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Courting Florida's Latino Vote; Tacos for Racial Slur; Ford: Biggest Profit Since '98; Stocks Head For Higher Open; FBI Joins Search For Carjacker; British And French Meeting About Syria; BP Is Responsible For Oil Spill Damages; X-tremely Close Call; Abba's First New Song In 18 Years; Final Debate Before Florida Primary; Obama's Tuition Message; Big Hits, Broken Dream

Aired January 27, 2012 - 06:59   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody. You are watching STARTING POINT and we are coming to you live from the Beach Hut Cafe in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

And on our STARTING POINT this morning, we're looking at immigration, housing, colonies on the moon, much more all part of a very spirited CNN Republican debate last night. It's the final one before the Florida primary. So, who won, who came out on top, and who can win the key Hispanic vote in the state? We're going to take a look at that this morning.

Plus, President Obama says everyone should be able to go to college. So, today he's going to unveil a plan that he says will make it affordable. But, will colleges buy into that plan and will families buy into that plan? We'll take a look at that.

Then, it was -- I love this story -- it was a special delivery to the East Haven, Connecticut mayor's office. Yes. Tacos, tacos, hundreds of tacos. You'll remember he did ask for them. Listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I might have tacos when I go home. I'm not quite sure yet.



O'BRIEN: Yes. Well, that's what he can have for dinner. We'll talk about what happened, how those tacos got to him and what the fallout has been for that embattled, at this point, mayor. Straight ahead.

STARTING POINT begins right now.

Welcome back, everybody. This the Beach Hut Cafe where we are getting some great service. They are very busy. I think this is the busiest diner that we have been in at 7:00 in the morning. And we're glad that they're having us. You're listening to Luther Vandross, "The Power of Love." Pick my selection. I wish I make it an all- booster all day. Yes, yes, I will go for that.

Let's introduce you to our panels. Alex Castellanos joins us --


O'BRIEN: -- CNN political contributor and Republican consultant and Maria Cardona, a CNN contributor as well, and a Democratic strategist.

David Frum, can we get a shot of David Frum's chair. Yes. I've committed to mocking David Frum this morning because he is late for my show and when you have --

CASTELLANOS: He arrived with sleep in his eyes.

O'BRIEN: I know. I'm told it's not his fault. But too bad, we don't care. We're moving on.

So let's talk a little bit about this final debate last night. It is the debate right before Florida Republicans will vote and stakes were very, very high. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich really going at it all night with jabs. So was there a clear winner in addition to our panelists, we got Florida Republican Congressman David Rivera. He is in Miami. He's endorsed Newt Gingrich.

It's nice to have you, sir. Thanks for being with us. We certainly appreciate your time.

How do you think -- I don't know that you're ready for us yet. All right. We'll start. You guys let me know when he's ready.

Panelists. Well, Mr. Rivera is getting ready. Who do you think won? And don't give me the, I'm a Republican, I'm a Democrat, you know, here's who I'm supporting.

CASTELLANOS: We never do that. We never do that.

O'BRIEN: Never, never.

CASTELLANOS: Last night, last night was, I think -- I think the best performance of the stage last night. I want to say this actually was Wolf Blitzer.


CASTELLANOS: He did a very good job last night. Two things. One is when the candidates pushed back, Wolf pushed back against them, especially, for example, Newt Gingrich in that exchange.

O'BRIEN: So you think Wolf Blitzer won the debate last night?

CASTELLANOS: No, I think he did a perfect job. And the other thing is he let the candidates run and go at each other when they really had something to say. So we got a very good debate.

Who won last night? I think Mitt Romney took the debate last night. He was the alpha dog last night. Newt Gingrich seemed a little passive. And when Romney pushed back on Gingrich's investments that was a key moment in the debate.

O'BRIEN: I believe that Congressman David Rivera is ready for us right now. And I'm going to guess that he's going to disagree with you because, of course, he is endorsing Newt Gingrich. Am I right, congressman?

REP. DAVID RIVERA (R), FLORIDA: You know, you're absolutely correct. I thought Newt Gingrich did as well as he's done in previous debates when he's, of course, being congratulated by a lot of folks in his debate performance over the months, and certainly over the last few weeks during this primary campaign. And I think the voters of Florida will recognize that coming next Tuesday.

O'BRIEN: One of the moments in the debate, and there was lots of focus on immigration, obviously. I thought there were just tons of issues finally being discussed in this particular debate. I thought it was really good.

Here's what they talked about in terms of English language, because this went on for a little bit in the debate. Let's play it.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And my point was, no one should be trapped in a linguistic situation where they can't go out and get a job and they can't go out and work.


O'BRIEN: So Congressman Rivera, Newt Gingrich as you know has got a lot of flack for that because he basically had at one point referred to language of the ghetto. Do you think he deserved the backlash that he got from that, and the conversation that happened in this debate last night?

RIVERA: No, of course not. Newt Gingrich has been one of the foremost at advocates in the Republican Party for reaching out to the Hispanic community. He has a track record of outreach toward the Hispanic community. In particular, when he was speaker of the House, he helped pass an important immigration reform legislation which helped many Nicaraguan-Americans or Central Americans achieve the American dream to the Nicaraguan-American Central American Relief Act.

Over the years even after he left the speakership, he's been pushing into Republican Party, inside the Republican Party, and as a private citizen, to make sure that we do everything possible to reach out to the Hispanic community. The pathway to the American dream in America as all Hispanics will agree is making sure we do everything possible to educate our children, that they are extremely proficient in the English language, all Americans and particularly Hispanic Americans understand that that's important. That's why Speaker Gingrich is trying to make that point. He wants the American dream for all Hispanics. O'BRIEN: And I understand that, but I think the words that were used, and we could play this chunk, he literally said the language of living in a ghetto. And I do think, sir, that when you're talking about, you know, Latinos that you're talking about language, that's a tough stuff. I want to play that chunk first and then get you to respond on the other side, then we'll bring Maria in. Go ahead.


GINGRICH: We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and so they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.


O'BRIEN: Language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto. Congressman Rivera, that's from 2007. That's a tough one to spin, I think, isn't it?

RIVERA: Well, not at all. Not if you believe in the American dream. And I think most Hispanic-Americans belief in the American dream and they want prosperity for their children and their grandchildren. That's what we're all about, and that's what Newt Gingrich is all about. He wants to make sure that we make all Americans as proficient as possible in English.

Every Hispanic-American, every Hispanic parent has children or grandchildren in school, that's exactly what they want. They want their children to move up the ladder and be able to go on and further their education. Do everything possible to achieve the American dream. And one of the important elements in this country to achieving the American dream is making sure our children are proficient in English. How can anybody possibly be against making sure Hispanic- Americans and all Americans are proficient in English as possible.


MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Congressman, congressman, this is Maria Cardona, how are you?

RIVERA: How are you?

CARDONA: My question is, I absolutely agree about the American dream, but part of the American dream is actually showing respect for the Latinos who have been here and, frankly, calling Spanish the language of the ghetto is not showing that kind of respect.

RIVERA: The only candidate that has shown respect to the Hispanic-American community, at least for the most part, in this election is Newt Gingrich with the way he has humane and reasonable immigration policy, for example.

No candidate has been more respectful to Hispanic- American, more open to the American dream for Hispanic-Americans than Newt Gingrich. That's just the fact. That's just the record. The fact of the matter is Newt Gingrich has shown great respect for the Hispanic community in the way he has developed his immigration reform policies, in the way he has made outreach efforts to the community. Newt Gingrich is doing everything possible to send his message on economic prosperity, whether it be education, health care, all of the issues that Hispanic-Americans are concerned about, he's doing everything possible to get his message across to Hispanics here in Florida, and I'm sure he will do it in other states as well. He's done it before and he will do it in the future.

CASTELLANOS: Congressman, Alex Castellanos. I wanted to asks you if --

RIVERA: Alex, how are you?

CASTELLANOS: I'm good. I'm good. Hey, understand that Congressman Gingrich's intent here and, you know, I don't think Republicans do get enough credit for trying to lift minorities out --

O'BRIEN: OK, you're getting in dangerous spin territory, but we got it. Got it. Yes. And your question is?

CASTELLANOS: Listen to what Gingrich was saying there. He was actually saying that -- I know my family. We came to this country, the most important thing we had was mom and dad tried to make sure we learned the language of the country, the language of the economy.


O'BRIEN: I don't think they disagree with learning the language.


CASTELLANOS: My question for Gingrich is a little different. The kind of erratic nature of some of the things he said. Let's say his intent was good, but if a president makes these kinds of unforced error and says things that offend people, say when he's overseas, would Newt Gingrich be a stable president or an erratic president?

RIVERA: Well, you have to remember, you know, sometimes when you're a private citizen as he was when he made that statement and you're talking about developing public policy, sometimes you need to shock people into waking up to a problem.

And maybe that was Speaker Gingrich's intent, to make sure he used some type of language that would maybe wake people up to the problem of making sure that everybody in America is proficient in English.

The fact of the matter is, that every American will support his policy position, which is making sure we allow people to achieve the American dream and the way to do that is to excel in the English language. And he wants to do that for every American child, whether they're of Hispanic background or Asian background, no matter where they're from in the world. We need to make sure that everybody is as proficient in English as possible. And as president, I think that's what every American wants him to do. What's important is the policy. Maybe not so much the rhetoric but the policy that he's defending.

O'BRIEN: Congressman Rivera, nice to have you. Thanks for talking with us this morning. We certainly appreciate your time.

RIVERA: Thank you. Thanks so much.


O'BRIEN: We got to get to other news. Christine Romans has that for us.

Hi, Christine, good morning.


Two teenagers arrested for allegedly trying to carry out a bomb attack. Police say the two students from Utah's Roy High School, about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City, plotted to set off explosives during a school assembly and steal a plane to make their get away. 18-year-old Dale Morgan and a 16-year-old boy whose name is not being released were reportedly planning this for months. Police did not find any explosives at the school or at the teen's homes.

All right, the American woman rescued by U.S. Navy SEALS after Somali pirates captured her is in Italy now. She will be reunited with her father there before heading home. Buchanan and Poul Thisted were providing aid in the region when they were captured. They spent three months in captivity.

The manhunt for a convicted killer is intensifying in Mississippi. There is reward to find you Josef Azman, one of several felons with pardoned by former Governor Haley Barbour. Of these four murderers who were pardoned, this one remains missing. They were supposed to be turned over to the governor's office but no one knows exactly where they are.

All right, passengers who survived the Costa Concordia cruise shipwreck will reportedly each get about $14,000. Reuters reports that the money is being offered to those who were not physically hurt in the crash. Passengers who were hurt will be dealt with on a case- by-case basis. Those who accept the deal cannot ever sue the company.

And a public viewing being held tonight in the Los Angeles area for legendary singer Etta James. A private funeral will be held Saturday with Reverend Al Sharpton giving the eulogy. James died Friday after battling leukemia. She was 73 years old. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: That's so sad. I love Etta James.

Thanks, Christine. I appreciate it.

So as we've been talking about all morning, the Hispanic vote is going to prove critical in this election. So did any candidate last night win that group over?

Ron Brownstein joins our panel. He's in Miami where he was able to watch the debate with a crowd of the Hispanic Leadership Network Conference.

Good morning to you. We miss you in person.


O'BRIEN: A couple things I want to get to because you posted right after the debate an article on which is a great deconstruction of how it went. Give me the one take away that people should know about the debate last night. One.

BROWNSTEIN: Can I can give you two? Newt Gingrich still has not got his win back. He's kind of seem off all night, whether he wanted to confront Romney. Romney was there with an answer that usually got a better response from the audience when Gingrich is attacking. Even when he tried to be conciliatory towards Romney, brushing away Wolf's question about taxes, Romney came back and said why don't you say, you know, what you said on the campaign trail here on the stage.

The most interesting, though, particularly watching this with this preponderantly Hispanic audience at the Hispanic Leadership Network was that Gingrich's arguments for what the congressman called a humane and reasonable immigration policy drew almost no reaction, Soledad, from that audience. Almost no positive reaction. There was a much bigger positive reaction when he talked about requiring English to be the official language, and also when Romney said he was not anti-immigrant. It's a reminder that the politics of immigration in a Republican primary where Cuban-Americans dominate the Hispanic vote may be very different than in a broad general election context.

O'BRIEN: Last question for you. Santorum, I thought he was good in the debate last night. What kind of impact these things that are going to potentially have, if any at all?

BROWNSTEIN: Santorum was very good in the debate as he was in South Carolina. And he was good in pressing a case against Mitt Romney. The irony, of course, is the better Santorum does, the better it is for Romney. Romney will take those kind of arrows if it means that Santorum's vote grows and splinters the conservative vote that Gingrich needs to consolidate if he's going to have any chance here in Florida which looks more dim I think after last night's debate than before.

O'BRIEN: All right. Alex Castellanos and I were having a little argument about that. Thank you, Ron. We'll see you in person. I think at the beginning of next week, and you can see his great article at A really good deconstruction of the takeaway sort of debate last night. National Journal has got the cover story as well.

OK, ahead this morning at STARTING POINT, we're going to continue our conversation about how it went last night, especially looking specifically at the Latino vote here in the State of Florida. And Mitt Romney's foreign policy adviser is going to join us next with a look at why she thinks he's the best candidate to represent Latinos.

Plus, a couple of days ago, the mayor of East Haven said he might go and have a taco. Well, here they come. He doesn't even have to go anywhere. Delivered right to him. Of course, it's all part of a bigger point they were making to that mayor. We'll tell you about that.

Plus, college costs in some ways crushing dreams of students, really spiraling out of control. We'll talk this morning with education secretary Arne Duncan about the president's new plan and is it economically feasible.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We got to take a short break. We'll see you on the other side.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. We're coming to you this morning from the Beach Hut Cafe, which is in Jackson Beach, Florida, having breakfast with our panelists. You might notice that David Frum has joined us.

DAVID FRUM, FORMER GEORGE W. BUSH SPEECHWRITER: Yes, remind me not to go into battle with you guys.

CASTELLANOS: Remind us -- remind us not to go into count on you in battle.

O'BRIEN: Do you know some help, Rose? Will you hop in and fix his IFP for him while we're doing -- while we're doing this. Yes, nice to have you. Only 17 minutes into the show.

All right. We've been talking this morning about the critical Latino vote in the state of Florida. Could it make or break the race? We've got Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen joining us. She's in Miami as well. She's a foreign policy adviser for Mitt Romney. Senior Republican woman in the House.

Nice to have you with us. We appreciate it. We'd love to have you in person and have breakfast here.



O'BRIEN: Let's talk about last night. What did you think of the debate?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I thought it was an awesome debate by all of the candidates, of course, I'm a little bit partial for Mitt Romney. And I think he came on aggressively, very decidedly ready for battle. And I wish that Mitt would have shown up previously but it's good to have the real Mitt there on stage.

And it shows that one of the arguments that Newt makes is that he would be a great debater against Obama. No doubt. By Mitt showed that he can old his own also against President Obama. And what we want is a candidate who can beat President Obama and who shares our values. And I think that that person is Mitt Romney. Certainly electability is still a key issue in this race.

O'BRIEN: OK. There were lots of conversations about a couple of things. One was sort of the deporting of grandmoms, right? We had a big chunk of that in the conversation yesterday. And also Newt Gingrich had called Mitt Romney anti-immigrant and this is what Mr. Romney said last night. Let's listen.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That is simply inexcusable. That's inexcusable. And actually Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate.

Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive.


O'BRIEN: So he was given -- Newt Gingrich was given the opportunity to back away from those comments and he did not. He repeated them again.

Let me ask you a question about Mr. Romney's immigration plan. I mean, they sort of sparred over the deporting grandma. Who would he be willing to deport, both Gingrich and Romney say, well, no grandmas. I wouldn't deport grandmas. So spell it out for me.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I think that Mitt Romney was correct when he said that the problem with illegal immigration is not that 11 million grandmas. It's sort of simplifies that, that way of looking at the problem. Now he got -- Mitt's defense of his position not being anti- immigrant got a big applause in the Hispanic Leadership Conference at Doral in West Dade (ph) last night and I think that that's the kind of reaction that many Hispanics will have.

I don't know that it's productive to call someone anti-immigrant. Now, Marco Rubio, who is our hometown boy, our star, he was correct in saying take down that ad. You can say what you want in a different way without tagging anyone as being anti-immigrant.

Mitt's position differs from mine. I'm in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. But what I think this debate and this election is all about is making sure that Obama is a one-term president and it will hinge on the economy. I know here in Florida everyone loves to talk about immigration, immigration, immigration. It's an important concern, but it's the jobless numbers that are going high and higher here in South Florida.

The mortgage crisis and all of the economic pocketbook issues, Mitt Romney has got that kind of message and that's why, whatever get said about immigration, once Mitt has got Newt talking about that nonstop, it's really Newt's -- in a very weak position because what people care about overwhelmingly is the economy, not immigration.

CASTELLANOS: The economy. I understand. Congresswoman, Alex Castellanos. How are you?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Hey, Alex. Good to see you. Well, good to hear you, anyway.

CASTELLANOS: Good to see you. Question for you. Right now we seem to have a -- we're a country of 300 million people that has a cap yearly on how many immigrants can come here, about 140,000 people, I think. And we're losing a lot of our, you know, first round intellectual draft choices, engineers would go to school here and go home to China or India. We're losing a lot of talent. What is Romney's position on legal immigration and increasing that?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, I think that he's got a well thought-out plan. Remember he's been laying out his ground game for this presidential race for a long time. And he made it very clear in last night's debate he is in favor of legal immigration. He believes that when you -- when you foster a climate that brings about illegal immigration, what you're doing is you're sending a message to those folks who've been patiently waiting in line in their home countries to say, hey, you know, going by the rules is not going to pay off for you. Come on over here and do your best.

I think what all Americans are looking for are sensible strategies for dealing with this immigration problem that we have here. All of the candidates are saying that we're against illegal immigration. Let's see what we can do to make sure that we can keep folks who are going to be good contributors to our country and do so in a legal way. But again, immigration is not going to drive the debate neither in Florida nor anywhere else.

So we can keep talking about immigration. But it's the economy, it's the economy, and it's jobs and mortgages, and all of our mortgages are under water.

O'BRIEN: You and I have had this conversation a couple of times.


ROS-LEHTINEN: And that is the Romney way.

O'BRIEN: Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: Next time -- you know what, I just lost my audio here so I can't hear you anymore. But next time, while we fix this, we're going to have you come in person because we're having a good breakfast. Nice to see you.

All right, we've got to take a short break.

Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, though, he said he might go home and have a taco for dinner. Well, be careful what you wish for. We'll tell you what happens. Why all of these folks are showing up at the East Haven, Connecticut, Mayor's Office. I've got our "Get Real" coming up next.

Plus, have you seen this video? It's a snowmobiler falling 120 feet. The X Games. Oh, my gosh. And then he walks away from that crash. Got that incredible story coming up.

And "Mamma Mia." ABBA is making a comeback after 18 years.


O'BRIEN: Got details -- oh, yes, the outfits. We're back right after this short break. You're watching STARTING POINT."


O'BRIEN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Now it's time for our "Get Real" segment. The embattled mayor of East Haven, Connecticut -- like it when they called you the embattled mayor.


CASTELLANOS: Not a good day. Not a good day.

O'BRIEN: His name is Joseph Maturo and he is wishing that he had never ever said these very words.


MAYOR JOSEPH MATURO, EAST HAVEN, CONNECTICUT: I might have tacos when I go home. I'm not quite sure yet.


O'BRIEN: Yes, that was an answer to a reporter who said, what's he going to do for the Latino community in the wake of arrest of police officers for harassment of Latino community and others.

Anyway, so this mayor gets what he asked for and then a little bit more. There was a special delivery of tacos, literally 500 tacos, dropped off at his office by members of the group Reform Immigration for America. Listen.


LATRINA KELLY, JUNTA FOR PROGRESSIVE ACTION: Hopefully you know now that comments like yours only heighten racial tension and help explain how the kind of racial intolerance uncovered by the U.S. Department of Justice was allowed to take hold in the East Haven Police Department. These tacos represent every person across America who was disgusted and condemns your comments.


O'BRIEN: These tacos represent --


O'BRIEN: This is like --



I mean, if they're tasty tacos --

O'BRIEN: Right. Interesting.

FRUM: I said something provocative on TV. Do I get 500 tasty tacos?

O'BRIEN: Good question.

CASTELLANOS: I don't think these were that tasty.


CASTELLANOS: They probably had a little crow in them.


O'BRIEN: Anyway, they're expecting that number to grow to the thousands because the group is saying if you Tweet the word taco they will send him a taco for every tweet as you can imagine.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, let me tweet that now.

O'BRIEN: Again, regretting, regretting is the word of the day for that Mr. Mayor.

All right, ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, President Obama says that everyone should be able to go to college. Today he's going to talk about a new plan to make it affordable. We'll have the Education Secretary Arne Duncan join us with details on that plan.

And what happens to Gabrielle Giffords' now vacant congressional seat? Could her husband astronaut, Mark Kelly, run for that seat? We will sit down and ask him that very question on STARTING POINT.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. That's Carlos Santana, yes, Maria Cardona, you know what? You are my new best friends in terms of musical choice.

The new thing is allowing panelist to pick the music. We had a rough start with Marcaine, really? That's what you're picking?

Anyway, I love to get to this morning on STARTING POINT, but first we want to get to some other update on other headlines that Christine Romans has for us. Good morning, Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Soledad. Just in to CNN, Ford Motor Company just released its best annual earnings in 14 years. That makes 2011 the second most profitable year in the automaker's history.

Good news all around. U.S. markets are gearing up for a higher open this morning. Futures in all three major indices trading higher. This morning, we'll be watching for new GDP numbers, Gross Domestic Product, of course, is the most comprehensive picture we get of how the American economy is doing.

Analysts tell us they think that growth in this country picked up in the final quarter of 2011 will be there for that when the report comes out at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time.

All right, the FBI has joined investigators in New Orleans in the search for a carjacker who shot a good Samaritan to death. Harry Mike Amesworth died in front of his two children earlier this week after dropping them off at a bus stop.

Police say the Good Samaritan jumped on the hood of a car to help a woman who is being carjacked and that he was shot in the chest and killed.

The British and French missions to the U.N. will meet today in a closed Security Council meeting to discuss Syria. Syrian troops shelved to city of Homs late yesterday demanding an end to anti-government protest there. Witnesses say they are offering to stop the attacks if the demonstrations end.

BP losing another round in court. A federal judge has ruled that BP is responsible for all economic damages caused by the deepwater horizon rig explosion that happened in 2010. The New Orleans judge says Transocean, the owner of the rig, won't be liable to damages for third parties. Eleven people were killed in the worst U.S. oil spill in history.

Arizona Senator John McCain will be joining Mitt Romney on the Florida campaign trail today. He will be with him through the weekend. McCain is urging Florida voters to focus on the candidates' records and not their debate performances.

Opening night at the Winter X games. Catch this. Snowmobiler Colton Moore takes a scary massive spill in the freestyle semi-finals. A 120-foot jump in mid-air, he loses his grip. He comes crashing down violently on his back. But get this, he walked away unharmed and then went on to the finals and won the gold medal.

All right, let's sing it with me, yes, Abba. Abba is making a comeback. The group plans to release their first new song in 18 years. They're going to rerelease their final album "The Visitors" in April.

And they're going to include a previously unreleased song called "From a Twinkling Star to a Passing Angel." Soledad, so far on this wonderful iPod madness you have in the morning no one has had Abba on their iPod yet. O'BRIEN: We're struggling a little bit with our music this morning. You know, I called for an all Luther panel, I get nothing. You and I have got to work this out.

All right, Christine. Thank you for that. Gosh, you know, that guy falling off of his snowmobile. Did you see the thing? He tucked. That's why he did not die. He tucked when he hit the snow and it saved his neck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was remarkable. I didn't know that was really Newt Gingrich.

O'BRIEN: You're so funny. Alex Castellanos who's on our panel. David Frum has joined us. It's nice to have you digging into his breakfast. Maria Cardona is with us as well.

And Lenny Curry is the chairman of the Florida Republican Party and he's joining our panel as well this morning. It's really nice to have you here. Appreciate it. You're a guy who basically filled the hall last night for the debate.

LENNY CURRY, CHAIRMAN, FLORIDA REPUBLICAN PARTY: I had a lot of help but, yes, when we announced the debate in Jacksonville, Florida, the request far exceeded the supply inside of a day.

O'BRIEN: When I was talking to Senator McCain yesterday, two days ago in Washington, D.C. He said, you know, that one of the problems that he sees in these debates is that the candidates are basically like chipping away at each other. He sees it as a big negative. Do you think he has a point?

CURRY: Well, obviously I would rather they not attack each other and stick to a compelling vision of how they're going to turn this economy around.

O'BRIEN: Do you tell them that?

CURRY: Absolutely. But look, I understand it politics, it happens. President Obama is going to come after whoever the nominee is with a big war chest. So we'll get through this and we'll be able to (inaudible) and get past the chipping away that we've experienced in the primary season.

O'BRIEN: What kind of conversations are you having because you're the middle man for all of the campaigns?


O'BRIEN: When they're calling you the night before the debate, what kinds of conversation are you having with them?

CURRY: Don't attack the free enterprise system. I mean, as Republicans, this is -- we believe that the free market, the free enterprise system is what lifts people out of poverty. Not government programs. So I don't like seeing the candidates go back and forth on that issue. O'BRIEN: Do you think there was a winner last night? Don't say everybody was a winner and everybody played well. Really, who did the best?

CURRY: I actually do think they all did a good job.

O'BRIEN: One word answer, sir. It's either Romney or Gingrich or Santorum or even Paul.

CURRY: You'll notice the audience, what encouraged me was each candidate had at any moment last night something that made sense and con net we'd the audience. And the entire audience went nuts, which tells me we can coalesce around a nominee.

O'BRIEN: If I told you, you had to narrow it to one person, who would you say? You don't have to endorse them -- one person?

CURRY: I think they all did a great job.

O'BRIEN: Lenny, you know I love you and we're having breakfast but you're killing me. Go ahead.

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Elections aren't won just on Election Day. When you register voters, aren't Democrats keeping up with Republicans on registration?

O'BRIEN: Better. Democrats are killing Republicans on registration.

CURRY: In Florida, we began the year with 580,000 deficit to the Democrats and narrowed that to 502. In Florida, we're making significant progress and we've got an aggressive plan in place for the year.

O'BRIEN: Can I show this graphic? Because I think that's really interesting point. Let's pop that up. If you look at Latino Republicans in Florida, it's gone up actually from 2006 to 2012.

It had a growth of about 10 percent. Roughly 400,000 as you mentioned, to about 452. It's the Democratic numbers that really show tremendous growth for 2006-2012. Show the Dem numbers for Latinos. Those are 52 percent. So doesn't that spell huge trouble for you and what to do?

CURRY: Well, there are Latino communities that are registered Democrat that are not married to the party. And it's going to be up to us to communicate a compelling message of how our policies will touch and affect their lives and create opportunity for their families.

MARIA CARDONA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Mr. Chairman, that's where my question comes in because there was a lot of talk last night about whether Romney was -- a lot of pushback.

And whether or not that's the right word to use within the Republican primary. At perception and among the wider Latino community that all of those candidates last night are anti-immigrant. How do you address that in the general election?

CURRY: Well, what my message has been for party chairman, the fact that we are having this conversation about immigration speaks to what America stands for. We're still the greatest country in the world, land of opportunity.

We're having this because people want to come here. We need to figure out a way to bring immigrants here that want to live and work and raise their families in America.

CARDONA: What about the ones who are already here? That's something that Romney has not really addressed.

CURRY: I'm going to leave that up to --

O'BRIEN: Or any of the candidates, actually.

CURRY: This is a very complicated and emotional issue. These guys are in a battle to win a primary election.

CASTELLANOS: I think he fixed a lot of our immigration problems because frankly there aren't enough jobs here to attract immigrants. Really our immigration problem is decreasing.

O'BRIEN: Hold on. Hold on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, but it speaks to one thing.

O'BRIEN: Deportation theory, which is --

CASTELLANOS: It's not a theory. It's happening in fact.

O'BRIEN: The numbers that are going to get to the core of 11 million --

CASTELLANOS: It actually works. Believe it or not, what Obama -- the "State of the Union" the other night, he said we're importing less foreign oil than ever. Yes, you know what, because our economy cratered. We have less of an immigration problem --

O'BRIEN: I have people screaming in my ear. We have to take a break. You're going to stick around? David Frum, we're going to get to your question. We're going to take a break.

Coming up next on STARTING POINT, we're going to talk about education. The president announcing a plan to make college more affordable, he's going to unveil that today.

We're going to talk to the Education Secretary Arne Duncan about some of the details.

And Maria Cardona hooking us up once again with her iPod. Shakira I think is going to be on the other side of this. Thank you for good music this morning.


O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. President Obama is wrapping up a three-day, five-state road trip at the University of Michigan today. The focus is a plan to keep college affordable. Listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me put colleges and universities on notice. If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can't be a luxury. It is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.


O'BRIEN: Education Secretary Arne Duncan is live with us this morning from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

It's nice to see you, Mr. Secretary. So what the president has said so far, and I know he's going to announce more today, has been kind of vague. Give us specific details about how he's going to make college more affordable?

ARNE DUNCAN, EDUCATION SECRETARY: Well, we all have to step up to the plate. And I appreciate the opportunity so much. What President Obama worries about is that for middle class folks who are working hard they're starting to think they can't afford college. College is just for the wealthy. And that's simply unacceptable. So we're trying to do everything we can at the federal level to increase access, significant increases to Pell Grants, make permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit, double -- double our work study opportunities, but we can't do it alone.

He's challenging states to continue to invest in tough economic times in higher education. He's challenging universities to keep that tuition down. It can't be skyrocketing and to make sure students don't just have access, that they're graduating. Ultimately we're convinced --

O'BRIEN: So the word you're using --


DUNCAN: -- we have to educate our way to a better economy --

O'BRIEN: Forgive me for interrupting you. OK, but I want to -- when you say he's -- he used the words, let me put you on notice, right? That's sort of a forceful way of saying. How are the feds going to force colleges and universities to lower their tuition or keep their tuitions low, specifically?

DUNCAN: So we want to -- we want to use both carrots and sticks where universities are doing the right thing keeping those tuition down, doing a great job of graduating young folks. We want them to have more access to resources where they're not doing a good job there, where tuition is skyrocketing, where students aren't graduating, we want to invest less there.

And I think that's the right thing to do. We want to make sure great actors get rewarded and where students go and bad actors understand that kind of behavior is unacceptable.

O'BRIEN: There are colleges who would say but you're talking about taking away money from us at a time when state budgets are already squeezed. When we have more students who need more funding. How can you possibly expect us to do well in that environment?

DUNCAN: Right. So again, we all have to work together. We want to be a great partner. We're increasing our investment. We're challenging states to do the same thing. And we're challenging universities to be a full and equal partner. So no one gets a pass. All of us have to come to the table. And ultimately we have to make sure the middle class dream of going to college continues to be a reality, not some distant dream just for the wealthy.

O'BRIEN: There's a big huge skilled labor gap in this country. If you look at like plumbers and steamfitters and even skilled construction. What's the president's plan for shrinking that gap?

DUNCAN: What the president always says is -- if you drop out of high school you're basically condemned to poverty and social failure. There are no good jobs out there. Some form of higher education has to be the goal for every single young person in this country. Whether it's a four-year university, a two-year community college, trade, technical, vocational training, there are great jobs out there but it takes some form of education beyond that high school diploma.

DAVID FRUM, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, NEWSWEEK AND THE DAILY BEAST: Mr. Secretary, David Frum here. I was so impressed that the president acknowledged in the State of the Union that the trend has been that federal aid has driven -- as economic research shows, federal aid drives tuition up. And so what -- but I'm surprised your proposal is let's do more of the thing that the economists tell us is driving tuition up.

And meanwhile the discipline that you want to see on the universities all come from the states who may not be inclined to do it. So how does your plan add up?

DUNCAN: So again, we want to continue to invest. We have to do that. But we're challenging states with some significant carrots that they have to maintain their commitment to higher education and we're challenging universities to keep that tuition down. If all three partners, the states, the local universities, and the federal government come together, the great things are going to happen for our country.

If that doesn't happen, we're going to invest less in those states or in those universities where they don't have the best interest of young people at heart.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you a question. I want to play a little chunk of what presidential candidate Rick Santorum said about President Obama's motivation for wanting American kids to go off to college. Listen.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's no wonder President Obama wants every kid to go to college. The indoctrination that occurs in American universities is one of the keys to the left holding and maintaining power in America. And it is indoctrination. If it was the other way around the ACLU would be out there making sure that there wasn't one penny of government dollars going to colleges and universities.


O'BRIEN: What's your reaction to what the senator is saying?

DUNCAN: I think it's just a little silly. We have to educate our way to a better economy. We're in a globally competitive knowledge-based world today. And if you drop out of high school you're basically condemned to poverty and social failure. So there are no good jobs out there.

If you only have a high school diploma, there are very few good jobs out there. As I said earlier, some form of higher education, whatever that young person's dream is, four-year university, two-year community college, trade, technical vocational training, K-12 is simply a starting point.

Some form of education beyond that is going to give that young person opportunities in a globally competitive economy. That's what this is about. It's about making America strong again and educating our way to a better economy.

O'BRIEN: Secretary Arne Duncan, joining us this morning. Thanks for being with us. Appreciate it.

I think he mentioned STARTING POINT in one of his last sentences there. He wasn't really pitching our show but we'll take it as that. Thank you.

All right, we've got to take a short break. When we come back, much more about the debate and we'll also look forward to what happens next in this race.


O'BRIEN: Good morning, everybody. Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Dr. Sanjay Gupta has been examining the concussion crisis in sports. But even understanding the risk doesn't necessarily mean you're preventing them. Now here is one family's really tragic story. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Number 44, senior Nathan Stiles is a Spring Hill Broncos star running back.

RON STILES, NATHAN STILES' FATHER: If you would watch him run, he had a flow about him that was just beautiful. I mean, it looked so graceful.

GUPTA: Nathan's also a starter on the varsity basketball team. A singer.

CONNIE STILES, NATHAN STILES' MOTHER: The 2010 Homecoming king is Nathan Stiles.

GUPTA: He's a toast at Spring Hill Kansas. The Broncos lost that game. And the next day Nathan had headaches. No big deal until five days later when his mom Connie received a phone call.

C. STILES: And I got a call from the trainer at school saying, Nathan is telling me he's still having headaches. You need to go take him to the emergency room. So I did. Had a CAT scan. Nothing.

GUPTA: The doctor kept Nathan out of play for three weeks. When he was ready to return his mom was worried.

C. STILES: And I remember him looking at me and he goes, mom, are you OK with this? And I'm like, with him going back for football? I'm like, no, but it's his choice. Nathan, you want to play? Yes, I'm all right. Yes. I've only got, you know, two games left.

GUPTA: But in the last game of the season right after halftime Nathan went down.

C. STILES: He had collapsed on the sideline and the coaches were telling me to try to wake him up. And he didn't. Then I heard him say, he's seizuring, and then that was it. They took him in the ambulance. We waited for Life Flight. And everything went bad from there. From bad to worse.

GUPTA: After hours of surgery, doctors stopped the bleeding in Nathan's brain, but by then his lungs and heart were too weak to keep him alive. Nathan died. The cause, second impact syndrome.


O'BRIEN: Oh, my god. Sanjay, the story is so, so sad.


O'BRIEN: I think it's also sort of the classic, you know, terrifying thing for any parent. I know that right after this -- he died, they immediately wanted to examine his brain. Why?

GUPTA: Well, they wanted to look certainly for the specific cause of death. They suspected that it was this second impact syndrome, Soledad, you and I have been talking about this. That's a second concussion and quickly after a first concussion before the brain has healed. But they also want to look for something else, which was to find out if he had signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

You don't need to remember that name, but that's basically the changes in the brain that occur in these players as a result of many, many hits to the brain. So they were looking for these things. They had to make that tough call to his parents who had just lost their son but they asked them if they would consider donating Nathan's brain for that purpose -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Gosh, those poor parents. But I know that when they were able to do that they could learn a lot from what happened to their son.

Sanjay's documentary, "BIG HITS, BROKEN DREAMS," premiers on Sunday, January 29th at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Sanjay, thank you. We're going to talk to you in about 30 minutes when you come back to tell us a little bit more about exploring concussions and the risk that go along with them. And we'll see you on the other side.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich trade jabs over money and influence. We're going to break down the most buzz worthy moments of the debate straight ahead.

Plus astronaut Mark Kelly says his wife Gabby Giffords' decision to step down was difficult, but many people are asking will he fight for her seat in Congress.

And drunk at the wheels? Vanna and Pat Sajak were knocking back more than a few during the show. We'll tell you why, straight ahead.