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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

DeSantis, Crist Debate Florida's Economy; Today: Brittney Griner to Appeal Case in Russian Court; Rishi Sunak Set to be UK's New Prime Minister. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired October 25, 2022 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Here we go. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. It is Tuesday, October 25th. I'm Christine Romans.

We begin this morning with the raucous face-off last night between Ron DeSantis and Charlie Crist in the first and only debate of the Florida governor's race. Crist, the Democrat, is behind in the polls, nearly out of campaign cash so he charged at the Republican governor like a candidate with very little to lose. DeSantis mostly stuck to his talking points as the two tangled over a range of talking points like abortion and whether DeSantis will run for president.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: I would like to see everybody have a shot. I'm proud of the 15 weeks that we did. I know Charlie Crist opposes that even though the baby is fully formed, has a heartbeat, can feel pain and can suck their thumb.

REP. CHARLIE CRIST (D-FL): I don't want to ban abortion. I want to make sure we keep a woman's right to choose available to the women of the state of Florida. I want to make sure we don't have a governor who wouldn't allow exceptions for rape or incest.

Yes or no, Ron, will you serve a full four-year term? It's a fair question. He won't tell you.

DESANTIS: Well, listen, I know that Charlie's interested in talking about 2024 and Joe Biden. But I just want to make things very, very clear. The only worn out old donkey I'm looking to put out to pasture is Charlie Crist.


ROMANS: All right. Let's bring in CNN political analyst Toluse Olorunnipa, national politics reporter for "The Washington Post".

Nice to see you bright and early this morning after what was pretty busy night last night, Toluse.

DeSantis did not answer whether he will commit to a full four years as governor. Sure makes it seem like he is considering a run for president in 2004.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, for sure. We heard DeSantis essentially be silent for several seconds after that question was posed to him. He did not want to take that question on. And if you listen to the rest of the debate performance, there were a lot of these national cultural issues, these issues that brought him to the national forefront that he focused on. He talked about a number of different areas that are flash points in our culture, whether it's transgender rights, or whether it's critical race theory in schools, he really tried to focus on these things that he believes will allow him to get that national platform, even immigration.

He spent so much time talking about President Biden and what happening at the White House and trying to link Charlie Crist, his opponent, with the Biden administration. It's clear that DeSantis has his eyes on the White House. He's thinking about these national politics and he was able to win over some supporter last night in part because he did focus on these national flash point issues.

Now, obviously, he is someone who has a lot of people who disagree with him. And Charlie was able to bring out some of that negativity, some of the disappointment that people feel in DeSantis in part because he leads a state that is the third largest in the country. It was a clash of two ideologies last night and it is clear that not only Florida was on the mind of both candidates but also the national political scene as well.

ROMANS: On the mind of Florida voters, the economy is issue number one, polls showed again and again, more important than abortion, more important than threats to democracy. How do you think they did last night on the economy issue, each candidate?

OLORUNNIPA: There were a lot of issues made including going back to COVID-19 and how Governor DeSantis decided to open up the state earlier than a number of other states, and he said that's the reason why Florida was thriving, was able to do better.

Now, obviously, Charlie Crist talked about all of the people who lost their lives in Florida as a result of that early opening and as a result of the fact that Florida was one of the states to take off the restrictions.

Now, Florida continues to suffer from a number of issues, when it comes to hurricane insurance, when it comes to the price of housing, there are a number of issues that are unique to Florida that Charlie Crist hammered Governor DeSantis, saying that he's the governor of the state. He's responsible for the cost of living crisis in Florida.

But Governor DeSantis turned it right on Charlie Crist and said that the Biden administration is the reason why the prices are so high, the reason why gas prices have been up. And so, there's this fight between what's happening locally Florida and what's happening on the national scene and the economy was one year where we saw that flight play out as well.

[05:05:04] ROMANS: Sure. All right. Toluse, stay with us. We have a lot more to discuss in the political world.

I want to get to this. One of the most highly anticipated debates of the midterm season, between Pennsylvania Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz, a critical debate in a critical state. It is the first and only debate of the contest. Oz, the Republican, is trailing in the polls and had been pushing for more debates, but Fetterman who was sidelined most of the summer after having a stroke, he declined, something Oz is making an issue of now.


MEHMET OZ (R), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE CANDIDATE: Political leaders like me need to be able to speak to voters, which I do. Town halls continually and I'll continue to do that. John Fetterman does neither of those things, doesn't speak to the voters on this campaign trail, doesn't speak to the press while he's campaign and he won't speak to me.

JOHN FETTERMAN (D), PENNSYLVANIA SENATE CNADIDATE: He literally doesn't have a plan other than to talk, and that's been the hallmark of his campaign. Just not any plans, just cheap photo ops or just empty kinds of arguments.


ROMANS: All right. CNN's Jeff Zeleny has more for us this morning from Philadelphia.


JEFF ZELENEY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Christine, the debate tonight in the Pennsylvania Senate race certainly will be perhaps one of the most interesting of this entire midterm election season. We've seen races for governors, Senate, House, debates unfold.

But this one is so different and this is why. John Fetterman, of course, the Democratic candidate, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, has been between back from a stroke he suffered earlier this year.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, of course, a famous TV doctor, has been making suggestions that Fetterman simply is not qualified to be a senator. Well, both of them will be able to make their case to voters, but John Fetterman will be answering questions through closed captioning, the same type of closed captioning you can see on your television screen. But certainly, that will be an interesting way how he communicates, how he's able to answer the questions.

But certainly there will be differences between them on crime, on the economy, on inflation, on abortion rights. So, this is without a doubt one of the closest Senate races in the country and this is why. It's to fill the seat of a retiring Senate Senator Pat Toomey. Democrats believe if they can win that seat, it gives them a bit of a breathing room if you will in their effort to hold control of the Senate, which is very much an open question.

But, look for both of these men in Harrisburg tonight, the state capitol, to make the case for why they are the best challengers in this. But independent voters are so key to all of this. So, potentially they may turn the heat down tonight to try and appeal to those voters -- Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you.

Let's bring back Toluse and talk about this.

So, the public is going to see John Fetterman using closed captioning in real time tonight. I wonder how you think this is going to play out? If Dr. Oz calls out Fetterman's physical weakness after his stroke, that could go either way for Mehmet Oz.

OLORUNNIPA: For sure. We have seen John Fetterman talk about how there are a number of people around the country, especially the state of Pennsylvania, that have family members, that have their own personal experience with health issues and they don't want to have a doctor in their life criticizing them or attacking them over their challenges.

And so, that's something that's going to be a sensitive topic and something Oz will have to deal with delicately because it could blow back on him if he's seen as being too aggressive. He's someone who won with the endorsement of the former President Donald Trump, and obviously, we know that Trump was someone who would be aggressive, who would push the envelope, who would do things that were offensive.

That's in part why he lost his re-election bid. And so, Oz is going to have to figure out a way to highlight the differences between the two candidates without harping on the issue, without coming across looking too harsh and not having empathy for someone who's going through a health challenge. And so, while Fetterman will have his own challenges and making sure that he can showcase to voters that he's up for the job, Oz faces the challenge of not looking like he is taking advantage of the issue or trying to take advantage of someone with a health issue.

ROMANS: Making it a critical debate in a critical state, a must-watch tonight. CNN polling shows what we've seen in California and elsewhere. Economy and inflation are issue number one for voters in Pennsylvania, you know, two to one over abortion.

How do you think each candidate will handle that in the debate tonight?

OLORUNNIPA: I expect Mehmet Oz to spend a lot of time talking about the economy, spending a lot of time talking about prices, gas prices.

I expect John Fetterman talk about a woman's right to choose and switch the debate back to what Democrats think is a much better issue for them even though they're saying they want to focus on the economy, that's the top issue on their mind. There are a number of voters going into this election with a single issue mindset, which is, what is the candidate's view on a woman's right to choose?

So, I expect Democrats across the country, especially in Pennsylvania, to make this a top issue for voters. Put Republicans on their heels and ask them specifically what they believe about this issue in part because it's been difficult to get some Republicans to say exactly what they believe, whether they believe there should be exceptions for rape and incest.


So, I do expect that to be a question that Fetterman put Oz on the hot seat about that. And I expect Oz to trying to put Fetterman on the hot seat about the economy, the prices and whether he agrees with Joe Biden on his economy policies.

ROMANS: And both of them trying to speak to all of those thousands and thousands of people. You're there in Pennsylvania so it will be interesting.

Toluse Olorunnipa, thank you so much. Nice to see you this morning.

OLORUNNIPA: Thank you.

ROMANS: All right. The White House defending President Biden's quiet strategy and saying he'll spend more time on the campaign trail in the final two weeks before the midterm elections.

It comes as the president can't bring home his speech to staffers at Democratic headquarters.

We get more this morning from CNN's Phil Mattingly. He's at the White House.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Christine, over the course of the last several weeks, we've seen the president participate in a myriad of events, events to highlight various accomplishments from his administration. Various elements of political messaging that officials think might help turn out Democratic voters or might reach independents.

What you saw from the president on Monday was a clear effort to make abundantly clear to other Democrats, frankly to the entire country, it's time to close. It's time to close just 15 days out from the midterm. Take a listen.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So far, we're running against the tide and we're beating the tide, but we just have 15 days until the election. Democrats are building a better America for everyone, with economy that grows from the bottom up and middle out where everyone does well. Republicans are doubling down on the mega MAGA trickle down economics that benefits the very wealthy, failed the country before and will fail it again. MATTINGLY: And, Christine, what's interesting about is the framing

that you started the hear the president really kind of hone in on. That is not a referenda on his administration and the Senate and the White House. This is a choice between Democrats and Republicans, what Republicans would do particularly on the economic side of things should they take control of the House or Senate or both.

That's a difficult argument to make. Historians show in the last decade or so, they say it doesn't work. The president is talking about the party in power.

But the point I hear from White House advisers pretty repetitively is that they believe that on the economy, they will acknowledge sky high inflation, they will acknowledge the problems that that creates. What they say instead is what Republicans would do if they take control, whether on the debt ceiling, whether on entitlement programs, any number of issues that they believe voters will side with them on.

That's what they want to highlight now, 15 days out. Couple of things perhaps working on their favor. We got a GDP report as you know quite well, Christine, it's coming out later this week.

They believe that's going to be pretty robust, sharply positive, at least compared to the prior two quarters, which were negative growth. They also have gas prices that have continued to tick down, something they believe is strongly correlated with the president's approval and the Democratic Party's prospects for the mid-term elections over the course of the last several months.

Will that be enough? History would say no. White House advisers say they need a fighting chance. It seems like the polls in a lot of these close races would underscore that part. How they actually break by the time it's all over? Well, we have to wait a couple of weeks to figure that out -- Christine.


ROMANS: All right. Phil, thank you so much for that.

Next, Brittney Griner back in court in Russia in a high stakes appeal of her nine-year prison sentence.

Plus, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas blocks Senator Lindsey Graham's testimony before a joint grand jury.

And prosecutors targeted the parents of a school shooter in Michigan.



ROMANS: Today, WNBA star Brittney Griner is set to appeal her verdict in a Russian court. This comes three months after Griner was convicted of smuggling drugs into the country. Her lawyers say Griner is hoping the court will reduce her 9-year sentence. CNN's Clare Sebastian live in London with more.

Clare, is there any chance of a new sentence here? What's her likelihood?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN CORRESPONDBENT: Yeah, Christine. So, even taking out the politics around this case, leniency is not very common in the Russian legal system. It's given in less than 1 percent of the trials. If you factor in the politics, we know discussions are still ongoing around a potential prisoner swap for Brittney Griner.

So, I think, from Russia's point of view, if you reduce the sentence, you reduce the perception of the severity of her crime and that could reduce her value in a prisoner swap. It seems like the likelihood is not high.

And according to her lawyers, this is affecting her state of mind. She is said to be very stressed. All hopes will rest on a prisoner swap.

What we're hearing this morning, Christine, her legal team did ask to postpone the hearing for two hours. It was supposed to start an hour ago. It's going to start at the top of the next hour. We don't know why.

But, meanwhile, of course, as I said, discussions do go on around a potential prisoner swap for her. They say there are active discussions. There is no serious counter offer for Russia as of yet.

The next date to watch is mid-November, the G20 summit because President Biden has said he might be willing to consider talking to President Putin if the discussion was around Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, the U.S. marine veteran detained in Russia.

As to this hearing today, Christine, we do expect the outcome to be made public on the same day.

ROMANS: Her attorneys are saying that she's not holding out unreasonable hopes for this hearing today, right?

SEBASTIAN: Yeah. She does not expect miracles I think after eight months in prison.


You know, you can clearly see her state of mind. She had to mark her 32nd birthday in the detention center. We know she's not going to be at the hearing physically. She's appearing via video link. She will be present that way.

ROMANS: All right. Clare Sebastian, thank you so much.

And there's a new British prime minister. She is speaking live right now. You can see -- that's the old prime minister is speaking live right now. The new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, can calm the chaos and keep the U.K. economy from crashing.

And federal prosecutors putting a squeeze on the Donald Trump case.




JIMMY FALLON, COMEDIAN: Britain announced that Rishi Sunak is going to be their new prime minister after Liz truss lasted only six weeks in office. When he showed up to his new office, you can unpack your things but I wouldn't hang up anything on your walls.

STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN: Truss now holds the distinction of being the UK's shortest serving prime minister ever after holding the title for just 45 days. That's not a term in office, that's a juice cleanse.

Liz, commemorate your historically short time in office, we've compiled all of your accomplishments in office.


ROMANS: It was a late night host poking fun at a historically short term in office for Prime Minister Liz Truss.

As former finance minister Rishi Sunak is becoming prime minister today. At age 42, Sunak will be the youngest prime minister in more than 200 years and the first ever person of color to lead the country. He official becomes prime minister after meeting with King Charles.

CNN's Bianca Nobilo live on Downing Street with more.

Liz Truss just spoke moments ago, Bianca. What did she say?

BIANCA NOBILO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the transfer of power is now underway with Liz Truss on her way to visit King Charles III to resign. We heard a short speech from her. The last one we heard was on Thursday when she resigned and said she would be stepping down.

There was importantly no contrition and no apology for the economic spiral the markets got into after the announcement of her bold agenda. She said that she intends to try and impress upon the nation the importance of being bold. She quoted the Roman philosopher Seneca saying it is not because things are difficult we do not dare, it's because things are difficult -- because we do not dare -- because we do not dare things are difficult.

She went on to say one of the greatest things she performed was to lead the nation through the mourning after the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. She maintained it's important Britain supports Ukraine and says she'll be retiring to the back benches in parliament and looks forward to spending more time in her constituency.

They've removed the podium but shortly, it will be put-back out for the prime minister incoming, Rishi Sunak, and we expect to hear from him next hour. ROMANS: Yeah, Rishi Sunak, 42 years old. He's been a treasury

official. He once worked at an investment bank and he is stepping into the world's sixth largest economy at a critical time here.

Can he bring economic and political stability to the U.K. here? That's a big question, I think.

NOBILO: It is. The implications are enormous. He made the right calls. The economic assessments he made of Truss's policies during the last leadership contest have been largely vindicated, and that's won him some political capital and credibility, plus his background of being the chancellor of the exchequer during the pandemic makes him se be one of the safest pairs of hands to be at the helm.

The question will be who he puts in as chancellor in his cabinet. Does he keep the current one? Does he go in a different direction? This will all be important in determining the market stability. In terms of the political tumult we've seen over the recent weeks, months and years, that might be one of his biggest issues he has to face immediately. He won't be able to govern unless he can unite the party.

We expect to see him reaching out an olive branch. Perhaps some of those who supported Liz Truss to try and back up his promises that he'll create unity in the party with action, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. We know you'll be covering it when he steps out maybe in the next or so.

Bianca Nobilo, thank you so much.

Attorney General Merrick Garland says the Justice Department won't permit voter intimidation as reports surfaced during the early voting period.

The Trump Organization tax fraud trial now underway. Jury expect to be seated by week's end.

One of the victims killed in the St. Louis high school shooting has been identified.