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Tropical Storm Isaac Threatens Florida; GOP Prepares for Republican National Convention; Interview with Newt Gingrich; Saudis Foil Terror Plot; Afghanistan Shooting; "Swarm: Of Quakes In California; Mississippi Waits For Isaac; Klein: "Most Vapid, Vaporous Campaign"

Aired August 27, 2012 - 07:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, everybody. Welcome to a special edition of "Starting Point." We're coming to you live from the CNN Grill at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

First, hurricane warnings are in effect. Tropical storm Isaac is heading for the northern gulf coast right now. It's expected to strengthen into a powerful hurricane before it makes landfall from eerie (ph) similarities to Isaac, of course, on strike -- of course, the strike on hurricane Katrina's anniversary.

So, we'll take a look if the city of New Orleans is prepared today and how about other cities that are in the path in Alabama and in Mississippi? We'll take a look there.

And Republicans are leaving open the possibility of bigger changes to Mitt Romney's now already shortened convention. We'll take a look at those changes.

We've got a packed show for you this morning. The former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, will be our guest. Also, we're going to be talking to Ronal Serpas from the New Orleans Police Department, the chairman of the Democratic National Convention, L.A. mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa will be our guest.

Lt. Gen. Russel Honore will be joining us. And Richard Knabb as the director of the National Hurricane Center, he'll be with us as well.

It's Monday, August 27th, and "Starting Point" begins right now.



Hi, everybody. Welcome. Let's introduce our team to you this morning. A little bit to my left is Lenny Curry. He's the chairman of Florida's GOP. Nice to see you again.

LENNY CURRY, FLORIDA'S GOP CHAIRMAN: Always good to be with you.

O'BRIEN: Always raining when I come and visit you --

CURRY: Always. O'BRIEN: -- and your fine state of Florida. Roland Martin is with us as well. He's the host of "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."


O'BRIEN: We're waiting on Ryan Lizza. He'll be joining us in just a moment. He's a correspondent with the "New Yorker" and Jessica Yellin is CNN's chief White House correspondent joining our team this morning.


O'BRIEN: My boots, yes, got the cute boots.


O'BRIEN: It's raining. It's quite a mess, not as bad as some projected when we were talking last week. We're talking first and foremost about the weather. Thousands of people in Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama are being told to leave their homes this morning because tropical storm Isaac is taking aim at the northern gulf coast. A state of emergency has been declared in those three states and hurricane warnings are now in effect from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle. The storm could become a hurricane at some point today. They are looking at projections of a category 1 hurricane, although some have said it could be category 2. And of course when we look at the time line, if this hurricane hits on Wednesday, that would be the seventh anniversary of hurricane Katrina.

This morning in New Orleans, Jim Spellman is standing by for us. Jim, it looks to me -- forgive me, Jim Spellman is standing by in Key West this morning. Tell me how it looks where you are.

JIM SPELLMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT : They made out pretty well here. Take a look. It is Duval Street, the winds came right in there and came right up here, heavy rains as well. They were concerned about inland flooding here, it's very low island for key west. They got as many tourists out of the way as they could, only 20 percent of occupancy in the hotels. They told everybody to stay inside. For the most people heed the warning and stayed inside. They didn't want people out on the street. It looks like they didn't have any serious damage. The department of emergency management in Florida is doing statewide assessment now that the sun is coming up. In Key West, they have a little bit of a sense of humor even when storms are coming in, part of life in paradise in the island. They do take it seriously though when they are in one of these storms as you well now, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: We're glad to hear it wasn't as bad as some people were talking about last week. Jim Spellman in Key Wwest. Appreciate the update. Let's get right to Rob Marciano live in New Orleans. Where are you?

All right, obviously it looks like we're having a little difficulty getting Rob Marciano's shot and we'll do. Clearly when there's a hurricane approaching, we've had all opportunity to have been part or covered a number of these and obviously the winds get high and shots come in and out. I think we have Rob's shot back. Let's go back to Rob Marciano in New Orleans. Where are you standing exactly?

ROB MARCIANO, METEOROLOGIST: We are at the 17th street canal and little puffs of winds but nothing more than 10 miles per hour at the moment. Not enough to knock our shot down but technical glitches here and there. They had more than a technical glitch seven years ago almost to the day when hurricane Katrina came ashore here and the water from lake Pontchartrain became piling up in the 17th street canal and that levee burst up on the industrial canal, same thing and all of that water flooding it for weeks on.

They have done a ton of work and behind me is one of the elaborate storm walls and pump stations that they have in place, the Army Corps of Engineers spending billions to beef up the levee systems around the city, over 100 miles worth and canals and pumping situation as well. No evacuations mandatory at this point because they think that these -- this system can hold up to at least a 2, if not a category 3 storm. Until the forecasts are ramped up to that height, they are not mandatorily evacuating anybody. St. Charles and Plaquemines Parish, there are evacuations going on there and on the platforms offshore.

It's not a hurricane yet. It's taking it's sweet time trying to get organized. Once it gets that eye core set up, we do think it will take on serious strength because it's over big heat content. Until it sets up, we're not too sure how strong it's going to get. It's 400 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi heading in this direction and it continues to zero in on New Orleans. The national hurricane center will tell you our computer models have been all over the place with this thing and the forecast track has a wide margin of error. Everybody from Mobile Bay really to the Texas-Louisiana border needs to be under the gun here for potential land-falling hurricane, one or two or even higher. Tomorrow night into Wednesday morning is the timing. Soledad, there's a heightened sense of urgency already in new Orleans. Lines at the gas stations were long last night. A lot of gas stations already without fuel, so they are certainly taking it seriously here. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: I bet. You only have to sit through one of those terrible storms and terrible aftermath to learn lessons from that. We'll continue to check in with you throughout the morning. Appreciate that.

So what can we expect in the days ahead from tropical storm Isaac? Let's go right to Richard Knabb, the director of the national hurricane center. A moment ago rob was talking about the eye wall being organized. Explain what that means for what the power of the storm could be?

RICHARD KNABB, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: We're talking about the inner core of the hurricane, where the thunderstorms are most concentrated around the center of circulation. Over the last several days, Isaac as a tropical storm has been struggling to develop that inner core but this morning it looks more organized internally than it has pretty much any time in its life cycle with the center of circulation embedded within the middle of the mass of thunderstorms that's become more circular and concentrated than yesterday.

It's still not a hurricane yet. We're forecasting to become one. The question of course is how fast might it intensify in the last day and a half or so prior to the center coming ashore? Right now forecasting category 1 at landfall but it can be a little higher or lower than that.

O'BRIEN: Rob also talked about a large margin of error possibly in terms of where it could hit because right now the maps really look like it's going to hit head on into New Orleans, as you say maybe a category one or two. What's the likelihood or possibility that it could shift to the left or right?

KNABB: Well, we are seeing the models in better agreement than yesterday afternoon even. Part of that is because we're closer in time and we can start to narrow down the landfall a little more, the cone gets narrower as it approaches the coast. But the models have come into better agreement. There's still enough uncertainty we cannot pinpoint where the center of Isaac will cross the coast and that makes the difference in terms of what gets the worst storm surge and so forth. And because we can't pinpoint that, everybody in the hurricane warning area shown in red behind me here, needs to prepare and follow the advice of the local management officials because we don't know who's going to get the worst. The officials know what the potential is, if you're told to get out today, you got to get out. Starting tonight the weather will start to deteriorate.

O'BRIEN: Thanks for that. We appreciate it and obviously we'll keep watching it. We have another update at the top of the next hour. We'll check back in with you then.

Lots of shuffling because of the weather going on here at the Republican national convention, it's going to convene today but for a very short time starting at 2:00 p.m. eastern. It will last about 10 minutes, the entire event is condensed into three days. Chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin is here. They are going to convene it and start the clock.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Gavel in and gavel out for one day. Tomorrow the real events begin.

O'BRIEN: Tell me about the condensing.

YELLIN: They turned four days into three and tomorrow you'll hear from Ann Romney, the governor's wife who will give a fuller picture of who he is as a man and GOP favorite New Jersey governor Chris Christie. On Wednesday, Mike Huckabee is speaking and also Bobby Jindal, who is the governor of Louisiana. He's scheduled to speak. As we know, his state is now under a state of emergency and so because of the hurricane we're waiting to see if he's going to come. The governor himself speaks on Thursday introduced by Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. Donald Trump was going to speak on Monday, now no longer appearing at all.

O'BRIEN: It's an interesting two-tier track. You've got to get the speeches done and business of the convention to get done. You have a PR issue in how you manage starting with just to some degree a big kick-off with the impending storm that could potentially be devastating.

YELLIN: It's an optics challenge because you don't want this sort of split screen picture of on one hand a bunch of people celebrating here while on the other hand people are getting damaged by a storm, particularly if it hits in Louisiana on the anniversary of Katrina. The Republican convention held in Minnesota four years ago also had a similar problem when a storm threatened at the same time and they canceled some events and things went on as planned afterwards.

O'BRIEN: Jessica, appreciate the update. Let's get right to Bob Buckhorn. Nice to see you, Mr. Mayor. Thank you for welcoming us to your fine city. It's a bit of a downpour.

MAYOR BOB BUCKHORN, (D) TAMPA, FLORIDA: It's a little soggy but it will blow through.

O'BRIEN: The good news for you, your city has been spared the worst. Some of the early projections showed a hit and now it kind of moved farther to the west.

BUCKHORN: You know, as Floridians we deal with that on an annual basis, we know how to watch the tracks and know they are unpredictable. We have plans in place and we execute them irrespective of what the storm looks like. We're thankful the storm moved to the west, it only delayed the convention by one day and RNC will get back to business tomorrow and Tampa will look great.

O'BRIEN: For the mayor, you have that final sentence, the key sentence, wasn't it.

BUCKHORN: I'm America's weatherman now. I'm used to talking about millage, now I have to talk about milibars.

O'BRIEN: There was conversation, just briefly, about extending the convention past Friday, into Friday, take another day and make up for the day lost on the front end. Then the conversation around that seemed to stop a little bit. Is that even doable?

BUCKHORN: That would be Chairman Priebus's call. We would be prepared as a city to handle that if that was their decision.

O'BRIEN: It would be terrible to have the hotel rooms extended for another day. Restaurants, all of that stuff.

BUCKHORN: We have law enforcement deployed and we're ready to deal with the situation if they need to extend it, we could. But ultimately that is Chairman Priebus's decision.

O'BRIEN: Okay, let's bring in Larry Curry. You're part of the discussions about that. For a moment it sounded like they might extend. A conversation around extending it for a day and that seemed to go away.

CURRY: Everything I've heard it won't be extended. They can pack all of the speakers in within the three daytime frame. I think the important thing to note, Governor Scott made the call early. When he canceled his Sunday and Monday events, everybody recognized we have to put safety of Floridians first and can see the day's events today.

O'BRIEN: How much of an optics issue do you struggle with as Jessica was pointing out? This is a party, a celebration, a launch, a kickoff. All of those are celebratory words and potentially you could have severe damage. This path is what is being projected to be.

CURRY: From an optics point of view it will be on a day to day basis and be mindful of people's homes and lives. In terms of getting to November, most of the battle will be fought off labor day. You get a bump out of the convention but the real battle is after labor day.

O'BRIEN: So you're not worried about all of that?

CURRY: We cannot control the weather.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. What it's really like to experience the Republican national convention from the inside, you can join the CNN election roundtable with Wolf Blitzer and his political team and get answers in real-time. Don't miss it tomorrow starting at 12 noon eastern. Go to

Newt Gingrich will sit down with us at the CNN grill. Professor Gingrich will explain Newt University straight ahead. We have to take a short break and we're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back everybody. The former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich is here for the Republican National Convention. He's lending his support and his delegates to Mitt Romney. Gingrich, who was at one time the frontrunner for the GOP nod will be holding a number of seminars throughout the week which the RNC has dubbed Newt University. The former presidential candidate and house speaker joins us this morning.


O'BRIEN: Tell us about Newt University.

GINGRICH: A lot of delegates and activists will come. It's available online at And it's an effort to start taking big ideas and lay them out. It's two hours a day from 10:00 to 12:00, Monday Tuesday and Wednesday.

O'BRIEN: Who goes to that?

GINGRICH: We have a lot of delegates and activists in the area. People interested in ideas and policy. Governor Scott Walker will be with us today for example. We'll be talking about reforming government and what he learned and what he's trying to accomplish.

O'BRIEN: So it's lectures or here are the talking points or things tore consistent on as a party? GINGRICH: I think it's a combination. If we're telling you something on Medicare, why are we telling you -- what are the facts behind the ad? We're telling you how to think about your state government, what has he done and learned from it? He's going to be sharing with other activists, here's what I'm doing in trying to get things done.

So I think there's a real effort to bring together smart people, really good spokespersons who are sort of models for the rest of us, and big ideas that are going to be central to this campaign.

O'BRIEN: So let's talk a little bit about the weather, which is problematic. And we know it's now a shortened schedule. How much of a problem is this for the business of the RNC do you think?

GINGRICH: First of all, my younger daughter was born in New Orleans.

O'BRIEN: You know hurricanes.

GINGRICH: I worry and one of the latest reports is may come ashore in New Orleans on the anniversary of Katrina. Wherever it goes, we can't sit here and say at least it didn't hit Tampa let me start with that. These things -- this doesn't seem like a giant storm but still a serious storm.

Second here, we've been through this before. If you remember, because we had hurricanes threatening both Texas and Louisiana, we suspended a day in Minneapolis, St. Paul in 2008. Maybe one of the lessons ought to be you ought to have conventions a few weeks earlier. But I think the delegates I have seen who are here are very enthusiastic and very excited. Conventions are like giant family reunions. You see people you've known over the years and you all get back together with a common purpose to beat the other guy.

O'BRIEN: You released your delegates, Ron Paul has not released his delegates. How much of a problem could that be on the floor, because historically it has been a problem, right?

GINGRICH: I think the Ron Paul people have said openly they are going to be supportive on the floor and do not expect problems. I think they worked out some things in platform in auditing the Federal Reserve and other issues important to Ron Paul. Plus, Rand Paul has played a role and does get a speech. It's unlikely that Ron Paul will want to embarrass his son in that kind of a setting.

O'BRIEN: What happens on Thursday, you and Callista speak together? Do you each get half a speech?

GINGRICH: We campaigned a lot that way. We did a documentary a few years ago on Ronald Reagan, so the campaign folks and convention folks wanted to do a tribute to Ronald Reagan and why elections matter. So it will be a terrific, very powerful short documentary and then Callista and I will talk about applying the principles of Ronald Reagan to 2012. We're looking forward it. It will be a lot of fun.

O'BRIEN: Nice to see you, former speaker Newt Gingrich. Great to have you. thank you. Don't forget to keep it on CNN for the best political coverage on TV. Tonight at 8:00 p.m. eastern, join us for a profile for the presumptive nominee. And Romney revealed, family and faith and the road to power. At 9:30 p.m. eastern, special convention of the coverage itself here on CNN.

Coming up on STARTING POINT, tropical storm Isaac is our top story, it's churning towards the gulf coast after lashing the Florida Keys and Miami area. We'll take you to the CNN hurricane headquarters for the latest on Isaac's path. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back everybody. Our top story this morning is tropical storm Isaac, well on its way to become a category 1 hurricane and on a path to strike the gulf coast. Forecasters are expected to make landfall on Wednesday. That will be seven years to the day since hurricane Katrina hit the region. Let's get a quick check on the weather with a Bonnie Schneider at the CNN hurricane headquarters. Bonnie, seven years ago today you and I were talking about hurricane Katrina.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I was just thinking that, Soledad. Luckily this is different. Even though the track is somewhat similar way back then with Katrina, luckily the storm is so much less intense and not as large. Although, this is a large tropical storm, tropical storm force winds extend well over 200 miles from the center. Right now the storm center is about 400 miles south of the mouth of the Mississippi River. But it is on the move. We are expecting a landfall somewhere along the gulf coast over the next couple of days.

Let's take a closer look at the track. As it comes over the warmer waters intensity grows very gradually from 80 miles per hour to 85, later on Tuesday and possibly up to 90 miles per hour before landfall occurs somewhere on the Louisiana coast or possibly Mississippi. The cone of uncertainty is still fairly wide even though we're a couple of days out, but we are getting closer to pinpointing the landfall.

It's important to keep in mind you must make the hurricane preparations now for the city of New Orleans under a hurricane warning, Soledad at this time. And you know how it is, once the weather gets bad, it's a lot more difficult to bring things in from the outside to get supplies. Do that now.

O'BRIEN: Obviously. Thanks for monitoring it for us this morning. We'll keep checking with bonnie throughout the morning. Still ahead on STARTING POINT, we'll check in on preparations in New Orleans and the cities surrounding as well and the anxiety level very high as Isaac is falling, bonnie said it's not quite as strong but it is certainly following a similar path that Katrina followed seven years ago. We're going to talked to retired Lieutenant General Russell Honore, he talk to us this morning about preparations there today.

We're back in just a moment. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everybody. We're coming to you live this morning from the CNN Grill at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

GOP officials are now trying to cram four days into three with Hurricane Isaac pretty much shutting down today's events at the Republican National Convention.

They are going to gavel in at 2:00 p.m., stay in session for only 10 minutes. Donald Trump was bumped from his spot today. Governor Romney still scheduled to accept the nomination on Thursday.

Our team this morning, Lenny Curry, he is Florida's GOP chairman. He joins us. It's nice to see you in person.


O'BRIEN: It's always raining when I come visit you in the city. The editorial director of the "National Journal" is Ron Brownstein. He is with us this morning as well. Roland Martin is the host of "Washington Watch with Roland Martin."

And Ryan Lizza is the Washington correspondent for the "New Yorker." It's nice to have you all with us. Hurricane warning is in effect. Our top story really is not the RNC as we are sitting here talking.

It's really this hurricane, potential hurricane that is forming in the gulf coast as Tropical Storm Isaac is taking aim at the northern gulf coast. The storm is expected to make landfall near Louisiana almost seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina struck.

CNN's Rob Marciano is live for us in New Orleans. Good morning, Rob.

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning, Soledad. You make that comparison as far as the timing is concerned and you know, last night, we were making the comparison of the track.

I want to start off with this, the 5:00 p.m. advisory from yesterday and compare that with similar timing forecasted advisory of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago and that's when chills were to go down my spine.

If you could -- go to switcher 710 and that would be the right source for that information. In the meantime, 65-mile-per-hour winds is the strength of this thing, west-northwest moving at 14 miles per hour.

The last couple of hours it's starting to show a little bit better signs of improvement. There's an airplane in there right now that's saying the eye structure may be forming a little bit better now. So we do anticipate some strengthening here as Bonnie mentioned.

And there's your forecast track. Anybody from Mobile Bay to really to the Louisiana/Texas border needs to be wary of this. But forecasts are getting a little bit better agreement pointed towards New Orleans. As far as the strength goes, that is certainly an uncertainty.

Let's talk about New Orleans and the prep. Since the ugly time seven years ago when they had to plug holes in levees that were bursting frantically, the Army Corps of Engineers has done amazing job.

They spent billions of dollars in structures like this. This is the 17th Street canal, which was an open canal back with Hurricane Katrina came through and water shot down through here, under washed the levee and busted a hole through it.

Now they have these gates that weigh like 20 tons each about 11 of them. They drop down when they have to. That big pipe pumps out water from the city into the lake when it has to.

So they are fairly confident, Soledad, that unless this things gets to be a Category 3 or higher, the new system can hold off. For that reason no mandatory evacuations ordered for New Orleans yet. But outside of the levee system there have been some in the lower lying communities -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right, Rob, thank you for the update. We'll keep checking in with you.

As Rob just mentioned right there, voluntary evacuations have been declared for 15 parishes with a mandatory evacuation that's in place for St. Charles and the east bank of Plaquemines Parish. Isaac could make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane in New Orleans during the anniversary.

Obviously devastating during that storm, 1,700 people died in that entire area, and about 1,300 for New Orleans. Neighborhoods completely destroyed. At one point 85 percent of that city was underwater.

It's absolutely amazing to fly over as we did by chopper many times to see. It was most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history. The Army Corps, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as Rob was pointing out, they have been spending $10 billion trying to strengthen the defenses in case of a storm like that. Of course, you know, this will be the first real test to see how that money has been spent and whether it was well spent and now well built.

More about New Orleans's storm readiness than retired Lieutenant Russel Honore. He was in charge, of course, of the Katrina disaster in 2005. He wrote a book called "Survival". He is in Baton Rouge this morning.

It was nice to see you, sir. Thank you for talking with us. We appreciate it. I know you've been concerned because, of course, Katrina was Category 5. We're talking now about Category 1.

And I think for a lot of people they think, well, Category 1, that's certainly not as strong and not as serious potentially, right?

LT. GENERAL RUSSEL HONORE, U.S. ARMY (RETIRED): Absolutely. But a Category 1 packing high Category 1 winds with maybe 10 to 14 inches of rain if the storm lingers around in a low lying area, which is coastal Louisiana and coastal Mississippi, is still a disaster, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: I'm looking right now at sort of a side by side comparison of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 and what we're seeing in tropical storm probably soon to be Hurricane Isaac for 2012. You really see a difference in the path.

You see a sharp right hook that Katrina made to turn it into New Orleans. What they are predicting now seems to be a smoother slope into that city.

Big question of course, as Rob was pointing out to us is the state of levees. I mean, they look great, lots of money spent but you don't know until you know, right?

HONORE: Absolutely. They've $14 billion of federal money was committed for the levee improvement. They've spent $10 billion. They have about $4 billion left to spend in improving and armoring the levees and completing improvements down at Plaquemines Parish.

They also replaced all the pumps, Soledad. When we went into Katrina, the pumps dated back to 1936. We now have modern pumps and a quote from the Corps of Engineers. We have the largest drainage pump in the world on the west bank in New Orleans.

It's functional and operational. All that being said, people need to be cautious because anything built by man can be destroyed by mother nature. People still need to listen to local officials, if you're outside of the levee system, you need to be evacuating today.

O'BRIEN: So let me ask you a final question about organization. You talked about the pumps. You talked about the rebuilding of that, but in terms of preparedness by the city, an organization by the city and all of that entire gulf coast region, what's different today than seven years ago?

HONORE: I think the local leadership is a lot more pro active. They talk about a fix more than category. One of the issues of politicians get into is they start preaching category of storm and people go into the data bank say it's just a Category 1.

Politicians coming out more and more and saying, this area will flood, you need to move by a certain time. People without rides, you need to go to this location and be prepared to evacuate. Evacuate your animals.

If they are going to do a contra-flow out of New Orleans, they are telling people when that will start. So I think there's more specific information going out about the potential effects of the storm as opposed to just talking about category.

People need to listen if their area is projected to be in a flood zone or it will flood based on rain or from tidal surge. You know we lose more homes every year to flooding than we do any other event in America.

O'BRIEN: Lieutenant General Russel Honore is now retired, but still working hard by my estimation. It's nice to see you, sir. Thank you for being with us this morning. We certainly appreciate it.

All of this has had a very big effect on the RNC. I mean, I'm looking out the window here and it's very, very gloomy, but Tampa really missed any big hit, which we were talking about last week.

ROLAND MARTIN, HOST, "WASHINGTON WATCH WITH ROLAND MARTIN": People are actually taking a more assertive step to move. Since Katrina, they say, no sense playing around with it.

O'BRIEN: But here, of course, at the RNC, you know, there is an element of PR that is part of the equation, you can't -- this is a celebration. This is a launch. I mean, how devastating in terms of messaging is this storm for you?

CURRY: I think the important thing to remind people is this is actually about nominating, having Mitt Romney as the official nominee so we can get on with spending our money and campaigning. This is a business meeting first and foremost and we'll get done --

O'BRIEN: So the business is fine --

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But the reality says the convention is after '68 or '72 has been about selling a message to the country. We're now in a split screen mode.

Our top story is understandably justifiably a hurricane hitting the gulf perhaps. So this convention already has been affected enormously by the storm and will be the rest of the week.

They have difficult choices to make on schedule. But regardless of that, the country's attention is divided in a way that it is, we would be sitting here normally now with childhood friends of Mitt Romney --

O'BRIEN: So it's a loss of opportunity to own the messaging.

RYAN LIZZA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: If you think about these general elections, three big moments, picking the VP, convention and the debates. Those are three moments when the most Americans tune in and to the extent as Ron says, we have a split screen and people focus on something else. That's not good news for Romney.

O'BRIEN: And attention focus too, right, I mean, there is -- are people sitting in a room navigating, OK, what's the storm doing over here so our messaging is appropriate and doesn't come across as unsympathetic or non-caring, et cetera.

CURRY: Well, Floridians are getting to see Republican leadership. Governor Scott stepped out on Sunday before anyone else and said I'm canceling my first two days of event. That's leadership in a swing state.

BROWNSTEIN: Test for the president too. If it is New Orleans seven years after President Bush failed the test.

O'BRIEN: A test where we've seen a track record before so it will be much to compare and contrast to. We have to look at some of the other stories that are making news today. Christine Romans has that for us. Hi, Christine. Good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Soledad. Authorities in Saudi Arabia foiling a terror plot with links to al Qaeda. Government officials say they busted extremist terror cells in Riyadh and Jedah.

Eight suspected militants, most of them from Yemen were arrested. The Interior Ministry says the suspects were in contact with quote, "that deviant organization abroad." It's a term the government uses to refer to al Qaeda.

Two NATO troops are dead in the latest insider shooting in Afghanistan. An Afghan army soldier opened fire on those two soldiers in Eastern Afghanistan. Coalition forces returned fire killing the soldier.

It's the latest in a series of green on blue attacks against NATO led troops. Officials say at least 42 have been killed by Afghan forces or as insurgents disguised as soldiers or police.

A swarm of hundreds of quakes near the California/Mexico border, the strongest a 5.5 magnitude jolt. The form centered near Brawley. It's a town about a 100 miles east of San Diego. A seismologist saying by last night, they recorded about 300 quakes. One family in Brawley, California got several jolts on camera.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The house is coming down. The house is coming down.


ROMANS: This is the most seismic activity in the area since the 1970s. No injuries. Only minor damage reported. Soledad, the toddler terrified. The teenager jumping up and down.

O'BRIEN: I got to tell you. I have been in those. I hate those. Those are terrifying. You know, they are really, really scary to be in a strong shock like that it is an awful feeling. So, yes, the toddler is exactly right. The teenager -- you know, you know.

BROWNSTEIN: Even worse than the traffic in L.A., the earth quakes.

O'BRIEN: All right, Christine, thank you.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, not just New Orleans, emergency officials are urging Mississippi residents, prepare now in case Isaac strikes along the north gulf coast this week.

Up next, Robert Latham, he is the executive director of Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. He's got the very latest for us on what they are doing in his state. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. Mississippi is preparing for Tropical Storm Isaac to hit this week. Thousands of people living along the coast have been told to leave their homes. The center of the storm could make landfall late on Tuesday or Wednesday as a hurricane.

Mississippi coast is within that projected path. It could hit seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf region, including parts of Mississippi.

Governor Phil Bryant there has declared a state of emergency and a FEMA liaison is already working with local authorities on the ground. Robert Latham is the executive of director of Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. He is with us this morning.

It's nice to see you, sir. Thank you for talking with us. What's your biggest concern, your number one concern right now looking at those maps, looking at the projections and listening to the weather?

ROBERT LATHAM, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, MISSISSIPPI EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: I think Soledad, our main concern is that even with the recent shift in the track more to the west, that puts the Mississippi Gulf Coast on the worst side of the storm to receive significant storm surge.

The potential heavy rains of 10 to 16 inches and low-lying areas in Hancock County, Jackson County and Harrison County and those living in low-lying areas are going to be subject to that flooding.

So our concern right is that people just need to make sure and take the opportunity today to prepare themselves and their families to evacuate should the need arise.

O'BRIEN: So tell me a little bit about where you're staging your relief efforts. I mean, right now, you've got to put things in so they are close, but at the same time they don't get stuck if a storm hits. And of course, the path is quite uncertain, what are you doing?

LATHAM: Well, absolutely. I mean, we learned during Katrina that we've got to put supplies close to our coast or areas that could be impacted, but not put them in harm's way. We're sending supplies forward today to the Camp Shelby area, which is about 60 miles off the gulf coast.

So they'll be close enough to get to the three coastal counties quickly after landfall, if necessary. We are also working with our FEMA partners' liaison to backfill those resources and commodities once our stock is gone.

O'BRIEN: Right. I know you've changed some of the infrastructure as well and feeling more confident about that. Robert Latham is the executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

Thank you, sir, for talking with us. We're going to keep checking in with you obviously as we get more news about exactly where the storm is heading. Thank you for your time. I know you're swamped today.

LATHAM: Thank you, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT -- you bet. Still ahead, complaints about the campaigns of Mitt Romney and President Obama.

Up next, "Time" magazine's political columnist, Joe Klein says, the two are both evading the issues. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're going to chat with him straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. That's what it looks like inside the forum where all the speeches will take place today. Welcome back, everybody.

The Republican National Convention begins here today in Tampa, but it will be a short one. It's only going to last 10 minutes. The chairman, Reince Priebus is going to gabble at 2 p.m. Eastern.

Officials are concerned about the effects of Tropical Storm Isaac. A shortened event could be a problem for Governor Romney who is embroiled in a particularly ugly campaign with President Obama.

"Time" magazine's political columnist, Joe Klein has covered the past 10 presidential elections and one of his recent articles, he had a scathing observation about the current battle between the president and Governor Romney saying this.

"The missing piece is what each would do going forward. You can't have a substantive debate without substance and this has been the most vapid, vaporous campaigns of the 10 presidential races I've covered."

Joe Klein is with us this morning. So tell us what you really think. Why do you feel like it's vapid?

JOE KLEIN, COLUMNIST, "TIME": There's no substance. I mean, we've both been watching over the summer. I mean, the Obama campaign has been almost entirely negative and the Romney campaign has been almost entirely filled with platitudes, without any really -- any real detail about what they would do going forward.

O'BRIEN: And some would argue if you don't have detail, we've seen this argument certainly around the Medicare issue, right. You don't have detail, but no one can jump in and attack your detail. You can win on a sort of a spin versus having to defend a plan.

KLEIN: Well, the worse part of it is when you do have detail, as the president does with his Medicare proposal, what Ryan does with his Medicare proposal can be easily distorted by the other side.

I mean, you know, a lot of the things that the Romney campaign says are cuts to Medicare are things that are efficiencies that are going to make the program better that Ryan agreed with in his budget.

O'BRIEN: Right. So wouldn't that argue for then the details? Don't let anybody have any ammunition to say we're going to cut Medicare?

KLEIN: And you know what? I'll tell you what. We are a big part of the problem.

O'BRIEN: The media?

KLEIN: We in the media. Yes, we are, because we don't do substance very well especially on TV.

LIZZA: Joe, can I disagree a little bit? We know if Mitt Romney wins, we know what Republicans in Congress want to do. We just want an auto pen president. The Republican Party right now is a congressionally led party.

And I think Romney put an exclamation point on that by picking Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan's budget, while not as detailed as it could be, we have a sense of where he wants to go though the candidates aren't out there with specifics, don't we know where they want to go and how is the press not pointing that out?

KLEIN: The public doesn't and that's a big problem. It's a big problem with the Obama presidency since day one. You know, as I travel around the country, which I do a lot, you ask people what's in the affordable care act, they have no idea.

They have no idea what's in Dodd-Frank, the financial regulatory reform bill. They have no idea what was in the stimulus until the road crews started showing up. They did know about the auto bailout, though.

BROWNSTEIN: Whose fault is that?

KLEIN: Obama's.

BROWNSTEIN: I'm with Ryan though on that. I think obviously there are details that are missing and the focus of the campaign has mostly been on kind of personal attacks back and forth, but we know enough to know that we have a very divergent direction -- the widest since at least 1964.

The way politics works now, it's much more of a team sport than when either one of us began covering it. The ability even of a president and the party mainstream consensus is diminished.

I mean, if you look at the Ryan direction, which I think Romney would embrace, repealing Dodd-Frank, repealing the Affordable Care Act, repealing the EPA's ability to regulate carbon versus what we know and what is a lot more I think on the Obama side we don't know. You're still talking about probably the widest since Goldwater and Johnson.

KLEIN: I'm not just sure that I know that Romney would go in that direction. You go in that direction to a certain extent, but I think there will be a civil war in the Republican Party if Romney wins. And there's going to be a civil war in the Republican Party if Romney loses. MARTIN: Here's the biggest thing that Joe say is important. You guys keep saying we know. Do they know? No, no, no, no. We sit here we live it, we breathe it, but the reality is when somebody makes a comment whether it's about a birth certificate, a dog on top of a car, all of a sudden, that's where all the questions are.

You know, I look at some of the interviews lately, not only the candidates, their surrogates, when you say they're devoid of actually pressing people on the critical issues, they're missing. And so we can't just sit here and say we know. The fact of the matter is, we don't matter, the folks voting matter.

BROWNSTEIN: That is not unique to 2012.

MARTIN: I'm not saying it is.

BROWNSTEIN: They are always elusive in presidential campaigns for the mass of voters. But I think there is a sense of direction that both of these candidates have been given. It is very different about the way they were taking --

KLEIN: What's unique is we know the fiscal cliff is coming. So you know who's ever elected is going to have to deal with that.

O'BRIEN: All right, we have to take a short break. Joe Klein, it's nice to have you with us.

KLEIN: It's good to be here.

O'BRIEN: Appreciate it. We're going to see if maybe he'll stick around with us.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, we're talking about Isaac, too, spinning away from Florida, churning into the northern gulf. Emergency officials are now urging residents to prepare. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate is going to join us up live.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back right after this.