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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

Countdown to CNN GOP Town Hall; Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally in South Carolina; New NBC/WSJ Poll: Cruz Leading Nationally; Cruz, Rubio, Carson to Face S.C. Voters Tonight. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired February 17, 2016 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[19:00:18] ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: And good evening. I'm Erin Burnett. Welcome to a very special edition of OUTFRONT tonight. I am live in Greenville, South Carolina. CNN is hosting an exclusive GOP presidential town hall. It is an event that is so big we're going to split it over two nights, tonight Cruz, Rubio and Carson answering the big questions directly from voters. This is a new national poll shows Cruz leading the field topping Donald Trump by two points well within the margin of error. Tonight, Cruz already touting the numbers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: For the first time in many months, there's a new national frontrunner on the Republican side.

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: So far though that poll an outlier because also today a new Quinnipiac poll showed Trump with a big lead nationally, 39 percent with Rubio in second place at 19. Cruz in third with 18. I guess if anything, it is Cruz, it is anyone's race to win. This gets more and more exciting day by day. The candidates taking the stage behind me in less than an hour here in Greenville, South Carolina. One of those candidates Marco Rubio, winning a major endorsement just moments ago from South Carolina's wildly popular Governor Nikki Haley. And as we count you down to the big event here tonight, Donald Trump speaking live right now in South Carolina.

And that is where we begin with Sara Murray, who is traveling with Trump today in Walterboro just across from where we are in South Carolina. And Sara, Trump ratcheting up his stretched to sue Ted Cruz. It has reached a whole new level of negativity between these two.

SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Erin, you're absolutely right. The campaign has taken on a whole different tenure. At times it feels less like a political campaign, and more like an episode of Judge Judy today, Donald Trump threatening not one, but two lawsuits.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Tonight, Donald Trump is raising the stakes in his battle against Ted Cruz.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is a guy who raises the Bible and yet he tells fibs, he tells lies.

MURRAY: Threatening to that take the fight for the GOP nomination straight to court.

CRUZ: Donald's lawyer sent our campaign and cease-and-desist letter. Mr. Trump, you have been threatening frivolous lawsuits for your entire adult life. So, Donald, I would encourage you if you want to file a lawsuit challenging this ad, claiming it is defamation, file the lawsuit.

MURRAY: The battle brewing over this Cruz campaign ad.

TRUMP: I'm very capable of changing over to anything I want to change to.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's for sure.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would president come ban partial rights abortion?

TRUMP: Well, I am pro-choice in every respect --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But you would not ban it?

TRUMP: No.

MURRAY: That's what Trump on defense with South Carolina's evangelical voters over his evolving abortion view.

TRUMP: I'm pro-life and he'll 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 said to myself, how can a guy is so dishonest?

MURRAY: But it's not the first time the billionaire businessman has had to explain his change of heart.

MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS HOST: In 1999 you said you were, quote, "very pro-choice," even supporting partial birth abortions.

TRUMP: I've evolved on many issues over the years and you know who else has is Ronald Reagan evolved on many issues. And I am pro-life.

MURRAY: For Trump, a lawsuit could be a tough sell since Cruz's ad uses Trump's own words against him. In a statement, Trump said, "If I want to bring a lawsuit, it would be legitimate. Likewise if I want to bring a lawsuit regarding Senator Cruz being a natural born Canadian, I will do. Time will tell, Teddy." As for Cruz, he is urging Trump to bring it on.

CRUZ: So, I look forward to any lawsuit and let me note by the way, one of the things I look forward to most of all is deposing Donald Trump. For that particular endeavor, I may not use outside counsel. I make the deposition myself. (END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, even though Donald Trump holds a wide lead in South Carolina according to our poll, he's not taking any of these political attacks lightly. When he was campaigning here in Walterboro, he went after Ted Cruz for telling fibs and lies. We'll see if he brings more of that to his last campaign event tonight in South Carolina -- Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Sara. And of course, that event beginning any moment in terms of Donald Trump taking the stage.

I want to go live to Jason Carroll. He is actually live with the Trump campaign in Sumter, South Carolina where he's going to take the stage. And, Jason, what is the message tonight? What do we expect to hear? What are you hearing from the campaign?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, actually, Donald Trump has already taken the stage. And Erin, one of the first things out of his mouth that he said was he was encouraging people out here to get out and vote. He says no matter what the polls say, he said, always assume in a poll that we're running even. That's why it's so important to get out and vote. Now, he didn't specify in which poll he was referring to. As you know, here in the state, he was running ahead in the polls, but in the new national poll that's out Cruz is ahead 28 percent to Trump's 26 percent.

You know, when I was talking to a number of people here in the audience about what they were expecting to hear from Trump tonight, a number of them said, look, we're here to support this man, but we're at the point now where we want to hear something different. We want to hear something new. We don't want to hear attacks on Bush. We don't want to hear attacks on Cruz. We want to hear a little bit more about policy. At this point, he is just starting up as I said Erin, but it's going to be interesting to see how the rest of his speech goes.

[19:05:50] BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Jason Carroll.

OUTFRONT now, Congressman Steve King, the national co-chair for the Cruz campaign here with me in Greenville, South Carolina. Along with Barry Bennett, advisor to the Trump campaign.

So, Barry, you just heard Jason say the first words out of Donald Trump's mouth at this rally which we are listening to right now was, assume we're running even in the polls to try to get the turn out your vote matters. Of course we have this poll out tonight, NBC Wall Street Journal poll, let me just give you outlier, but the headline here, first to show Ted Cruz on top at the national level. A month ago in this same poll, Trump has had by 13. Now he's down by two. That's a pretty seismic shift.

BARRY BENNETT, TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISOR: It is. You have to look at that poll a little deeper. That's just the top by numbers. Very conservatives were oversampled by nine points. And it's a 400 person sample nationwide, the NBC poll here in South Carolina was 700 sampled. So, you know, we'll see if that holds up, but I don't think it's going to.

BURNETT: You don't think it's going to. You think it's going to stay an outlier? I mean, because Congressman King, even -- I'm sure you're thrilled about the national poll, you heard Ted Cruz is thrilled about that national poll. But it's the states that matter right now. And on the state polls, latest two year in South Carolina and in Nevada, the next two states to vote, Trump has a massive lead here in South Carolina 16 points, I believe it is 26 in Nevada. So, what do you say to that?

REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: I think 16 points is just about right. As my recollection is, Donald Trump went into the Iowa caucus with an 11 point lead and he lost by five points. So, 11 plus five is 16. Looks like it's a shot here for Ted Cruz. And so, it is a very intense race here in South Carolina. I have never seen politics devolved into the depths that they are here. We went through a year in Iowa in the caucus. We saw some pretty nasty stuff. But this is the lowest I've ever seen it.

BURNETT: This is the lowest you've ever seen it? Lowest you've ever seen it Barry or no? This is as usual. Politics as usual.

BENNETT: No. South Carolina has perfected a lot of these dirty tricks over the years. So, I don't know. We've not seen -- Saturday is still a couple days away.

BURNETT: All right. So, Trump, yes, and it sounds like it is. Every day, you think it can't get worse and it does get worse. Trump has been escalating his rhetoric against Ted Cruz. Lashing out at others too. You know, Barry, he said something today about senator from the state, a popular senator, a beloved man, a failed presidential candidate, but a beloved figure in this state Lindsey Graham. He is Donald Trump just today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: This guy Lindsey Graham, you have a guy, he's one of the dumbest human beings I've ever seen. Graham is a disgrace. And I think you have one of the worst representatives of any representatives in the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Dumbest people he's ever seen?

BENNETT: You know, these guys have been going at it for about a year. They're all tired and they're all ratcheting it up, but you know it's not the worst thing that's been said in South Carolina today, let alone this week.

BURNETT: Do you think it's going to help Ted Cruz? Do you think people are going to change their vote against Donald Trump because of that?

KING: So, I think we've already seen it. And we're watching it already in this national poll. And we'll see what happens on Saturday here in South Carolina, but it looks to me like Donald Trump reaches a saturation point where people have finally seen enough and they decide they've had too much and they start to move off of Trump. But also, there's a large groups of undecideds. And those undecideds are less like they move towards Trump than they are to move towards Ted Cruz. So that's a dynamic I saw in Iowa. And that's the dynamic I think we're seeing here in South Carolina, but time will tell.

BURNETT: It is a fair point that when you add up the leanings, that they are leaning towards some of it, not committed on the undecided, you get by far the biggest percentage. You get 51 ahead of the 38 who support Donald Trump an hour latest poll at least. But right now, a lot of the war of words between these two is coming down to abortion. Very few people are only single issue voters on this. But it someone is a liar, it can really matter. Ted Cruz is taking part of what Donald Trump said in the past. Thing of what he said. Let me just play what the ad is that Ted Cruz put out about Donald Trump and what Donald Trump really said. Here it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Planned Parenthood treats the unborn like another form of currency and yet some politicians still defend them.

TRUMP: Planned Parenthood serves a good function.

I'm totally against the abortion aspect of Planned Parenthood. But I've had many women -- I've had many Republican conservative women come up and say, Planned Parenthood serves a good function other than that one aspect.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[19:10:05] BURNETT: The ad is implying that Trump is pro-choice, that he likes Planned Parenthood. That's not what he said.

KING: It's not what he said most recently, but Donald Trump has contradicted everything almost that he once said. And this goes back and forth. So, his voice are on tape. I watched the Tim Russert interview. And Donald Trump would like to say that George W. Bush is to blame for that September 11th 2001, that was 2001 but he's not to blame for the positions he took in 1999. So, the question is, where is Donald Trump today? What are his core convictions? And I think people in South Carolina are understanding. It is awfully hard to find them, let alone identify them.

BURNETT: And Trump's argument, well, I evolved, I changed. He was, yes, I was pro-choice, he had a personal event in his life, a friend. He changed his mind.

BENNETT: In the last 30 polls, substantially ahead. He's going to win here and it is going to be an easy win. Then we're going to go on to the Nevada and to the SEC primary.

BURNETT: You're confident it's going to be an easy win?

BENNETT: Confident. KING: I think we're going to see South Carolinians come to the polls

and they're going to think about the Donald Trump who is hurling these accusations of liar and threatening lawsuits. And they're going to think of that vision in their mind's eye with Donald Trump standing behind a podium with the great seal of the United States of America hurling similar kind of allegations out. A president does not conduct himself that way. And I think people in South Carolina will understand that when they go to the polls on Saturday.

BENNETT: I think a lot of these attacks are quite desperate. You know, some of the mail pieces I've seen out of the Cruz campaign really desperate and, you know, and not factual and kind of lowering the debate even lower than it has been. And I hope it can all stop.

BURNETT: Final word.

KING: Really, the issue is this. When you have political opponents, they identify your strength and attack you directly at your strength. Ted Cruz's strength is his honesty and integrity and constitutional understanding. They started targeted him. They're -- in November. That's political. But they know this. His strength is he's an honest man and a straight shooter. And these allegations are completely false. And that's why Donald Trump will not sue ted Cruz. And if so, I want to buy a ticket to the deposition.

BURNETT: Ted Cruz said he would conduct himself. Thank you very much, Congressman King, Barry Bennett, we appreciate it.

Well, we've got someone coming up next. A senator who knows Ted Cruz, who did not endorse him. He's honest or not. Why is Ted Cruz comparing Marco Rubio to Donald Trump?

Plus, just three days from the Nevada caucuses, Bernie Sanders in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton. And we're counting you down to tonight's CNN's Republican town hall now a little more than 30 minutes away. We are live in Greenville, South Carolina and we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:16:24] BURNETT: And welcome back from Greenville, South Carolina. In less than an hour Republican candidates are going to appear in an exclusive CNN Republican presidential town hall. They'll be standing right behind me on stage tonight. Ted Cruz on top of the latest national poll tonight for the first time. And Marco Rubio winning a major and hotly contested endorsement just an hour ago from the popular South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP) BURNETT: Cruz and Rubio, the two men are a lot alike in a lot of ways, but they're dueling to the political death.

Dana Bash is OUTFRONT.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's hard to believe both of these candidates promised positive campaigns.

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

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ted unfortunately has proven that he's willing to say or do anything to get elected.

BASH: Tension has been simmering between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio since CNN's debate in December.

RUBIO: Metadata program was a valuable tool that we no longer have at our disposal.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator Cruz?

CRUZ: Well, you know, I would note that Marco knows what he's saying isn't true.

BASH: That was so two months ago tame compared to how they're going at it now.

RUBIO: And just here in South Carolina this week, he's lied about my record on Planned Parenthood. He's lied about my position on marriage. He's lied about his own record on immigration.

CRUZ: It is a very odd reaction when somebody points to their record, points to the words that came out of their own mouth -- respond by yelling and screaming liar, liar, liar.

BASH (on camera): That's a pretty tough charge and the rhetoric is really escalating.

RUBIO: Well, there's no other way to describe it, it's a lie. When you say something that's not true, it's called a lie. That's the definition of it.

BASH (voice-over): Perhaps this Cruz v Rubio bloodbath was inevitable since there are so many similarities between them.

RUBIO: I have people ask me often, you and Ted Cruz are a lot of like what's the difference.

BASH: Cruz is 45, just six months older than the 44-year-old Rubio. Both are freshman senators and sons of Cuban immigrants.

RUBIO: I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish. And second of all, the other point that I would make -- (SPEAKING SPANISH)

BASH: Though Cruz and Rubio both rode the Tea Party wave into the Senate, they have very different styles. Cruz made his name raging against the establishment. Rubio is at his core more mainstream.

RUBIO: Ted voted for Rand Paul's budget which reduce defense spending. I'm not going to do that when I'm president.

Start paying taxes.

BASH: In this Cruz ad, the ultimate GOP insult. Comparing Rubio to Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Marco Rubio burned us once. He shouldn't get the chance to sell us out again.

BASH: They key question, will all the mudslinging work with voters?

(on camera): Are you drawn more to the candidates who are not calling somebody else a liar?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it is hard to find those in this race.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BURNETT: It is amazing to hear the word liar. I mean, they often -- people say dishonest or not true. But liar somehow has a different tone to it. And you just came from a Ted Cruz rally.

BASH: I did. And look at this, Erin. This is only the kind of thing that you can find on the ground. This was put on every single car in the parking lot, if you can see it, in the Cruz rally. And it was placed by Marco Rubio's campaign. It says right on the bottom, paid for by Marco Rubio for president. And I just actually stopped counting how many times the word lie is used here. But it's all about at the top as you can see, it says, Cruz busted on lies. And it goes on to talk about how many times Rubio says he lied about a whole host of things. This is where the political race is right now. This is a political season, especially because the stakes are so high here in South Carolina.

BURNETT: Which is incredible and as you said on the ground, you have someone going -- Rubio staffers going to a Cruz rally, putting one of those on every single car.

BASH: Absolutely.

BURNETT: It is coming down now to every single vote because no one trust the polls.

BASH: That is true.

BURNETT: All right. Dana Bash, thank you very much.

And now, let's talk about someone who is deeply popular here in South Carolina who endorsed Marco Rubio. That's Senator Tim Scott, who joins me now. And Senator, let's just start with the big question here. You've endorsed Marco Rubio. You know, you heard Dana's piece. You know, there's no love lost between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. It has gotten nasty. Why did you choose Rubio?

SEN. TIM SCOTT (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, I have the good fortune of hosting 12 presidential forums having each candidate in one at a time. One person was head and shoulders above the rest. That was Marco Rubio. He has more experience on foreign policy than any other candidate. He has lived the American dream. He understands we have to re-engineer our economy so that it helps the middle class. And finally, he used his conservative principles to attract a new generation of voters. Because it concedes our conservative principles. He uses those conservative principles to attract a new generation of voters. Without question, it was an easy decision to go with Marco Rubio.

[19:21:30] BURNETT: So, an easy decision, but of course you have also worked alongside Ted Cruz. And Cruz and Rubio both came into the Senate as Tea Partiers, just like you did. Why not Ted Cruz?

SCOTT: Well, for me, it's more about why Marco Rubio than why not another candidate. What I like to do is focus on the decision making process. I had literally those 12 presidential forums. Then I took pen and put it on paper. I went through the analysis of each candidate. I analyzed each candidates' strengths, their weaknesses and how that would fare for the country first and then for the party. And every time, I had a very important question, especially like the foreign policy question leading our military's commander-in-chief. Have a brother just retired in October from 32 years as a command sergeant major in the army.

Another brother who serves as a colonel in the Air Force. I wanted to know who on day one would be commander-in-chief ready to take charge. That was an easy decision with his experience on the Intel committee and on foreign affairs. Marco Rubio has more experience than anyone else running. Understanding the need to reengineer our economy looking for ways to make -- more affordable. Marco Rubio understands that journey personally.

BURNETT: So, Senator, we're trying to understand those. Of course, you've got Marco Rubio just calling Ted Cruz a liar. You know, you didn't see the flier, but no doubt you've seen them around your state that Dana Bash was just holding up. The word liar was on there more times than I could count in the 20 seconds, I was looking at it. Donald Trump has also called, Ted Cruz a liar and here's how Ted Cruz responded today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: So is Ted Cruz right that Rubio is just copying Trump or is Rubio right that Ted Cruz is dishonest? SCOTT: There is an easy way of understanding what Marco Rubio is

doing right now. I have not seen the fliers. I will not speak to a flier but I have not seen. It is important for candidates to contrast our record against other candidates. When it is about the record, I don't think of it as a negative attack. When it gets personal and name calling, that's a problem. But creating a contrast and defending your own record is what candidates do. This is for the highest job in politics in the world. We want to make sure that we understand each candidate, their strengths, their weaknesses, and where the contrast is. And when there's false information placed out there, you have to rebuke that false information or debunked it. We're seeing that happen by Marco Rubio in his campaign.

BURNETT: And Senator Scott, before we go, the bottom-line is, would you support Donald Trump if he's the nominee wholeheartedly and vocally?

SCOTT: There's no doubt that any of our candidates on the right would do a better job as president of the United States than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

BURNETT: All right. At least, I'll take that the bottom line is yes, although I understand the way you phrased it was slightly different than that. Senator Scott, I appreciate your time. It's good to talk to you tonight, sir.

SCOTT: I expect Marco Rubio to win. Yes, ma'am.

BURNETT: That's right. Yes. All right. Well, thank you very much.

I want to go straight now to Gloria Borger who is here with me in Greenville at our town hall. Our chief political analyst. So, what do you say? Obviously, he wants to keep it positive about Marco Rubio, but there is no love lost between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have so much in common.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, first term senators, young, conservative. Look, I was at this press conference today where Ted Cruz took on Donald Trump, but he didn't only take on Donald Trump, Erin. He had some zingers for Marco Rubio because he says Marco Rubio has supported amnesty and that he is lying about it. Again the word lie, lie, lie comes up. And it is just the way it is between these two fellows now because they have to fight each other in order to fight Donald Trump.

BURNETT: It doesn't seem deeply personal. I understand that this is politics.

BORGER: Politics is personal though.

BURNETT: It feels very personal. You don't use the word liar when you like someone and you think that they're not being fully honest. You say dishonest or not telling the whole truth. So, that's the whole story.

BORGER: Right. BURNETT: You don't say you're a liar.

BORGER: Or he's stretching the truth or that's not what I said or any --

BURNETT: Right.

BORGER: The stakes are really high right now. These two men know that only one of them will survive to fight Trump. And South Carolina is so important to both of them, and they're both trying to appeal to a very conservative block of the Republican electorate. Now, Rubio is trying to straddle that, some moderates, some conservative. And Cruz is all conservative and evangelicals. And I think wherever there's an overlap, they're going to fight to the death on this because that's how important it is to their campaign for the presidency. I mean, each one of them wants to come out of this state with momentum. They need it, and they're not going to get it unless they knock the other one day. That's just the way it is.

[19:26:47] BURNETT: We get to watch a death match which of course --

BORGER: We do.

BURNETT: It is enjoyable television, although depressing for many people around the country in the political process.

All right. Gloria, thank you. And next, Donald Trump with a huge lead among evangelicals here in South Carolina. Such a crucial voting bloc as Gloria just indicated. Will they show up to vote for him on Saturday? And the Sanders surge. It's a dead heat in Nevada. A few months ago it was anything but. He has truly surged. Can he score another major win?

We'll be back in just a couple of moments from the town hall here Greenville, South Carolina.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:31:22] BURNETT: Welcome back to a special edition of OUTFRONT. I am live in Greenville, South Carolina, tonight.

And behind me is the stage that you are looking at where CNN's presidential town hall will begin. We are less than 30 minutes away from the beginning, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson tonight, all preparing to make direct pitches to Republican voters.

One of their main targets here in South Carolina will be evangelical voters who made up more than half of all Republican primary voters in 2012. As you can tell, nothing is more important than that for the Republicans.

OUTFRONT now, the former executive director of South Carolina's Republican Party, Hogan Gidley. He also served in the Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee's presidential campaigns. Pastor Mark Burns is a Donald Trump supporter. Also with me, along with our political commentator and host of "The Ben Ferguson Show", Ben Ferguson, and our political commentator, S.E. Cupp.

All of us are together here in South Carolina tonight.

Pastor Burns, you're next to me, though, so let me start with you.

Donald Trump right now has a real lead among evangelical voters here in South Carolina, 20 points. He wasn't able to get those voters to come to his side in Iowa.

So, some people say that's a warning sign. And they say, look at Donald Trump, you heard Ted Cruz say he's New York values. The guy has been divorced. He's not that religious.

Why would evangelicals vote for him?

You are. Why?

PASTOR MARK BURNS, TRUMP SURROGATE: Number one, I believe that what you see with Donald Trump is what you really get. That's resonating with the evangelicals.

We're tired of the current political establishment. We're tired of the polished politician that says one thing but does another. You know, I don't trust a man who doesn't make mistakes. I don't trust a man who's not -- who's imperfect.

BURNETT: You don't care about the divorces and the change of views on abortion?

BURNS: Erin, that's the whole message of grace. Jesus talked about grace. Jesus said you have cast -- who haven't (ph) sinned cast the first stone. He said, even while we were yet sinners, he still died for us.

And so, there's the redemption story. Christians, evangelicals, conservatives are really resonating with that story. Donald Trump was one thing, but he received a new message. Now, he's something else.

BURNETT: Ben?

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, look. Here's my problem: I don't trust a man who says he never asks God for forgiveness for anything. I don't trust a man that says 2 Corinthians when it's Second Corinthians.

I don't trust a man that opens up casinos which is not exactly what the bible said.

(CROSSTALK)

FERGUSON: I also have a problem -- hold on one second -- I also have a problem with a guy that says Planned Parenthood -- if you want to talk about evangelical Christians, says Planned Parenthood does great work when they're the number one abortion provider in the United States of America.

You add all that up, Pastor, and I don't how you can look at that resume and say God wants that.

BURNETT: What do you say, Hogan? Is this going to resonate or not? Because, of course, Donald Trump has said, Planned Parenthood -- except for the parts of Planned Parenthood that do abortion.

HOGAN GIDLEY, FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, S.C. REPUBLICAN PARTY: Look, I think the debate he had the other night, I don't think it helped Donald Trump much, but I don't know how much it hurt him either.

Evangelicals in this state are very interesting because it's not that you have to come from them or believe everything that they believe and believe with them. You just can't lie to them.

BURNS: Right.

GIDLEY: And I think there are some candidates in this race like Ted Cruz -- and I watched this play out in Iowa, you mentioned evangelicals, they came out all right, and he won evangelicals in Iowa. In fact, he got 45,000 votes.

I'm not advocating for Donald Trump. I'm pointing out the fact that in this state, evangelicals want someone who came out and who tithes and parades himself around as the paragon of Christian virtue, but doesn't tithe, lied about Ben Carson to get votes and then turns around and has the chance to apologize for this on a debate stage and instead blamed your network, blamed CNN. That's a problem. I'm not saying it's a deal-breaker, I'm just saying it's a problem.

BURNETT: S.E., how do you think Ted Cruz is going to do among evangelicals here?

[19:35:01] Is he going to be able to pull out a win like he did in Iowa? Because he kind of has to, to win.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, everyone is describing South Carolina evangelicals as if they are a monolith and they're not. That's what's going to make South Carolina so interesting.

Ted Cruz is appealing to the old-school traditional church-going evangelicals. He's killing it with those folks, and they're more like Iowa evangelicals and there's a lot of them.

But Donald Trump is appealing more to the pastor's kind of new evangelicalism. Think megachurches. I mean, think prosperity theology, which the pastor might be familiar with.

And that's where Donald Trump is really leaning. That is more open- minded evangelism. That's a more sort of forgive all sins, you know, which makes sense for Donald Trump.

So, the divide between these two kinds of evangelicals in South Carolina is going to be really interesting to watch. And I don't expect either candidate, Trump or Cruz, to get all of them.

FERGUSON: I agree. And I also think this, Erin, there's two different people in the evangelical community. One is saying does he tithe enough, as you just heard Hogan referred to. The other one is saying which one supported abortion, which one supported Planned Parenthood, which one opened up casinos and said they were a great thing and come in and gamble your money away?

There are two different levels here. Some are looking at the big picture and the past of Donald Trump. Others are saying, I don't care about his past. I just want his presence. I like his anger, his frustration, how mad he is and I'm going to go vote for him and that's where the divide is.

BURNS: Which is why I think he's connecting with the new age of evangelicals because, you know, you would think about the divide. The more established evangelicals really has made it difficult for some Christians to escape their past. But the new age, the megachurch, people who in my circles who say, listen, I was once lost, but now I'm found. I was once blind, but now I see.

Donald Trump is making that appeal to that younger, the more megachurch evangelical that's coming out in drove to support Donald Trump.

BURNETT: There's one thing that happened, I don't know if our viewers all know about this. Certainly all four of you do. But Ted Cruz had an ad that featured a soft core porn star. He did note that she was a soft core porn star. When he found out, he pulled the ad.

BURNS: He did.

BURNETT: Which we were all sort of chuckling about.

And you're saying that makes him not a man of God.

BURNS: Grace is the epitome of Christianity. Evangelicals in the South get that.

For Ted Cruz to come across as the man of the people, the man of evangelicals, and to destroy this young woman's character based off her past, and not give her an opportunity to say that's who I used to be, let's embarrass her. Let's pull the ad. That's not Christ-like.

BURNETT: Quickly, S.E.

FERGUSON: They weren't embarrassing here. She embarrassed them by not disclosing all the information about her being in pornography.

CUPP: But, Erin, here's the problem -- when Donald Trump has tried to otherize other candidates' religion and question the authenticity of Ted Cruz's religion, or Ben Carson's religion, this hasn't worked among evangelicals. They think it is unseemly. They think it's unchristian.

So, that line of attack against Ted Cruz or anyone else I think doesn't come off to evangelicals as real and righteous. So, I'm not sure that's really the past that Donald Trump and his supporters should be taking.

BURNETT: Quick final word, Hogan.

GIDLEY: Big picture: when Donald Trump put Moroccans crossing a fence in his ad, he leaned right into it and said, I absolutely did it. This is old school Cruz pulling the ad, apologizing and saying we messed up, firing the vendor. It's so funny you see some like Donald Trump capturing that anger and saying, you better believe I did. He leans into it what he says --

BURNS: Owns up to it.

GIDLEY: -- and owns up to it, and that's what's so interesting. That's the phenomenon. That's why we have some evangelicals supporting him.

BURNETT: All right. Well, thank you all four.

That is going to be a lot of what this comes down to.

And next, the dead heat between Clinton and Sanders in Nevada. It was anything but a dead heat a couple months ago. But Sanders has surged in the caucuses there only three days away.

We are live at the Old Cigar Warehouse right here in Greenville, South Carolina, the site of tonight's CNN Republican town hall. We're about 20 minutes away and we will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:43:14] BURNETT: We are live tonight in Greenville, South Carolina.

Anderson Cooper is getting ready to moderate the first of two CNN town halls with the GOP candidates.

While Republicans battle for South Carolina, the Democrats are focused on Nevada. So, South Carolina for Republicans this Saturday, while Nevada for Democrats is Saturday. So, we're in the final hours before those votes are cast in the caucuses.

The latest poll out today in Nevada has the race in a statistical tie. Hillary Clinton with a one-point edge over Bernie Sanders, obviously within the margin of error and he has surged over the past few months from being way, way behind, not even registering to this dead heat.

OUTFRONT now, Bakari Sellers is CNN political commentator and Hillary Clinton supporter, and South Carolina State Representative Justin Bamberg, a Bernie Sanders supporter.

All right. Bakari --

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes.

BURNETT: -- in this new poll, you see a dead heat. This has got to be a disappointment for Hillary Clinton. I mean, there's no other way to put it. Bernie Sanders was not even on the map and now it's even. SELLERS: I wouldn't call it a disappointment, but we have a race on

our hands. People are asking for a Democratic primary, now we have one. But this is where we get to see where Hillary Clinton's strength is, where we have voters of color. In Nevada, we have Hispanic voters. In South Carolina, you have African-American voters.

And one thing that we're starting to test is the theory you cannot just parachute in while you're running for president and be a champion for these issues. Bernie Sanders is going to have to deal with this 2007 vote against comprehensive immigration reform put forth by Ted Kennedy. He's going to have to deal with those issues. He's going to have to deal with his relationship with African-American community as it comes to South Carolina.

So, I believe Hillary Clinton is in a good position.

BURNETT: Representative Bamberg, how do you feel? You've got to see this poll and say this is a real vindication. You know, some were saying, you know, sure he won New Hampshire because he's from a neighboring state and he's going to be a one-state wonder and that's it. But certainly, in Nevada, it is a dead heat again.

JUSTIN BAMBERG (D), SOUTH CAROLINA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: Yes, absolutely.

[19:45:00] And I agree 100 percent with Bakari that we do have a race here in the Democratic primary.

Bernie Sanders is making ground. He's making headway. He has very strong grassroots support.

I'm just quite frankly excited that on the Democratic side of things we've been able to so far avoid the game of whack-a-mole that Republicans have been playing, basically attempting to tear each other down instead of build up the American citizens.

BURNETT: So, I want to talk about black voters here in South Carolina. And you're right, not a game of whack-a-mole. Maybe you benefitted from not having 17 people running. You've got two now. So, it's a little more gentile, although it has gotten tougher.

But, Justin, look, you know, when we look at the black vote here in South Carolina, which is crucial, more than half of the primary voters on the Democratic side tend to be African-American here, Sanders -- right now, Hillary Clinton is at 65 percent, Sanders only at 28 percent. He needs to change that.

Why is he not gaining traction with black voters?

BAMBERG: I disagree. I think Bernie Sanders is gaining traction with black voters. What you're going to see is that he has far more support than the numbers indicate. Bernie Sanders is working. His supporters are working. You've got to keep in mind that a lot of these poll numbers are generated via landline.

I mean, Bakari and I are from an area where not many people have landlines anymore. In fact, a lot of people have mobile phones. You're going to see, just watch, Bernie is going to perform very well in Nevada. And we're going to see that number be a lot closer.

The other thing that I do want to throw out here is that there's this misconception. Bernie Sanders does not need to win all of the African-American vote here in South Carolina to perform well. He just needs to cut into that margin enough to keep this race tight. I think that's what we're going to see.

SELLERS: Well, I think one thing that we'll see here in South Carolina is I like to say my momma and her friends are going to win this election here in South Carolina. It's going to be African- American women that push the tide forward. Hillary Clinton does extremely well among those voters.

And one of the things that we're also going to see is that this myth has been perpetrated that Bernie Sanders is just running away with the millennial vote after Iowa and New Hampshire. But what we're starting to see is that African-American millennials are trending to Hillary Clinton in nearly 2 to 1.

So, those are things to watch out for. Bernie Sanders has a lot of work to do here in South Carolina and not a lot of time to do it. I think Hillary Clinton gets a resounding victory here, squeaks by in Nevada, and then we're off to Super Tuesday.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you both very much.

SELLERS: Thank you so much.

BURNETT: And OUTFRONT next, we're counting you down to tonight's CNN's town hall live where I'm standing, right behind me in this stage in Greenville, South Carolina. It is a neat place where we are standing, looking down on what you're seeing on your screen. Just moments away.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:51:22] BURNETT: Welcome back to Greenville, South Carolina.

We're just moments from CNN's exclusive, Republican presidential town hall -- a crucial opportunity for the candidates to break out from Donald Trump's shadow and get face-to-face with South Carolina's voters.

Anderson Cooper is hosting tonight's town hall. He joins me now, along with Dana Bash and our political director, David Chalian.

All right, Anderson. So, this is -- it's such a neat experience because, you know, sometimes with our shots we show people, these rooms look big. They're not. It's small. It's intimate. It's you, the candidate and the voters.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And a lot of these voters here are undecided. They've all indicated they plan to vote in the Republican primary but they have not made up their minds. And a lot of polls indicate there's a lot of people in South Carolina who have not made up their minds.

So, people could be convinced tonight. We did this with the Democrats several weeks ago. The candidates liked it. The people in the room like it. And so, we -- I think these are unique, intimate venues that show different sides of the candidates.

BURNETT: You can get some emotion. I mean, Dana, we've seen that. Sometimes, a candidate will have an emotional moment with a voter.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. After your town hall, the Democratic town hall, I actually met some voters who said they went one way or another because they saw the way that the candidate handled themselves there.

And you're absolutely right about the undecided voter. You know, you see that in the numbers, but I just came from a Rubio event and a Cruz event here in South Carolina. So many people who are going really have no -- at least they say they have no idea who they are going for. This is the time they make up their mind, you know, from here up until Saturday.

BURNETT: David Chalian, it's pretty exciting. How unusual is it? I mean, you've got, what, 72 hours, votes are going to be cast. When you add up in our latest poll, more than 50 percent of people are undecided or leaning towards a candidate.

For context, Donald Trump, the front-runner in terms of individuals is only at 38 percent.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right, exactly. I think what's key to watch in this town hall is sort of how the candidates, specifically Rubio and Cruz, use this intimate setting.

Are they going to -- you know, it's gotten rough out there on the campaign trail, Erin. You've seen the back and forth. Are they going to try to draw sharp contrasts with each other even though they're not on stage together, or are they going to seize this into moment with these undecided voters to say, hey, this is what I'm about and sell their wares? I think watching them make that strategic decision is one of the key factors to tonight.

BURNETT: Dana, we keep hearing South Carolina is a tough state, you know, in terms of nasty politics. They are used to it. It's no big deal. But this has been nasty lately. You know ,Donald Trump saying Lindsey Graham, who is a senator here, of course, and a candidate for president who dropped out, that he was one of the dumbest people he's ever known. The word "liar" has been thrown about.

COOPER: By just about everybody.

BURNETT: By just about everybody. And again, it does that bother people here or just sort of, whatever, that's the way it is? BASH: It's so hard because people say that it bothers them. In fact, the voters I was talking who I just spoke to today said they just wish that the candidates would stop using these words, throwing the mud and talk about the issues. You hear that, though, in every single campaign, and the reason why they continue to do it and escalates with these campaign is because it works.

COOPER: And also people you can talk to here do talk about sort of things that the candidates complaining and some use the word "whining" about how tough it is. And they say, look, this is a contact sport. You are running for the highest office in the land. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

So, you do hear that. You hear both from people saying, you know, I wish they'd just focus on the issues and attack each other, the Republican Party needs to heal after all of this is said and done in order to beat the Democratic candidate. Others say, look, quit whining. It's just the way it is, let's just get on.

BURNETT: Well, David Chalian, of course, people always say that. They say, oh, we want substance, we want substance.

[19:55:02] But, of course, substance is not quite as fun as what we are watching now.

CHALIAN: Right. And they do want substance, clearly from the questions we've gotten in. This is an electorate hungry to find all sorts of things out from these candidates. But we shouldn't forget the voters tune in to the fight as well, lots of negative ads on the air right now in South Carolina. Those ads will work and push voters one way or another, despite the fact that bothers bemoan all that negative advertising.

BURNETT: It is true. I mean, it's amazing those ads work when everybody says they know that they're lies.

COOPER: Yes. You know, I mean, look, they are inundated with ads all the time. The sheer number and volume is huge. But I think you're going to see tonight in the questions and the people in this hall have submitted to the questions so we could make sure there weren't duplications. You don't want the same people, or different people asking the same question over and over again. That's really our only involvement in the questions.

They are smart and interesting questions covering a wide range of topics. So, I think that's what you're going to hear tonight.

BURNETT: It's going to be fantastic and going to be a very big night tonight and tomorrow night.

Thanks very much to all three of you.

And, of course, up next our Republican presidential town hall where for the fist time Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are going to answer questions from the voters, from the voters of South Carolina.