January 18th, 2012
11:20 AM ET

Evangelical for Mitt: A South Carolina power broker promotes the frontrunner

By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor

Tune in Thursday at 8 p.m. ET for the CNN/Southern Republican Presidential Debate hosted by John King and follow it on Twitter at #CNNDebate. For real-time coverage of the South Carolina primary, go to CNNPolitics.com or to the CNN apps or CNN mobile web site.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (CNN) – You’ve probably never heard of her, but Cindy Costa’s tablemates at a Sunday prayer breakfast here hint at her influence.

Inside a hotel ballroom bulging with 400 socially conservative activists, Costa is seated with the headliners: White House hopeful Rick Perry and political operative Ralph Reed.

And when Rick Santorum and his wife Karen arrive at the Sheraton’s Ballroom E about 10 minutes into the program, they join her table, too.

It’s doubtful that many of the press photographers descending around Costa to snap pictures of Santorum and Perry, heads bowed in prayer, could identify her. But the power players seated around Costa know she’s a South Carolina Republican institution.

“In a critical early primary state, Cindy has bridged the historic divide between faith-based grassroots activists of the party and the old guard,” says Reed, who’s known her for 20 years. “That can be a much more difficult mating dance than it appears.”

Indeed, with the South Carolina presidential primary just days away, Costa – perhaps more than anyone in the state – embodies the mix of establishment party power and evangelical fervor that will determine the outcome here.

If she has her way, that outcome will be a victory for the candidate whose name she wears in a bright blue pin in her lapel: Mitt Romney. Costa says her support for the candidate is largely rooted in her evangelical Christian faith.

For 15 years, Costa has served on the 150-member Republican National Committee, the party’s governing body. But she says it’s her relationship with God, not politics, that guides her life.

“Happy New Year. God bless you!” she tells Republican activists swinging by her table at the prayer breakfast to say hello.

“My faith is the most important thing – my husband and family are second,” the mother of four says later, crossing the street outside the Sheraton to pick up her credentials for the following night’s presidential debate.

For Costa, Romney is a brother in Christ and a devoted family man – and the one candidate with the intellect and organization to defeat President Obama. “If Romney gets the right Congress,” she tells many activists she meets, “you’re looking at another Ronald Reagan.”

And yet Costa is clear-eyed about the challenges the former Massachusetts governor faces among many Bible Belt evangelicals, who are expected to constitute around 60% of voters in the Saturday primary here. Many are wary of Romney’s religion and past support for abortion rights.

Despite Romney’s strong showing in recent South Carolina polls, more than a few activists at the Sheraton are backing Santorum, the dyed-in-the wool culture warrior.

Whether Costa can coax people like them over to her side will go a long way in determining whether South Carolina anoints Romney as the all-but-certain Republican nominee or derails his march to the nomination, handing a victory to Santorum, Perry or Newt Gingrich.

No one knows that more than the Romney campaign, with senior campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom calling Costa a “good friend to Mitt and Ann Romney.”

“She's very down to earth, honest and sincere,” Fehrnstrom says. “Having her on the team is a big boost for us.”

For Costa, any concerns about Romney’s Mormonism were put to rest at a 2008 forum she attended in upstate South Carolina, an evangelical stronghold, at which the candidate spent half a day taking questions from pastors.

“They asked who he thought Jesus Christ was, and his answer was that Jesus Christ was his Lord and savior,” Costa says. “And I said, ‘OK, here we are. That’s what I believe.’”

Many evangelicals part company with Costa on that point. Though Mormons consider themselves to be Christian, surveys show that about half of white evangelicals don't think they are.

“I will let Romney define who he is,” Costa says. “If he says Jesus Christ is his Lord and savior, who am I to say ‘No, he’s not?’”

Roots of Mormon support

There are other reasons Costa is keen on Romney and comfortable with his religion. A day spent campaigning with Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, and a Romney daughter-in-law, Mary, in 2008 made Costa’s support for the candidate personal.

The committeewoman crisscrossed South Carolina with Ann and Mary on a campaign bus, with Ann delivering speeches at stops along the way.

“Relationships are a powerful thing,” Costa says. “When I was on the bus with them, I just felt like I was with people in my church. I felt like they were no different than me.”

Four years ago, plenty of other South Carolina evangelicals appeared to feel differently, with Romney placing fourth behind John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.

Costa, for her part, tends to be open to people from other religions. Her stepfather, who she has called “Dad” since he moved in with her family when she was 2, is Jewish.

Her mother had Southern Baptist roots, and the couple largely ignored both traditions, making for a secular household. But when an aunt took 7-year-old Cindy to a Baptist church one Sunday, she was hooked – though not necessarily on Jesus.

Costa says she grew up poor – her stepdad was a mail sorter – and she fell hard for the church’s supplies of crayons and orange juice.

The Charleston church’s Sunday School teacher, whom Costa knew as Miss Hopkins, would pick her up from home and take her to church every Sunday morning for the next decade.

“She saw a child that needs support in a household where she’d not been given that opportunity,” Costa says. “She will get credit for me in heaven.”

Costa’s dad didn’t bring up his Judaism much, except when his adolescent stepdaughter once asked why he hadn’t formally adopted her. “I didn’t want you to live with a Jewish name because I know it could be a really negative thing,” he told her. “It could affect who would even date you.”

Costa was grateful: “What great love that he was looking out for me.”

‘A culture in a moral decline’

Costa wasn’t too interested in politics until she saw Ronald Reagan. It was 1976, and he’d come to the Charleston County Republican Convention seeking support for his bid to wrest the party’s nomination from President Ford.

Smitten by Reagan, the 20-year-old Costa was miffed to find she couldn’t get a seat as a delegate at the convention. The reason: Her voting precinct had never been organized.

So Costa vowed to organize it, setting in motion her decades-long rise through county, state and national party machinery.

A stay-at-home mom in the 1980s, her budding activism was motivated largely by her born-again faith and her growing family. The fledgling “family values” movement, bent on restoring school prayer and overturning Roe v. Wade, spoke to her.

When Costa stumbled upon Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” on TV, she thought she’d found President Reagan’s successor: “He was the first one that seared into my heart that we were a culture in a moral decline.

“That was around the time we found out about AIDS, and Robertson was telling people you can’t do this,” she says, referring to homosexuality. “It seems like a simple thing, but no one wants to say that because it could hurt someone’s feelings.”

Costa volunteered for Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign. Though the candidate faded after a strong finish in Iowa, he put evangelicals like Costa on the political map.

She would go on to help launch the South Carolina chapter of the Christian Coalition, which rose from the ashes of Robertson’s campaign, and she became state prayer chairman for the group in the 1990s.

Her eldest daughter, Jenny, remembers watching her parents being interviewed on NBC News on Election Night 1994 about the swelling ranks of evangelical voters. Hours later, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

“There were some evangelicals at the time saying that politics is dirty and they should stay out of it,” says Jenny Costa Honeycutt, now a Charleston lawyer who was 15 at the time. “And my parents were willing to stand up and be heard. That was a big night for me.”

For Cindy Costa, the moral drift that Pat Robertson discerned wasn’t limited to politics. She saw it in her church life, too.

The same year she joined Robertson’s campaign, the Costas left their longtime Episcopal church amid talk that Episcopalians would start ordaining gay clergy.

“Once you do that, you have to ordain any sinful person,” says Costa, who wound up co-founding a nondenominational, evangelical-style church with her husband Louis and others in James Island, just south of Charleston. “The Bible is very clear on that.

“You start hacking up the Bible and take out this little thing you don’t like and that little thing, and you have something that’s not the Bible anymore.”

All together now

If she sometimes talks like a culture warrior, Costa hardly looks the part.

A former Mrs. South Carolina who is often introduced as a “true Charleston belle” at political events, Costa has high cheekbones, shoulder-length blonde hair and looks at least a decade younger than her 56 years.

The wife of a plastic surgeon, she says she's "benefitted from her husband's services" but won't discuss specifics.

She favors black scarves, knee-high boots and Ann Taylor dresses that are inexpensive enough that she can discard them with a clear conscience after a single season.

Costa, in other words, has the style of a card-carrying member of the national political establishment, which she officially joined in 1996 when she was first elected as one of the state’s three members of the RNC. (She is currently seeking a fifth four-year term.)

Like many of the political rebels who campaigned for Robertson against George H.W. Bush almost 25 years ago, Costa is now a party insider, balancing ideological stances on abortion with practical concerns like party unity.

“That’s a big change,” says Reed, who led the Christian Coalition in the 1990s. “These are no longer folks with funny hats whose noses are pressed against the glass of the party. Now they’re on the inside, they’re the party leaders.”

At a pre-debate reception on Monday sponsored by Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Costa watches Reed and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint throw out rhetorical red meat for a crowd of conservative donors before taking the floor herself.

But Costa strikes a decidedly different tone, calling on fellow Republicans to start thinking about the need for party unity after the brutal primary season passes.

“The eyes of the nation are on us tonight,” she says. “So behave yourselves, and smile for the cameras.”

Afterward, walking to a Faith and Freedom Coalition rally at which she’ll lead the Pledge of Allegiance before the five remaining Republican presidential candidates deliver remarks before the debate, Costa says the quest for unity is a hallmark of her life that’s rooted in the Bible.

She explains how she and her husband apply the principal at the plastic surgery center they run in Charleston, asking employees to resolve differences among themselves before coming to them for help. Cindy is the center's business administrator.

Perhaps nothing illustrates Costa’s pursuit of party unity – a preoccupation for any establishment leader - as much as her support for Mitt Romney, who many grassroots conservatives distrust in part because of his establishment backing.

After watching Romney deliver a well-received speech at the pre-debate rally, she darts off to be interviewed by a young evangelical radio host who broadcasts in the most solidly evangelical part of South Carolina, around Spartanburg and Greenville.

The host, Josh Kimbrell, is a Santorum supporter but asks Costa to talk about Romney.

“I had the opportunity to do a bus trip across the state with Ann Romney, and it was a real bonding experience,” she says, leaning into the microphone and wearing a pair of big headphones upside down so it doesn't mess up her hair before the debate.

“I’ve come to respect the family tremendously and just know he’d be a great president.”

When Kimbrell asks what she expects to happen after Saturday’s primary, Costa again picks up the banner of unity, sounding about as far away from a Pat Robertson culture warrior as you could imagine.

“As Republicans, we need to be winsome in our message, be kind and loving,” she says.

“There’s no reason to be hateful. That’s just not who we are.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Politics • South Carolina

soundoff (1,003 Responses)
  1. kamana

    The jews denied at the very outset that there ever was such a jewish person as described by the christians when the christians first appeared in Jeruselem. And it is that denial that has spawned this christian hatered now called anti-semitism. Yet the jews continue to refute the story of Jesus Chritst despite having being slaughtered again and again by the christians for refusing to acknowledge their deity, Jesus Christ.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Christlover

      No true Christian hates Jews. It is impossible to truly be a Christian and hate Jews. Jesus is a Jew. As a follower of Christ I can tell you that the Jews are God's chosen people.. Sure they denied the Messiah, who was sent to save them, but they are still Gods chosen. I've never been to a Christian church that promotes hate towards Jews. Not sure where you came up with this. Just because someone says they are a Christian doesnt mean they are following Christs principles for living life. Its such an easy concept!

      January 18, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  2. palintwit

    There is a higher incidence of incest among evangelicals than in any other group that participated in the studies.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  3. Leucadia Bob

    Mike Rudolph – Top Notch!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • ObamaJoe

      how to post you tube 🙂 ????????

      January 18, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  4. Zman

    I think liberals use the internet far more than conservatives. Mitt has a ton of support... just no one who knows how to find http://www.cnn.com. If those nice people from the SC debate knew what was being said in this room they would burn it down... klan style.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  5. RichardSRussell

    Look at those eyes! Clearly she is possessed by Satan!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Straighten up, kids

      I don't know, she looks more like a b.low-up doll. Forward to the 2nd, 3rd pic. Plastic surgery doesn't begin to describe her, she IS plastic. Must be, if you support Pat the Theocrazy Nazi Robertson...

      January 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
  6. Out of Touch

    Are our votes really being counted??

    January 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Straighten up, kids

      In Florida they count them, but their math skills aren't too good.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
  7. Binky42

    I guess this camel is heading straight through the eye of the needle then?

    January 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      Nice! You've actually read the Bible!

      January 18, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  8. PoBoy

    Wow, a born again, fire-breathing Evangelical Christian and a Mormon on the same team? They say politics make strange bedfellows. I say money is the root of all evil, and both of these 2 have plenty and stand to make plenty more if he is elected President. Never let Christ get in the way of dollar all of you self-proclaimed evangelicals!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • jim

      Nonsense, religion, not money, is the root of all evil!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Typinator

      Add to that the obvious conceit, colossal egos, and megalomania on display with these folks. I hear the cry of the oppressor: "It's the will of God that I save your soul (whether you want it or not)! Ah, forgive me Lord for I know not what I do.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • Tex71

      Do not commit sacrilege by mentioning the name of any other god than the Great and Mighty God Mammon.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  9. jon

    Pointing out that Romney has faith and the people around him have faith is simply preaching to both sides of the choir. The liberals won't like him any more nor will the conservatives like him any less. The fact is he will be the GOP nominee and he is the best hope of beating Obama and reversing the utopian disaster that the far left has brought to the nation. We simply must reverse course to survive or accept the same fate as Europe is realizing now.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • noel

      and all the people said,"AMEN!" OBAMANOS!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Roy

      Romney has no chance of beating Obama, regardless of this cheerleading article hailing the support he has gotten from a fake Christian. Ron Paul is the only candidate who can beat Obama. RON PAUL 2012!!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • PoBoy

      For the life of me, I honestly can't understand how Republicans continue to blame Democrats for this mess we're in. Have you forgotten that it was your Savior in Chief Ronald Reagan, who started us down the road of deficit spending into oblivion, continued by Bush41, stemmed by Clinton, started again by B43 until we were driven into one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression. BTW 41 oversaw the largest expansion of government since the New Deal when he created DHS and Medicare prescription bill, while at the same time paying for 2 wars by cutting taxes and borrowing from the Chinese, and telling we Americans the best thing we could do after 9-11 was to go shopping. So explain to me again, how Democrats have created these problems?

      January 18, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      Did you just wake up? Do you have no recollection of the chain of events leading up to the crash of 2008? Here's a hint: Obama wasn't the president.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
  10. phuckallreligion

    Ah yes, religion and politics. Pray to MY god and I will vote for you.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  11. mfx3

    lol I love how evangelicals need permission from an elder before they can settle on a candidate. I'm sure that's what the founding fathers had in mind when they settled on democracy...large groups voting however a religious elder tells them to. Who cares about thinking for yourself when you've got someone else to do it for you?

    January 18, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
    • mfx3

      I also love how quickly evangelicals abandon their core principles when the writing is on the wall...Romney is inevitable so we better go ahead and get behind him. Otherwise we see how little evangelical votes really matter to the GOP.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Mortalc01l

      Spot on! Religious fundamentalism has NO place in our political process.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • youranidiot

      Were a Republic not a Democracy, Just FYI Romney's going up, big O's going down, now you can pout about it some more.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • I wonder

      I wonder how the voters of the 1800s (yes, all white men) chose which candidates to vote for? Whistle-stop speeches and newspaper articles (which many of them couldn't even read) and by the word-of-mouth agenda of ?

      January 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • Ancient Curse

      "We're a republic not a democracy." And so continues the GOP mission to redefine the language in order to convince people of their point of view. Thanks to George Orwell for pointing that out.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  12. us1776

    Cindy Dimwit.

    Gimme a break !!


    January 18, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • P.G

      Good company for Willard "Rat" Romney. Mrs. Botox and Mr. Phoney

      January 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  13. Michael McKinney

    There is only one true Christian running for president, and that's Ron Paul. I know this because my heart tells me so.

    January 18, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • noel

      ha...u funny guy...crackpot!!! OBAMANOS!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Doug

      Leave religion out of who runs this country.. My invisible man is better than yours is insanity... Shameful...

      January 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  14. trucking


    January 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Andy Anderson

      It's alright. If any of those people ate shrimp, worked on a Saturday, or wore mixed-fibre clothes they're just as screwed.

      That's the thing about the Bible – it's full of ridiculous and sometimes contradictory rules, and downright evil actions on the part of YHWH, typically conducted via the Israelites.

      Evilbible dot com

      January 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • brian

      yeah and i wouldn't want to be anyone in a non christian country on judgement day either. damn those people for not being fortunate enough to born where you were? lack of logic and rationale is what makes you a good christian. brainwashed sheep

      January 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  15. steve harnack

    Why isn't Ralph Reed doing time? Wasn't he involved with Abramoff in ripping off Indian Tribes over casino gambling lobbying? Typical Republikan influence peddlers, and their influence is NOT a good thing. Who would have thought that a "religious leader" would get caught up in lying and cheating and stealing?

    January 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • jim

      "Who would have thought that a "religious leader" would get caught up in lying and cheating and stealing?"
      Anyone who thought about it for more than 5 seconds!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  16. Steve

    "Romney with the right Congress would be another Ronald Reagan". Will he raise our taxes 11 times? Will He triple the debt?

    We can't afford another Reagan

    January 18, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • noel

      but we can afford 4 more years of obama? please, your hypocrisy is astounding...OBAMANOS!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • mfx3

      Obama 2012 is the only inevitability. Take it to the bank, Mr. Romney...just don't pay more than 15% tax on it.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • Ingasu

      @Noel, I'm confused about your use of "Obamanos". Is that a play on the word "vamanos", which means "let's go"? If that's the case, that to me fits right in with "Yes we can", and would seem that you are in support of Obama. However, from your statements, clearly you are not. Seems quite typical of the "let's hate Obama band wagon." You are one of the sheep you can't think for themselves. Life is complicated. Politics are complicated. Your rhetoric does nothing to help solve the problem. You are simply trying to blame the other for these hard times, and Obama, to the right, is definitely "the other". So, yes, Obamanos! Si se puede!

      January 18, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  17. whitman

    How can a Christian endorse a nonChristian? The hypocrisy!!!!!

    January 18, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Andy Anderson

      Can you provide a Bible citation indicating that Christians are forbidden from nominating or endorsing non-Christians for political offices?

      Or is this just yet another instance where God's opinion on a topic just so happens to be identical to yours?

      Know why that is? Google for the study by "Nicholas Epley" from the "University of Chicago" where he finds that people tend to assume that their own opinions, prejudices are mirrored by the supposed creator of life, the universe, and everything.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • James

      In the "New GOP Testament"... Yes, you can serve two masters, God and Money too. It happens all the time in congress.

      January 18, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  18. Reality

    Dear Cindy C,

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man would do or say?

    January 18, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  19. Ungodly Discipline

    God dam MONGORIANS! Ok that's the last time. Just had to get it out of my system.

    January 18, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  20. Jesus Wants Your Money, Jesus Wants Your Vote

    Funny how evangelicals are always focused on political power and money.

    They run a plastic surgery center? They must be obeying Leviticus and just trying to help out: "No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the offerings made to the Lord by fire. He has a defect.... because of this defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary"

    I am sure it is not because you can make a ton of money in plastic surgery.

    January 18, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Jesus accepts credit cards

      Christians blissfully ignore their own belief system:

      "Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."

      “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

      January 18, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • noel

      funny how it's the DIMocRATS who play politics at the pulpit w/ only a few exceptions. we've seen this happen this past sunday. i have the same respect for a jerry faldwell as i do jesse jackson and al sharpton...NONE!!! OBAMANOS!!!

      January 18, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Z

      Reality is, if you do believe...then you know the first place you find a demon is in a pulpit. Look at what's happened this past two years, you had the right trying to convince America that Obama was the antichrist, the 666 symbol was put before them (Herman) and they flocked to it. When they elect Romney the circle will be complete and they will have turned their back on everything the Bible teaches. The true Antichrist will be brought into power by the right. The Bible tells us it's a multiheaded beast..it's the leadership of the GOP. The one world government is here..we saw it with their theft, warmongering and deregulation, it created a crisis worldwide. Conservatives had better wake up and see the GOP for what it really is.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • novowel4me

      The home base for GOP style evangelism is in the south. These are the same folks who used the bible to endorse slavery for 200 years and then used the bible to turn a blind eye to Jim Crow for another hundred.

      January 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.