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Showdown in West Virginia; Rising Cost of Education; San Francisco Smokeout; Dump the Pump; Camping Costs; China Earthquake

Aired May 12, 2008 - 12:01   ET


GERRI WILLIS, CO-HOST: The latest on the showdown in West Virginia. The rising cost of education -- find out where candidates stand on the issue. Then, when gas prices lead to lifestyle changes. And why some stores in San Francisco are fuming over a proposed ban on cigarette sales.
ISSUE #1 is your economy, ISSUE #1 starts right now.

Welcome to ISSUE #1. I'm Gerri Willis. Ali Velshi will be along in just a minute.

But first, West Virginia, where the Democratic candidates are vying for votes ahead of tomorrow's primary.

CNN's Sean Callebs looks at how jobs and gas prices are driving voters.


SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): He may be looking more and more like the Democratic nominee, but in West Virginia it's Barack Obama who's playing catch-up.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe in our ability to perfect this nation.

CALLEBS: Here, in this labor-intensive blue collar state, Hillary Clinton's message plays well.

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to get rid of any provision in the tax code that gives a penny to anybody who exports a job out of West Virginia.

CALLEBS: And at the American Legion lodge in Huntington.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She's a fighter.

CALLEBS: You'll find a group who may not agree on issues, but all want to see the next president help stimulate their state's economy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: West Virginia has a lot of assets. We educate our people and then we export them because we don't have jobs.

CALLEBS: The latest census figure shows West Virginia ranks 48th in household income, ahead of only Mississippi and Louisiana. Steel, coal and other industries have seen jobs erode here. The population is dwindling as well. But they say bills just keep going up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The cost of health care is out of sight. Just like gasoline.

CALLEBS: In West Virginia, gas tops $3.85 a gallon. The plea from candidates from people like Charity Conner (ph) find a way to put more money in her pocket.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is not good. I'm a stay at home mother of two children and my husband is the only income. And this is very hard on us. Gasoline, and not just gasoline, groceries, clothing, everything's went up.

CALLEBS: And as you may imagine from guys who gather at the American Legion, America's armed forces are on their minds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the problems with West Virginians are the problems that we have all over the country. And that's, we're trying to build a nation overseas in Iraq, when we ought to be trying to build this nation and rebuild this nation.


CALLEBS: And in about 15 minutes, West Virginia voters are going to have a chance to hear from Barack Obama. He'll be speaking in Charleston, not terribly far from where we are now. Later on this evening, Hillary Clinton will be in the town of Fairmont, in northwest Virginia.

And without question, Gerri, the issue on the minds of people in West Virginia, the economy. What they say is they would like to have the next president find a way to spark this state's sluggish economy -- Gerri.

WILLIS: It sounds like a full schedule.

Former Georgia congressman Bob Barr announced last hour that he'll enter the running as a Libertarian candidate, Sean. Will this have any affect on the race?

CALLEBS: Well, firstly, he has to get the party's nomination, and that's supposed to take place May 22nd. And by all accounts, it would clearly have an impact on John McCain.

Remember, Bob Barr was a very powerful GOP congressman when he was serving from Georgia. He was one of those who spearheaded the effort to impeach President Clinton. And in the end, it was Barr who walked away from the GOP, saying he simply got frustrated and didn't think the GOP was doing enough.

WILLIS: Wow, lots of twists and turns in this race. Sean, thank you for that.

ALI VELSHI, CO-HOST: Well, in West Virginia and beyond, one of the keys to improving the jobs outlook is education. Each presidential candidate has a unique approach to education. Joining me now with a look at them is Morgan Felchner with "US News & World Report."

Morgan, thank you for being with us.

Let's first look at this No Child Left Behind. Almost $25 billion budgeted for this program that was introduced by the Bush administration.

Where do the candidates stand on this, and what do they propose they would do?

MORGAN FELCHNER, "US NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Well, right now, the first thing to note on education policy is that the candidates have been keeping pretty quiet on it. We've got some general ideas, and they've given us some general thoughts about what they would do, but we don't have specifics of anybody's policies.

So, on No Child Left Behind, Hillary Clinton gets really large cheers whenever she goes out and speaks because she says that we're going to get rid of No Child Left Behind. She seems to want to get rid of it all together. With Obama, on the other hand, he definitely wants to reform No Child Left Behind, but he hasn't really given us many clues as to what exactly that means. McCain also wants to tweak No Child Left Behind, but he, too, has been even quieter on the education front than Obama and Clinton.

VELSHI: Hillary Clinton does want to increase the base pay for teachers. Barack Obama takes a view on that that doesn't seem to be in sync with what either the unions feel or traditional Democrat practices of paying teachers. He wants them to be paid on more of a merit basis.

FELCHNER: Right. Now, with Hillary Clinton, she's in favor of bonuses and performance-based pay on a district-wide basis. Now, that's more in line with the typical Democratic policy. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is in favor of individual performance pay, which is more in line with the merit pay that the Republicans typically support.

Both of those things are a little bit questionable. With the district-wide performance pay, it has not proven all that successful. With individual merit pay, it's largely untested. So both of those different policies could cause -- could cause those Democrats some problems.

VELSHI: And obviously one of the biggest concerns when it comes to education now is not just in primary school or high school, but it's the cost of completing a college education. Where do the candidates stand on what they might do to help people out who need to pay for college?

FELCHNER: Well, just last week we had President Bush sign the emergency funding for -- funding bill for college students. Both candidates would like to give a tax credit. Hillary Clinton's would be $3,500, Barack Obama's would be $4,000, and John McCain has been relatively quiet on this. He hasn't -- he hasn't brought it up.

But all of the candidates have been talking about wanting to make college affordable. And with college costs up more than $1,000, it's an issue that's really kind of resonating with people across the country.

VELSHI: All right. Morgan, good to talk to you.

Morgan Felchner is a political deputy editor at "US News & World Report."

Thanks for joining us.

Time now to weigh in on today's "Quick Vote" question, and that means it's time to check in with Poppy Harlow from

Hello, Poppy.


Well, we're keeping on that education theme, coming off of Mother's Day. But unfortunately not great news out there for parents these days.

The economy's struggling, the U.S. dollar weakening. Investments are not what they once were. And the price of college tuition is soaring at an even faster rate than inflation. The result may have you wondering about your future, your kids' future.

Here's our "Quick Vote" question today.

Will you be able to afford your children's education? Yes, no, or maybe you're not sure right now?

Weigh in on We'll bring you the results later in the show.

But it's a hard time for parents out there, definitely.

VELSHI: All right. Well, we'll check in on that.

Thanks, Poppy.

WILLIS: The slumping economy, well, it could be manmade. Why women aren't feeling the pinch as much as men.

Then, how high gas prices are driving some commuters to change the way they get to work.

And don't forget to send us your money questions. The address,


WILLIS: A government survey shows that in the last six months, women gained nearly 300,000 jobs, while men lost nearly 700,000. "Business Week" economics editor Peter Coy has written about it, and he's joining us now from "Business Week" in New York.

Peter, a fascinating story, first of all.


WILLIS: I think this catches most people by surprise, and I guess the reason is not about women being better employees or more on time. Why is this happening?

COY: Well, in a nutshell, it's because of the changes in the nature of the economy. We've seen declines in sectors of the economy that tend to employ more men, construction and manufacturing, while we've seen continued job growth in sectors that are more favorable, more heavily dominated by women, such as education and health care. It's as simply as that, really.

WILLIS: Well, you know, you say that this isn't really all good news for women. And in fact, three-quarters of the people earning over $100,000 every year are fellows. They're men.

COY: That's right.

WILLIS: You know, there's still a pay gap here. And in fact, you say it's growing.

COY: Well, over the past year it has grown. And that could be a couple of things.

It could be that some of the men who are losing jobs are the lower paid men, which would tend to raise the average for the ones who remain working. Also, some of the jobs that are being created for women are not particularly high-paying jobs -- things like home health care aids, which pay very little. There's more of those.

WILLIS: OK. Should men be going into feels that have been dominated by women, where jobs are actually growing, like teaching, health care?

COY: Well, that's -- I think that's what I would do if I were out of work and couldn't find a job in my chosen profession. But, you know, it's hard.

First of all, nursing, a lot of men just don't want to be a nurse, for example. Or it could be they're in a part of the country where it's just hard to make a move. You know, you have to uproot the whole family. And so they tend to maybe stay unemployed a little longer than women.

WILLIS: You know, I sort of joked about, you know, women being better employees. But the reality is, the fact that men are doing worse in this recession is really bad for American families, right?

COY: It is. This is not good news for women, by any means. Very often, you know, it will be a man and woman in the same household and the man loses work. The woman is often the one left trying to hold things together, not only making the money, but taking care of buying the groceries and the daily expenses. So the feeling -- the women's stress level from this economic slump is actually higher than male stress level, according to some of the recent research.

WILLIS: Wow. Wow, that's not good news.

Are the presidential candidates finding a way to play this? It seems to me this is an issue they might want to exploit since we're in the silly season here.

COY: Right. Well, you would think so, but it's a hard one to play, because, first of all, you don't want to make it seem like you're sympathizing with the men at the expense of women. And the second thing is, you know, women are facing really hard times. So what they're telling -- we talked to all three of the campaigns, and they all said the same thing, which is they're trying to come up with policies that will benefit both men and women.

WILLIS: All right.

Do you think that rising educational levels for women is playing into this at all? I mean, we have seen that, and it could possibly have some role in this. Or is this simply an economic story?

COY: Well, it's both. It's a short-term economics story, the reasons we've talked about. There's also long-term issues for men.

As you said, women are graduating from college at higher rates than men now, which is very bad for men in the long run, because this is a knowledge economy where education is more important than ever. So, men are going to really have to increase their rate of education if they expect to continue to thrive in the knowledge economy.

WILLIS: Peter Coy, great story in "Business Week."

COY: Thank you.

WILLIS: We appreciate your help today.

Thank you.

COY: Thank you. OK. Bye-bye.

VELSHI: Well, could summer spell rebound for the U.S. economy? Find out what you need to know, what you need to keep an eye on, so that we know when things are going to bounce back.

You're watching ISSUE #1. Stay with us. This is CNN.


VELSHI: I won't be the first person to tell you that this economy is turning down or has turned down. The question you really want the answer to is, when is it going to turn around?

So, to talk about it, I'm joined by Janice Revell. She's the senior writer at "Money."

And Janice you've put together this great article where you've said there are certain indicators about where things are going in the economy. And that would be useful to look at.

So, when we first -- when we look overall at whether the economy's going to turn around, you gave me a really boring indicator that I've got to look at. It's important, but it's boring -- business sentiment.

JANICE REVELL, SR. WRITER, "MONEY": Business sentiment.

VELSHI: What is that?

Yes, I know, It doesn't get the headlines as much. Consumer sentiment seems to get all of the headlines.

VELSHI: Right.

REVELL: But business sentiment is actually a leading indicator of consumer sentiment. Businesses sentiment is basically how businesses feel about their prospects in the next six to 12 months. And if they feel good about their prospects, they're going to hire, they're going to expand. The reverse, of course, is if they feel bad, they're going to be laying off.

So it's really important to look at it.

VELSHI: So the key here -- and this sort of -- this leads into the next thing -- is that when businesses sort of invest and feel good about it, things go well. We were just talking about jobs with Peter Coy over at "Business Week." If you want to look at where jobs are turning around, again, you're saying look at the stock market.


REVELL: Look at the stock market. It's not a perfect indicator, but the stock market is a forward indicator. So, if you happen to be in a particular industry or in a particular company that's publicly traded, the stock price tells you what the market thinks your company's going to be doing six months from now, 12 months from now.

And if the price is going down, that says the market says, you know what? We don't like what we see here. You guys have to get your profits up. That often translates into layoffs.

VELSHI: We look at housing, obviously. This is the thing that got us into this mess in many cases.

REVELL: Right.

VELSHI: When you're looking at -- there's so many things about housing. There's so many numbers that come out.

REVELL: Right.

VELSHI: Which is the one that you want to look at to tell us whether we're getting out of this housing rut?

REVELL: Yes, I think by far the one you want to look at is inventory. This comes down to supply and demand fundamentals.

What you want to look at is some months of inventory that are on the market. Six months is the sweet spot. Anything above that means that we have a glut in housing and prices have to come down. Right now, Ali, we're at 10 months nationally. That's way out of whack with anything we've seen in the past. It means that prices have got a long way to come down.

VELSHI: And when you're reading articles about this, often the thing that's buried at the bottom, you look at these headline numbers about how it's the worth month since the year 8.

REVELL: Right.

VELSHI: You know, but you want to see whether the inventory's growing or shrinking.

Another one, when we talk about, when will it get easier, when will it get better to borrow money, this is one of those tough ones. You're talking about something called credit spreads.

REVELL: We're talking about credit spreads. I think the TED spread, which is really, really technical.


REVELL: But what you want to do essentially is look at the rate that banks are charging each other to borrow money, because the more they're charging each other to borrow money, the more they're going to charge you, the consumer. And that's a rate called LIBOR.

VELSHI: Right.

REVELL: It's available basically everywhere. Right now, again, LIBOR is really, really high. It's way out of whack with what it normally is compared to the treasury rate. So that's got to come down.

It will come down as the credit crisis unwinds. But again, this is probably going to be a long, slow slog.

VELSHI: A lot of people have loans that are tied to LIBOR. It's a conversation that Gerri and I often have that we should talk more about.

REVELL: Right.

VELSHI: Janice, good to see you. Thank you for being with us.

REVELL: Thank you.

VELSHI: Some indicators about how to determine whether the economy is getting better or worse. All right. Fuming in San Francisco. We're going to talk about a change in something in San Francisco, a ban on tobacco sales. Could it spell the end for some businesses? We'll speak to the city's mayor on his controversial plan.

You're watching ISSUE #1 on CNN.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've been here 20 years, and taking cigarettes out of here would make it hard to be here another 20.


WILLIS: Prescription drugs and cigarette sales under one roof. A conflict of interest? The mayor of San Francisco on his city's controversial proposal, live in just a moment.

First, though, a check of the day's other headlines with T.J. Holmes in Atlanta.


WILLIS: In this already weak economy, some pharmacies in San Francisco fear another threat to their bottom line, a potential ban on cigarette sales in their stores. It could be the first such ban in a U.S. city.

Dan Simon reports.


DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): San Francisco is known for its cable cars, Walgreen's for pharmacies. Now the city and its pharmacy chains are set to collide. The mayor here wants an ordinance banning them from selling cigarettes. His public health director urged him to push the measure.

DR. MITCH KATZ, SAN FRANCISCO HEALTH DIRECTOR: You go to pharmacies to get medicines to make you better. Therefore, it's the wrong message to sell tobacco.

SIMON: Most independent pharmacists agree tobacco has no place on their shelves.

ELAINE CHAN, PHARMACY OWNER: Where does that promote good health? Where is that being a positive attitude towards good health?

SIMON: But cigarettes are legal. And stores like Walgreen's and Rite Aid see themselves as a one-stop shop for customer.

(on camera): Walgreen's says cigarettes make up an insignificant portion of its overall sales. What concerns them is how a ban would impact other sales, because, of course, people who buy cigarettes will oftentimes pick up other products as well.

(voice over): Rite Aid had the same concern. Smokers like Jan Knabe may pose a problem to the health of their sales.

JAN KNABE, SMOKER: If they limit what I can get there, I may not shop there anymore.

SIMON: But it's the small number of independent pharmacies that sell tobacco that would feel the greatest pain.

It's a small corner store. We've been here 20 years, and taking cigarettes out of here would be hard to be here another 20.

SIMON: If the city passes the ban, grocery stores and big box chains like Costco with pharmacies would be exempt. Walgreen's says that's not fair. Some critics also see a contradiction by not pointing the finger at other health hazards, like sugary foods and liquor.

Supporters are ready for the debate.

KATZ: I think the big difference is that there is no safe amount of smoking. There's no safe amount of tobacco.

SIMON: Smokers these days have never had it so tough. San Francisco might make it tougher.

Dan Simon, CNN, San Francisco.


VELSHI: And we're going to speak to the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, about this new initiative and whether or not he thinks it might be bad for business or it might drive businesses away from San Francisco. We'll talk about him -- we talk to him in just a few minutes about that.

And coming up, high gas prices have driven some people to change their morning commute. But the pain at the pump isn't stopping some RV enthusiasts from hitting the road.

Tell us what's on your mind. We're answering your money questions. The address is



Joining us now live from San Francisco is the city's mayor, Gavin Newsom.

Mayor Newsom, thanks very much. We just explained to our viewers about this whole situation about banning cigarettes from pharmacies. First of all, tell me broadly, where do you want to ban cigarette sales from in San Francisco? MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM, SAN FRANCISCO: Well, we simply want to do, just as you stated, ban cigarette sales from pharmacies. So why should we be selling in our public health centers, which is how we construe our pharmacies and how pharmacies themselves describe their profession, why should we be sending a mixed message as it relates to selling on one hand tobacco-free products, non-prescription nicotine replacement products and then on the other hand have big advertisements and big cartons of cigarettes? We think that should be absolved by simply requiring that when the annual permit comes up to sell tobacco products, that that permit restrict the tobacco products from being sold in pharmacies throughout our city.

VELSHI: Is that anywhere that sells cigarettes and prescription drugs in the same place, if it's in a grocery store, it's in a Costco?

NEWSOM: Not yet. I think that's inevitable. But we're just going to simply focus on the pharmacies. Look, the reality is, the vast majority of independently-owned pharmacists have already moved in this direction overwhelmingly. So, in fact, 78 percent of independent pharmacists across the state of California, as an example, no longer sell tobacco products because they understand it sends the wrong message. But 94 percent of the chains do. And so at the end of the day, this really is going to target the chains. It's not intended to, it's just they haven't voluntarily done what I think is the right thing.

VELSHI: What do you make of the argument that people come into these stores sometimes to buy cigarettes and then they end up buying a whole lot of stuff. So by eliminating the ability to buy cigarettes, some store keepers are saying, and some of the chains, Walgreens saying, you know, we're going to lose business.

NEWSOM: Yes, they've said that, but they haven't been able to quantify that. In fact, there was a big independent study done -- we've done a lot of research on this. It's not ready, fire, aim as it relates to this legislation. It's very thoughtful. And this has been an effort, by the way, that's gone back 30 years, culminating finally in cities like ours, and we hope states across this country will do the same.

But 88 percent plus of those that responded to a survey recently looked at the impact of their voluntary restricts as it relates to tobacco product and found no reduction in sale whatsoever. In fact, some saw an increase of sales as people noted the fact that they weren't selling those products. So the reality is, that's an assertion. It hasn't necessarily been proven. I have great confidence in expectation in the Walgreens of the world and others to do quite well in spite of the fact they're not selling something that is the number one preventible -- rather leading cause of preventible death in the United States. Why would they want to do that? Why would they want to be associated?

VELSHI: Anything that proves that by limiting the sale of cigarettes at pharmacies, fewer cigarettes are going to be sold in general or fewer people are going to smoke? It strikes me if you're a smoker, you'll dig six inches into the ground and bury a $10 if you want cigarettes. I mean is this really going to stop people from smoking? What's the overall aim of this and do you think it will be beneficial?

NEWSOM: Just Common sense. I mean we restricted smoking from vending machines. We restrict smoking from community clinics and public health hospitals. I mean that's common sense. No one has criticized that. No one's come back saying, my gosh, we should bring cigarettes back into public hospitals and community clinics.

It seems to make some sense that pharmacies are selling public health solutions. They shouldn't be supporting something that is the number one cause of public health problems that is costing every single person that's watching here today, whether they know it or not, they're paying the price, higher taxes, higher fees, higher fines, associated with our neglect of aggressively addressing the number one public health problem in our country that's preventable and that's tobacco use.

So I think this thing will bear fruit at time and I think people will look back and go, boy, this made ample sense. I haven't gotten a lot of criticism, again, except for the paternalistic aspect of it. Big government, here it is, government deciding what to do. And I get that. But in this case, I think we're going to be OK. I think it makes sense.

VELSHI: All right, Mayor Gavin Newsom, we will keep an eye on that and see how it progresses. Thanks for joining us.

NEWSOM: Thank you.

GERRI WILLIS, CNN ANCHOR: Gas prices hit a fifth straight record high today. AAA says a gallon of regular unleaded is now $3.72. There's a little bit of good news on the energy front. The price of oil today retreated slightly to $125 from last week's record close of nearly $127 a barrel. With prices like that, it's no big surprise some of you are changing the way you get to work. Allan Chernoff joins us live from a hub of commuter activity, that's the New Jersey Transit Station in Short Hills, New Jersey.

Hello, Allan.


Well, you know, with gas prices just soaring every single day, a growing number of commuters are leaving their cars here in the parking lot and they're actually waiting on the platforms, waiting for a ride to work on the train. It's a growing trend throughout the entire country. Let's have a look at what's happening.


CHERNOFF, (voice over): The 9:00 train to Trenton, New Jersey. After 17 years of driving to work, Eric Scott is now a daily rider. A change that's saving him $300 a month.

ERIC SCOTT, COMMUTER: In today's economy, you know, every penny counts. So I'm just glad I made that switch.

CHERNOFF: Joanne Ralston became a train commuter in February to avoid a 60-mile drive.

JOANNE RALSTON, COMMUTER: It's a huge savings for me. It's easily $200 a month for me.

CHERNOFF: As gas prices have soared, a growing number of commuters are getting on board and leaving the car in the garage. Rail lines across the country are reporting record ridership.

Up 15 percent in the suburbs of Seattle, 13 percent in Miami and better than 5 percent in the New Jersey communities surrounding New York during the first quarter.

RICHARD SARLES, EXEC. DIR., NJ TRANSIT: The buzz is, you know, get ready for more passengers. They're coming and you've got to prepare for it.

CHERNOFF: Urban rail transit is gaining as well. In car-loving Los Angeles, Dallas, and Minneapolis.

It's so busy, there's no seat for you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can live with that compared to gas price. I definitely can live with that.


CHERNOFF: Last year, as gas prices were climbing, Americans took 10 billion rides on mass transit, the largest number in 50 years. Now with the national average for gas approaching $4 a gallon, more and more commuters are listening to the conductor when he says, all aboard.


WILLIS: Well, Allan, I can tell you that my train is crowded. Tell me, though, is a train really the green choice? Is it environmentally proper?

CHERNOFF: Oh, no question about it. The American Transportation Association, American Public Transportation Association, estimates that we are saving $37 billion tons of carbon dioxide, preventing those emissions, every single year by taking mass transit. So it is a very, very green thing to do. Much more important, in fact, than changing the light bulbs in your house or adding insulation, for example. Very important.

WILLIS: Wow, well that makes me feel better about myself I guess. Tell me about the bus lines, though? Are they also seeing some benefit here?

CHERNOFF: Long distance bus lines are seeing big increases. But within cities, urban bus lines, the gains are much more moderate. The reason is, a lot of people who ride those buses, well, they always do it. They, in many cases, don't even have cars. It's the longer- distance rides where people are really taking the trains and the buses and especially now, because of the gas saving.

WILLIS: OK. What about the transit services? What are they doing to accommodate all this extra traffic though? Because, look, I've seen people stand up on the train now all the time and it's really uncomfortable.

CHERNOFF: It's a growing problem. In fact, right along this line over here, here in New Jersey, there is one tunnel that goes between New Jersey and Manhattan, taking commuters on the rail into Manhattan. The plans are right now to build a second tunnel, a huge project planned, and the money is being put together right now to build a tunnel under the Hudson River into Manhattan just for trains on New Jersey Transit. There are huge projects already underway in Dallas, Denver, other cities as well. So there is definitely going to be major expansion.

WILLIS: Major expansion and major taxes, too, I'm sure. Thanks for that, Allan.

VELSHI: All right. Well, from the deep fryer to your car, one company is a leading force in getting vegetable oil into your gas tank to help you power your car.

And the Help Desk is standing by to answer your money questions. The address is

Stay with us. You're watching CNN.


VELSHI: All right, take a walk with me down memory lane. Remember piling into a giant RV for those summer road trips when you were a little kid? Well, campers are still popular, but the price of gas certainly isn't what it used to be. So why aren't more people leaving the RV in the driveway? CNN's John Zarrella reports.


JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT, (voice over): For many Americans, it wouldn't be a vacation without the camper or RV. And it's not something they'll give up even at eight miles to the gallon. C.C. Bittner is thinking about selling some of his other toys for extra cash so he and his wife can stay on the road.

C.C. BITTNER, FUEL PRICES CHANGED TRAVEL PLANS: We're even thinking about, you know, downsizing all of that and so we can realize our dream.

ZARRELLA: Last year it cost Bittner $600 to drive round trip between Florida and Ohio. This year, $800 just to get here.

BITTNER: We're packed for next year already.

ZARRELLA: For 35 years, Dick Whalen has owned this RV park on Florida's west coast. He's optimistic.

DICK WHALEN, RV PARK OWNER: If you've got $300,000, $400,000 invested in an RV, you're going to use it.

ZARRELLA: Even with high gas prices, Whalen says this is still an inexpensive vacation. A space in the RV park costs as little as $44 a day or $600 for the month. That's Bill Jesse's feeling.

BILL JESSE, RV OWNER: We'll keep going on vacation. That's -- tomorrow I may never be here.

ZARRELLA: But Jesse and his brother-in-law, who have been bringing their RVs to Florida for 20 years, say they've never seen so many empty spaces.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, not this bad. Not this bad.

ZARRELLA: Many camper and RV owners say they're not giving deposits to reserve spaces for next year. With the price of gas and diesel, they figure there will be plenty available.


ZARRELLA: Now park officials tell us they haven't seen a drop off in business yet, but they also say everybody is talking about the price of gasoline. And some of the RV owners and camper owners we talked to said, you know what, if we could sell them, we would, but there just aren't any buyers out there.


VELSHI: Hey, John, from the people you've been talking to, do they typically drive their RV to one place, a certain distance from home? I mean is there any flexibility in whether you can, you know, go somewhere closer to home to save on the gas?

ZARRELLA: Yes. A lot of them told us, you know, typically they'll come down here. The ones we spoke to winter down here and they're getting ready to go back now. And they'll come, as we say, 600, 700, 800 miles. But a lot of the folks who travel in the summer, we're hearing, are saying, look, we're not going to go quite as far. We're going to find a campground, a campsite that's a lot closer to home, maybe 50, maybe 100 miles. A lot of them staying right in the state of Florida, for instance. Not even leaving the state this summer. Staying really close to home just because of the high price of diesel. And most of these guys out here run on diesel. And you know how expensive diesel is.

VELSHI: I passed by a gas station yesterday that was selling it for $4.50 a gallon. It's a tough gig.

John, thanks very much. Great story. John Zarrella.

ZARRELLA: Yes. My pleasure.

VELSHI: Gerri. WILLIS: Still ahead, answers to your questions. The help desk is standing by. Send us your questions to



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": The price of stamps is going up next week from 41 cents to 42 cents. Oh, that's cute, said oil.


VELSHI: Well, a small business owner in Phoenix has come up with what you could call a smelly way of beating the high price of gas. Chad Stone, the president of a mobile computer repair company, uses old ambulances to make service calls. He converted the diesel engines to run on vegetable oil, which he gets from local eateries. It's not all that uncommon to get a whiff of burger or french fries when driving behind one of his trucks. The bonus for Stone is that clean- running trucks, they get about 16 miles to a gallon.


WILLIS: That sounds really stinky.

Well, it's time for the Help Desk, where you get answers to your questions. For that I'm joined today by Janice Revell. She's a senior writer at "Money." And Laura Rowley from Yahoo! Finance.

Welcome to you both. Great to have you here.

Let's get right to the first question. Wanda asks, "will you be penalized if you pay only credit card interest for a couple of months so that you can pay off other bills?"

What do you think, Laura?

LAURA ROWLEY, COLUMNIST, YAHOO! FINANCE: Well, I think first we have to clarify what she's talking about. Is she saying interest or minimums?

WILLIS: It is confusing. And it sounds like she's a little confused about the terminology.

ROWLEY: Yes, absolutely. You want to pay your minimums no matter what. But if you had gone from paying that bill in full, to only paying minimums, that's going to ding your credit score. So you might want to think carefully about what those other bills are, what the interest rate is on those other bills and if you can work out some kind of payment plan and pay down the credit cards, which usually have the highest interest rates.

WILLIS: Yes, the average right now about 14.5. Nobody likes that. Let's go to the next e-mail. "I just graduated with a master's in physical therapy and I owe about $60,000 in student loans. Should I consolidate now or not?"

So I think this is one of those critical questions. People spend so much money on education. What do you think, Janice?

JANICE REVELL, SENIOR WRITER, "MONEY": Yes, it's a huge ticket and you've got to make sure you get the absolutely best interest rate you can. If they're federal loans, then she should probably hold off until July. So Stafford Loans or plus loans. That's when the rates will be adjusting and they will likely be adjusting downward.

WILLIS: Oh, that's good news.

REVELL: Good news. But, you know, $60,000, so she needs all of the good news she can get.

WILLIS: But private loans are not doing well. She may not be able to get new loans if she has loans from banks, right?

REVELL: Yes. It's a tough slog.

WILLIS: OK. Tough slog. All right.

Well, e-mail from California. "The current rate for I Bond," I should say that's an inflation adjusted bond, "is 4.84 percent and I'm wondering why I haven't heard them mentioned on your program as a conservative investment. Do you recommend them?"

Now I should say, these are sold over the web at They're federal investments. They're put out by the federal government. Do you like them?

ROWLEY: I like them. I actually invest in I Bonds because, especially with that inflation feature, there's a fixed rate and then there's an inflation rate that rises with the rate of inflation. We all know what's been going on with inflation. I like the fact that they are free of federal taxes. You can take them out after 12 months. You can go online, see your money growing for (ph) them. I think they're really good for an investor who's starting out. There's only one caveat and the fixed rate has just gone recently to zero. Janice and I were just talking about it.

REVELL: Right. Yes. And they have historically, up until literally last week, they've been an absolutely phenomenal investment. But the rate went down to zero, which is very, very risky. That will likely, you know, undoubtedly, change in the future.

WILLIS: The rate.

REVELL: Yes, the rate. Yes.

WILLIS: Which rate is that?

REVELL: There's the fixed rate at zero. The variable rate, which fluctuates with inflation, is 4.84 percent, which is what the e- mailer is talking about. So just -- if you're looking to get in right now, you might want to hold off just until rates come up a little bit.

WILLIS: OK. Great advice.

All right let's get the next e-mail in. "Are reverse mortgages a good idea?"

We get this question a lot. And my feeling that is that every boomer in the universe someday is going to have a reverse mortgage. What do you think, Laura?

ROWLEY: Yes, it's an interesting product, because I wrote about these products 20 years ago, and it's really evolved. The one thing you need to do -- obviously the way it works is, you get a loan, the lender gets your house when you move or die and you get a fixed monthly payment. The problem is, the terms and the fees and all of that can vary widely from lender to lender to lender. So if you go to, they have a very large booklet online that you can look through and it will sort of give you some -- a road map.

WILLIS: It does give you a road map. I've seen it. It's a great web site,

Guys, thanks for this.

I'm going to give it over to Ali right now.

VELSHI: Thanks, Gerri.

Well, tomorrow is the West Virginia primary. We've been telling you a lot about that. Let's dip in and listen to two of the presidential candidates. Presidential candidate Barack Obama is on the right of your screen. He is in Charleston, West Virginia. To the left of your screen, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is in Clear Fork, West Virginia.

Let's listen in to Senator Obama.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The brave Americans, the brave Americans who fight today believe deeply in this country. No matter how many you meet or how many stories you heroism you hear, every encounter remains us they are truly special, that throughout their service they are living out the ideals that stir so many of us as Americans -- pride, duty, sacrifice.

Some of the most inspiring are those you meet at places like Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Their young men and women who may have lost a limb or even their ability to take care of themselves. But they will never lose the pride they feel for their country.

They're not interested in self-pity, but yearn to move forward with their lives and it's this classically American optimism that makes you realize the quality of persons we have serving in the United States Armed Forces. This, after all, is what led them to wear the uniform in the first place. Their unwavering belief in the idea of America.

The idea that no matter where you come from, or what you look like, or who your parents are, this is the place where anything is possible, where anyone can make it, where we can look out for each other and take care of each other, where we rise and fall as one nation, as one people.

VELSHI: And that's Barack Obama in Charleston, West Virginia, campaigning ahead of tomorrow's primary. Let's go over to Hillary Clinton in Clear Fork, West Virginia.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: On behalf of the people you represent, not on behalf of a small minority.

And that goes for health care, too. It is long past time that we had a health care system that took care of everybody. Now you know I fought for it 15 years ago and I'm proud I did. And I got beat by the insurance companies, but I am back this time and we're going to make it happen. And I'm also proud that I helped start the children's health insurance program, which ensures thousands of young people right here in West Virginia who would otherwise not get health care.

Now there are some people who say, well, all we have to do is just get everything together and we'll all agree. Well, I wish it were so. And I hope we can get most people to agree. But if you're making billions of dollars by denying people health care, you're not going to agree because it's a lot easier to make money denying people health care than actually providing it.

So here's what I'm saying. If you have health insurance and you're happy with it, then you keep it. One of great reasons why people got a better shot here in West Virginia was because of the United Mine Workers, you know, being able to organize and being able to get good benefits, including good health care.

So if you've got good health insurance that you're happy with, you keep it. But if you are uninsured, like you work at one of those non-union mines or you work in some other place where employers don't help you or where you are totally left out of getting access to health insurance, then here's what I want to be able to do.

There is an existing program that works for 9 million Americans. It's the plan that takes care of members of Congress and federal employees. I figure if it's good enough for members of Congress, it's good enough for the people of Wyoming County, it's good enough for the people of West Virginia and America. So I would open that plan up to everybody. Everybody would be eligible to apply for . . .

VELSHI: That's Senator Hillary Clinton in Clear Fork, West Virginia, campaigning ahead of tomorrow's primary in that state.

Well, coming up, the result of today's Quick Vote. The question is, will you be able to afford your children's education? It's not to late to cast your vote at

And we'll be right back with more ISSUE NUMBER ONE. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: Well, it's time to get the results of today's Quick Vote. More than 12,000 of you weighed in. Let's check in with Poppy Harlow of

Poppy, what's it look like?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, we asked people if they think they're going to be able to afford their child's education. Unfortunately, more than half of those respondents said, no, at this point they don't think they'll be able to. About 22 percent of people, though, say they're still unsure. The rough economic times it's hard for parents out there right now.

VELSHI: Yes, that's interesting. We should actually revisit this on this show where we talk about how much it is likely to pay, at least that way those people who are unsure might have a better idea of whether they're in that place.

Poppy, thanks very much.

WILLIS: You know, those federal loans, too, now, you know, tough to get. And the private loans, really hard. I know folks struggling out there with that.

VELSHI: You remember we did something with Allan Chernoff that says it costs a quarter of a million dollars just to get your child until the point that you get to pay for a college education for them.

WILLIS: Crazy. Crazy.

All right. Well, for more ideas, strategies and tips to save you money and protect your house, watch "Open House" Saturday at 9:30 a.m. Eastern right here on CNN.

And for more on how the news of the week affect yours wallet, tune into "Your Money" Saturday's at 1:00 p.m. Eastern and Sunday's at 3:00 right here on CNN.

VELSHI: Well, the economy is issue number one and we here at CNN are committed to covering it for you. ISSUE NUMBER ONE will be back here tomorrow, same time, 12:00 Eastern, right here on CNN.

Time now to get you up to speed on other stories making headlines. CNN "Newsroom" with T.J. Holmes and Brianna Keilar starts right now.

T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm T.J. Holmes at CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: And I am Brianna Keilar.

We are following the second major catastrophe to strike Asia in little more than a week. A devastating earthquake in south central China. Chinese reports say more than 8,600 people are dead. Schools and chemical plants are among countless billings that collapsed in a matter of seconds. I'm here at CNN International Desk where we're getting new pictures, where we're getting new information that is coming in by the minute.

And our reporter in Beijing is Jaime Florcruz. He's joining us now from China's capital.

Jaime, what can you tell us?

JAIME, FLORCRUZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, the death toll continues to rise. Now it's about 8,600.