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EARLY START WITH ASHLEIGH BANFIELD AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

FBI to Probe Florida's Teen Death; The Battle for Illinois; FBI To Probe Teen's Death; Fifty-four Delegates At Stake In Illinois Primary

Aired March 20, 2012 - 05:00   ET

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


ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. And welcome to EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello there. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

We're bringing you the news to A to Z -- Ashleigh, Zoraida, I don't know if you need to explain that, because we're on the air couple of months.

Five a.m. in the East. Let's start with your top stories.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI now investigating the killing of an unarmed teenager by a neighborhood watch captain in Florida. The black teenager's parents say race was a factor; 911 calls captured the teenager's final moments.

SAMBOLIN: In just two hours, the polls will open in Illinois and the outcome of this primary could be critical. In 18 hours, the race for the Republican nomination could be clinched or could be in total chaos.

BANFIELD: Well, there's that.

SAMBOLIN: One or the other.

BANFIELD: And a deadly shooting at a Jewish school in France triggering fears of a possible copycat attack in synagogues in other Jewish target in this country. Police in New York and other cities on high alert.

SAMBOLIN: And once again, severe weather overnight. This time, it's in Texas, a tornado touching down right near San Antonio. Take a look at that.

Reports of significant damage this morning, this is part of a slow-moving line of storms stretching from Texas all the way to Minnesota.

BANFIELD: Those storms also bringing some really heavy rain to Oklahoma. Take a look at your screen. Don't do this at home, folks. Don't drive through that stuff.

Floods in Tulsa and other parts of eastern Oklahoma. You're lucky, buddy. You're lucky that you could get out of your car and get out of that next one. Flash flood watches are in effect through tomorrow, very serious.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, someone always tries, right? I guess you underestimate how deep it really is.

BANFIELD: And how much it's moving, you know?

SAMBOLIN: Yes.

One minute past the hour. He was 17 years old, unarmed, carrying skittles and a bottle of iced tea. Now, the FBI is investigating the shooting death of a teen in Florida.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PROTESTER: We are working hard.

PROTESTER: Who's that crying?

PROTESTERS: Trayvon is crying.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Protesters, nearly 100 of them, students and friends of Trayvon Martin gathering outside a Florida courthouse yesterday. They're demanding justice for that black teenager who was shot and killed last month by George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch captain who is patrolling his gated community in Sanford. That teenager's parents say they believe that race was a factor in their son's death. Now, although we don't know who is doing the screaming, you can certainly hear it. You can also hear the fatal shot in a 911 call from the area.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

(SCREAMING)

DISPATCHER: So you think he's yelling, "help"?

CALLER: Yes.

DISPATCHER: What is your --

(GUNSHOT)

CALLER: There's gunshots.

DISPATCHER: You just heard gunshots?

CALLER: Yes.

DISPATCHER: How many?

CALLER: Just one.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Now, that neighborhood watch captain Zimmerman has not been charged. He claims he was acting in self-defense when he pulled the trigger. Trayvon Martin's family wants him arrested and want a jury to weigh in on this case.

The state's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law is a self- defense law that could make that very difficult to actually do.

SAMBOLIN: It is three minutes past the hour. Just when you thought the race for the Republican nomination couldn't get any nastier.

BANFIELD: Oh, I did. I thought it could.

SAMBOLIN: It did, it can, and it probably will. The polls open in Illinois in two hours. 54 delegates are up for grabs there.

American Research Group poll conducted over the weekend shows Mitt Romney with 44 percent, 14 points ahead of Rick Santorum.

And we're seeing some really nasty no-holds barred, Chicago- style politics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're not going to be successful in replacing an economic lightweight with another economic lightweight.

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Do you really believe this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as a president of the United States? You think that's the kind of experience we need?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: And we didn't even hear them saying vote early and vote often. Shall we check the delegate scoreboard? Because Romney is way ahead at 519. Santorum is trailing at 239. You can see Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

Need we even say the numbers at this point? So many people saying it's sort of not an option anymore. That's wise anyway.

CNN's political editor Paul Steinhauser is live from Wheaton, Illinois.

I feel like a broken record, Paul Steinhauser, every time I come to you to advance one of these contests, because we tend to say the same thing over and over. Lots of delegates at stake. Could Romney finally come out as a front runner in this race?

So, I'll ask. Is it even possible anymore to have any race determine who si front-runner could be?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: I don't think a lot is going to change unless Rick Santorum pulls a big upset here and wins in Illinois. That could send really tidal waves, shock waves around the political landscape.

You showed that poll right there, one of two polls out in the last 48 hours that indicates Romney is starting to build a double- digit lead here in Illinois.

And, you know, Ashleigh, he should, I guess, you can say this, because it should be more favorable ground for him especially where I am in suburban Chicago, a lot more moderate, you could say, Republican voters who will be casting ballots in today's primary. That should be a natural for Mitt Romney. He should do well in this part of the state. Santorum probably will do well in more conservative down state.

And, yes, Mitt Romney needs to win here. You know, when we said Mitt Romney needed to win Michigan, he did do that, not by a lot. But he did.

We said Mitt Romney needed to win Ohio. He did do that, but not by a lot. But he did. He needs to win here especially after last week when he came in third in the more conservative states of Alabama and Mississippi -- Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: I feel like it's a north/south story, I mean, not exclusively but generally, because not only because of what you just said seems to be playing out, but it's the northern part of Illinois that tends to favor Romney and the southern part tends to favor Santorum. But it seems like the northern part of the United States seemingly favoring Romney and the southern states are favoring Santorum.

STEINHAUSER: Yes, Romney has done well on the coast. He has done well in some parts -- well, some people would not consider Florida the South, but he did well there obviously. Santorum has done well in the Midwest except for a few states like Michigan and Ohio and we will see what happens here.

Listen, Mitt Romney has pulled out all the stops here I think you could say. Romney's campaign and independent super PAC that is backing Romney have outspent Santorum in this state, 7-1 on campaign commercials.

BANFIELD: Wow.

STEINHAUSER: We saw a similar kind of thing play out in Ohio and in Michigan. And where is Newt Gingrich? Not here, Ashleigh. He's spending today straight through Saturday campaigning in Louisiana, they have the next contest.

BANFIELD: Seven-to-one. That's just unbelievable. You kind of wonder when is that money going to run out or might it ever?

Paul Steinhauser, stick around. We got a lot to talk to you about as we get ready for the race tonight. Thank you.

STEINHAUSER: Thanks.

SAMBOLIN: Six minutes past the hour here.

The deadly at a Jewish school in southern France has police in cities across the country now on high alert. Three children and a rabbi gunned down right outside the school in Toulouse, France. Police are hunting for the killer who approached the school on a motor scooter and just opened fire. France's interior minister says in a TV interview that the shooter had a recording device strapped to his chest.

BANFIELD: Here in New York, there's also heightened security at synagogues and Jewish institutions. The police commissioner, Ray Kelly, says there is concern about copycat crimes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAY KELLY, NYPD COMMISSIONER: We have a significant Jewish population in the city and we have to take it into account. We know that we're at the top of the terrorist target list. So we are concerned about the so-called copycat syndrome.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the shooting was an obvious anti-Semitic attack. Southwest France is now on the highest possible security alert and there will be a moment of silence for the victims that is scheduled for this morning. Sad to watch there.

CNN's Diana Magnay on the phone from Toulouse, France.

Diana, could you tell us what is the latest on the investigation?

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, the latest is really this chilling new detail that you mentioned that the gunman had a camera attached to his chest with straps. This idea that he was recording what he was doing as he gunned down those children. He got close enough to really shoot them at point blank range in the back of the head. The youngest as young as three, the daughter of the director of the school who died in the director's arms and a rabbi, a teacher at this school, and his two sons.

Apparently, according to eyewitnesses the man was able to spend really quite a few minutes standing there shooting and then making his escape on his scooter. And the interior minister said in that interview they were following various leads, one of which was checking to see whether there were any sort of leads amongst neo-Nazi paratroopers.

There are links, you see, between this shooting and two other shootings in the Toulouse area in the last 10 days, a gunman on a black scooter using apparently the same .45 semiautomatic pistol killing first last Sunday an un-uniformed soldier, and then the Thursday last two other soldiers, all of them of ethic origin, North African origin.

So, if you put the two together, it would seem this man is motivated by racist hatreds that's going for ethnic minorities.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Diana Magnay, live from Toulouse, France -- thank you for those details.

BANFIELD: Nine minutes now past 5:00 on the East Coast.

He is accused of a horrible brutal massacre, going door to door in two Afghan villages and shooting and killing 16 civilians, nine of them just children. But according to his attorney, Sergeant Robert Bales says he cannot remember any of it.

John Henry Browne spoke last night on CBS News.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN HENRY BROWN, SGT. BALES' ATTORNEY: He has no memory of -- he has an early memory of that evening and he has a later memory of that evening. But he doesn't have memory of in between.

REPORTER: According to people who have been interviewed, eyewitnesses, Sergeant Bales went from room to room, he shot 16 people dead, including nine children, five are wounded. You're telling me he remembers none of that?

BROWNE: That's correct.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Possibly setting the stage for a diminished capacity defense. Sergeant Bales' wife Karen breaking her silence, issuing a statement through her attorney last night and saying this, "What has been reported is completely out of character of the man I know and admire. Please respect me. When I say I cannot shed any light on what happened that night, so please do not ask. I too want to know what happened. I want to know how this could be."

That is just heartbreaking to think of what she's going through and her family as well.

SAMBOLIN: Very difficult for that family.

Ten minutes past the hour here.

Severe weather beating up the nation's midsection. A tornado touched down in south central Texas near the town of Natalia. It's 30 miles or so from San Antonio.

Take a look at that.

Medina County sheriff's office says it received more than 300 calls indicating damage or injury. The twister is part of a slow- moving dangerous weather system.

BANFIELD: It's 11 minutes past 5:00.

And Rob Marciano has been watching these systems.

You know, I was looking at that as it was getting perilously close to the Dallas Metroplex. Did that highly populated area weather that OK?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, they did OK, but there was a dangerous line moving through there -- really the whole entire I-35 corridor.

Here's some other stills of that storm that moved through Divine, Texas, where there were multiple homes that were damaged. No serious injuries thankfully but a dangerous situation no doubt about that.

We do have a tornado warning right now in effect for Dewitt County, which is east of San Antonio. This is the line that brought the tornadoes to that area last night -- very, very slow-moving line. It's now, I don't know, about 75 to maybe 100 miles east of where the tornadoes touched down so it's crawling off to the east.

So, the other threat with this, not only severe weather, and we got a severe thunderstorm watch in effect for much of southeast Texas right through the rest of the morning. But notice these aren't progressing that far to the east very quickly. So flooding has been an issue across the entire state of Texas, especially the midsection.

For the past 12 hours, we've seen over a foot of rain in some spots and that rain is going to be moving off to the east. So, severe weather threat with the threat for flooding across parts of Louisiana, Arkansas. Meanwhile, the heat continues across the eastern corridor. Temperature, 25 to 30 degrees above average.

First day of spring, by the way, is today.

BANFIELD: First day of spring, oh, I thought that was a month ago.

MARCIANO: Yes, right.

BANFIELD: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: Feeling more like summer these days. Rob, thank you.

MARCIANO: Al right, guys.

SAMBOLIN: Twelve minutes past the hour.

This just in, you should expect it. Gas prices keep going up. AAA just announced the new national average for gas is now $3.85 a gallon. It's getting closer and closer to that $4 a gallon mark.

Oil prices are still high, $107 a barrel right now for light, sweet crude, and oil is the number one factor driving gas prices higher.

BANFIELD: I always think that sounds so nice at breakfast time -- light, sweet crude. Hmm.

SAMBOLIN: And, yummy.

BANFIELD: Thirteen minutes now past 5:00.

Gas prices and politics certainly go hand in hand during an election year. So, let's bring in Christine Romans now to talk about what the candidates say about bringing the gas. I always see $2.50 gas, folks. Vote for me.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: I really don't want anybody out there to believe some of this election year rhetoric. I mean, if a president or Congress or a government can lower gas prices, don't you think they would? I mean long-term, they could have subtle impacts on the direction of oil prices and as Zoraida said, oil is the number one factor in how much you're paying at the pump.

But presidents don't wave a magic wand and set the price of gasoline. They just don't.

Here are five ways, surefire ways to lower gas prices right away. My tongue is firmly in my cheek right now.

You could have a depression. That would lower gas prices, I guarantee it.

You could have peace break out overnight between Iran and Israel, and the U.S. immediately lift all sanctions against Iran. That would lower gas prices.

You could just scrap all the clean air rules in the country, because we don't need clean air. That would lower gas prices.

You could have China decide it's never going to put gas in a car or factory and it's going to go 100 percent solar.

Or you could empty our emergency stock -- just empty them. Empty them, put them in our gas tank, so we can pay $2 or something. Just empty.

BANFIELD: Even that wouldn't help, would it?

ROMANS: Last year, the president --

SAMBOLIN: Temporarily.

ROMANS: Right. What I'm saying there is no easy way to do it. Anybody who tells you otherwise is lying to you. So, you know, we're -- I feel like people know this too. I feel like people know that this is an election year and all this bickering about gas prices.

SAMBOLIN: Fifty-four percent of Americans think the president can do something about it.

ROMANS: Longer term he can. But even you get all these people arguing about Keystone. If you had Keystone, that pipeline pass, almost every oil expert I talked to said you'd still have gas prices exactly where they are. That is not to say we shouldn't be diversifying our oil, we shouldn't be focusing in North American supplies. I'm not saying that.

I'm just saying that everything that presidents do with Congress is longer term and more subtle.

I want to also point out something else that Tom Kloza from the Oil Price Information Service as making at this point. It's a good thing we've had such mild weather, too, because one of the reasons why the economic impact of high gas prices might be muted a bit is because people in the Midwest and Northeast are paying lower heating oil bills, just a little bit of breathing room.

BANFIELD: Strangely I am not.

SAMBOLIN: Neither am I. This is phenomenon when you move to the East Coast.

ROMANS: Welcome to the east coast.

SAMBOLIN: There you go.

BANFIELD: I got to call my oil company. I smell a rat.

ROMANS: Me, too. And just show them the 60-day forecast and say --

BANFIELD: What's up with that? The lady on the phone said, I don't know.

ROMANS: I like that. Helpful.

BANFIELD: Thank you, Christine.

Fifteen minutes past 5:00 on the East Coast.

The first lady appeared on a late night talk show with that guy David Letterman. You may have heard of him. It was Michelle Obama's time as Dave's guest. And he asked her about life in the White House and whether she can go anywhere in public.

And actually, Mrs. Obama told him about one of her covert shopping trips.

SAMBOLIN: It's funny.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE OBAMA, U.S. FIRST LADY: That's my Target run. I went to Target. I thought I was under cover.

I have to tell you something about this trip, though. No one knew that was me because a woman actually walked up to me, right? I was in the detergent aisle and she said -- I kid you not. She said, excuse me, I just have to ask you something -- and I thought, oh, coverage is blown. She said can you reach on that shelf and hand me the detergent. I kid you not.

And the only thing she said, I reached up because she was short and I reached up, pulled it down. She said, well, you didn't have to make it look so easy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: You know, she said she's gone undercover as well to Petco, taking along with her the first dog Bo.

SAMBOLIN: How is that undercover?

BANFIELD: I don't know. The dog alone is famous.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, no kidding.

BANFIELD: I always think what a bummer for them that they have to live incognito.

SAMBOLIN: Seventeen minutes past the hour here.

Still ahead, we have new developments in the shooting death of an unarmed Florida teenager. The FBI is now getting involved.

BANFIELD: And it wouldn't be another week without some story about a cruise ship going haywire. Look at that damage. How would like to be on that cruise ship as it careens right into a tanker? Ouch! We'll tell you what happened.

SAMBOLIN: I'm in the middle of planning a cruise, right?

So, they're called "Glee" on steroids. This is a high cool choir grand champions, they have been crowned. And they only started singing together 18 months ago. We are going to meet some of them this morning, live.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Hi, everybody. Welcome back. It's 20 minutes now past the hour.

SAMBOLIN: And here is Christine Romans.

Good morning to you.

ROMANS: Good morning, ladies.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI are now investigating the killing of an unarmed black teen's by neighborhood watch captain in Florida. Trayvon Martin's parents say race was a factor. The shooter, George Zimmerman, says he acted in self-defense. He has not been arrested.

Voting begins in less than two hours in the Illinois primary. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum stepping up their attacks this morning. Romney referring to his rival as an economic lightweight. Santorum countering by questioning whether Americans really want a Wall Street financier as president of the United States.

Fifty-four delegates at stake today in Illinois. New ARG poll has Romney with a 14-point lead in Illinois.

Deadly bombings rock Iraq -- attacks in seven cities including Baghdad and Fallujah. At least 20 people have been killed, more than 167 people injured. Officials say the attacks are the coordinated efforts of an unknown militant group nine years ago today. Nine years ago today, the U.S. invaded Iraq.

A luxury cruise liner crashing into a container ship in the thick of fog off the coast of Vietnam. Passengers knocked off their feet. Luckily no one was hurt. Both ships suffered damage.

And I'll tell you right now the reputation of the cruise line injury has suffered damage over the past few months.

BANFIELD: No, I stand corrected. I called it a tanker. It was a container ship and what a mess.

ROMANS: Absolutely.

BANFIELD: The was the bridge apparently, that photo you showed, apparently, that nobody has been able to figure out if anybody was hurt on that container ship.

Christine, thank you.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

BANFIELD: Twenty-two minutes now past 5:00.

And we're getting an early read on these things -- those local papers, your papers are actually making some national headlines, as well. We got papers from New York and California.

SAMBOLIN: And in "The New York Times" this morning, a staggering drop in the number of students taking the LSAT. This is the second year in the row that these numbers are going down.

The number of tests administered down more than 16 percent. It's the largest drop in more than a decade. The decline reflects the view that the U.S. legal market is in bad shape.

Strong grade, good schools don't guarantee high paying jobs at a law firm.

BANFIELD: So, they insert legal jokes here, what's worse than 100 lawyers at the bottom of the sea?

SAMBOLIN: What?

BANFIELD: They now say, 100 of us. I don't know if our industry is low in the applications to universities either but, let's take you to "The Los Angeles Times"--

(CROSSTALK)

SAMBOLIN: Liberal arts education, right?

BANFIELD: I hear you. I hear you.

So while we're showing you candy and battered things, this is all about a court case -- are you ready for this -- that pits sugar against high fructose corn syrup. Sugar is suing corn syrup. They don't like the wrap that corn syrup is putting out that they're natural, good for you and all the rest. Sugar says, no, you're not. High fructose says, yes, we're kind of are. We're kind of nutritionally the same as table sugar.

So, the sugar promoters are saying, we think you're connected to obesity and diabetes and tooth decay and all the rest. And get this, are you ready. This is the part I like the best -- the association that's representing corn growers and processors and distributors has actually applied to the Food and Drug Administration to actually change the name of high fructose corn syrup to corn sugar.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, lovely.

BANFIELD: I love it. Anyways, they're duking it out.

SAMBOLIN: Are we getting a bad rap for quite some time now.

I know -- I always look for that label. If that's number one thing, I typically don't buy it.

BANFIELD: No, and, "Saturday Night Live" did an awesome, awesome spoof of it. Google it. You will have a water cooler conversation.

SAMBOLIN: Ah, put it on Facebook for you.

And still ahead, the GOP battling for President Obama's home state -- adopted home state that is. The polls open in Illinois in just over 90 minutes. Candidates throwing huge blows at each other over the economy. But did two of them stumble yesterday?

BANFIELD: And also, it's shooting ash four miles high into the sky. Gosh, that makes for a great picture, doesn't it? Italy's Mt. Etna coming to life again, probably not thrilling to some.

We'll explain because you're watching EARLY START, and we love you for it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: We got some video for you that would make parents cringe. TSA screener patting down an itty-bitty toddler in a wheelchair.

SAMBOLIN: There's a picture right there. We're getting a ton of attention on the Web on this story. The story behind these disturbing pictures.

You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. Twenty-eight minutes past the hour. We're happy to have you on EARLY START. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BANFIELD: Hi, everybody. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.

And it's time to check the stories that are making top news this morning.

The polls are opening in Illinois, about 90 minutes from now, with 54 critical delegates at take in today's primary. The two GOP front-runners tearing down each other's credentials to oversee the economy. Mitt Romney calling Rick Santorum an "economic lightweight." And Rick Santorum referring to Mitt Romney as, quote, "a Wall Street financier."

SAMBOLIN: Federal prosecutors and the FBI are now investigating the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a neighborhood watch captain. This is all in Florida. Students protesting and demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.

His parents saying race was a factor in his death. The shooter, George Zimmerman, says he acted in self-defense. He has not been arrested. The Justice Department is now releasing a statement saying, quote, "The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all the evidence, and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation."

Molten lava is spewing from Italy's Mt. Etna. A plume of ash and smoke billowed out of the top and stretched for four miles, too. Amazingly no airports have been closed but officials are keeping a close eye on this. Mt. Etna is Europe's tallest and most active volcano.

Polls open in just about 90 minutes in Illinois, and the race for the state's 54 delegates has been focused on the economy and who is better equipped to fix it. Romney is leading Santorum by 14 points, that is. That's in the latest American research group poll.

Romney is touting his own economic expertise calling Obama and Santorum economic lightweights, but he did make this surprising admission that had to be well received in the White House. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe the economy is coming back, by the way. We'll see what happens as ups and downs. I think it's finally coming back. (END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: And Santorum stumbles taking heat for a comment that he made about the unemployment rate. Listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. There's something more foundational that's going on here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, let's talk to our political panel, live from Washington -- or from Wheaton, Illinois, excuse me, CNN political editor, Paul Steinhauser, in Washington, democratic strategist, Penny Lee, and in Austin, Texas, we have Republican strategist, Matt Mackowiak. Thank you all for joining us. Paul, I'm going to start with you, because we're going to let Santorum clarify his comment. Let's listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SANTORUM: Of course, I care about the unemployment rate. I want the unemployment rate to go down, but I'm saying my candidacy doesn't hinge on where the unemployment rate goes up and down. Our candidacy is about something that transcends that. It's about freedom. It not about, you know, Governor Romney's idea that he's going to fix the economy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Today, we're going to hyper focus on the economy, Paul. So, Illinois' unemployment rate is, right now, 9.4 percent. That's for January of 2012, but it was at an all-time high here of 11.4 percent in 2010. It's improving from the last two years, but look at this Gallup poll. It says 31 percent of Americans think the economy is the most important issue, 26 percent thinks unemployment is. So, who loses ground here? How does Santorum make any sense of what he said?

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Yes. Rick Santorum was trying to do the bigger picture here and basically say that Mitt Romney is more of a technician and just tied to the unemployment rate, and if it's going down, I guess, Mitt Romney's argument for being president goes down with it, but he did stumble there, and he had to do a little make good.

But he has a point to a degree that, you know, if things are starting to get better with the unemployment report and we see those numbers come down consistently since last autumn, maybe it does hurt Mitt Romney's argument a little bit. Didn't say it very artfully. Did have to make a little bit of a fix there -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: It was a fix. So, let's listen to what Romney said, Matt. I'm going to switch gears with you, but I'm going to stay on the same topic. Let's listen to this, and then, we'll chat.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROMNEY: The Obama administration's assault on our economic freedom is the principal reason why the recovery has been so tepid and why it couldn't meet their expectations. Let alone ours.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, Matt, the national unemployment rate is about stable, 8.3 percent. We can see that it has improved since Obama took office, but we saw Romney flip-flopping yesterday. You know, first he was saying that, you know, they're not doing well and that the economy is doing better. So, what's the strategy with the flip-flopping there in the same day?

MATT MACKOWIAK, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: You know, these guys are on the trail and stakes are so high, and everything they say is being reported around the world that you say things that you'd like to take back. Santorum wants this primary to be focused on Obamacare, on the bailouts, on issues where he has a difference with Romney.

If the primary is fought on issue of the economy, that's Romney's strong point. It just is. He spent so much time in the private sector. He understands how the private sector works in a much more fundamental way I think than Santorum does. So, you know, look, these guys again, they want to, you know, make their best argument in the best way they can, and sometimes, they mess up.

Santorum did try to fix his comment yesterday, but the fact that we're talking about that this morning as voters in Illinois go to the polls is not a good thing for his candidacy.

SAMBOLIN: What about Romney's comments then saying, basically, the Obama administration is doing a good job?

MACKOWIAK: Well, I don't know that he said that. I mean, I think he said that we've had a pretty weak recovery. And in fact, the statistics show this is one of the weakest recoveries after a recession or downturn in a couple generations.

SAMBOLIN: I believe he said it was back on track, didn't he?

MACKOWIAK: He did say -- he did say the economy is back on track. I'm not sure if I would have necessarily used those words. We've had a slight uptick. The economics fundamentals are still worrisome when you look at Europe. When you look at the broader unemployment rate is still above 15 percent.

The way that our unemployment statistics are calculated is a little bit phony to be candid with you, so the fact that it shows 8.3 percent doesn't mean that 97 -- excuse me, 90 -- what is that? Ninety-two or so is employed. There's actually a much larger number that people are unemployed because of the way that statistic is calculated. But, look, ultimately, if you got in the economy, people realize that there just aren't enough jobs. You know, a lot of people have been unemployed for six months or 12 months.

SAMBOLIN: Well, you know, Matt, it's interesting that you bring that up, because Penny, that's precisely what I want to talk to you about. Despite that unemployment chart that we just showed, 59 percent of Americans disapprove of Obama handling our economy. Why? It's the underemployment rate. It's at 14.9 percent. Much larger than the unemployment rate.

It's the underemployment rate that's high, and that's unemployed people plus part-time workers who can't find full time jobs. So, even though, supposedly, the economy is improving, this is really something that shows that the pain goes beyond the numbers. How can Obama address that?

PENNY LEE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, it is in the fact that the policies that he's put into place are starting to have positive effect and that is what they are counting on is the trend lines that we are seeing, and those are trending in the right direction. We all have acknowledged that we have a far way to go, to get out. The hole that we were in was quite deep, put into place by the Bush administration, other policies of the Republicans in the past, got us into where we are.

But, they have stopped the trending of decrease and then actually coming back out, so jobs are increasing, but the president is not resting on the numbers that they are. He wants them to continue to increase so we appreciate the fact that the governor did acknowledge that the economy is moving in the right direction, but we all would acknowledge and say that a long way to go.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, but the American people are quite displeased here. Paul, Matt, Penny, thank you for joining us this morning. Actually, we'll see you again in our six o'clock hour.

And at 7:00 a.m. Eastern on "STARTING POINT," Soledad O'Brien will be joined by the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus. And the CNN live coverage of the Illinois primary begins at 7:00 p.m. eastern with Erin Burnett, "OutFront," and that is followed by extended coverage of the results during "AC 360." That's at 8:00 p.m. and then "Piers Morgan Tonight" at 9:00 p.m. Hold up (ph) late there.

BANFIELD: but right now, it's 36 minutes past 5:00 on the east coast, and still ahead, some very rough surf made for a terrifying moment off the coast of California. A father and his 11-year-old son yanked out to sea. A lifeguard also getting stuck and all of them waiting for a lifeline from the sky.

And also coming up, it is better than "Glee," folks. Get your gleek meter out. A jazzy competition, serious winners. The grand champs are going to talk about the new phenomenon that gleek this way across the country. You are watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: You are to meet some real-life gleeks. Gleeks, of course, the name affectionately given to high school choir members in the glee club just like we see on the hit TV show "Glee."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Well, of course, these are the real-life glee folks, but you know something? We have some real union gleeks, as well. Have a look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Ah, not sure which is better, but I'm thinking this. The Uniondale High School Choir -- High School Show Choir won the grand championship at the National Championship series. It happened over this weekend. We got three of the winners to just talk us through this awesome sensation. Congratulations to this three.

Let me introduce everybody to you, Cary Lamb, over on my far left, Kenyo Baly, here in the middle, and Ariana Morrison. Congrats, guys! You must me thrilled.

(CHANTING) yes.

BANFIELD: First of all, you have got to walk me through this, because I am way older than you. When I was a kid, I was in choir and I was considered a nerd. You all are in choir and you're considered heroes. How does that work? How did you get to such stature? Is it the show or is it something more?

CARY LAMB, UNIONDALE HIGH SCHOOL SHOW CHOIR: It's kind of, you know, that fear you take on stage to represent. You know, Uniondale and your school and there's no way you could deny that. You know, you're just doing good for your community. Something good on TV rather than crime. It's something good.

BANFIELD: So, Cary, you won something extra special in this contest, didn't you?

LAMB: Oh, yes.

BANFIELD: What was it?

LAMB: Well, best male stage presence, I think, which is an honor because out of the schools they picked me as one of the solos to guy.

BANFIELD: Best male stage presence. Let's have a quick look at the moment that propels you to that win. Have a peek.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(SINGING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: That's fantastic. Congratulations. What made you this person? What made you the guy who could get out there in the middle of the stage age and crank it up to that level?

LAMB: Well, you know, my parents and my church, but mostly (INAUDIBLE), our show choir director. She's the kind of person who that pulls out that great performance out of you. That's why we owe her so much.

BANFIELD: Yes. So, can you -- is this something that you think of for a future? Is this something you do with the hobby? I mean, what do chance (ph) doing when they want to get into this big choir shows? Is this just fun or is this something that really is a gateway to something bigger in life?

KENYO BALY, UNIONDALE HS SHOW CHOIR: I would say it's fun, but I take it seriously, too, because I see myself being in the music business in the future.

BANFIELD: Yes.

BALY: And I really love music all around.

BANFIELD: What kind of music like Broadway or recording industry?

BALY: Broadway, soul, R&B, all kinds of music.

BANFIELD: Well, shebang (ph), right? Let's just look at one more quick clip from last night, because it really is fun. They're not from last night but from the weekend. It's really fun to look at you guys on stage and see what you can pull off.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Rocking the Michael Jackson, "Mamase, Mamasa, Mamakusa." This is good stuff, guys. All right. So, here's the deal. Arianna, you're like a kid. Michael Jackson is my era. I'm trying to figure out which one of us likes him more. What do you think?

ARIANA MORRISON, UNIONDALE HIGH SCHOOL SHOW CHOIR: Hmm, we can share it. BANFIELD: We can share it. I think that's the issue, isn't it? I mean, what inspires you to sort of connect to that kind of music and to bring it to a stage like this?

MORRISON: It's just, you have to -- I don't know. You just have to make yourself feel it because like when you get out there, it's not about you anymore. It's about the team and altogether we love working together, and we love the music that we sing.

BANFIELD: Do you consider yourself gleeks? Is it really kind of the "Glee" momentum from television or is it much more different than that now?

MORRISON: It's kind of both, because, I mean, we watch the show. I watch it a lot. I don't know with these guys.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRISON: But, I mean, it's different because we're really there, and it's really happening. So, like, when we like go out on stage and we're performing, it's not like it's a show or whatever, but it's real life so we get to really feel it.

BANFIELD: Now, I know this is more of a nighttime kind of thing, but it's 5:44 in the morning here on the east coast, and I know you all probably don't get up this early, but I am going to put you to the test on live TV. You OK with this?

MORRISON: OK.

BANFIELD: I'm going to ask you to sing us out to break. Do you need to hum a few bar and get your vocal tunes all ready to go, hum up the chords?

MORRISON: Ready?

BANFIELD: Fire away. Let's hear you.

(SINGING)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. It is 48 minutes past the hour. Time to chick the stories making news this morning. Here is Christine Romans. Good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, ladies.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROMANS: Federal prosecutors and the FBI are now investigating the killing of an unarmed black teen by a neighborhood watch captain in Florida. Trayvon Martin's parents saying race was a factor. The shooter, George Zimmerman, says he acted in self-defense and has not been arrested. The justice department now releasing a statement saying, quote, "The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation."

In just over an hour, polls open in Illinois. Fifty-four crucial delegates up for grabs in that state's primary. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are hammering each other on their respective credentials to manage this economy.

Romney calling his rival an economic lightweight. Santorum countering by questioning whether Americans really want a Wall Street financier to be president of the United States.

Scary moments off the coast of California, a dad, his 11-year-old son, and the lifeguard who went out after them all air lifted to safety. Officials say the boy and a friend were boogie boarding when a dangerous riptide pulled them out to sea. One of them made it back to shore. They were stranded for more than an hour in high waves, 52- degree water, and reportedly hospitalized with hypothermia. Terrifying.

For the first time in its existence, Wendy's has dethroned Burger King as the country's second biggest hamburger chain. Wendy's had sales of $8.5 billion last year compared with 8.4 billion for Burger King. McDonald's , in case you're wondering, still by far the largest burger chain with more than 34 billion in sales.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD: That's like more than the two followers combined, right?

ROMANS (on-camera): Yes. Yes, I'm telling you. The chicken nuggets make me hungry.

SAMBOLIN: I prefer the frosties over at Wendy's.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMANS: Yes. I'm just saying.

BANFIELD: I'm a whopper girl.

ROMANS: Our culinary, you know, tastes are showing here.

BANFIELD: BK -- well, your epicurean tastes for sure.

ROMANS: Epicurean.

BANFIELD: Thank you. Wait, was that the word of the day? Awesome. The epicurean taste. This is an accidental thing. By the way, Christine, I have to tell you this because you and I are pregnant at the same time, it's like twice. And I once ate five Big Macs when I was pregnant.

ROMANS: Oh, my heart is hurting, but it's not good thing, Ms. Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: I know. I have to admit that on national television. I'm good now.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Just so you know. It didn't happen again.

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Fifty-one minutes now past 5:00 -- and BK is still on my top list.

Ahead on EARLY START, take a look at this video.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a little weird.

UNIDENTIFIED KID: Yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BANFIELD: Yes. He's such a sweetheart, but look what's going on. A TSA guy is patting him down, he's three. He's three. See that? he's swabbing him and testing him. What about this viral video? What about it? And it is two years old, so why is it viral now? We're going to talk about this in a moment.

SAMBOLIN: OK. Did you hear? Peyton Manning picked Denver. So, is Tebow time expiring? You're watching EARLY START.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SAMBOLIN: I would eat the whopper and the Big Mac.

BANFIELD: We're still on that.

So, we're also keeping you in the pop culture loop this morning, taking a look at what's trending on the interweb, and this one is unbelievable. A three-year-old kiddo in a wheelchair being patted down by the TSA, and it is going viral, folks. Have a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Weird, huh? It's a little weird?

UNIDENTIFIED KID: Yes, yes.

BANFIELD (voice-over): He's so precious. But this isn't something you're used to seeing, right? A little three-year-old with a broken leg who can't even stand up in a wheelchair, being swabbed and being patted down. His shirt lifting up the whole bit. I mean, it was really kind of crazy. His dad strangely enough, though, just posted it even though this whole thing happened two years ago. And when he posted it, there were comments and all -- a lot of criticism about the dad. What's your motivation here? Why wouldn't you post it when it happened? Why would you post it now? And why all the editorial? The dad says, I don't know. I mean, I could have made it more dramatic. I could have put music under (ph) it. Here's the weirdest part.

SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Pretty dramatic in of itself (ph), right, just watching that.

BANFIELD: Yes. Guess where they were headed?

SAMBOLIN: Where were they headed?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BANFIELD (on-camera): Disney world. To make it even more of a bummer.

SAMBOLIN (on-camera): Oh!

BANFIELD: I know.

SAMBOLIN: Did you buy a Tim Tebow jersey?

BANFIELD: I'm not -- you know, I'm just not a basketball fan.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: All right, folks.

BANFIELD: Kidding. I'm kidding.

SAMBOLIN: If you were one of the people who bought a Tim Tebow jersey last year. He does play football, sorry about that. Now, that it looks like Peyton Manning has landed in Denver. The talk is turning to where will Tim Tebow go? Tebow led the Broncos to the playoffs last year, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: Yes.

SAMBOLIN: His hometown of Jacksonville Jaguars, perhaps, Miami being mentioned, possible destinations. What do you think, folks? You think possibly becoming Tom Brady's backup in New England?

BANFIELD: You know, if it weren't for the studio crew, I would have absolutely no idea what happens in sports.

SAMBOLIN: All sports?

BANFIELD: Well, (INAUDIBLE) I'm pretty good. And then, of course, there's curling. Don't even get me started on curling.

(LAUGHTER)

SAMBOLIN: Good Canadian sport, though. BANFIELD: I think basketball was actually invented in Canada. Freak you out?

SAMBOLIN: Yet you don't follow them.

BANFIELD: No, I don't. Sorry. I can't help it.

Still ahead, coming up on the program, the GOP battleground, Illinois, big race tonight. I know you'll be glued to your TV sets, and I know Zoraida --

SAMBOLIN: Quite a battle, actually.

BANFIELD: Anything that has to do with Illinois. I'm so excited, which is great. But, you know, you should be too, because this is President Obama's proving ground, but what does it mean for the Republicans?

SAMBOLIN: That's a big political town off (ph), though.

BANFIELD: Is it ever -- vote early, vote often?

(LAUGHTER)

BANFIELD: Yes, the motto. You're watching EARLY START. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)