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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

DNC Chair Speaks Before Start Of Debate; Soon: Democratic Candidates Take The Debate Stage. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired January 14, 2020 - 20:00   ET

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


[20:00:14]

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: And good evening from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, site of this evening's CNN/"Des Moines Register" Democratic presidential debate, the final debate before Iowans caucus just 20 days from now. The clock is ticking.

So, the six candidates, for the six candidates on the stage tonight, the stakes are high, the urgency great, and so is the incentive to try to stand out.

Forty-five percent of likely caucusgoers in a new CNN/"Des Moines Register" poll said they still could be persuaded to support someone other than their first choice. Thirteen percent say they have no first choice yet. The question is what will each candidate do to try to change that?

The crowd tonight is revved up. Will tonight's small roster shape the dynamic? And how will other events like the shoot down (ph) with Iran inform the proceedings? We're going to get answers to those questions and more starting in about 59 minutes from now when the debate starts.

Right now, we're joined by former DNC chairman and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, Jess McIntosh, director of communications outreach for the 2016 Clinton campaign, also former special adviser to President Obama, Van Jones, all three, CNN political commentators.

Jess, let me start with you since I messed up your name so badly.

Expectations tonight, they're incredibly high for a lot of these candidates.

JESS MCINTOSH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Well, this is when we're like the urgency is turned up to 11 tonight. This is the last debate --

COOPER: Like a Spinal Tap reference.

MCINTOSH: Thank you.

Before people actually vote, like you said, 58 percent either could be moved from their first choice or don't have one. And a lot of our front-runners are about to get sequestered in the Senate for a few weeks to handle this impeachment trial. So this is their last moment to shine. So, I think everybody is looking for a breakout moment. We have a very

tight field for the top four. And the others who need to become relevant this evening, or they're not going to get a chance.

COOPER: Yes, and, Van, you know, the latest poll shows this is the top four, very, very close. And 20 days left to go.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is the first time, though, you can say, this could be Bernie's night. Bernie is surging in Iowa. This whole banana peel situation with Elizabeth, blah, blah, blah, he's got to get that behind him and get away from that. He's got to make a case that he can be electable, and that he's got a broad coalition, a working class coalition, he's got the momentum.

The reality is, he's not in competition with Elizabeth Warren. He's in competition with Joe Biden, because they both have that beer track bunch of voters that they're fighting over. He's got to figure out a way to get this nonsense conflict behind him with Elizabeth Warren and make the case for the last time before he gets put away that he could be president of the United States. That's Bernie's challenge tonight.

COOPER: Governor, how do you see this in terms of warren and Sanders and Sanders and Biden?

TERRY MCAULIFFE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is a heavyweight match tonight. This is going to be frisky, it's going to be competitive. They have got to make their mark tonight. This is the last shot.

You know, Amy's been around 6 percent. She's got to do something tonight to move up.

Joe Biden poll out today had him leading. He's thinking to himself, my goodness, if I could possibly win Iowa, I'm off to the races.

COOPER: Yes.

MCAULIFFE: Bernie has had a poll where he's winning.

So, Biden has to show foreign policy in a world that's troubled now in the Middle East. I'm a person who can handle that. I think what Bernie has to do, he's going to have to deal with the situation with Warren about can women win the election? He'll have to hit that early.

But Bernie's never really been hit. In 2016, Hillary was the front- runner, and he never really took a punch. This is a night he has to show he can take it and give it back.

Warren, you know, she had great mojo. She lost a little bit. I think Medicare-for-All hurt her, that debate. This is her time to get back into the arena.

And Pete, who has probably the least political experience of all of them, he has to show tonight with the world at war, I've served in our military, I'm the one that should be commander-in-chief.

So, real opportunities for all of them.

COOPER: This is also one of the debates where you have a major foreign policy issue that has just taken place.

MCINTOSH: Yes.

COOPER: It is a completely different scenario that this debate is happening under than previous debates.

MCINTOSH: I mean, we have -- we have the major foreign policy issue and we have the likelihood of impeachment articles being sent over tomorrow. This is an incredibly important moment on the global stage for our country and the idea that we get to see those people who want to vie for the opportunity to get us out of this mess, all of those messes, is -- it's lucky that we've got this tonight.

I think foreign policy would normally tilt in Joe Biden's direction, but it's a double-edged sword right now. You've got Bernie Sanders coming out against him for voting for the Iraq war. He's the only one on that stage who did. And he has struggled to take responsibility for some of the votes that he's taken in the past that now undercut him a little bit with the progressive base.

COOPER: Yes, I mean, he voted to authorize the President George W. Bush at time to go to war with Iraq. He said, I was authorizing diplomacy but --

JONES: You know, that might not even work for Hillary Clinton eight years ago. It's like, unfortunately, he just cannot seem to get that monkey off of his back.

[20:05:02]

I think that if you're Biden, he's got to look the American people in the eye and say, I messed that vote up and I learned a ton and I spent eight years in the Obama administration taking the wisdom forward.

And just -- but say I messed up on it. If Biden spends three or four minutes trying to parse, the vote was really about the U.N., he's going to be losing.

Meanwhile, Bernie has a clear shot at him to say, you know what, you've got experience, he's got bad judgment. Give me a shot.

COOPER: Bernie has said on the trail, I saw the same intelligence that you did, I made a different decision on the Iraq war.

Do you think voters care about that here in Iowa? Do you think they're going to spend a lot of time on that tonight?

MCAULIFFE: If I were advising Joe Biden, I'd say, you know, this was 17 years ago. People are sick and tired of talking about it. We are a world close to war today. We have the Middle East on fire. I have the experience.

So he's got to pivot off of -- we can't keep going back to a vote 17 years ago. We've got issues today that people are concerned about.

I think we're going to have a big worldwide audience, Anderson, watching this tonight. I think world leaders are very concerned. What is going on in America?

And obviously, Trump with all the different excuses and explanations of why he went after Soleimani, so I think, you know --

JONES: And I think it's not just -- it's not just world leaders, I think Americans are going to be watching tonight with different eyes. It's no longer a shop -- window shopping.

MCAULIFFE: Yes.

JONES: You've got to make a decision to buy. We're going to be -- we are now in buy mode, not shop mode. People are going to be listening with very, very different -- and also, you have fewer people.

Before, you had 20 people up there. You couldn't even know the names of half of those people. Now you're down to six people. You can look at them eyeball to eyeball, and people will be in a buy mode.

Don't forget, Friday of this week is the first time that people can actually start voting in America. You have some of the early balloting happening this week. So, you're going from shopping to buying tonight. People are going to be paying much more attention than ever before.

COOPER: You know, you mentioned the size of the room. For folks who are watching at home, this is a very small auditorium.

JONES: A closet.

COOPER: In other debates that we've had, there have been more than a thousand seats, a couple of thousand seats. Here, it's a couple hundred, at most.

How does that affect a debate performance?

MCINTOSH: I mean, it's a very intimate setting. You're going to be able to see the audience, the audience can see you.

I expect it to work well for both women, who tend to do a very good job of relating in town halls. They do a really good job of speaking directly to the audience, remember who's asking the question. I expect to see that dynamic tonight.

And it's interesting, because we're coming into this debate with some serious gender questions on -- it's not just Bernie Sanders that has stepped in it lately over questions of gender. You had Biden saying that Hillary faced sexism, but that wouldn't happen to him.

I think, you know, I think we've all heard progressive leaders say things, like women can't win. That's not an unusual comment to hear in this line of work. It's disappointing, because it doesn't align with the facts. Hillary Clinton got more votes than any white man ever. And the 2018 wave was a wave of women. So the idea that you would say that, it probably suggests that it's a

little more about not wanting to step aside and share the power with a greater pool. And I don't want to believe that about Bernie or Biden.

COOPER: It doesn't seem, though, it's to either candidate's benefit, talking about Warren and Sanders, to really belabor this back and forth on what was said in a room --

MCINTOSH: And she's been so careful about gender, she doesn't want to go there. It's clear.

COOPER: Right, but the damage has been done.

MCAULIFFE: If I'm Amy Klobuchar, I'm going to make sure we have this conversation.

MCINTOSH: She wants to have --

MCAULIFFE: Absolutely.

MCINTOSH: Yes.

MCAULIFFE: We're not letting this go off the table, and she needs to do that.

But the other dynamic about this small audience, having done a lot of candidate debates, it's very intimate. You see a lot of faces in that you know. It's a whole different dynamic than a huge sea of folks here.

You see people you know very closely. It changes your --

COOPER: You can actually see the people in the -- I mean, there are only a couple of rows.

MCINTOSH: Right.

MCAULIFFE: Yes, it's like you're in a living room.

COOPER: Yes, yes.

MCAULIFFE: But one thing I should also mention, why it's important for these folks moving out of Iowa, you've got four early contests and then, Anderson, you've got March 3rd, and you got Michael Bloomberg sitting out there with potentially a billion dollars to spend on March 3rd.

So they need to come out of these first four contests strong. They don't want a muddled field going into March 3rd and potentially a $1 billion --

(CROSSTALK)

JONES: That's one of the ironies here, is we now have a Democratic Party, we have more billionaires in the race than black people. We've got more plutocrats in the race than people of color. And there's something about that that's sitting poorly with people.

I don't know -- I don't blame anybody for it. It's nobody's fault, but everybody's problem, because you could wind up with a situation where at the end of the day, people -- it's going to look like rich white folks just buy the election and why should I participate, and that's a bad thing for everybody.

COOPER: I just want to inform our viewers, we're going to be showing you some of the activities that are happening on stage, the national anthem we'll be hearing shortly. We'll obviously show you that, and also a number of the other speakers.

Right now, this is just various people talking to the audience, explaining the rules of the debate, how things work, and so -- but we'll bring you just a couple of those people throughout this next hour, right before the debate.

Actually, well -- how important is it, though, for -- you know, you talk about Amy Klobuchar, seeing this perhaps as an opportunity, it's got to be an opportunity for her.

[20:10:12]

I mean, she disappears into impeachment hearings into the trial --

MCAULIFFE: I can predict tonight, I bet we're having this conversation at a debate, she will be the most aggressive person tonight. She has to be. She's in sixth. You've got four at the top. She's got to move out.

And she's very good at this. I've traveled the country and done a lot of state Democratic dinners with Amy. She's very good. She's been very genuine in these debates. I think she's come off very well, but she has to go for the jugular tonight.

COOPER: The Biden campaign is running a commercial now Iowa, which is very -- it's basically just focused on President Trump, on why is President Trump always talking about Joe Biden, he's scared of Joe Biden, that's what the ad is saying. Clearly, that's something -- is that something you expect to hear Biden talk about tonight?

MCAULIFFE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the more that he can pretend that he's not in a Democratic primary and that he's already in general, the better it works for him. Electability seems to be the cornerstone of the argument that he's trying to make, whether or not that's based in reality, that's what we need to suss out over the course of the voting we're about to start doing.

COOPER: We're going to take a moment now for the singing of the national anthem, which is performed tonight by Sarah Rosales, a vocal performance major here at Drake University.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the national anthem performed by Drake University student, Sarah Rosales.

(NATIONAL ANTHEM) (APPLAUSE)

COOPER: Sarah Rosales, great, we are going to take a quick break. Next, more on the tension between Senators Warren and Sanders and how that may play out tonight. And as for the president, we'll also talk about the case each candidate has for being the one who can defeat him.

All that and more as our debate night preview gets closer to the big moment. Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:17:50]

COOPER: And welcome back.

You're looking at live pictures of Senator Bernie Sanders arriving here at the debate hall in Des Moines, Iowa. Vice President Biden is the only one, I believe, who at this point is not yet here. Senators Warren, Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer, we believe, are already here.

Less than 45 minutes until the start of tonight's Democratic debate. Topping the headlines going into tonight, obviously, tension between Senator Sanders and Elizabeth Warren over what he said about a woman's chances to win in November. There's a disagreement, obviously, between the two about what was said.

Back now with Terry McAuliffe, Jess McIntosh, and Van Jones.

Van, do you expect that argument, however it's brought up, whoever brings it up, to dominate tonight?

JONES: I don't think it's going to dominate tonight. I think it will come up. I don't think Elizabeth Warren wants to have this conversation. I think she wants to make the case that only she can make. That she actually can be a unifier. The part that you've seen --

COOPER: She doesn't need to have that conversation. She's already dropped the mic.

JONES: It's already out there. Why is she going to waste time on that tonight. She doesn't want it. Bernie doesn't want it.

Let me say a few things about Elizabeth Warren. She was written off. If you would say a year ago that Elizabeth Warren would be as dominant as she's been, people would say, no way. She's fought her way back into this. She slipped a little bit.

Do not write her off. She is the number two choice of a bunch of people. When people go to caucus and just, you know, a couple of weeks, a lot of people will not be in that top 15. They're going to have to pick their number two. Elizabeth Warren is the number two for a lot of people. She's got chance tonight to remind people why she has been a dominant comeback candidate, what she has to offer this country, and be -- and in a position to really surprise people on caucus night.

So, don't write her off. I don't think they're going to get this little nonsense. Don't write her off.

MCINTOSH: It certainly doesn't serve Bernie to get into it. I think defining electability as somebody who looks like me is pretty convenient and pretty obvious, so I don't expect him to continue along that line.

COOPER: And Vice President Biden is arriving here at the debate hall. I believe all the candidates are now here.

(APPLAUSE)

[20:20:03]

MCINTOSH: Elizabeth Warren has been running this sort of slow and steady race all along, and part of the appeal is the ground game. It's that voter-to-voter contact that her staff has been doing in states like Iowa.

So I think one being everybody's second choice actually does matter in a caucus state, where you get the chance to have your second choice matter. And two, we're about to start voting. We're about to start seeing, for real, putting your money where your mouth is, how these candidates' ground games actually are. That's what's going to matter at this point. The national polls no longer do.

COOPER: This room is so small, do you have the feeling that everyone is listening to what you're saying?

MCINTOSH: I do. Absolutely. I feel I should --

COOPER: I notice that you lowered your voice a little bit.

Do you think, I mean, at this point in the race, I won't ask you to say who, do you think each -- do you think candidates have identified themselves as being able to go toe-to-toe with President Trump on a debate stage?

MCINTOSH: Right, for the most part, yes. I would still like to see a little bit more from Pete Buttigieg. He's the newest to me, to begin with.

But I think other than him, I'm confident that anybody who is in our top tier could go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump. He's one of the weakest incumbents we've ever seen. I think he has very little to offer.

COOPER: When you say weakest incumbents you've ever seen -- I mean, he will make the argument on the economy, he'll make the argument -- he's --

MCINTOSH: Oh, sure.

COOPER: He's a formidable -- MCINTOSH: I just mean he's got elected with 26 percent of the country

and he's done absolutely nothing to bring anybody else onboard. Usually, if there was a strong economy, you would see a president out there talking about it. He's not talking about it. He's talking about whatever is on Twitter that day. Whatever is on Fox News that morning.

And a lot of moderate voters are really sick of that. I mean, forgetting about the policies, they're sick about the fact that they have a president who's too busy tweeting to actually get anything done.

So I think once he's going head-to-head with an actual adult, and I think everybody on stage tonight is an actual adult in the room, it's going to be a little bit more obvious.

COOPER: Do you think they have passed that test?

JONES: Look, I see it very differently. I think Donald Trump is a phenomenon. I don't think he's -- I think that liberals and progressives enjoy seeing him as this sort of like clown in chief or whatever.

He represents a very big and very strong movement in the country and it's going to take a movement to stop him. And I think that's why people like Elizabeth Warren and people like Bernie Sanders who are out there building counter-movements, have a lot of appeal.

And I think it's one reason why people are concerned about Biden. Biden has a -- he's a well-known person, a well-liked person. I don't see him building the kind of machinery it's going to take to stop the kind of machinery that Donald Trump has at his disposal.

COOPER: We're going to take a short break. We'll have a lot more from here in the hall as we count down to the debate 37 minutes from now. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:26:38]

COOPER: The CNN Democratic debate in partnership with the "Des Moines Register" is about 34 minutes away. In a moment, we'll hear from Democratic Party chairman, Tom Perez.

Back now with our political team.

Governor McAuliffe, for all of these candidates, how much do you think the voters in this room and across Iowa want to hear or learn about their ability to beat Donald Trump?

MCAULIFFE: Number one issue, by far. It's all -- it's the prism that this entire primaries and caucuses will go through. Who can beat Donald Trump?

We can't afford four more years of this man. He's an existential threat to our country and the globe. So, that's what's driving it. The overlay we have tonight is the whole issue of the Middle East. So,

that's the second piece. It's a volatile world. People are scared. They don't know what Trump's going to do. Is he going to launch more missiles?

So, tonight, people want to see experience, who can handle the foreign policy issues, and who can stand up to Trump?

It's interesting, having followed this a long time, we have four candidates at the top right now. We've never seen this before, this close to an Iowa caucus. Never four candidates at once.

COOPER: It's usually two.

MCAULIFFE: Two, yes, two.

COOPER: Right.

MCAULIFFE: And so, so this is a big night for folks. They've got to break out.

COOPER: Is that a good thing to have four?

MCAULIFFE: I think so, yes. I think everyone's addressing every part of our party. But it's an opportunity now, somebody has to win. We could come out of this with one, two, three, and four very close together.

MCINTOSH: Yes.

MCAULIFFE: And it's sort of a non-issue. And then you head to New Hampshire. I still say South Carolina is most important. So who can win the African-American vote? Because the nominee of the Democratic Party has to bring the African-American community and energize them going forward.

COOPER: Time now to hear from DNC Chair Tom Perez.

TOM PEREZ, DNC CHAIR: Hello, Democrats! Welcome to our seventh Democratic presidential debate. Welcome to the great state of Iowa.

You know, 12 years ago, my old boss, Barack Obama, came here to Iowa. He urged us to remember a simple but powerful principle. That people who love this country can change it.

And he told us, change doesn't come from the top down. It comes from the bottom up. And that's exactly why we've returned power to you, the voters. Because of our reforms, no single candidate has amassed a single delegate yet. And your voice is more meaningful than ever.

On February 3rd, we will begin a 90-day sprint. This is it, folks. This is the stretch where we come together and decide who will beat Donald Trump. And make no mistake, we will defeat Donald Trump and restore our democracy.

Folks -- (APPLAUSE)

And as Troy pointed out, because of the reforms we've put in place here, there will be 97 satellite sites where people can participate. So there's no doubt in my mind that we are seeing unprecedented enthusiasm and that translates into participation. Because of our new grassroots debate criteria, you could help a candidate get on the debate stage by contributing as little as $1.

Through ActBlue, the grassroots Democrats like you contributed 1 billion to Democrats and organizations working to elect Democrats at every level last year. And together with the DNC, the DNC and the candidates for president raised $100 million more in 2019 than Donald Trump and the RNC, $100 million more.

(APPLAUSE)

[20:30:00]

And folks, these donations came from every day Americans who love our country and want to change it for the better.

We have real momentum and tonight our candidates will undoubtedly have a spirited debate. And they all know that this election is not about them, it's about our democracy. And that is why every candidate has agreed, has taken a pledge with enthusiasm to support our eventual nominee.

You may not see your first choice win the nomination, but I'll tell you, your second choice, your third choice are 100 percent better than Donald Trump. I'll tell you something -- I'll tell you something, you know, in fact, you could walk into the middle of Fifth Avenue and randomly choose a stranger and they would be better than Donald Trump.

I mean, this President is chronically ineffective on every issue. He needs to stop tweeting and start solving problems. If you want a lesson in real leadership, look at Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats.

Thank God for Speaker Pelosi, the most impactful speaker in American history. Under her leadership, they've passed over 400 bills to help the American people. More than 200 of these are bipartisan. And when we elect a democratic President and take over the United States Senate, they will become law.

Sixty years ago, John F. Kennedy stood right here in Iowa and called for Americans to restore "common sense and common justice" to the Oval Office. Once more, we must answer that call. Common sense means we should protect our farmers from reckless trade policies. It says, no one should be able to purchase a gun without a background check.

Common sense says that we ought to have a secretary of education who actually believes in public education. Go figure. And an EPA administrator who believes in science and takes on climate change. Common sense says we ought to have an attorney general who's the people's lawyer, not the president's lawyer. Common justice demands that the Affordable Care Act remain the law of the land. Common justice demands that if you have a preexisting condition, you should keep your health care coverage. Common justice demands that women have the right to control their own bodies.

Common justice says that workers have a right to organize and immigrants have the right to dignity. Common justice says you don't put kids in cages. It says that families belong together. Common justice demands that we call out anti-Semitism, we call out violence against our Muslim brothers and sisters, we call out violence against our Native American sisters, and we call out all hate-fueled violence. It's not complicated, Mr. President.

Common justice demands that LGBTQ Americans have the right to live how they want to live and love who they want. That's what Democrats are fighting for. That's what every candidate is fighting for. And you want to join that fight, please text unify to 43667. Unify, 43667.

Now, get out there to vote. Get your family out there to vote. Let's elect a Democrat as the next President of the United States. Let's get on with our debate. Thank you very much.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: That was Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Much more to talk about as the debate approaches. We got another team of political professionals on hand. We're going to get their take on what to expect. We'll see the candidates introduced and then buckle up for what promises to be a significant and consequential final debate before the Iowa caucuses. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[20:38:39]

COOPER: And we are minutes away from the introduction of the candidates here in Des Moines. When that happens, we'll obviously bring that to you live.

Joining us right now is CNN's Senior Political Commentator and former senior adviser to President Obama, David Axelrod, CNN Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, and CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger.

Dana, there is a lot of expectations. There's a lot of, obviously, focus on what is going to happen on that stage 20 days before the caucuses. This is it.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's really hard to imagine that we're here. And it's also important to understand, it's kind of hard to overstate how critical what we're going to see behind us is going to be for the reason that you just said because we are so close.

Because this is the last time -- even though it's Iowa and all of the caucus goers pride themselves on meeting candidates personally, not one, two, or three times, there's all of that. But there's something different about seeing them on stage in a way where people can imagine them as commander in chief and where they can really communicate what kind of Democratic nominee they will be for the contest against Trump.

COOPER: Also, I mean, the latest polling shows a very tight four-way race at the top. Not a lot of time left, obviously.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. This is an unusual situation. You don't generally, 20 days out, have four candidates bunched up this way. And they're going to look to try and separate themselves tonight.

[20:40:01]

And within that separation, you also have sort of intramurals, right, because you have Bernie and Elizabeth Warren on -- vying for the progressive vote. You have Biden trying to hold down that center-left lane and Pete Buttigieg needing to pass him really to be viable moving forward.

And then you have Amy Klobuchar, who is not in that top tier, who desperately needs to have a great night to try and jump-start something. And remember, three of them have jury duty. They're leaving here and they're not going to be back for a while.

COOPER: For the impeachment trial.

AXELROD: The impeachment trial in Washington.

BASH: Tomorrow.

AXELROD: So this has raised the stakes for all of them.

COOPER: You also, Gloria, you have four people in the top tier all very close. And you have in the latest poll, as many as 60 percent of voters saying they either can change their mind or haven't identified their lead candidate.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. So you have 58 percent, 60 percent of people saying, well, OK, I'm not sure, a tight race. And by the way, the world changed over the last couple of weeks. So I think what we're going to see tonight is a very different kind of debate. We haven't been talking about foreign policy a lot in these debates. And I think it's going to be very important issue here. I think Joe Biden --

COOPER: Senator Sanders has been tying to make it --

BORGER: He has.

COOPER: -- an issue by focusing on Biden's Iraq war record.

BORGER: And he'll do it tonight. I'm going to make a guess, I'm going to go out on a limb here, I'm going to say he's going to do it again. And I think others will, too. I wouldn't be surprised if Warren did that. But -- and Biden is going to have to defend that vote. But he's going to try to portray himself as the man with experience, the man who can bring stability, and that is also another thing voters here are looking for.

They want somebody who can beat Donald Trump. And people on this stage are going to compete for that, as well. So it's commander in chief and it is somebody who can take on this President and win.

AXELROD: I actually think that -- I'm sorry. I actually think that is the core of the Biden argument. The most important thing is to beat Trump. I'm the guy who can beat Trump. And therefore, I think these scrums with Bernie Sanders are something that he's actually looking for, because part of his case is going to be, if you don't pick me, it could be him. And he's not going to be able to beat Donald Trump because he's too far out on the left.

By the same token, I think Sanders will welcome those exchanges, because among progressives, he wants to use Biden as kind of an avatar of the establishment and the status quo. And so, in a weird way, they have this symbiotic thing going that serves both their purposes.

BASH: And he really showed his cards when he was on with you last week, Bernie Sanders, when he began to go after Joe Biden in a way that it was clear that he read his briefing book, you know, not that he didn't know these things, but he was prepared to go after him, post what happened in Iran on these issues of national security.

And you're exactly right, up until now, the big policy divide that we have seen between these candidates has been on domestic issues, first and foremost, health care. And because foreign policy hasn't been front and center, we haven't seen these divides. And it is so fascinating to see how, as you said, both of those candidates, and others, I mean, Pete Buttigieg is the only veteran on the stage, to kind of show their stuff on something that they haven't been able to talk about on this kind of stage.

BORGER: You know, and while they're all going to go back, three of them are going to go back to impeachment, talked about that, that's not what voters here want to really hear. If you look at our polling and other people's polling, they really care about health care. They really care about education. And I think the possibility of another war focuses voters.

And Biden is going to try to use that to his advantage. And Bernie Sanders is going to try and say Joe Biden, when it counted, you didn't have the right judgment on Iraq, and that is what, of course, Obama used so successfully, as you know, against Hillary Clinton.

AXELROD: You know, there were two candidates who were the leaders in the summer and the fall. Warren and Buttigieg were the polling leaders in the summer and the fall and they have staked a lot on Iowa. Their campaigns really are predicated on winning Iowa and gaining momentum from Iowa. They've slipped out of the lead in these polls, Warren in a most pronounced way. And one of the questions tonight is how do they separate themselves out and try and regain the advantage going into these final 20 days.

COOPER: Also in Iowa, as in many places for Democratic voters, health care is a top issue, the number one issue, probably along the lines of also, can you beat President Trump. Right now, Senator Sanders is really only one still kind of -- still backing the Medicare for All. I mean, Senator Warren --

AXELROD: I actually think a smart play, given the greater salience of the President and what he's trying to do relative to the Affordable Care Act, would be to try and refocus, if you were one of the other candidates, on the real and imminent threat to the Affordable Care Act and health care for millions of Americans.

[20:45:05]

And I've been surprised, that was a winning issue for Democrats in 2018. I've been so surprised that these candidates haven't been more willing to --

BASH: Well, Joe Biden has been trying to do that.

AXELROD: He has.

BASH: Because for obvious reasons and it's --

COOPER: And by the way, we'll let our viewers know, the candidates are coming down toward the arena from the area where they've been preparing. So they're approaching the building where we are now to get ready --

AXELROD: Like watching astronauts get ready for their launch.

COOPER: And they'll also be introduced. We'll obviously show that to you as Wolf introduces all of them. The moderators are now on the stage. Sorry, go ahead.

BORGER: The long walk.

BASH: No. I don't remember what we were talking about specifically.

AXELROD: Health care.

BASH: But you're right, it's been that delicate balance between trying to show along the lines of, I'm the person who can beat Donald Trump, and I want to talk about things that you, the electorate want to talk about broadly, and the appeal to a very loud, very powerful progressive base --

AXELROD: Right.

BASH: -- that is dying to hear them talk about some things beyond Obamacare.

BORGER: And don't forget, the President tweeted this week, I'm the one who tried to save --

AXELROD: Yes.

BORGER: -- your preexisting conditions, which gives everybody an opening here to say, no, no, no, that's not true. You're actually in court trying to say --

AXELROD: Do away with those protections.

BORGER: -- we didn't need to do that. And so I've been surprised, like you guys have, that this hasn't been a stronger issue. And if you're going to try and beat Donald Trump, you have to have an argument on that. And instead, they've been talking about Medicare for All. So maybe that now slide --

AXELROD: And you know, actually -- and I could see, as you mentioned, I could see Biden. I could also see Klobuchar or Buttigieg using that pivot again tonight and saying, that's fine, we can talk about Medicare for All. But here on planet earth --

BORGER: Right.

AXELROD: -- the Affordable Care Act is on the griddle here and the President is trying end to it. And if he gets reelected, he may succeed in that. This is a mortal issue for --

BORGER: Exactly.

AXELROD: -- tens of millions of Americans. It would be an effective way of kind of highlighting once again the sort of philosophical differences within these Democratic ranks.

BORGER: And now that you mentioned Amy Klobuchar, this is a really important evening for her. She's done well in the last couple of debates. She's still not in that top tier. There isn't a lot of time left for her to get there. So she has to find a way to distinguish herself tonight so voters here take notice of her and see her as a potential commander in chief and as somebody who could defeat Donald Trump.

AXELROD: She's the one, I think, suffers the most from being absent. I think she needs to be in the state.

BORGER: Yes.

AXELROD: She doesn't have the kind of resources that the other candidates have to advertise. This is really most harmful to her. So I think that adds to the pressure that she faces.

One thing about these people going off for -- to be there for the trial is for Buttigieg the opportunity is not just that he's going to be in the state alone, but that he's not part of that whole Washington scene.

BASH: Exactly.

AXELROD: And that's really an integral part of his message.

COOPER: He's also the only veteran on the stage, which I'm sure he will talk about tonight, point out his service.

AXELROD: Yes, especially relative to the situation in Iran. He's spoken a lot during this campaign about the endless wars. He makes a big point of the fact that people were not born yet, who now can serve in the war that was started by that --

COOPER: And he's been more critical of Biden for his war conversations, as well.

BASH: He has.

AXELROD: Yes, yes. But I -- you know, it's been interesting to see. He's been -- Klobuchar, Buttigieg, they've been reluctant to go right at Biden, even though they seem to be sharing a pool of voters because you do want -- you don't want to antagonize people who are still deciding. Biden is well-liked by these people. That's the tricky path in all of this. How aggressive do you get before you turn off people who are among those 60 percent, who still might decide.

BORGER: But there's no time left. And so if you're going to start slinging arrows at people, now is the time to do it and they've largely played nice so far and I think they're not going to play so nice tonight.

AXELROD: It's been ramping up, yes.

BORGER: Yes, exactly. And we see that in the fight between, you know, between Warren and Sanders over gender and whether he told her that a woman couldn't win. I don't think they're going to engage on that tonight. That took place --

COOPER: Governor McAuliffe was out here earlier saying that he thinks they may not engage on it, but that Senator Klobuchar --

AXELROD: Yes, I think that's right. I think that's right.

(CROSSTALK)

BASH: Because she's -- look, she's been really the one person on this stage over and over again who has not been hurt by being aggressive. It's been really interesting. For the most part, the people who have, you know, probably been hurt by being aggressive, it's the candidates who went after Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker at the first debate that CNN did. She has been able to distinguish herself --

[20:50:09]

BORGER: Right.

BASH: -- by not being afraid to go after Elizabeth Warren on the policy differences, really important policy differences that they have on health care, for example. And so this is her chance, the most important chance she has, to do that tonight, especially since she's going to be gone --

AXELROD: She's also leavened some of those attacks with humor --

BASH: Yes. AXELROD: -- which is a really big asset in debates like this, and particularly if you're trying to land a blow, humor is important. But I agree with Gloria, this is -- you know, she's on the outside looking in here and something really, really important has to happen here for her.

She has a chance because there are, I think, a lot of Iowans who are really -- Iowans have their own pace of this and they are not going to commit too early. And now they've turned the corner, OK, it's in front of us, so let's hear what you have to say. So in some sense, these are final arguments here.

BORGER: Yes.

AXELROD: These are the closing arguments. And what you want to most of all do is leave people with a clear sense of your comparative advantage in this race.

COOPER: It is so fascinating, though, to have four, you know, four people at the top out in front, pretty close together in the polls, because of the caucuses, the way the voting is done on caucus night, when people are caucusing, sometimes they have to go with their second choice. And so that sort of plays a whole other dynamic.

BASH: Especially given --

BORGER: Well, that's for Amy.

BASH: Right.

BORGER: That's for Klobuchar.

BASH: It's good for her, but it's --

BORGER: She can be someone's second choice.

BASH: It's also important given what you were talking about earlier, which is the fluidity of this race and the number of people, the percentage of people who say, in many polls, including CNN's poll, how -- that they're not committing.

COOPER: Do you think that's fear over -- of sort of who can beat Donald Trump or questions about who can beat Donald Trump?

AXELROD: I do. I think that that is very much on the minds of Iowans. They take their roles seriously and they know that this is going to set the table for the rest of the race. And I think that's a very -- you can see it in the polling, that's a very big consideration.

I do think that people tend to rationalize their choice. You know, you heard Van sitting here earlier saying, well, we need a movement to beat Donald Trump. That's a different interpretation than --

BASH: Its head or heart. AXELROD: Yes. So, you know, I think that people rationalize their choices in these kinds of situations. But that's definitely one of the deciding factors, I think, for a lot of voters in this state.

BORGER: Look, these people want to win. That's the number one issue for them. They want to beat Donald Trump. So they're going to be looking on that stage and saying, can Amy Klobuchar go head-to-head against Donald Trump? Well, we'll see tonight. She has to show that she can. Biden has already been a vice president. They know that. So that --

AXELROD: Yes, although, he needs a strong -- another strong performance.

BORGER: He does.

AXELROD: I keep saying, he has a certain -- there's a certain kind of performance anxiety surrounding him. He performs and his supporters are anxious --

BORGER: Right.

AXELROD: -- because they don't know exactly whether he's going to come through.

BASH: Well, he's going to be in the middle of the stage again with, you know, flanked by two people who have been going after one another from afar. And it's going to be, again --

COOPER: CNN's Wolf Blitzer, as you know, is one of the moderators tonight. He's about to introduce the candidates. Let's go to Wolf now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: -- the last debate before the first votes. This CNN Democratic Presidential Debate will feature the smallest debate stage yet of this cycle, six candidates. Let's bring them out. From Delaware, former Vice President, Joe Biden.

From Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: How you doing tonight?

JOE BIDEN (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Good. Be careful, you're on.

BLITZER: From Massachusetts, Senator Elizabeth Warren.

From Indiana, former South Bend mayor, Pete Buttigieg.

From California, businessman, Tom Steyer.

From Minnesota, Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome tonight's candidates.

[20:55:15] COOPER: There you have the candidates who have now been introduced. Photographers will be taking pictures of them for just a few -- a minute or two and then they'll take their positions, get used to the podiums. They've had a chance earlier in the day or at least members of their campaigns have had a chance earlier in the day to check them out. And the debate will get underway in just a matter of four and a half minutes.

David Axelrod, let me start with you. Just in terms of your final thoughts about what viewers at home right now should be watching for over the next two hours.

AXELROD: Yes. I think they should be watching for clarity. I think they should be watching for candidates making distinctive cases as to why they are the ones who can beat Trump first and why and what makes them different than the other people on the stage.

The people who aren't on the stage are largely not on the stage because they failed to do that. And now, as Iowans are focusing, making that final closing argument is absolutely essential.

COOPER: Twenty days left.

BASH: It's true. And, look, you can -- in talking to the campaigns, you can feel the tension and the anxiety in a way that you didn't feel and hear from them almost a week ago. They understand how incredibly important this debate is.

And, you know, CNN is partnering with the Des Moines Register. It is a tradition here in Iowa to really focus on the Des Moines Register in this final debate as a final arbiter for a lot of these voters, of these caucus goers who are going to show up in 20 days.

And yes, there is still a lot of fluidity, but what they do here tonight is going to be absolutely critical and maybe changing some of that. Maybe moving the 60 percent, saying they're not so sure down a little bit and making them more locked in.

BORGER: You know, in the last couple of weeks, people understand what a dangerous world we live in and they're voting for a president. And I think they want to see somebody up there who can guide them through the tribulations that we now face.

And I think that we're looking at a different kind of debate now than we did previously, not only because we're close to the caucus, not only because people are undecided, but because after what has occurred in Iran, people want to know that they will have a leader they can trust to lead them in these dangerous times.

And I think trust and credibility and stability, as David was talking about, are the key things that they're going to want to see here, as well as somebody who, of course, can beat the President.

BASH: Trust and stability and the commander in chief test, yes. But, again, it brings a whole another dynamic when you look at the differing views that Democratic voters and here caucus goers have of what they want in a commander in chief.

Do they want a Bernie Sanders anti-interventionist, or do they want somebody who has experience and who has, as I'm sure you will hear behind us, voted for things like the Iraq war and maybe has made other decisions that he doesn't regret and has been a leader on national security, but also has some that he does.

AXELROD: But as I said earlier, it can benefit both of them within their own bases. Bernie Sanders could consolidate the progressive base if people see him as leading the way on this anti-interventionist campaign.

You know, Joe Biden I think has bona fide national security credentials. He has to explain the Iraq vote. But, you know, I saw him in the administration when I was there and, you know, he has a great deal of experience. The world knows him. He knows the world. That's an advantage to him and he's going to try to take advantage of it here.

BORGER: Yes. And these are voters, and throughout the country as you head to the election, there's a key decision. Do you want a revolution right now or do you just want stability to get you through the next whatever it is? And that's the choice that voters in Iowa have and I think it's the choice that the electorate has.

AXELROD: Some -- and the fact is that you have a multi-candidate field here. So it may be that there are enough people who want a revolution to allow a Bernie Sanders to win and there are enough people who want evolution to allow a Joe Biden to win --

BORGER: That's right.

AXELROD: -- because of the way the votes divide up.

COOPER: And it all comes down for three of the senators on this stage to tonight. They are going to be off the trail largely on impeachment. Let's go -- that's it for us right here. We'll be back after the debate. Right now, let's go over to Wolf Blitzer.