Return to Transcripts main page


Democratic Presidential Candidates Prepare for First Debate. Aired 8-8:33p ET

Aired October 13, 2015 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:15] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: And good evening everybody from Las Vegas. We are just 30 minutes from now, five Democratic presidential candidates face off for the first time. There is certainly a lot at stake. There are certainly a lot of excitement at the center podium on the debate stage, front-runner Hillary Clinton.

To her right will be Bernie Sanders, to the left Martin O'Malley, and on the ends, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee.

I will be moderating tonight's debate with additional questions coming from CNN's chief political correspondent Dana Bash and CNN En Espanol Washington correspondent Juan Carlos Lopez. Don Lemon will bring in the questions via Facebook as well. There's been a lot of activity all say here on the debate floor. And as I said, the excitement is palpable.

Brianna Keilar is in the debate hall. She joins me now.

What is happening where you are, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there Anderson. I want to give you a look at the stage behind me. You can see where Dana Bash and Juan Carlos Lopez are going to be standing. You'll be standing, of course, across the stage here asking questions of the candidates.

There are five lecterns stand ready for them. They are actually not far from the debate hall. They are in their green room trailers. We were just out behind the hotel as some of them were arriving.

Martin O'Malley who one has a guitar in his trailer. He will be preparing that way. Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, we saw them out there. And also, as we await Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders there at their trailers, it's really interesting as we await for them certainly to come through what really is sort of the back of the hotel here and eventually make their entrance on to the stage. They did, at least a couple of them get a welcome from Senator Harry Reid who came to their trailers to say hello.

Looking out at the audience here, a lot of people excited. They are milling around. We see some rather familiar faces in the crowd. Jesse Ventura, Jesse Jackson, Wayne Newton. We even have a real housewife of Beverly Hills. So you have a lot of people who are really ready for this debate to get under way here in a little over a half hour - Anderson. COOPER: How have the candidates been spending the last 24 hours? As

we saw Secretary Clinton out at a demonstration outside a Trump hotel here with some workers, I believe, who were wanting to unionize. Did you know, were they doing debate prep today?

KEILAR: Yes. They were doing debate prep today. I know specifically for Hillary Clinton, I spoke with one of her aides and she had debate prep this afternoon. Remember, there was a walk-through here that a lot of the candidates did. She did not do that. So she was focusing on that debate prep. She has been working for some time. This is really the last minutes of all it. She has been working now for weeks with a team of litigators.

Martin O'Malley, he has been working for weeks. He also is doing some debate prep today as well, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Brianna. Thank you very much.

Lots to talk about with our CNN political commentators and "Atlantic" media contributing editor Peter Beinart is here. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, vice-chair of the DNC voter project. Democratic strategist, Paul Begala is co-chair of a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC and was a long-time adviser to President Bill Clinton.

Paul, if you were backstage with Hillary Clinton, which I'm pretty sure you're not allowed to be, since they're part of a super PAC, what will you be telling her to do tonight?

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: This is the part I miss the most. I was the last person to talk to Bill Clinton before he went out to every debate. This is what I would say to Hillary, which is what I said to her husband. You had a good prep. You've got good one- liners, you've got a good plan. But if something pops in your head, say it. You have great extinction. You trust your extinction out there and don't just rehearse canned lines. That's what she needs more than anything, is that confidence to throw deep. And it's hard to do when you're the front-runner.

COOPER: Are her instincts as good at her husband's?

BEGALA: Nobody is as good as him. They have been good enough to make a president. And she is got to go up there and trust his instincts.

COOPER: Donna Brazile, I mean, she hasn't debated since 2008 on a presidential stage, right? This is - a candidate who has debated as much as she has, do you think she gets nervous?

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely. I'm sure there are times when she just want to make sure that she remembers not just her lines but also what the other candidates have been saying.

But you know what? The goal is to be yourself, to really be in the moment. Look at this crowd. This is an amazing crowd. This is a Democratic Party. You see faces, familiar faces, new faces, a lot of shiny new objects. I think she is going to get out there like the other four candidates. Feel this energy and she is going to perform very well.

COOPER: It's interesting, Peter, because - I mean, comparing this audience to the one at the Reagan library, which was the last CNN debate, the GOP debate. That was 500 or so people. I think there's 1300 seats here. I think you are going to feel and hear this audience a lot more certainly than you did during the Reagan debate. I fully expect to be booed at several times by this audience. I'm ready for that.

BRAZILE: Probably some wet kisses of love.

COOPER: What do you think - well, I doubt that. I already even checked out where the exits are after this debate.

Peter, Bernie Sanders, there's so much enthusiasm among his supporters. If you were Hillary Clinton, do you try to appeal to those supporters tonight or do you try to make yourself be more of a moderate for a general election matchup?

[20:05:12] PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think she can't get worried about the enthusiasm gap. There is an enthusiasm gap. The most partisan and enthusiastic Democrats, many of them are with Bernie Sanders.

What I think she needs to focus on is not him but pivoting away from this very disastrous summer by reminding people of her core strength. Her core strength is that she knows the policy. She is someone, even if you don't believe she's trustworthy, you know, she is well- informed. That she is qualified. She is very good when she talks policy. She is very good on substance. I think she needs to remind people of that core strength.

COOPER: Paul, some of these candidates who are, I mean, very low on the polls, you know, one two percent at most, do they try to punch up? Do they try to make a name for themselves by going after Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders?

BEGALA: They might but it's not smart. Today's "Washington post"/ABC News poll has Hillary's favorability, among Democrats, at 79. That's remarkable given that she's had the summer of that.

COOPER: She has got a big problem, though, among independents.

BEGALA: Of course. But that has to come late. She has to win the Democrats first. And if I were advising her, actually, I would say, if they hit you, never punch down and remember strategic of soft word turn it away wrath. Not my favorite passage from the bible I have to say. She's a better person than I am. She could do that.

BRAZILE: They are here to introduce themselves, Anderson. They want to be able to not just connect with the people inside but begin to tell the world outside who they are. Why they are running and why they should be the front-runners in the race. So I think this is going to be a good night for Democrats and a good night for America.

COOPER: Donna, if you're Bernie Sanders and you are introducing yourself to, you know, a lot of viewers who maybe have not - certainly have not been to one of your rallies with tens of thousands of people and maybe have a lot of questions about, wait a minute, you're a socialist, do you play that up? Do you try to appeal to more moderates? What do you do?

BRAZILE: You know, I said last night, it's not what people call you, it's what you, you know, answer to. And I think Bernie Sanders answered to working class families. He answered to people who are struggling, who want to get a job, who want to make ends meet. There's no question that Bernie Sanders who has never run in a Democratic primary is now in a Democratic primary. We're excited about him. He has really appealed to a lot of new voters. So tonight is an opportunity for all of us to feel the Bern. I'm going to know, Anderson, if you feel the Bern, are you going to get all those stuff and all wavy and groovy like everybody always on a feel the Bern team?

COOPER: Do you think there is anything wavy or groovy about me? You think I have an ounce of that in me?

BRAZILE: Well, you know, Anderson, I've seen some moves lately.

COOPER: Well, I think there were worse moves. Well, I still I don't know what you're talking about.

COOPER: Donna Brazile, Peter Beinart, Paul Begala, thank you.

The countdown clock is certainly ticking. In just a few minutes, the five Democratic candidates are going to take their places on the podiums, on the lecterns on the stage behind us.

Let me just ask you, because I mean, Paul, you certainly have been, as you said, in a lot of debates with Bill Clinton. What are -- how nervous does a candidate get? I mean, even a candidate who has been, you know, who has done a lot of them. Hillary Clinton has done dozens and dozens?

BEGALA: They tend to internalize. They get real quiet. I sat before one debate in the general election. I sat in a locker room with Governor Clinton and bounced a basketball back and forth silently. And then when he did talk, he wanted to talk about the spy novels he was reading. Just get your mind out of it for a little bit. These folks, all of them, including those who have zero, Jim Webb is a war hero and a really accomplished senator. They've all come prepared. They're thoroughbreds. I can't wait to see them.

BEINART: But you know, one of this is interesting, Sanders has not been preparing. He, in his way, is actually a little bit like Donald Trump. His calling card is authenticity. He doesn't want to come across as scripted. And they made a point of saying that he hasn't been doing a lot of this. That, will, I think be a very interesting dynamic to watch, is that he is going to try to play this differently. Not cramming himself with facts and come across as the guy who is actually saying whatever comes into his mind.

BRAZILE: Yes. But then he lowered expectations by saying that I'm not reading a book and instead, I'm just going to go with the flow, no. I think he is well-prepared. He knows what he wants to tell the American people.

COOPER: He is an accomplished debater, not on this kind of a stage, but definitely an accomplished debate.

More from the debate hall after this short break. We'll be right back.

[20:13:43] COOPER: And welcome back. We're just minutes away from tonight's Democratic presidential debate here in Las Vegas. A Linchpin state in the upcoming election with an early primary, large number of union voters. Obviously, a key Democratic constituency. I will be moderating tonight's debate. You can feel the anticipation here inside the (INAUDIBLE) at the Wynn hotel.

Joining me now is CNN senior political commentator and former Obama senior advisor David Axelrod, also CNN political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson, John King, anchor of CNN's "INSIDE POLITICS" and senior chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

David, I got to start with you. You obviously critical of the Obama election campaign in 2008. Ryan Lizza at "the New Yorker" who is also a CNN contributor, has just published an internal document from the campaign of 2008 that you have said already or it is in fact accurate, essentially pointing out the strategy that then senator Obama used to defeat Hillary Clinton and a strategy of basically pointing out raising questions about her -- about trust, about her convictions, whether she actually has a political -- a soul of strong political convictions.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR COMMENTATOR: As you point out, the memo isn't very revelatory because the strategy followed and we executed on that strategy. We also recognize that she had significant political assets. She's smart, she's tough, she's experienced and we'll see some of that, I think, tonight.

[20:15:00] COOPER: Does she still face the same, and she's just arriving we're told any minute here at the hall. Does she still face some of those questions about obviously about trust, about her political convictions?

AXELROD: Although she faces them more among independent and Republican voters than among Democrats who give her high ratings on those characteristics and with whom she is very popular. So I think the other candidates have to tread lightly in raising those issues at this debate.

COOPER: Lest they incur the ire of the crowd?

AXELROD: Yes. I think that is - and not just the crowd but Democrats in the country. These are questions that will be raised. There is no question about it. She has to overcome that. But I don't think that these are a huge impediment in the Democratic primary.

COOPER: Gloria, you've been reporting on Bernie Sanders' debate strategy. He says from what your reporting and others is that they're not going to go after Hillary Clinton, which is something he's said all along, unless he's attacked.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And I don't think she's going to attack Bernie Sanders either. You know, they make the case that they're not going to attack her frontally, but they are going to do kind of a back door which is to say I've been consistent on these issues for the last three decades. Where have you been? I've been a consistent progressive, where have you been?

You know, everybody is going to try and lean more and more to the left in this debate. Bernie Sanders has said I was there before you were, Hillary Clinton. So that's the kind of debate you're going to see. But it's not going to be a frontal attack on her email or on her likability or on her honestly or trustworthiness. None of it.

COOPER: John, where do you see Secretary Clinton's vulnerability?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, to the memo from 2007 to today, you can say she called the Trans Pacific trade Partnership the gold standard, now she's against it. She has moved on the minimum wage. She has moved on arctic drilling. She has moved to the right on some things as well. No fly zone, not in Syria. So could you see the candidates say consistency is a character issue, conviction is a character issue? It's possible.

If you're Governor O'Malley, Governor Chafee, Senator Webb, you're on the fringe of this race right now, you are looking for a breakthrough. But if you just take a gratuitous shot at Hillary Clinton and you don't connect the two dots, you don't make it about why you're better, it's a huge risk for anybody including senator Sanders, but he is not going to go there.

But for the long shot candidates, they need to breakthrough tonight to prove they belong in the race and they have some relevance, they will be tougher maybe than anyone else. But to David's point, he is very popular among Democrats. Yes, they may have doubts about her but a gratuitous shot within the family is a huge risk.

COOPER: Nia, are you agree with it?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: No, I agree with that. I think one of the things that are going to be interesting to see what these undercard candidates do, Lincoln Chafee, Martin O'Malley and Jim Webb, whether or not they think going after Hillary Clinton is worth it or if they feel like going after Sanders who sort of stands in the way of them get to go a one-on-one with Hillary Clinton. Whether or not they go after Sanders. (INAUDIBLE) that is going around in this debate wounding liberal blocks and talking to liberal economists, there's a certain amount of skepticism about Bernie Sanders' agenda. Price tag could be -- so is there someone on stage who sort of emerging as windows (ph) in saying essentially this is might be too progressive.

COOPER: David, I mean, you wrote a piece for about Bernie Sanders and he has the opportunity you are saying tonight to present a more, I guess, how would you --? AXELROD: Well, I think Bernie Sanders is a guy who speaks about

class, who speaks in broad terms. He rarely invokes people. There's a certain element of humanity that's lacking in his presentation. That would be good to inject to a broad audience like this. Show your connection with actual human being, not just with a class of people.

COOPER: It's going to be a fascinating night. We got a lot to watch for. As we said, I'll be moderating. We are --

KING: You got some work to do.

COOPER: I do. Everybody stick around after the break. My colleague Wolf Blitzer is going to be taking over. I have to get ahead to the debate floor. Stay with us. We're minutes away from the first Democratic presidential debate.


[20:23:21] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, THE SITUATION ROOM: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer.

The first Democratic debate is only a few minutes away. The festivities here are beginning. The excitement is clearly building. We're back with our panel, the former Obama adviser and CNN political commentator David Axelrod, our senior political correspondent Nia- Malika Henderson, our chief national correspondent, the host of INSIDE POLITICS, John King and our chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

Hillary Clinton, she has a huge challenge ahead of her. If you were giving her strategy advice, David, tonight, what would be the most important thing to whisper in her ear?

AXELROD: Well, you know, they say you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. She is very good at the pros. She will have the facts. She will have the arguments. She needs to insert a little poetry and give person a reason to believe. I think that's her prime mission tonight.

BLITZER: How does she do that?

AXELROD: Well, I think by invoking - by giving a sense of her connection to the issues that she is advocating and making them feel less tactical, which has been one of the problems going, you know, up to this point.

BLITZER: How does Bernie Sanders, Gloria, really introduce himself to a large chunk of the Democratic base who may be watching tonight?

BORGER: That's his job this evening. The one thing Bernie Sanders hates is talking about himself. He doesn't like answering personal questions when reporters ask him. He has got a lifetime in civil rights. He has got a lifetime in politics. He needs to share a little bit more of who he is with Democratic voters. And also let them know why somebody who is a Democratic socialist can actually be elected president of the United States. He has to look presidential and lift the veil a little bit on who he is. BLITZER: Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, the other three

candidates who will be on the stage, they've got a tough assignment tonight.

[20:25:06] KING: They do because they see the recent example of Carly Fiorina on the Republican side. It was in an undercard debate. But they saw that somebody is very low on the polls can use a debate make themselves for relevant in the race. She is still in the middle of the pact, but she went from nowhere to the middle of the pack. So they're thinking what's my breakthrough? What's my issue? How do I make a connection? The question is, do I go after Hillary Clinton because there's a risk in doing that if you're overly personal, if you are slashing in your attacks, because despite the questions about her, she remains popular among Democrats or do they strategically think I want to be the alternative to Hillary Clinton so I'm going to direct my fire to Bernie Sanders and see if I can take him down a little bit. They need a breakthrough to be relevant in the race. How they get there is risky because they start from a very low position.

BLITZER: I assume these all five of these candidates, at some point either directly, indirectly will refer to the Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump.

HENDERSON: That's right. And we have seen that already. He said that he's going to be live tweeting. I think he said he even know it is going to be a hugely boring debate. That he is going to be live tweeting. And that Hillary Rodman Clinton tweeted back saying that it is going to be a huge debate and she will be glad that he is watching. So yes, I expect that they would bring Donald Trump up because he is such a big target. Democrats do not like Donald Trump. So I think even sort for these undercard guys, if you want to sort of be in the news cycle come tomorrow, it might be good to get a funny one liner to --

AXELROD: For Democrats and broadcasters, Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.

BORGER: Right. But he is going to tweet that right now.

HENDERSON: That's right.


KING: Look, we're in the state of Nevada. The Latino vote is critical in this state. This used to be a presidential battleground state. It go back and forth. Now you have to say it leans blue and quite so. New Mexico is the same way. Back and forth between Bush and Gore because of the Latino vote. Now, you have to say, I means blue. So you can expect, whether it is talking about his views on Mexican immigrants, building the wall, Democrats, that's tee ball at this stage.

HENDERSON: Yes, it is a good point.

BORGER: I think Trump will be the punching bag here. These people are not going to punch at each other. They're going to punch at Republicans.

BLITZER: I assume some of these Democratic candidates, David, they are going to go after Hillary Clinton for supposedly flip-flopping and changing her mind on very sensitive domestic and international issues.

AXELROD: I agree with John. I think they'll do it, but they will do it in a subtle way and talk about their own consistency and they need to be consistent. And the question of whether you can trust them to act on what they say they'll do based on what they've done before. I don't think there will be a direct assault on her for the reasons we discussed earlier. I think she is a popular figure among Democrats and they don't want a frontal assault on a fellow Democrat, particularly the front-runner.

BORGER: And you know, if they did that to Hillary Clinton, it would probably benefit her because I bet she's prepared. I bet she has ready answers for every attack she would get if she got attacked. And so, there's no benefit in it for any of these candidates to go after her.

AXELROD: I think most of the scenario that is we have discussed, she has been through several times in a run through.

BORGER: Exactly.

AXELROD: She knows how she is going to deal with them. I don't think she will unless fired upon. But fired upon, she will fire back. And I can tell you from you experience, having worked for a candidate who debated her a couple of dozen times, she's pretty good at it.

KING: But you do have to make the case, when they come after her consistency, the challenge for her is to say, you know, is it an evolution or is it a flip-flop? She has to make the case that she had changed her position because of changing times, not because of changing polls.

BLITZER: She doesn't want to go too far in distancing herself from President Obama on the sensitive issues because she needs the Obama base if she is going to get herself a nomination and going to be elected president.

HENDERSON: That's right. And we have seen so far, she is doing pretty good with the Obama base. If you look at polls in South Carolina and out of Nevada, she has got high numbers among African- Americans as well as Latinos. But she has in some ways put distance particularly on TPP. But she might have sip on Obama on that but she gained union support too.

AXELROD: We should remember the Obama base is pretty large. He is the most popular Democrat. He is up around 80 percent. So there's not a big benefit in kicking him around too much in this debate.

BLITZER: But she did on the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That trade deal which she worked on as secretary of state. She has now said it's a bad deal.

AXELROD: As I've said before, the theory here is that if you flip- flop, flop on to the most popular front.

BLITZER: Guys, President Obama as you know, he is at the White House tonight. We are told he will probably watch part, if not all of tonight's Democratic presidential debate which begins in just a few minutes from now. We're here at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas.

You know what I want to do, I want to go to Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She is chair of the Democratic National Committee. She's about to introduce a taped message to the people from President Obama. Let's listen in.



BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Eight years ago I was one of the many candidates sharing my vision for our country's future. After a hard fought primary, we came together and built a historic grassroots campaign to bring change to America. Together we enacted historic Wall Street reform to protect consumers and prevent another crisis. Together we changed the way we use energy and where schools prepare our kids for the future. Together we reformed our healthcare system and another 16 million Americans now know the peace of mind of health insurance.

[20:30:06] Together we've stood up for justice and equality, and the freedom to marry is now open to all. So we're going to have to fight just as hard in this election as we did in the last two. No matter who is on the ballot next November, that's the choice we're going to face, and that's why I'm still fired up and I'm still ready to go. I'm not just asking you to work as hard for our party as you did back in 2008 or 2012. I'm asking you to work even harder. Knock on even more doors, talk to even more of your friends, give even more than you thought you could give. If we do that, then I know that Democrats won't just win the White House and Congress, and elections all the way down the ticket, we'll keep building on the extraordinary progress of the past several years. And we'll leave our kids and America better than ever. Thanks everybody.



BLITZER: Again, that was a taped message from President Obama to the folks here at the Wynn Hotel getting ready for this debate. It was interesting, you were watching closely, John, that little videotape. I did see the vice president a couple of times in that videotape. I don't know if that was accidental, it was deliberate or sending a message. Not sending a message?

KING: That's the only appearance the vice president is going to make in this hall tonight. I will say this, when you talk to a lot of these Democrats, (inaudible), different campaigns, they love the vice president. There is a great deal of respect for the vice president. They want to give him a lot of latitude for when he would make this decision because of the personal issues and the family issues he's gone through. But even people here who like him and some people who want him to run, they think he needs to make his decision. They're getting tired of waiting.

HENDERSON: Very powerful draft Biden ad has been running consistently on CNN. Everyone is looking at that. So he's sort of looming over this debate.

BORGER: But if you want to talk to a potential candidate linked to Barack Obama, it's Joe Biden. Much more than Hillary Clinton ever would be.

BLITZER: You agree?

AXELROD: There is potential, though. He has to decide if he wants to run.


AXELROD: I do think time is running out. I think that people's patience are being tested here.

BORGER: Whose patience?

AXELROD: I think people in this -- perhaps people in the news media, who are beginning to get tired of the wait.

BORGER: I think there are filing deadlines. I think that's going to determine when he decides.

BLITZER: Gloria, everyone, stand by. David Axelrod, Nia-Malika Henderson, John King, Gloria Borger. Thanks to all of you. It's time to wrap it up for now. The Democratic presidential debate moderated by Anderson Cooper begins right after a very short break.




Gloria Borger>