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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Democrats Prepare to Debate; Moderator Previews Tonight's Showdown; Democratic Candidates Face Off For First Time. Aired 4- 4:130p ET

Aired October 13, 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]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD.

We are live from the majestic Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, and it's fight night. Five Democratic presidential candidates are making their way to this resort hotel to make the case that he or she should be leader of the free world. They will face off on the same stage for the very first time in this 2016 presidential race.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we are in a town that has seen some of the biggest prize fights in history. Could one of these five candidates land a blow that changes this race? Could one employ a rope-a-dope strategy or,as has been known to happen in Las Vegas, could someone get overly aggressive, causing a rival to lose a piece of an ear, rhetorically speaking, of course?

The best political team on television is here, correspondents, commentators and cut men, to bring you the tale of the tape and all the excitement on the Strip and on the stage.

But let's get right, right now, to CNN senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar. She's on the debate stage.

Brianna, what does the Clinton campaign thinks she needs to do tonight? I assume they're trying to lower expectations, as campaigns do.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's really interesting, Jake, because actually they're not really trying to lower expectations.

And I think that's just because of the reality of how many debates, even though it's been years for her since she's had one, certainly with this much spotlight on her, but she has had more than a couple of dozen debates, almost all of them on the national stage, all of them high-profile.

And so she's coming to the debate stage here in just a few hours with a lot more experience at this high level, compared to the other candidates who are going to be here. At the same time, she has a clear objective. I spoke with one Clinton campaign aide who said, the goal is really to cut through the politics.

The translation for that is that Hillary Clinton has now spent months where, as she's trying to talk about substantive issues and she's trying to really draw contrast with some of the other contenders, her campaign has had to deal with this e-mail controversy that has overtaken so much of that, that has hurt her poll numbers and her trustworthiness with likely Democratic voters.

So she, tonight, is hoping to use this as an opportunity, where millions of people will be watching, and turn that around a little bit. She's been preparing a lot. We know this, that she's been doing these full-on mock debate situations, working with the team of lawyers. These are litigators who know how to ask a question, how to answer a question, and how to really poke some holes in the responses of the person that they're working with.

They have a lot of debate prep. She's actually -- I heard from another Clinton aide she's been doing some last-minute debate prep here coming into the final hours. But, yes, not even -- it's pretty interesting, Jake -- not even really trying to manage those expectations. She's got to come here, she has to do well, and they know that.

TAPPER: All right. Brianna Keilar, thank you so much.

The candidates themselves begin arriving in just a few minutes.

Senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta on the lookout for us.

Jim, any sightings?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

No sightings yet, Jake. But we're standing by in this loading dock behind the Wynn Hotel and Casino. This is where the candidates will be coming in as they arrive for their debate stage walk-through. I will just sort of walk along here and show you what they are going to be doing.

They will pull up in their limos, hop out of the car. They will be greeted by the owner, Steve Wynn, before they head back to the stage to check out their podium and lectern position. And I have to tell you, Jake, the stakes are high. The temperatures are high. We're out here in this hot Vegas sun. We will have to see if any of them have anything to say to us.

This will be one of our final opportunities to hear from these candidates before they arrive. We're expecting within the next hour possibly two of these candidates to show up. We will let you know if they have anything to say. Brianna was talking about the Clinton campaign. I talked to a senior Sanders strategist, Tad Devine, before this all got going earlier today. He said prepare for Bernie Sanders, if attacked, to fight like a tiger during this debate later on tonight -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, a wild Bengal tiger, no doubt. Thanks so much, Jim Acosta.

We have got a lot of wisdom on the set right now to calculate all the probabilities of what might happen. We have CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger, and CNN chief national correspondent John King.

David, let me start with you. You were with Mr. Obama, then-Senator Obama, President Obama now, of course, preparing to debate Hillary Clinton. She's a pretty good debater.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Oh, very good. She's polished. She's crisp. She's very fluent in issues. I don't think that's the challenge for her.

The challenge for her is to take all of these policies, some of which she's adopted recently, and weave them together into something coherent and something believable that people can hang on to. That is the challenge for her in this debate.

[16:05:02]

TAPPER: John, you heard David just allude to some of these positions that she's taken on recently, which is a polite way of suggesting that she has veered to the left on a lot of issues, including on a Pacific trade deal that she helped write, let's be honest. It was her baby, and now she's distanced herself on that.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It was the goal standard. And now it's not what she thought it would be or should be.

AXELROD: She's going for platinum.

KING: She's going for platinum. Maybe she's going for platinum here in Vegas.

Look, that's one lesson of 2008, when Mr. Axelrod and Senator Obama beat her. She's now protecting her left flank. So, on a number of issues, she's moved left. And so the challenge will be, when Bernie Sanders doesn't attack her personally, but says consistency should matter, she's going to say her experience matters, that she has a great diversity in public service, more so than anyone else at this stage.

There's no Donald Trump on this stage. There's no Carly Fiorina. There's no Ben Carson. These are all people who have held political office. You don't have the outsider dynamic that you have in the Republican race. So, she wants to say my experience prepares me to be the better president. She's hoping her answers say that and just the optics say that. She wants to look more presidential.

But her consistency, what she will could evolutions, some of her rivals I suspect are going to call them political flip-flops.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: What's going on in the Democratic Party is different to me, because these candidates have clearly made the calculation, particularly Hillary Clinton, because you talk about her changing positions -- she's made the calculation that moving to the left is not going to hurt her if she becomes the nominee in the general election.

And I think it's because she wants the Obama coalition behind her and she feels that maybe she needs to move to the left to do that because that's where the primary voters are. But we're not used to seeing this. Remember, Mitt Romney, the Republican Party, moved so far to the right on immigration, it hurt him in the general.

Well, Democrats are now saying, moving towards the base is not going to hurt them in...

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: Because -- I think part of the reason, Gloria, is because the country has moved. And I don't think there's one position she's taken that is on the unpopular side of a general election campaign. I don't think the country's all that enthused about trade.

BORGER: Right.

AXELROD: This is not a new development. And all the other issues she's taken, I said the other day, that flip-flopping, if that's what they are, is less egregious if you flop over onto the popular side.

TAPPER: But you point out that it could be seen as a character issue.

BORGER: Yes.

AXELROD: That's the risk.

TAPPER: And that's the risk.

BORGER: But not with Democrats. Democrats trust her; 68 percent of Democrats find Hillary Clinton trustworthy.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: But I mean for the general election.

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: Independent voters, I think that's a question she's going to have to answer.

And that's why I think it's important that she have solid answers tonight about these positions that don't sound like they're made for the moment.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question.

Hillary Clinton, obviously, a trailblazing figure. She would be the first major party nominee who is a woman, first president if she wins who is a female. Is there a risk -- and I ask you this because you coached then-Senator Obama -- in a man attacking a woman? AXELROD: Well, she went through that in 2000. And I was actually

working for her in that Senate race, and her opponent got overly aggressive in that race.

TAPPER: Rick Lazio, yes.

BORGER: Oh, yes.

AXELROD: I don't think -- and we had in the New Hampshire debate, if you will, in 2008, when the subject of her likability came up, and Obama sort of threw off, you're likable enough, Hillary, and that really hurt us.

So there is an element of that, but I will say this. I don't -- if there's a toughness barometer of the candidates on the stage, I think she'd be right at the top.

TAPPER: Oh, no, she's the toughest candidate on the stage, no question. But, like, could it backfire against a male candidate to be seen as Lazio was?

AXELROD: It's more likely to backfire, because, as Gloria points out, she's a very popular figure among Democrats.

And I think you have to be very careful about how you attack when you're attacking someone who is broadly liked and admired among members of your own party.

BORGER: And how she handles it. She handled then-candidate Obama when he -- she said you hurt my feelings to the questioner when he said you're not likable. And then Obama said you're not likable enough. And that was a bad moment.

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: I can tell you, having been in the green room watching that with the Obama people, there was a collective groan when that happened.

BORGER: Right. And if she handles it with humor, it would be good.

KING: And yet, and yet, if you're O'Malley, even more so, Webb or Chafee, and you're trying to become a viable player in this race, the only way to do that is not -- most likely not through some confrontation with Bernie Sanders, right?

It's most likely through some sort of an exchange with Hillary Clinton. How they manage that, how do they have a confrontation with her that is about an issue, or about her character, about her consistency without going over the line I think is the great challenge for the other people in this debate who will be a factor.

Whether their poll numbers move an ounce after this debate or not, they will be players, too, because they're desperate.

TAPPER: They're desperate. They need something to happen. They need traction.

AXELROD: I know the name Martin O'Malley is not top of mind as we think about this debate, but he actually has I think the toughest challenge, because he began as the likely alternative to Hillary Clinton, been completely eclipsed by Bernie Sanders.

And now he's on the edge of extinction and he has to perform well in this debate. And so he has to confront the question you raise, which is, how aggressive should I be? How do I posit myself as an alternative?

[16:10:00]

One way may be to be the generational candidate, to be the younger generation candidate. You have got a 74-year-old in Sanders, a 67- year-old in Clinton. He's a younger candidate. He may make that new generation appeal.

TAPPER: All right, David Axelrod, John King, Gloria Borger, thanks so much.

Much more from all of you throughout the night.

One man will oversee the tone of tonight's debate, and that one man, his name is Anderson Cooper. He will be the moderator. And we will talk to him, getting his strategy, as these candidates try to make their mark and separate themselves from the pack.

That's next, as we count down to the Democratic debate right here on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. And I am coming to you live from Las Vegas, Sin City, the site of the first 2016 Democratic presidential debate tonight.

Joining me now is a man who needs no introduction, a man who will be in the hot seat firing questions at five Democratic candidates vying for a chance at White House, Anderson Cooper.

Thanks so much for being here.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: It's a pleasure. Looking forward to it.

TAPPER: What's your approach going to be? These candidates are different than the 11 I faced at the Republican debate.

COOPER: Right.

TAPPER: They were already beating each other up. I just kind of like encouraged it.

COOPER: Yes, I don't think -- I mean, my strategy going to this has been, we can't depend on them to go after each other on the record. It's our job to do that. So I think tonight's debate for us, from my standpoint, also Dana Bash and others, it's all about pointed questions. I don't think you can leave it up to some of these candidates because a lot of them have made virtue of not going after each other on the campaign trail. There are substantive differences between them and I think it's our job, as me as the moderator, and other questioners, to ask them pointed questions and get that response from them.

TAPPER: Yes. And just to clarify, when we say going after each other, attacking each other, we're talking about debating.

COOPER: That's right. On the issues.

TAPPER: Yes.

COOPER: I mean, we're not talking about just creating drama. There are actual different, policy differences between these two and between the two front-runners and other candidates on the stage. And I think that's part of what a debate is about. It's about getting to those differences.

TAPPER: In this hyper media world, there's always shots and everybody's trying to work the refs. I saw something online about you played some role at Clinton Global Initiative. People claiming this is a conflict of interest. Can you explain this?

COOPER: Yes, I got this -- I mean, with all due respect to "The Weekly Standard", this is total bunk. There was a story in "The Weekly Standard" I guess Drudge picked up on and which said that I'm basically in the tank for Hillary Clinton because nearly 10 years ago, in 2007, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion at Clinton Global Initiative. Honestly, I can't remember what the panel was, there were no Clintons on the panel. I think it was on like international development aid or honestly, I have no memory of what it was, but I was the panelist, I was the moderator of a panel of handful of people. I walked in, I did my moderation, I left, I wasn't paid.

I've never been back to the Clinton Global Initiative. I've been never a member of CGI. I've never been to a cocktail party for CGI. I've never been to a social event with the Clintons.

You know, only time I've ever been in the same room with any of them is if I'm interviewing one of them. I don't think I've been able to get Hillary Clinton on my show for -- I can't tell you for how long. So, I think it was years ago last time I was able to interview. So, other than on a debate stage, this will be the first time.

So, the idea that, you know, I just find it, you know, it's --

TAPPER: It obviously bothers you because you work hard to be an objective journalist and when somebody says something like this, it's annoying.

COOPER: Yes, we've all been working really hard on making this as aggressive debate as possible, as an interesting debate as possible, and as fair debate as possible for our viewers to get the information that they need. So, you know, look, I get the story. Frankly, it's nothing new. It's been floating out there.

You know, my friend Greta Van Susteren and a whole lot of reporters were also, at one time or another, guests moderators on various panels in the Clinton Globe Initiative.

TAPPER: Which was a far less controversial organization back in 2000 --

COOPER: Which, by the way, I should also point out, I spoke at Reagan Library for free at the request of Nancy Reagan several years ago. No one seems to be attacking me as being a --

TAPPER: I'll do you one better. I spoke at the Nixon Library. What do you think of that?

COOPER: That raises all sorts of questions.

TAPPER: Well, tapes were not erased by me.

What are the rules going to be for the debate tonight?

COOPER: You know, as they were I think for yours. I mean, we have five candidates on stage. One minute responses, 30-second rebuttals if somebody attacks another candidate or kind of references another candidate by name, and we'll see how it goes.

I mean, I'm hoping to get, you know, three different sections in this with limited commercial breaks in between those three sections. And there will be some final statements from each of the candidates at the end. So those are the rules.

TAPPER: I'm very excited for you. You're going to do a great job as you always do, Anderson Cooper.

COOPER: Well, I hope.

TAPPER: Thank you so much and thanks for being here. I appreciate.

The candidates take the stage for this first Democratic debate of the 2016 race tonight at 8:30 Eastern, 5:30 Vegas Time. If you're away from your TV, you can watch a live stream on your mobile device on CNN.com. You can also weigh in on the conversation using #demdebate.

Hillary Clinton is the front runner in this race, of course. We'll be right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[16:24:13] HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: By the end of my first term as president, I want us to have installed half a billion more solar panels.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The best trained, best paid police departments in the world and as president, I would help bring that about.

CLINTON: I really do want to be the small business president.

SANDERS: I will do, as president, is lead the world working with other countries who transform our energy system.

CLINTON: I'm setting some really high goals that we're going to meet when I'm president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, live from Las Vegas. I'm Jake Tapper here in Vegas.

Five Democrats are going to do their best tonight to outwit, outtalk their opponents this evening. Millions will be watching, including President Barack Obama. We're told he will flick back and forth between CNN and the debate and the baseball game.

[16:25:04] But we're going to bet the president might pay closer attention to this channel because what happens in Vegas, will not stay in Vegas. It could convince vice president bide tonight step up to the plate and swing away for the presidency or not.

I want to talk about the stakes for tonight's debate with the communications director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, Brian Fallon.

Brian, thanks so much for joining us.

BRIAN FALLON, PRESS SECRETARY, HILLARY CLINTON CAMPAIGN: You just promoted me.

TAPPER: Oh, are you deputy communications director?

FALLON: Press secretary. But --

TAPPER: Press secretary. Bad staff work, you're fired.

So, let me ask you, what is Secretary Clinton hoping to accomplish tonight? Is kind of first do no harm or does she have an aggressive, assertive something she wants to achieve?

FALLON: Yes, we do. We feel like, over the last three, four months we've put out a really impressive group of policies that we think will make a difference for middle class families on things like college affordability, profit sharing, to get workers better paid at their companies that they work at, immigration reform.

And, you know, it's no surprise that over last several months, there's been a lot of talk on other issues, political attacks, questions of e- mails. This is an opportunity, we feel, for her to really communicate what she's all about in terms of the policy she would push as president.

TAPPER: Let me ask you about those e-mails, as I'm sure is no surprise to you.

Last week, the chairman of the House Committee on Benghazi, he wrote a letter to the head Democrat in the committee, in which he said that Hillary Clinton's friend, Sidney Blumenthal, wrote her an e-mail to her unsecured personal e-mail account, naming a human intelligence source, presumably in Libya, Clinton then forwarded that information -- again, it's classified information, even if it wasn't labeled classified -- former acting general counsel of the CIA says you should never even forward anything like that. You should tell Sidney Blumenthal, delete this and never forward it to me again.

Why didn't she?

FALLON: So, I want to take a step back for a second. This, for us, is a quintessential example of what this committee has been all about in terms of partisan activity. We can't -- we don't have the full e- mail that is in question here. He cited it, selectively, he quoted it, excerpted it selectively before the State Department has actually reviewed it for public release.

So, the State Department in the same way reviewing all e-mails coming out to date, doing a classification review to decide if there should be redactions made to those e-mails, they sent them to Trey Gowdy with the specific caveat --

TAPPER: Chairman of the committee.

FALLON: Yes. With the specific caveat that he should not be releasing them or making them public until they've completed their classification --

TAPPER: He didn't. He described them.

FALLON: That's just as bad.

TAPPER: So, you can't answer the question because you haven't seen them?

FALLON: Well, the full context of the e-mail still to be seen because the e-mail hasn't come out. But from what we know just based on Trey Gowdy's description of it in the letter that he made public last week, you had two individuals that were already outside of government transmitting that information before it ever reached Hillary Clinton's e-mail inbox. So, not only was it not marked classified as true of all e-mails that have come out so far, it was -- the information was being circulated among people that were outside the government and lacked clearance in the first place before it ever reached her inbox.

TAPPER: But she should not -- the argument being made that she should not have forwarded it --

FALLON: Well, we should wait and see, I think, because it may be the redaction that Trey Gowdy included in the e-mail is not one that the State Department has yet performed. They're actually still reviewing those very e-mails. So, this is a redaction that we suspect he performed because he knew it was already sort of venturing out on to shaky territory by even excerpting this e-mail in part.

So, we think it was him that expressed the -- exercised the caution of redacting that part. Let's wait and see the full e-mail when it comes out.

TAPPER: All right. I'm sure he'll come on THE LEAD and talk about it.

FALLON: Yes, sure.

TAPPER: Moving on to the campaign, what do you say to people in the Obama administration who feel like Hillary Clinton is running so far to the left that she might be hurting her opportunities in a general election, that she doesn't need to distance herself from trade bill that she once called the gold standard, that she once helped write?

FALLON: I don't think it's true at all. I think that the unique dynamic that's at work in the Democratic primary, which is 180 degrees opposite from what you're seeing in the Republican primary, is that all the issues that make sense for us to talk about in a primary to Democratic voters that are voting in the Iowa caucuses, in the New Hampshire primary, are good issues for the general election.

On the Republican side, you're seeing the opposite dynamic. You're seeing Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have to run to the right on immigration and abandon their positions, moderate stances that they previously took in the Senate or governor of Florida because they have to placate this conservative base.

Our primary --

TAPPER: You don't think you're doing that at all?

FALLON: In our primary -- I think, to the extent we're talking about the need for wage growth and ensure good, strong paying jobs and raising concerns whether that trade bill achieves that, I think that's a concern that resonates not just with the Democratic electorate with the general --

TAPPER: She helped write the trade bill and now she's throwing it out.

FALLON: And she has said, she has said that all during the time that she was working at State, that this was something that she hoped ultimately she would be able to support. She had -- but she had two explicit tests she was going to subject it to, and the main one was, is it going to raise wages for everyday Americans that haven't seen their incomes grow even as we have rebounded from the recession? And if it can't pass that test, that is the overarching concern of all of our agenda that we put out to date. If it can't pass that test, quite understandably, she can't support the deal.

TAPPER: All right. Clinton campaign press secretary, Brian Fallon. Congratulations on your babies, I haven't seen you since you had them.

FALLON: Thank you. Appreciate it.