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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

California Fires; Interview With Presidential Candidate Ben Carson; Republicans Prepare for Second Debate; Poll: Trump, Carson Top GOP Race; Fiorina to Trump: I'm Proud of Every Wrinkle. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 14, 2015 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Donald Trump wants to ask his Republican rivals a question: Do you feel lucky, punks? Well, do you?

I'm John Berman, and this is THE LEAD.

Our politics lead, the stage quite literally set. The CNN Republican debate is two days away. And these go to 11, 11 candidates. That is one louder than the last debate. Who will dare attack the man in the middle, Donald Trump?

Also in politics, he is the only man within striking distance of Trump right now, Dr. Ben Carson, known for his skills with a scalpel, unlike the front-runner, who wields a sledgehammer. So, is Carson up to the challenge of taking on Trump? I will ask Dr. Ben Carson live.

Also here in California, flames tearing through entire towns, hundreds of homes and businesses destroyed, families forced out now living in tents. A wildfire emergency burning out of control in this state right now.

L'Shana Tovah, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today. We are live at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, which is our politics lead.

We are a tick under 52 hours now from the big show, the CNN debate, the one debate to rule them all. This could reset the 2016 race. The message today for all the Republican contenders walking the political wire goes something like this. You come at the king, you best not miss, because so far everyone who has come at Donald Trump has missed and seen their fortunes flounder.

A new ABC News/"The Washington Post" poll out this morning puts Donald Trump well out on top in the Republican field. And those candidates brave enough to try to go blow-to-blow with the Queens native, well, voters treating them like hot garbage.

Jeb Bush with his worst showing yet. He's at 8 percent. Scott Walker at 2, 2 percent. And Rick Perry, the longest serving governor in Texas history, who thumped Trump as a cancer on conservative, he dropped out.

As the seconds tick down until 8:00 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday, in this Donald Trump's world, and are we all just living in it?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN (voice-over): In the raucous rumble for the Republican nomination, there is Donald Trump and then there is everyone else.

CROWD: Donald Trump! Donald Trump!

BERMAN: A new ABC News/"The Washington Post" poll shows Trump with a healthy 13-point lead over Dr. Ben Carson. But Carson has a healthy lead over the rest of them. Less healthy? Jeb Bush, polling peaked, down at 8 percent. Tough news for Bush going into Wednesday's CNN debate, where critics say a strong performance is crucial after what they consider a lackluster job in the first debate.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Maybe the barrier -- the bar's even higher for me. That's fine.

BERMAN: It's not just good news in the national polls for Trump, but New Hampshire too. The latest Monmouth University poll gives him an 11-point edge there with Carson gaining ground in second.

Trump will bring his polls and his pomp to Dallas tonight, a rally just two days before the big debate. It's not all rosy for Trump. One poll shows 70 percent of Latinos find Trump insulting or offensive. And 65 percent say he's hurting the GOP's image. Trump recently told CNN he is actually on his best behavior.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm trying to be nice.

BERMAN: But Carly Fiorina's backers beg to differ. Her super PAC released this campaign video after Trump criticized Fiorina's face to "Rolling Stone."

CARLY FIORINA (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is the face of a 61- year-old woman. I am proud of every year and every wrinkle.

COREY LEWANDOWSKI, TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: This is everything that is wrong.

BERMAN: Trump's campaign manager told me the problem in politics is not criticizing a woman's face, but a video defending that face.

(on camera): It's wrong for a group to say, hey, we're women, look at our faces. We support Carly Fiorina.

LEWANDOWSKI: It's not the message I'm talking about. It's the fact that these super PACs are out there. They have huge amounts of money being funneled into them, so they can go out and attack candidates if that's what they want to do or give any message they want.

BERMAN (voice-over): Don't expect any apology from Donald Trump, not based on what he told Jimmy Fallon.

JIMMY FALLON, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JIMMY FALLON": When you were little Donny Trump, did you ever -- did you ever apologize? TRUMP: This was not supposed to be one of the questions. I will

apologize sometime in the hopefully distant future if I'm ever wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: So one race has been settled today, the "Celebrity Apprentice" primary. NBC announced the celebrity turned politician turned celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger, he will take over as host of "Celebrity Apprentice."

No hard feelings from Donald Trump, who tweeted a congratulations note, saying, "He will be great."

So on from "Celebrity Apprentice" to the actual presidential race.

I want to turn now to the man running right behind Donald Trump in the polls.

Joining me right now from Washington, D.C., Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson.

[16:05:03]

Dr. Carson, thank you so much for being with us today.

And I say this half in jest, based on what Donald Trump said, but how are you feeling today? How's your energy?

BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Actually, I feel pretty good. No problems.

BERMAN: I bet you feel pretty good, all alone at number two in the polls right now, pretty much very far ahead of the rest of the field besides Donald Trump.

The same poll that shows you running second right now, it says Americans believe that politicians cannot be trusted. Why should Americans trust you?

CARSON: Well, I would say they should look at my life. Look at what I have devoted my life to. Taking care of people, taking care of children, trying to ensure their futures, you know, starting scholarship programs, being out in the community and helping people. That's what I'm about. And that's the reason that, you know, I have accepted this challenge.

BERMAN: So Donald Trump said over the weekend that "Everybody who attacks me is doomed." In this debate here at the Reagan Library, you will be standing right next to him. What are your intentions at this debate toward Donald Trump?

CARSON: Well, my intentions are to talk about my programs, the things that I would like to try to do in conjunction with my fellow Americans to get America back on the right track. I'm not particularly interested in any person particularly attacking

them. I think we have much better things to do than that.

BERMAN: So you actually apologized over the weekend for comments you made about Donald Trump's faith. You said you didn't know if he had the same types of convictions you did.

I'm wondering why you made that apology, especially given that that's a subject that does matter to some voters in some places, especially a place like Iowa, with a large evangelical voting base?

CARSON: Because it wasn't meant as an attack. I was primarily talking about me and what motivates me.

And there were those who took it and revved it into some kind of a big deal. And obviously it was interpreted that way after Mr. Trump heard it. But that simply wasn't my intention. So that's why.

BERMAN: Do you think a candidate's faith matters? Do you think voters should look at candidates and wonder, how strong is their faith, how true it is?

CARSON: Well, everybody operates on the basis of faith. It may not be faith in God. It may be faith in themselves or some other entity. But there is no one whose demeanor and relationships with others is not dictated by their faith.

BERMAN: You said you disagree with Donald Trump on immigration policy. You questioned his notion that you could go round up 11-plus million undocumented immigrants. Is there another policy area where you differ from Donald Trump?

CARSON: I think that's the primary area.

And we're probably not actually that far away even on that issue, because the key thing is, you have to seal the border. And almost nothing else after that matters. If you can get that border sealed -- and we have the ability to do that, but, as a nation, we don't have the will to do it. And that can be changed pretty quickly. And a lot of things will get better at that point.

BERMAN: You know, he suggested that he wants to get some money from the hedge fund guys in terms of taxation. Would you be in favor of changing the rules so hedge fund managers pay more in taxes?

CARSON: Well, I'm in favor of a taxation system that is fair for everybody. So that's why I like a proportional system.

I want to get rid of deductions, loopholes, the IRS, all the things that really make it into a very complex situation, and make it very easy. I want to create a situation that encourages entrepreneurial risk-taking and capital investment.

BERMAN: So, Dr. Carson, you indicated that heading into the first debate, you had some jitters. I have been on the debate stage here. And the audience is going to be just a few feet away from where you're standing. You're going to be standing right in front of the plane that Ronald Reagan used as Air Force One. Any nerves heading into this event Wednesday night?

CARSON: I don't think so. You know, I have spoken there in that venue before.

And it's actually a very comfortable place with good acoustics. And you feel right there with the audience. You don't feel removed from them. I think it will be very pleasant.

BERMAN: It's a great venue. It's a beautiful setting.

So, Dr. Carson, on the campaign trail in Iowa recently, you praised Italy for having the courage to raise the retirement age for their version of Social Security and to cut retirement benefits by 40 percent. Do you favor doing the same thing to Social Security in the United States?

[16:10:00]

CARSON: I think the solutions here might be different because problems are a little bit different.

But the key was, Italy was on the same trajectory as Greece, heading off the fiscal cliff. And they had the courage to make some changes. They had a large fiscal gap. And now they have set themselves on the pathway to long-term prosperity.

And Greece has not. And the longer one waits to correct that kind of situation, the more draconian measures have to be. We also have an extremely large fiscal gap, which is getting larger. And unless we begin to react to it soon, we will be in a great deal of trouble.

BERMAN: Does that require the courage, as you say then, to raise the retirement age?

CARSON: It requires the courage to do what is better for us now. One of the things that will be necessary is gradually raising the retirement age for people who are under the age of 55.

But we're looking at a number of different ways obviously to save Social Security right now, scheduled to run out of money in 2033. We really don't want that to happen.

BERMAN: What about cutting benefits for people with big incomes, guys like just, for instance, Donald Trump?

CARSON: I would love for people to voluntarily opt out of it. That would be very nice indeed.

BERMAN: To voluntarily opt out? Or should there be means-testing? Should you say, like, after $500,000 of income, you shouldn't get Social Security?

CARSON: If people have earned something, I'm a little reticent to just take it from them. I would prefer that they would, as a contribution to their nation, if they really don't need it, make a sacrifice for someone else.

I think there's plenty of precedence for that type of attitude in America.

BERMAN: Are you giving back? Are you willing to give back right now your Social Security benefits that you will earn, and will you call on the other members of this presidential field to donate back their Social Security wages?

CARSON: Not only will I be delighted to give it back, but for many, many years, I have been giving a lot of money trying to better our country, trying to give scholarships to children, putting in reading rooms, trying to change the trajectory of their lives. And I will continue to do that.

BERMAN: No, and you are well-known for helping a lot of kids and your work in that area.

I want to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis right now. You are a man of faith. A man of faith, Pope Francis, has called on people around the world, particularly in Europe, to open their hearts, and in some cases open their homes. Do you think that the United States needs to be willing to let more of these refugees into this country?

CARSON: I believe we should encourage the various countries in that region, you know, Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula, to take those refugees in.

And we should be willing to perhaps help them financially and with some expertise. But the fact of the matter is, we don't know who those people are. And the majority of them are young males. And they could easily be people who are being infiltrated by terrorists and recognize that once you bring them in, then you have got to bring other members of the family in.

So you're multiplying that number substantially. We need -- this is not something that we can necessarily afford to do in terms of exposing our population to that kind of risk right now.

BERMAN: Doesn't charity require, though, some kind of assistance? And isn't there some kind of screening policy in place where you could do background checks and make sure they aren't some kind of threat? There are lot of -- I have seen pictures of a lot of families, a lot of kids, a lot of women and a lot of young men who just want a better life.

CARSON: Well, how did that screening process work for the Tsarnaev brothers? Not so well, did it?

BERMAN: That was 2002. That was in 2002. That was a long time ago.

CARSON: It doesn't matter when it is. We have the same screening process now.

BERMAN: But then became radicalized in the United States.

(CROSSTALK)

CARSON: Unless we improved it very, very substantially, to the point where we could virtually guarantee that we were not importing terrorists, it seems to me like an inappropriate thing to do at this stage, when, in fact...

BERMAN: It was 11 years.

CARSON: ... we have countries -- when we have countries over there who are refusing to take in refugees. It doesn't make any sense to me that we should have to do it and they're not taking in refugees from their own area. Why should we have to do it? BERMAN: Well, I think the idea would be we do it in conjunction with

perhaps a consultation with these other countries and it would be some sort of global worldwide effort.

And just on the Tsarnaev thing, just to put a point on it, they came to the country in 2002. It was 11 years after that where there were the horrible Boston Marathon attacks. And I am from Boston. But, by all accounts, they became radicalized in the United States. Should there be screening processes for people who are already here?

CARSON: Well, the point being we don't have a very good way to screen people who may have a proclivity for the development of radicalization.

[16:15:07] So, why do we want to expose our population to that if we don't have to? And when we can encourage and support others in doing that, which is more appropriate.

BERMAN: That proclivity, just to finish up here, is that proclivity just being a Muslim?

CARSON: I think that proclivity has to do with something that should be studied in more detail. My point is, we need to be very, very careful. We need to understand these things very significantly before we begin bringing in people. I will tell you that if I was ISIS, I were the global jihadist and I knew the United States was about to take in 10,000 or 65,000 or 100,000 people from my region, I would infiltrate them with my people.

BERMAN: Dr. Ben Carson, thank you so much for being with us. I wish you luck here Wednesday night.

CARSON: Thank you.

BERMAN: I know you've been here before. It is such a beautiful setting. And it looks great right now.

CARSON: Thank you so much.

BERMAN: Look forward to seeing you, sir.

CARSON: OK.

BERMAN: So as the Republican candidates study and they practice and they look forward to Wednesday night's debate, new numbers seem to further prove that there's been a momentum shift on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton losing her grip on the solid lead she once held. Is there anything she can do now to turn the tide? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We are back live from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in beautiful Simi Valley, California. We are counting down to the CNN Republican debate.

And there's new polling out today that reinforces the fact that newcomers are making the most noise and making the old guard sweat.

I want to talk about that, everything political, everything debate oriented with our political commentators, Ana Navarro and Dan Pfeiffer, also here, CNN anchor Michael Smerconish.

I guess I'll start with the poll, the outsiders, the easy hidden question right now, rumble fish, -- I can make other references right there. Look, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, if you look at the latest poll right now, they have over 50 percent of the vote together.

Ana Navarro, you support Jeb Bush, you're friends with Marco Rubio. How can these guys sell themselves as outsiders in this environment?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I -- they've got to sell themselves as seasoned politicians who know the issues, who have the capability to lead, who have governed in the case of the governors, but they also have to acknowledge the message that is being sent, I think, through these polls. That people are sick of politics as usual.

They need to prove that they will not be politics as usual, that it will not be more Washington dysfunction, that they will be able to get things done in Washington, and they have a hurdle to cross because I think there's a lot of cynicism and frustration in the American people. We see the polls, 9 percent, 10 percent approval for Congress. Everybody's upset at things.

So, they got to get some optimism, but they got to -- they got to acknowledge this and they got to respond to it.

BERMAN: Dan, you've worked elections before. If it's a "mad as hell election and I'm not going to take it anymore", how do these guys breakthrough?

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think Ana's exactly right. They cannot sell themselves something they're not. Jeb bush cannot be the outsider, John Kasich can't be the outsider, but they have to acknowledge what they're feeling and show how their record makes them the person best to enact the change they want.

Everything said about Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio is true of Hillary Clinton. She needs to sell herself a person who can actually enact that change, but she has to understand what is driving the Bernie Sanders surge and see how she can incorporate that and respond to it in her campaign.

BERMAN: So another outsider, Michael, in this race is Carly Fiorina.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: Right.

BERMAN: She will be on this main stage here Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Library. She's now engaged in a back and forth with Donald Trump. Donald Trump frankly started it. In "The Rolling Stone" magazine --

SMERCONISH: He always starts it, John.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: He says he's a counterpunch, he's a victim. He criticized her face. He says, look at that face, how could you vote for that face?

Well, a super PAC backing Carly Fiorina today put out a video a lot of people are talking about. So, let's look at it now.

All right. We don't have that video sadly. I hope over the next few minutes we get it because a lot of people are looking at it saying it is one of the more remarkable pieces of video from this campaign. Carly says, look at every wrinkle in my face.

Oh, wait. Here we go. Let's play it right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARLY FIORINA (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ladies, look at this face.

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

And look at all of your faces -- the face of leadership, the face of leadership in our party, the party of women's suffrage. The face of leadership in your communities, in your businesses, in your places of work and worship.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: I've heard from people across the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, who look at that video again produced by a super PAC and say, that's pretty good.

SMERCONISH: Yes, I think it's brilliant. And I think she's smart to fight within her weight class. And by that I mean to go into that hangar and to see the 11 positions on the debate stage and, for me, to look at each one of those individuals recognize that there are two debates within one. There are the mavericks, and that would be Carson and that would be Trump and that would be Carly.

And then there are a lot of establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio I'd put in that category, John Kasich. A stumble by Trump is not going to benefit Jeb Bush. I think the direction in which this is headed is that ultimately there is an establishment candidate and ultimately there is a maverick candidate.

[16:25:02] So, Carly has to gain by taking from Donald Trump. And I think she realizes that.

BERMAN: Primary within the primary.

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: One of the things I love about this ad is it never mentions Trump. It stays so high road, so classy. It is so poised. And it is all about being every woman. I'm every woman. You know, look --

BERMAN: I've heard that song before.

NAVARRO: Not all of us are Eastern European super models. So I think there's a lot more people that frankly look like Carly and the women in that ad than Donald Trump is giving himself credit for.

BERMAN: Dan Pfeiffer, I'm giving you an opportunity you might not get otherwise, advise Donald Trump, say Carly takes that stage Wednesday night with a message similar to that one, how does Trump respond?

PFEIFFER: I don't think Trump will take advice from me or anyone else, but I think he should apologize or at least acknowledge regret over that statement and not engage with her. I think Michael is right that she's potentially the biggest threat to his being the nominee because she has all the resume of the outsider, not an elected office, but has sort of more traditional experience, seems less risky than Donald Trump or Ben Carson. And so, there's a huge opportunity there.

If he engages with her, she could be the first Republican candidate to come out on the stronger half of an --

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: I tell you something -- we would all be talking about it the next day. Our jaws will drop. And it will be a moment in the debate because this is a guy who doesn't apologize to God, right? Doesn't ask God for forgiveness.

So, if he owned that stage and expressed regret and said, I made a mistake, I shouldn't have said that, we would all I think be floored.

BERMAN: All right. In addition to that, let me ask this question. Who has the most at stake here? Which candidate the most in peril? Who might be the first to drop out? I'll ask those questions when we come back with the panel next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)