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Three Days Till Iowa Caucus; Ash Over Alaska; New Laws Take Effect in 2012; Getting Ready For the Big Night; First Votes Around the Corner; 2011 Weather: Destructive, Relentless; Blitz of Political Ads in Iowa; New Year's Eve Around the World; Verizon Scraps Convenience Fee

Aired December 31, 2011 - 06:00   ET


E.D. HILL, CNN ANCHOR: From CNN Center, this is CNN SATURDAY MORNING. It is December 31st. Good morning. I'm E.D. Hill and a Happy New Year's Eve. We're going to take a look at live pictures from New York's Times Square. That is going to be packed with tons of people tonight. We'll show you how the city's getting ready for its biggest party of the year.

Plus, yes, three days. Three days away until the Iowa caucuses. The candidates now crisscrossing the state for their final push. So, who's surging? Who's losing ground? And what the heck is a caucus anyway? We'll take you to Des Moines for the answers.

And, are you looking for a job? Well, one employer says you better not smoke. We'll tell you how they're testing job applicants for nicotine.

ANNOUNCER: From CNN's world headquarters, bringing you news and analysis from across the nation and around the globe, live from Studio 7, this is CNN SATURDAY MORNING.

HILL: And happy New Year to you. If you're celebrating New Zealand style. That's because it's midnight there. Let's take a look at the scene in Auckland. There it is. They're among the first to ring in the New Year every year. And, you can see, they do it in amazing style. It's just beautiful there. We are going to spend the next couple of hours showing you the New Year's celebrations from around the world as the clock strikes midnight in various parts of the world.

Well, there's a new year and perhaps changes for the better. Iran now says it has no plans to close the Strait of Hormuz. The country had threatened to block oil shipments through the key area if sanctions on Iranian oil were enforced. Iran's navy is conducting exercises in the region this week. Now reports had said that they had fired a long- range missile during the training, but now a senior commander says they didn't but will in the next few days.

After complaints by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Egypt says it will stop cracking down on non-governmental organizations. They're called NGOs. Egypt carried out 17 raids on 10 NGOs Thursday, taking laptops, cell phones and other equipment from the offices. The Egyptian authorities now say they will give it all back.

That becoming far too typical in Syria. Shots fired there. Thousands of Syrians taking to the streets for more anti-government protests. Now, these latest protests come at the same time the Arab league observers are there. They're right there to see if the government forces are abiding by a peace agreement. It does not sound nor look peaceful. The military says they're only protecting themselves. Opposition leaders say as many as 35 people were killed yesterday.

Computer hackers claim they've dumped the personal information, including credit card numbers and passwords, of 1 million people on to the web. People targeted had registered on a website of Stratfor, which is a global intelligence agency. A statement on an activist website read in part, "we call upon all armies from darkness to use and abuse this password list and credit card information to wreak havoc on the systems and personal e-mail accounts of rich and powerful oppressors. Kill, kitties. Kill and burn them down peacefully." The group says its next target will be tonight and they will target law enforcement.

Hey, you need $60,000? It's yours if you have information on that fire or a string of other suspected arson fires in Hollywood. There was another one last night. Now law enforcement hopes a reward will help solve the crimes. All of them started with cars or trucks being set on fire. And some of those fires spread to nearby houses. So far police are investigating 21 different blazes.

OK, political junkies, the countdown to the Iowa caucuses has three days to go. And here's what the race looks like right now. The NBC News/Maris poll is the latest, showing the former Massachusetts governor building a lead. CNN's Jim Acosta has more as the caucuses get closer.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Mitt Romney, right now, has the big mo going into this critical weekend before the Iowa caucuses. The question right now is whether or not he's going to break a sweat in winning on Tuesday night. And there are several reasons why.

I mean he is leading in these polls right now, although statistically tied with Ron Paul. But there are a couple of other dynamics going on. One is, you saw Newt Gingrich. He has cratered in these polls just this week and it shows that his support has basically eroded. He's now fourth or fifth in many of the polls here in Iowa. That is bad news for Newt Gingrich.

Meanwhile, Rick Perry, it's sort of a battle of the Ricks right now. Rick Perry is going after Rick Santorum in sort of this battle for third place. You know, going back to the old saying, there are three tickets outs of Iowa.

And then another revelation has come out this week from a former Bachmann campaign manager, Ed Rollins. He told me in an e-mail earlier today that Michele Bachmann has essentially held her fire on Mitt Romney throughout this entire campaign process in the hopes of being his vice presidential running mate.

So, you add all of this together and add that -- the fact that Ron Paul's going to be going home this weekend to Texas instead of campaigning here in Iowa, add all of that up and it's pretty clear why Mitt Romney is doing well in this state and why he may win these caucuses on Tuesday night.


HILL: All right, thank you very much.

President Obama isn't letting the Republican candidates have all the fun in Iowa. He plans on getting into the act on the same day Iowans cast the first votes. The president will address Iowa Democrats live over the Internet Tuesday night. Remember, it was Iowa that gave the then Senator Obama a big leg up when he won the caucuses there in 2008.

A lot of folks plan to travel today and party a lot tonight. Reynolds is here telling us what the weather looks like for New Year's Eve.


REYNOLDS WOLF, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hello. Good to finally work with you.

HILL: Yes.

WOLF: This is our first opportunity. Amazing.

HILL: And in the same studio, too. How exciting.

WOLF: I know. It is an amazing situation. Well, what I'll tell you today is our weather's not going to be too incredibly amazing in comparison to what we had last year. We had all kinds of severe weather around the country. Today it looks like it's going to be pretty mild. In fact, you look along the eastern seaboard, we're seeing some scattered showers in parts of the Northeast. Some residual snow showers back in Pennsylvania. But I'm telling you, before the night's over, we're looking at a great and very mild pretty much day and evening into parts of the Northeast, out to the Pacific Northwest. Some rain and possibly some snow in the high elevations. Plenty of sunshine in Texas.

We're going to give you the full scoop of what it's going to mean for your travel weather coming up in just a few moments, E.D.

HILL: We don't need more sunshine in Texas. We have had that in bucu (ph) amounts. We need rain.

WOLF: Ready for rain. Something substantial. Something just a --

HILL: Oh, I know.

WOLF: It's still parched down there. So you need something better.

HILL: It is. The creeks are dry. Cattle -- the hay -- the cost of hay has gone through the roof. So if you are a rancher down in Texas, it's tough times. WOLF: We're going to flip whatever switches we can.

HILL: So, bring us rain, otherwise I'm not talking to you anymore.

WOLF: We're going to make it happen.

HILL: All right. Good.

WOLF: Good. Good times.

HILL: A man with a lot of power.

A lot of folks make a New Year's resolution to quit smoking, and now one hospital plans to make it harder for those who don't kick the habit because it will not hire smokers. We'll tell you where and when this plan kicks in.


HILL: Well, there is a giant cloud of ash hanging over Alaska right now. It's coming from the Cleveland Volcano, around 1,000 miles southwest of Anchorage. There was an explosion at the volcano earlier this week, sending ash 15,000 feet into the air. And that prompted airline warnings. This morning, though, the threat level, they say, has dropped. And that is good news for Alaska. Reynolds Wolf has more.

WOLF: Yes, any time that you hear a threat level doing in the opposite level, dropping, that's got to be kind of good news.

HILL: Absolutely.

WOLF: You know, absolutely.

HILL: But with those -- I'm guessing that as the wind and everything else shifts, doesn't that ash have the potential to sort of come back and forth?

WOLF: You know, it can actually go across the globe. Once it gets caught in the jet stream, I mean that's basically a conveyor belt. It could end up in Europe. It could end up over back in Asia. I mean it goes completely around the planet. So pretty amazing stuff to say the very least.

But it's not unusual to have that kind of seismic activity in parts of Alaska. If you look all around the Pacific Rim, they refer to it as the Ring of Fire. So again, not too unusual to see that happen in parts of Alaska. We're going to watch that very carefully and see if anything else unfolds.

Right now we're going to see how the weather is going to unfold for your new year. And it's going to be very interesting. Last year it was just the bitter cold. That was the huge story in parts of New York. Today it looks like it's going to be fairly mild for you. Some scattered showers in upstate New York, back along the -- say the Finger Lakes and even into Pennsylvania. But for the most part, fairly tranquil conditions. High pressure building in the southeast and, check out the result. We're going to 63 degrees in Atlanta, 70 in Dallas, 48 degrees in Denver, 39 in Salt Lake City, 65 degrees in San Francisco. It should be, for the most part, again, a fairly quiet day.

Now, we're going to button this thing up and let you give -- have a better idea of what you can expect travel-wise coming up in just a few moments. So, at the very least, it looks like, for the most part, it should be very easy. You see that delays possible in San Francisco, San Diego, even Denver and Chicago. Minneapolis, we're going to have a few delays there, but it looks like most of them will be just under an hour.

All right, that is the latest we've got for you on that. Now shifting gears a bit.

If you smoke cigarettes, it may get a bit harder for you to get a job in 2012. See, a hospital in Danville, Pennsylvania, has decide it will no longer hire smokers. What they plan to do is start screening job applicants for nicotine use. They're going to start that February 1st. And those who test positive will be offered to, well, to help quit. They're going to try to give you some assistance. But, as you know, that is one tricky thing to try to drop that habit. So it's going to be interesting to see how this pans out.

By the way, Pennsylvania is one of 19 states where companies can screen applicants for signs of smoking. Now, we want to know what you think. And if you'd like to share in this conversation, give us an idea what you think about these hiring practices, do you think they're unfair, well, we just want to hear from you this morning. Let me know what you think. I'm on Facebook. You simply go onto Facebook and you search for Reynolds Wolf. I'm the only guy that has that name on there. Leave your comments we're going to read them at the end of the show. It could be very interesting, to say the least.

HILL: Yes, what was your mama thinking?

WOLF: Yes, I know. Exactly.

HILL: I actually like your name. My little boy's name is Wolf.

WOLF: Very nice. Yes, there's a lot of them. There's another guy here at CNN that shares that same name.

HILL: I know. And you know what, he cornered me at a White House party years ago, seven years ago now, and said, do not name him Wolf because --

WOLF: Really?

HILL: Yes, he said, it was really a tough name to live with. But he's named after my husband. I said, well, you can't really change his name.

WOLF: My gosh, so you've got a Wolf. There are two Wolf's here. HILL: I know.

WOLF: You get three of us together, we're making our territory.

HILL: And I like all the Wolfs.

WOLF: Well, there you go. What's not to love?

HILL: What -- hey, what do you think about this whole smoking thing?

WOLF: You know, I mean, it's one of those things where -- especially when it comes to businesses, it's one of those things where, you know, if -- is it really infringing on their individual rights? I can see a lot of people are worried more about the health side of things. Other people are talking about personal freedom. So it's --

HILL: Yes. But, you know what, they take the personal freedom -- and clearly I'm not a smoker -- they take their personal freedom, but it costs me money for their choices.

WOLF: Yes, absolutely.

HILL: So, I'm paying higher insurance and premiums. You know, premiums for their smoking or their excessive eating or their whatever. And I'm sure I've got my own, you know, quirks, too. A lot of them. But, you know, it does seem -- that, to me, does seem a bit unfair. You can do whatever you want, but it's like the whole punch.

WOLF: Absolutely.

HILL: You know, your right ends at that next person's nose.

WOLF: Very interesting. It's a tough thing.

HILL: So, all right, I love football, college football, and it is a huge day. So I wanted some -- I want some game forecasts later on.

WOLF: We are going to talk about that this morning, no doubt about it.

HILL: Good.

WOLF: We're definitely going to touch on college football.

HILL: All right. Thank you.

WOLF: You bet.

HILL: Well, you can call it people power. Customers complained and the nation's largest wireless provider made a change that is going to save you money. Good job talking up.

And, new years, new laws. Among them, restrictions on tanning beds and illegal immigrants. We'll tell you about that. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) HILL: Look at that wonderful celebration. Happy New Year. That is New Zealand. That's the scene in Auckland. They're also popping champagne in Wellington and Christchurch. And celebrations in Fiji and the Marshall Islands. We'll continue keeping track of those around the globe.

This is New York City, though. Take a look at the scene there. Folks are already gearing up for tonight's big Times Square celebration. More than a million people are expected to crowd that area, try to catch a glimpse of the ball drop. Our Anderson Cooper is going to be there tonight, along with comedian Kathy Griffin. How funny is she? That is going to be a great show. Check it out to ring in the new year live right here on CNN.

And as we prepare to ring in the new year in the U.S., of course, what does that mean? New laws. It's America, folks. As of tomorrow, new laws. Some of the nation's most contentious issues from immigration to abortion to same-sex unions. Our Josh Levs is here to talk us through some of the more quirky editions to the state laws.

JOSH LEVS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: OK, so it is America, folks.

HILL: Yes.

LEVS: There are so many laws every year, you know.

HILL: Yes, a lot of folks just completely ignore them --

LEVS: There's that too.

HILL: But what are the new ones that we shouldn't ignore?

LEVS: By the way, hello to you. It's good to have you down here with us.


LEVS: So, yes, it's an amazing number. And I'll tell you, we're looking at nearly 40,000 new state laws that were enacted in 2011. Some of them are going into effect January 1st, tomorrow, including this one in New Hampshire, getting a lot of peoples' attention. It's requiring parental notification in the case of an abortion. A minor who wants to get an abortion. That minor can seek a court order to avoid parental notification. And that's interesting. Governor John Lynch had vetoed it, saying there should be an exception for rape, incest and abuse. Then the legislature overrode that veto.

Another interesting one here showing a split in America over immigration. A few states have new laws involving e -- no, that's not it -- involving e -- we're talking about that one later -- involving E-Verify. We've got some video for you. E-Verify is an immigration program, computer program, to check a prospective employees' citizenship or immigration status. You've got Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia all requiring businesses to enroll.

But California, meanwhile, is taking the opposite step. California is saying state and local governments cannot require employers to use E- Verify unless they have to for federal funds. Supporters like E- Verify, obviously. They say it helps businesses avoid hiring illegal immigrants. Critics say it's expensive, pushes undocumented workers further underground and it not 100 percent accurate. And there was a government report not long ago that said an improved, but there were still some errors.

Finally, that graphic we were looking at. There's one more controversial one to tell you about and that's two more states allowing same-sex civil unions. Now those are Delaware and Hawaii, making same-sex couples eligible for those. So just some of the more contentious new laws out there.

HILL: So I'm curious, not making any personal statement here, but where they cited that the minors can go and get abortions, are they now going to let schools give them cough drops without parental notification? Because that, to me, is just the strangest thing. You've got to sign your life away for your kid to get a cough drop.

LEVS: Well, and you know what's interesting, in the 10:00 hour today, I'm going to be telling you about cough medicine. There's a new law involving cough medicine. And you -- so you'll be very interested.

HILL: There you go.

LEVS: Especially interested to hear that one.

HILL: Yes, 40,000 new laws. Who says we've got too much government.

So, tell me about some of these weird ones.

LEVS: Yes.

HILL: There is a law about where you can sell a pet?

LEVS: Yes. And, by the way, so -- I mean there are so many laws that aren't even, you know, enforced anymore. It's just absolutely amazing. Yes, so a couple more to tell you about. And you're right, some of them are quirky. One -- a lot of them are in California.

HILL: Really?

LEVS: A lot of the new laws, I guess people were not surprised. The National Conference of State Legislatures put together this list. A large number in California. One of them is this, involves animals. It basically says that it's a crime to sell a live animal on any street, highway, public right of way, parking lot, carnival or boardwalk. And there's a new law involving tanning beds --

HILL: New (ph) boardwalks there, I guess.

LEVS: Yes. I mean you would think you could sell pets on the boardwalks. But they have their reasons.


LEVS: And also it's now illegal for minors to use tanning beds at all, even with parental consent.

HILL: Wait a second. So we've got one state saying a minor, a kid, can go get an abortion without their parents saying anything, and another state saying, you aren't even old enough to use a tanning bed.

LEVS: Well, New Hampshire is saying -- New Hampshire is saying you have to have parental notification for an abortion.

HILL: Yes.

LEVS: And you've got California saying you absolutely cannot use a --

HILL: Saying you can't even use a tanning bed without your parents --

LEVS: Even with your parent's consent --

HILL Oh even with.

LEVS: Now in California. If you're 18 years or younger, this thing is now illegal to use a tanning bed in California.

HILL: I'm so glad that I've gotten the chance to get to know you because these laws confuse me. I mean I am a -- I'm a simple, sort of common sense person and I can't made heads or tails out of a lot of the stuff that goes on.

LEVS: I will tell you, every year I take a look at this list and it is astounding how many laws are on the books in this country. It's overwhelming. And no one can possibly be expected to know one-tenth of them.

HILL: And I don't.

LEVS: There you go.

HILL: Good. I'm glad no one expects it either.

LEVS: There you go.

HILL: But thank you very much.

LEVS: Thank you.

HILL: We are counting down to 2012 here at CNN. Join Anderson Cooper and the very funny comedian Kathy Griffin for our special live coverage. It starts at 11:00 Eastern tonight right here on CNN.

Well, we were just talking about California, and there's some monkey business going on out there. It's a squirrel monkey. And he's having the time of his life. Just check out his Twitter account. "Do you know any stores in San Francisco that sell female squirrel monkeys?" Well, don't look on the streets. Clearly we know there's a new law there. Female monkeys. "Asking for a friend." And this is another one. "Went to monkey bars in Golden Gate Park playground, left disappointed." So, what about these tweets? Where are they all? Who's writing them? I'll explain, next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HILL: Yes, I know it's early. Go get a cup of coffee. Obviously you had to get up anyway. And as you do that, I'll get you caught up on what's going on across country.

Not once, but twice police tried stopping this slow-speed chase in an Alabama parking lot. That woman now faces attempted murder and criminal mischief charges after police were called to stop this very strange ride. Officers fired shots, they laid down spike strips, all in an attempt to stop her. No luck, though. Finally they boxed her in with their cars, busted out the window and grabbed her. But only after she tried running them down.

In Pennsylvania, a sinkhole is causing massive headaches for about two dozen families.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's a close-knit block. To see all your neighbors distressed, it's upsetting.


HILL: This water main break may have contributed to massive erosion after this hole formed. Workers filled the hole with cement for now, but two homes will likely have to be torn down.

Seventeen-year-old Banana Sam is missing.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, that is so sad.


HILL: Banana Sam is 12 inches tall and weighs about two pounds. He is a squirrel monkey stolen from the San Francisco Zoo.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just think it's terrible.


HILL: Surveillance camera didn't capture anything. But you can follow all the monkey business on Twitter.

And we do wish you a happy New Year. This 2012 coming up after tonight. Huge crowd. Maybe even a million people are going to cram Times Square in New York City for the annual New Year's Eve celebration. CNN's David Ariosto is joining us live to set the stage for what you can expect.

And I'm guessing folks in New York City don't bring their lawn chairs to stake out their spots. So are they doing that already? What do they put down to keep a spot?

DAVID ARIOSTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is party central and you do have some of the die-hards who have already started camping out here. We've seen some people camping along the area wearing blankets, trying to keep warm. Although this is pretty balmy weather compared to last year. We did speak with a mother/daughter pair who have been here since last night, all in expectation, not to see the ball drop, but to see Justin Bieber. So, we'll have musical performances, celebrity guests. Our own Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin will take you into the new year starting around 11:00.

But also -- it's also not just fun and games here. Police will be out in force. Federal authorities will be sweeping through this area. The 16 checkpoints that lead into Times Square will be basically penning in about 65 different pens, trying to keep people locked into place. And once you're here, you can't leave. There is no going to the bathroom, there's no coffee breaks. So from about 3:00 p.m. on, you are locked in here and have to basically take in the new year.

So, federal authorities, NYPD, will be flying overhead in terms of helicopters with infrared, police in plain clothes. They'll be sealing some of the manhole covers. They removed some of the trash bins. So, you know, it really has to -- keep in mind that New York is still very much a terrorist target. Ray Kelly spoke to us earlier in the day about this. The concerns over a lone wolf are still very much there. But it is a party. And none other than Lady Gaga will be ringing in the new year as Mayor Bloomberg's special guest, pressing that button to drop the ball.

HILL: Oh, I love Lady Gaga. Many, many moons ago, when I actually stayed up past midnight, I went there one time. It was so much fun. But never again. There's just a horrid of people there. But, thank you, David.

And, folks, it's going to be great here watching it with us here at CNN because Anderson Cooper's down there. He's going to be anchoring it live. And, of course, he's very smart. And Kathy Griffin, who says anything and everything, is going to be hosting along with Anderson. So it should be quite the party. So, watch CNN tonight.

Now, remember the guy who tried to extort $2 million from David Letterman? Well, he's back in the news. In fact, he's out of prison and he's got a job. A new job. I'll tell you what it is coming up.


HILL: It is 30 minutes past the hour. Welcome back. I'm E.D. Hill. And thank you for starting your day with us here.

New York City is preparing for a huge party. And tonight, starting at 11:00 Eastern Time, Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin will be hosting that party live from Times Square.

Checking out our top stories for this SATURDAY MORNING, a change, and not a good one in this two-week long search for a missing Maine toddler. Police say new evidence leads them to classify the disappearance of 2-year-old Ayla Reynolds as a criminal investigation.

Her dad said he put her to bed wearing jammies saying "Daddy's Princess," December 16th. But by the morning of the 17th, she was gone. Ayla's mom told Nancy Grace that when she went to rehab, Ayla's father got custody of the girl.

Well, the man who went to jail for trying to extort $2 million from talk show host David Letterman has a new job. Robert Halderman is now a producer for "On the Case with Paula Zahn" on the Discovery Channel. Halderman admitted he tried to get money from Letterman in exchange for keeping quiet about his affairs with female staffers.

This is confusing to me. Is it or isn't it contaminated? There is a very confusing lettuce recall effecting 10 western and southwestern states this morning. Growers Express says there is no evidence its iceberg lettuce has salmonella. But Kroger's and Smith's Grocery Stores in those states are pulling the lettuce off the shelves as a precaution. You can see the states there on the screen there affected. The stores say they are doing it as an unofficial recall. What is that? Is it contaminated or not?

All right. Let's turn to politics. A great sport and Mitt Romney is getting a boost from a guy many Republicans hope would run for president himself, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie revving up the crowd in Iowa yesterday and he did it as only he does so well, jokingly playing the role of political wise guy.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: So, listen, I want to tell you something. I want to tell you something really clearly. I'm in a good mood this morning. I'm feeling happy and upbeat. I love being with Mitt now, but let me tell you. You people disappoint me on Tuesday, you don't do what you're supposed to do on Tuesday for Mitt Romney, I will be back, Jersey-style, people. I will be back.


HILL: Romney kicking off a 700-mile bus trip across Iowa today.

Finally, finally after all the talk, all the polls, everything else, we are just three days away from the caucuses in Iowa. They're kicking off the primary and caucus season.

Andra Gillespie joins us from Boston. She is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the wonderful Emory University. So thank you for being with us. Iowa, who has the most to gain or lose on Tuesday?

ANDRA GILLESPIE, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, EMORY UNIVERSITY: Well, Mitt Romney has the most to gain from this. He has not campaigned a lot in Iowa. But it looks like he's poised for a first or second place finish. If he does well in Iowa and then does well in New Hampshire which is expected at this point, he's going to have a lot of momentum and it's going to be very. very difficult for the other contenders to catch up at that point. HILL: Now, one of our previous segments, our reporter said there are only three tickets out of Iowa. And there does seems to be a growing sense that Iowa is making huge decisions that impact who everybody else has to pick from in the race later on. So do you think that there's going to be a lot of people who are sort of forced out after Iowa?

GILLESPIE: In particular, I think this may be Michele Bachmann's last hurrah. Her campaign is in shambles from an organizational standpoint. And if she does poorly in Iowa, which is the state where she's from, it's going to be very difficult for her to raise money and sustain her campaign much longer beyond next week.

HILL: You know, I don't know how long we have been talking about the - the Iowa caucuses, but everybody was - at first they were hyperventilating that Michele Bachmann is, you know, because it's next to her home state of Minnesota, she's - she will sort of walk away with this. And then a couple of weeks ago, everybody is going, oh, oh, it's Newt Gingrich. Clearly he's winning, and all of a sudden, you know, he's out of the picture again. And now it's Ron Paul and Mitt Romney.

How many people make up their minds when they finally just get there? I mean, really say whatever up until that point and then change their mind?

GILLESPIE: Well, over 40 percent of voters in the most recent CNN/ORC Poll indicates that they are willing to change their mind in the next couple of days. Some of that could be I guess somewhat reticence to be able to reveal their fixed preferences.

But one of the good things about Iowa is that it gives voters an opportunity to listen to their neighbors and to hear persuasive speeches. So the fact that voters are going in with an open mind I think is actually a hallmark of deliberative democracy and we shouldn't necessarily be afraid of that.

The fact that almost everybody, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, has been able to play Cinderella during this pre-primary season, really though is evidence of the fact that the Republican field is weakened, that voters are really divided as to who can best beat Barack Obama.

HILL: Or people are just messing with pollsters. I mean we start so early, it's like a year ago that they started doing the first polls. It's like - you know, I don't know what I am having for breakfast tomorrow morning let alone who am I going to vote for in the - on the primary season.

Now, I know that - that Mitt Romney has been showing the surge again recently. You mentioned Michele Bachmann. What about Rick Santorum or Rick Perry? Do they have to be number three or it's, you know, good-bye?

GILLESPIE: Well, I think for Rick Perry, that's definitely the case, even though I think he's going to try to continue as long as the money will allow him to. Rick Santorum is finally getting his turn as Cinderella. The problem with Santorum as well, he may do well in Iowa, and while he may get some momentum and while he's definitely caught the eye of Christian conservatives at this particular point, I think it's somewhat questionable whether or not he is going to be a viable general election candidate.

And this is the one place where Mitt Romney has consistently out- performed his competitors. So, 40 percent of voters think that he's the one who is most likely to beat Barack Obama, no other Republican contender has ever matched him in that. And at the end of the day, I think it's going to be a choice between who voters align with ideologically versus who voters think can actually beat Barack Obama, and that's what gives Mitt Romney his advantage in the upcoming primary season.

HILL: Number two there, Ron Paul. I mean, that's a guy, he - he doesn't, you know, wave in the wind. He just tells you what he thinks, like it or not, here's what it is. And all of a sudden, boom, he's back - he's back up there.

So that - I mean, and a lot of folks say if you're a Republican and you want your candidate elected, he can't get elected because he'll - again, he just says what he really thinks. Doesn't he understand how politics works? That's not going -

GILLESPIE: I think he understands how it works. But, I mean, you know, he is committed to his principles.

HILL: Yes.

GILLESPIE: At the end of the day, there are people who are going to be really attracted to some of his principles but they're going to be polarized by others, so that's going to end up doing him in, plus the fact that he's really not electable as a general election candidate.

HILL: That's what they keep on saying and there are a lot of things. He is my representative for years, a lot of things that I disagree with him on, but, you know, I respect people especially politicians who actually, refreshingly say what they believe and stick to it. It's kind of nice.

Andra, thanks so much for spending time with us this morning.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

HILL: All right. As we've been telling, the Iowa caucuses the first test for the Republican presidential candidates and their fate will be determined in places like the Fire Station in Van Horne, the Community Center in Anita and the Courthouse Basement in Tipton, Iowa.

Tens of thousands of Iowans gather in places just like that to cast their caucus votes. And here's how it works and in case you don't understand the system there. You get - oh, I don't know - 120,000, I think, Republicans gathered in 2008, they go to the caucus centers. That's less than five percent of the total population of Iowa and they're making this decision. There are a little over 800 places designated for the caucuses. Then at 7:00 local time, the fun begins and the speeches. Candidates can have representatives do the talking for them at the small events. And a couple of the candidates actually will speak for themselves at some of the larger gatherings. The speeches only run a couple of minutes, though, usually. Then it's time to vote.

And at most of the sites, people put the name of the candidate that they want on a piece of paper and they hand it in. And as simple as that, someone counts the pieces of paper, calls the Office of the Republican Party in Iowa. That's it. Celebrations for the winners, excuses for the losers.

He's the corky thing, though, regardless of who wins, the people who are in the caucuses voting on that aren't required to abide by the group decision. At the end of the day, they can do whatever they want still. So it continues to be interesting.

Be sure to stay with us here. And you'll listen to the candidates in their own words, not just the sound bites.

Join CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley, she is amazing. You talk about just getting to the facts, the right information, and making sure that it's well-sourced. She's got it. And she has a show called "THE CONTENDERS 2012." You can catch it at 2:00 P.M. Eastern.

Now, something happened in 2011 that has never quite happened like this before. The U.S. was hit with weather disaster after weather disaster.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would say 2011 was certainly a year for the record books. You know, "deadly, destructive and relentless" are the words we're using in the National Weather Service.


HILL: So why? Why was 201 so deadly? And what about 2012, could it be worse? That's next.


HILL: Deadly tornadoes, damaging droughts and massive wildfires. 2011, a record breaking year for weather here in the U.S. In all, 650 people were killed in different storms, and those storms cost more than $50 billion in property damage.

So why was it so extreme? Reynolds Wolf is here. So explain it. Do these things come in cycles? Can we predict what's going to happen or do these things sort of come out of nowhere?

WOLF: It does seem to be cyclical. But the reason why we had so much damage at least in terms of the loss of life, plain and simple is because of the location where these things happen and take place. Couple of examples, for example, the - the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri. The one that hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Had those tornadoes dropped out of the sky in a cornfield, in the middle of the Central Plains -

HILL: And there - there are plenty of areas they could have dropped and hit no one.

WOLF: Absolutely, absolutely. But I mean it just happen to be a horrible timing and bad location. And I'm telling you, if you have that type of storm, that type of tornado that hit even a more dense population cluster, you would have numbers that would even be higher.

Let's go back and take a look at what happened just this year, starting off with just the winter. The Snowmageddon as we called it in New York was just unbelievable. You see the video here. You know, this is a situation where the New York was blanketed, not just by several inches and feet of snow, it just kept coming again day after day after day. It took a long time to get them taken care of.

In parts of, say, February, you had even more massive winter storms. The Midwest, the Northeast, talking about Chicago, too. They had winds in Chicago, they were topping 80 miles an hour, combined with the icy conditions, everything was shut down. Of course, you have a lot of tree damage. Even in parts of the northeast, you had widespread tree damage in places like Connecticut where power was out for actually weeks and weeks.

In April, the situation was different. We're talking about these two tornado outbreaks, 367 people killed, Tuscaloosa, Alabama certainly one of the bulls eyes. But all around Montgomery (ph) and Alabama you had widespread damage. Some of the damage, they're - they're still cleaning up from it.

The Joplin tornadoes in May killed 157 people. The deadliest single tornado on record. In Mississippi, of course, the situation was not with regard to tornadoes, it was flooding. Record rainfall that was all the way from Memphis clear down to parts of Northern Louisiana, just devastating, widespread devastation for many of the farmers there. No doubt. Certainly, in a tough economy what they need last was a horrible year in terms of crops. Unfortunately it didn't work out for them.

In Texas, E.D., you were talking about this, the year-long drought, a historic drought. One of the worst in history. Its worst months, four million acres were burned up not just because of the drought but the drought coupled with the wildfires. In fact, $50 billion worth of agricultural losses.

Now, in August, we're shifting gears going from the dry to the surplus of rainfall. Of course, we had widespread issues with the hurricanes. Hurricane Irene caused record flooding. Killed 43 people. You can see the fires here, though, of course, the opposite when it comes to the tropical systems like Irene as actually (ph) slammed parts of the Eastern Seaboard including the Outer Banks. The devastation was unreal. Million - billions of dollars there, too. In October, we had the surprise snowstorm. OK. We had the snow that caused the widespread power outages in places like Connecticut. You had it even worse the second round. The second round in October that left 1.6 million people without power. Folks, if you think it's bad being without power for maybe a night or two, try weeks on end. That was the situation there. And right now thankfully we're getting a little bit of a mild spell.

But, E.D. -

HILL: Yes.

WOLF: You're going to tell what's going to happen later on this winter.

HILL: You said you used to work in Austin, and I was there in August watching my son who plays football like, Travis, watching one of his practices, scrimmages. And from the stands you could look out and see five different wildfires burning.

WOLF: Unbelievable.

HILL: And you're just waiting as to catch (ph) and see if it's coming in your direction or not because it was just moving with, you know, with the wind obviously.

WOLF: You know, and some people - some people really don't think about the damage it can do to people who have issues with breathing, you know, your elderly, your youngest.

HILL: Yes.

WOLF: And it's a tremendous issue for a lot of folks. And the ramification is that it can be felt for some time. No question.

HILL: Thank you very much.

WOLF: You bet.

HILL: Talk to you in a little bit.

Going negative in Iowa, it is part of the game in the Republican presidential race as it is in all races, but the candidates themselves say they aren't to blame. See why, next.


HILL: Iowa is being inundated with political ads right now both on TV and radio. And, of course, that's expected at caucus time. But one thing folks may not be used to is who is paying for those ads.

CNN's Lisa Sylvester takes a look.


LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Iowa voters this week are seeing a blitz of political ads. And the latest tally says three quarters of them are negative.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ever notice how some people make a lot of mistakes?

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This probably a (ph) mistake. I made a mistake.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Serial hypocrites and flip-floppers can't clean up the mess.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: MITT Romney raised business taxes 20 percent in Massachusetts.

SYLVESTER: Some strategists think attack ads have already claimed their first victim - New Gingrich, whose poll numbers have taken a tumble. Gingrich was way outgunned according to ad trackers at Kantar Media CMAG. Forty-five percent of all political ads in Iowa this month have been hits on him. Only six percent were supporting him.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The disparity between what the pro-Romney SuperPAC was able to spend in Iowa, and what Gingrich was able to mount in his own defense during the month of December I think clearly was a key factor in this precipitous form in polls.

SYLVESTER: Mitt Romney was the target of only 20 percent of the ads. And who's paying for these ads? Often independent groups called SuperPACs, mostly allowed to spend unlimited amounts, often run by friends of a candidate and sometimes backed by undisclosed donors.

In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Gingrich is crying foul and blaming rival Mitt Romney.

GINGRICH: he's buying million of dollars in attack ads through a funny (ph) SuperPAC run by his former staff, paid for by his millionaire friends.

SYLVESTER: But Romney says the law forbids him from telling a SuperPAC what to do.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I of course could get up and say, oh, I decry all of the negative ads and so forth, but I don't. I mean, this is part of the process.

SYLVESTER: But the SuperPACs do have ties to candidates. The ones supporting Romney, Perry and Gingrich are all led by former aides or advisers. And Huntsman is backed by his billionaire father.

Negative ads have been around since the 1964 ad suggesting Barry Goldwater was too risky for the nuclear age. But will they be a key factor in Iowa?

STEVE DEACE, SYNDICATED RADIO HOST: Iowans do not like negative ads. They would prefer to get to know a candidate individually.

CHERI JACOBUS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: People look at content of the ads and it does affect them whether they will admit to that or not.

SYLVESTER (on camera): Analysts says there can be a voter backlash against candidates who sponsor negative ads, but if an attack ad is sponsored by a SuperPAC, the blame doesn't go to a candidate. So a candidate can run positive ads and keep their hands clean, while their SuperPAC runs attack ads and does the hard hits.

Lisa Sylvester, CNN, Washington.


HILL: There are a lot of parties, New Year's Eve, of course around the world. Take a look at this one in Scotland. The Vikings there have been partying since yesterday. Take a look at them. We're going to show you how some countries are celebrating. That is coming up next.


HILL: Folks around the world are gearing up for New Year's Eve celebration. They're already ringing in 2012 in New Zealand and other Western Pacific countries.

Nadia Bilchik is joining me for "Morning Passport" to share some New Year's Eve traditions and festivities. I've got something in front of us, but we're not going to get to that yet. You can tell us a little bit later on.

NADIA BILCHIK, CNN EDITORIAL PRODUCER: Yes. That would be the exciting part. But first to Scotland. And in Scotland, they started celebrations yesterday and they call it Hogmanay. It's a three-day celebration.

HILL: Why are they dressed like that?

BILCHIK: Exactly. Dressed as Vikings to celebrate the tradition of being a Viking, and there they are. And they literally go through the streets with these lighted torches. And it's quite remarkable. They have music festivals. Literally hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland. It's a huge celebration.

And another Scottish tradition is something called First Footing. And that's the first person who enters your home after midnight determines your luck. So you're going to hope it's a tall, dark, handsome man who brings -

HILL: Really?

BILCHIK: -- bread and scotch to drink. And that's the idea. You don't want it to be somebody blond, because that's too representative of the invasive Vikings.

HILL: Oh, these naughty people.

BILCHIK: Exactly. Now let's go to Brazil. Now, Brazil has a simply beautiful custom of wearing all white. And everybody in Brazil will go on to the beaches if they can and wear white. You could see the beautiful fireworks.

HILL: Tops on, of course (ph).

BILCHIK: That would be - that would be the caveat, right? But there they are, all wearing white to symbolize peace and hoping for a peaceful year.

HILL: Oh, that's nice.

BILCHIK: Then they will send lighted candles into the sea in honor of the Goddess of the Sea, Yemanja. And I know people who have been there. I haven't. It's one of those -

HILL: When they say candles and they put it out -

BILCHIK: They put candles on rafts and send them out to the Goddess Yemanja.

HILL: Somebody pick up the trash afterwards?

BILCHIK: I wonder about all the litter, but apparently quite beautiful.

HILL: Of course.

BILCHIK: And while your clothes have to be white, your underwear can be colored and underwear can symbolize certain things. Red for love. Green, yellow -


HILL: Yes, of course, I told you. (INAUDIBLE) going to the beach and they're topless.

So, of course, if they're wearing colored underwear and that's the thing that differentiates them, they're showing that off, don't they?

BILCHIK: Exactly. You have to be in Copacabana in Brazil.

Now we go to Spain. And Spain, what you have to do is eat 12 grapes in 12 seconds.

HILL: That's what we got.

BILCHIK: So then the strike of 12 -

HILL: Twelve in 12 seconds?

BILCHIK: Twelve and twelve. So the strike of 12, 12 in 12 seconds to represent the 12 months of the year. So we are going to begin and there's going to be a buzzer that tells us when our 12 seconds are up and let's see who can eat -

HILL: OK. You give us the go.

BILCHIK: You give us the go.

HILL: Three, two, one. I've been practicing. How many you got left?

BILCHIK: We tied. We tied on the grapes.

HILL: Let me see yours.

BILCHIK: If we have -

HILL: These are bigger.

BILCHIK: If we do this, this time next year, we have to make sure that we get all 12.

HILL: And get small grapes next time.

BILCHIK: Exactly.

HILL: We can do this one.

BILCHIK: So very Happy New Year. Or as the Japanese say, "Akemashite omedetou."

HILL: Well, thank you very much. Let me think. What do the - what do the Cantonese say? "Sun Nien Fai Lok (ph)." Is that it?

BILCHIK: Well, whatever that was, that sounded magnificent.

HILL: Really? Let me tell you, that's what it was. Happy New Year.

It is not too late, you can still do something today if you're not planning to party right now, to get a break on your taxes. We'll tell you what that is. That's important stuff to know.

Also, Verizon buckling under the pressure of customers. It now drops those fees. Come on, give me a break. Charging me more to pay online to save the company money? That doesn't make sense. And I guess a lot of folks thought the same way. We'll tell you about it, next.


HILL: Hey, Verizon, can you hear your customers now? After announcing a new $2 fee that you'd pay to pay bills online, the nation's largest wireless provider has now changed that plan.

CNN's Alison Kosik has detail.



Put another check mark in the win column for angry consumers and this battle it didn't even last for 24 hours. It began Thursday afternoon, when Verizon Wireless announced it would impose a $2 fee for every one-time payment made for the credit or debit card, whether you did it online or over the phone. This fee sparked immediate consumer outrage on Twitter, on Facebook, in blogs, and the outrage worked.

By Friday afternoon, Verizon Wireless succumbed to pressure from consumers and a warning from the Federal Communications Commission and scrapped the fee. In a statement, Verizon Wireless said, "At Verizon, we take great care to listen to our customers based on their input. We believe the best path forward is to encourage customers to take advantage of the best and most efficient options eliminating the need to institute the fee at this time."

Verizon has said the fee was designed to cover its costs associated with credit card payments and steer customers away from paying with a credit card at the last minute. Customers could have avoided the $2 fee by signing up for automatic bill pay, by paying with an electronic check using a Verizon gift card or by going old style and putting a check in the mail.

And even though most customers would not have been affected, just the idea that you may have to pay a fee for the privilege of paying a bill was enough to set the customers off, and they spoke out and they won.

It's not the first time a company had bowed to pressure from consumers and it probably won't be the last. Consumer backlash forced Bank of America to retract a $5 debit card fee it tried to impose earlier this year.

And outrage from Netflix over the summer forced the company to reverse its decision to split its online streaming and mail order services into separate accounts. Netflix kept its pricing the same, though, and it cost them big time.

Now, there's no direct connection here, but I can't help but believe that the outrage that we witnessed in the Occupy movement around the country has encouraged consumers to band together and protest what they see as unfair.

The Verizon Wireless fee fight is another example of the growing power of U.S. consumers, especially when they take their case to the internet -- E.D.