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Preview of Republican Presidential Town Hall in South Carolina; Aired 8-8:15p ET

Aired February 17, 2016 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:11] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And a good evening to you from the historic Old Cigar Warehouse in Greenville, South Carolina. I'm Anderson Cooper. In just about 15 minutes from now, the first of two of CNN Republican town hall events.

Tonight, right down below is Dr. Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. They're going to face voters here in South Carolina, answering their questions, addressing concerns they have as they get ready to make their choice here on Saturday.

To say it has been a busy and bruising day does not even begin to describe it. Yes, tonight's three candidates have been criss-crossing the state making nearly a dozen stops between them. But that's really the least of it. Senator Rubio picked up a key endorsement from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. And Senator Rubio slammed Ted Cruz for, he says, mischaracterizing his Senate record. Then Cruz slammed Rubio and Trump slammed Cruz, and Cruz fired back, and then Bush said it's time to treat Trump like a bully and, quote, punch him back in the nose.

Now on top of all those words, new numbers, fresh polling could be an outlier, we should point that out, or the start of a trend. We do not yet know. Putting Senator Cruz narrowly in the lead.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's a new national frontrunner on the Republican side.


CRUZ: According to NBC and "The Wall Street Journal," nationally, we're in first place with 28 percent.


CRUZ: In second place is Donald Trump with 26 percent. And then the next closest candidate is way down at 17 percent. So the sound you're hearing is the sound of screams coming from Washington, D.C.


COOPER: No screams tonight we hope. We should point out that is a national poll. Just plenty of good questions from voters in this room and straight answers we hope from the candidates. First, though, Sunlen Serfaty on what has been a rough and tumble day

out on the campaign trail.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can't lie about people like that. It's just incredible.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's a dramatic escalation, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz's fight boiling over. Their war of words now being dominated by legal threats.

CRUZ: One of the things I look forward to most of all is deposing Donald Trump.

SERFATY: Cruz outright daring Donald Trump today, saying, go ahead, sue me.

CRUZ: So, Donald, I would encourage you, if you want to file a lawsuit challenging this ad, claiming it is defamation, file the lawsuit.

SERFATY: At issue, this ad from the Cruz campaign, which attempts to paint Trump as being supportive of abortion rights, using a TV interview of Trump's from 1999.

TRUMP: I am pro-choice in every respect.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We cannot trust Donald Trump with these serious decisions.

SERFATY: Trump has said he has evolved on the issue and is opposed to abortion rights now. The Trump campaign slapping Cruz with this cease and desist order to try and stop his rival from running the ad.

CRUZ: Now I have to stay to Mr. Trump, you have been threatening frivolous lawsuits for your entire adult life. Even in the annals of frivolous lawsuits, this takes the cake.

SERFATY: Trump today not backing down, laying into Cruz.

TRUMP: I'm pro-life and he will say I'm pro-choice. And I got a call from a reporter. I hear you're pro-choice. I said, who told you that? Cruz. Cruz. It's unbelievable. No, I'm pro-life. And I say to myself, how can a guy be so dishonest?

SERFATY: Marco Rubio echoing Trump's accusations against Cruz.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What we've seen in the last few weeks is very disturbing.

SERFATY: Also calling Cruz a liar.

RUBIO: Ted unfortunately has proven that he's willing to say or do anything to get elected.

SERFATY: Cruz firing back that Rubio is just taking a page from Trump's playbook.

CRUZ: Marco Rubio is behaving like Donald Trump with a smile.

SERFATY: The infighting within the top tier comes as a new CNN/ORC poll out today shows Trump with a commanding lead in Nevada, 26 points ahead of any other candidate.

TRUMP: Beyond belief, actually. Maybe I don't even have to go there and campaign, I don't know.

SERFATY: Meanwhile, Jeb Bush is still fighting for traction, feeling energized with his family's help, sharpening his attacks.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: With all due respect, Senator Rubio, your four years or five years or whatever it is as senator does not match up to my capabilities of understanding how the world works.

SERFATY: But receiving a big blow today.

GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Ladies and gentlemen, if we elect Marco Rubio, every day will be a great day in America.

SERFATY: Losing out on the endorsement of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to Marco Rubio.

BUSH: She's a great person. I'm disappointed she didn't endorse me.


COOPER: And Sunlen Serfaty joins us now.

How important is Governor Haley's endorsement for Rubio?

[20:05:04] SERFATY: Well, it's really -- it's absolutely important for Rubio and certainly very devastating for Jeb Bush who aggressively courted her in the state, you know, this -- just this week Jeb Bush called it the most meaningful endorsement. That was of course before he found out that he did not get it.

But for Marco Rubio it's significant because we know that Nikki Haley will be hitting the ground for him in these final days going into Saturday's Republican primary here. That pays off dividends potentially. And you could sense that disappointment in Jeb Bush's tone this afternoon. He is in fourth place here in South Carolina. He's barely registering a double digit. So that's exactly the kind of momentum, energy that the Bush campaign is looking for as they try to turn things around here -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Sunlen Serfaty. Sunlen, thank you.

Now as we set the stage for tonight's town hall which is going to start momentarily, we're joined by CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger, former South Carolina Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson, CNN chief national correspondent John King and CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash. Katon, let me start off with you. First of all, this cease and desist

letter Donald Trump sent to Ted Cruz, have you ever seen anything like that at politics here?

KATON DAWSON, FORMER CHAIRMAN, SOUTH CAROLINA REPUBLICAN PARTY: You know, as we say welcome to South Carolina. It all starts here. You know, and we see how they can throw a punch. Never seen anything of this level in politics in my 40 something years of doing it, starting in 1979 with Ronald Reagan.

It's different. The crowds are different. You'll find tonight. You're also going to see, Anderson, a tremendous amount of undecided voters. Your exit polls that CNN had we checked after the 2012 race, 55 percent undecided, the last week. I think we're at that number.

COOPER: Is that right?

DAWSON: I think you can take our South Carolina polls and chunk them out the window and start with Trump, Cruz, Rubio. I think Rubio just jumped Cruz today.

COOPER: Because of the Haley endorsement?

DAWSON: I do. And the undecideds. It's not -- she's bringing the higher team. It's given him a really solid look. And then certainly Governor Bush probably had a bad day today.

COOPER: I mean, it is a fascinating race. Just today the counterpunches and punches are flying.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I know. I was at that press conference today.

COOPER: Ted Cruz's?

BORGER: With Ted Cruz. And I will tell you, though, he could have just gotten a cease and desist letter and laughed about it. But what he's thinking about is these evangelical voters. And he -- he's behind them 20 points in the state of South Carolina. He can't believe he's losing to Donald Trump with those voters. So what he did today was say, look at this. Look at my ad, the press will pay attention to it. Look at my ad. He was, quote, "very pro-choice." And that's what this press conference was about was saying, evangelicals, take another look at this social issue which is really important to you.

COOPER: Dana, I mean, you heard Cruz today essentially calling Donald Trump's bluff on the lawsuit threat saying, look, go ahead sue. This is a frivolous lawsuit and I'm looking forward to deposing you. Does Trump now appear weak if he doesn't sue?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I'm not even sure that we're going to get to that point because things are moving so fast. Look, the idea of suing is kind of muscle memory for somebody like Donald Trump because that's how not just he but one does business in the kind of business that he's in. COOPER: Right.

BASH: So that is -- that is kind of his first instinct to do that. But I think the other thing that we need to keep in mind here when we're talking about Ted Cruz is that he is really getting it hard from both sides. When I say both sides I mean Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. Marco Rubio is just relentlessly making sure that Ted Cruz is attacked as a liar. We've heard that a lot. But so is Donald Trump. So Ted Cruz is the one person here who needs to do well, who is really fighting a two-front war.

COOPER: Well, John, I mean, Cruz also today called Marco Rubio, quote, "Donald Trump" with a smile, which he definitely didn't mean as a compliment. Clearly Cruz realizes he's got to fend off Trump and Rubio. Who is the bigger threat in South Carolina?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's a great point. Well, Trump is the bigger threat because Trump is ahead in the polls right now. But if you're Ted Cruz you might in the final days actually think that Rubio becomes more of a threat because you don't want to come in third if you're Ted Cruz.

What Marco Rubio is trying to do, the whole premise of the Rubio campaign right now, why they hope the Nikki Haley endorsement helps is to get them into a tighter race with Donald Trump, get him into second place so that he can look and say, Ted Cruz placed behind me in this state with all these evangelical voters and more importantly that there was Ted Cruz and then the other establishment guys, Bush and Kasich. Rubio wants that space. What Cruz needs is momentum.

Anderson, we're about to move. This is the momentum phase, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada. March becomes the delegate phase. And the candidate with momentum will get the most delegates. And so South Carolina is going to have a huge say in who has the most momentum going into the big basket of delegates in March.

COOPER: Katon, how important is a night tonight for a Rubio, for a Cruz? Because the news coverage is largely based on these attacks against each other. That's what people are going to go to cover. At an event like this you have an opportunity to actually talk about your ideas, to talk about what you want to do as president.

DAWSON: Well, and it's important because your viewership in South Carolina is going to be huge tonight.

[20:10:03] You remember the debate when Newt Gingrich broke out, about the same time frame. South Carolinians along with the world will be watching this tonight. And what the excitement is, is you're going to see how Rubio and Cruz took the news today. Rubio has had a really good day. Cruz has been talking about Donald Trump all day. And the thing they've done is Donald Trump for two days hadn't talked about illegal immigration. It's what's brought him to the party in South Carolina. So he's off message --

COOPER: You say any day he's not talking about illegal immigration is a bad day? DAWSON: Is a bad day for Donald Trump. And that's what brought his

numbers here. He's solid and he's got good voters. But tonight and tomorrow, very, very important nights because what surrounds us tomorrow is the news, what they say tonight is going to be covered in every blog and everything in South Carolina.


COOPER: And a lot can change between now and --

DAWSON: That's right.

BORGER: Overnight is a lifetime.


BORGER: Right? And you have more than 50 percent undecided. And what tonight does is it gives these candidates a chance to tell their stories in a way that they haven't been telling their stories because they are mainly reactive to the other candidates.

COOPER: Right.

BORGER: And so tonight Marco Rubio can tell you why he thinks he's experienced enough to be president of the United States. And Ted Cruz can tell you why he's the true conservative in this race. And we don't have that opportunity very often when they are throwing charges of liar, liar at each other.

COOPER: We hope it's also an opportunity for them to kind of show more personal side in an intimate setting like this. It's one of the rare opportunities that they're able actually to do that on a national stage.

Katon Dawson, it's always good to have you. John King, Dana Bash, Gloria Borger, thank you.

Three of the Republican presidential candidates are about to take the stage, take questions from voters here in Greenville, South Carolina. I'm going to head downstairs now to moderate tonight's Republican town hall which begins after a quick break. Stay with us.