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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

A Warm Welcome From TV's Fake News Pundit; Mugabe Slips Into Italy For Pope Francis' Installation; Trouble Ahead For The GOP; The Republican Autopsy Report; One On One With King James; Nobody Works During "March Madness"; On With Vonn

Aired March 18, 2013 - 16:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The Politics Lead. It's a race to the bottom in popularity between President Obama and the Republican Party. You won't believe the results of our brand-new CNN poll.

The Sports Lead. In the middle of the hottest winning streak of his career, 22 games and counting, King James takes a moment to go one-on-one with us.

And in the Pop Lead, Stephen Colbert endorses his sister for Congress and THE LEAD for your viewing pleasure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, THE COLBERT REPORT: I do have advice for you.

TAPPER: Okay.

COLBERT: I have been waiting for Jake Tapper -- I've been waiting for the world to hip themselves to Jake Tapper for years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: A warm welcome from TV's leading fake news pundit.

But we begin with our Worldly. He's accused of being one of Africa's most brutal tyrants, even ordering genocide against his own people, and he's banned from traveling in the EU. So, you can imagine many are shocked at the news that Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, slipped into Italy today for tomorrow's installation of Pope Francis. Despite the EU ban, the Vatican has not broken off diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe.

Mugabe also attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and his beatification ceremonies in 2011, despite being accused of ordering the torture, beating, maiming, and poisoning of thousands of political opponents. The Vatican says no countries, including Zimbabwe, get a formal invite, but all nations were informed that the event is taking place.

It was hard to imagine the situation in Syria could get worse, and then it did. Within the past hour, there have been reports of rocket fire at one of the only presidential palaces in Syria and the airport in Damascus. And earlier today, the State Department confirmed the Syrian regime is using fighter jets to fire rockets into neighboring Lebanon. While there have not been any reports of injuries, it does raise concerns that the violence could spread throughout the region.

U.S. allies like Britain and France are signaling they want to lift an arms embargo in order to start arming the rebels to fight the regime. And today, secretary of state John Kerry said the U.S. will not stand in their way. The change of heart is likely linked to concerns that jihadists supporting the regime could get too powerful.

The Israeli army had stare-down dictators and superpowers, but now it is going up against an unlikely yet all-powerful force: a supermodel. The "Times of Israel" reports that the Israeli defense forces want Bar Refaeli removed from a series of pro-Israel ads. That's because she's been accused of getting married in order to avoid military service so she can pursue her modeling career. The Israeli foreign ministry is behind the ads, which are supposed to help boost the country's image around the world. As for Refaeli's response to the controversy, she said, quote, "You can use the clip for the foreign ministry or drop it, but my Instagram feed has more readers than Israel's most popular newspaper." Dissing their readership bar? Not kosher.

In the Pop Culture Lead, forget Oz. It's the great and powerful jams Franco ruling the box office. Franco's $215 million blockbuster "Oz The Great and Powerful" scored the top spot for the second week in a row. But another flick starring Franco made a much bigger splash than expected. "Spring Breakers" raked in $270,000, despite opening in only three theaters. The movie, which features teen queen Vanessa Hugens and teen queen Selena Gomez running around in bikinis opens nationwide next week. Sounds fantastic.

Also leading pop culture, it takes real talent for a fake anchorman to make millions of people care about the news, yet Stephen Colbert pulls it off with ease. And these days when he's not playing the part of a pundit, he's helping his sister enter the same world that's always at the butt of his jokes, politics.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: With a screeching eagle and a cocked brow, "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central has resonated with audiences for nine seasons and counting.

AUDIENCE (chanting): Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!

TAPPER: The one-time protege of "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart now has his own wax figure at Madam Tousseau's (ph), a bathroom- adjacent painting at the National Portrait Gallery and, oh, yes, a few Peabody Awards. STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE COLBERT REPORT": I'm enormous. Am I still?

TAPPER: Yes.

COLBERT: Oh, good.

TAPPER: You couldn't be bigger.

(voice-over): And now, Stephen Colbert is breaking character to dip his toe into real politics, supporting his sister Elizabeth, who works in business development at Clemson University and is running for Congress as a Democrat in their home state of South Carolina.

(on camera): This was the first actual election you actually got involved in?

COLBERT: Yes, yes, this is the first one.

TAPPER: I don't think anyone would begrudge you --

COLBERT: Doing this for my sister.

TAPPER: Trying to help your sister.

COLBERT: Exactly. She's my sister, and I'm willing to, you know, break the jewel of my own creation to try to do something for her. Like, I'm not worried about what it would do to me or my show to try to help her as myself, not as my character, but to help her as myself. You know, if people think that's not the right thing for me to do, I don't care. It's my sister, and I'm willing to help her.

TAPPER: So, you think she'd actually be a good public servant?

COLBERT: I've met these people.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: And my sister, she's in the top decile (ph).

TAPPER (voice-over): If she wins tomorrow's primary, her Republican opponent could very well be former Governor Mark Sanford, who resigned amid scandal back in 2009.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARK SANFORD (R), FORMER GOVERNOR OF SOUTH CAROLINA: So, the bottom line is this. I've been unfaithful to my wife.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER (on camera): Mark Sanford is favored.

COLBERT: The former governor of the Appalachian Trail --

TAPPER: Yes - COLBERT: -- is favored to be the Republican candidate.

TAPPER: Does this put you in a position where you feel like it is an irresistible comedy object running against your sister --

COLBERT: Yes.

TAPPER: -- I mean is there --

COLBERT: Why can't I -- I will make jokes about him. I said, Lula, I said, if you do something funny, I'm making jokes about you.

TAPPER: But you won't.

COLBERT: Yes -- sure she will. She's now a politician.

TAPPER: Right.

COLBERT: Of course, she will. She's perfectly human.

TAPPER: Of course, political error is Colbert's bread and butter. The comedian's faux conservative pundit shtick is basically the longest-running spoof of Washington on TV.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've had it with these money-grubbing super PACs.

TAPPER: He even launched his own super PAC to mock big-money politics.

(on camera): How much did you ultimately raise?

COLBERT: Somewhere between $1.2 million and $1.4 million something. $1.2 million.

TAPPER: People actually gave you that money?

COLBERT: Yes, yes, yes, 30,000 people. Over 35,000 people donated.

TAPPER: I don't know if that reassures me or makes me terrified.

COLBERT: I don't know - it certainly surprised me.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLBERT: I'm doing it!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: It also confirmed that Colbert can be successful at almost anything. I first met Colbert on the campaign trail in 2004, and I took him as my date to the White House correspondents dinner the next year. (on camera): Here's my memory of that. You get up, about 45 minutes later you came back.

COLBERT: Yes.

TAPPER: And you said, I just made a deal to have my own show.

COLBERT: Yes. I told you what it was.

TAPPER: You told me what it was.

COLBERT: You said that's a terrible idea.

TAPPER: I said -- I loved you as a correspondent -

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: You kind of put cold water on it.

TAPPER: I was worried about it.

COLBERT: You were. Yes, I remember thinking yay! Hey, what?

TAPPER (voice-over): Clearly, I was wrong. So, from one anchorman to another, I asked for his guidance.

COLBERT: Here's my advice for you, and a wise man once said do the stories you care about.

TAPPER: Right.

COLBERT: Don't get sucked up in that whole news thing. I can't give you any advice. You're an actual newsman.

TAPPER: Right, but --

COLBERT: You know things about your business. I can't give you - if you do a comedy show, I could give you advice.

TAPPER: I'm not going to be doing a comedy show.

COLBERT: We'll see.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I'll be the judge of that!

TAPPER: Are you -- do you have the same misgivings about me that I had about you?

COLBERT: No. No.

TAPPER: You can be honest.

COLBERT: No. I can't.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: I think that's a bad idea on camera. Turn that off.

It's going to be huge.

TAPPER: Thank you.

COLBERT: Again, the name of it is?

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: THE LEAD.

COLBERT: THE LEAD.

TAPPER: It's called THE LEAD.

COLBERT: It is? I wasn't sure. I thought it might be called The Lead, because you've got so much gravitas. You have to be the heavy one anchoring it, and if it doesn't work out, it's, like, wahh, sink right to the bottom.

TAPPER: Right. Yes. That's a nice image, and I appreciate it.

COLBERT: Thank you!

TAPPER: You're welcome.

(END VIDOTAPE)

TAPPER: Hash tag, you're it. I asked Stephen Colbert for advice on anchoring a show, and now we want to hear from you. What tips do you have for me? Tweet your ideas to us at @theleadCNN and use the hashtag #posting tips.

Next, it's like CSI: Washington. Republicans release the autopsy results from 2012. That's their word, not mine! We'll have the Politics Lead, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: The Politics Lead. It's not what you say, it's how you say it. That might be a bottom line out of today's Republican autopsy report.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REINCE PRIEBUS, RNC CHAIR: I think that we have to have a party that says, look, if you want to support our party and you want to walk through that door, I don't need to agree with you on every single issue. I think that we had some by biologically stupid things that were said in the last election that make it more difficult for us to make that case.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: They're still feeling the damage. A new CNN poll out this hour shows more than half of American voters have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party. Here to talk about this is Kristen Soltis Anderson, the vice president of the Winston Group. Jim Gehrty from "The National Review," and Tim Phillips, president of Americans For Prosperity. Thank you so much for being here for our inaugural voyage.

So, Tim, Mr. Priebus said earlier today that if you're my 80 percent friend, you're not my 20 percent enemy, or something along those lines. Basically saying the party needed to be more inclusive. I have some conservative friends, very conservative friends, who call people like that squish. That person's a squish. You've heard this term many times, I'm sure.

TIM PHILLIPS, PRESIDENT, AMERICANS FOR PROSPERITY: I have.

TAPPER: So is this the future of the Republican Party, squish, or no?

PHILLIPS: I don't think so. It's not if they want to win. I look at -- they talk about how a couple of guys that made stupid comments, which they did, absolutely disqualified themselves from races. But there were people who were perfectly good candidates who were, frankly, more moderate in places like Montana and North Dakota, Virginia, who lost and lost badly. They didn't lose because they said stupid things.

TAPPER: Yes, this isn't Todd Akin's fault.

PHILLIPS: Right. They lost because they ran poor campaigns, but also, their messages weren't that compelling. A lot of it was "me too-ism" from those guys.

TAPPER: What'd you think of today's announcement?

JIM GERAGHTY, CONSERVATIVE BLOGGER: It's going to do a lot of good on the margins. But in the end, a party rises and falls based on its candidates. You can have the absolute best party apparatus in the world. If you have a candidate who pulls an Akin or does something biologically stupid, as the chairman put rather eloquently today, it's not going to do you any good, you have the party apparatus.

If you have a really great candidate, you're OK with the party apparatus that's not quite cooking on all four burners, so to speak.

TAPPER: Well, do you think that a different candidate could have won last year?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Definitely.

TAPPER: You think so?

ANDERSON: Well, I think -- it's not just a different candidate. It's not about the person, but about the message they're driving. It's about the policies and the way they talk about them. So, for instance, Mitt Romney had this very big focus on the economy, but for the average American, it was tough to see how Mitt Romney's economic policies would make their lives any better off.

I think that's the challenge Republicans have to face if they want to be competitive in future elections.

TAPPER: Now Tim, some people would say "Americans for Prosperity" is part of the problem.

PHILLIPS: Not me. Who would say that?

TAPPER: Some people would say that requiring a strict orthodoxy when it comes to no tax increases, that's part of the problem. What's your response?

PHILLIPS: In fact, a vibrant, growing, strong movement is a recipe for a party's success, and that movement is outside the party. The Democratic Party is not that strong. It was the Obama campaign. It was George Sorros in 2002, 2004.

A lot of movement groups on the left that dragged the Democratic Party along with their energy, with the movement's energy. So I think a strong movement is a good thing. Frankly, a not-so-strong party is a good thing.

The Democratic Party is not that strong. It's about the movement, pulling them along. I think that's what we have on our side.

TAPPER: Tim, just on that point, Kristen, let's put these numbers in context, the Republican Party's abysmal numbers. President Obama is not doing so great either. Our new CNN poll has him at just 47 percent approval rating. That's down eight points since January.

I do think, though, any strategist would say that the Republican Party right now has a steeper hill to climb. As a Republican, as a Republican pollster, how freaked out are you right now?

ANDERSON: You know, I've seen some bad numbers before. You know, I feel like seeing bad numbers now, it's not freaking me any more now than it was before the election. What makes me excited --

TAPPER: I've assumed you were freaking out a lot before the election.

ANDERSON: I have been freaking out the last four years about the Republican Party's performance with groups, for instance, like young voters, the Latino community. The numbers have been grim for Republicans for not just the last few weeks or months, but for years with these groups.

I think the stuff you saw in the report today is going to begin -- not completely win the conversation, but begin the conversation of trying to win these voters that are young that are not white, that Republicans have done poorly within the past. TAPPER: Jim, I want to ask you about something. A lot of conservatives, one of the issues they have with today's announcement is, Mr. Priebus and others in the Republican Autopsy Review Board announced that they thought the primary process should be shorter. There should be fewer debates and a lot of conservatives are saying, you're just trying to ram another squish through the general election -- through the primary process.

GERAGHTY: Yes.

TAPPER: And not give the candidates room to compete.

GERAGHTY: If the report had been one page, and it had said don't nominate a squish. There would still be those accusations from the grassroots of the RNC. Someone contractually obligated to cover the debate. I think it's great to reduce the number of debates because we had something like 23 the last time.

And we need six or seven. Most of the guys have everything they have had to say. When you have 20 or so, it dilutes the value of each one of them. You start getting the same old talking points over and over again.

And frankly, we had folks up on the stage not seriously running for president. They were running for book deals, running for TV gigs, you know, raise their name identification and to make themselves -- they're running for president of factions of the party instead of being the president of the United States.

TAPPER: All right, we'll have to leave it there. To be continued, much to discuss. Is Wolf Blitzer around here somewhere? I thought I heard that guy.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": I'm here.

TAPPER: Hi, Wolf.

BLITZER: Welcome.

TAPPER: How are you? Thank you so much for coming. Wolf, as you may or may not -- "THE SITUATION ROOM" is right over there. We're neighbors and he's constantly banging his shoe on the wall and telling me to keep it down. Keep it down. You have a big guest coming up.

BLITZER: Yes, "THE SITUATION ROOM."

TAPPER: I'm not in "THE SITUATION ROOM." This is no longer -- I apologize. I now have --

BLITZER: You guys will be in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

TAPPER: You have a big guest coming up.

BLITZER: Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican Party, will spend $10 million trying to narrow the gap. The young people, what was the gap among young voters? ANDERSON: It's 23 points.

BLITZER: Yes, that's a lot of gap.

TAPPER: That's not good.

BLITZER: We're going to talk to Reince Priebus about that. We have a lot of other stuff coming up in "THE SITUATION ROOM" as well. Maybe you'll join me in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

TAPPER: How could I turn you down? I'm live on television.

BLITZER: You will.

TAPPER: All right, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

BLITZER: What do you think of the show so far?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Great stuff.

TAPPER: Great guests.

Let me say, usually in sports, when you're close to breaking a record, you don't talk about it. I guess nobody told Lebron James because we have him one on one, and that is our "Sports Lead" and that is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: The "Sports Lead," sorry Heat haters, but it might be time to bow down and accept his majesty. The Miami Heat tied the second-longest winning streak in NBA history by beating up on the Toronto Raptors yesterday, and it was, who else, but King James, Mr. Lebron, leading the way.

Our own Rachel Nichols got a chance to go one on one with the MVP frontrunner. Rachel, is he still going with the company line that the Heat doesn't care as much about the streak as the rest of us do?