward to that.

BERMAN: That's all for EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. "STARTING POINT" with Soledad O'Brien starts right now.