Return to Transcripts main page


National Poll: Trump Has Huge Lead on Eve of Debate; Lineup Announced for Republican Debate; Maryland Man Charged with Trying to Aid ISIS; President Obama Announces U.S. to Hit ISIS Harder Than Ever; Paris Mastermind May Have Directed Slaughter by Phone. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 14, 2015 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:02] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, tough on talk. The eve of CNN's Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump stretches his lead. A new national poll puts him 27 points ahead of his closest challenger.

Cruz surging. Texas Senator Ted Cruz is charging hard in Iowa. The latest polls show him battling Trump for the lead in that first-in- the-nation GOP contest. Will they turn on each other in this debate?

And terror arrest. On the eve of a debate, focusing on national security, a Maryland man is charged with trying to aid ISIS, accused of pledging his support to the terror group. With Americans reeling in the aftermath of a bloody massacre, can the candidates offer plans to keep the homeland safe?

Wolf Blitzer is on assignment, preparing to moderate tomorrow's Republican debate. I'm Brianna Keilar. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And we are live from the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. We are counting down to the final Republican presidential debate of the year. The drama will play out in the theater of the Venetian Hotel. And as the candidates make their final preparations, the stakes are extraordinary.

Donald Trump the frontrunner on the national stage, and the latest poll shows him with his biggest lead yet at 41 percent. Ted Cruz a distant second at 14.

But Cruz is surging in the crucial early state of Iowa, where the latest polls show he and Trump are fighting for the lead.

Trump may be feeling the heat, calling his rival, quote, "a bit of a maniac." The tone may be a lot more serious tomorrow night.

The CNN debate moderated by Wolf Blitzer will focus on national security. And it follows the worst terror attack on American soil since 9/11 in San Bernardino, California. And the bloody slaughter on the streets of Paris. Passions and fears are running high, and Trump's call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States has added fuel to the fire.

Our correspondents, analysts and guests have full coverage of the day's top stories.

And we begin with Donald Trump maybe riding high nationally, but he's feeling that heat in Iowa. That could really make for some heated exchanges in tomorrow night's debate.

We'll begin now with CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny -- Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, it's been a little over a month since that last Republican debate, but so much has changed since then. We've seen Republicans one by one try and go after Donald Trump with little avail.

Now there's a new dynamic heading into the debate tomorrow night between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. They've been jockeying from afar, but tomorrow night they go face-to-face.



ZELENY (voice-over): Donald Trump still on top, but tonight Ted Cruz suddenly gaining ground...


ZELENY: ... even overtaking Trump in a key Iowa poll.

On CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION," Trump said he's more prepared for the White House than 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.

ZELENY: He took it one step further on FOX News Sunday.

TRUMP: Well, you look at the way he's dealt with the Senate, where he goes in there like a -- you know, frankly, like a little bit of a maniac. You're never going to get things done that way.

ZELENY: That generated a most unusual response from Cruz, responding on Twitter with a 1980s flashback to "Flashdance." "In honor of my friend, Donald Trump, and good-hearted maniacs everywhere."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): She's a maniac, maniac on the floor...

ZELENY: A flurry of new polls show Trump still leading nationally but Cruz nipping at his heels. Trump at 27 percent, Cruz 22 in "The Wall Street Journal"/NBC News poll, but not so in Iowa, where Cruz leads Trump, 31 to 21 in a weekend "Des Moines Register"/Bloomberg News poll.

His sudden momentum makes Cruz a top target, but not only from Trump. Senator Marco Rubio is raising Cruz's voting record, accusing him of being weak on national security. SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So I guess my point

is 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.

ZELENY: With time running out, other Republicans also setting their sights on Cruz for the first time. It's another way to draw attention from the man who will be at center stage at tomorrow night's CNN debate.


ZELENY: Now, for all of the hand-wringing from Republican establishment leaders, for all of the concern from party leaders, Donald Trump remains on top. And let's take a look at this latest national poll from Monmouth University.

Donald Trump at his highest level yet at 41 percent, way over Ted Cruz, as you can see there; he's at 14 percent. So that is the dynamic going into this race tomorrow night, into this debate tomorrow night, the final one of the year.

[17:05:14] So much on the line for everyone, including those bottom- tier candidates who have one last chance to try and make an impression -- Brianna.

KEILAR: The stakes are high. Jeff Zeleny, it's appropriate we are here in Las Vegas, where Donald Trump, you know, he should feel very much at home. His name tops his own tower here, 64 stories high. And I guess you could say a swaggering style fits the glitz of the neon strip. Does that give him a home court advantage over Ted Cruz and these other candidates?

Let's turn to CNN political reporter Sara Murray.

Sara, are you expecting there to be a little bit of a fight-night style rumble here between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, that's the big question, right? Because you see Donald Trump on the stump, on the campaign trail, and he does not hold back when it comes to Cruz, or really at this point, any of his Republican contenders. He's gone after pretty much anyone.

But we usually see a more reserved Donald Trump on the debate stage. You remember in past debates there would be long stretches where he would sort of fade into the background, where he would let other Republicans fight amongst themselves.

And so I think the question is, sure, Donald Trump has a wide lead nationally, but will this tightening in Iowa inspire him to go after Ted Cruz on a much bigger stage tomorrow night?

KEILAR: And what about this letter, Sara, that he released -- well, his doctor released. What did it say? MURRAY: So as you know, it's of course, tradition for Republican --

for any presidential candidate to put out sort of a health record. And so today Donald Trump released his from his doctor. It called his test results astonishingly excellent, glowing about Donald Trump's health, saying he's lost weight since he started campaigning, saying he has no history of alcohol use or tobacco use.

And this was the kicker: this was what ended the letter from the doctor. "If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency."

So a very sort of Trump-tastic endorsement from his doctor. I don't know if we could expect to see anything less from Trump's own physician.

KEILAR: Yes. He and his doctor share the same rhetorical style, I think.

All right, Sara Murray there, thank you so much with Donald Trump.

And joining me now, we have Scottie Nell Hughes. She's a Trump supporter and the news director for the Tea Party News Network.

Scottie, thanks so much for being with us. And I know that you, as a Trump supporter, have been watching the polls. They're so important to him. He's really taken aim at his former friend, I guess you could say, Ted Cruz. He says he doesn't think he's qualified to be president, because he doesn't have the right temperament or judgment.

But is this really a response just to the polls? He's seen Ted Cruz really creeping up on him in Iowa, which is such an important place.

SCOTTIE NELL HUGHES, NEWS DIRECTOR, TEA PARTY NEWS NETWORK: No. Because I think if Trump wanted to take and really take hard aim at Cruz, I think he would hit a little bit harder than just saying just these lines. I don't think we're seeing punches between these two. I think these two are still -- the bromance is still going on. Their supporter base is still basically the same.

And we're going to see that tomorrow night. I'm not expecting to see their claws come out after each other. Rather, I see people like Cruz and Rubio, who are fighting to term who's the biggest establishment person between the two. And then you're also going to see Rubio having to defend his turf from a Chris Christie, who's now back on the main stage. And you know his main target is Marco Rubio.

KEILAR: Are you a little worried, though, that with the dip here of Ben Carson following the recent terror attacks that this is support that did not go to Donald Trump? I think he probably thought he would benefit from a Ben Carson dip, and yet we've really seen Ted Cruz benefit from that.

HUGHES: Well, no, I'm not worried, because Ted Cruz is an excellent man just like Donald Trump.

No, we knew that, if Dr. Carson started to lose his base, they would go over to Senator Ted Cruz and even it up.

Listen, I'm happy across the board right now, because you have the majority of conservatives, the majority of the GOP landing in the two most conservative candidates at the very top. So either way, it is winning from a conservative standpoint.

And I think you'll see as continuing as Ben Carson continues to apologize. Or if he continues to show any weakness tomorrow night, he will continue to trot down in numbers.

However, it's the candidate tomorrow night that shows strength. Whether right or wrong, that shows that they actually have passion and conviction and are not going to capitulate. That's who actually, I think, is going to emerge as the winner from tomorrow night's debate.

KEILAR: What do you make of the fact that, when we're looking at the national polls -- and a lot of people looking at polls will say, really, for the election look at Iowa, look at New Hampshire, look at South Carolina, but that national poll where Donald Trump has his biggest lead that he's had all along came after he made those controversial comments, encouraging a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. What do you make of that?

[17:10:02] HUGHES: I make it as, actually, he's tapped into the compassion of the American conservative who actually cares about their own family first.

Listen, we knew that Ted Cruz was going to take Iowa, evangelicals. He is the most evangelical of all the candidates.

We also know in South Carolina you see Donald Trump. New Hampshire, the Rust Belt, you see Donald Trump actually leading in those.

The big question's going to be when we get past South Carolina and we see all these southern states, where are they going to fall? This is the place where the majority of people do cling to their guns and their Bibles, and they're going to want to sit there and continue to see which candidate is going to allow them to hold onto their rights and still be able to be Christians or see their fundamental Christian faith continue to dominate within their church and not be ever threatened, like we continuously see.

KEILAR: The focus of this debate, Scottie, is going to be national security. It's going to be foreign policy. Is Donald Trump ready to really talk specifics? This is perhaps an area that he doesn't have as much experience in as some of the other candidates.

HUGHES: Well, but at this point none of them have, really, any experience. Jeb Bush has a great -- his experience comes from a wonderful team that he built from his brother, but most of them right now are just talking.

But here's the thing. Because of the events of the last few weeks, it's not just a foreign issue. It is something here at home. And it's become very personal with all of these candidates. You know, you sat there, and you talked about how double digits Donald

Trump is. You're going to see a lot of these other candidates tomorrow night realize they're never going to be in that No. 1 spot. And they're going to start juggling for No. 2.

That I think is where you're going to start to see some of these other candidates that have not even begun to get into the double digits saying, "You know what? We're going to start trying to kiss up to maybe a Cruz or a Trump and then hope maybe they'll appoint us as a V.P."

KEILAR: All right. We'll see if that's the case. Scottie Hughes, thank you so much.

We are just a day away now from the final Republican presidential debate of the year. It could be very pivotal. Wolf Blitzer is going to be the moderator when the GOP candidates face-off here at the Venetian in Las Vegas. That is tomorrow, so mark your calendars.

And maybe you have some questions for the candidates. You can send them in. Just go to and comment on the top post. We are really reading those. And those will be part of the debate, we expect. I'm not exactly sure I have to be honest.

Now, next, will sparks fly when Ted Cruz stands next to Donald Trump during the CNN debate? Or will he continue to play nice?

Also, alarming new developments in the fight against terrorism. A man who lives near the nation's capital is accused of taking ISIS money to fund an attack.


KEILAR: As we count down to CNN's Republican debate, a new national poll shows Donald Trump's support among Republicans at an all-time high of 41 percent. But new polls in Iowa, which holds the first contest next year, shows Senator Ted Cruz is surging. So what can we expect to see tomorrow night?

Let's talk about this debate strategy with CNN political commentators Dan Pfeiffer, who was a senior adviser to President Obama, along with S.E. Cupp and Ana Navarro.

So, first to you, S.E.., this is -- national security is the focus of this debate. It comes at such an important time where these candidates are really trying to make that case.

Look, I could be commander in chief, and there have been two recent terror attacks. What's at stake, and who has the advantage here?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I think for people like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie, who have been trying to take a more muscular foreign policy approach, this is going to be a good opportunity for them tomorrow night.

Carly Fiorina to a lesser extent has been doing the same thing. Marco Rubio, in particular, really needs to define Ted Cruz's foreign policy as weak and inconsistent. That's his No. 1 job tomorrow night.

If he can't manage to do that, really appeal to the sense of frustration with the Obama administration when it comes to dealing with ISIS, the real fear that's out there for many Americans as it relates to terror, if he can't make his case, then I think Ted Cruz has unstoppable momentum going into Iowa. So it's a very important night, I think, for Marco Rubio.

KEILAR: Ana, you're friends with Marco Rubio. I'm imagining that this is what you're expecting out of him. Can he deliver? And if he doesn't, how much is at stake for him?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: First, I think he will deliver. We have not seen one bad debate from Marco Rubio let. Let us not underestimate his debating skills. He is very skillful, talented. He knows how to connect with an audience. He's witty. He's humorous. He's quick. He's poetic in his rhetoric, whereas we see from Ted Cruz a, you know, kind of a strange dramatic flare. What I see from Marco Rubio is a, you know, poetic rhetoric.

He needs to show that he can land a punch and take a punch, because I think we expect there to be fireworks between the two rookie senators tomorrow on that stage.

I also think Marco needs to somehow define where he fits in this entire spectrum. I think he's trying to thread the needle. And, you know, not be establishment and also not -- you know, not just be base. He wants to be Mr. Congeniality that can get along with everybody. And what he brings to the table, I think what he wants to bring to the table is, "Look, I can bridge that gap between the Republican factions right now. I'm the unity candidate."

It's a very hard needle to thread. Will he be able to do it? I don't know.

KEILAR: I was just talking, Dan, to a Trump supporter who said that he's going to be fine on this issue of national security. She sort of dismissed that other candidates had experience, but there's certainly a difference between being a businessman and being a senator, where you're briefed on things constantly, you have the lexicon. It's just something that you're talking about every day. What might the difficulty be for him?

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, on a substance -- on a substance measure, Trump is always going to be behind others. And on a traditional experience measure, where he does very well is he comes across as the strongest candidate.

And it seems clear, at least thus far within the Republican primary, people are looking for strength. And they're looking for strength particularly in foreign policy, and Trump is playing that role.

How he will do tonight -- tomorrow night is a very open question. He has struggled in debates, like the four worst days of the Trump campaign are the four debates. So we'll have to see.

But if people are looking for strength, Trump is going to win on that measure.

[17:20:07] KEILAR: So if he just sort of delivers on that strong language that we've seen him do throughout his campaign, you think that might he have a better opportunity for better performance this debate than on others?

PFEIFFER: I think so. I think he has to stand by the statements he said, continue to play that, you know, traditional strong man role he's been doing. It's been working. It's counterintuitive to anything we've ever thought about these things. Question is will it continue to work is an open question. But, you know, we don't count out Donald Trump.

NAVARRO: But you know, Donald Trump really has never had a great debate.

PFEIFFER: No. He's a bad debater.

NAVARRO: He goes out -- you know, sometimes he goes 10, 20 minutes without saying a word. But it doesn't matter.

CUPP: No. The consequences -- the stakes for Donald Trump tomorrow night are very low.

PFEIFFER: I agree.

CUPP: Because none of his momentum is garnered, generally, from these debate performances. He doesn't move in the polls the day after a debate. He declares himself the winner. Almost universally that is not agreed upon, but he declares himself the winner and then goes onto saying some pretty provocative things.

NAVARRO: He doesn't even get Politifact anymore, because he says so many inaccuracies and, you know, statements that are made up that nobody even bothers to Politifact him.

CUPP: And it does not matter.

KEILAR: If there's a moment where he's called on something in real time at the debate, but what does that do? even if it doesn't hurt Donald Trump, what does that do for another candidate? Or how risky is that too?

Look, calling out Donald Trump is calling out Donald Trump's fans, as well. And I speak from experience. It's not a fun -- it's not pleasant.

But at the same time, I also hear from so many Republicans, maybe the 60 percent of Republicans who are not with Trump, saying, "When are these guys going to call out Donald Trump, either on inaccuracies or on this kind of divisive rhetoric or proposals that could never happen and maybe aren't constitutional?"

So I think if someone like Rand, Rand Paul, or someone like Chris Christie really swings and lands an effective punch on Trump, I think the part, the wing of the Republican Party that they are speaking to, who are not with Trump, are going to be really pleased by that.

NAVARRO: But we haven't seen Chris Christie, we haven't even seen Ted Cruz in public, you know -- he's done so in private -- take on frontally Donald Trump, because they don't want to antagonize his supporters. He's got some very committed supporters, a significant number of them. And everybody's hoping that at some point Donald Trump goes away and that they somehow are the successors.

KEILAR: It might be a lot of wishful thinking. I think that's what's happened from the fall into the -- as we head into winter here.

What about Jeb Bush, Dan? Because this may be one of his last -- maybe the last chance for him to really make an impact. How important is this for him?

PFEIFFER: I think that he -- his debate performances have been unable -- he's been unable to use them to lift his campaign. I think expectations are so low for his performance that, if he has a moment, it will help him.

He has a long way to go to get back into contention in any way, shape or form for this race. But it's important. If he has -- makes a mistake or a bad debate, this could be it for him.

NAVARRO: I don't think so. Look, I...

KEILAR: Why not?

NAVARRO: Why not? First of all, because I think he's got the commitment. Because I think he's got the infrastructure. Because I think he's got the money to continue. And because I know Jeb Bush, and this is not a guy that's going to go anywhere before votes actually start coming in.

PFEIFFER: I don't think he'll drop out.

NAVARRO: It'd be crazy, you know, to base yourself on polls and things like that. He's still in the hunt. He's No. 5 in most polls, six you know -- and out of, what 15-person race.

KEILAR: But it has been -- it has been four months, months. And the consistency of Donald Trump's lead, we've seen the consistency of Jeb Bush really struggling at a very low number.

CUPP: Yes. And with every debate, he gets farther and farther and farther from the center of the stage.

And so I think I agree with Dan that expectations are low. That's a good thing for Jeb Bush. Because if Jeb can have a good couple of lines, a good couple of moments, then it sort of makes him relevant again. And maybe we're talking about Jeb Bush in a way that's not like where's Jeb Bush gone. But we're talking about something, you know, great that he said.

NAVARRO: That's absolutely true. Look, if he -- if he -- we all think at this point that he can't have a good debate. If he actually shows us all wrong, if he goes out there and has a very good debate, our jaws would all drop, and we'd be talking about it for, you know, a week. It'd be like me all of a sudden landing a triple axel in a, you know, skating rink. Not going to happen.

KEILAR: As we look now at Ted Cruz surging in the polls and, you know, we see some of the -- and I know a lot of people look at those head-to-head matches towards the general, Hillary versus Ted Cruz, Hillary because she is the frontrunner right now. And they say, "You know what? That doesn't really mean a whole lot at this moment."

But she does a better job against Ted Cruz, against Donald Trump in these contests -- in these polls. But what do you think in terms of who the toughest matchup would be against Hillary Clinton, assuming she clinches the nomination?

[17:25:04] PFEIFFER: I've said this before. I think it's Rubio. I think these polls right now don't mean a whole heck of a lot, because they will change as whoever becomes the nominee will have strength they don't have now. And essentially, it's -- in the case of everything except Trump, it's Hillary against a generic candidate in the minds of most voters. But if you look at candidate skill possible expansion Marco Rubio by far the top, I think.

And also the contrast. The contrast of Hillary of the '90s to Rubio of today, of tomorrow, of the future, I think that's...

KEILAR: The generational argument.

CUPP: Also demographically. I just think he speaks to a new conservative movement. And she speaks to sort of the old Democratic past. So I think -- I think that makes him particularly dangerous for her.

NAVARRO: Also, I'll tell you this that I remember in 2008 I was in the McCain campaign. We all really wanted the nominee on the Democrat side to be Barack Obama because we thought he would be easier to beat. Boy were we wrong.

KEILAR: All right, guys, thanks so much. Ana, S.E., Dan, really appreciate it.

We are just one day now away from this final Republican presidential debate. Wolf Blitzer is going to be the moderator when the GOP candidates face-off here at the Venetian in Las Vegas tomorrow night.

And maybe you have some questions for the candidates. You get to participate here. Go ahead and send them to us at and comment on the very top post.

Now, coming up, what will happen when Ted Cruz and Donald Trump stand shoulder to shoulder at the CNN Republican debate? Are they going to play nice, or are the gloves going to come off?

And later, a man who lives near the nation's capital is accused of taking thousands of dollars from ISIS to fund an attack.


KEILAR: We're counting down to the CNN Republican debate here at the Venetian Las Vegas. Once again there actually will be two debates, both of them moderated by CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

The early debate features George Pataki, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Senator Lindsey Graham. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie actually returns to the main stage for this debate, along with eight other candidates.

Donald Trump is center stage. He has the center lectern. He'll be flanked by Dr. Ben Carson and Senator Ted Cruz. New polls show that, while Trump's lead is growing nationally, Ted Cruz is surging in Iowa.

Here's CNN senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.


As we get closer to the voting now, one thing on the top of the minds of these voters is who is the most presidential. And in Iowa, this contest is locked: Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. It's the one place where Donald Trump has seen some vulnerabilities. So we're going to see tomorrow night an exchange between the two of them. Donald Trump already trying to raise questions about Ted Cruz's temperament. Let's take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look at the way he's dealt with the Senate where he goes in there like a -- you know, frankly like a little bit of a maniac. You're never going to get things done that way.


ZELENY: So by saying the word "maniac," that is something that Ted Cruz seized upon. But he didn't fight back with fire. He fought back with humor.

In a tweet like this he said, "In honor of my friend Donald Trump and good-hearted maniacs everywhere," and then he did a link to "Flashdance" music.

So this is what Ted Cruz actually thinks is a good moment for him. He believes he can use that sense of humor. He believes that he can use that sort of good-natured spirit here to convince Republican voters that he is the one for them.

This music, something that we never thought we would hear in this Republican presidential race -- Brianna.

KEILAR: That's right. And now we all have this song stuck in our heads. Thank you, Ted Cruz.

All right. Jeff Zeleny for us there in Las Vegas. With me now CNN anchor and political commentator, Michael Smerconish.

We have CNN senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein. He is the "National Journal's" editorial director. And CNN senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson.

So Michael, it's sort of an interesting response here. I love this song. I'll put it out there. I'm not unbiased. I love this song. But is this the right approach?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it probably is, because no one on that stage who has engaged the Donald thus far and tried to take him down has benefitted from it.

And so my hunch is that you know they're going to square off, because Trump will go after Ted Cruz tomorrow night. My hunch is that Ted Cruz, the experienced debater -- and many have said this thus far -- I think he probably faced more stiff competition when he was at Princeton than he will with Donald Trump. He'll have a one-liner up his sleeve. And he'll be dismissive of him. And will not engage. That's where I think it goes.

KEILAR: What do you think?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, you've got two different potential lines of challenge for Ted Cruz. And I think Trump is actually the least important.

Trump will go after him on temperament and kind of style. I mean, Donald Trump questioning someone whether they're too volatile to be president is a rough.

But I think what's probably more important is the attack that's likely from Marco Rubio on the substance of foreign policy. You know, Ted Cruz had a libertarian flirtation. You know, he kind of moved, when the party seemed to be moving that direction around Rand Paul and questions about surveillance at home and intervention abroad, he moved in that direction.

That tide has notably receded among Republicans amid growing concern about ISIS and terror. And he is somewhat standing out there in an exposed position. And I think Marco Rubio will come at him very hard on that. It's going to be an important moment for Cruz, who says he's trying to find a foreign policy somewhere between Rand Paul and John McCain/George W. Bush.

KEILAR: And, yes, so he's going to try -- Marco Rubio is -- to have this moment with Ted Cruz. But a lot of people haven't necessarily been paying attention to that foreign policy.

Also sometimes in this race, you wonder how much that matters. Certainly, it matters more in the wake of these two terror attacks, but what is it about Ted Cruz's appeal that is making him surge at this point in time?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think on the one hand he had that evangelical connection. He sounds like a televangelist, speaks the language of faith. That's why he's doing well in Iowa.

But also, he's got a real serious ground game. Often we see with these insurgent candidates they don't have the money or therefore, they don't have the infrastructure. He's got both.

KEILAR: And a lot in the campaign, not just in the super PAC.

HENDERSON: Exactly. A lot of the campaign real data guys. You know, he's in some ways criticized Obama in many ways, but he's very much replicated Obama's strategy, both in 2008 and 2012, in being super focused on data and the nitty gritty of these voters so that he can connect with them.

[17:35:23] And I think that's why people are putting money on Cruz to do very well and do better than Santorum, better than Huckabee and some of these insurgent candidates we've seen before.

KEILAR: If you said to Republican establishment folks, hey, one day you're going to be preferring Ted Cruz at the nominee...


KEILAR: Ted Cruz is not someone that the establishment loves. And one of his weaknesses may be that he has to broaden his support. That it's somewhat narrow with conservative Republicans and Tea Party Republicans. How does he do that?

SMERCONISH: I think he has to for a general election. I'm not so sure that he does for the primary, the nomination process, Brianna. And the reason that I believe that is that every time these national surveys come out, I tabulate the vote among the maverick candidates: Ted Cruz, Dr. Carson, Donald Trump. It's somewhere in the 60-plus- percent range. And then you add the establishment quotient of Marco Rubio and Kasich and Christie and Jeb, and it's dwarfed in comparison. This year it seems as if the maverick vote controls the process.

In a normal race I would agree with you that I think Cruz would have to broaden. I mean, he is rising, as Nia said, in Iowa around evangelicals. Even when he gets beyond that, he's very conservative. He's weaker on the somewhat moderate.

At a normal two-person race, which is what the Republicans and both sides have usually had, that's not enough. But there are -- there are signs this may be a three-person race in a really the way we really have not seen in the modern era with Cruz as the evangelical and very conservative candidate.

Trump is just in a dominant position in most cases of blue-collar Republicans. And then we have the audition for the candidate we haven't met yet. The candidate of the center right, more white-collar establishment.

Marco Rubio, in the lead position there but really hasn't closed that sale relative to Bush, Kasich and Christie. So you could imagine a world where all three of those lanes are filled well into 2016, winning different states and having the potential to deny anybody, you know, in the most extremist version of the scenario, a first ballot victory.

KEILAR: There are two debates here happening tomorrow night. One is sort of that undercard debate.


KEILAR: How much -- or who specifically should we be paying attention to? Chris Christie has managed to get himself back onto the main stage. And really, how many more of these do you think there will be? Or do you think after this debate might some of these candidates who have been kind of at the kiddie table for these months, they're going to say, "I've got to go."

HENDERSON: You have to wonder about somebody like Pataki, who we never talk about with good reason, because he isn't showing up on any of these polls. He's stuck at the kiddie table.

Even Mike Huckabee -- right? -- who was supposed to be -- appeal to evangelicals, that's a lane that's completely clogged at this point. It's clear that he's on the down slide there in this kiddie table. He's just lost his communications director, as well. Not a good sign.

And so you've got to wonder if going into this, if you're Huckabee, for instance, do you want to go to Iowa, this place that sort of you made your bones? Do you want to go into Iowa and probably do very poorly? So, you know, I think they've got some decisions to make.

KEILAR: I have about 30 seconds left, so I'm just going to have you all tell me specifically the candidate that you are looking for to make a moment tomorrow night.

SMERCONISH: Ben Carson, because he's in dissent. This is not his strong suit. And if he doesn't have a big night tomorrow night, I think he continues to slide.

BROWNSTEIN: Cruz has to fend off the criticism of his foreign policy from the right.

HENDERSON: Rand Paul. To really be Rand Paul and be Ron Paul's son and really what Rand Paul does, which is to be kind of a pit bull on the stage.

KEILAR: I love this. All right, Nia, Michael, Ron, I love it. So great. Thank you guys.

Now, we are just now over 24 hours away from this final Republican presidential debate of this year. Wolf Blitzer will be the moderator when the GOP candidates face-off here at the Venetian Las Vegas tomorrow night.

And if you have questions for our candidates, share them with us. You can send them to us at and comment there on the top post.

Now, coming up, we have another ISIS arrest in the United States. A man who lives near the nation's capital is accused of taking money from ISIS to carry out an attack.

Also, investigators find new evidence on cell phones left behind by the San Bernardino terrorists.


[17:43:49] KEILAR: Breaking news: federal authorities have announced the arrest of a Maryland man charged with trying to aid ISIS in pledging his allegiance to the terror group. With Americans still reeling from the San Bernardino massacre, President Obama says there is a great sense of urgency in the fight against ISIS.

But do authorities have their hands tied when it comes to combatting jihadists at home? CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto has been digging on that.

But Jim, first, tell us what you know about this new arrest.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I'll tell you, Brianna, fairly remarkable. Somewhat alarming details in this case. This is a serious one.

A Maryland man received nearly $9,000 in multiple payments via simple services like PayPal from people believed to belong to ISIS overseas, with instructions to then use that money to carry out a terror attack on U.S. soil. And also to compound that he tried to cover his tracks, as well, claimed that the money was for other things, but the FBI found very detailed records there.

Now, since January of this year, more than 50 Americans have been charged with terror offenses for alleged support to ISIS. This comes as the president met with his entire national security team today to discuss his ISIS strategy.

He did try to change his tone, using stronger language than we've heard from him, but he left the substance of his anti-ISIS strategy largely the same. In fact, he defended it, citing progress, though admitting that it should come faster.


[17:45:11] SCIUTTO (voice-over): Two weeks after the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11, the president convened his entire national security staff at the Pentagon to discuss the fight against ISIS. The president's language was strong.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As we squeezed its heart, we are hitting ISIL harder than ever.

SCIUTTO: And he cited progress, ISIS losing territory in Iraq and Syria, and losing senior leaders to coalition airstrikes and special forces raids.

OBAMA: The point is ISIL leaders cannot hide. And our next message to them is simple, you are next. SCIUTTO: But like his speech from the Oval Office last Sunday, Mr.

Obama announced no new military steps other than sending his Defense secretary to the Middle East to build up coalition military support.

OBAMA: We recognize that progress needs to keep coming faster. No one knows that more than the countless Syrians and Iraqis living every day under ISIL's terror as well as the families in San Bernardino and Paris and elsewhere who are grieving the loss of their loved ones.

SCIUTTO: The Pentagon visit, his first since July, comes as hard questions arise about missed signals before the San Bernardino shooting. Authorities have discovered online discussions about jihad between the attackers, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik before the two even began dating, and before Malik applied for a visa to the U.S.

U.S. authorities only began reviewing the social media activity of visa applicants in the past several months. Secretary of State John Kerry said the State Department is giving the issue further attention.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Clearly the social media has placed a whole new burden and a whole new set of questions, but not impossible ones to resolve. And I think we need to look at this very, very carefully, which is what we're doing.

SCIUTTO: A three-day search of the lake near the shooters' home has turned up nothing. The crucial hard drive from their personal computer remains missing.


SCIUTTO: We learned today that it was cell phones found at the attackers' home that led them to that lake. But we also learned that those social media postings were done under a pseudonym and with privacy settings that made them visible only to a small group, which means that they likely would not have been found discovered even if those visas were subject to social media review.

Brianna, it shows just how difficult it is to catch this kind of thing in advance.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, that's a very good point. Jim Sciutto for us in D.C. Thank you.

Coming up, chilling new information that the mastermind of the Paris attacks may have been nearby directing the massacre at a concert hall as it was happening.


[17:51:23] KEILAR: We're getting new chilling new information that the mastermind of the Paris terror attacks may have commanded the concert hall massacre by phone from a location nearby. This comes as we learn disturbing new details about arrests in another major European city.

CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into all of this. Brian, what are you -- what have you ordered?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, tonight, one of Europe's key financial centers is on high alert. Intelligence agencies are hunting for several suspects in and around Geneva, Switzerland. Suspects who could have connections to the Paris attacks. New information tonight on where two suspects came from is especially concerning.


TODD (voice-over): Two men with Syrian passports arrested in Geneva, Switzerland, a European security source tells CNN traces of precursor chemicals which could be used to make homemade explosives were found inside their vehicle. U.S. intelligence had tipped off Swiss authorities that terrorists, possibly from ISIS, were potentially planning an attack in Geneva.

THOMAS SANDERSON, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Any conversation that's specifically identifies a target like that should raise an alarm, especially in a high-profile city like Geneva where you have premiere banking institutions as well as United Nations facilities.

TODD: Authorities in Geneva are looking for at least two people with indirect links to suspects in the Paris terror attacks. One of the prime Paris suspects meanwhile has become a ghost. The trail of Salah Abdeslam has gone completely cold according to a European counterterrorism official.

And there's new information tonight that Abdeslam's childhood friend, ISIS operative, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the Paris attacks, may have been directing the slaughter at Bataclan concert hall as it was happening.

French terrorism expert Jean-Charles Brisard interviewed a witness who was just a couple of blocks away from the Bataclan during the assault. The witnesses described seeing a man standing in the doorway of a building.

JEAN-CHARLES BRISARD, CENTER FOR THE ANALYSIS OF TERRORISM: The witness describes that a man was shouting and yelling over the phone for over an hour, very agitated.

TODD: The witness, whose account is published in the "CTC Sentinel" said Abaaoud's head was shaved and he was wearing loose layers of clothing but the witness later recognized Abaaoud when his picture was splashed on the news. Analysts say this is an ominous sign, a new ISIS tactic.

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: ISIS is moving towards less of a static model of terrorism and more towards a dynamic multi-hour rolling attack paradigm where you start an attack and you keep it going for as long as possible for maximum impact.

TODD: One expert says Abaaoud could have been sending intelligence to the attackers inside the Bataclan. SANDERSON: To warn that there's an armored vehicle coming, there's a

battering ram coming, There's a SWAT team entering from the roof, things like that.


TODD: And it appears Abdelhamid Abaaoud was pulling most of the terrorist springs on the streets of Paris that night. The Paris prosecutor says according to Abaaoud's phone records. He was communicating with one of the stadium bombers right until the moment those attackers started blowing themselves up -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And this mastermind Abaaoud was especially determined to carry out a major attack and even though he's dead there's still a risk of this, right?

TODD: That's right, Brianna. People involved in other plots, people who have been apprehended, they describe Abdelhamid Abaaoud as being obsessed with attacking France. Abaaoud was involved in several other plots against France this year, and even though he is dead, the belief is there are other more senior plotters behind the Paris attacks, still at large specifically a man named Fabian Clain. He's a senior French-speaking ISIS operative who claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. Clain believed to be with ISIS inside Syria -- Brianna.

[17:55:05] KEILAR: Brian Todd for us in Washington, thank you.

And coming up, Donald Trump's on top in the latest national poll but Ted Cruz is surging in the critical state of Iowa. Will they turn on each other in tomorrow night's CNN debate?


KEILAR: Happening now. Trump's high mark. Donald Trump breaking into new territory in a new poll putting him above 40 percent for the first time in a national survey. With his frontrunner status stronger than ever, will Trump steal the show in our CNN debate?

Cruz competition. Senator Ted Cruz emerging as the GOP's new number two candidate trailing only Trump nationally and neck in neck with him in Iowa. Will Cruz be Trump's target when the candidates face off?

And breaking news. Terror clues. New information about what led the FBI to this lake as part of the San Bernardino terror investigation, and there's also new details tonight about Tashfeen Malik's online postings. How did she ensure no one would see her calls for jihad when she came to the U.S.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is on assignment preparing to moderate tomorrow's Republican debate.