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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Trump's Winning Streak Worries Establishment; GOP Lawmaker Wants Cruz-Rubio Ticket; Rubio Tees Up Foreign Policy Attack on Trump. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 25, 2016 - 11:00   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

[11:00:00] DONALD TRUMP, (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE & CEO, TRUMP ORGANIZATION: I don't know who is in this room. But whoever it is, I love you.

JEANNE MOOS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jeanne Moos, CNN --

TRUMP: Everybody loves me.

MOOS: -- New York.

TRUMP: Everybody loves me.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(LAUGHTER)

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Ah, thank you for joining me today. I'm Carol Costello.

AT THIS HOUR with Berman and Bolduan starts now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED CRUZ, (R), TEXAS & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The time for the clowns and the acrobats and the dancing bears has passed.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R), FLORIDA & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The vast and overwhelming majority of Republicans don't want Donald Trump to be our nominee.

TRUMP: We're going to get greedy for the United States. We're going to grab and grab.

(CHEERING)

JOHN KASICH, (R), OHIO GOVERNOR & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're not electing class president. We're electing the president of the United States.

DR. BEN CARSON, (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE & RETIRED NEUROSURGEON: I believe that things are starting to happen here.

TRUMP: We weren't expected to win too much, and now we're winning, winning, winning the country.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: And soon the country is going to start winning.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan, in New York.

We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. Why? Because it is debate day in America.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman, live at the University of Houston, the site of tonight's crucial CNN Republican presidential debate, the last GOP debate before Super Tuesday. It is no overstatement to say that this is easily the most important debate yet, maybe even the most important moment in this campaign, yet, for candidates not named Donald Trump to halt the growing momentum of the candidate that is named Donald Trump. He will be center stage tonight, surrounded by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ben Carson. For Cruz and Rubio, in particular, this is a time for choosing. Do they ban together and hit Trump or do they continue to hit each other?

This morning, there's a shocking proposal from Congressman who says one of these guys, it doesn't matter who, should drop out and agree to be the running mate of the other. We'll speak to him live in just a moment.

For the establishment, this is serious. Serious because the head of next week's Super Tuesday contest, Trump, is on a three-state winning streak and shows no signs of slowing.

CNN politics executor editor, Mark Preston, is inside the debate hall.

Mark, before we talk about tonight's big event, let me talk about big news just in, a big poll, perhaps a surprising poll from Rubio's home state of Florida, that shows Donald Trump ahead -- Mark?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: No question about that. Right now, John, the wind is at the back of Donald Trump. And the Republican establishment is very concerned that he is going to walk away with the nomination. Bad news for Rubio. This new poll shows that Donald Trump has a clear lead in Florida. Let's take a look at these numbers right now. Donald Trump at 44 percent. Marco Rubio at 28 percent. Cruz at 12 percent. What's more disturbing if you're the Rubio campaign is 5 percent of the voters, according to this poll, say they're undecided. Another 30 percent said they may change his mind. At this point, as we're talking the long game right now in the Republican establishment looking for wins and victories to try to knock Donald Trump off his perch. Looking ahead to Florida, it doesn't look good. Florida is worth 99 delegate votes. Whoever wins Florida on March 15th walks away with nearly 100 delegate votes. In this game of math, that is a huge treasure-trove. As you say, it's going to happen here on this stage at the University

of Houston. Center stage, Donald Trump right here flanked on each side by Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Now, as you said, what is going to happen tonight? Will Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz put their fire inward, directly at Donald Trump, or will they do it at themselves? It's unclear at this point, but they need to do something. There's been a lot of pressure on them, as you said. There's been pressure that they consolidate into one ticket. This is something percolating in Washington, D.C., right now.

But I've got to tell you, right now, John, if you have any money to put on the race, you would want to put it on Donald Trump.

BERMAN: Mark Preston inside that beautiful debate hall where it all takes place at 8:30 tonight p.m. eastern time. Thank you so much, Mark.

I want to bring in the RNC's chief strategist and communications director, Sean Spicer. He is here with me.

Sean, I don't think it's a shock to you that Donald Trump is the front runner in this campaign right now in the Republican side. I also don't think I'll be the first one to tell you that the RNC has had a complicated relationship with Donald Trump over time. There's been a lot of give and take. There's an article in "Politico" this morning which suggests that the RNC chair is saying that Donald Trump needs the RNC. The RNC is going to have some influence on Donald Trump going forward because the RNC is, frankly, necessary. And you, Sean, are quoted in this article saying, "The bottom line is no nominee can win without the party." What do you mean?

[11:05:00] SEAN SPICER, CHIEF STRATEGIST & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Well, look, no nominee can win without the party. Reince Priebus has put 40 years of data and field staff out there building the party, making relationships, ensuring whoever the nominee is prepared to go. The candidates are out there fighting a primary battle. They're focused on winning the early states, the 11 states on March 1st. The job of the RNC is to think down the road, what to do to get the electoral votes necessary to recapture the White House. That means the RNC is the only entity that's been building the ground game in communities, building up the data that we have, the relationships, so when that nominee gets decided by the voters, we're ready to go and help him secure a victory in November.

BERMAN: If that's Trump, he will need you and you will be there?

SPICER: If it's anybody. The political story is false in the idea that we're leveraging anybody. It's a relationship. You don't tell anybody you'll do this or that. That's false. What I believe is important is we need the nominee. The nominee needs us, and we're going to be proud participants in helping them win back the White House.

BERMAN: The last nominee on the Republican said is Mitt Romney. He ran in 2012.

SPICER: I do.

BERMAN: He says that Donald Trump should release his taxes. All the candidates should release their taxes. What's the RNC's position on that type of transparency?

SPICER: I think generally all candidates should release their taxes. It's up to each one of them to decide when and where and how.

BERMAN: You think transparency is a good thing?

SPICER: It's like medical records. At some point, they all get released. It's up to them to decide when the right time is to do that.

BOLDUAN: Let me ask you about "The Washington Post." "The Washington Post" seems to have a bone to pick with the RNC. They wrote their second editorial in a few days that they think the leaders need to stand up to Trump. Let me read a quote from today's editorial, "History will not look kindly on GOP leader who failed to do everything in their power to prevent a bullying demagogue" -- they mean Donald Trump -- "from becoming their standard bearer." Your reaction?

SPICER: I think "The Washington Post" completely misunderstands that's going on in America. The RNC's job is to be neutral in the race to ensure we have the resources necessary to help the nominee win in November, not to pick winners and losers. Under the chairman, we've consolidated the calendar to make sure more voters have their voice heard. What "The Washington Post" doesn't understand is if people in Washington don't agree with what the voters decided, we should undermine that. That's false. The voters choose. That's what's wrong with this country. Too many people in Washington are telling voters they're wrong, Washington knows best. And what we have right now is a process where more people are helping decide our nominee. That's supposed to happen.

The other thing is, for "The Washington Post" to sit here and criticize our side when you have a self-described Socialist as a leading candidate for the Democratic Party. Think about that. We're a capitalistic society. We're the most amazing country on earth. And they sit back and say, oh, it's no big deal that you have a Socialist that wants to take this country in a vastly different direction. I don't really put too much stock in what "The Washington Post" editorial page has to say.

BERMAN: You talked about the consolidated calendar, something the RNC is doing it a little bit differently this time. How hard does it make it for candidates to come back if they fall behind early? They're finding behind by a little right now. After next Tuesday, they could be behind by a lot. It's hard to come back after that.

SPICER: With the RNC did this cycle is ensure proportionality. When you win a state right now, the phase up until March 15th is proportional. It's only 10 of the 56 that are winner-take-all states. You can't just rack up states and run away. You have to earn it state by state. I think that process ensures that more voters have their voice heard, have their vote count. I think there's a difference between accumulating the 1237 delegates necessary to win the nomination and getting to a point where you become the nominee where you've amassed such a lead that others probably can't catch you.

BERMAN: Do you think we're soon to that point?

SPICER: We have 11 states on March 1st, 595 delegates at stake, and between March 1st and March 14th, another 963 delegates. I think the voters will make that decision. If they award them to one candidate, then, yeah. If they don't, then I think we're going to go a little bit longer probably into April.

BERMAN: Sean Spicer, great to have you here. Thanks for your public work.

SPICER: Thanks. Hopefully, I don't know why, at the warm locations, Kate is stuck in New York. We need to make sure she's in Miami. That's only fair.

BERMAN: I can promise you right now, you will see Kate Bolduan in Miami. I guaranty that.

Meanwhile, tonight, in Texas, tonight is the night the five remaining Republican presidential candidates meet head to head on the stage here at the University of Houston. Wolf Blitzer is the moderator for this big event. It begins at 8:30 p.m. eastern time. It's only on CNN.

You heard us talking about it. Mitt Romney, of all people, warns there's a bombshell lurking somewhere deep in Donald Trump's tax returns. So will Trump's rivals use that against him in tonight's debates? We'll discuss.

[11:10:18] BOLDUAN: Don't worry Spicer, I'm coming at you. I'll be there.

Plus, we'll speak live with a Republican congressman who is now calling on Rubio and Cruz to team up for the good of the party. The problem is, one of them, he says, needs to drop out of the race for president now.

And an uncomfortable moment when a protester confronts Hillary Clinton during a private fundraiser.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON, (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE & FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Listen to what I say.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: You called black people predators.

CLINTON: You're being rude.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Super predators. That's rude. That's rude.

CLINTON: You want to hear the facts?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BOLDUAN: A new message to Rubio and Cruz this morning: The two of you can unite and win together or remain apart and fail together. That's coming from a Republican Congressman who is now pushing for the two candidates to join forces to take on Donald Trump, meaning one of them needs to drop out of the race.

Now, Congressman Trent Franks, he says a combined presidential ticket of the two Senators is the best shot Republicans have at winning the White House in November, but that means the candidates need to decide among themselves which continues to run for president and which then becomes the number two, the running mate.

Joining me now, Republican Congressman Trent Franks, of Arizona.

Congressman, thank you for coming on.

This letter you've penned is getting a lot of attention. You have said they can either unite or stay apart and lose. Do you expect, at this point, that these two campaigns are going to come together and reach some sort of gentleman's agreement of who is going to run for president, who is going to be the running mate, especially after how nasty it's gotten?

[11:15:44] REP. TRENT FRANKS, (R), ARIZONA: It depends, Kate. And thank you for having me on. It depends on whether or not they look at this for the mathematical reality that it is, and if they look at it as statesmen rather then opponents. I understand the differences that they have. Certainly, I've run in those kinds of primaries, too. But it's a mathematical issue here rather than a political one. I pray both of them will consider the alternative and the fact that the window is closing. There's a moment many times in history when there is an opportunity that is big enough to be seen and understood and still accessible to be seized. And this is that moment. And just for the record, I did not call for either one of the candidates to drop out. I know that sounds like a play on words, but that would not work if just one of them drops out, then sometimes the vote goes in different directions. If they unite and choose among themselves, and I have not suggested which one should be at the top of the ticket, but they have to do that. Otherwise, both of them, unfortunately, I'm afraid, will be not on the ticket at all. It's just simply a mathematical issue. Sometimes we have to let reality prevail. All the political analysis and wishful thinking and trying to say these things under high minded political analysis does not change the fact that mathematics will not be repealed in this election cycle.

BOLDUAN: Congressman, how, though, do you suggest these men decide? I'm not trying to be cute here.

FRANKS: No, no. That's a good question.

BOLDUAN: But do you think this comes down to rock, paper, scissors or something? FRANKS: Ironically, there could be worse ways. I think they should

have their own criteria and get together and say whoever comes out with, you know, take a look at their voting analyses, talk a look at some of the polling and things like that, and I don't want to suggest how they should do it. It's not a matter of running from the fact, but yes, if it comes down to flipping a coin, flip a coin for the sake of the future. Otherwise the alternative is pretty clear.

BOLDUAN: Have you heard from either campaign about your proposal?

FRANKS: I have. I'm not going to characterize that in any way.

BOLDUAN: Can you hint at all if they were at all receptive to this in.

FRANKS: I think both of these candidates realize that the numbers will not ignored, and we are in a situation now where potentially a minority of our party could nominate a candidate that the majority of our party is in strong -- not in support of.

BOLDUAN: Congressman, have you heard from both campaigns on this?

FRANKS: Again, I'm not going to characterize that at all. But I will say this. If Donald Trump is our nominee, I don't think that he represents the best our party has to offer either in temperament or qualification, and I think he's the weakest candidate that is in the race at this point in terms of the general election, and that to nominate him is to give Hillary Clinton a much better chance of being president. And if that happens, I'm afraid the Constitution would be vitiated and my children could walk in a different future.

BOLDUAN: Those are strong words.

Speaking of Donald Trump, I can hear it now, Congressman, Trump supporters are going to say once again we have the Republican "establishment" trying to control the process, work the system, and decide themselves who they think should be the nominee. What do you say to those thousands of people registered Republicans who have come out and already voted for Donald Trump?

FRANKS: Two things. Two things. I'm as far from the Republican establishment of any member of Congress --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: I think a lot of folks will agree with that, yeah.

FRANKS: -- most conservative members of Congress. That's a false narrative. But the second thing is the people still make the choice. Right now, the conservatives are divided. The people still get to choose whether they want to support conservatives or if they want to support Mr. Trump, whose record is not conservative. Whatever he does good -- and he does many things that are good. I appreciate some of the ways he's addressed certain issues. But nevertheless, I believe that he represents a danger, a strong danger of us elected Hillary Clinton for president. And for the sake of my children and for the sake of the future of this country, I must do what I can. And I pray these men look at the reality and do the statesman-like-thing to do what's necessary to see that this Republic continues for future generations.

[11:20:12] BOLDUAN: Congressman Trent Franks, always great to have you on --

FRANKS: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: -- especially for something as important as this. Thank you, Congressman.

FRANKS: Thank you so much.

BOLDUAN: Of course.

Speaking of Rubio, he's directly calling out Trump by name, taking on the front runner aggressively really for the first time. What does that mean for tonight in the CNN debate? Will Donald Trump now attacking Marco Rubio? We'll discuss.

Plus, our next guest lays out how Donald Trump, while he has the momentum, could still lose the nomination. A Trump advisor will also join us to respond.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:25:15] BERMAN: It all happens here at the University of Houston, and it all happens in just a few hours, the CNN Republican presidential debate, the last Republican debate before Super Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. tonight eastern time. Five will enter, one will leave. OK, they all will leave, but someone will go with bragging rights, either laying a meaningful blow on Donald Trump, or if it is Donald Trump, who is bragging, extending his already formidable lead.

Here with me to discuss, our CNN political commentator, Matt Louis, a senior contributor for "The Daily Caller"; Edward Espinoza, former Democratic National Committee official; Bakari Sellers, the former South Carolina state representative; and Ben Ferguson, the host of "The Ben Ferguson Show."

Matt Louis, you get the first question.

One of the biggest questions about this campaign up until this point is, when will Rubio take on Donald Trump directly? Now I think finally at last we have the answer. The answer is it already happened. Listen to what Marco Rubio said last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RUBIO: Donald Trump said he's not going to take sides on Israel versus the Palestinians because he wants to be an honest broker. There's no such thing as an honest broker in that because the Palestinian Authority, who has strong links to terror, teaches little kids, 5 year olds, that it's a glorious thing to kill Jews.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Marco Rubio named names. He named Donald Trump by name. It happened last night. Does this mean this is now the first day of the rest of Marco Rubio's life?

MATT LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it is. If you go on the stump and listen to politicians, a lot of times debate prep comes out before the debate. This might be an example of Rubio sort of honing his messaging in preparation for what he's going to say tonight at the debate. It's high risk, high reward. I don't think Rubio likes to go head to head or wants to go head to head against Trump. I think he has to. If you look at the polls in Florida, it's do-or-die time. Rubio has to go after him. And again, it's not going to be an easy chore.

BERMAN: The polls in Florida and Marco Rubio and the polls Texas and Ted Cruz. There's a new poll out of Texas just released. It shows Cruz with a sizable lead, 38 percent. Trump in second with 23 percent and 21 for Rubio. That's the good news for Cruz. But the bad news is this "National Review" story that there was this clandestine conference call among Cruz supporters, saying they're going to jump ship if he doesn't do well on Super Tuesday.

Talk to me about what he needs to do tonight.

BEN FERGUSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think he needs to stay focused on making it clear he can beat Donald Trump. He should say I'm the only one who has beaten Donald Trump. You look at the map and you look at how well he's doing in Texas, I've been saying all along, I don't see it on the ground. People in Texas love Cruz. He was an outsider when they elected him. He had outsiders that came to rally behind him. He basically was Donald Trump in Texas before Donald Trump was what he is nationally. And they love him here. I think he's going to do well.

I also think he needs to go after Donald Trump specifically on foreign policies and the specifics of his plans. We're in that part of the campaign where grand ideas of I'm building a wall or I'm going to do this or have the biggest military ever, how are you going to pay with it? How are you going to deal with Hamas and Hezbollah? How are you saying you wouldn't pick one side over the other? Israel is a side many conservatives will say you should be in favor of them.

(CROSSTALK)

FERGUSON: Many Americans, too. But I think that's where he has a chance to have headway today.

BERMAN: And Rubio already tipped his hand that he's going to talk about that.

Ed Espinoza, you're a Texas insider. What about this new Texas poll that shows Cruz in front? What are his strengths and potential weaknesses here? He has the endorsement of the power Governor Greg Abbott and former Governor Rick Perry on his side. Can he win comfortably here? EDWARD ESPINOZA, FORMER DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE OFFICIAL: Not

just as an outsider, also as the loyal opposition. I feel an obligation to point out that Cruz may seem popular, but 38 percent means there are 62 percent of Republicans not going for him. All the major papers have not endorsed Cruz. They're endorsed other candidates, three for Kasich, a couple for Rubio, one for Bush. We'll see where those go.

But what Cruz needs to do now is demonstrate that he's the conservative in the race, which he has been trying to do. The problem is it hasn't been getting him a lot of mileage in this campaign. Republican voters are gravitating towards the alpha male, and the alpha male, the authoritarian is Donald Trump. And he is writing his own rules. It seems like no matter what the candidates do, Cruz or Rubio -- might be a little too late for Rubio -- to derail Trump, get ready to get hit by a Trump wave.

BERMAN: Let's talk about that alpha male behind the tidal wave, Bakari Sellers. You're a Democrat. I'm going to ask you to give advice. What do you think the smart move is for Trump? Not the move he'll make. We never what he'll do. Would it be smart to play it be above the fray?

BAKARI SELLERS, FORMER SOUTH CAROLINA STATE REPRESENTATIVE: I think he just needs to show up. Donald trump doesn't --