Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee; Mass Shooting Investigation; Republicans Prepare to Debate; Trump Cracks 40 Percent in New National Poll; Cruz Campaign Mines Minds for Votes. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 14, 2015 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: It is a scarier world since the last time we were on the Strip.

THE LEAD, live from Vegas, starts right now.

It is the final debate of 2015 and just 48 days away from the first votes cast in Iowa. The lineup for the event is set, with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas moving within striking distance of Donald Trump, and Trump already striking at Cruz on Twitter and elsewhere.

Terror and the fight to destroy ISIS will be taking center stage here at the Venetian Hotel. Today, President Obama looked to ease holiday fears, saying the U.S. is hitting ISIS harder than ever. How do Republicans plan to hit back?

Plus, she reportedly said she supported violent jihad and wanted to be a part of it. She said this on social media before the U.S. gave her a visa. How did one of the San Bernardino terrorists get through background checks with comments like that online?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are live from the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

Tomorrow's Republican presidential debate is a whole new ball game since the candidates last debated. Terrorism has returned to center stage. In France, 130 people were killed in coordinated jihadist terrorist attacks in Paris. And just this month on U.S. soil, we saw the deadliest terrorist attack since September 11 in San Bernardino, California.

Who among the candidates will voters trust to protect them to be strongest on national security? Donald Trump still leads national polls, but new numbers show Ted Cruz closing in.

And when you look just at Iowa, Cruz tops Trump in one poll. Another poll shows Cruz neck and neck with Trump in Iowa, the state that will hold the first presidential contest in just seven weeks.

CNN's John Berman is with me here in Vegas. And, John, as usual, Donald Trump is not waiting for the debate stage

to be set for him. He's already out on the trail throwing some elbows, making his case.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. He called Ted Cruz a maniac, which provoked the first reference to "Flashdance" of the 2016 campaign.

TAPPER: The first of many, I hope.

BERMAN: The first of many, I hope. We will get to that in a moment.

But today it's Donald Trump saying what a feeling, because there's a stunning new poll out which cements his front-runner status and then some.


BERMAN (voice-over): In a campaign like no other with a front-runner like no other, a new poll like no other. For the first time, Donald Trump breaks 40 percent in a national poll from Monmouth University, 27 points ahead of his closest rival. It is also the first poll wholly taken since this controversial proposal.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

BERMAN: A notion that will be tested in the last Republican debate of the year, the first debate since the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

TRUMP: How crazy are we allowing ourselves to be subject to this kind of terror?

BERMAN: Trump finds himself center stage at the CNN debate with a new next-door neighbor, Ted Cruz who has surged into second place in national polling and is running out in front or close in Iowa.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: God bless the great state of Iowa.

BERMAN: Until now, Trump and Cruz have remained friendly foes, almost campaign comrades. In 24 hours, that could come to an end.

TRUMP: And I like him. He's been so nice to me. I mean, I could say anything, and he said, I agree, I agree.


TRUMP: But I think the time will come to an end pretty soon, it sounds like.

BERMAN: Trump is previewing a possible line of attack. Compared to Senator Cruz, he says he is Mr. Agreeable.

TAPPER: Why should voters go for you over Ted Cruz? TRUMP: Because I'm more capable, because I have a much better

temperament, because I actually get along with people much better than he does. BERMAN: Trump even accused Cruz of being a little bit of a maniac

while in the Senate. Cruz opened up a can of '80s in response, tweeting, "In honor of my friend @realDonaldTrump and good-hearted maniacs everywhere," and he tweeted a link to the movie "Flashdance. "

Trump will not be the only challenge for Ted Cruz. Senator Marco Rubio already calling him weak on national security.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Each time he's had to choose between strong national defense and some of the isolationist tendencies in American politics, he seems to side with the isolationists.



BERMAN: We have some breaking health news this afternoon, A statement from Donald Trump's doctor, Dr. Harold Bornstein, who says that Donald Trump has no significant medical problems, blood pressure, lab results astonishingly excellent, the doctor says. He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke.

In fact, he says Donald Trump would be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.

TAPPER: Healthier than William Henry Harrison?

BERMAN: Hey, 41 days, right? Maybe just a little.

TAPPER: John Berman, thank you so much. We're going to have much more from you leading up to the show time tomorrow evening.

We're sure to see a lot of fireworks on the stage tomorrow night.

Moments ago, I spoke with one of the guys who might be providing some of those fireworks, Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. He will be participating in the undercard debate.


TAPPER: Governor Huckabee, thanks so much for joining us.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you, Jake. Great to be back.

TAPPER: So, I have to ask you, Alice Stewart, your campaign's communications director, just announced that she's leaving the campaign. Usually, staffers leaving not a great sign for any campaign. What's behind her resignation?

HUCKABEE: Well, you know, we got dozens of people in many states working for us. We hate to lose Alice, but she's decided that she's, I think, exhausted from the campaign. She's left. It's her decision.

But, like in any organization -- people leave CNN from time to time -- the network still signs on the next day. So we're moving forward. And I think if people try to read more into it than is there, they're going to be making a huge mistake.

TAPPER: So, you will be in the undercard tomorrow night. There are some candidates who have made it from the undercard to the main stage. Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie went to the undercard, then back to the main stage. What do you need to do to jump from the undercard to the main stage?

HUCKABEE: Well, one good thing about being on the undercard, there's only four of us. I think we're going to get more time, more opportunity to answer questions.

One of the reasons I ended up on the undercard was because I was not given anywhere near the amount of time on the other debates. And so the one good thing is that I will actually get to answer some questions. I think it will be an opportunity for me to talk about why experience matters and why seasoning and the right temperament really matters to be president.

So, we will see how that works out tomorrow.

TAPPER: Well, let's talk about temperament, because that's a criticism that many have made of the front-runner, Donald Trump.

I know that you're not one to criticize your fellow candidates, but have you seen temperament issues from some of your rivals that give you pause?

HUCKABEE: It's more of a matter of maturity, judgment, whether they have had executive experience.

A few weeks ago, I was on an airplane, and the plane was delayed and delayed. And we waited on a flight crew. And the person at the gate said, hey, would anyone like to volunteer to fly the plane? Everybody laughed because it was ludicrous to think that you would put a person, a total volunteer in the cockpit, fly people who had never been in the cockpit before.

But how foolish would it be to put the future of America in the hands of somebody who'd never been in the cockpit, in other words, who had never governed, who had never been in the executive seat of power? I don't think our country's in a position where we can afford on-the-job training or find out after a person gets there whether they have any skills and aptitude to be an executive in government.

It's a very different experience than being in a legislature. And it's also very different than being a CEO or an executive in the private sector, of which I have been. But governing is different, Jake. And I think people will start getting that more clearly in mind as we get closer to voting.

TAPPER: A lot of voters very concerned about terrorism, according to polls. Since the last Republican debate, we have seen the horrors in France, in Paris, France, the terrorism in San Bernardino. If you were commander in chief right now, what steps would you take that the current administration is not already taking that might do a better job of protecting the American people, or at least reassuring them?

HUCKABEE: Well, Jake, one thing, we would suspend any idea of Syrian refugees. We would also suspend the notion of the visa waiver program, because we just don't know who's coming in. And are they sneaking in to do damage?

We would take very seriously the growth of ISIS. We would go after them with a fully engaged air campaign, but we would also clearly commit ground troops as necessary, building a coalition of Middle Eastern countries. We would go after them, hunt them down, kill them. The refugees would be able to go back home, because the only reason they're refugees is because ISIS and other terrorist groups have moved them away from their own homes and neighborhoods.

So, rather than bring them here, let's give them an opportunity to go back to their own homes. But, big time, long term, the most important thing we have got to do, Jake, we have to do a complete reboot and rebuild of our military. We have troops that are decimated.


We're weak right now in our troop strength in Europe. We have weakened ourselves in the Middle East. We have overdeployed Guard and Reserve troops. The net result is, we're just simply not as ready as we need to do.

Move some of the bloat out of the Pentagon. Move it out into the field. Create an army that everybody in this world is absolutely on this planet terrified to face.

TAPPER: Governor Mike Huckabee, thanks so much for joining us. We will see you tomorrow night.

HUCKABEE: All right. Thanks, Jake.


TAPPER: The candidates have quite a bit riding on tomorrow night's debate, from outlining their positions, to taking on their competitors.

How they handle it all could determine whether they win over potential voters. My panel will join me to talk tactics next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, coming to you live from Vegas, where the curtain goes up on the last Republican debate of the year in a little under 26 hours.

Our political panel is here to preview it all, the big Republican rumble, CNN's political commentators S.E. Cupp and Paul Begala and Kevin Madden. That's Republican, Democrat, Republican, for those keeping track.


TAPPER: First thing, Paul, we were talking about this, Mike Huckabee, Governor Huckabee's big pitch about how he has experience. That is not -- I mean, look at the polls. That's not what Republican voters want.


Right message, wrong party. I mean, usually, for all my adult life, it was the Democrats who wanted the new, the fresh. And now every Democrat running has been in elective office since disco era, even Martin O'Malley, longtime mayor, longtime governor. Hillary Clinton has been running since the last Clinton was president.

I mean, my party is now the party that wants experience, but the Republicans don't. And, I mean, I like Governor Huckabee, but he's fishing where there ain't no fish right now in his party.

[16:15:04] They want something new and different. And -- and they're calling for it.

And for him to tell you in that interview -- you know, he gets that rare moment of airtime, and he says, "Well, I'm the most experienced."

That -- that's not what they want.

TAPPER: Kevin, let's talk about tomorrow night's main debate. Huckabee will be in the undercard debate, the main one. What are you expecting in terms of Trump versus Cruz? Because Cruz really nipping at his heels in Iowa. In one poll, he's even ahead of Trump and then, nationally, he's in second place, the margin depends on what poll you look at, but he poses the biggest threat to Trump right now.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, when I think when those two have their clash, it will be interesting to see how they handle it.

First of all, I think the one thing that Trump is going to come after Cruz on is immigration. Immigration was what helped Donald Trump ascend in the polls. And I think there are some areas where the Trump folks believe that Cruz is vulnerable. The interesting thing will be, then how does Cruz respond? The conventional way to respond on the debate stage is to attack back and to offer your own contrast.

But Cruz has gone about the Trump fight that he's had over the last few days by trying to bear hug him. He believes that ultimately the way to win here is to offer Trump supporters himself as a vehicle for a lot of the anxieties that they have about the economy and national security and ultimately, he'll be there standing when Trump voters start to look for a more traditional candidate. And believe it or not, Cruz believes he's a more traditional candidate in that sense.

TAPPER: Well, he is more traditional than Donald Trump. It's interesting, as you know, Trump saying his temperament is better than Cruz is, called him a maniac and as John Berman showed in his piece, the response of Ted Cruz was to tweet out a clip from the movie "Flashdance," not the hippest most modern clip from before --


MADDEN: That's a lot of millennial on this one.

TAPPER: S.E., this was a movie starring an actress named Jennifer Beals.


TAPPER: What are you looking for on the stage? Is it the Cruz-Trump showdown or is there another contender you're looking at?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm actually going to be looking at the way that Marco Rubio deals with Ted Cruz. I think tomorrow night is incredibly important for Marco Rubio because it's a foreign policy debate. And he and Cruz are having this very interesting argument about foreign policy right now.

If Marco Rubio can't define Ted Cruz's foreign policy as weak and inconsistent --

TAPPER: I think he called it isolationist.

CUPP: Yes, well, yes, and he's got to put Cruz on the defensive about his foreign policy at a time when terrorism is top of mind to so many Americans. If he can't make -- definitively make Ted Cruz look weak and inconsistent tomorrow night, I think he's -- Cruz is going to have a massive momentum going into Iowa. And Rubio's going to have a hard time catching up.

TAPPER: And Donald Trump did something that a lot of people said he was not going to do, which is he -- well, second time he crossed the threshold, oh, he'll never get over 25 percent, 25 percent, 30 percent. Now in the new Monmouth poll, which is a respected poll nationally, he's at 41 percent.

BEGALA: It's remarkable. And he's not going anywhere. I think Kevin makes a great point, that Ted Cruz is the one person who seems to have a strategy for Donald Trump. And it's the bear hug.

But that requires at some point for, you know, Mr. Trump to go down and go away, and so far he hasn't done it. So that clash to me is going to be the most exciting thing when Trump hits Ted. But you're right, I think Ted's response -- the worst thing Trump has done is attacked Ted Cruz's faith, which should be out of bounds in any political debate. But I suspect Ted Cruz who is a man of faith will heed Proverbs Chapter 15 Verse 1, a soft word turneth away wrath.

My least favorite of the verse of the Bible, I have to say. I like a harsh word --

(LAUGHTER) MADDEN: Ted Cruz said something interesting the other day in the audio that leaked, he said, Donald Trump -- when the gravitational pull brings Donald Trump back to earth, he'll be there.

Campaigns as we know voters don't look at gravitational pulls. They have a choice forced upon them between candidates, and I think that's one of the difficult things, and that's why it is conventional and risky for Ted Cruz to try and bear hug when at some point, he's going to have to force a choice for those voters between him and Donald Trump.

CUPP: But also Donald Trump is Ted Cruz's best friend. Before Donald Trump got into this race, Ted Cruz was viewed by the majority of the Republican base as to the very, very far right, Tea Party, some would call extremist, some would call, you know, sort of a loose cannon.

Donald Trump has managed to make Ted Cruz look rational, look more appealing, more palatable to a lot of conservative voters. So, I think Ted Cruz's strategy of sort of being that guy, the more palatable version of Donald Trump at the end is very smart. I don't know if he can topple Trump, but I think that's a very smart move. And I think it's paying off especially in Iowa.

[16:20:00] TAPPER: Paul, you advised the pro-Hillary super PAC, right?


TAPPER: OK. So, they did something interesting. They are now sending "make America great again" hats to all the Republican candidates except with a little sewn insignia at the bottom their own Trumpism which is prove you're a Christian in the case of Jeb Bush, you know, no Syrian refugee orphans for Chris Christie, et cetera. No matter who wins, Democrats are going to try to make that person Trumpified, to paint them with a Trump brush so to speak. That wasn't a hair joke.

BEGALA: If you look at what super PAC I advise is doing and what I hope other Democrats will do it is just that. Donald Trump is the leading candidate for president of the Republican Party, he therefore defines the party. And to the extent some of these guys and gals are bear hugging him or trying to be pale imitations of him, Democrats will want to lump them altogether. And they have given us fodder.

This is a great challenge in a primary, you want to rev up your voters and they're doing a great job of that in the Republican Party, but they risk alienating people in the middle.

TAPPER: Paul, S.E., Kevin, thanks so much for joining us. In case we haven't mentioned, we are just one day away from the next Republican presidential debate, the final one of 2015. You can see that right here on CNN tomorrow night at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

This has been an unpredictable election. CNN wants to know what you think will happen next. You couldn't do worse than our pundits. Go to, there you can make predictions, and enter a chance to win a trip to join CNN in Florida at the Republican debate in March.

Coming up, is Ted Cruz the money ball candidate? How the Cruz campaign says it's using data science to read voters' minds and climb the polls.

Plus, President Obama warning ISIS leaders, you're next. But is this a military strategy or a PR one?


[16:25:40] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD live in Las Vegas.

More on our politics lead -- as we've been discussing, Senator Ted Cruz is catching fire among Republican voters, especially in Iowa where polls show him winning or essentially tied for the top spot with Donald Trump.

So how did this underdog, this guy from Texas knife his way through the chaos of the Republican "Hunger Games"? According to "The Washington Post", the Cruz campaign has been turning to science to target voters. The campaign is betting big on compiling psychological data on the public that they are attempting to woo. This way when a campaign worker knocks on a front door in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that campaign worker's iPhone tells him exactly what to say to best appeal to that voter and how to say it.

Let's bring in Tom Hamburger of "The Washington Post", who broke this story.

Tom, fascinating, fascinating story. Now, we've known about micro- targeting for a decade, campaigns identifying voters based on, did they buy kale at Whole Foods, and putting that together with a bunch of data and trying to appeal to them.

How is this any different?

TOM HAMBURGER, REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Jake, as you said micro-targeting's been going on for some years, sort of becoming more sophisticated each cycle as campaigns look for ways to target voters with individual messages.

What Ted Cruz has added this time is something that marketing firms have known about for little while. But it's using what they call a psychographic analysis, and adding that on top of the traditional lists of likes and dislikes and personal and political preferences.

And so, it's a more sophisticated algorithm if you will that includes an attempt to break down voters and voters in individual households into psychological -- broad psychological behavioral categories.

TAPPER: Let talk about some of those categories. You start your article at "The Washington Post" by revealing some of these categories breaking down into specific types such as relaxed leader, or temperamental conservative or true believer or stoic traditionalist. How does the campaign come to define these voters in these categories? HAMBURGER: Jake, we went to Houston to the Cruz headquarters in part

because we were interested in the same question you are. How did the freshman Texas senator cut through this big field of candidates and come up with now what appears to be a leading position by some polls in Iowa and doing very well in some other states as well? And part of it was by really studying the electorate, relying on data and making sure that the candidate's message was in a sense tailored to the concerns or the personality even of individual voters -- the notion being that if you can tailor the language and the approach, you'll have a better chance of winning over those voters.

And while it's not the only factor that explains Ted Cruz's success, message obviously is very important and his campaign describes the candidate's consistency and so forth, they also say reliance on the data has been a key, a very important part of how they proceeded this cycle.

TAPPER: So just give us like one hypothetical, you can make it up if you want. But they get this information beyond consumer information, where are they getting it from? And how did it change their approach?

HAMBURGER: OK, I got you.

TAPPER: Can you hear me now?


TAPPER: Give us a hypothetical, we're going to get this beyond consumer and how do they assert themselves based on it?

HAMBURGER: This is one the campaign told us about. We interviewed Chris Wilson, who is the research analytics director at the Cruz campaign, and he described how different approaches for on an issue Ted Cruz feels very strongly about, the Second Amendment, gun rights, might be delivered to different audiences.

So if someone was classified in the category of traditionalist, for example, and someone who was relaxed or relaxed leader is one of the categories, they might get an ad that talked about the tradition of gun rights in this country, perhaps accompanied by a picture of a parent accompanying a child on a first duck hunting trip. However, if the person who was categorized as having neuroticism, or some fearfulness, then a different kind of ad might be delivered. This person is also concerned about the Second Amendment, but instead of emphasizing a family hunting, the emphasis would be on personal safety.