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THE SITUATION ROOM
Republicans Set to Debate. Aired 18-18:30p ET
Aired December 15, 2015 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of energy.
This is the last debate of 2015. This is the last moment of seeing these men and this woman together before you go home for Christmas or Festivus or whatever it is and talk about who you like and who you don't.
And for some of the people tonight, they may be their last, best chance to make or break. And that's why there is so much desperation about making a moment tonight. But national security is tricky. There is a lot of fear in this country. Tough talk may not be enough for some of America.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Especially on this day, not only in the wake of the San Bernardino attacks, the terror attack in Paris as well. We have seen the Los Angeles school system shut down today. So there is a lot of national security issues to talk about.
Chris Christie making the jump from the undercard debate, which he was in the last GOP debate. He's now back on the main stage with the top tier of candidates, a lot to look forward to tonight.
I want to check in with John Berman, who is backstage.
John, what is the scene where you are?
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Backstage at the Venetian, Anderson.
And I just saw Wolf Blitzer walk by, the debate moderator. He was with Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt. They will be asking questions as well. They have now walked through that door right there and they're now on the debate stage itself.
Over there is the door where the candidates will be emerging any minute now. We're any minute this -- the undercard debate will get started. We have seen the campaign staffs scurrying about backstage right here.
One other thing I want to show you right now, five lecterns. These will be added after the first debate for the prime-time debate, begins at 8:30 Eastern time, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie all ready to go right there.
This, the last debate of 2015, there are some changes, some new features in the debate tonight that could have a big impact in what we will see. Number one, Ted Cruz, by function of where he stands in the polls, he will be center stage right next to Donald Trump. That is a position occupied once by Jeb Bush, once by Scott Walker.
Will he face the peril, will he face the wrath of Donald Trump just inches away from him? Chris Christie, as you mentioned, he's back on the main stage after a brief engagement in the undercard debate. It will be interesting to see where Chris Christie trains his fire. Will he talk about Donald Trump or could it be he needs to figure a way to get more support in the establishment lane, which means he will talk about Marco Rubio?
Finally, the format, 75 seconds to answer questions from Wolf Blitzer and the panel. You get 30 seconds if someone names your name, calls you out, 30 seconds to respond to that. One other thing, there will be opening statements and closing statements. I always think the opening statements are very interesting. You get a sense of where these candidates will go. They get a chance to set the tone, which will be a long and exciting night -- Chris.
CUOMO: All right, John, thank you very much.
Wolf Blitzer said to be maintaining one hour of complete silence before he takes the stage.
COOPER: Is that true?
CUOMO: You were doing very heavy calisthenics.
COOPER: I'm a big believer in calisthenics.
CUOMO: You slapped me hard across the face when I wished you good luck before the debate. So everybody does it different.
CUOMO: Let's check in with Sara Murray, because Donald Trump certainly the man in the middle. The polls justifying his recent remarks about banning Muslims, and yet the debate has not always been a position of strength for him. What are you hearing about tonight?
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think that's right. And, look, when he was at his campaign event last night, Trump said I expect everyone to be going after me.
But we do know he's looking forward to tonight because he tweeted about it, as Donald Trump is prone to do. He said, "I am in Trump International Hotel Las Vegas getting ready and waiting for the debate tonight. Look forward. Hope I get treated fairly."
Donald Trump today doing a little bit of debate prep. He had a meeting with the billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, who is here in Las Vegas. So it will be interesting to see if he makes any mention of that. But I think, for Trump, the big challenge here -- and when I talk to voters who support him -- look, we want to see him on stage, we want to see him talk more about his policies, we want to see him come off as very strong on national security.
And if you are a voter who is still a little bit undecided, you don't want to see Donald Trump and Ted Cruz go after one another. A lot of folks I talked to here in Las Vegas said that they think that would be the worst possible outcome.
CUOMO: Sara, thank you very much. Appreciate it.
COOPER: Yes, obviously big day of news in Los Angeles, where the nation's second largest school system shut down by an e-mail terror threat.
Let's go to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, who has got the latest on that -- Evan.
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Anderson.
There's no doubt that the San Bernardino terrorist attack has the nation on edge. And we know that this e-mail threat was received by school officials both in New York and Los Angeles. And it really sounded ominous. We took a lot at one of the messages and it included mentions of pressure cooker bombs and backpack bombs and a group of Islamic terrorists who are ready to carry out attacks against schoolchildren.
But it also had some oddities. It included a vulgar mention to male anatomy. And so that's perhaps one reason why New York City officials looked at it and decided that they were going on dismiss it.
Here is the New York City police commissioner, Bill Bratton, talking about the terrorist attack. I'm sorry. We don't have the sound right now, but, at the same time, the Los Angeles officials got the same message and what they decided was that they were going to take -- out of an abundance of caution, they were going to close the schools.
That means that 650,000 kids and thousands of employees who are able to work going to have to stay home today. The FBI is still investigating this message and these threats, because even though it appears to be a hoax, they treat all of these seriously and it does really show that for the first time probably since 9/11, the fear of terrorism among the American public is very, very high -- Chris.
COOPER: Yes, no doubt about that. Evan, thanks very much. We will continue to check in with you as events warrant throughout the evening.
The stage is set here at the Venetian. The candidates have down their walk-throughs to get a feel for the space here. We're minutes away from the start of this debate.
Wolf Blitzer is on the stage going over last-minute questions. Also, Hugh Hewitt will be asking questions, as will our Dana Bash. We're here joined not only by Chris Cuomo. Jeff Zeleny, CNN
Washington correspondent, is here with us, Paul Begala, former Bill Clinton adviser, adviser to a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton, and also Mike Rogers, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Paul, you have got kind of a Cheshire cat grin on your face today. You love debates. What are you going to be looking for tonight?
PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I do.
I will be looking for humor. We haven't seen enough humor from the Republicans, except for Lindsey Graham, who will be on the first debate. He's been hilarious and very charming. It hasn't done him any good in the polls, but it wins my heart, so humor, but also the most important thing in these is differentiation.
They all want to, as Mr. Trump says, bomb the poop out of ISIS, but how, why, where? Who is going to substantive? Who is going to be able -- by the way, like, I don't mean to tell Wolf his job. I just would ask Mr. Trump, there are five countries that border Syria. Name them. You're going to bomb it, you ought to at least know where to send the planes. I will bet you five bucks he couldn't name one of them.
COOPER: Yes, but, as you know, you do that and then you get attacked for a gotcha question.
BEGALA: Well, that's right. Actually...
CUOMO: ... answer to your own question in your case, Begala.
BEGALA: What? I know the answer.
CUOMO: All five.
BEGALA: Sure. OK. Wait. Let me think. Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and a tiny slice of Israel.
BEGALA: No, that's right.
But, no, I would have my client do it then, in other words, one of his opponents. Ted Cruz I think probably has greater mastery of the substance. I think Marco Rubio has greater mastery of the substance. I think Chris Christie has greater mastery of the substance, even though they're trailing Mr. Trump.
Why not Christie, who is trying to get in the game? Why not Christie turn to him and say, look, I can name the states that border New Jersey, but, more importantly, I can also name the states that border Syria that we want to bomb. (CROSSTALK)
COOPER: It would be interesting if one of the other candidates did it, because then it wouldn't be the liberal media.
BEGALA: The evil, liberal, fact-based media looking at geography.
But, yes, I would my -- if I was advising one of these other politicians, I would have them do it, because Trump's strength is not the substance. It's the theatrics.
CUOMO: OK. So let's take Begala as right about that in terms of a conceptual standpoint.
But then the reality of how a debate works and how not -- Mike Rogers knows -- he could take very well, right, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. We're very lucky to have him here. He's on the show "NEW DAY" this morning. And I say, so, boy, this is going to be all about particulars. You say, no, not in the debate, it isn't. It's about projecting the tone that matches the mood of the country.
So even if you can't it tell the ring around Syria or define what the Levant is, that may not be what wins the night, in your opinion.
MIKE ROGERS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Exactly.
And I think those kind of gotcha questions don't work.
CUOMO: Is that a gotcha?
ROGERS: Yes, I think is. You're under pressure. You have 75 seconds. Even Paul, who knew he was going to ask the question, had to stop for a minute.
CUOMO: For a long time.
ROGERS: I saw him looking at his iPhone.
BEGALA: I'm not a huge Ivy Leaguer, like Mr. Trump.
COOPER: I saw Carville holding up a sign.
(CROSSTALK) ROGERS: I do think style and substance. Right? You have to
have the style. You have to show poise. You have to show that you have that leadership, that you can rally under some tough circumstances.
And the substance part comes not from knowing the five countries that surround Syria, but can you frame the problem? Can you frame the danger in a way that people understand it? That, you can do in 75 seconds. If you're going to lay out a plan for ISIS in 75 seconds, we're all in trouble, right, which is the same problem we have with new politics, where everything has to be in 140 characters in a tweet.
If our national security comes down to 140 characters in a tweet, we're in serious trouble. I don't think that's what they need do tonight. They just need to show they can be commander in chief.
COOPER: And to that point, Chris brought this up earlier with some other guests, is that there is not a lot of light between them on their positions on ISIS. There's not a huge difference in many of their positions.
So it's a tough position to be in where they're trying to kind of point out their differences and yet, as you say, in 75 seconds, not an easy thing to do.
ROGERS: And I also think if they can wrap in this notion that, listen, we have a lot of really smart people in the Pentagon, and our intelligence services, first thing I'm going to do is make sure I understand all of the threat, all of the threat, the things we have been doing right and the things we have been doing wrong.
You start laying out a case like that, Americans start getting the feeling like, all right, first of all, you are not going to go in and just bomb the heck out of the place. Right? That's probably not the right answer. You are not going to invade willy-nilly. But you are going to use all the intellect that you have, that our experts...
COOPER: But that is the answer that Donald Trump has given and it's worked very well for him.
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It has, no question about it.
But I think one thing, after covering all of these candidates, being out there, they all criticize the Obama administration about what this president has done. That's what I'm watching most for in this debate.
We know that Wolf will push them for their own plans, their own particulars on this. You go to a Donald Trump rally and you talk to people who love him, who love his strength, but they are looking for particulars. So I think this is a different moment for this debate tonight. Look what has happened in the last month, the Paris attacks, San
Bernardino. So I think this will be a substantive debate and all these candidates need to say what they would do, not what the president is doing wrong.
CUOMO: Paul, just so people know what they're hearing behind us, everybody is being told to take their seats. You can keep talking, but we're getting closer to the big moment of the first debate tonight.
BEGALA: Back to what Jeffrey said about they attack the president, that's right. Again, as a strategist, I always gives my clients -- I used to call it home base.
Here is your safe place. If you don't know what to say, say this. And for any of these candidates, it would be, number one, attack Hillary, number two, attack President Obama, number three, attack the media. That plays great in a Republican debate.
CUOMO: Not tonight.
BEGALA: If you're flummoxed, if you feel like you're in a bind, go to your safe place, attack the president, attack Hillary, attack Wolf.
CUOMO: They are not going to attack Wolf when he's saying to them tonight the big question.
BEGALA: Come on. Watch.
CUOMO: I don't think so.
ZELENY: They will be attacking Ted Cruz, because he is the person now who has the arrows coming from him on each side and he is so happy about this. I talked to him this afternoon going in.
And I said, you know, a lot of people are going after you. And he is like, it's great. This is the place where he wants to be here. So I think Marco Rubio will be going after him and Chris Christie will be going after him. Donald Trump will engage him, no question.
CUOMO: You do hear from people who know Cruz well. He has no fear when it comes to his positions and making his own case. And that's a big asset on a debate stage.
But I do think it is going to be very interesting tonight when someone is saying I'm strong, I'm strong, the president is weak, and Wolf looks at them and says, how? I think it is going to be a big moment tonight to see who says what at that point.
COOPER: We shall see.
We are going to take a quick break, a lot more as the debate approaches. We will be right back.
COOPER: Hey. Welcome back.
We're awaiting the start of the CNN Republican presidential debate here at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, CNN's Wolf Blitzer moderating two contests tonight, with the first set to begin in just a few minutes. Wolf, there you see on the stage, Hugh Hewitt there as well, and Dana Bash there as well.
Let's talk with our CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger, CNN chief national correspondent John King, and of course Chris Cuomo as well.
I want to take a look at something, David, that Donald Trump tweeted earlier today. Let's put it up on the screen. He said: "I'm at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas getting ready waiting for the debate tonight. Look forward. Hope I get treated fairly."
He's also been going after FOX News all day. What is doing here?
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He's very delicate.
COOPER: I mean, I have never heard a candidate talk about being treated with respect, being treated fairly.
AXELROD: I think he's setting up a dynamic where it's him against the establishment. And if he sees a coalescence against him, he is going to take the side of the anti-establishment Republicans. He's trying to hold that ground. And I think this is part of that whole effort.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But I don't know what being treated fairly means. I mean, he's threatened...
AXELROD: That means where he gets to be the nominee.
BORGER: Right. He's threatened to leave the party and run as an independent if he's not treated fairly. Does that mean he shouldn't be challenged on the debate stage by any of the other contenders or that he shouldn't be challenged by CNN?
CUOMO: We know the answer to this question, John. The answer is he's setting up his expectations for tonight. He has not shone as brightly on the debate stage as he does out on the hustings. And this is a very smart thing for him to do, to set up, if somebody punches me in the nose tonight, it wasn't nice, no matter how it happens.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Plus, he knows who his voters are. He knows who his voters are. And whatever you think of him policy-wise, he's a master of branding. Treat me fairly.
His voters, they tend to be lower income. They think they're getting screwed. They don't think they're being treated fairly by the economy, by the politicians, by their own Republican establishment. And Trump is just feeding them. He knows exactly what he's doing.
BORGER: So it's his own version of lowering expectations to a degree?
CUOMO: No, I think that's what happens for the debate stage tonight, where he may take some fire tonight. He's setting that up.
But John is exactly right. We have seen it from the beginning. If he is saying anything, you know one thing for sure. There is a purpose behind it. He's not just flailing when he sends out anything. That's what we have learned the hard way in analyzing his success.
BORGER: What is the purpose of going after FOX News again though today?
CUOMO: Because -- well, that has less of a calculus.
AXELROD: But I do think that they in certain ways are part of the Republican establishment. He is running outside of the traditional Republican lanes.
CUOMO: But Anderson is also right, Axe. That's who he is. He does not back down from a fight. That's part of his sell. And so if FOX comes at it, he's got to go back.
AXELROD: But you're right as well. This is not his event here. And we have seen it before. He does not handle the prolonged substantive discussions on issues very well.
COOPER: It is amazing to me, and Chris brought this up earlier to Ana Navarro, how nobody is talking about Jeb Bush. He's just not in the discussion. And when he has been in the discussion, it's always the same. It's always, gee, do you think he can do any better this time?
BORGER: No, I think it's -- look, I don't think it's make or break anymore for Jeb Bush. And that's why we're not talking about him. We're talking about
the candidates who are on the rise, not the candidates who are falling. And I think Jeb Bush isn't doing well in New Hampshire at this point, which would have been the state that he would have to win or excel in.
And you're looking at candidates like Rubio and Cruz and Chris Christie in that same moderate lane to kind of rise.
KING: But I do think that's an important subplot of this debate though and the time after this debate through the end of the year until Iowa votes, which is the sort of survival of the centrists.
There has always been this theory that you will have Cruz being the evangelical Tea Party candidate. Trump is sort of the unorthodox outsider, not an ideological candidate. Who will be the mainstream establishment Republican that emerges?
Rubio is up to third place in the polls right now, but it's a pretty tepid third place. Jeb Bush was the $100 million man at the beginning. Most people think he's on life support, but...
AXELROD: This is all about New Hampshire, because Iowa is about social conservatives. New Hampshire is where those center-right Republicans have to break through.
And so this debate has to be seen through the eyes of those New Hampshire voters. And that's why, for Christie, this is such a big debate.
CUOMO: Coop has been right to bring that up. People don't get off the undercard and make it back there. He's made progress with some tough slogging.
COOPER: And he got a big endorsement in New Hampshire.
CUOMO: True. True.
And he spent a lot of time there. He's basically moved to New Hampshire. But I think the way John sets it up is exactly right, except for what we saw with Bush. In the way that we imagined this, he was supposed to be prominent because of the pedigree, because of what he represents as his past performance and the money. Other than that, it really is where it's supposed to be.
KING: It's a passion year. Christie is tapping the passion and the anger in New Hampshire right now. Rubio has been a much better debater than Jeb Bush. So, on the debate stage, Rubio has been the centrist. And on the campaign trail, it's been Christie.
BORGER: But the moderate lane is so crowded this year. Normally, it's the conservative lane. Look, you have got Kasich, you have got Rubio saying he's a moderate. You have got Bush. You have got Christie.
COOPER: Also, Donald Trump kind of stole Chris Christie's tell it like it is.
AXELROD: We should also point out that Donald Trump is getting a fair share of moderate -- self-described moderate voters. I think this is about temperament.
Jeb Bush simply don't have the right temperament for this year. And he's sort of faded. He's kind of an apparition on this stage.
KING: He wants to run on his history and his experience, and voters aren't looking for that this year.
CUOMO: Just so we know, behind us, they are getting ready. They're telling the audience who all the different people are involved with the debate tonight. Of course, Facebook has been aggregating questions. You got Hugh Hewitt and Dana Bash, who are going to be up there with the captain, Wolf Blitzer.
So, they're getting everybody ready. People are practicing their applause. And they have been excellent so far.
COOPER: And they have been thanking the various people, the Secret Service, all the people who have been helping make this debate possible.
We are going to take a quick break. Stay with us. We're literally just minutes away from the start of the CNN Republican presidential debate.
CUOMO: All right.
There is a lot of excitement in the room here now at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Just minutes away from the start of the first Republican debate here on CNN. This is going to be a big night. We just have Wolf Blitzer coming out and telling the crowd that his job is simple, to allow the voters to see the differences among the candidates tonight.
We have our esteemed panel here led of course by Anderson Cooper. We have David Axelrod. We have Gloria Borger and we have John King.
And I think that actually that is the trick on national security. There is so much emotion, there's so much fear in the country right now. Tone must match the mood. But this is a tricky one, because what can you say as a Republican tonight that will be that different in terms of fighting against ISIS and terror than what happens right now?
AXELROD: Which is the challenge that Hillary Clinton threw down today when she was commenting on this debate. The challenge was, what do they have to say beyond the muscularity we have talked about earlier that is new, that is different, that is a better plan?
John, you mentioned experience and that Jeb Bush and some of the other candidates were betting that Paris would open the door to the experienced candidate. That didn't turn out to be true. It opened the door to the mess bellicose candidates. So tonight we are going to see if that bellicosity can be backed up by substance.
BORGER: I would argue maybe it opened the door a little bit for Chris Christie, who has actually had some experience with national security.
AXELROD: Which he may mention in this debate.
BORGER: I guarantee you he will mention in this debate.
AXELROD: I think this could be his night.
KING: The two Republicans who have been most specific are Lindsey Graham, who will be in the undercard debate, who has talked about you need boots on the ground. He has been out there. The other candidates don't want to go there. He said, you got to do it. You got to put boots on the ground.
And whether you agree or disagree, we should applaud candidates when they're specific about what they would do. And Trump, who has said ban Muslims, no Syrian refugees and bomb the bleep out of them. The others, their main beef is, they say President Obama hasn't been a good leader.
When you say what would you do, as they list it on paper, it doesn't look all that different from what the administration says it's going to do. They just say he's not doing it well. I think the challenge for them tonight is, huh, you have to do better than that.
COOPER: And there's going to be four candidates on this undercard debate.
How many more undercard debates do you expect to see moving forward from here?
BORGER: I don't expect to see any.
CUOMO: You think this is it?
BORGER: I think this really could be it. I think if you're in the single digits at this point, let me...
COOPER: That's a decision that is ultimately made by the RNC and by whatever network...
BORGER: And by polling.
And as you get closer to Iowa and New Hampshire, maybe you will be looking at the polling of those states, as opposed to national polling and that can narrow it down some more. So maybe they will start using different kinds of things.
KING: We have one more before Iowa votes, right, the FOX Business debate. I don't know if they have said what they want to do.
I certainly think that's a good question for the FOX Business debate, the next one. I think, after Iowa votes, I don't think you are going to see them.
AXELROD: You are not going to see them because they are not going to be here. I think a number of them are going to leave after the Iowa caucuses, several others after New Hampshire.
This field is going to dwindle down.
CUOMO: Once again, the crowd loves the point by David Axelrod. They're getting ready obviously to do the debate here.
Very interesting. Donald Trump is going to defend his ban on Muslims. He is going to say it was exaggerated. He's going to say it's more reasonable and purposeful than the media has given him credit. I wonder if he points to the fact that we just had news of 34 Muslim countries joining in this what they're now making a kind of pro and ad hoc coalition.
I wonder if he's going to make a case tonight that you see what my talk did? It brought the Muslims to the table. That's what happens when you have me in control.
What do you think?
BORGER: Have you been doing debate prep for Donald Trump?
(LAUGHTER) CUOMO: I have done a lot of it for people. And it's never been
COOPER: All right.
The first round of the CNN Facebook Republican presidential debate starts right now.