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Countdown To Iowa Caucuses; Al Qaeda In Iraq Claims Responsibility; U.S. Weighs Yemeni President's Visit; Fact-Finding Team Now In Syria; North Korea's New Leader Meets Group; Life After Kim Jong-Il; Detroit Investigating Murders; Slow Start For Stocks; Sears/K-Mart Closing 100-120 Stores; What Your Flight Will Be Like In 2012; Teen Climbs World's Highest Mountains

Aired December 27, 2011 - 09:59   ET

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


HALA GORANI, CNN ANCHOR: All right. First up, this hour, it's 10:00 a.m. Eastern. Presidential politics. One week from today, we will see talk turn into action. This is when the Iowa caucuses will mark the first test for the 2012 election. Today, the Republican candidates are blitzing the state both on the ground, but also on TV and on the radio.

CNN political editor, Paul Steinhauser is in Des Moines. Let's talk about the ad wars now, Paul Steinhauser, that are heating up for Iowa. Tell us more about what we're seeing on the air.

PAUL STEINHAUSER, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: Good morning, Hala. Yes. I've got the State Capitol behind me here. And you're absolutely right. There was a couple of days of let's say downtime from the campaign trail and also from the ad wars because of the Christmas weekend and yesterday was a federal holiday. That is all over.

Here in Iowa, you're going to see the local stations inundated -- inundated -- with ads by all the campaigns that are really playing out here with one week to go until the caucuses.

It's a way to get those last minute voters who are still undecided and polls indicated, Hala, that one in ten have made up their minds.

One of the candidates is putting up the most ads on Iowa TV, Texas Governor Rick Perry. Take a listen to this. It came out last night in Iowa airwaves.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Washington's the problem, why trust a congressman to fix it? Among them, they've spent 63 years in Congress leaving us with debt, earmarks and bailouts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEINHAUSER: See that? There it goes kind of going after some of his rivals for the GOP nomination trying to paint them as Washington insiders and he's trying to paint himself, Perry, as a Washington outsider.

And he repeated his proposal to create a part time Congress. You're going to see this from all the campaigns this week as they're again, trying to get these last minute voters who's haven't made their minds to come their way.

One thing, Hala, though, ad spending less this time around than it was four years ago, but remember, four years ago, we had a GOP caucus and a Democratic caucus out here. Not this time around -- Hala.

GORANI: Well, we were speaking with Carol Hunter of the "Des Moines Register" and she was telling me, you know, these negative ads in Iowa, they sometimes work and sometimes, they really don't work.

So will we see a recalibration of the strategy from candidates of some of these negatives ads are in fact not helping them, how might we see that change strategically?

STEINHAUSER: We may see that exactly. If we see the results a week from today and some of this negative advertising did not help, we could see campaigns shift their strategies.

But remember, Newt Gingrich earlier this month was on top of the polls here in Iowa, a lot of negative ads against him, mailers as well and his poll numbers have come down.

Negative advertising as much as distasteful can work and as you mentioned some of the candidates on the campaign trail today, Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania already campaigning this morning in Iowa.

He's out in Fort Dodge. A lot of the candidates, five of them will be here. Mitt Romney, Hala, started his morning in New Hampshire. He was campaigning there. He's got two events there, of course, the primary one week after the Iowa caucuses here. But even Romney comes here to Iowa, Davenport, later today -- Hala.

GORANI: Well, as we know and as you know, it's not just ads far from it. It's also the personal touch. It's on the ground campaigning and five candidates are going to be crisscrossing the state today, some with gruelling schedules. Where will we see what candidate?

STEINHAUSER: Yes. Again, Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann all picking up where they left off last week with bus tours across the state. Gingrich is going to be here as well.

You know, our Wolf Blitzer is going to be sitting down with Newt Gingrich a little later today in the eastern part of the state. It will be interesting to see what Gingrich has to tell Wolf.

And Romney is coming here as well. We'll see Ron Paul, who already now has the top spot in the most recent poll. He starts campaigning here tomorrow as well.

The only candidate we're not going to see here, Jon Huntsman. He's staying back in New Hampshire. He's placing all his chips on a strong finish in New Hampshire -- Hala.

GORANI: Thanks, Paul Steinhauser. We'll see you a bit later.

Let's turn our attention to international news. Al Qaeda in Iraq is claiming responsibility for last week's barrage of attacks that killed almost 70 people.

On its web site, the group said last Thursday's attacks were meant to support Iraq's Sunni minority. Now, of course, Sunnis held power under Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni.

But Iraq's leadership is now dominated by Shiite Muslims closer to Iran. The violence erupted just days after the last American troops withdrew from Iraq.

Yemen's president may travel right here to the United States. If he does, however, it comes with a condition. He'd only be allowed in for medical treatment.

Jill Dougherty is following developments for us from Washington. So are we going to see Ali Abdullah Saleh in the United States after all the bloodshed in his country of Yemen?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Hala, that sounds like you're quoting from the debate that was taking place within the Obama administration about this. You know, it's not an easy decision because it could be interpreted that way.

Look, this man has blood on his hands. Albeit, he, for many years, has been an ally of the United States, actually fighting against al Qaeda, so that was an internal debate that we were told by a senior administration official has been taking place.

Should they allow him in? But we're also told that the decision has been made to allow him in and the reason is they want to ease the tensions going on within Yemen. Right now, you have this transitional government in a way.

There is a vice president who is taking over the reigns. But the problem has been nobody has really trusted that President Saleh would step down, get out of the way, get out of the country because when he has been there, it has sewed dissension.

So that's a debate and apparently, the people who thought it was a good idea, easing tensions have won and he should be coming. Nobody knows precisely when he would be coming and also, Hala, why he would be coming.

Well, remember that assassination attempt back in June when he was severely burned. So he does need, we are told by an Arab diplomat and others, that he does need some surgery.

GORANI: Well, we know the United States has called on him to step down, on him to accept the Gulf deal, to leave the country. Could this be for the United States, at least, allowing him into the country for medical treatment, a way of sealing that deal? DOUGHERTY: It could, I mean, if he were to come to the U.S. for treatment, really get treatment and not go back and start stirring things up, which is the way it is perceived by many governments in the region and the United States.

Then that really could help. The elections, you mentioned the peace agreement. There is one. Brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which would bring elections in February and then the country theoretically could go on, but it's being royaled by this idea that he could try to make a comeback.

GORANI: All right, it will be interesting to see if he does travel to the United States. Certainly would be an interesting development in this entire Arab spring of 2011. Nothing is surprising anymore, right? Jill Dougherty, thanks very much at the State Department.

Let's speak about Syria now. A group of fact finders from the Arab League is now on the ground in Syria. They're in the flashpoint city of Homs to see if the government has ended its crackdown among protesters.

It's part of a deal with the Arab League to remove the military from city centers. Before the group arrived, sources we spoke to in Homs say that military forces left their positions and thousands of protesters rallied against the regime once again.

Just today, an opposition group reports four people killed in Homs, 13 throughout the country. Mohammed Jamjoom is in Cairo monitoring developments in Syria.

So, these Arab monitors, these Arab League monitors, made it to Homs and other cities. Are they still there or have they left?

MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hala, we're trying to find out right now if indeed they've left. Earlier, we spoke to Arab League observers there. They said they were there. They said that they've been given unfettered access. That they were meeting with demonstrators there.

That they were calling on anybody who was in Homs, if they wanted to speak to them that they could. We saw a video emerging on web sites purporting to show members of this Arab League delegation inside Homs meeting with people.

One video purported to show some residents there having an argument and pleading for help in the presence of those observers. But we're just not sure if they're there. More disturbing to talk about is we're hearing now reports from some residents inside Homs that violence may have picked up again.

We're hearing reports that some of the protests that are going on there, that tear gas is being disbursed by security forces. And the residents that we're speaking with are concerned that the crackdown may start yet again.

All throughout the day when we spoke to people even when we knew for sure the Arab League observers were there, the concern was that if the Arab League observers leave for the day, do the tanks emerge again, does the shelling start once more.

And we heard this yesterday, too. You know, even when Arab League observers were starting to arrive, the activists there were saying that violence were still going on, but dozens were being killed and they were afraid that, yes, maybe for a few hours, the Arab League observers could come out and things would be peaceful, but once they left the scene, would it remain peaceful? -- Hala.

GORANI: Right, and also the other question is part of the Arab League deal is to allow journalists, international journalists, into Syria to witness the story for ourselves. But Syria is still severely restricting access to the story by international journalists, correct?

JAMJOOM: Absolutely. Journalists have not yet been let back in that was supposed to be one of the most important components of this protocol that was signed and we've not heard from the Arab League or the Syrian government when that might happen.

You know, other things that have been guaranteed by the Syrian government according to this protocol that was signed, that detainees would be released, that the crackdown would stop.

That the tanks and the army units would be pulled from the country side, but even today, you know, we heard that tanks had been pulled from the city of Homs.

But residents there said in fact, tanks maybe they were just being hidden in nearby government buildings. And they were just afraid that those tanks would re-emerge once those observers left for the day -- Hala.

GORANI: And we saw some remarkable video of people telling the international monitors that they wanted protection, international protection in Homs. Thanks, Mohammed. We'll catch up with you a bit later.

With the passing of Kim Jong-il, a new leader for North Korea and for some, new hope perhaps that it will help heal wounds that are six decades old. That story is ahead.

And the wife of accused child abuser, Jerry Sandusky, is coming under more scrutiny in Pennsylvania. We'll explain why in a few minutes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: A group of South Korean mourners is home from a trip to the north where they paid respects to the late Kim Jong-il. It was an unofficial delegation and met with the countries new leader, Kim Jong- Un, they didn't talk politics.

A former first lady of South Korea, her late husband won a Nobel Prize for trying to foster peace between the two Koreas. Kim Jong-il's funeral is scheduled for tomorrow in Korea.

While the war that divided North and South Korea, separated families as well. For one man, the pain still lingers after more than 60 years, but now, he has new hope for the region's future. Casey Wian reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Retired Pastor Chang Soon Lee fled North Korea in 1950 as his homeland was ripped in half by the Korean War. At age 15, Lee's family also was torn apart.

CHANG SOON LEE, FORMER PASTOR: Because of my dad was a minister, I saw my daddy was persecuted.

WIAN: Lee eventually immigrated to the United States where he led a Methodist congregation, but he never forgot his homeland. He's returned half a dozen times on humanitarian missions bringing tons of food to orphanages and building noodle factories in North Korea, where millions of people reportedly starve to death in the 1990s.

LEE: It's kind of symbolic showing our love for them. We love you. You are all brothers and sisters.

WIAN: During his missions, North Korean authorities never allowed Lee to visit places from his childhood, which still haunts him six decades later.

(on camera): I can tell that you still have a connection or still feel a connection.

LEE: Yes.

WIAN: What is that connection?

LEE: I want to know what happened to my dad whether he lived or died, how?

WIAN (voice-over): As North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong-Un mourns the death of his father. Lee hopes he will work towards opening to South Korea and western democracies.

LEE: There must be change or we don't know the change worse or better. Hopefully, the young leader wise enough.

WIAN: Now retired at 76, Lee says South Korea and the United States also have a responsibility to promote peace.

LEE: We have to give them confidence or trust that we are not -- we support you and work together for the better world.

WIAN: And perhaps, Lee hopes that will lead to answers about his father.

LEE: I want to know what happened to him.

WIAN: Casey Wian, CNN, Roland Heights, California. (END VIDEOTAPE)

GORANI: And checking stories cross country, Detroit police have a disturbing series of murders on their hands. In a little more than a week, investigators have found the burned bodies of four women in the trunks of two cars. The latest victims were burned beyond recognition. Three of the deaths are linked to an adult dating service.

State College, Pennsylvania, the wife of accused child abuser, Jerry Sandusky is now coming under increased scrutiny. A story in the "Harrisburg Patriot News" says no one was in a better position to know what was going on than Sandusky's wife, Dottie. She denies her husband, a former Penn State football coach, ever molested any boys as several have claimed.

Also in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Christmas celebration in one church was especially sweet. The church was severely damaged by the tornado right after Easter. It just reopened in time for the holiday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PASTOR TIM FOREST, WALNUT VALLEY BAPTIST CHURCH: The fact that we leave our sanctuary on Easter, get to come back Christmas morning, that's pretty special to us. We want to give God all the glory and also recognize everything that everybody's done for us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GORANI: The repairs took eight months.

One hundred and twenty Sears and K-Mart stores could be closing their doors. What is behind the move? Coming up, next.

And millions of us will pack our bags and catch a flight in 2012. What can we expect in the New Year? Will prices go up, will they go down, what are the new trends in booking flights?

Also, all those fees for extra bags, et cetera. We'll ask an airline industry analyst for his predictions and how it will affect you, the traveler. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: Well, more bad news for the housing sector. Home prices fell by 1.2 percent from September to October according to the S&P Case- Shiller 20 City Index. The decline runs counter to recent glimmer of hope that the market was regaining strength. Homes have lost nearly 33 percent of their values since the housing bust began in 2006.

I know many of you would be happy with just 33 percent down on the value of your homes because in some markets, the value of houses has fallen by much more than that including in states such as Nevada for instance.

Well, how is Wall Street reacting to some of these indicators? It's getting back to work after that long weekend. We only have four trading days left in 2011.

Alison Kosik is at the New York Stock Exchange. How is it looking, Alison?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Hala, you know, the market's really not reacting to the housing markets. Pretty much was expected. Pretty quiet week, this week expect that. You know, investors have pretty much closed the books on 2011.

You know, the only drama that's left here is of course, the question, can the major averages post gains for the year. So far, the Dow was up 6 percent year to date, but the Nasdaq is down 1.3 percent.

The S&P 500 that's what you 401(k), your retirement accounts track, that is hanging on to a 0.6 percent gain. We'll see if it can stay in the plus column through the rest of the week -- Hala.

GORANI: All right, we'll check that out. I'm sure trading volume is light. OK, so it was a good holiday season for some retailers, but not for Sears. The company is announcing that it's going to close 100 K-Marts and Sears. So what went wrong specifically for Sears -- Alison.

KOSIK: OK, I know this sounds harsh, Hala, but this is the case. You know this, in business, there are winners and there are losers. And Sears has been a clear loser. The company says sales this quarter are down more than 5 percent overall.

Meaning 6 percent at Sears, more than 4 percent at K-Mart and Sears says what happened here is that sales of electronics and appliances have been really weak and what's also happening is this company is getting hit kind of by a one-two punch.

It's getting beat on price by other retailers like Wal-Mart and Amazon and it also got higher expenses. So what you got there is a bad combination.

So what Sears is doing is its closing as many as 120 stores. It's trying to get its act together, but it's hard to do that when you see your share price tumbling 20 percent right now -- Hala.

GORANI: Wow, 20 percent on the Sears share price. Well, I guess, Sears really relies on the sale of appliances and these big ticket items and if they disappoint on that front, you have this situation. Well, thanks very much. Alison Kosik at the New York Stock Exchange.

Once again, millions of Americans will take to the air in 2012. Carry-ons in hand and ready for anything the TSA can throw at them, so what can the flying public expect?

We have asked an airline industry analyst, Brett Snyder to talk about four of his predictions and he joins us from Long Beach, California.

Let's talk about these predictions. First of all, Bret, thanks for joining us and you say, let me just go through these. You've made four predictions. First, you say fares will go up or down. I could have made that prediction, Brett.

BRETT SNYDER, AIRLINE INDUSTRY ANALYST: I know, it's a tough one, right? It really is because it depends on what's going to happen with demand and with fuel prices.

So if demand stays strong, then I would expect the airlines to continue to try to raise fares. If it doesn't, then they'll have a much harder time doing that.

Of course, fuel might force their hand. If fuel prices spike higher, they're going to have to do something to recover the additional costs.

GORANI: All right, well, and airlines still holding back on flights. That's also one of your predictions for 2012. What does that mean and importantly how does it impact ordinary travelers watching us today?

SNYDER: Sure, so what it means is there going to likely be fewer flights in the New Year. We have a couple of big events that are pushing that. One is Americans' bankruptcy. They're likely to shed some aircraft and look at you know, reducing capacity on some of the more unprofitable routes out there.

You also have Southwest in its merger with Air Tran, which has the potential to reduce some capacity as they combine the two networks. You also, there's a trend to reducing service in smaller cities.

A lot of airlines have started to do that and that is potentially what could be the biggest impact on Americans in smaller cities is just less service where there's already not very much.

GORANI: OK, so, possibly people who don't have big hub airports in their neighborhood might be affected. Let's talk about mobile friendly airlines and mobile devices and the like. Airlines are offering these -- these services to travelers and we're going to be seeing more of that according to you?

SNYDER: Absolutely. More and more people are using their mobile devices to book flights, to check in. You can have mobile boarding passes on many airlines now where you don't have to print anything out.

You just walk up and scan your phone and you can hop right on board the airplane. The airlines know this. It's a great way for them to reach people at little cost. So they're going to focus more of their efforts on that, as well as third parties developing apps to make it easier for people.

GORANI: All right, we've seen that certainly in 2011. Finally, you predict no end to fees. You mean, fees for extra checks bag and that kind of things?

SNYDER: That's right. Fees aren't going anywhere. The airlines, they've seen their costs spike dramatically with fuel over the last few years and fees are really the way they've found to keep fares relatively low.

Demand stays strong and then people can pick and choose what they want to add. If you need a bag, you pay more. If you want food, you pay more. You know, a lot of people don't like that, but these aren't going to be going anywhere.

GORANI: All right, well, thanks very much for that. Brett Snyder, an airline industry analyst for his predictions for 2012.

Rick Perry thinks Congress should work part time for half pay. So what will Iowa voters think of his pitch to reform Washington? Our "Political Buzz" panel sounds off after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: Checking top stories now. The reward for information that leads to this little girl is up to $30,000. The 20-months-old Ayla Reynolds of Waterville, Maine disappeared more than a week ago and police say they think someone kidnapped her from her house.

The Iranian woman sentenced to be executed for adultery will be executed according to reports, but she won't be stoned. The head of the judiciary is calling that impractical. The court says she'll likely be hanged instead.

And the latest scare involving Chinese dairy products is drawing criticism of the way China inspects food. Tests have found milk at China's largest dairy company was tainted with a toxin that can cause liver cancer. It was traced to some contaminated cow feed.

"Political Buzz," it's your a rapid fire look at the best political topics of the day. We have three questions, 30 seconds on the clock and playing today, Democratic strategist, Robert Zimmerman, Dean Obeidallah, the co-founder of the Arab-American Comedy Festival and Georgetown University professor, Chris Metzler.

Thanks to all three of you for joining us. First question, one week until Iowa cast the first votes of the 2012 presidential race and Republicans in the hawk eye state still cannot seem to settle on a candidate.

Here's influential Congressman Steve King. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONGRESSMAN STEVE KING (R), IOWA: A large percentage of Iowans haven't decided. I'm among them. I thought I would come to a conclusion in September or October. It's nearly the end of December and over then a week of the caucus, and I've not gotten to the point where my head and heart come together.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GORANI: So, the question is, why is Iowa still undecided, Robert?

ROBERT ZIMMERMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, that's their proud culture and their proud tradition. My friends in the Huckabee campaign in 2008 told me that 40 percent of the electorate decided in the last week of the campaign.

So that's not particularly new, but I think it's a mistake and I wonder who's going to win Iowa because that's really not the issue. The issue is who comes out of the Iowa caucus with momentum. Whether it's a candidate who can consolidate the anti-Romney sentiment in the party or whether it's a Ron Paul who's got to -- who can't really grow much on the level he's at and therefore helps Mitt Romney. That's what we have to keep an eye for.

GORANI: Ok thanks Robert. Chris?

CHRIS METZLER, PROFESSOR, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: Yes well, actually I hate to say this, but Robert's right. So, I think --

(CROSSTALK)

ZIMMERMAN: Say it isn't so, Chris.

METZLER: I think in this case, it is who comes out with -- with momentum. But I also think there's an interesting thing going on in the party this year, which is there is a fight between the establishment and the grass roots and it seems that the establishment at least is trying to now, a large majority of the establishment is trying to coalesce around Romney. Because they think that he is the one who could beat Obama.

Whether he can do that is a different question. And then I think you have the grass roots still trying to decide. Robert is right --

GORANI: The buzzer has sounded. Dean, Dean what do you think? Iowa fickle. Why?

DEAN OBEIDALLAH, CO-FOUNDER, ARAB AMERICAN COMEDY FESTIVAL: I think because all of us in America are fickle. I think the reality show mentality now applies to political campaigns. Each week, a candidate has to prove to us they can sing or dance, the equivalent of "Dancing with the Stars", or "American Idol". If we don't like them, we reject them. And that's why you had this great dependency and then crash and burn of candidate after candidate.

But my question is who cares about Iowa? I have more people living in my apartment building in New York City than the entire state of Iowa. Since 1972 only three candidates have won the Iowa caucus have become president say to the candidates, lose Iowa, it will help you win statistically, the presidency.

GORANI: All right, I want to visit that apartment building of yours Dean Obeidallah.

OBEIDALLAH: It's big, it's really big. Yes.

GORANI: It's huge. The ad war is own. Here's Rick Perry repeating his call for a part time congress. Listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Washington's the problem, why trust a Congressman to fix it? Among them they've spent 63 years in Congress leaving us with debt, earmarks and bailouts. Congressmen get $174,000 a year and you get the bill. We need a solution.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GORANI: So, is a part time Congress an idea that can give Perry some traction? Chris?

METZLER: I don't know where Rick Perry has been. We do have a part time Congress. Currently, Congress spends more time on vacation, not voting on bills, voting present and all of those kinds of things, so really, it's a losing issue. I don't think this is something that's going to get Perry back where he was at the beginning.

I think it's important to understand here from the standpoint of Congress, what we have is primarily a do nothing Congress. We need to go back to the time in fact where we actually threw the bums out and most people would say Congress is bad, but not my Congressman.

GORANI: Robert, what do you think about this type of ad and whether it will help Perry?

ZIMMERMAN: You know, Rick Perry's strategy of running as an outsider makes sense, but running without a fifth grade or civic education in the Constitution doesn't make sense. Any understanding of our Constitution, the separation of power, the role of the executive and the legislative branch shows why his idea is just -- a really just an ignorant gimmick.

Remember, Rick Perry as well didn't know the number of people in the Supreme Court and you've got Newt Gingrich advocating overturning the Supreme Court. I think they got their history lessons from Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. They may be better off in the fifth grade civics class.

GORANI: All right, Dean, what do you think about these ads and whether or not they will help that candidate?

OBEIDALLAH: I think that it's a move in the right direction, Congress is a 9 percent approval rating. Perry could probably get more traction and say, let's dissolve Congress at this point. They should go further, they should resolve disputes by combat. There's a medieval times restaurant about 20 minutes away from Washington D.C. Let's put the Democrats and Republican Steel versus Steel let's see them battle.

But frankly, you know throwing the bums out what everyone says, we need term limits. In 2010, there's a 20 percent approval rating of Congress. Yet 90 percent of the members of the Congress who are running to the re-election won. So there is a problem inherent in the system, we have to change Congress term limits is the answer.

GORANI: Ok, Dean, thanks. Now, your "Buzzer Beater" round, everyone. While the Republican candidates are in the heat of the nomination fight, President Obama is vacationing. He's in Hawaii, he's kissing babies. I don't know that you'd call that kissing. Getting little hands shoved in his mouth. That was cute.

He's watching his approval rating surge to 47 percent according to Gallup. Does this cut through a primary season help or hurt the President in the long run? Robert?

ZIMMERMAN: Look, no one I know is chilling the champagne over the primary season, but a lot of people have their popcorn out because what the primary campaign is demonstrating is the stark contrast between the Obama record and what the alternative represents.

And that's always been the strategy of the Obama campaign. To not make this a referendum, but to make it a choice and clearly, I think that strategy is working well in getting Obama's numbers up.

GORANI: All right, let's talk about this with Chris. Is this helping President Obama what's going on in the primary process?

METZLER: Well yes, I mean, it's helping him at this point because all we've been doing is we've been talking about the Republican candidates. We have not been talking about his record. When we get to the issue of choice though, we're going to look at high unemployment. We're going to look at foreclosures.

We're going to look at a weak economy. We're going to look at all of these kinds of things and I think it is at that point when we actually have two candidates mano a mano that we'll see the difference.

GORANI: All right. And we'll see how these economic indicators pan out, too. There was a not so good one this morning.

Dean, what do you think then about this primary process on the GOP side and whether it's helping or hurting the President?

OBEIDALLAH: I'm not sure if it's helping him, but I love it. I mean this is like a reality show watching these guys fight week in and week out in the debate, but honestly it will -- I believe come down to the economy. President's Obama's approval rating will move up as the economy increases and gets better. But if it doesn't get better, you know what he's very vulnerable and he could easily loses the election. It comes down to the economy stupid back to 1992, here we are again 2012. Same story.

GORANI: Robert Zimmerman, Dean Obeidallah and Chris Metzler, thank you very much for playing today.

ZIMMERMAN: It's good to be with you.

METZLER: Thanks. Take care.

GORANI: Most people look forward to Friday, but an entire country has decided to skip Friday this week. They're skipping a day. We'll tell you where and we'll explain why. And a 15-year-old mountain climber makes the record books again. He's climbed the tallest mountains on all seven continents. That means he's crossed off Mt. Everest, Kilimanjaro and now Antarctica's highest peak. We're talking to him from Antarctica -- we're hoping -- just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: Your "Showbiz Headlines", everyone.

Mel Gibson's divorce is final and he may be hundreds of millions of dollars poorer because of it. Hundreds, "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT" correspondent, Nischelle Turner is in Los Angeles with those details. Hi Nischelle.

NISCHELLE TURNER, SHOWBIZ TONIGHT CORRESPONDENT: Hala, I still just shake my head at this because this is actually probably going to be the most costly divorce in Hollywood history.

Now, over the weekend, Mel Gibson finalized his divorce from wife Robin and get this she's getting half of everything. Mel's reportedly worth around $850 million so that means Robin's going to get in the neighborhood of $425 million, which by the way, is a very nice neighborhood.

They were married for almost 30 years. They've got seven kids together and they didn't have a pre-nup, so this is not really a surprise that she's walking away with half. She's also entitled to half of Gibson's future paycheck, so she may be one of the only ones out there hoping that Mel has a comeback at the box office, Hala.

GORANI: Ok. And what about reports that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver spent Christmas together and they went to a sporting event together and this is leading to speculation about the future of their -- about a possible reconciliation?

Uf1: Yes, you know, that talk is out there and according to "People" magazine, they did spend the holidays together. They were at home with their four kids and they both went to the LA Lakers season opener. Now certainly it's not unusual for divorcing parents to spend the holidays together for the kids' sake.

But now there are these new reports that Maria is reconsidering the divorce and Arnold is and has been trying to win her back. Now, of course, Maria filed for divorce in July after it was revealed that Arnold fathered a child with a household employee. Now that is a lot of apologizing for Arnold to do. And we did ask Maria's representatives yesterday about all these reports and they simply said they have no comment on any of this and you know, you really don't expect them to say anything else.

GORANI: Ok. And what about a list out with the most charitable stars. Who made the cut?

Uf1; After all of this kind of muck, I'm glad I'm going to give ewe little bit of good news here in Hollywood. It's really an impressive collection of charitable stars and it's led by Lady Gaga. Now, dosomething.org has Gaga at the top of their list of celebrities gone good for 2011.

This is the second year in a row in the top spot for Gaga, who a leader in the fight against bullying. She also does a lot of work to fight HIV/AIDS.

Right behind her though, Justin Bieber, who made his way up to the second spot for launching the "Believe Charity Drive".

George Clooney is third on the list for his work defending human rights in the Sudan.

And the fourth spot actually went to a couple. That's Will and Jada Pinkett Smith for their foundation that funds educational projects nationwide.

And Leo Dicaprio is number five on the list for his environmental and animal activism, so I'm glad I could give you like a little palate cleanser after all.

GORANI: Is there a dollar figure attached to this? I mean how did they calculate who's the -- is it the biggest donations or the most time spent advocating for a charitable cause?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know, I think it's all of the above. I mean I think part of it is what they give, but then when they lend their names to certain charities, there are funds that are raised for these charities. I think all of that encompassing is how they calculate this.

GORANI: All right. Thanks, Nischelle Turner in LA. If you want more breaking news from the entertainment world, check out "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT" 11:00 p.m. on HLN.

Coming up, you're going to meet Jordan Romero. He's been to the top of Mount Everest, everyone. And also Mount Kilimanjaro; in fact, he's been to the top of the tallest mountain on each continent. And he did it even though he's only 15 years old. He's calling from Antarctica right after this.

Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: Well, this morning, we want you to meet 15-year-old Jordan Romero. He set a record last year by becoming the youngest person ever to climb Mount Everest. But that wasn't enough for Jordan. Now, he's become the youngest person to climb the tallest mountain on all seven continents. He started with Mount Kilimanjaro when he was only 10 years old.

And over the weekend, he crossed the last mountain off his list, hitting the top of Mount Vinson Massif -- am I saying that right, Sarah? Vinson Massif, yes. And we have him. I was just told the call dropped, now it hasn't dropped, but that's what happens when you call from Antarctica, apparently.

Jordan Romero, can you hear me?

JORDAN ROMERO, HAS CLIMBED TALLEST MOUNTAINS IN EACH CONTINENT: Yes, I can hear you just fine.

GORANI: Ok. So Jordan, A, congratulations; B --

ROMERO: Thank you very much.

GORANI: The first person you called -- the first person you called when you reached your goal was who? Your mom, I hear.

ROMERO: Yes, that would be my mom. I was on the summit -- just like I did on Everest. She was just as excited.

GORANI: What did you tell her and what did she tell you?

ROMERO: I just said, hey, mom, what's up. We're on the summit right now and I'm going to be coming home to you in a little while.

(CROSSTALK)

GORANI: She must get worried. Your parents must be getting worried about you up there, especially now in Antarctica. How do you manage that worry and how do they manage it when you tell them you're going off to the far end of the world to climb a mountain?

ROMERO: Well, you know, I'm actually climbing with my parents, with my dad and my stepmom, Karen, and we've done all these summits together. But it's my mom that is usually at home. And she's totally supportive of the whole thing, but I can't imagine how hard it was for her, especially on Everest. She wasn't worried as much as Everest for this one, but, you know, I imagine how tough it is for her and my little sister back home.

GORANI: What does it feel like when you set this record. You're only 15. You've done more than most people will do in their lifetime, right? So how does it feel that you've achieved it?

ROMERO: It was, the record was one thing, but to finally -- to have completed my goal that I set out to do when I was 9 and we've been working for six years really hard to make this happen, it's an unbelievable feeling. Better feeling than being on the top of Everest. Out in Everest, I wasn't completely done with my goal. And now that I am, I'm very excited and there's always adventure and traveling to come.

GORANI: I was going to say, that's it, you've established this record. The youngest to climb all the summits -- highest peak on seven continents, so what next? I mean what's your next goal?

ROMERO: Always more adventure in the mountains to come and want to also be on my skis as well and you know, always up for anything new. We're looking at the highest point on every state in the U.S., all 50 and so far, we've done nine, but it's just something that I want to work on, something fun to do and travel and to get my message out to kids to inspire them to set goals and live healthy.

GORANI: Thank you, Jordan Romero. Good luck to you there with your future adventures and congratulations on your record. He's only 15. Jordan Romero. He called us from Antarctica.

These underachieving kids. What do we do with them?

New Zealand has been the first nation to ring in the New Year every January 1st, until now. A new country has jumped from the back of the line to the front of the line to be the first to celebrate 2012. We'll tell you how they're doing it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: Bit of trivia. What country rings in the New Year first? If you said New Zealand, you would have been right. That is until this year. Samoa had been the last place to celebrate New Year's. Now, it will be the first. Did they just get fed up and decide to cheat their way to the front of the line? Of course not.

Here to explain, CNN meteorologist, Rob Marciano. So, what has Samoa done and why are they now the first to ring in the New Year?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, they're going to do this in the next couple of days Hala. And what they're going to do, basically, is shift the International Dateline, which they did about 100 years ago. Now they want to shift it back.

Let's explain a little -- by the way, here's a little picture, beautiful place. I've never been, but pictures like this, who wouldn't want to go. So there's not much to worry about there. Tourism is a huge thing.

The earth, as you know, spins in this direction. We'll go over to the International Dateline which for all intents and purposes like today is what -- today's Tuesday, so, tomorrow is Wednesday. So here is where Samoa is in Tuesday land. Now, what they want to do is shift the International Dateline so that Samoa is now in the realms of Wednesday because they do business with Australia. They do business with the eastern part of the world including Japan. They do business with Fiji right here.

So the new dateline will then incorporate the little island of Eastern Samoa, not American Samoa by the way. So when we get to the 29th at midnight, they're going to shift the date line, which will make Samoa an entire day. They're going to go from the 29th to the 31st and this year, or 2012, they will be the first island nation to ring in the New Year, so congratulations to them when it happens -- Hala.

GORANI: All right. Well, it will give an entirely new meaning to just sleeping through an entire day after partying or something.

MARCIANO: Exactly.

GORANI: It's sort of sleep on a Tuesday and wake up on a Thursday.

MARCIANO: Exaclty.

GORANI: Thanks very much, Rob Marciano.

What started as a holiday ski vacation ends up in a battle for survival for a family suddenly trapped in the snow. Look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My wife and I looked at each other and held hands, told each other I love you and prayed. It was a Christmas miracle that they found us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GORANI: Well, Drew Griffin will speak with father trying to save the lives of his wife and 5-year-old daughter. That is ahead in the noon hour of CNN Newsroom.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORANI: The Iowa caucuses are just one week from today and Newt Gingrich may be facing an embarrassing revelation. A 2006 newsletter has surfaced showing Gingrich praised Mitt Romney's health care reforms when they first passed. That's a jarring contradiction to the harsh criticism Gingrich now unleashes on so-called Romney Care. CNN Political editor, Paul Steinhauser is on the campaign trail in Des Moines. Hi, Paul.

STEINHAUSER: So Hala, is this another case of the former House Speaker's words, his actions in the past coming back maybe to hurt him in the present day as he's trying to go for this GOP presidential nomination? Yes, it may be.

The newsletter. Here it is. Here's what he said specifically. The health care that Governor Romney signed into law has tremendous potential to affect major change in the American health care system. That is from April 2006 soon after the health care bill in Massachusetts became law. Remember, Mitt Romney, then the governor of Massachusetts, worked with Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature to pass this law.

Now, the newsletter was from Gingrich's former consulting company, the center for health transportation. Ok. Let's come back to present day now. What is the problem here? Listen. A lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives, say that health care law, they dub it Romney care. It was the Inspiration for the national health care law which they call Obamacare, which is despised by a lot of Republicans. And it has that individual mandate. Every American must have health insurance.

Well, as you mentioned, Newt Gingrich this year, just like a lot of the other Republican presidential candidates has been critical of Mitt Romney on the health care plan and on mandate. Take a listen to what he told our Wolf Blitzer earlier this month. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "SPECIAL": You've been criticized for your health care. You supported them. And now you say you oppose them.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That will be a good example in the sense that when heritage foundation, every conservative trying to stop Hillary care, we used the mandates as a way of blocking her because we thought they were less damaging. In retrospect, we were wrong because what happens, once you go to a mandate, you have turned so much power over to the government that the politicians rather than doctors are defining health care, so it was a mistake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEINHAUSER: I just reached out about a half an hour ago to the Gingrich campaign, spoke with their spokesman. He tells me that the essay wasn't even written by Gingrich himself. He goes on to say it shouldn't be taken as an endorsement, the individual mandate and what Romney passed in Massachusetts, the health plan.

And he said that if you read further into this essay from 2006, April 2006. You see there are parts of the essay that are critical, critical of what Romney did in Massachusetts. So what's where it stands right now Hala. Let's see what happens with this story today; whether it gathers steam and continues on or if it doesn't -- Hala.

GORANI: Thanks very much Paul Steinhauser in Des Moines. That's it for me in Washington. Thanks for watching. Drew Griffin is at the CNN Center with more. Hi Drew.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Hala.