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American Morning

Gingrich On The Attack; Countdown To Iowa Caucuses; Rick Perry's Transformation; Senator Nelson Not Running In 2012; Kim Jong- Il's Funeral; Syrian Forces Fire On Protesters; Iran Threatening To Block Oil Flow; Police Car Crashes Into Packed Restaurant; $77 Million Powerball Prize Expires; New Details in Christmas Day Tragedy; Kim Jong Il's Funeral; Newt Gingrich's Health Care Reversal; Gingrich Takes The Gloves Off; Mubarak Trial Resumes In Egypt; Breast-Feeding Moms Target Target

Aired December 28, 2011 - 06:00   ET



NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's baloney. If he wants to defend his negativity, show up in Iowa, 90 minutes face to face.


ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: Fighting words from Newt Gingrich with six days to go before the Iowa caucuses. The former House speaker doing something he promised he wouldn't, going negative.

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: Overwhelming grief on display in the streets of North Korea. Funeral services for the so-called dear leader Kim Jong-Il. Power on display as the West looks for signs of cracks in the regime.

CHO: New details in a Christmas Day tragedy. What caused a fire that killed three children and their grandparents?

VELSHI: A cop car out of control slamming into a packed restaurant stopping only inches from a fire pit and tanks of propane on this AMERICAN MORNING.

CHO: Good morning. It's Wednesday, December 28th. Welcome to AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Alina Cho along with Ali Velshi. So glad you're with us today.

VELSHI: Good morning, Alina.

Up first, remember Newt Gingrich's pledge to keep his campaign positive? Forget about it. With six days to go before the Iowa caucuses, the former House speaker kicked it into slice and dice mode.

Listen to Gingrich in "THE SITUATION ROOM" with CNN's Wolf Blitzer challenging Mitt Romney to man up. And the former Massachusetts governor was willing to return the fire.


GINGRICH: Mitt Romney's the guy running the most ads attacking me, and he's doing it through this disingenuous, gee, I don't control all of my former staff and all of my millionaire friends.

It's baloney. If he wants to defend his negativity, show up in Iowa 90 minutes face to face. Let the people decide whether or not in fact he'll back up what he's been saying and let him back up his moderate record, not conservative record, as governor, and I don't think he'll do it.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's running his campaign the way he thinks best. Obviously, the Virginia setting was not the best hour of his campaign. It's more like, Lucille Ball at the chocolate factory. I mean, you've got to get it organized.


VELSHI: We have not heard of last of those two. Gingrich certainly didn't hold back when he came to his other challenger in Iowa, Ron Paul. Listen to this bombshell that Gingrich dropped on Wolf Blitzer.


GINGRICH: You look at his newsletters and then you look at his ads. His ads are about as accurate as his newsletters.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": Now if he were to get the Republican nomination.

GINGRICH: He won't.

BLITZER: Let's say he were. Could you vote for him?



VELSHI: When Wolf Blitzer asked Newt Gingrich if he would vote for Barack Obama over Ron Paul, the former speaker couldn't come up with an answer calling both choices bad for America.

CNN political director, Mark Preston is with us live from Des Moines, Iowa, this morning. Mark, certainly getting ugly out there. What's it looking like in Iowa?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, Ali, look, I mean, it looks like the gloves are off. It didn't take Newt Gingrich very long to break his pledge to try to stay positive.

But, you know, Ali, there's something to be said about taking all this incoming that Newt has been taking from these super PACs that are aligned with Mitt Romney as well as with Ron Paul running his own ads, attacking Newt Gingrich.

You know, the Ron Paul campaign responded in kind to those very harsh words from Newt Gingrich. Let me just read you a little bit about what the campaign manager said in response to Newt Gingrich.

"Frustration from this floundering campaign has Newt Gingrich showing who he really is, a divisive, big government liberal." He went on to describe Newt Gingrich's comments as childish outburst.

Ali, I think it's fair to say we are less than a week before the Iowa caucuses and things are just going to get uglier and uglier as we get closer to January 3rd.

VELSHI: All right, so we've been enveloped Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul into this one. Rick Perry is also making news in Iowa. He's telling voters why he has toughened his stance on abortions. Tell us what he's done.

PRESTON: Yes. You know, Rick Perry made this announcement yesterday. He was here in Iowa campaigning. In fact, he said that he is hardening his position now on abortion.

Before he did not -- he is a supported the right of a woman to have an abortion if she was a victim of rape and incest, he says that has now changed. In fact, let's listen to Rick Perry explain it himself.


RICK PERRY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She said, I am the product of a rape, and she said, my life is worth -- it was a powerful moment for me.


PRESTON: And listen to that applause. An issue obviously that plays very well with the Evangelical Born-Again conservative voters here in Iowa.

Now Rick Perry said that he came to that transformational moment after watching a DVD. The woman he's explaining that he heard talk about her problems with abortion was the fact that she, her mother was a victim of rape.

Now this movie, Ali, just so happens was produced by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won the 2008 Iowa caucuses so a lot going on here in Iowa. It's only going to get busier and busier.

VELSHI: And I certainly, I mean, none of us are in a position to question Rick Perry's actual beliefs about these things and whether they've shifted and people's beliefs can evolved.

Is there some talk that this may have something to do with the tougher and tougher battle for the social conservative Evangelical wing in Iowa? PRESTON: Well, there's no question that that is certainly going to be questioned. The fact that you have made this switch just in the past few weeks that Rick Perry would come out and make that announcement here in Iowa. We should say that it was, and he has been against abortion, you know, his life.

He is a social conservative, but you're absolutely right, Ali. Why did he take this moment to say that he's actually hardened it across the spectrum?

VELSHI: Mark, it's going to be a busy week. Good to see you, my friend. And of course, we'll have full coverage of the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday. Mark Preston, our political director for us in Des Moines.

Now that shaky hold the Democrats have on the Senate just got a little shakier. Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska says it's time to move on. He will not be seeking re-election next year.

Nelson's announcement has Democrats scrambling to preserve his Senate seat and their 53-47 majority. A source tells CNN, party officials are reaching out to former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry to possibly run for Ben Nelson's seat.

CNN's best place to be for political coverage on television, this afternoon in "THE SITUATION ROOM" at 4 p.m., Wolf Blitzer sits down with Mitt Romney only on CNN.

He's going to ask him. He's going to put Newt Gingrich's comments about Mitt Romney to Mitt Romney and see what his responses are.

CHO: Thousands of North Koreans lining the streets of a snowy Pyongyang to say goodbye to the late dictator, Kim Jong-Il. Funeral services for the so-called dear leader took place very early this morning New York time.

Memorial services are expected to last for two days. His son and hand-picked successor, Kim Jong-Un, walking alongside the front of the hearse as the world looks for signs of stability.

CNN's Paula Hancocks is live in Seoul, South Korea with more on that. Paula, good morning to you.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Alina. Well, this was certainly a very well choreographed event. North Korea was very aware that the rest of the world would be watching this very closely, and this is what North Korea does best, the pomp and ceremony of these kinds of events.

Now, what we saw was Kim Jong-Un walking alongside his father's car, carrying the coffin, and also behind him his uncle, who's believed to be helping in his first few years of reign, and also on the other side, there were very significant military personnel.

The head of the military was flanking the hearse as well. So this was really a show of unity by the North Koreans. They wanted to show that Kim Jong-Un was already in control and they wanted to show that he had the support of the military behind him.

It was a snow-laden street. It was a very heavy snow. It didn't affect proceedings though as the state-run media actually said that even the heavens and the sky was mourning the loss of Kim Jong- Il.

Tens of thousands of people came out to mourn the dear leader as his coffin went passed, and there were many scenes of weeping and wailing and chest beating, among them, many soldiers.

Definitely more of a military theme it appears, this time than Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather's funeral 17 years ago. It was a very interesting day to see the pomp and ceremony and also to see North Korea showing the succession as far as they're concerned is going according to script -- Alina.

CHO: Paula, when Kim Jong-Il's father, Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, there was a three-year mourning period for Kim Jong-Il where he largely remained quiet. Is it expected to be the same this time around?

HANCOCKS: Well, no one's sure if Kim Jong-Un actually has this luxury. Of course, Kim Jong-Il had about 14 years of being groomed as successor before he actually took over and he was effectively in charge of the military when his father died.

Kim Jong-Un had a matter of two or three years. He was only really debut if you like. He was shown to the public and shown to the world just over a year ago. So he has very little military experience, if any.

He has no political experience. He's not even 30 and so experts are suggesting that he doesn't actually have the luxury of waiting a few years until he tries to consolidate power, but he will have to consolidate power.

He has relatives around him. His uncle and his aunt, the sister of Kim Jong-Il, supposedly going to be mentoring him, and in theory, according to state media, he has the military behind him, which is crucial in North Korea.

It's more than 1 million-person strong army. So it's absolutely crucial the military is behind him. But of course, this is all what we're seeing publicly. The only thing we can see is what North Korean television is showing us. We don't know what's going on behind the scenes.

CHO: That's right. I remember very well being in Pyongyang when they unveiled Kim Jong-Un to the world. It was the first time that the North Koreans had seen him publicly as well, as well as the world. So we'll be watching that story very closely. Paula Hancocks live in Seoul for us. Paula, thank you very much.

VELSHI: Well, it's 10 minutes after the hour. Checking other stories this morning.

The bloody crackdown in Syria continues apparently right under the noses are these Arab League monitors who are now in the country. They will visit two new towns at the center of the uprising today.

An opposition group says another 39 people were killed yesterday including two children. Fourteen of them were in the city of Homs as thousands filled the streets. You see them here to protest the Al-Assad regime.

A human rights group is also accusing the Syrian government of hiding hundreds of political detainees from the Arab League observers in military sites.

CHO: Iran is threatening to block the flow of crude oil through the Strait of Hormuz and that is driving oil prices up. Every day some 15 million barrel of crude flow through the 34-mile wide channel connecting the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.

Iran's vice president is warning that the strait will be blocked if the west follows through on threats to impose sanctions on its crude exports.

VELSHI: And these are long-standing threats. The American military does patrol that area as well.

Terrifying moments in New Mexico. A police squad car crashes into a crowded restaurant. The officer lost control after he was clipped by another car on the highway.

The cruiser stopped in front of one of the restaurant's fire pits right near tanks of propane and kerosene and propane. The restaurant started clearing the place out.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We rushed everybody out the back door is what we did, because we didn't know if it was going to blow up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We heard this all happen and all of these people are involved, and no one was hurt. We just all said it was like a Christmas miracle.


VELSHI: And incredibly, as they said, no one was hurt.

CHO: This is an incredible story. Luck has run out for whoever pulled this summer's winning Powerball ticket. I said this summer's. The $77 million jackpot sat waiting more than 100 days.

The winner never came forward. So the prize expired this Monday. The winning ticket was purchased in Georgia. The unclaimed jackpot apparently divided among its participating Powerball states.

VELSHI: Wow. CHO: I know.

VELSHI: Wow, but it's not too late for one lucky person to claim -- pardon me, the $206 million Mega Millions jackpot, whoever won bought their ticket in New York State. The prize numbers 23, 32, 33, 39, 43 and the Megaball number is 8.

CHO: And they haven't come forward yet either.

VELSHI: I would be in a relative hurry to get my money.

CHO: Me, too.

Coming up, investigators will reveal what started the fire that killed three little girls and their grandparents on Christmas Day.

VELSHI: A big settlement in the price fixing case against three major TV manufacturers. Are you one of the customers who might get some money back?

CHO: And Bill Maher, Tim Tebow hater, pushing groups calling for a boycott after he bashed the Bronco's quarterback in a tweet. We'll tell what you he said. It's 13 minutes after the hour.


CHO: Welcome back.

New details in the Christmas Day tragedy in Connecticut. Investigators reveal the fatal mistake that took the lives of three little girls and their grandparents as their house went up in flames. Hot, smoldering ashes from a Yule log were apparently removed from a fireplace and thrown outside without being doused in water. Fire marshals say those embers sparked the deadly fire.

Our Deb Feyerick joins us now with more on this horrific story. Deb, good morning to you. So it was the way that those embers were discarded, number one, and there also was not, from what I understand, a working fire detector.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, there wasn't. The house was under reconstruction. And so that may have been one of the reasons that they didn't have that. There was an alarm system but it doesn't appear that that was activated either.

But you have to consider seven people were in that house. Only two, the mother and her boyfriend, made it out alive. They'd stayed up late wrapping Christmas presents. Thought they were doing the right thing by cleaning out the fireplace and putting the ashes outside.


FEYERICK (voice-over): As fire raced through the Victorian home just before dawn Christmas morning, neighbors frantically called 911. OPERATOR (via telephone): Stamford 911, what's the address?

CALLER (via telephone): There's a huge fire at the house next door. The whole house is on fire...

OPERATOR: What is the address, ma'am?

CALLER: We're at 2241 Shippan Avenue. It's the house next door. A major fire and there's three kids and a woman.

FEYERICK: Trapped inside the Stamford, Connecticut home, grandparents Lomer and Pauline Johnson and their three granddaughters, 10-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins, Grace and Sarah.

CALLER: I was calling about a major, major fire with people in the house.

OPERATOR: We have a fire crew on the way, ma'am.

CALLER: Please - please, come quickly.

FEYERICK: The house was under renovation. It appears fireplace embers placed in an outdoor trash enclosure near the home ignited the blaze. Mom, Madonna Badger, managed to climb out on the scaffolding frantically directing firefighters to the third floor where she said her children were sleeping.

ACTING CHIEF ANTONIO CONTE, STAMFORD FIRE DEPARTMENT: The crew pushed through two rooms unable to find the children. They were pushed back by intense heat and flames.

FEYERICK: Grabbing two of the frightened girls, family friend, Michael Borcina, seen here on his Facebook page reached the second floor.

CONTE: The heat drove them to get separated and it looks like one went back upstairs and another one was found with the grandmother.

FEYERICK: The grandfather, Lomer Johnson, had spent Christmas Eve playing Santa at Manhattan's Saks Fifth Avenue. He managed to leave one of his granddaughters to the back the house and climbed on to a roof, then died before he could pull her to safety.

CONTE: Just inside the window that he came out of, we found one of the young children. I guess there were a pile of books. It looks like she was placed on the books.

FEYERICK: The mother, a successful marketing executive, is said to be in shock. She was taken from the scene sobbing, "My whole life is in that house."

CONTE: When you don't make that rescue, that you failed, and I don't think anybody wants to fail.

(END VIDEOTAPE) FEYERICK: Now, investigators continued to search for answers, but it appears that the home did not have smoke detectors, nor did it have a fire alarm system. It appears by the time the family realized they were in danger, the fire was just well underway and much of the house consumed.

CHO: There - there are a couple of lessons here. Number one, check your fire detector.

FEYERICK: Absolutely.

CHO: Number two, know the proper way to discard those embers, which is in a metal enclosure, right? And make sure that you douse it with water.

FEYERICK: That's exactly right. And, you know, right now - clearly they thought they we were doing the responsible thing -

CHO: Right.

FEYERICK: -- by taking the embers outside, by not leaving them in the home. But, again, it was that just one small mistake, and -

CHO: It's incredible how quickly that house went up in flames.

FEYERICK: Exactly. And old Victorian house and, really, they just couldn't - they just couldn't get out.

CHO: All right. Deb Feyerick, thank you very much.

VELSHI: Well, let's check on the weather, 20 minutes after the hour. Rob Marciano is in the Extreme Weather Center for us. Good morning, Rob.


Quite a storm rolled through much of the Eastern half of the country yesterday. Here's the pictures out of King of Prussia, just north and west of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, a lot of street flooding.

Boy, the northeast really got hammered with - as far as how much heavy rain fell, and in some places, like just to the west, in Ohio, Cincinnati blowing out their annual rainfall record, over 70 inches of rainfall in Cincinnati. This is just outside of Philadelphia. Connecticut, parts of Upstate New York, and the Northern New England also seeing a fair amount of rain and wind, and today that's going to be the big story, the wind, the rainfall moving out.

A little bit of lake effect snow behind this system, finally but it's not going to be a tremendous amount. There are some advisories out, anywhere from one to five inches in parts of Western Pennsylvania and Upstate New York.

But the wind's going to be the bigger issue, 20 to 30 mile-an- hour winds across the entire northeast corridor, so that is going to slow down some air travel for sure at the New York metros, in Philadelphia; Boston and D.C. as well, to a lesser extent.

Seattle and San Francisco actually finally starting to crank up the storm train out there. In between, though, decent weather, mild conditions as the temperatures begin to rebound. I guess this is a cold front that's coming through the northeast, but it's not drastically cold there. We're not going to see an Arctic outbreak by any stretch. The jet stream is staying farther to the north, but it is slamming into the Pacific Northwest.

They have seen an incredibly dry December, and making up for it in a hurry now, with the jet stream just pointing right at Northern California, Western Washington, and Oregon, with winds here at the mountain passes will be easily well up and over 60 miles an hour.

Thirty-six degrees in Chicago. It's about where you should be for this time of year. Thirty-nine degrees in Minneapolis. I think that's probably above average. Fifty-two in Memphis. It will be 44 - excuse me - in New York City today, but it will be breezy so hold on to your hats.

Guys, back up to you.

VELSHI: You've got that same thing in your throat that I've got this morning. I've been -


MARCIANO: Yes. I don't know how to get rid of it, but I hope to have it gone by the next hour.

VELSHI: I didn't know - I should pay more attention to you. I only pay attention to the morning stuff that you say, right? Because I don't really care about the rest of it. I was doing Erin Burnett's show last night -

CHO: He didn't mean that.

VELSHI: -- "OUT FRONT," and I got out of -

MARCIANO: Yes. I'm selling my family members (ph).

VELSHI: I'm - I'm telling you, I'm learning. I should listen to you all the time. I got outside, it was - it was - it's like I was going to build an ark, there were so much rain last night.

CHO: Oh, man -

MARCIANO: You'll be so much more in life, Ali (ph) -

VELSHI: I know.

MARCIANO: -- if you just listen to all of it.

VELSHI: And they always laugh at me when I get into my place. Like the doorman says, "Do you not listen to the weather? Do you not have like the weather source? Do you have an umbrella, maybe?" CHO: Well, here's the other thing, though. It - I mean, it was raining like mad, but it was unseasonably warm.

MARCIANO: Yes. It was warm.

CHO: Which is why Ali is wearing a vest and no jacket.

VELSHI: There you go.

MARCIANO: I don't want you breaking out in fits (ph) up there. You stay cool.

VELSHI: No. Exactly. Thank you, Rob.

CHO: Thank you.

MARCIANO: See you, guys.

CHO: Still ahead, the new leader and North Korea's nukes. North Korea holding funeral services for former dictator Kim Jong-il. His son, walking at the front of the hearse. We will talk about whether he could possibly pose a bigger threat than his father.

The - we'll have a guest, Victor Cha along in just a few minutes.

It's 23 minutes after the hour.


VELSHI: Twenty-six minutes after the hour. Welcome back. We're "Minding Your Business" this morning.

U.S. markets are crawling to the finish line. Three trading sessions to go in the 2011 trading season. U.S. stock futures are trading pretty flat right now. Yesterday was a downright snoozer. The Dow dropped three points; the other major indices moving mostly sideways in a sluggish, low volume session.

Well, if you thought you'd make it to the end of 2011 without hearing the word "debt ceiling" again, you were wrong. President Obama plans to ask Congress this week to raise the nation's debt limit by $1.2 trillion next year. That will put it at $16.4 trillion. The request is expected to be granted by the Democratic-controlled Senate.

No end in sight to the housing market slump. Home prices falling for the sixth straight month in October. According to the S&P Case- Shiller Index, prices fell 1.2 percent from the month before. That's down 3.4 percent from a year ago.

Oil prices back up. The price of a barrel of light sweet crude just above $100 a barrel in electronic trading overseas right now. The price shot up more than two percent yesterday after Iran threatened to choke off oil supplies flowing through the Strait of Hormuz.

And if you purchased a flat-screen LCD TV or computer between 1999 and 2006, you might be entitled to a partial refund. Hitachi, Sharp and Samsung have agreed to a $538 million settlement after being charged with LCD panel price fixing. Qualifying buyers in 24 states and Washington, D.C. will be notified at a later date how to get some of their money back.

AMERICAN MORNING back, right after this break.


CHO: Uncontrollable grief as North Korea says goodbye to Kim Jong Il. His son is now sitting on a nuclear arsenal. Why he could be an even bigger wild card -- on this AMERICAN MORNING.


VELSHI: Welcome back. It is 31 minutes after the hour -- time for this morning's top stories.

Newt Gingrich is taking off the gloves. The former House speaker promised not to go negative in his campaign but he's slamming his two top rivals with six days to go before the Iowa caucuses. Gingrich is challenging Mitt Romney to man up and accept a one-on-one debate, 90 minutes, not moderated. And at the same time, he's criticizing Ron Paul's views as, quote, "totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American."

CHO: Syrian forces firing tear gas and bullets at protesters despite the presence of Arab League observer, who are there to help bring an end to the bloody crackdown. An opposition group says another 39 people were killed yesterday, including two children. Fourteen of them in the city of Homs, which has been under siege for days.

VELSHI: Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak wielded to court on a stretcher. The trial resuming in Egypt after a three-month delay. He's charged with ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters to squash the revolt that ultimately ended his 30-year reign.

CHO: North Korea painting a picture of power and stability this morning as the world watches very closely. Thousands of hysterical mourners lined the streets of the capital in the snow to say goodbye to the former dictator Kim Jong Il. His son and hand-picked successor, Kim Jong Un alongside the front of the hearse with thousands of soldiers marching in step right behind him.

Joining us now is Victor Cha, the senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Victor, good morning to you. Thank you for joining us.

I want to look at the, what I would like to call the anatomy of this funeral to try to figure out what's going on. What we have on display is what some refer to at Pyongyangology. We saw Kim Jong Un, the successor to Kim Jong Il, walking at the frond of the hearse. And there were other people there behind him, most notably, his uncle, right?

What is the significance of that?

VICTOR CHA, FORMER NSC ASIA AFFAIRS ADVISER: So, Alina, as you know, his uncle, Jang Song Taek, is probably the key reason in this effort to transfer power over to the young son. Because he is so young and inexperienced, they have set up a group of people, including some of the younger generation of generals and other members of the family as a sort of regionship around Kim Jong Un so that he can -- he can run the country.

CHO: Kim Jung Un, as you well know, has only had about 20 months to prepare for taking the reins of power, his father by contrast had 20 years. How much does this concern you?

CHA: It does concern me a bit. I mean, these are very brittle dictatorships and, you know, even under the best of circumstances, doing a third dynastic succession, which this would be, would be total feat.

I mean, in this case, you're talking about an economy that's been run down. People that are starving, and all of this is happening in the context of, you know, the tumultuous event we've seen in the Arab spring over the past year. So, this is going to be a difficult transition. And the fact that he is so young and inexperienced does make me a little bit worried.

CHO: He has, from what we understand, very little is known about him -- but he was, we believe, schooled in Switzerland for a time. He has had some exposure to the West. But having been there, inside the country, I mean, I'm well aware of this military first policy which by all accounts will continue, right? There's no indication that North Korea would open up, at least not in the near term?

CHA: Right. You know, that's a very good point, Alina. You've been there and you know. I mean, the issue is that the current generation in North Korea, even if Kim Jong Un was schooled in Switzerland and taken courses on American politics, the problem is that even if he's an enlightened leader, all of those around him grew up in a generation that's where things have been, like the Arab spring, 1989, in Tiananmen Square in China, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and South Korea, one of the most successful countries in East Asia sits directly on its border.

So, they really don't have a lot of room to breathe and, therefore, making a big transition, some sort of major reform and opening would really require a charismatic and gutsy leader, and we don't have that person in North Korea today.

CHO: This funeral was closed to the rest of the world, foreign dignitaries. In fact, no one outside of the country was invited.

Did that surprise you?

CHA: Not particularly. I mean, I think that North Korea has always been a very private and secretive place. A dark dynasty, if you will. And therefore, their effort to not let this be open to the public does not surprise me. I mean, Kim Jong Il was a mystery when alive and his funeral a mystery as well.

CHO: Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Il's eldest son, was notably absent from the funeral. He was omitted from the guest list. He, of course, spoke out against the succession. Kim Jong Un is the third son of Kim Jong Il. Was -- were you surprised by the fact that he was there? It was a very big deal, and it must signify a huge rift in the family, right?

CHA: Yes. I mean, I think -- there have been three sons to Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Nam, and Kim Jong Chol and Kim Jong Un, you know, in the Asian way, usually, it's the first son that inherits the family business.

CHO: Right.

CHA: But that clearly was not the case here. And they've gone with the youngest son.

So, I think for Kim Jong Nam, you know, he's a real wild card in all of this. And people want to watch carefully what he does. But palace politics here are going to be very interesting to cover over the next weeks and months.

CHO: You know, one question that I have is that Kim Jong Il observed a three-year mourning period after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung. Do you think that we might see something similar here with Kim Jong Un? Some people suggested he just doesn't have the time to do that?

CHA: Yes, I think that's right. I really don't think he has the time. I mean, as he said earlier, Kim Jong Il had 20 years to prepare for this. So, after his father died in 1994, there was this mourning period, in part because they were so secure in the fact the he was running day-to-day operations. What we see here is a real effort to put Kim Jong Un and Jang Song Taek right up front very early on to show that there is a power vacuum.

So, I think that's more a manifestation of how they're not really prepared for this transition rather than them being prepared.

CHO: One of the best people to talk to on matters of North Korea, Victor Cha -- we thank you for joining us this morning.

CHA: Thank you.

VELSHI: New problems for Newt Gingrich. The former speaker fighting back against new revelations that he flip-flopped on Romneycare.

CNN's Mary Snow has the latest.


MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The 2006 signing of Massachusetts' health care law is a moment Republican presidential hopefuls won't let rival Mitt Romney forget. Some equate it with what they call Obamacare.

But five years ago, Newt Gingrich in a newsletter called it a, quote, "exciting development," saying, "The health bill that Governor Romney signed into law this month has tremendous potential to effect major change in the American health system."

"The Wall Street Journal" dug up the 2006 newsletter from Gingrich's organization, the Center for Health Transformation. The Newt note does raise concerns about the Massachusetts plan, but goes on to say, "We agree entirely with Governor Romney and Massachusetts legislators that our goal should be 100 percent insurance coverage for all Americans."

Fast-forward to 2011. Here's Gingrich taking aim at Romney's health care plan at a CNN debate in October.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Your plan essentially is one more big government, bureaucratic, high-cost system, which candidly could not have been done by any other state because no other state had a Medicaid program as lavish as yours, and no other state got as much money from the federal government under the Bush administration for this experiment.

SNOW: Gingrich has said he supported a mandate for health insurance in the past and changed his mind. Here's what he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer about his earlier place of the Romney plan.

GINGRICH: What Romney and I are different is, I concluded it doesn't work. He still defends it.

SNOW: Just this May, here is what Gingrich had to say about mandates on NBC's "Meet the Press."

GINGRICH: I have said consistently we ought to have some requirement, you either have health insurance or you post a bond, or in some way, you indicate you're going to be held accountable.

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": But that is the individual mandate, is it not?

GINGRICH: It's a variation on it.

SNOW: With the Gingrich memo in the headlines, Mitt Romney took the chance to weigh in.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm familiar with the fact that he supported individual mandates in the past and was supportive generally of the plan we had in Massachusetts. And he's changed his view in the election year.

SNOW: The barbs are traded as team Gingrich turns up the heat on Romney, questioning his conservative credentials.

Mary Snow, CNN, New York.


CHO: And Wolf Blitzer will talk to Romney today in "THE SITUATION ROOM." I can't wait to see that.

Meanwhile, comedian Bill Maher catching a lot of heat over a tweet about Tim Tebow. Maher, who is a proud atheist, slammed the Denver Broncos quarterback who is very open about his Christian faith after an abrupt loss this past Saturday to the Buffalo Bills. Now, just a warning, you may find some of the language a bit offensive. Maher tweeted, "Wow, Jesus just bleep Tim Tebow bad, and on Christmas Eve. Somewhere in hell, Satan is Tebowing, saying to Hitler, hey, Buffalo's killing them."

As you might imagine, Maher is feeling the backlash from conservatives now who are calling for a massive boycott of his show which airs on HBO and, by the way, is owned by the parent company of this network.

VELSHI: All right. Still ahead, is Syria hiding the slaughter from the Arab League monitors who are in the country. They're being escorted around by government caretakers, people saying they aren't seeing the real story.

CHO: And the U.S. warning Americans traveling to Mexico after a Texas family is gunned down in a holiday massacre. We'll explain.

It's 41 minutes after the hour.


VELSHI: Welcome back.

The bloody crackdown in Syria continues this morning apparently right under the noses of Arab League monitors now in the country. They will visit two new towns at center of the uprising today. An opposition group says another 39 people were killed yesterday, including two children. But according to "Reuters," the head of the Arab League mention says the situation in Homs is reassuring so far.

So what are they actually being allowed to see? Mohammed Jamjoom is monitoring from developments live from Cairo this morning.

Hello, Mohammed.


Well, Arab League observers finally started arriving in flashpoint cities in Syria to begin their observer mission. They say that they'll be given the unfettered access that they need. Others in Syria aren't so sure.


JAMJOOM (voice-over): Demonstrators under assault. Syrian security forces firing tear gas in Homs -- this on the same day that Arab League observers finally arrive in the flashpoint city.

This video purports to show the head of the mission, General Mohammed al-Dabi, walking through Homs. Residents approach, show him what appears to be remnants of weapons. The monitors insist they will have free access to any place they want, but activists and residents question that claim.

VOICE OF ABU RAMI, SYRIAN ACTIVIST IN HOMS, SYRIA: We need from these observers to move in a different way, and nobody is telling them where to go or where to begin. We need them to visit these areas, these painful areas that are damaged.

JAMJOOM: CNN cannot independently verify this video, but it purports to show the monitors in a neighborhood of (INAUDIBLE). The residents argue with a man described to us as a government minder pleading for the team members to be taken to other areas. An unseen voice is heard saying, "There are unarmed civilians dying here. Go inside and see for yourself. They are slaughtering us."

Then the sound of gunfire.


Emboldened by the presence of the observers, tens of thousands of protesters gather in another part of the city for a huge rally. The people demand international protection, they chanted. But chaos would erupt yet again. This video shows a building on fire. A voice describes how another peaceful demonstration was fired upon.

It is as if the Arab league did not come to Homs, says the man. Elsewhere in the country in Hamas, reports of more violence. Protesters under attack as they demonstrated in the streets. Tear gas being dispersed, security forces opening fire. All at a time when an international mission is hoping to put an end to this sort of violence.


JAMJOOM (on-camera): In addition to Homs we're told that observers will also visit the flashpoint cities around the Hamas today. And just a few minutes ago, Ali, we should report that the Syrian state television flashed that 775 detainees will be released today. The statement said that these detainees were involved in recent events but that their hands were not stained with the blood of the Syrians -- Ali.

VELSHI: All right. Mohammed, I know you're keeping an eye on it. We'll check in with you later. Mohammed Jamjoom in Cairo watching the situation with Syria.

CHO: Twenty-seven minutes after the hour. Just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING, a Texas mother and her two daughters gunned down on a trip across the border to visit family on Christmas. The U.S. is now warning its citizens after the holiday massacre. Forty-seven minutes past the hour. We will have that story when we come back.


CHO: Forty-nine minutes after the hour. Here's what you need to know to start your day.


CHO (voice-over): Newt Gingrich in attack mode with just six days to go before the Iowa caucuses. The former speaker is challenging Mitt Romney to man up and face him in a one-on-one debate. When asked by CNN's Wolf Blitzer if he would vote for Ron Paul if he won the nomination, Gingrich said, no.

Funeral services for former North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Il. His son and successor, Kim Jong-Un at the side of the hearse. Memorial services for Kim Jong-Il are expected to last for two days.

The trial of former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, resuming in Egypt after a three-month delay. He's charged with ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters to squash the revolt that ultimately ended his 30-year reign.

Breast feeding moms expected to storm more than 100 Target stores in 35 states to take part in what they're calling a public nurse-in. The protest organized on Facebook after a Texas Target employee was accused of harassing a woman for breast feeding her child in public and allegedly told her to go into a changing room. They even have a logo strategically placed Target.

One lucky New Yorker has won the $206 mega million jackpot. The winning ticket was purchased somewhere in New York State. The prize numbers are 23, 32, 33, 39, 43 and the megaball number is 8.


CHO (on-camera): That's the news you need to know to start your day. AMERICAN MORNING is back after this.


CHO: Welcome back. It's 52 minutes after the hour.

The U.S. warning Americans traveling to Mexico after a mother and her two daughters were gunned down on a trip to visit family for the holidays just across the border. Her 10-year-old son survived the bus ambush and witness all of it. CNNs Rafael Romo has the story live from Atlanta for us. Rafael, good morning to you.

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alina. In addition to the family from Texas, there was also a teenager from the Chicago area who was brutally killed in Mexico. This makes four American citizens killed south of the border in less than a week, and all four of them seem to be innocent victims.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ROMO (voice-over): It was supposed to be a joyful holiday trip. A Texas family traveling by bus in Mexico to spend Christmas with relatives. Margaret Snyder says her daughter-in-law, 39-year-old Maria Hartsell and her granddaughters, 19-year-old Carla and 13-year- old Christina Hartsell, were traveling in the Mexican State of Vera Cruz when their bus was attacked by a group of armed gunmen.

All three women were shot and killed. The 10-year-old Mike Hartsell who witnessed the horrific scene told his grandmother what he saw.

MARGARET SCHNEIDER, VICTIM'S MOTHER-IN-LAW: I turned around and then I come back and they shot her in the head with the gun, and they shot Carla, and he said he knew that his mom and Carla was dead.


ROMO: A Mexican army spokesman said the assailants killed the total of seven people on three different buses on the same day, including the Texas family.

SCHNEIDER: I told her not to go to Mexico. I told her not to go to Mexico. I just -- kept repeating it. I just -- you know, senseless. It's just senseless.

ROMO: Violence in the state of Vera Cruz where the fatal attack happened has increased sharply this year as a result of a turf war being fought by two extremely violent Mexican drug cartels. Military authorities said the same assailants killed a total of 11 people last Thursday. Ten were shot and another died in a grenade attack.

Five of the hit men later died in a shoot-out with Mexican armed forces, the military spokesman said. Mexican authorities are also investigating the violent death of another American citizen. Eighteen-year-old Alexis Moron (ph) from suburban Chicago was one of three men whose charred bodies were found in the trunk of a car in the Mexican southern state of (INAUDIBLE).


ROMO (on-camera): And Mexico officials have increased security on highways in the state of Vera Cruz where the Texas family was killed. And an emergency message the U.S.A. (ph) department is asking American citizens to maintain a heightened sense of alert when traveling in Vera Cruz and also the border state of Tamaulipas, south of Texas, where car jackings and bus robberies have happened in recent months. Alina, back to you.

CHO: All right, Rafael Romo, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

VELSHI: All right. Ahead next hour, North Koreans saying farewell to their so-called dear leader. Kim Jong-Il being laid to rest. Ceremonies, many sending a message to the U.S. and its allies. We're live in Seoul, South Korea as the memorial services continue. CHO: And Newt Gingrich hopping off the high road, kicking into attack mode. We're live in Des Moines for the countdown for the Iowa caucuses just six days away ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.