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Pope Francis Calls Trump Un-Christian; GOP Race to the White House; Clinton, Sanders Target Minorities in Nevada; Dangerous Radioactive Material Missing in Iraq; ISIS Builds New Stronghold as Syria Violence Spreads; Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 18, 2016 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: -- here on CNN at 8 p.m. Eastern.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you over now to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer, next door in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:12] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, holy war of words. The leader of a billion Roman Catholics slams the billionaire leader of the GOP. Pope Francis suggesting that Donald Trump is not Christian because of his plan to build an anti-immigration wall. Trump calls the pope's comments disgraceful. Will he escalate the conflict? We're standing by for a Trump rally and tonight's CNN Republican town hall.

Hand fake. Marco Rubio's campaign slams Ted Cruz, tying him to a Photoshopped image of Rubio seemingly shaking hands with President Obama. Has their rivalry reached a new low?

Dirty bomb threat? Radioactive material used in the oil industry goes missing in Iraq. Small enough to fit in a briefcase, could the dangerous material fall into the hands of terrorists?

And Middle East collapse. As the war in Syria takes a horrific toll among civilians, the violence is spreading again. ISIS is building a new stronghold more than a thousand miles away. Is the region headed for a much bigger conflict?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's get to the breaking news. A stunning new twist as Republicans rip one another apart out there on the campaign trail. Donald Trump is now in a very nasty feud with the pope.

After visiting Mexico, Pope Francis suggested Trump is not Christian because of his plan to build a wall to stop immigration. Trump fires back, calling the pope's comments disgraceful and accusing the Mexican government of turning the pontiff against him. And Trump says if ISIS attacks the Vatican, the pope would pray for him to be president.

As the Republican race heats up just two days before the South Carolina primary, get ready for more angry words. We're standing by for a Trump rally and tonight's CNN Republican presidential town hall.

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

Let's begin with Donald Trump, who's about to hold a rally just ahead of tonight's CNN town hall. Our political reporter, Sara Murray, is covering Trump. So what else is he saying about the pope, Sara?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, South Carolina is known for its wild politics, but even this one seemed to stun Donald Trump. The pope coming out slamming him. Even Trump called it unbelievable.


MURRAY (voice-over): It was a comment so surreal even the rarely speechless Donald Trump at first seemed at a loss for how to respond.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What did the pope say? I like the pope. But was it good or bad? Because if it's good, I like the pope. If it's bad, I don't like the pope.

MURRAY: Pope Francis talking to reporters on his flight back to the Vatican from visiting the U.S.-Mexico border, today offering a sharp rebuttal against Trump's plan to build a wall and even a sharper rebuke of his faith.

POPE FRANCIS, LEADER OF ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH (through translator): A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be located, and not building bridges is not a Christian. This is not in the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not a Christian.

MURRAY: The pope's no-holds-barred media briefing was eventually met with Trump's own unvarnished response delivered as this signed letter to the media and from the microphone at a campaign event.

TRUMP: If and when the Vatican gets attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS's ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.

MURRAY: Tonight the holy war of words is quickly drawing in other GOP contenders...

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Swiss Army Guard is probably taking pretty good care of the pope, so I'm not worried about it.

MURRAY: ... including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both of whom are Catholic and both of whom have proposed their own immigration overhauls.

BUSH: I think his Christianity is between him and his creator. I don't think we need to discuss that. SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's no nation on

earth that's more compassionate on immigration than we are. Vatican City controls who comes in, when they come in and how they come in. And as a result, the United States has a right to do that, as well.

MURRAY: Meantime, tonight Trump isn't backing down in what now appears to be a full-on battle with the bishop of Rome.

TRUMP: The pope only heard one side of the story; and he didn't see the crime, the drug trafficking and the negative economic impact. People can come into our country, folks, but they have to come in legally.


BLITZER: That report from our own Sara Murray. We'll get back to her.

Just a few hours from now, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and John Kasich will take voters' questions at a CNN Republican town hall in Columbia, South Carolina.

[17:05:07] Our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, is on the scene for us.

So Dana, what impact could all of this, this feud, shall we say, this rift between the pope and Donald Trump, what impact could it have on this race?

DAN BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I've been talking to Republican veterans here in South Carolina who tell me, pretty much to a person, that they don't think this could hurt Donald Trump. That's at the very least. At the most, it could actually help him for several reasons.

One is because, certainly, there are a lot of people here in South Carolina who are spiritual, who are religious, but when it comes to the raw politics that the pope is pushing out there on a number of issues, a lot of people who vote in the Republican primary here in South Carolina don't agree with him, from climate change to immigration.

But let's just drill down on immigration for a second. I talked to one Republican here who said this is Donald Trump's sweet spot. This allows him to go back to the issue that really helped put him on the map, and that is immigration. And to have a back and forth of this level, of this -- this intensity with someone like the pope really could only help him.

One more thing that I want to show you that is now flying around social media to that point, is the idea that, you know, what the pope was saying was it's not Christian to build a wall. Look at this tweet from one of Donald Trump's senior advisers: "Amazing comments from the pope, considering that Vatican City is 100 percent surrounded by massive walls." And you can see, there's a picture there, which again, is sort of all over social media of the Vatican completely surrounded by walls -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're going to be hearing shortly from John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump tonight at CNN's presidential town hall. That's at 8 p.m. Eastern.

How do you think the candidates tonight are going to grapple with this very bizarre all of a sudden showdown between Donald Trump and the pope?

BASH: Well, you know, I wasn't sure what to make of Jeb Bush. I was with him when the story broke. You saw in Sara's piece that he just kind of stayed out of it and said -- spoke more as a Catholic than as a politician, because he's really been in the trenches with Donald Trump recently. But on this, he said this is between Donald Trump and his creator. He doesn't want to talk about his faith.

And I would imagine that John Kasich will say something similar.

This is probably one of the few areas in this down-and-dirty really intense mud-slinging campaign where we are right now that his opponents to a person will probably say, you know what? This is probably not a place that they want to touch.

BLITZER: Dana, stand by. I want to get back to you. We're also standing by to hear directly from Donald Trump. He's getting ready to speak at a rally. We're going to watch to see what he says. This will be an opportunity for him to respond to the pope once again. Others are speaking right now.

We're monitoring that event in South Carolina.

In the meantime, let's talk with -- to one of Donald Trump's key supporters. Joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM is Scottie Nell Hughes, a Tea Party leader.

Scottie, good to have you here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much.

If somebody would have said to you this morning Donald Trump, the man you want to be the next president of the United States, and the pope are going to get into a little bit of a fight, would you have believed that?

SCOTTIE HUGHES, DONALD TRUMP SUPPORTER: I don't think anybody woke up this morning even thinking, remotely thinking, or any producer planning that was going to be the topic of every show going into tonight's headlines. And here it is, and it's because of the pope himself.

Now, it's interesting as we kind of dissect. There are groups -- there are many Catholics that are saying, "No, the pope was not insulting Mr. Trump," but then you've got all these evangelicals are saying yes. They don't want to sit here and hear a foreigner tell us about how to handle things, especially when the United States has been dealing with immigration for 30 years. Here you have this pope, relatively (UNINTELLIGIBLE), coming in and

basically lashing out at one of our presidential candidates for a religious reason. Not necessarily a political reason but from a religious standpoint.

BLITZER: He is the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics worldwide and a lot of Catholics here in the United States, as well.

HUGHES: Exactly. And when you look at it, you know, some people are saying his trip to Mexico was disappointing. He sat there -- he did not address issues about, like, the violent crime and did not focus on drugs, the drug cartels in Mexico in much of his speeches. They were kind of disappointed about it. It had been kind of a lackluster trip. There really wasn't headlines until this happened. Now, it will be interesting to see if the Vatican continues this conversation.

But let's look at it. I think one of the -- Dana had pointed out a great point. The Vatican is surrounded by a 40-foot wall and has been. And when you look at the United States, we've taken in 24 times more than Argentina in immigrants into our country and six times more than all Latin American countries combined.

So who is this pope, standing in Mexico, to sit there and try to lash out at us for saying that we don't have an open and generous heart?

BLITZER: Pope Francis is from Argentina. How is this going to play in South Carolina right now just before Saturday's Republican primary?

HUGHES: Oh, this is fantastic. This is exactly it, because as Dana pointed out, this brings immigration to the forefront. This allows Mr. Trump to sit there and brick out illegals are costing our country $113 billion.

And did we see this pope when he came into the United States? Did he actually go into all of these urban areas where the schools need money and where people need jobs? Did he actually see where that $113 billion that we're spending on illegals in this country currently could have been invested? Did he go and talk to some of these families that have had crimes committed against them from all -- some of these illegals that have been here and deported because they've been convicted of violent crimes on American soil?

BLITZER: So you think this little rift that Donald Trump has with the pope will help him in South Carolina, help him in other Republican primaries down the road in other states, as well?

HUGHES: Absolutely. I think, once again, this is going to help him with evangelicals, who according to the last poll, a CNN poll, was up ten points. This is going to continue to help him.

BLITZER: What about in the general election, assuming he gets the Republican nomination?

HUGHES: I think that is one thing. Immigration is something that does span both parties; it spans all faiths. People, yes, we have open hearts, but our hearts have to take care of our own first. And when we're $19 trillion in debt, this is the type of message is the reason why Mr. Donald Trump is on top.

BLITZER: Let me play a little clip. This was Donald Trump earlier. We're still waiting for him to speak out momentarily. But this was him earlier, responding to what the pope said.


TRUMP: If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS's ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because -- it's true. It's true. Because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated, unlike what is happening now with our all-talk, no-action politicians.


BLITZER: I suspect most American politicians, if they were criticized indirectly, even directly by the pope, would not necessarily have responded as forcefully as Donald Trump just responded to the pope. It's pretty unusual. But you believe that's his character?

HUGHES: That is his character. If you haven't learned anything in this election cycle with Bernie on top of the Democrats and Trump on top of the Republicans, people wanting to see actions backing up words.

And when they sit here and they look at this pope that's surrounded by a 40-foot wall that has $8 billion in the bank themselves, and he's sitting here talking to us, people see that, and they don't like hypocrisy right now. And it just speaks to the bigger picture right now of why real people are not able to relate to politicians and relate to people like Bernie and Mr. Trump.

BLITZER: Scott, stand by. We're waiting to hear from Donald Trump to see if he addresses this issue once again.

We're also standing by for the CNN presidential town hall. Donald Trump will be among those Republicans at that town hall. Stand by with us. There you see tonight 8 p.m. Eastern, live from South Carolina. John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, they'll all be with our own Anderson Cooper.

We'll be right back.


[17:17:21] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Donald Trump is about to begin a rally in South Carolina. You're looking at live pictures coming in from Gaffney, South Carolina, right now. This before he attends tonight's CNN Republican presidential town hall.

We're watching to see if Trump says any more about today's criticism from Pope Francis, who suggested two reporters aboard his plane flying from Mexico back to Rome that a person who thinks only about building walls and not building bridges is not Christian.

We're talking with Trump supporter and Tea Party leader Scottie Hughes, who's here with me in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Scottie, this whole notion of religion now coming into politics is highly unusual right now. But Trump himself has raised this issue with Cruz. He's in a bitter battle with Cruz. At one point, he said he's not an evangelist, because he's a liar. That's what Trump said about Ted Cruz. He also said he didn't know a lot of evangelicals coming to the United States from Cuba.

So this issue has been raised by Donald Trump himself at one point as far as Cruz is concerned.

HUGHES: It has. And I think this also addresses the issue right now that's going on also within the Christian faith. There is a very much a rejection of the organized church right now. They're seeing the organized church as being bullies. A lot of the independents, a lot of these evangelicals belong to nondenominational churches.

So when you sit there and, despite this happening between Donald Trump and the organized Catholic Church or Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who's part of an organized church, it actually speaks to why his numbers are so high with evangelicals, because these folks are seeing that, once again, Mr. Trump is sticking up for a growing disconcertment not only with D.C. but also with the organized church.

BLITZER: As you know, yesterday Donald Trump threatened to sue Ted Cruz because of an ad that they were running. He sent him a cease- and-desist letter. Ted Cruz came back and said, "Bring it on. Go ahead and sue me." Where does this stand right now?

HUGHES: Well, where it stands is going into Anderson -- sets Anderson Cooper and the town hall tonight very well for Mr. Trump going on. Last night Ted Cruz did a great job of explaining his point of view without very much objection, just laying it all out there. And tonight Mr. Trump gets to respond, as well.

You know, South Carolina is known for brutal politics, and that's what we're seeing right now with these folks. But I think what this also shows is once you get it all out there, hopefully, we've not done too much damage to each other. And maybe this is one good thing about the pope, is it seems like all the candidates -- if you have Jeb Bush basically supporting Donald Trump out there on the campaign trail, maybe this might be kind of a talk about a bridge being built between all the GOP candidates to say, you know what, at least we know we're reminded that we all are a part of the same family.

BLITZER: When you have candidates, leading Republican candidates saying another one isn't fit to be commander in chief, that's pretty brutal.

HUGHES: It's still very, very brutal. But like I said, maybe I'm a hopeful optimist that I think it just takes a little ray of sunshine and maybe we might be able to unite our party again.

BLITZER: Do you think, if Donald Trump gets the Republican presidential nomination, all these other Republicans with whom he's had some bitter, bitter words, like Jeb Bush and, let's say, especially Cruz right now, that he could bring them around to work on his campaign and support him?

[17:20:11] HUGHES: Wolf, we don't have a choice. As conservatives, as GOPers, we don't have a choice. This is the end of the conservative movement if we lose this election again to the Democrats.

BLITZER: How important is South Carolina Saturday to Trump?

HUGHES: Absolutely. I think it's very, very important. Just like every state is. Because what South Carolina is, is a combination of what we saw in Iowa and New Hampshire brought in together. You have the evangelicals. You have the independents. You have a broad range of people. You've got the pro-military. South Carolina is a great reflection of what the rest of the south is going to be and, most important, what the rest of the country is like.

BLITZER: Scottie, thanks very much for coming in.

Scottie Hughes, we're going to have her back. We're standing by to hear directly from Donald Trump. He's getting ready to address a rally. You're looking at live pictures coming in right now. We'll hear what he has to say. There's a lot more coming up, as well. Stay with us.


[17:25:23] BLITZER: We're still awaiting Donald Trump's arrival at the South Carolina rally in Gaffney, South Carolina. You're looking at live pictures. We'll see what he says about the pope. That's coming up.

Also we're standing by for tonight's CNN Republican presidential town hall that begins at 8 p.m. Eastern. You see Anderson Cooper will be moderating that town hall with John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump. That's coming up later tonight here on CNN.

In the meantime, let's get some insight from our political experts. Joining us, our CNN senior political commentator, the former Obama senior advisor, David Axelrod. Also, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger. And our CNN senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein. He's a senior editor at "The Atlantic."

David, as we wait to hear what Trump is about to say at this rally, the pope, as you know, he weighed in dramatically today on the Republican frontrunner, suggesting Trump is not Christian because of his comments about building a wall between Mexico and the United States. Listen to how Trump responded earlier today.


TRUMP: If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS's ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because -- it's true. It's true. Because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated, unlike what is happening now with our all-talk, no-action politician.


BLITZER: David, what's your reaction to this exchange between the pope and Trump?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, my first reaction was, man, can this get any stranger? Every time you think you've seen it all, something else happens here.

But my second reaction was that Trump actually reacted consistent with his brand. His brand is "I'm not going to take any stuff from anybody" and, frankly, I don't think there's much risk for him in taking on the pope, particularly in South Carolina, where you have a bunch of evangelical voters who don't have great affection, necessarily, for the Catholic Church; and you've got very conservative voters who view the pope as kind of a liberal icon.

BLITZER: You've spoken, Gloria, with a former South Carolina official. You're there on the ground in South Carolina. What did this official tell you? What's been the reaction down there?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, he's a former Republican Party official here, and he said this actually could turn out to help Donald Trump here in South Carolina. Not only is the Catholic population not large, but also, any time he's talking about immigration, he's on his message. He's saying what he needs to say.

And by the way, the other Republican presidential candidates can't argue with him on that, so he's on terra firma here.

And this Republican says that he's spoken with a lot of Catholics in the state who actually believe that the pope may have overstepped here in saying that someone who says what Donald Trump says is not a Christian. So I don't think it's going to hurt him here in South Carolina.

BLITZER: Ron, Trump also said that a religious leader -- this is after the pope's comments aboard the flight going from Mexico back to Rome -- that a religious leader questioning a person's faith is disgraceful. He used the word "disgraceful." But he himself has questioned the religious beliefs of Ted Cruz. He says he isn't really an evangelist because, according to Trump, he's a liar. So what's going on over here?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, it wouldn't be the first time that Trump has had kind of had two different standards for himself and for others.

But I actually don't think the other candidates are going to go anywhere near this, both because it's not -- it's not a winning position for a candidate to question another's religion.

But more importantly, they both -- they have more important messages they're trying to stress down the -- down the stretch here. You have Ted Cruz. I was with him last night at events in Spartanburg. This really is a do-or-die situation for him. He's really pounding the ideological contrast with Donald Trump, particularly around social issues, aiming at those evangelicals that that he won in Iowa but broke away from him in New Hampshire and are not polling that well with him here.

And Marco Rubio with the endorsement of Governor Nikki Haley and, of course, Tim Scott, the African-American senator, he's assembled kind of a Republican rainbow coalition, Wolf. And when you put them all on the stage today -- together as he did today, you have a really stark generational contrast with Donald Trump. Also an implicit contrast in terms of who you're aiming your agenda at.

And I think both of them are more content to ride those lanes to the finish than they are to get sucked into this rather remarkable, as David said, confrontation.

[17:30:00] BLITZER: David, do you think Trump tonight at the town hall will continue his criticism of the pope, or will he stay more focused and try to criticize, let's say, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush?

AXELROD: Well, I'm sure he'll take advantage and do all of those things, but I don't think he can avoid this issue. It's such a -- it's front and center now. It's going to lead the news tonight. And one thing I will say. Donald Trump, and maybe it was handed to him, but he's found a way as he always does to dominate the news in the last 36 hours before a big contest. So I think he's going to make full use of that tonight.

BLITZER: Gloria, the feud between --


BLITZER: -- Cruz and Rubio escalated today over a Photoshopped picture of Rubio supposedly shaking hands with President Obama. It was totally fake. You see it right there. It turned out to be a Photoshopped image. It's part of this exchange. I know that South Carolina's history of some negative campaigning out there, but this is an ugly shot.

You see the original. They just Photoshopped the faces and they're trying to make it look as if -- as Marco Rubio and President Obama are best friends over there.

BORGER: Yes, Obama's best friend. Look, I was at this rally this morning, this Marco Rubio rally where his aides pointed to this picture and said to journalists there that this shows how desperate the Cruz campaign is that they would Photoshop this image. And they're trying to tie it to this question, this pattern they talk about of Ted Cruz's ethical lapses and lying about Marco Rubio's record.

And you know, this is a fight to the finish, to the death here honestly. These two men are going at it because they are competing for that second place finish, or at least a close third. And so they would rather be talking about each other right now, disqualifying the other one, than talking about Donald Trump and the Pope. And I might also add that Jeb Bush was given a clear opportunity to

take a swipe today at Donald Trump and the Pope and he did not. He said he wasn't going to question anyone's Christianity.

BLITZER: Ron, these aides, whoever did this from the Cruz campaign, Photoshopped this picture, are they not stupid to think that wouldn't come out almost immediately, that people wouldn't realize that this was Photoshopped? But here's the more fundamental question. Should these aides, whoever was responsible for this, be fired?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I don't think Ted Cruz is going to be firing anybody at this point. But yes, Wolf, I mean, this is the modern era. I mean, this is kind of the way politics has been fought in South Carolina Republican primaries for many years. The reason is because this is where your dreams turn to dust. I mean, South Carolina is kind of has been the decider in almost every Republican race since it moved into the third slot on the calendar in 1980 and the stakes are enormous for -- you know, for those who falter. Really it is often the end of the line.

But Cruz has played into a narrative that he will do whatever it takes to win. And that hurts him. On the other hand, you can't really overstate the stakes for him here. Because if he does finish third, it's very hard to see a pathway for him to reconsolidate those conservative evangelical voters he'll need in the SEC primary in March 1st. So, you know, he really I think above all, even more than Rubio, is facing a do-or-die moment in South Carolina where he needs a strong showing or else it gets much, much more difficult to see a path forward.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by. We have more to discuss. We're also going to take a look at what's going on, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. We're standing by to hear from Trump. We'll be right back.


[17:38:17] BLITZER: The Republican presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump, has just started speaking at a rally in Gaffney, South Carolina. You know what, I want to listen in a little bit.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They've been great. But I don't want to tell you that, I don't want to tell you that because if I tell you that, maybe you'll say, I don't have to vote. You have to get out, it's so important. It's so important. And you know, the more we win by, the better it all is. The mandate, you know what it's called, the mandate. The more you can win by, the better it's going to be and the more important it is.

And then we go to Nevada where we have a tremendous lead but it's caucus. You never know what happens with caucus. Always problems, always problems. This caucus stuff is a little bit nobody knows. You can have a 58 percent lead and then you find out you're not winning because what happens, who knows what happens as a room. People swirl around in these rooms. I'm not sure I like the whole caucus situation. I like to be able to walk into a room, vote and leave, right? Don't you think?

But the caucus states, in Nevada, we're doing really great. And then we have the SEC and I think we're going to do fantastic. A couple of states like Georgia just came in, some numbers there phenomenal. Then we go Florida, and Florida is going to be fantastic.

What do you think? When I'm leading Florida where I have 48 and a sitting senator is at 11 and a governor, past governor, is -- what's Bush? He's not doing too well. He's not doing too well in Florida, right? No. But, you know, it's interesting in Florida. The establishment, of which I used to be a member, by the way, of good standing, before I ran. Once I ran I was no longer establishment. They said what's he doing? He's not supposed to be doing this. This isn't supposed to be happening. We like people where we can take care of them, where we can give them campaign contributions.

[17:40:01] You know, I'm self-funding, I'm not taking anybody's money, so it's nice. But --


TRUMP: But they all went, what's going on with Trump? What's he doing? He's running. He doesn't need our money, this is bad. We want to take care of these people. We want to take care of our senators and our Congress people. We want to take care of them. This is terrible news. What's going on with Trump? He was a great, great guy. He'd contribute lots of money.

I was a real member of the establishment. I gave $350,000 before I went this way. You know, I went over the curb when I decided to run. And I decided to run because how stupid are our politicians, what they're doing? How stupid? We'll talk about it. But like the Iran deal and the trade deals, and we lose money with everybody. We lose money with everybody. So what happened is, they went a little crazy because every one of these guys running gets taken care of by the special interests, right? They get taken care of by their donors. They get taken care of by the lobbyists.

I have a problem, I call a lobbyist. You know, there are certain lobbyists, they're like assigned to different senators. Right? And you have a problem, you call up a lobbyist and they go see the senator, it's amazing. It's amazing. It's horrible. And look, it's a system. And it's fine, but it's not going to work that way anymore. We owe $19 trillion, folks, and we're going to get it down and we're going to have budgets and we're going to do things properly, and we're going to have better health care.


TRUMP: We're going to have health care. We're going to get rid of Obamacare, which is a total disaster. We're getting rid of it. We're getting rid of it. And we're going to do a lot of good things. Common Core is going to be out. Common Core is dead. We bring education back. And I talk about it all the time. Look, we're number 30. From 1 to 30, we're number 30 in education, we're number one in cost, OK? Think of it. So we spend more money per pupil than any other country in the world

and we're number 30, we're at the bottom of the list, right? So it's obviously something's wrong and we're bringing local education back. And I see it and I've seen it over the years. The parents, they get involved, the family gets involved, the brothers, the sisters, everybody gets involved.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor Donald Trump at this rally. He's going through some of his stump speech. We're going to see what, if anything, he winds up saying about the Pope, the little feud he's in with the Pope right now.

But I want to quickly take a look at some of the other news that we're following right now in this race for the White House, specifically on the Democratic side. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, they are neck in neck in Nevada right now, less than 48 hours before the start of the caucuses there.

Our senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar joining us from Las Vegas.

Brianna, both of these candidates, they're targeting minorities right now. Nevada is a state with a lot of minorities.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. Here in Nevada, Wolf, it's really a battle for the Hispanic vote. Hillary Clinton trying to shore up her backing with this key voting bloc here to combat Bernie Sanders' strength with white voters in the Silver State.


KEILAR (voice-over): Just two days away from the suddenly tied-up Nevada caucuses, Hillary Clinton is out with an emotional new ad focused on deportations, an issue that's top of mind to the considerable Latino population of Nevada.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My parents are going to be deported.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Come here. I'm going to do everything I can so you don't have to be scared.

KEILAR: Bernie Sanders looking to cut into Clinton's Hispanic support also addressed the issue during interviews with local new outlets.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not into more deportations, I am into comprehensive immigration reform and a path toward citizenship for 11 million undocumented people in this country.

KEILAR: And boasting of how much his support has grown in recent months.

SANDERS: There's no question that Nevada is a far more diverse state, large Latino population, large African-American population, and for us, we're feeling great. You know, we started in the polls, I don't know, 30, 40 points down. KEILAR: In the latest CNN/ORC poll Sanders has narrowed the

previously large gap to just a single point in the Silver State. Today Sanders met with African-American leaders in Washington before flying to Las Vegas, looking to broaden his support among black and Latino voters, crucial in his primary battle with Clinton.

SANDERS: I understand that the African-American community has been harder hit than any other community in America.

CLINTON: I came to help. I came to help. I know you're doing a hard job.

KEILAR: Clinton late last night making a stop to visit Las Vegas hotel workers in this state where labor support is also key.

CLINTON: I wanted to come and ask you to please come caucus for me Saturday morning at 11:00.


KEILAR: And polls are just not as accurate an indicator of where the race really stands here in Nevada because of the caucus format, so you see, Wolf, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton neck in neck.

[17:45:02] This is truly a nail-biter of a race. The Clinton campaign really concerned that this could slip away for Bernie Sanders.

BLITZER: Yes. The Democratic caucuses in Nevada Saturday afternoon. We'll of course have live coverage throughout the day on Saturday.

Brianna, thanks very much.

Coming up, dangerous radioactive material small enough to fit in a briefcase goes missing in Iraq. Could it give terrorists the ability to build a dirty bomb?

And as the war in Syria takes an appalling toll, ISIS is now building a new stronghold more than a thousand miles away. Is this region headed for a much bigger conflict?


[17:50:05] BLITZER: Very dangerous radioactive material use inside the oil industry has now gone missing in Iraq and it's raising fears that terrorists could use it for a dirty bomb or poison a water supply.

Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto has been looking into this story for us. What are you learning? This is really worrisome.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: So this disappeared from southern Iraq. It's essentially an industrial tool. It's used to inspect pipes in oil and gas facilities but it does have radiological material inside. It's categorized by the IAEA as such. Iraqi officials have launched an investigation. They are looking into it as a criminal investigation. To this point, both Iraqi officials and U.S. officials say they have no information that it's ended up in the hands of a group such as ISIS.

Here's what's the State Department spokesman had to say.


MARK TONER, STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESMAN: Well, we're aware of the reports that there may be a lost -- maybe lost or missing radioactive source in Iraq. We've not seen any indication the material in question has been acquired by Daesh or any other terrorist groups in the region, but, obviously, we continue to take these reports very seriously.


SCIUTTO: Because it is radiological it was kept in a special bunker. That's where presumably it was taken from. But I'll tell you, Wolf, we've spoken to nuclear experts and they say that -- we asked them, could this be used in a dirty bomb. And they said possibly, but not easily. And for two reasons. One, the half life of this material is only 74 days. That means it loses half of its potency in a couple of months time.

Second of all, it's in metal form, it's not in powder form. So it couldn't be easily distributed by an explosion. It could be distributed but not so easily distributed. It's just not ideal to build a dirty bomb. That said it is radiological and it's something that you don't want in the wrong hands.

BLITZER: Yes. I'm worried about it and I know experts I've spoken to are worried. Let's hope it's not in bad hands.

All right. Thanks very much for that, Jim Sciutto.

Meanwhile, as the war in Syria takes a horrific toll among civilians, the violence is spreading again raising new fears of a broader regional conflict. Meantime, ISIS is building a new stronghold more than 1,000 miles away. This time in Libya.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, where is all this headed?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Look, Wolf, tonight make no mistake about it. Growing concern about a wider war, but right now all eyes on what Russia may do next.


STARR (voice-over): Chaos in Turkey after a suicide car bomb targeted its military. The government retaliated, bombing Kurdish targets in northern Iraq. In northwestern Syria, there is now massive uncertainty about what Russia will do in the next 24 hours when a temporary cessation of hostilities goes into effect.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Russia's military activities have not been focused on ISIL but rather concentrated on propping up the Assad regime. That has resulted in more widespread bloodshed and suffering.

STARR: U.S. officials tell CNN they doubt Russia will stop bombing in civilian areas. About 100 bombs a day are falling.

COL. STEVE WARREN, SPOKESMAN, OPERATION INTEREST RESOLVE: This week we all saw the reports of continued indiscriminate bombing by Russian and regime forces.

STARR: Tens of thousands of desperate civilians need the bombing to stop so urgently needed food and medicine can be brought in. The first wave of aid has begun for 80,000 people. Hungry children crouching under trucks to reach for food spilled from the convoy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's appalling to see how their living conditions are.

STARR: The Pentagon, however, is counting on the Russians for one thing. To stay away from 50 U.S. Special Operations Forces in northern Syria. Moscow has been given the general location of where the troops are on the ground.

PETER COOK, PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: There was an effort made to protect the safety of our people from the risk of Russian air strikes.

STARR: With Syria in chaos, the worry is top ISIS leaders could now flee to Libya. The White House has told the Pentagon air strikes over Libya would only be approved in the event a top leader is located there or there is intelligence about an attack.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are working with our other coalition partners to make sure that as we see opportunities to prevent ISIS from digging in in Libya, we take them.

STARR: Another ISIS strategy some say could lead to new security perils.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Now that we have left Libya to its own devices, to come back in becomes a far more risky enterprise.


STARR: And what about protecting those U.S. Special Forces on the ground in northern Syria from Russian air strikes? Well, we have learned tonight that in recent weeks one of those Russian air strikes came closer to those U.S. Special Forces than the Pentagon was happy about. They warned the Russians, please, they said, back off. They don't think the Russians are trying to strike the special forces but the Russians in the U.S. view may not be as careful with their navigation as the Pentagon is -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a tinderbox. All right. Thanks very much, Barbara, for that report. Coming up, the leader of a billion Roman Catholics slams the

billionaire leader of the GOP field. Pope Francis suggesting that Donald Trump is not Christian because of his plan to build an anti- immigration wall. Trump calls the Pope's comment disgraceful. Is he just getting started?


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. The Donald versus the Pope. A sudden and surreal war or words between Donald Trump and Pope Francis after --