From kindergarten delinquent to star

Carlos Watson, the new hotshot at CNN, hasn’t always led such an exemplary lifestyle. In fact, he was thrown out of his kindergarten class.

“How do I put this?” asks Watson, whose show, “Off Topic with Carlos Watson,” airs for the second time this weekend. “I was not the best student. I got in a lot of trouble growing up. The teacher would say, “What’s two plus two?” and I would say yellow.”

Watson wasn’t dumb. He was highly intelligent for his age because his older sister, Carla, tried desperately to take him to her kindergarten class two years earlier. That wasn’t allowed, so she came home each day and taught her baby brother everything she knew.

Watson was invited back for the first grade. “I wasn’t a violent kid,” he says. “I guess they’d call it spirited in the old days.”

Eventually, he went on to become a political junkie and helped manage political campaigns, such as that of Florida state legislator Daryl Jones (D). He worked for Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown. He ran his own education company. He graduated from Harvard and earned a law degree from Stanford.

Though he ran an Election Day get-out-the-vote effort for Bill Clinton in 1992 and has worked for myriad Democrats, he refuses to call himself publicly a Democrat or a Republican. “I won’t say because [as a journalist] I legitimately work for both and now I spend a lot of time looking at all sides.”

Watson’s show, which airs this Sunday at 10 p.m., is an off-the-beaten-path program intended for the younger crowd. On the first show, which aired in October, he hung out in Chicago’s Millennium Park with freshman Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), played video games in a Manhattan arcade with Heidi Klum and shot hoops with Shaquille O’Neal.

This weekend, the single 35-year-old correspondent will try to lure younger viewers in once again by taking a ride with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in his electric-blue hydrogen-fueled Humvee and pumping iron with Kreflo Dollar, a megachurch minister in Atlanta. He’ll also go salsa dancing with the prettiest-rated of the “Desperate Housewives,” Eva Longoria.

Does he know how to salsa? “Does she know how to salsa?” he counters. “My name’s Carlos; what do you think?” Watson, who spent his youth in Miami, says he once won money in a dance contest.

Watson’s TV career has been frenetic. In early 2003, he joined CNBC. But later that year, CNN whisked him away. Though he has been doing TV for only two years, he says he’s at ease with it. He explains his switch from CNBC to CNN by saying, “It’s less why didn’t I stay there, then why was I lured away to CNN. I loved the chance to reach a broader audience.”

His personal favorites among TV interviewers include Ted Koppel, Jim Lehrer, Cokie Roberts and Oprah.

Aside from “Off Topic,” Watson appears regularly on “Wolf Blitzer Reports.” He says he has learned a great deal from Blitzer, who makes it easier for a newcomer like him because he asks “clear, strong questions and gives you an extra 10 seconds to give your answers time to breathe.”

Blitzer, too, seems to think Watson is a good fit. “We can speak in shorthand — he understands me,” Blitzer wrote in an e-mail. “I understand him, and I always know we are going to get some value added from his analysis.”

What is Watson hoping people will gain from his show?

“We’re trying to tell diverse and intriguing stories that you might not see,” he says. “With Arnold, you see him but you don’t hear about him growing up in Austria, going in depth about who he is as a parent, his governing philosophy.”

And Longoria? “You see her on ‘Desperate Housewives,’ but you don’t hear what it took for her to get where she is.”