Return to Transcripts main page


Discussion of the Upcoming Republican Presidential Debate at University of Houston; 8-8:30p ET

Aired February 25, 2016 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:30] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: And good evening to you from the University of Houston.

What a night ahead. We are now just minutes ay from the final CNN Republican debate before Super Tuesday, with 661 delegates go up for grabs here in Texas and all across the country. Donald Trump, of course, comes into it tonight with three straight victories, with a polling lead in most of those per Tuesday states. And with a growing possibility of becoming all but unstoppable very soon.

So tonight, the pressure on senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, simply could not be any higher. Time is running out for them to try to stop Donald Trump, and soon so will the delegate math. As for the backdrop, well, Donald Trump calling Mitt Romney the party's 2012 nominee a dope, his words, for questioning Donald Trump's taxes. You have got Mexico's former president, Vicente Fox, saying his country will not pay for any effing wall, and those are his words, as well.

You've got Rubio and Cruz, slamming Trump in the news, which we broke first here on CNN, that the Rubio campaign is preparing, perhaps, for a contested convention to stop either Trump or Cruz. It would be an understatement to say that there is a lot in play tonight and a lot at stake for the candidates on the stage tonight.

Right now, let's get our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, who is down on the debate stage for us.

Jim, what are you hearing from the campaigns? What kind of strategies should we expect from the candidates tonight?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, this debate night is shaping up as operation take down Donald Trump. The GOP establishment has heard the criticism. They didn't hit Trump hard when they had the chance. We will see that changing tonight. The GOP front-runner will be feeling the heat from his new nearest rivals -- Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both are looking for a breakout moment.

Rubio has stepped up his attacks on Trump in recent days, saying he supports parts of Obamacare. And I'm told by the Cruz campaign that the Texas senator has had it, had it with Donald Trump calling him a liar. He doesn't have every day. No more taking it on the chin, this adviser says. And Cruz has been more aggressive in recent days. And this adviser tells me, you will see that playing out on the stage tonight - Anderson. COOPER: And Jim, I mean, speaking of attacks, Donald Trump fielded

quite a few today. Any sense if they left a dent or may have worked in his favor. Up until now, his campaign has been dent-proof.

ACOSTA: Right, you would think there would be podiums here tonight for Mitt Romney and Vicente Fox, the former mayor of Mexico, but no. That's not the case. Donald Trump has been made of Teflon so far in this campaign, nothing sticks. Buts now he under siege from all sides. The last GOP nominee, as you said, Mitt Romney, has attacked Trump over his unwillingness to release his tax returns.

Former Romney advisers I have been talking to all day note the former Massachusetts governor had already released his tax returns by this stage in the campaign. And one former Romney aide said that Mitt Romney just wanted to show these candidates on the stage tonight how to hit Donald Trump and how to draw blood.

As for the other Trump side show today, that was with the former Mexican president, Vicente Fox, who said that Mexico is not going to pay for any wall, that effing wall, as you mentioned, Anderson. Trump fired back on twitter, of course, saying that Vicente Fox owes an apology. But make no mistake, this is not a problem for Donald Trump. This is a gift. It's a good thing in the Republican Party right now to be attacked by the former president of Mexico - Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, it's certainly maybe a gift for Donald Trump tonight.

Jim Acosta, thanks.

I want to go next to Sara Murray, who is also down on the floor here in the debate stage.

Sara, how are the candidates feeling heading into tonight's debate? What are they doing to prepare? Do we know?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Well, everyone has different strategies heading into debate night. And, of course, this is going to be a big night for Ted Cruz. They know the stakes are high. They wanted to cram in a little last-minute debate prep, but this time it looked a little different than it has in the past, because in the past, Rick Tyler, the communications director that Cruz fired earlier this week, plays Donald Trump in the mock debates. At one point, he even brought in a Donald Trump wig to really get everyone going. Obviously, he was not there this time around. But the Cruz camp says they still feel confident going into this debate tonight. He's home, slept in his own bed and he said he spent some time with his family. That's going to give him a boost that they are hoping.

As for Marco Rubio, he had a more lax schedule. He went to church. He spent some time with his wife. They are being really careful not to over-prepare for these debates. They do not want to have another disastrous performance like that debate in New Hampshire, Anderson.

COOPER: And Donald Trump, he's arrived, correct?

[20:05:02] MURRAY: Donald Trump has made it. He is in the debate hall. His campaign is a little more tight-lipped about what he does on debate days, and they don't want to ever give a hint as to what his strategy is going to be. They know they are going to be in the crossfire, but remember, in past debates, sometimes Donald Trump steps back. He lets the other candidates fight it out. I don't think that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are going to let him get away with that strategy this time. And of course, we know that one thing that Donald Trump was doing today was tweeting - Anderson.

COOPER: No surprise there. Sara Murray, thanks very much. And as we should point out, and it was just recognized here in the hall, former first lady, Barbara Bush, and former president George H. W. Bush are in attendance tonight. And as soon as they came in, there was everybody in the hall stood up and applauded, a standing ovation.

As we wait for RNC chairman, Reince Priebus, to make some opening remarks tonight, I'm joined now by chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and chief national correspondent and "INSIDE POLITICS" anchor, John King.

John, in terms of what these candidates need to do tonight. I mean, for Marco Rubio, for Ted Cruz, the pressure really could not be any higher.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It could not be any higher. Even for John Kasich, as well. You have these three candidates who say, we are staying in. The establishment wants to have one alternative to Trump. The establishment prefer it be Rubio. They would accept Kasich. They don't like Cruz. So you have these three candidates who are struggling.

Donald Trump is three in one. Let's just start there. He is three in one. And he is favored in ten of the 11 states that vote next on Tuesday. Donald Trump is in the driver's seat. This has his nomination to lose. And in part because these candidates left and all the others who were on the debate stage before him, so underestimated him at the top of the campaign, at the beginning of the campaign, they thought he was going to implode. They thought it would not fail. So they didn't go after him. Now they go after him out of desperation. And it's a really fascinating dynamic.

COOPER: And Gloria, I mean, do Rubio and Cruz have sort of a temporary detente between them in order to go after Donald Trump?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we will have to see if they can walk and chew gum at the same time. Because, I think that what we are going to see from Rubio is, he hasn't really been attacking Trump. He started a little bit this week. But he has to go after Trump because he has to let the voters out there know that he can stand next to Trump and go toe-to-toe.

But he still has Ted Cruz out there. And that's a problem for him. So, I think they're going to have to do both. But I would look for each of them to try and go after Trump. He's going to get incoming from all sides. And by the way, I even think, and this is going out on a limb, but I spoke with a Kasich adviser, I think even John Kasich might go after Trump a little bit on the issues. COOPER: There's -- Ted Cruz invoked the Alamo today. I mean, for

him, Texas is obviously incredibly important. There's this Monmouth Poll now showing him with a big lead here in the state of Texas, but he can't take that for granted.

KING: No. No one should take anything for granted.

Look. Ted Cruz needs a victory. He did win Iowa, but Donald Trump has won the next three. So Ted Cruz makes the case that he is the only candidate who's beaten Donald Trump. That's a fact. But Trump has won the next three and since then, he has won the last two quite divisively, South Carolina and Nevada. So Cruz needs to win.

In an odd way, it's an interesting dynamic. Donald Trump almost wants Ted Cruz to win Texas. I know he don't like to lose. But if Donald Trump can win everything else, if Cruz wins Texas, he'll stay in the race. If you're Marco Rubio, you might want to try to knock Ted Cruz down some tonight. It's an odd game of pool and chess, but if you're Marco Rubio, you want Cruz to lose Texas.

So Rubio's not going to win Texas. So then do you want to -- if you take Cruz down -- if you're Marco Rubio, you actually want Donald Trump to have a great next Tuesday, so that Cruz is gone when you get to Florida, the Tuesday after -- two Tuesdays after that. That the problem for Marco Rubio. It's, you know, they're all in this game now where they're so far behind, they're trying come up with these, you might say fantasy football, scores to come back.

COOPER: Well, I mean, Gloria, I mean, even if Cruz does win the state of Texas, still the path forward, it doesn't really necessarily change the path forward. I mean, even if Cruz does win the state of Texas, still the path forward, it doesn't really necessarily change the path forward, Gloria.

BORGER: Sure. And that's why if I were Trump, I would want Cruz to win. It's proportional. It is not a win or take all state like Florida or Ohio. So let Cruz win a little bit, and then let him get some delegates, and keep him in the race, keep Rubio in the race. And that way, you don't need to get to 50 percent. You can keep winning, and you don't have to look over your shoulder very much.

COOPER: And this could be over much sooner than a lot of people earlier had thought it would be.

KING: Mathematically, no, it takes a while to get to a majority, 1283 delegates. But you just go back to prior campaigns. You know, when George W. Bush in 2000, McCain beat him in New Hampshire, Bush recovered in South Carolina, and it was over. I mean, it was -- psychologically, it was over. He had to prove it in the next couple of contests.

You know, Mitt Romney lost South Carolina to Newt Gingrich last time, but rebounded by winning Florida and a bunch of other states, and it was over. You knew it was going to go on a little bit. Santorum ended up winning what, 11 or 12 states, but you knew it was over. BORGER: (INAUDIBLE). If Trump were to win everything on Super

Tuesday, just sweep every -- he would only have, at most, he won every delegate, 55 percent of the delegates. He wouldn't be there. So, there's still a race. There's still a race.

[20:10:15] KING: There is still a race. But he is leading almost everywhere.


KING: And he is a little behind in Texas with Cruz on healthy. Cruz has a healthy lead in Texas. So we can assume -- let's assume, although we have a few days. Let's assume that Cruz wins his home state. But Trump is ahead everywhere else. So you have to change -- it's not just about winning -- look, for survival purposes, for fund- raising purposes, Cruz needs to win a state. Rubio needs to win Florida. Kasich needs to win Ohio if he waits that long. That's for fund-raising and survival purposes. But to change the fundamental dynamic of the race, they need something much bigger than that, which is why if you're going to find an Achilles heel in Donald Trump, if he has one, that stage tonight is the best opportunity before a boat load of states vote.

COOPER: And yet, every debate in which candidates have said, well, if he has a bad debate, perhaps, that will be a stumble. Have been if he's had a debate that hasn't been his best, it hasn't seemed to matter.

BORGER: His supporters are solid. If you look at all of our exit polls, they decided a long time ago, they're with him. No matter what. What's interesting is, the late deciders tend to break towards Marco Rubio. So if Rubio has a good performance tonight, this is really important to him.

I think in a way it's more important to Marco Rubio than Donald Trump. Because Donald Trump isn't going to lose his solid core of supporters. They are with him, they decided months ago, and they will be with him no matter what.

COOPER: We just -- the audience was just listening to the head of the University of Houston. Right now, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, is coming out. We're going to take his comments right here. Let's listen in.

REINCE PRIEBUS, CHAIRMAN, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: I want to thank you for being here. You all make this happen. You're not just the volunteers, the folks that pay the bills, and everything in between, what's happening here tonight is that these folks are competing to see who the nominee is going to be for our party. It is an honor to be here to put on another debate. We got great partners at CNN. Obviously, the University of Houston.

It's an honor to be with Mrs. Bush and President Bush. Thank you so much for joining us tonight. Obviously, with the president's accomplishments, you may remember, he was also chairman of the RNC. Mr. President, how would you like to be president of the RNC now? Fun times. Thank you, sir.

A competent national party is for everybody. It doesn't matter who you're for in this audience. Do we have to have a competent national party that has its act together on the ground, that has its data operations sound, a party that knows how to turn out voters and message to them better. There's nothing controversial about that at all.

Our commitment to you is to have a Republican National Committee that's ready for whoever the nominee is, that they can plug into something much better than it was in 2012. That's what we've built, that's what we're going to continue to do. And we're going to do it to win, not just for our party, but obviously, for our country.

So God bless you and thank you for joining us tonight.


COOPER: Well, just ahead as we count down to the debate, more on Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, taking aim at Donald Trump. They're using phrases like "loud," "rattled," "out of control," their words, even comparing him to P.T. Barnum. The question is, will it work? More, ahead.


[20:17:46] COOPER: Welcome back here to the University of Houston. We are now in the final run-up to the debate. We are expecting to see senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio take dead aim at the front-runner, Donald Trump. Over the past few days, we may have already gotten a preview. Take a look.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It can't just be about electing the loudest person in the room, because that alone will not solve the problem.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Wow, it sounds like Donald is really getting worried and getting scared.

Every day he tosses out a new insult. The more rattled he gets, the more he loses control. And the more engages in personal attacks. I have no intention of responding Trump.

We can't be fooled by P.T. Barnum. The time for the clowns and the acrobats and the dancing bears has passed.


COOPER: With me again is John King and Gloria Borger. Also I want to bring in our political commentators, former Cruz communications director, Amanda Carpenter, and former Reagan White House political director, Jeffrey Lord, who supports Donald Trump.

Jeffrey, when you heard the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, using an epithet about Donald Trump, about him not paying for Donald Trump's wall on the Mexico border, about some of the other comments he made about Donald Trump, did you just smile and think, that is the greatest gift Donald Trump could have received today?

JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: That is exactly right, Anderson. I mean, I suspect somebody in the Trump campaign is already looping that, over and over and over again to be played repeatedly. I mean, what greater gift could there possibly be had, other than being attacked by Mitt Romney?

COOPER: Amanda, if you were Ted Cruz tonight or Marco Rubio, do you try to score points on Donald Trump's taxes? Do you try to go after Donald Trump or even talk about Donald Trump's record? Or do you continue kind of aiming fire at each other?

AMANDA CARPENTER, FORMER CRUZ COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, the thing that's really tricky as this late in the game is that you really have to define Donald Trump as a person. Before previously and earlier debates may have been the time to go after him on smaller, ticky-tacky issues. But right now with Super Tuesday right around the corner, I think you have to go right at Donald Trump's credibility possibly as a commander in chief, which is a tricky thing to do. It has to do with his character, it has to do with his temperament. Can he use some of these smaller issues, like his tax returns, that he's not being up-front or disclosing things, that he might be hiding something to get there? Possibly. But it's going to be tricky, that's why the stakes in this debate have so high.

[20:20:18] LORD: Anderson, I just think that --

COOPER: Go ahead.

LORD: I just think at this point, after all of these debates and the results that have come in, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, boy, what more is there to be said here? I think people are really enthuse about him, and I think they're making up their minds pretty fast.

COOPER: Well, John, I mean, to that point, it's not as if Donald Trump is an unknown actor. I mean -- I'm not using the word "actor" in any snide way. I mean, that he is not an unknown candidate in this. He's not some candidate that has just emerged. People know who Donald Trump is. Whether you like him or not, you know who he is.

KING: And it's like a celebrity they think they know him, even if they don't know him. And he has this rare mix. He's a reality TV star, but he's also a celebrity businessman before that. He's everywhere in our life. He's in our politics, he's in our pop culture, and he has this platform. And the mistake the other candidates made is that they didn't take him seriously early on. And as Gloria said earlier, Trump's support, the cement is drying. His core supporters are tight with him. And he's just proved in Nevada he can grow a little bit.

But even if he goes back to being in the mid-30s, as long as these four or five candidates in the race, that's fine for him. And in these early states, they can rack up the delegates. They made a fundamental mistake. What Mitt Romney did in saying going after Donald Trump on his taxes, Mitt Romney knew he would get rid of for that because his taxes were an issue in the last campaign and he did it anyway. Why? Because he's frustrated. He is essentially saying, hey, guys, let me teach you how to throw a punch because you let this go too long. You should have done this in the first debate or the second debate. You shouldn't be waiting now until a couple of days before Super Tuesday, where you might fall so hopelessly behind you can't catch up.

COOPER: It's interesting, Gloria, though, because so many people have tried to define Donald Trump and he has resisted all efforts. Nikki Haley tried to said, look, he's the angry guy. And he said, you know what, he embraced that. He said, you know what, I am angry. I'll be the angry candidate. Others have tried to say, he is a flip-flopper where he says, look, I was playing the game, and now that I played the game, I know how not to be vulnerable to anybody else who's trying to game me.

BORGER: Even on taxes, he has inoculated himself by saying, look, I try and pay the lowest tax rate I can possibly pay. Which is not -- you know, Mitt Romney., you know, had some problems on that front, because his tax rate was lower, because it was investment income. So I think in many ways, what Amanda was talking about, the character, the temperament, all those -- I think it's been thrown at him. Maybe they can figure out a way to do it differently this time, but I think they've been throwing it at him, and nothing has really stuck before.

The question I had is whether Trump is going to try to sit on his lead or whether he is going to respond in kind, or which I assume he will, or throw punches of his own this time.

COOPER: And Jeffrey, I mean, the other question which Gloria has raised and John has raised is, how aggressively does Donald Trump compete in Texas? Does he, in fact, I mean, just strategically, is there an advantage for him to have Ted Cruz win in Texas, so that Ted Cruz stays in the race and keeps the field divided?

LORD: You know, it's sort of an automatic win for Donald Trump. If Ted Cruz wins in Texas, he's the senator for Texas. Of course he should win Texas. Marco Rubio should carry Florida. John Kasich should carry Ohio. If you can't carry your own state, you're not going to be much use as a presidential candidate outside of your state.

COOPER: Amanda, as we mentioned, Cruz leading in Texas. Trump, though, leading in Virginia, leading in Florida, other key states, in March. If you were Cruz, do you focus all your time and all your resources in Texas over the next few days? Because as Jeffrey just said, if he wins, some people say, OK, well, he should have won this state, or do you try to make gains elsewhere?

CARPENTER: No. Sure. I mean, Texas clearly has always, before Donald Trump started doing so well, was always a key part of Ted Cruz's march for a southern strategy. I mean, this was a map that was built really for Ted Cruz, nobody anticipated what Donald Trump is going to do. So clearly, you know, Cruz is going to make a play there. He has made no bones about it. He said, next week is very important for the campaign.

The thing that's important for tonight and March 1st is building momentum, to stop the Donald Trump chase. So clearly, if something can happen tonight to make Donald Trump seem less inevitable going into Super Tuesday, that certainly puts the wind at Cruz's back.

COOPER: For John Kasich, for Ben Carson, I mean, what is the path forward for them? For Kasich, it just seems, try to hold on until you get to Ohio, Michigan, some of these other states.

KING: Yes. There's not a state on the map that Ben Carson has a prayer of winning as you look at the map right now. So Ben Carson is staying in the race for Ben Carson's reasons, to build his identity, to build a movement, maybe, to build the conversation in conservative circles after the race. Kasich staying in to try to say, they keep telling me to get out, Marco Rubio hasn't won a state, why are you telling me to get out. We'll see what happens on March 15th. They both their home state vote that day. And that will their defining day in the race.

But the interesting point is, this all plays out, we are talking about this candidate chess is, what happened to the Republican Party. Most of these candidates, and all the big money in the Republican Party that could have funded super PAC ads from the beginning against Donald Trump, they're afraid of him. Where are the millions of dollars being spent against Donald Trump? Where are the attack ads, in a consistent, coherent way against Donald Trump?

There's a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, by Donald Trump. He is succeeding. He is about to take over this party that doesn't like him and doesn't want him, and they haven't really done much to fight it.

BORGER: Remember early on in this race, they got a pledge from Donald Trump, not to run as an independent.

COOPER: Right.

BORGER: Now, it looks like Donald Trump is going to be their nominee, and maybe someone else can mount an independent bid. Funny how things work in politics.

COOPER: It's amazing, what has happened in the last several months. An extraordinary transition, what we are seeing, and no doubt, extraordinary, tonight we are going to see, in just a few minutes from here.

I want to thank John King, Gloria Borger. Also I want to thank our commentators, Amanda Carpenter, and Jeffrey Lord.

So much to watch for over the next several hours. We are going to be on after the Republican debate. We'll talk much more about the CNN Republican debate which begins right after this short break.