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South Carolina Battle; Christie Endorses Trump; Clinton Hoping for Big Win in First Southern Primary; Syria Truce Begins, ISIS Not Included; Trump, Rubio Mock Each Other in Speeches; Trump Gets Surprise Endorsement from Christie. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 26, 2016 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: Chris- crossed. Former Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie crossing over into Donald Trump's camp, the New Jersey governor endorsing his former rival just four days before Super Tuesday during a raucous announcement event.

Why does Christie believe Trump is the only candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton?

Gloves off. Fresh off their most contentious debate yet, today, the GOP candidates are taking their verbal warfare to a new level, Donald Trump insulting Marco Rubio's height, saying he sweats constantly, as Rubio hits Trump for being a -- quote -- "con man" and making fun of his spelling. Is Rubio's brutal new offense too little and too late to slow Trump's momentum?

And Palmetto primary. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigning down to the wire on the eve of their first Southern battle -- ballot battle. Clinton widely favored in the South Carolina primary, will it be a turning point in the Democratic contest?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following the breaking news in the race for the White House, Donald Trump receiving a bombshell endorsement.

His former rival the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie now backing the billionaire businessman for president of the United States. A source close to Christie tells CNN the governor strongly believes Trump will be the GOP nominee and that it's time for the party to unite around him.

We're standing by to hear from Trump. He has a campaign rally that's about to begin. It will likely include a fresh round of barbs lobbed at Marco Rubio. The Florida senator trading round after round of insults with Trump today. Their fierce new fight launched by Rubio's relentless attacks on Trump in our CNN Republican presidential debate. We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests,

including Trump campaign national spokeswoman Katrina Pierson. Our correspondents and our expert analysts, they are also standing by.

Let's begin with Chris Christie's unexpected endorsement of Donald Trump.

Our political reporter Sara Murray is in Fort Worth for us tonight.

Sara, Christie made a surprise appearance with Trump where you are today.


Yesterday, while other candidates were filling in on some last-minute debate prep, Donald Trump was meeting with Chris Christie in Trump Tower, securing this endorsement, a deft way for him to change the narrative when the daggers were out for him on that debate stage last night.


MURRAY (voice-over): Two of the biggest, brashest personalities in the party are teaming up.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I said let's keep it as a secret for the people in Texas. Let's do it.


MURRAY: Donald Trump snapping up his most prominent endorsement to date, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: He is rewriting the playbook of American politics.

MURRAY: And trying to shift momentum back in his corner as Marco Rubio comes out ready to brawl.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Friends do not let friends vote for con artists.

MURRAY: Rubio ratcheting up his attacks on the billionaire's business record, and even mocking Trump's Twitter habit.

RUBIO: So, how does this guy, not in one tweet, three tweets, misspell words so badly?

And I only reach two conclusions. Number one, that's how they spell those words at the Wharton school of business, where he went, or, number two, just like Trump Tower, he must have hired a foreign worker to do his own tweets.

MURRAY: Rubio also poking fun at Trump's performance at Thursday night's CNN Republican debate. RUBIO: Last night in the debate during one of the breaks, two of the

breaks, he went backstage. He was having a meltdown. First, he had this little makeup thing, applying like makeup around his mustache, because he had one of those sweat mustaches. Then he asked for a full-length mirror. I don't know why, because the podium goes to here, but he wanted a full-length mirror, maybe to make sure his pants weren't wet. I don't know.


MURRAY: But Trump and Christie were ready, banding together to try to take down a mutual foe.

TRUMP: It's Rubio.

MURRAY: Trump taking aim at Rubio's debate performance.

TRUMP: No, he's a nervous basket case. Here's a guy -- you ought to see him -- you ought to see him backstage. He was putting on makeup with a trowel. Honestly, I thought he was going to die, Rubio. He was so scared, like a little frightened puppy.

MURRAY: And even his appearance.


TRUMP: I will not say that he was trying to cover up his ears. I will not say that.

MURRAY: While Christie piled on.

CHRISTIE: Do we need a United States senator from Florida who doesn't show up for work?


MURRAY: The increasingly vicious battle spreading across the field, as Ted Cruz labels Trump a New York liberal.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald Trump is adopting the rhetoric of a populist. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton, is a rich New York liberal.


MURRAY: But at least for today, it was clear Rubio is now Trump's top foil.

TRUMP: Rubio is a baby. But a guy like Ted is tougher.


MURRAY: Now, Wolf, even though Chris Christie and Donald Trump had been kind to each other in the past, this endorsement really was a true surprise. Trump sort of walked into the press conference with Chris Christie in

tow. There were gasps from some members of the media in the room. This was all very tightly held. Chris Christie only called a small group of people to say last night that he was endorsing Trump. He did it while boarding a plane to come here to Texas -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting indeed. All right, Sara, thank you.

By the way, we're standing by for a Trump campaign rally set to get under way in Oklahoma City.

CNN's Jim Acosta is there for us tonight.

Jim, we understand Chris Christie will appear with Trump once again tonight. What are you learning about the endorsement?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The campaign says Donald Trump and Chris Christie will be out here tonight in Oklahoma City.

Trump and Christie aides say the two men discussed this endorsement yesterday in Trump Tower in New York City. And this is not a huge surprise, as Trump and Christie are longtime friends. It was a surprise that it came today, but not a big surprise that Christie ended up endorsing Trump.

And Trump can use all the help he can get at this moment. He is now trying to fend off both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio at the same time. Normally, Trump only has to take on one rival's attacks at a time. But as Trump said today, last night's CNN debate changed everything.

Here is what he had to say.


TRUMP: I want to just mention just a couple of words about Senator Cruz, who actually was, I thought -- I thought -- I thought he was -- last night, I thought the deal of the night was when I looked over to Rubio and I said, you remember, you are a choker, and we don't want chokers in our administration, I can tell you.

I said, you're a choker, and you're a liar. And I have had -- I have had a lot of difficulties with Ted because he just lies. I have dealt with much tougher. A guy like Rubio is a baby. But a guy like Ted is tougher. I will tell you, actually, he's tougher. And he's actually smarter, in all fairness. Ted is actually smarter. I had to give that to him. He's a smarter person than Rubio.


ACOSTA: Now, the Rubio campaign believes Trump was rattled during last night's debate. As one Rubio adviser put it to me, they believe the wheels have come off at the Trump campaign.

Trump could be unstoppable, Ted Cruz warned earlier today, if he cleans up on Super Tuesday, the Texas senator adding that it would be a grave mistake for the GOP and country if Donald Trump is made the nominee of the Republican Party.

So I suppose, Wolf, we might hear a response from Donald Trump and Chris Christie on the stage behind me later on this evening, bringing their own form of Oklahoma City thunder, you might say, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thunder, indeed. All right, thanks very much. We will stand by for that rally.

In the meantime, let's bring in Katrina Pierson. She's the campaign national spokeswoman for Donald Trump.

Katrina, thanks very much for joining us.

As you know, just last summer, not that long ago, Chris Christie said Donald Trump didn't have the temperament to be president of the United States. Listen to this.


CHRISTIE: Donald is a great guy and a good person, but I just don't think he's suited to be president of the United States.


CHRISTIE: I don't think his temperament is suited for that, and I don't think his experience is.


BLITZER: What's changed since then?

KATRINA PIERSON, TRUMP CAMPAIGN SPOKESPERSON: Well, I think what's changed is Governor Christie is also known for being bold and brash, but I think what's happened now is we have seen how necessary it is when going up against whether it's the media or establishment.

You can't be extremely lightweight or quiet when you are trying to run a presidential campaign, particularly with the circumstances we're facing today.

BLITZER: Is Christie one of the candidates Trump might consider as his vice presidential running mate?

PIERSON: Mr. Trump hasn't spoken much about who he is considering for vice president. However, he does like Governor Christie.

And in your reporting, you mentioned that they have been friends. So, we're just really excited to have Governor Christie on board. He's been a great asset.

BLITZER: You think this endorsement, the Chris Christie endorsement of Donald Trump, was in part just to get under Marco Rubio's skin? We know the exchange they had at that debate in New Hampshire, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio.

[18:10:05] PIERSON: No, I don't think it was on purpose to get under Marco

Rubio's skin, but I do think it was really important that you did have another presidential come out and support Donald Trump.

Donald Trump does have the momentum. Marco Rubio is now putting on, you know, some stand-up comedy act, it seems. And I think it's just really important to express the decisions that need to be made in the future, have to be made with someone who has business experience, who has a ton of life experience, that can really bring the wisdom needed to make these decisions moving forward.

BLITZER: Newt Gingrich tweeted earlier today the endorsement. Let me read the tweet.

"This Chris Christie endorsement of Trump is real signal to GOP establishment that they had better begin thinking about Trump as the future."

Do you see the GOP establishment coming around and accepting the possibility that the man you want to be the president will, in fact, be the nominee?

PIERSON: No, Wolf, I don't see that happening at all. We're talking about power here.

And power is being stripped from a group of people who are going to hold on to it until the earth is scorched. And we see that start to play out just last night. But you know what? The people are going to have the final say. The people have been speaking. The establishment has not been listening.

The establishment has picked candidate for two cycles in a row and lost. It's time they start listening. Will they? Probably not.

BLITZER: Back in 2012, Donald Trump tweeted this. He said: "Mitt Romney," who was then the Republican nominee, "should consider Governor McDonnell of Virginia, Governor Christie of New Jersey, Senator Rubio of Florida for V.P. Really good men doing a really good job."

You think he still believes that?

PIERSON: Well, no. That's a lot of time that's passed. We have seen in the political sphere recently a lot can happen in one year even policy-wise.

The people of Florida supported Marco Rubio because he promised them that he didn't support amnesty. And right after he got elected, he put his name and face on the amnesty policy. He hasn't even shown up for work, which is why Florida is overwhelmingly rejecting him today.

A lot changes, Wolf, so, no, I don't think he still considers that to be a good thing.

BLITZER: You are convinced that Florida March 15, the primary there will go to Donald Trump, instead of the Senator from Florida Marco Rubio?


Mr. Trump has roots in Florida. They know Mr. Trump. And this is the other thing that I think most of the establishment doesn't understand. Donald Trump's empire is built right here in the USA. He is the only candidate in this race on both sides that is personally invested in the success or failure of this country. And Floridians know that, just like Texans do.

BLITZER: Were you surprised at how tough Rubio was in blasting Trump last night at the debate?

PIERSON: No, not at all. You have Marco Rubio, who hasn't won a single state and is not even winning his home state, and you have Ted Cruz, who has to win Texas or his campaign is over.

We fully expected that two were, at their last-ditch effort, they were going to go down swinging.

BLITZER: The Texas primary is on Super Tuesday, this coming Tuesday. Who is going to win there?

PIERSON: Well, I feel really good about Texas. It is Senator Cruz's home state. He has been up on the polls and he's been tied in the speaks polls. The senator could take his state, but I also think Donald Trump stands a very good chance at pulling it off.

BLITZER: If he does, that's going to be a big source of problems for Ted Cruz in Texas, as we all know.


BLITZER: All right, Katrina, stand by. We have more to discuss. We will take a quick break.

Once again, Donald Trump getting ready to address a rally out in Oklahoma. We will cover that as well.



BLITZER: Donald Trump speaking shortly at a campaign rally in Oklahoma City, and brandishing a major new endorsement tonight from a former rival, the New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

We're back with Trump campaign national spokeswoman Katrina Pierson.

Katrina -- Katrina, Rubio really hit Donald Trump hard last night at the CNN debate and again this morning.

Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RUBIO: He called me Mr. Meltdown. Let me tell you something. Last night in the debate during one of the breaks, two of the breaks, he went backstage. He was having a meltdown.

First, he had this little makeup thing, applying like makeup around his mustache, because he had one of those sweat mustaches. Then -- then he asked for a full-length mirror. I don't know why, because the podium goes to here, but he wanted a full-length mirror, maybe to make sure his pants weren't wet. I don't know.

What does Donald Trump do when things go wrong? He takes to Twitter.

I have them right here. Let's read some. You will have fun.


RUBIO: All right. Number one, here's the first one: "Lightweight Marco Rubio was working hard last night." This is true.


RUBIO: "The problem is, he is a chocker. And once a chocker, always a choker." I guess that's what he meant to say. He spelled choker C-H- O-C-K-E-R, chocker.

Next tweet: "Leightweight chocker Marco Rubio looks like a little boy on stage, not presidential material."

He meant to say lightweight, but he spelled it L-E-I-G-H-T. So he got that wrong.

Last one: "Wow. Every poll said I won the debate last night."

Now, this was him about himself, OK?


RUBIO: "Great honer."

I think he meant to say great honor. I don't know how he got that wrong, because the E and the O are nowhere near each other on the keyboard.

Guys, we have a con artist as the front-runner in the Republican Party.


BLITZER: Your reaction, Katrina, to those attacks?

PIERSON: Oh, well, I think it's interesting how you have these candidates who try to act like Donald Trump, and they come off looking like a stand-up comic.

Granted, no more tweeting without glasses, but I will say, it is quite interesting that Marco Rubio is trying to pretend to be like Donald Trump. Maybe he was trying to channel Donald Trump in his type of attacks.

But I think it's great when you want to get out there and get your base excited. He needs to do that.


The question is, is it going to get him Texas? Is it going to get him anywhere in the South? The answer to that is no.

So, I'm really glad the Rubio campaign is having some fun today.

BLITZER: As you heard, Trump has zeroed in on Senator Rubio, calling him a choker.

Rubio didn't seem to choke last night at the debate. Does Trump need to adjust how he's going to battle Rubio right now, if this fight is going to continue to escalate? And I assume it will.

PIERSON: No, I don't think he needs to adjust at all. Mr. Trump is being Mr. Trump.

And that's exactly why you see other candidates trying to mimic Mr. Trump, because it works for him. But it does not work for the other candidates. You can't all of a sudden one day pretend to be strong and forceful, when this entire time you have been quiet and weak.

And that's why Mr. Trump refers to Marco Rubio as a lightweight.

BLITZER: As you know, Donald Trump says he is not going to release his income tax returns until the current IRS audit is complete.

According to experts, though, there's no legal restriction on Trump publicly releasing his own forms if he chose to do so. You suspect he's going to do so, or is he going to wait until all the audits are -- are completed?

PIERSON: Well, you know, Wolf, I think he should wait until the exact date that Mitt Romney decided to release his taxes, since he's the one being the most vocal about this.

But absolutely not should he release these. Anything Mr. Trump releases, you and I both know, they're going to be going through it with a fine-tooth comb, picking out any and everything they can criticize.

So, no, Mr. Trump should wait until the audit is finished, and then release his taxes.

BLITZER: What does he have to hide, though?

PIERSON: Well, there's nothing to hide.

It's just something that no lawyer would tell you to do, to release your taxes without -- until you're out from under the audit. So, he's just doing exactly what everyone is advised to do. He says he's going to release his taxes, and he will. BLITZER: He says he will do it, though, only after the audit is

complete, right?

PIERSON: Right. That's right, absolutely.

BLITZER: And that -- we have no idea how long that's going to take, so we will see what happens.

PIERSON: Not at this point.

BLITZER: What is your prediction as far as the 11 Republican contests coming up on Super Tuesday, this coming Tuesday?

PIERSON: Well, we know that Mr. Trump is up in the polls, in some cases double digits along the South.

I think Mr. Trump is going to do extremely well. These are all the same kind of voters that have been voting for him from the beginning. And he's really channeling the inspiration and the desire to change things in this country.

Wolf, people are tired of politics. They are tired of those guys that have been bought and paid for by the very people that have put them out of jobs and that have driven up the debt. They're tired of it. They want something new. And Donald Trump has a record of rebuilding things.

BLITZER: Katrina, thanks very much for joining us.

PIERSON: Great to see you.

BLITZER: Katrina Pierson from the Trump campaign.

Just ahead: the insults flying between Trump and Marco Rubio, Trump saying -- quote -- "I have never seen a human being sweat like that," using a bottle of water to illustrate his point. Watch.


TRUMP: It's Rubio.





BLITZER: Once again, we're standing by for a Donald Trump campaign rally scheduled to begin shortly in Oklahoma City. You are looking at live pictures coming in from there.

We're also following the dramatic developments in the race for the White House, including a rather surprising endorsement of Trump by his former rival, the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, who made a surprise appearance with Trump. Watch.


CHRISTIE: The single most important thing for the Republican Party is to nominate the person who gives us the best chance to beat Hillary Clinton.

I can guarantee you that the one person that Hillary and Bill Clinton do not want to see on that stage come next September is Donald Trump. They know how to run the standard political playbook against junior senators and run them around the block. They do not know the playbook with Donald Trump, because he is rewriting the playbook.


BLITZER: Governor Christie also joined in on the attack against Trump's newest favorite target, Marco Rubio.


CHRISTIE: Campaigns do desperate things, flailing punches in the last days of a losing campaign.

The fact of the matter is, no one is going to get inside this guy's head. I find it fascinating that someone who barely shows up for work in the six years he's a United States senator is going to talk about somebody else being unprepared.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, Senator Rubio has shown himself over the course of time to be wholly unprepared to be president of the United States. I said that at the time I was in the race, and nothing has changed my mind now.


BLITZER: Let's get some more on all this with our CNN politics executive editor, Mark Preston, CNN senior political analyst, the senior editor with "The Atlantic," Ron Brownstein, and national political reporter for RealClearPolitics Rebecca Berg.

Guys, I want to play a little bit more of Donald Trump, what he had to say today.


TRUMP: Easy with the makeup. You don't need that much.

You know the story with Marco. I watched him against this man, where Marco -- he was right over here. And I actually looked at him. I said, are you OK? He looked like he just came out of a swimming pool. He was a mess.

So, we will see what happens. We're going to see what happens. But, no, I heard he had some very nasty personal comments. But I saw him backstage, and he was putting it on with a trowel. I was almost going to go over and hold him up. Now, think of this.

Think of this. So, we have Putin, and Putin is going to meet our president. And let's assume it's Marco.



TRUMP: Let's assume it's Marco. No, I agree with you. We don't want him, boo, boo.

[18:30:17] And Putin is sitting there waiting for a kill. And he knows all about Marco, because when they put Marco on to refute President Obama's speech, do you remember that catastrophe? And he's like this: "And we were -- ah, ah, I need water. Help me. I need water. Help."

And he's -- this is on live television. This total choke artist is refuting -- and you know, I'll tell you, you know about sports. Do I love sports. We love sports. We're athletes. So you notice in sports almost always true, when you're a choke artist, you're always a choke artist. It doesn't really change. You know, sadly, the guy that misses the kick and the coach says, "I'm going to give him another chance." Unfortunately, the following year, he misses the kick again. So choke artists, they choke, they choke.

So what's going to happen is we look at this and he goes in to see Putin; and he walks in, and he's soaking wet. And Putin looks at him and goes, "What's wrong with this guy? This is going to be easy pickings." And believe me it will be.

It's Rubio! Unbelievable.

Let's win Texas. I want to win Texas.


BLITZER: Texas primary coming up. Super Tuesday this coming Tuesday. Mark Preston, a major endorsement for Donald Trump today by Chris Christie, although last summer when Chris Christie was running for the Republican presidential nomination, he suggested that Donald Trump did not have the temperament to be commander in chief.

Walk us through the background, how all of this unfolded today.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Right. And interesting that it would come from Chris Christie who, when he was considered, certainly, one of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination, people said he didn't have the temperament. But compared to Donald Trump now, it looks like Chris Christie would be even keeled.

Look, a couple of things. When Chris Christie was saying today during the announcement that he didn't think Marco Rubio had the experience, that's true. He didn't think that Ted Cruz had the temperament or the experience; that's true. He does actually like Donald Trump. I spoke to somebody very close to the governor today, to Governor Christie. He does like Donald Trump.

And here's one thing that hasn't been said up to this point, is that Chris Christie was very frustrated at the Republican establishment here in Washington, D.C., and the deep pocket donors up in New York who did not get behind him and who went to Marco Rubio trying to, what he thought was gaming the same.

So Chris Christie joining Trump right now is actually not too surprising. I also heard that he actually is not that close to John Kasich, as much as we have been saying that. It made sense for him to go to Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Two sitting governors, and Christie decided to go with the billionaire businessman, not the governor.

Ron, was today's endorsement just another hit for the Republican establishment, as it's called? At some point do they actually need to accept the idea of Trump's -- Trump becoming the nominee?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, that's what you have to bet on today. But look, I think the Republican establishment, they continue to be divided on this question, precisely on the point that Chris Christie raised. Because whether Donald Trump is their strongest candidate in November.

You know, Donald Trump embodies one-half of what has been a Republican civil war about how you win back the White House after they've lost the popular vote in five of the past six elections. One school of thought says that Republicans have to reach out to the changing America, increasingly diverse growing millennial generation. Trump has overwhelming negatives with those voters.

Trump embodies the other side of that argument, which is that the way to win is to put out a message that increases turnout among working class and other culturally conservative whites. I think most people in the hierarchy of the Republican Party believe that strategy can't work. There have been a lot of conservatives who argue that it is the only way that can work and, if nothing else, if Trump is the nominee, it will get a real-world test.

And I think that, as part of what you're seeing here is more Republicans coming to the acceptance that maybe they have to go down this road. But there's a lot of risk involved in it, Wolf, in a general election.

BLITZER: Rebecca, you saw Donald Trump with the bottle of water, making fun of Marco Rubio. He was clearly recalling when Marco Rubio was giving the Republican response to the president's State of the Union address. I'm going to play that little clip here. Watch this.


RUBIO: It involves choices like the one the president laid out tonight. The choice isn't just between big government or big business. What we need is an account...

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: That was a moment that happened then and, obviously, Donald

Trump wants to revive that moment. He was attacked by Rubio last night. And when Donald Trump is attacked, he goes right back and counterattacks.

[18:35:12] BERG: He does. And what we've seen throughout this election cycle, Wolf, is that he is brutally effective at attacking other candidates.

He was the one, of course, who called Jeb Bush low-energy. And that insult stuck with Jeb Bush for the entire campaign. It was tough for him to escape.

If Donald Trump is able to successfully portray Marco Rubio as somebody who's nervous, who's immature, who is not competent enough to be president, which is kind of what he's hinting at with these lines of attack, then that could be really damaging to Marco Rubio, and, of course, Donald Trump has a bigger megaphone than any of these other candidates.

BLITZER: It worked against Jeb Bush. Right, Mark?

PRESTON: It took Jeb Bush off of his game, and it wasn't until the very end where we saw Jeb Bush actually get a little energy into his campaign. And -- but it was a little bit too late. But listen, what we just saw today with Donald Trump on the stage, and it looked like he was in a Catholic church blessing the people with that water. I mean, it's insane. This is insane. We've never seen this in our lifetime.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask Ron, because all of us, we've covered politics for a long time. You remember anything like this before?

BROWNSTEIN: No, not really. I mean, from a message point of view, as we said before, Trump in some ways is a louder, bigger version of what Pat Buchanan ran on in 1996.

But the flamboyance as a candidate himself, I think that really is unprecedented. And you know, we don't really know. It has not derailed him in the Republican primary, no question about that. But it is still an open question what it would mean if he is the nominee. You're talking about someone whose unfavorable rating with the general public is still hovering around 60 percent.

And as I said, among the groups that are the core of the modern Democratic coalition -- millennials, minorities, socially-liberal white women, college educated white women, it's in the mid-70s. So I think we'll have to, you know -- Maybe all the rules are being thrown out. But maybe not. We have many more months to see how it plays out.

BLITZER: You know, Rebecca, a lot of the pundits suggesting that Super Tuesday, 11 Republican contests, maybe Texas going for the home senator, Ted Cruz, but potentially all the other states going to Trump. Is that what -- is that really realistic? BERG: It's absolutely realistic. In fact, I think that's the most

likely outcome at this point, if for Donald Trump to win most of these states. And they are proportional, so it's not necessarily a fatal blow to these other candidates. They could still win delegates on Super Tuesday, and that counts for something.

But every Republican who I'm talking to at this point finds that, if Donald Trump is dominant on Super Tuesday, if he even sweeps the states or maybe minus Texas sweeps the states, he's in a really good position to win the nomination.

BLITZER: It's close in Texas. Ron, you've taken a look at the numbers.


BLITZER: Look ahead to Super Tuesday. Where is the focus?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, Super Tuesday really has become, Wolf, a two-front war. And Donald Trump has an opportunity on each of those battlefields to deliver a really significant blow against a different set of his rivals.

First, as you look across the south, you have five states voting that are heavily evangelical and heavily blue-collar. States like Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, where evangelical Christians are at least 60 percent of the vote, and blue-collar voters are at least 50 percent of the vote.

If Ted Cruz can't win those states beyond Texas, it is very hard to see how he goes forward. Because those are -- those are the kind of places where his appeal was supposed to work.

But Donald Trump has basically trumped him by making extraordinary inroads among evangelical Christians, who are also blue-collar.

Then you have this second front emerging, which are northern states that are more white-collar and less evangelical. So you have places, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Vermont, where college-educated voters are about half the electorate or more. And those are placesthat a candidate like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, who is really relying on those mainstream white-collar conservatives, needs.

And in fact, in all three of those states, including in polls out in the last 48 hours in Virginia and Massachusetts, Trump is ahead, just as he is ahead in those southern states. If he can sweep both sides of this, which by the way, Mitt Romney and John McCain could not do in their winning years. They won those in other states but won very few of the Southern states. If Trump can transcend that divide, as Rebecca said, I think he leaves the other candidates in a very difficult position.

BLITZER: Yes. The polls I've seen in those other states, whether Massachusetts, Vermont, some of the other states that you're mentioning, Trump seems to be ahead, at least right now. We'll see what happens. All right, guys. Stand by. Much more. The crowd is getting excited

out there in Oklahoma City. You're looking at live pictures coming in. Donald Trump being introduced. We're going to have some coverage of that when we come back.


[18:44:18] BLITZER: Potential turning point in the Democratic race for the White House. The South Carolina primary tomorrow with Hillary Clinton enjoying a strong lead over Bernie Sanders in all the polls.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is in South Carolina for us tonight. Jeff, the Clinton camp is hoping for a big win, some strong momentum going into Super Tuesday. What's the latest?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: They definitely are, Wolf. There's no question the Clinton campaign sees the South Carolina primary as a bit of a launching pad into the next phase of this race. The Sanders campaign sees this as something of a thing they just want to get through as fast as possible.

Now, this contest next Tuesday starts 11 primaries and caucuses across the country. The Sanders campaign is looking forward to that, because they know South Carolina is not going to be pretty.


[18:45:03] HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you. I need your vote tomorrow.

ZELENY (voice-over): On the eve of the first southern primary for Democrats, Hillary Clinton is on the hunt for a big win. From a groom and his ten groomsmen, to a pastry chef, it's a confident close for Clinton in South Carolina.

The Clinton primary fight with Bernie Sanders is about to go national with Super Tuesday just around the corner. The outlines of the fight are forming. In Minnesota, Sanders made clear he intends to press Clinton to release transcripts of her paid Wall Street speeches.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: She's a very good speeches, I've heard that. But $225,000 for a speech to Goldman Sachs, you've got to be really good.

ZELENY: "The New York Times" editorial page which endorsed Clinton said she should disclose those transcripts.

SANDERS: What you say behind closed doors is a little different than what you say to the American people.

ZELENY: The Sanders criticism sounded strikingly similar to the message of a new television ad a conservative group is airing against Clinton.

AD ANNOUNCER: Before you promise your vote to Hillary, don't you deserve to know what she promised them? ZELENY: While Clinton said she'd release her speeches if Republicans

do the same, she said she should be judged on her record.

CLINTON: I've been on the record on a lot of these issues for a very long time. I think you should be judged on what you have done.

ZELENY: The Clinton campaign hopes Saturday's primary here is a turning point in the race, a chance to start gradually pivoting toward the general election.

CLINTON: This election has such high stakes. I think you know that. I believe with all my heart it's one of the most important elections we've had in a really long time.


ZELENY: Now, Wolf, Senator Sanders just wrapped up a speech here tonight. It was about 27 minutes long. You can see behind me here. He is already gone. It is a sign that his head is already looking past South Carolina.

He will spend the South Carolina primary night in Minnesota where they have caucuses next Tuesday. He thinks he has a good shot of winning those -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Jeff, thank you.

I want to go back to Ron Brownstein.

Hillary Clinton needs a big win in South Carolina. Presumably she'll get it tomorrow. What does Super Tuesday look like for her then?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the structural advantage that Hillary Clinton has in this race are coming into heavier play. You know, the story on the Democratic side is similar to the Republican side. It's essentially a two-front war. On the one hand, you have states more white and white collar like Massachusetts, Vermont, Minnesota and to some extent Virginia, which is also diverse, where Bernie Sanders probably has his best chance.

But then if you look at the more diverse states weighing in, both on March 1st and March 15th, essentially every large state, Wolf, on the Democratic side is a diverse state. Listen to some of these numbers in the last 72 hours about the vote among African-Americans in this race. In Texas, Hillary Clinton is winning 81 percent. Georgia, 74 percent. Ohio, 71 percent. Virginia, 70 percent, 68 percent of Latinos in Texas, 64 percent of non-white voters in Florida.

The core problem that Bernie Sanders has faced from the beginning really now is coming to a head. If he cannot make deeper inroads among the significant diversity of the Democratic Party, you simply run out of states to win and you simply cannot compete in the largest states, all which have a diverse electorate on the Democratic side.

So, it's kind of put-up time for Bernie Sanders not only March 1st but again on March 15th. Another series of big diverse states will be voting.

BLITZER: Good point, Mark. But these states, they are proportionate in terms of distributing the delegates. So, even if she gets two- thirds, he gets one-third and can still continue.


In talking to the Sanders campaign, their strategy is to try to get beyond South Carolina, as we know, because we know Hillary Clinton is going to win tomorrow. What the -- how much, we don't know, but clearly it will be a comfortable lead. They want to get to the industrial Midwest. They want to get to Michigan on the 8th. They want to get to Ohio on the 15th. They think that they are going to do better there. They want to get to Minnesota on the 1st as well.

They see caucuses as their path to victory, much like Barack Obama did a very good job back in 2007, 2008, organizing around caucuses, caught the Clinton campaign entirely by surprise. The Sanders campaign looks at caucuses and they say, listen, they are run by people who are grassroots activists, our folks. This can keep us in the game.

BLITZER: We got some live pictures coming in there. There's Hillary Clinton speaking in Orangeburg, South Carolina, right now. The contest there coming up tomorrow.

It seems, Rebecca, that criticism of Hillary Clinton by Bernie Sanders is escalating a bit.

You've noticed that?

REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: Absolutely, because it's crunch time for him. He needs to start gaining some momentum.

She's going to win South Carolina. She'll probably do very well on Super Tuesday because there are so many Southern states vote, and she has to do better in those states. There's a problem for Bernie Sanders. Does he sort of disappear from the conversation? Does he lose any momentum that he gained in Iowa and New Hampshire and these early states?

And so, he needs to attack her to stay in the conversation, stay part of this race.

[18:50:03] But he does have a math problem moving forward. I mean, Hillary Clinton has such institutional advantages. She's winning with super delegates right now. That's something I would expect to continue into these later states. If he does well in these states later on in the Midwest, that would certainly be a boost to him. He's going to need to shore up his support among minorities and do a lot of work on that front.

BLITZER: One thing, Ron, and all of us have heard it from Hillary Clinton's critics. He's got to stay in the race and maybe others might eventually get in, if there's some legal problems that Hillary Clinton faces. The FBI investigation if that should develop into something serious. That's a potential incentive for Bernie Sanders not to drop out, right?

BROWNSTEIN: Right. I think there's no reason for him to drop out. At the least, he's elevating his issues. And as everybody has said, when you get to the Midwest, one thing Bernie Sanders has done in this race is he has moved beyond support among white upper middle class liberals. He is beating Hillary Clinton consistently among blue collar working class which means he should be competitive in the Midwestern battlegrounds, although even there if he cannot improve among diverse voters, he's not going to win.

So, yes, he has a lot of incentive to stay in. And if he does well all the way through, I think one of the things that's going to happen is we'll be talking about Elizabeth Warren as a potential vice president, as a response to kind of the Sanders movement. But certainly, if there's any kind of legal challenge to Hillary Clinton, everything is thrown up in the air to the point. I'm sure there's a new Joe Biden conversation, there's probably a Joe Biden/Elizabeth Warren conversation.

But until that happens, Sanders is facing the reality that was there from the beginning, kind of masked by Iowa and New Hampshire and unique demography of those states. It really is non-white voters, it's going to be about a third to 40 percent of the Democratic vote and he cannot allow her to win by the margins these polls are showing today.

BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, stand by -- Mark Preston, Rebecca Berg.

I just want to remind our viewers. Stay with CNN for complete of the South Carolina Democratic primary all day into the evening tomorrow night right here on CNN.

Just ahead, a cease-fire now in effect in Syria. Will it hold? What impact will it have on ISIS forces?


[18:56:36] BLITZER: Temporary cease-fire in Syria now almost two hours old. The U.N. special envoy to Syria saying there's a high chance of some violations and a special task force will meet tomorrow to evaluate the situation.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, ISIS, al Qaeda, al Nusra, they are not part of this deal. What's the latest?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there are reports at this hour that the skies over northern Syria are quiet. But just a short time ago, that clearly was not the case.


STARR (voice-over): With a potential cease-fire hours away, Russia continued heavy air strikes in western Syria. Syrian government forces dropped more barrel bombs. Even if the bombing eases up, there is deep doubt a true cease-fire wild hold.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're all aware of the many potential pitfalls, and there are plenty of reasons for skepticism. If implemented, and that's a significant if, this cessation could reduce the violence.

STARR: Russian President Vladimir Putin called the truce difficult but said military action by Russia and the U.S. will be stopped.

The U.S. says it's only attacking ISIS, which is not part of the cease-fire.

Al Nusra, the al Qaeda operation in Syria, also isn't part of the ceasefire. The problem? Russia continues to lump many opposition groups in with Al Nusra and then attacks them.

A map published by the Russian state news agency shows only small yellow areas of Syria the Russians say are now under the ceasefire. The U.S. does not agree. It wants Russia to stop bombing civilians and moderate opposition wherever they are.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), FOREIGN RELATION CHAIRMAN: I think that many of us have been asking, you know, what happens if in fact these -- the ceasefire doesn't hold? And I don't think Russia believes that's anything is going to happen.

STARR: President Obama's top intelligence adviser says Putin may actually be thinking of increasing Russia's military operation in Syria.

CLAPPER: They are possibility, I think, or considering whether they're going to put more ground forces in.

STARR: The White House is now working on the so-called Plan B -- what to do if the cease-fire fails.

One option, adding to the 50 U.S. Special Operations Forces already on the ground in Syria. Those U.S. troops moved more than 30 miles from the relative safety of their northern Syrian base south to near the town of Shaddadah, to help tribes take the town back from ISIS, assisting with calling in airstrikes, and offering advice on the battlefield.


STARR: But putting U.S. Special Forces out in the field in Iraq or Syria remains very dangerous work. Every time they are out in the field, the military secretly positions rescue forces in case they get into trouble -- Wolf.

BARBARA: Very tenuous situation, but a lot of lives at stake right now. This humanitarian effort's got to get going.

Barbara, thank you very much. Let's hope it works out.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Please tweet me @wolfblitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNsitroom. Please join us again Monday right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Please join us tomorrow for all-day coverage as well of the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.