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JOHN KING, USA

Chile Mine Rescue, Campaign Star Power, Delaware Showdown

Aired October 13, 2010 - 19:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Rescue miracle is approaching the magical moment. Twenty-eight of the 33 miners are up on the surface. And the families of the remaining five awaiting their turn to celebrate.

A live update from Chile in just a moment.

Also a dramatic night in midterm election politics. The woman with the best brand in national politics today, First Lady Michelle Obama, hits the trail in two critical races hoping her popularity provides a boost to two struggling Democrats.

And tonight is a defining moment for another woman who just recently burst into the national spotlight. Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell. At the bottom of this hour, a live debate, right here on CNN.

Our brand-new poll suggests O'Donnell needs a commanding performance if she is to have any hope of a second stunning come-from- behind victory.

Politics in a moment. But let's get right to the heroic personal drama that is captivating people around the world. The methodical but magical rescue of the miners who were trapped for 69 days a half mile underground.

Rescue operations have sped up. And they're hoping to finish tonight. Crews are now bringing to the surface miners at the rate of three an hour. Five miners are left. Plus a five-member rescue crew that's also gone down into that mine.

Right there on the scene for us, CNN's Karl Penhaul live with the latest. Karl.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John.

They've been going at this now I guess for -- for more than 20 hours. And as each miner comes up, the whole process seems to speed up. In fact, initially, Mines Minister Laurence Golborne believed that it would take one hour per miner between 33 hours in total, right up to 48 hours.

But in fact what they're telling us now is that this rescue mission is going so well that it could all be wrapped up by midnight. All 33 miners could be back on the surface after 70 days under ground. And in the course of the day and in the course of last night, and as we go into another night, we have seen some amazing scenes, some emotional scenes.

Yes, on the one hand, the technical aspects of this rescue mission seem to be running like they were on rails. Seem to be a matter of routine now. The rescuers have really gotten into their stride.

But that's where the routine stops. Because as every miner steps out of that Phoenix 2 rescue capsule, every emotion is different. There are family reunions. Different members of their family, different emotions, all flood out to the fore.

Right now, the miner heading up is Juan Carlos Aguilar. He was a mechanic down in the mine. And he was also named one of the foreman of the three work shifts that the miners divided into.

They divided into three work shifts to keep some element of discipline and to keep some routine during the time that they were trapped underground. And it's people like him that have helped build a team of the 33 miners so that any personal differences didn't come to the fore. But to make sure all 33 miners worked as a team.

And that is really beyond any individual performance and beyond any individual hero that there may have been down there in the mine.

The real hero here has been team work. It has been only through team work that these 33 men have fought against death and won -- John.

KING: And, Karl, as we -- as we watch this drama, this miracle unfold, you've been there throughout this more than two-month ordeal. As you see the miners come out of the Phoenix capsule and you see maybe it's a brother or sister, often it's the spouse or the girlfriend. We've seen children in recent hours as well. You have been here through this roller coaster, the fear at the very beginning, the devastation, then the hope, then the wait.

Just take us inside the mood and the spirit you feel.

PENHAUL: Yes, I think you have to really have been here and experienced what they felt when they thought their miner husbands, brothers or lovers were actually dead, and then they figure out that they are alive. And then things move on. Now they are coming back and being reborn.

I mean, we only have to look at scenes like the most veteran miner, Mario Gomez, when he came back to the surface. He gave a huge hug to his wife, Lila, and then immediately after that, took a knee and said a prayer to God and the Virgin Mary.

And then the number two miner that came up, Mario Sepulveda. He's a bit of a joker. He was known -- we knew him as the narrator on the videos that the miners sent to the surface. He was hugs all around. He was very cramped in that Phoenix rescue capsule, but -- somehow he managed to smuggle a bag of rocks into the rescue capsule. And that was the first thing he did when he got out. Hand out rocks to the president of Chile and to the mines minister. Not much of a souvenir, but all that he had at hand. And then he raced across to the rescue workers and led a soccer-style cheer in support of the miners of Chile.

Others have come out and given passionate hugs to the people that they most loved in this life. There have been cries of joy. There have been tears of joy. But today, it's very much about a rebirth for these 33 miners and a rebirth for the 33 families. Because all of them say their lives have now been marked by a "before" and an "after" -- John.

KING: It's such a breathtaking and remarkable scene to watch it unfold. And we are blessed to have a great reporter like Karl Penhaul on the scene. One of our many reporters there.

Karl, we'll get back in touch with you as the hour unfolds. And stay with us right here. We will continue to watch this.

But shifting here at home, in 20 days, America holds a midterm election of enormous consequence and is almost always the case, the vote is largely a referendum on the president's first two years in office which means there are some candidates happy to appear with the president. And many Democrats happier if he stays far away.

Michelle Obama is something else. Democrats coast to coast are clamoring to share her star power. And today she campaigned in two pivotal Senate races. In Illinois, she's trying to help the Democrats keep the seat once held by her husband. And in Wisconsin, her focus was Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold.

Our new CNN/"TIME" poll tonight shows Feingold down by eight points. And the first lady's message was that this midterm vote matters just as much as the election that sent her husband to the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: It's the chance to continue the progress we've made, the chance to finish what we've started, because this election, isn't it just about all that we've accomplished these past couple of years. This election, Wisconsin, is about all that we have left to do in the months and years ahead.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Even with the first lady on the trail, Republicans are confident those Illinois and Wisconsin Senate battles, but now less so in Delaware because of Christine O'Donnell's Tea Party surprise.

In an unorthodox year, she's perhaps the most unorthodox of candidates. Forced to distance herself from past comments about dabbling in witchcraft. And in tonight's debate, she is certain to be asked about position on abortion and other social issues that place her considerably to the right of the more moderate Delaware electorate.

The man -- the man establishment Republicans had hoped to be their debate will be watching this debate. But Congressman Mike Castle tells me he won't try to help O'Donnell build bridges to the more moderate voters who helped Castle to 12 statewide victories over the past three decades.

And while our new CNN/"TIME"/Opinion Research poll shows O'Donnell trailing Democrat Chris Coons by 19 points among likely voters, 57 percent to 38 percent, Castle says based on his experience in the GOP primary, it would be a mistake to count O'Donnell out in the general election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MIKE CASTLE (R), DELAWARE: No, I'm not going to endorse anybody in that particular race. Not because of the competence of any of the candidates, but because the primary I went through was very nasty and in a variety of ways, both politically and personally. And I've just declined to get involved in that.

I will give credit to the Tea Party Express people who backed Christine O'Donnell. They're good politicians. Anyone who says they're not politicians doesn't know what they're talking about as far as I'm concerned.

They did an effective job of winning the race for her. And, you know, they're probably going to be very effective in setting up the last few weeks here of the general election as well if I had to guess.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

KING: More from Congressman Castle and the big stakes in tonight's debate in just a moment.

And also still ahead for us, we're keeping a very close eye on the mine rescue in Chile and we'll take you back there for every major development.

Also when we come back, a closer look at the battles for control of the Senate and how Republicans hope to reach their magic number for capture and control.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: The Delaware Senate debate will get national attention tonight because of the remarkable surprise candidacy of Christine O'Donnell. But it is way more important than just one candidate.

Let's look at the map here. We're looking at some, not all of the Senate contests. There are 37 total. But as you look at this map, these blue states are seats currently held by Democrats. The red states currently held by Republicans.

The Republicans need a gain of 10 to get control of the Senate. Let me go through and circle some of the states where the Republicans are confident of picking up seats now held by Democrats.

Pennsylvania, they're confident. Again there's two weeks out but they're confident of this one. They are confident as well up here in Wisconsin. Our new poll tonight supports that.

In North Dakota, in Colorado, one, two, three, four. How do they get to 10? Well, they're confident down here in Arkansas. That's five. They have to hold these states -- Florida, Ohio, and New Hampshire. At the moment, they're confident of doing that.

But then how do they get the other five? Even if all this goes like they plan and like they hope today, how do they get the other five? Well, maybe Harry Reid's seat in Nevada.

Jessica Yellin, we'll check in with her in a minute.

Maybe Barack Obama's old seat in Illinois. That would get you to seven. They're confident as well in Indiana. That would get you to eight. This is a hypothetical. How do you get the rest of the way? West Virginia? Even if they win that, that's nine.

Well, the Democrats right now are ahead in California, ahead in Washington state. Where does number 10 come? Could it come from Delaware? Could it come from Connecticut? Two very tough states for the Republicans.

That's why they had hoped Mike Castle won that primary because they think he would have had a better chance.

Let's go around some of the Senate map now. Jessica Yellin is with us from Las Vegas. Dana Bash, our senior congressional correspondent from New York, Ed Henry, our senior White House correspondent with me, and our senior correspondent Joe Johns.

Jess, I want to start with you. There was a new poll out today that showed essentially a dead heat. Harry Reid a little ahead maybe out there in Nevada. Last week, we sent a camera crew down because Sharron Angle, in a conversation at a Tea Party event had said that Sharia law was being practiced in a couple of places in the United States.

I'm sorry, I need to break out. We need to go straight down and look at these pictures from Chile. The 29th miner coming to the surface there as you watch the applause unfold.

This has been methodical throughout. This is Juan Aguilar. He is 49 years old, the mechanic from the mining town of Los Lagos. And a supervisor of one of the three shifts in the mine. He is a father of two and has been mining for 19 years.

And there you see another one of these breathtaking smiles as the Phoenix capsule comes up to the surface.

Let's just listen for a moment.

In this routine play out. Now they're very careful when they bring this up. They ask the miner inside if he's OK. If he has the energy after the ride. Whether he's OK for them to open the capsule. And then you see them open -- you see them opening the Phoenix capsule. The president of Chile there, family members as well.

Juan Carlos Aguilar, again, as we said, he is 49 years old. And a mechanic. He is now the 29th of the miners to make it to the surface. That leaves four miners still down there. They have picked up the pace of this operation in recent hours.

And also a handful of rescue workers. So you see the operation continue. Let's listen to this. This is --

Sixty-nine days these loved ones have been waiting. That's what makes these moments so remarkable.

In some ways, this is becoming routine and yet each one of these is remarkable. The miner comes out. They check him at the top of the Phoenix capsule. They let him out. He says hello to loved ones who are waiting. Thanks some of the rescue workers. Gets a handshake from the president of Chile.

And then each -- just as a precaution, they've all seemed healthy and hardy so far coming up. As a precaution, though, each has been put on a stretcher and taken off for medical testing.

Sixty-nine days, a half mile deep. The emotions of the moment. Juan Carlos Aguilar, 49 years old. He is the 29th.

There has been a carefully orchestrated order of the miners being brought up. Those coming up now tend to be more senior members. The foreman, the shift leaders, 19 years experience in the case of Juan Carlos Aguilar. You see him shaking hands. You see the tearful eyes here. A father of two. He will receive medical testing. And most of all, be reunited with his family.

There you see Juan Carlos Aguilar being placed on the stretcher. He will be taken off for testing. So far, though, this has all been precaution. Officials saying on the scene the miners who have come up have been not only in good spirits, but in remarkably good health, considering 69 days, a half mile deep.

We'll continue to watch this story. Keeping our eye on important politics as well. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, more of the balance of power in the Senate and a preview of tonight's important Delaware Senate debate which begins at the bottom of the hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Live pictures there underground, a half mile deep. That is the mine, the San Jose Gold and Copper Mine, and it is a lot less crowded down there, which is a sign the miracle is unfolding above ground.

At the moment, they're preparing to send the Phoenix capsule back down for the 30th miner. Raul Bustos is 40 years old. He has been a hydraulics engineer who ironically had never been inside the mine. The day of the collapse, he went inside to repair a truck.

He will be the 30th miner brought to the surface. There are 33 miners in all and then a handful of rescue workers who will come up as well.

We'll continue to track this dramatic story.

We're also just a few minutes away at the bottom of the hour. CNN will bring you a live debate from Delaware where the Republican and Democratic candidate for Senate will take off there.

As we continue our conversation here, a bit of an adlib. We were planning on covering a lot of Senate races tonight. Because of the breaking news in Chile, we'll just focus on this big debate coming up at the bottom of the hour.

Jessica Yellin, our national political correspondent, is with us from Vegas. That state also has a hot Senate race. Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash is in New York.

Erick Erickson, the editor of Redstate.com, with us from Atlanta, I believe. And we also have Ed Henry, Paul Begala and Joe Johns. A bit of a crowd here to get through the final few minutes.

We look at our poll tonight. Likely voters, Coons, 57 percent, O'Donnell, 38 percent.

Paul Begala, you're a Democrat. But I want to talk to you as a strategist, someone preparing a candidate to go into a debate. Christine O'Donnell knows she's down nearly 20 points. She's probably on the issues a bit to the right of her state. But she surprised us once. What does she need to do to surprise us twice?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Debates are all about expectations. You know, here and she's -- you've got to give her that. She set the expectations bar extraordinarily low.

But if I was advising her, I'd say, relax, come out there, be pleasant, show them that -- as she said in her ad, you're not a witch. She's going to have to show some mastery on a couple of issues but she knows enough to say I'm not for taxes and accuse a Democrat of being for it.

So I actually think she'll be just fine. I think it's Chris Coons, the Democrats, who has the harder job. This is very much like the Palin/Biden vice presidential debate. Biden ironically held the Senate seat that they're contesting for tonight.

KING: Erick Erickson, there was a lot of joy in the conservative movement when Mike Castle was toppled by Christine O'Donnell in the primary. But when you look at the hard math of trying to get to a Senate majority, has there been disappointment now as the polls have shown Christine O'Donnell trailing significantly?

ERICK ERICKSON, REDSTATE.COM EDITOR: Republicans who absolutely want a Senate majority, yes, there is. But overall, particularly among conservatives, no, simply because in the Senate there really isn't a great deal of difference between having 49 seats and 51 seats given the 60-seat requirement for filibuster.

KING: And, Dana Bash, this is your beat. When you talk to Republican sources, you were in West Virginia last week as you track all these races, I assume, and I had a conversation with McConnell where he wouldn't say so quite some time ago, but they seem to think seven or eight, yes, but because of Delaware and a few other places, getting to nine or 10 is pretty tough.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right. And I was talking to a senior Republican official tonight who says that -- that they are less confident about states like Illinois which they were hoping to do well in and even Pennsylvania.

They are still, as you showed earlier in the program, hoping to do better out west. They're pouring now $3 million into the race in California. They're also pouring more money into Washington.

But I just want to say that I actually respectfully disagree with Erick. It does make a difference to have 51 votes because that means the Republicans, not the Democrats, will set the agenda. And it may not mean that they're going to be able to pass all the legislation in the world, but they will be able to set the agenda, and that is huge in the United States Senate, absolutely huge.

KING: We're going to stick one more quick break. The debate coming up at the bottom of the hour. We'll have a little bit more of the pregame in just a minute. We'll set the stakes for it. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: At the bottom of the hour, CNN will bring you a live Senate debate from the state of Delaware. Christine O'Donnell is the Republican candidate. You've probably seen her ad in which she starts by saying, "I am not a witch."

The Republican ad man who created that is Fred Davis. And I had a conversation with him, asking him, knowing she's an underdog, what does Christine O'Donnell need to do in tonight's debate?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FRED DAVIS, STRATEGIC PERCEPTION INC.: I think she needs to show people that she's intelligent and that she's one of us. And I think she'll do incredibly well. I think the bar is really low for her. People aren't expecting her to do well.

And I wasn't expecting her to be as charming and as intelligence as I found her to be when I had dinner with her the first night. And she greatly exceeded my expectations and I think she'll do that in the debate. I'm looking forward to it.

KING: Do you think the questions are more prove you can handle the policy portfolio or the questions are more show us more of your character and who you are so we can see whether or not we're comfortable with you?

DAVIS: I think the latter. I think people knows where she stands policy-wise. She's -- you know, she's conservative. She's backed by the Tea Party group. They love her. And they love her for a reason.

I was amazed at her policy knowledge. I think they'll go for the policy knowledge in a minute. I think they need to be proven that she's substantial. Incredible.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Republican ad man Fred Davis there.

Here's another little nugget for you as we wait for this debate. I'm told that Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, called Christine O'Donnell recently, said prepare for this debate. It's a big moment for you and suggested for her debate perhaps she call on Randy Scheunemann who was a former McCain adviser who helped Sarah Palin out during the campaign. And they became very close.

And I'm told that Randy Scheunemann has spent the last several days up in Delaware, helping Christine O'Donnell prepare.

Paul Begala, I want to bring you into the conversation because you have a little bit of nugget on how Chris Coons got ready for this debate that's quite interesting.

BEGALA: He called Sarah Palin's opponent. He called Joe Biden, the vice president of the United States, experienced Delaware politician. He watched that tape, I'm told, several times, of the Biden/Palin debate.

Because Joe Biden -- a lot of us didn't think Biden could have the discipline to get through that debate without any personal attacks on -- on Governor Palin at the time. And he did.

And Chris Coons' campaign believes that they need to do the same thing. They need to not attack her personally. They need to define the issues. And kind of rise above it. Don't do anything that either patronizes or unduly antagonizes Miss O'Donnell.

Because you're 20 points ahead, Chris. That would be my advice to him anyway.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: So much at stake as well. I was with the first lady today in Chicago. They're worried about losing Barack Obama's Senate seat in Illinois.

Tomorrow she's in Colorado. They're worried about that. Next week, she's going to California and Washington because Patty Murray and Barbara Boxer. They have to have Delaware is the bottom line.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: If she succeeds in making Coons the issue instead of O'Donnell, to any degree, she's probably succeeded then.

KING: My apologies to our other correspondents. Jessica Yellin had interviews with Harry Reid and Sharron Angle today. We will get to those tomorrow, I promise you that. But right now I need to thank everybody here.

Remember, CNN is the place to stay. As we watch the mine coverage. But right now, to the Delaware Senate debate and Wolf Blitzer.