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Ahead Of Debate, Trump Campaign Throwing Out Distractions; Sources: Biden, Trump Practiced Ways To Get Under Each Other's Skin; Awaiting Start Of First Trump-Biden Debate; Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) Is Interviewed About Tonight's Presidential Debate Between Trump And Biden. Aired 7-8p ET

Aired September 29, 2020 - 19:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: May they rest in peace and may their memories be a blessing. I'm Wolf Blitzer. Thanks very much for watching CNN's special coverage of this historic first presidential debate starts right now.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: On this stage and on this night, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are facing off in their first debate. It is a high-risk test with enormous consequences for a nation in crisis. It is Debate Night in America on a special edition of OUTFRONT. I'm so glad to be with you. I'm Erin Burnett.

And the public has never seen a presidential debate like the one we are about to watch on the campus of Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. The candidates going head-to-head under unprecedented circumstances amidst of a deadly pandemic. Obviously, we've got an interest in early voting, breaking records right now.

And just days after a bombshell, New York Times report exposing the President's tax avoidance and massive indebtedness. We expect to hear about all of that tonight and so much more when the candidates take the stage. It all begins in about two hours.

They're behind stage, those final preparations. And because of the coronavirus, they will not shake hands and everyone in the very scale back audience is required to take a COVID-19 test. And tonight, of course, I'm here with Anderson Cooper.

And Anderson, what more can we expect tonight?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Well, Erin, as we know the debate is going to be 90 minutes without commercial breaks. Viewers will see President Trump on the left standing at a podium. This is the first time he's debated since 2016. Vice President Biden will stand at a podium to the right on your TV screen.

There'll be no opening statements by the candidates, the moderator is Chris Wallace of Fox News. He'll be seated at a desk. His first question will go to President Trump, that was decided by a coin toss.

The debate will be divided into 15-minute segments covering these topics: COVID-19, the economy and race. The moderator says the segment will include violence in U.S. cities. The other debate topics are the Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court and the integrity of the election.

We are covering this momentous night that only CNN can with Daniel Dale fact-checking every word, CNN's Ana Cabrera and a group of undecided Ohio voters will be watching the debate, David Chalian will have the first glimpse of who won from a CNN instant poll. Erin back to you.

BURNETT: All right. All of that course and let's check in with our correspondents who have been with the candidates. Kaitlan Collins and Arlette Saenz are inside the debate hall.

And first, Kaitlan, I want to go to you. What are you learning about President Trump's strategy tonight? I know he is there on the ground already.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he is. He's already done his walk through here tonight. And what will be interesting, Erin, is that for two years we have seen the President tried to paint Joe Biden as weak and unfit for office, basically saying that he wouldn't last a minute on the debate stage with him and tonight that's going to come into question.

And you've seen advisors fear that that strategy could backfire in recent weeks, because they've tried to undo some of that tactic from the President by saying that Joe Biden is a strong debater. We shouldn't expect anything less from him, but that is certainly not the message that the President has been selling since 2018 when he started calling him sleepy Joe Biden.

So tonight they are going to come face-to-face on the stage. But Erin, in the hours leading up to this, we saw the Trump campaign going after Biden already trying to claim that they were going to do an earpiece check beforehand. Yes, an earpiece check before the debate, but then the Biden campaign decided they were no longer going to go through with that. The Biden campaign denied that.

The Trump campaign also tried to say that Joe Biden and his team asked for several breaks during the 90 minutes that they're going to be on stage, that Biden campaign denied that as well. And this all comes as the President in recent weeks has tried to say that he believed Joe Biden needed to take a drug test before the debate because he and his aides has said they believe Joe Biden is on these performance enhancing drugs.

Basically, Erin, they are putting a lot of noise out there trying to really muddy the waters ahead of this debate before it is even gotten kicked off, of course, it will here in just about two hours.

BURNETT: All right. Kaitlan, thank you and I want to go to Arlette Saenz now.

So Arlette, Kaitlan giving some context into the back and forth going on between the campaigns tonight. What are you learning about Joe Biden's preparations? ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, Erin, Joe Biden has

participated in dozens of debates over his career, but tonight's might just be the most consequential as he prepares to take on President Trump face-to-face. We know that Joe Biden is a meticulous debate preparer. He has had a mix of mock debates and rapid-fire question and answer sessions with his advisors heading into this debate with that last final major debate prep session taking place.

Yesterday, he's been reviewing some of his briefing materials heading into tonight he spent about 20 minutes here at the debate hall doing his walkthrough this evening.

[19:05:07]

And he has some of his top advisors on hand including a man named Ron Klain who helped Hillary Clinton prepare for her debate prep against President Trump back in 2016, bringing an understanding of what it is like to face off on that debate stage against the President. But ultimately, Biden's advisors say that tonight he is going to try to display and promote his vision for the country.

We often hear Joe Biden talking about unity, he's expected to focus a lot on what he would do related to the economy and the coronavirus. Two areas where he believes the President has failed.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Arlette. And as we continue our coverage here, socially distanced, I'm here with our panel, David Gregory, of course, our contributor, longtime political expert, Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, so much coverage of this president and Michael Smerconish of the Smerconish (inaudible) ...

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's a mouthful, isn't it?

BURNETT: Yes.

SMERCONISH: You only have to say it once tonight, Erin, don't worry.

BURNETT: All right. So thanks to all. So this is going to be, David, the stakes are extremely high. This is the debate that, I mean, you can argue in any setting which debate matters the most. People have already started to vote though this time in a way that has never happened before.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there's very few big moments in a campaign and this is one of them, because this is a time when a lot of people tune in to check out what's going on. Maybe they checked out the conventions, they're going to check out at least one of these debates, and then they're going to go vote.

They may not be paying attention to every outrage of the day. But they know one thing, the country is in crisis, that there is a pandemic, that there is racial strife, that there's economic ruin, because of the pandemic. And there's a real tear, I think, in the social fabric of the country that we're all feeling in our isolation. So there's a big moment. I think what makes it big tonight is both of these, the President and

the contender and Biden are looking not only to create a moment against the other, but they're trying to reassure voters who have not made up their mind, not a lot left presumably, trying to reassure them about them. So what are those things that voters are worried about with regard to Joe Biden, what are those things that that persuadable voters are worried about with Trump.

That's what they want to try to do and they want to try to disqualify the other and look for those moments tonight.

BURNETT: So Maggie, Trump as Kaitlan was just pointing out, this is his first debate since 2016. But we all saw those debates. I remember being in a Texas airport hotel when he did the little hands thing and you think to yourself, oh, my goodness. But that you don't know what he's going to do and that is what Joe Biden has to be prepared for.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: And look and I think the Biden campaign is prepared for that. I mean, unlike Hillary Clinton's campaign, which I think didn't put as much stock in watching those primary debates, where it was very clear what Donald Trump was going to do and that because he doesn't follow any rules, that ends up being an edge.

And because the moderators never feel they're in a position to call that out, that ends up being an edge. And so I think that they are prepared for that. I think the concern for the Biden campaign has been not letting Trump get under Biden's skin. I'm not saying anything shocking here. Trump has been telegraphing punches for weeks at this point that he's going to use to try to aggravate Joe Biden.

But I do think, I agree with David that I think this is the chance to be a big moment, but I think for slightly different reason. I don't think there are a ton of undecided voters out there. I think it's a pretty ...

BURNETT: Really small group, yes.

HABERMAN: ... calcified electorate.

BURNETT: Yes.

HABERMAN: And I think if you are President Trump, what you are looking for is moments that change the dynamics and structure of this campaign and he is running out of time. He is running out of moments in which to do that. And I don't know that attacking Joe Biden, frankly, works in his favor the same way attacking Hillary Clinton did.

I think that Joe Biden is seen by the public fairly or unfairly very differently.

BURNETT: And Michael, here's the other thing, you look at the polling and there's all this polling coming in, you do see Biden ahead. I mean, that's what you see in the polls.

SMERCONISH: Sure. BURNETT: It doesn't mean that's what we're going to see. It's just

that is the dynamic coming into tonight. What does that mean for how they act on that stage?

SMERCONISH: I think something counterintuitive. All of the data suggests that Donald Trump is losing this race and losing this race badly right now. You might, therefore, think that the pressure is on him tonight. I happen to think that it's on Joe Biden, because of all the claims that Trump has made about Biden's acuity.

The good news for Biden is that Vice President Biden that bar has been set so low that he ought to easily be able to step over it. The other thing is I don't think that Vice President Biden needs to win this debate. Permit me a Philly reference, but I think of this like Rocky I and he's Rocky and the President is the showman in Apollo Creed.

Rocky didn't win that fight. He went the distance. All Joe Biden needs to do is be standing at the end so that people can take a look at him in the face of all those crazy claims that have been made by the President and say, well, geez, you did pretty well tonight.

[19:10:06]

BURNETT: This is something - this is the bar (inaudible) so low.

HABERMAN: Honestly, the bar is so low, number one. But number two, one of the things that the Trump folks have been looking at. And the President has prepared for this debate, they like to pretend as if he's done nothing, it's all on the fly to try to lower their own expectations. But he actually has spent time in debate prep sessions.

And one of the things that they have been focusing on is this idea that they have that Biden does best in the first 30 minutes or so. They think that that is where they have to take on Biden, because they believe that it will get quieter. And while they have finally gotten the President to start realizing that, yes, Joe Biden actually did really well in a debate against Bernie Sanders when it was one-on-one as opposed to when it was 10 candidates or so on stage.

Their argument is that Sanders was not trying to get under Biden's skin and so they think that they will be able to do something, the more time goes on. So well, I agree with you that I think that he does have to go the distance.

SMERCONISH: Yes.

HABERMAN: I think it's somewhat of a complicated calculation.

GREGORY: I would just like to employ rocky references of all the films throughout the hour if that's possible.

HABERMAN: Who among us?

GREGORY: But I think I actually - I agree with Michael. I think the vulnerability for Biden is twofold. One, he has to protect himself against the wrap that he's some kind of foil for the extreme left of the party. I think there's voters who are worried about that and two is he up for the job.

BURNETT: Right.

GREGORY: I've been doing a lot of reading about the 1980 race and so those debates between Carter and Reagan, Reagan had a similar thing. There was age, but there was also he is he up for the job, even though Carter was so vulnerable.

So in this case, I think those are two areas that he's got to play defense on. He's thinking one thing, this is Trump and it's about the pandemic, it's about COVID, I have to take him down on that and remind voters however many are out there thinking, yes, it's been kind of bad on the virus, but I'd like some other things.

No, this guy's not up for the job. That's what Biden is trying to do.

SMERCONISH: David, I like the reference to the Reagan '80s. I go with '84 and Reagan was holding in his hip pocket that line about I'm not going to permit my opponent to exploit the youth and inexperience of my opponent. I bumbled the line, but he delivered it well.

You have to believe that if nothing else, Joe Biden's got a line to deal with Donald Trump tonight when some kind of a specious charge is made about his mental fitness.

GREGORY: There you go again.

SMERCONISH: What will that line be, we'll see what it is.

GREGORY: There you go again, you could be right.

BURNETT: All right. All staying with me as we count down to tonight's debate in Cleveland. We have new numbers on how many voters have cast ballots already in this crucial election and why that makes the first Trump Biden face off even more important, much more of our special coverage ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:16:23]

COOPER: We are back with our special coverage of the first debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. They are facing off tonight as so many Americans already are casting ballots. Pamela Brown has new information on that. So where does early voting stand right now?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, early voting interests continue to skyrocket. Take a look at the numbers here, more than 1.2 million Americans have already cast their ballot and we still have a little over a month ago until Election Day.

And then this is coming from publicly available data from 20 states, 800,000 ballots have already been cast in the most competitive states. And to take a little bit of a closer look at one of those battleground states, North Carolina, look at the numbers here. As you see, Democrats have a big advantage over Republicans, 147,000 Democrats versus 46,000 Republicans have cast their ballots.

But we should note that CNN polling shows that Trump supporters are more likely to actually go in-person to the to the polls on election day. And so these numbers don't necessarily determine the outcome of the election. But let's look at Wisconsin, another battleground states. Already 308,000 voters have cast their ballots.

And what the numbers are showing us is that people are returning their ballots quickly. They're receiving and returning quickly. Seeming to heed the advice from election experts to get those ballots in early. And if you'd like to learn more, of course, about voting in your state, just go to cnn.com/slash vote and you can learn more about how voting works where you are, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes. I mean, obviously, with the votes already coming in quickly, it makes this first debate even more important to people making their decisions. Can you show us how it works?

BROWN: Yes, absolutely. In fact, people in 32 states have already voted essentially by the debate tonight. But then look at how the number jumps up from tonight. You look at the vice presidential debate, the number jumps up to 45 states.

And then by the second presidential debate, look at this, Anderson, all states but two. And then the last one, all states allow early voting. And so that just shows you how high the stakes are for both of these candidates tonight to make their case, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, those early votes. Pamela, thanks. And tonight's debate all figure into the bottom line of this election who can get the 270 electoral votes needed to win. John King is at the magic wall. So take us through the potential paths to victory, John.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, let's start with the underdog, Joe Biden, because he is knocking at the door entering the first debate. What do I mean by that? It takes 270 electoral votes to win.

We have Joe Biden right now in our calculation ahead solid or leaning 269 electoral votes, the dark blue, the deep blue, that solid Biden. The lighter blue like Colorado like Arizona, like Nevada that's leaning Biden. Joe Biden is already at 269 electoral vote, so if nothing changed on this map, if he turns in strong debates and he holds what he has right now, think about this, if Joe Biden could win this congressional district out in Nebraska, Democrats have won it before, Joe Biden leads in that district right now.

Just that one congressional district, Joe Biden could get to 270, the magic number to win the presidency. Just think about that, Joe Biden could win the presidency without winning Ohio, without winning Pennsylvania, without winning North Carolina, without winning Georgia and without winning Florida. It is possible for Joe Biden.

Democrats though, they know, Joe Biden is well ahead in Pennsylvania right now. They believe they can hold on that and run it up and block President Trump. Joe Biden is competitive. North Carolina is very tight, but Joe by this competitive, big African-American turnout, big suburban turnout, Joe Biden could win North Carolina.

Florida would be the absolute knockout impossible to see Donald Trump get to 270 without Florida. Democrats have a dream of a route. They believe they're even in play perhaps in Georgia, perhaps in Ohio. Some Democrats want the Biden campaign, Anderson, to spend money in places like Iowa and in places like Texas, which are leaning red right now.

The Biden campaign is going to have to make a decision after this first debate into the final weeks, where do we spend our resources, do we try to just play it like we think it is, play it safe.

[19:20:06]

Go for the Midwest and the Rust Belt or do you try to venture out help Democratic candidates in other races. The challenge for the President is that this map, the 2016 map, now it looks like a distant dream. Remember, he flipped Wisconsin, he flipped Michigan, he flipped Pennsylvania.

The President enters tonight's debate needing to change this race in a dramatic way. Yes, he's at 169 right now, solid Trump, leaning Trump, very conceivable, very, very conceivable. Let me bring this back to this, very conceivable to see the President winning Ohio. It's a Republican-leaning state.

Very conceivable to see the President win in Florida. It has Republican DNA. Georgia, Republican DNA, conceivable to see the President win. He's competitive. Same with North Carolina, he's competitive. Even if you won all of those, he's only at 247 and even then if he won Pennsylvania, he's only a 267.

Now, that would make it interesting if the President can run the board. But think of the enormity of that challenge, the resources, the Trump campaigns actually short cashed. He has to win Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida and then he would still have to do more. Get one of those, get both of those congressional districts there or sorry, I hit that, let me come back to this. Or can the President flip a state.

He wants to flip Arizona, he's been out in Nevada. But Anderson, we entered this first debate. You're looking at this map. We all remember 2016. The President has proven he can surprise us. The President has proven remember when he flipped these states four years ago, but right now when Joe Biden walks on that stage, he knows the door, he's knocking at the door to 270. The President knows this is not 2016. He needs to flip this race dramatically.

COOPER: Yes. John, I'm sure there's a lot of people at home who are watching and thinking back to 2016 and remembering you at the wall and it seemed like there wasn't a path for Donald Trump in electoral votes and then suddenly there was.

KING: Very late, very late, remember if you follow this back to Trump campaign, he likes to say the polls were all wrong. If you go back late into the last campaign and let me just come back to this map here to Donald Trump's victory. Late in the last campaign. Yes, he was trailing. Yes, he was trailing. But he was coming back in Michigan. He was coming back in Wisconsin. He was moving in Pennsylvania.

The polls at the state level were moving his way and the national race was down to two or three points, in some cases one point, Clinton leave. Right now nationally, Biden is up on average about eight points. If he stays up eight points nationally, it's really hard to see Trump pulling the thought. If that national lead shrinks to five, falls below five, then you start going back through the state by state calculations.

Donald Trump is in play. He's competitive in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, even these down in Pennsylvania, but it's just a much tougher map this time. Yes, he did come back last time. He was the outsider. He was the insurgent. Anderson, the biggest difference is, he's an embattled, incumbent in the middle of a pandemic, much harder to change the dynamic of the race.

COOPER: Yes. John King, thanks very much. Here now with our team, Van Jones. What are you looking for tonight? Because I think back to those debates, the last time around against Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump. I moderated one of them. I thought it couldn't get any more tense than that second debate. I mean, this tonight is ...

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. Well, it's for all the marbles and that's why. I mean, for the right wing, I think this is about socialism versus freedom. Like for them, it's a really big deal. But for us, we're tired.

We're tired of the funerals. We're tired of all the nonsense and the comedian type of stuff from the White House. I think what you're going to see is Joe Biden come out and show his biggest asset, which is that big heart. He understands this country is grieving. This country is hurting. This country needs leadership. This country needs somebody to pull it together.

So you're going to see a bunch shenanigans from the President. He's going to be the comedian and you're going to see a statesman capable of bringing the country together tonight.

COOPER: Gloria.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think what Joe Biden has to do is make those voters, the voters you're talking about feel really good about their vote.

JONES: Yes.

BORGER: Because a lot of them don't really feel good about their vote and they've got to be motivated. And what Biden has to do is motivate them and what Donald Trump has to do is say to those conservatives, who kind of are leaning towards him, but don't like the way he handled the virus, he needs to say to them, OK, trust me on the economy. You can trust me. I'm the one who's going to bring it back.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. That would make sense. That would be the right strategy, it isn't necessarily the one that he is going to follow because he does, as everyone has pointed out, this race has been remarkably stable. It's like an earthquake proof building.

There are seismic explosions going on all the time and yet the race continues to be a seven or eight-point race in Biden's favor. That's an enormous margin at this stage in the race against an incumbent president. He has to change the dynamic in this race. And so I think he is going to ...

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: ... a challenge for Trump. And the challenge for Biden is to not chase the rabbits down the hole.

COOPER: That's right.

AXELROD: Because he wants to be that person that you suggest, Van, but he's going to have to do it in a very noisy environment. And he is provoked at times, so he's going to have to work on that.

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I would say that, number one, Joe Biden has obviously the most to lose here. I mean, he's ahead. He's ahead by every measure and he's still the question mark in a lot of people's minds. I think we have to have to accept the fact that a lot of people are still just tuning in to watch this and there is a question as to whether Joe Biden is up to this or not.

[19:25:06]

And I don't think the bar is that low for them. It may be for the folks who are commenting because everyone is going to say, oh, Biden did fine. They're going to look and see whether Joe Biden has what it takes to be the leader of the free world and I think it's not just, oh, he can put sentences together or he's coherent.

JONES: 1925 [00:00:23] understand, a lot of people - this is the beginning of the electoral season for a bunch of people. Some of them are watching this stuff the whole time. For a lot of people, this is the - but they're going to be looking who is Joe Biden, who is Trump, they know who Trump is, they don't know Joe Biden.

I think Joe Biden actually has an opportunity, though, while still being a statesman to do something to Trump that has not been done to him before. Trump has kryptonite. The one thing he seems to be afraid of is someone laughing at him. He's always saying, they're laughing at us here. They're laughing at us there.

COOPER: Right. The countries are at America.

JONES: Look, these countries are laughing at us. That's his kryptonite. For the first time, Joe Biden can say, hold on a second. You are not only a tax dodger and a draft dodger, you are a weak, broke loser, who has been exposed as being desperate for cash. I don't know that that is a punch that Trump knows how to take.

AXELROD: That's not the warm and humane appeal that you were talking about earlier but ... JONES: I think he can turn it to strength, I think he can put them

back ...

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: Yes. He needs to hit and pivot.

JONES: Hit and pivot.

AXELROD: Hit and pivot, yes.

BORGER: Well, I was talking to somebody in the Biden campaign who is working with them. And I think their intent, without giving too much away, because they certainly not given anything away to me is a flick of the wrist is what I would call it, what you're talking about.

JONES: Yes.

BORGER: Give them a flick of the wrist and you've seen Biden's respond to Trump lately saying, oh, he's a fool. He's just a fool. And then give them a flick of the wrist, don't go down the rabbit holes, you're talking about David, and then move on and pivot to what he wants to talk about which is more than 200,000 dead. This is how you mismanaged it.

AXELROD: But you got to - I'm sorry, you guys talked about it being people just tuning in and so on. That's not really what the polling suggests like 90 percent of people say they've made up their mind. Well, there'll be an enormous audience tonight but most of those people have said they've made up their mind.

I agree with you, Rick, this is the test for Biden. I think if he has a good night tonight, he can really slam the door here. I'm not sure the last two debates are going to mean that much if Biden has a good night tonight.

SANTORUM: I mean, I won't say the race could be over tonight. But if Joe Biden does what most challengers do in a first debate, which is to do well ...

BORGER: To do well, yes.

COOPER: Why is that?

SANTORUM: Expectation, yes.

JONES: (Inaudible) incumbent is usually - there are people around them saying nice things to them every day, so they're not used to having that back and forth. There are dangers for Biden, though. But because he's got that big map to protect, he has such a big coalition, he's vulnerable to not just Trump, but Chris Wallace, pushing him, are you with the left of your party or are you not.

AXELROD: Yes.

JONES: Biden has to deal with the fact he's got such a big coalition, is he willing to offend the left to hold on to the middle or is he willing to hold on (inaudible) ...

SANTORUM: That's the point where I think he could he could show he's not up to it. Because if he can't stand for what he believes in as opposed to what Bernie or AOC or the others have been pulling him do, I think that will open up the socialism card and make it really difficult.

(CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: I think it's easier now that he's the nominee, the party is very eager to defeat to defeat Trump. And I think he's going to be speaking a lot to the folks back in your backyard. He's going to be talking Scranton versus Park Avenue. He's going to use the President's taxes as a kick off.

(CROSSTALK)

SANTORUM: Park Avenue (inaudible) Scranton, but that's a different story.

AXELROD: Yes, kick off a - that'll be a kick off point for him. In terms of your question, I still have Mitt Romney's tire tracks on my back from the first presidential debate in 2012. Presidents aren't used to having people six feet away from them in their grill, being treated as an equal and firing at them and it is traditional to see presidents not perform well in the first debate.

COOPER: Yes. As we stand by for the debate to begin. (Inaudible) going to be fascinating. We are getting an extraordinary behind the scenes look at how both candidates have been preparing. That's after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:33:09]

BURNETT: It is debate night in America. And as we get closer to the main event, we're learning more about how President Trump and former Vice President Biden have been getting ready for this crucial moment.

CNN's Chief Political Correspondent, Dana Bash goes behind the scenes.

And, Dana, it's obviously two very different people, very different candidates with very different styles on stage and in their preparations off stage.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's true. But their preparations do have one big thing in common, Erin, according to sources I've spoken to today in both camps, Biden and Trump have spent the last few days taking a lot of incoming from their own allies and aides pretending to be the other guy in the hopes that they are ready for anything that happens on stage tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had a little debate prep before we came here.

BASH (voice-over): The way the president tells it --

TRUMP: A little time, I mean, not a lot.

BASH: -- he's barely preparing. But he has inside the White House map room with a small group of advisers, including Chris Christie and Kellyanne Conway.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: The trick from now is to make sure in two short minutes to lay out his record of accomplishments on any series of policies, and number two, the vision piece, why four more years of Trump-Pence, and number three, put Joe Biden on the defense.

BASH: CNN is told that Christie played the role of Biden in recent sessions, firing away missives at Trump to get him ready. Trump has been watching videos of Biden debating and also his own debates against Hillary Clinton.

(on camera): Is there a 2016 debate moment that you hope the President Trump uses as a cautionary tale to not repeat?

CONWAY: To the extent that he ever got overly personal, I would not do.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: What we want to do is to replenish the Social Security trust --

TRUMP: Such a nasty woman.

BASH (voice-over): Trump advisers understand that polls show Biden is well-liked compared to Clinton in 2016.

TRUMP: She doesn't have the look. She doesn't have the stamina.

BASH: And are warning him that getting too personal could backfire.

[19:35:01]

Still, the president is planning to press Biden on his son Hunter's lucrative business dealings when his father was VP.

CONWAY: How has your family benefitted from you being in the -- in this case, the vice presidency? And so, I think those questions are relevant.

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I've been preparing, yes.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Joe Biden --

BASH: Biden's prep has been more intense and traditional with mock debates with veteran Democratic lawyer Bob Bauer plays Trump. They are bracing for anything.

(on camera): What would you recommend to Joe Biden when Donald Trump starts to go there on the name-calling?

JENNIFER GRANHOLM (D), FORMER MICHIGAN GOVERNOR: I think that, you know, he can sort of break the third wall, if you will, talk to the people about what this -- you know, you see what he's doing. He is being your schoolyard bully again.

BASH (voice-over): Jennifer Granholm helped Biden in debate prep over the years, playing Sarah Palin in 2008 and Elizabeth Warren during this year's primaries.

GRANHOLM: You have to find the hardest things, go after them again and again and again. Get them used to the fact this attack is coming and that you have to prepare an answer for it, so that it's not a surprise the first time that you hear it on the debate.

BASH: One of Biden's debate quirks is stopping mid-sentence when he sees his timing light changed.

BIDEN: I see my time is up here.

I don't have time. This light is blinking.

GRANHOLM: I hope he avoids the oh, my time is up because you know Trump is just going to go over the time. The time limits are completely irrelevant for Trump.

BASH: It's a fine line for Biden, being tough on the president but maintaining his trademark compassion.

GRANHOLM: Joe Biden's secret sauce is his empathy with real people. And the fact that so many people have lost people, 30 million people are unemployed based upon the lousy and incompetent response to COVID.

BASH: Biden knows how to deliver memorable one liners like in 2007 about Rudy Giuliani.

BIDEN: There's only three things he mentions in a sentence, a noun, and a verb, and 9/11.

BASH: Trump is telling confidants that Biden's best performance this year was CNN's one-on-one debate with Bernie Sanders.

BIDEN: This is a crisis. We're at war with a virus.

BASH: Trump's advisers are pushing him to talk about promises kept like on trade.

TRUMP: NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.

CONWAY: Stick to the issues because there is where President Trump will shine.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BASH: I'm told that those around the president have been preparing him and warning him that he will likely be on defense a lot but that he must try as much as he can to pivot whether it is on COVID or on race or on taxes, especially his taxes.

Sources familiar with the president's prep tell me that he is armed with tools to maneuver back to offense. The question, Erin, is whether he's going to use them.

BURNETT: Obviously, it's the big question, right? What happens on the fly.

Dana, thank you so much.

And now I want to bring in a staunch conservative ally of President Trump's, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas joins us.

And, Senator, I really appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

So, tonight, when we go through these topics, there's a lot on the table. Anything can come up under the way the parameters have been put. One of the key ones is going to be the record of the president and Joe Biden.

"The New York Times", of course, this week reports President Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017.

Senator, you obviously know the numbers. The average American household pays much more than that, well over $1,000 in income tax. Do you think it is a problem that the president says he's a billionaire, paid only $750?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): Well, Erin, I want to point out that I don't necessarily credit "The New York Times" reporting on this topic since they claim to have obtained documents. It's not even clear they obtained them in a legal manner, without revealing the content of those documents. So, I'm not going to speculate about unsubstantiated reports.

I will say that I think most Americans care less about the past of Donald Trump's business than the future of their family and their job and their community.

And on that front, the record is clear. Donald Trump has been a far superior president than Joe Biden would be in the next four years.

BURNETT: I understand you don't want to talk about hypotheticals, but it does seem sort of like a way of avoiding the question. I mean, when you saw it, I would imagine your jaw dropped, didn't it? $750?

COTTON: Well, no, Erin, my jaw didn't drop because, again, that's an unsubstantiated claim. "New York Times" claims to have obtained these records.

BURNETT: Right.

COTTON: They're not releasing the records. They said they're not going to release the records. They reported very similar stories just four years ago.

Obviously, the real estate business is a volatile business. Some years you do very well, some years you do poorly.

But the bottom line is that most Americans, in my opinion, care about their future than about the past of Donald Trump's businesses. That's why this economy is going to be settled or this debate is going to be settled --

BURNETT: So, that may be true, that may be true, yes --

COTTON: -- on topics like the economy, and the coronavirus and the Supreme Court.

BURNETT: Yes, of course, the president though, as we all know, one of the biggest part of his platform when he ran for office was, I'm going to run this country the way I ran my businesses.

[19:40:05]

And I'm an outsider, and I don't do the political thing, right, but I can run a business. And don't you want someone who can do that?

So, when you look at the situation with chronic losses, and year after year after year, right, no income in 10 out of 15 years, $400 million in debt, that does not add up to someone who's running a business well.

So, on that basis, it questions the entire premise, right, of his presidency? So, doesn't that worry you?

COTTON: So, Erin, I don't -- I don't -- well, I don't think we have to look at his prediction anymore. We can look at his record. Look at where this economy was in February before the economy got knocked on its back by the coronavirus.

We had record low unemployment. We had working class Americans' wages growing at the fastest rate they had in decades, growing much faster than wealthy persons' wages were growing. So, they're finally sharing in our common prosperity.

Now, obviously, we're still recovering from the coronavirus recession, just like the rest of the world. There's no country that escaped this severe recession.

So, the real question for Americans tonight is going to be, who do you trust to build back our economy? The president who helped you build the strongest economy in our lifetime or Joe Biden who helped Barack Obama keep the economy stuck in neutral for eight years?

BURNETT: Oh, I sure hope -- I know everyone hopes you're right that we're in recovery. Obviously, Disney today announcing, what, another 28,000 layoffs.

We don't know where we are and whether things are still going down as supposed to up, the big question for all Americans. Senator, I want to ask you, though, about the debt. And I think this

is significant given your expertise, right? You know a whole lot about this, on the intelligence committee and with all of your experience in the Senate.

The president, more than $400 million in debt according to that report, and, obviously, we know most of that is due over the next four years.

Just to ask you with your expertise, if someone asked for a security clearance with that sort of debt, would you ever give it if you did not know to whom that debt was due?

COTTON: Erin, again, you're speculating based on records "The New York Times" purports to have and purports to have analyzed correctly. I'm not going to engage in that kind of speculation.

What the American people were presented with many of these same questions four years ago and they elected Donald Trump. He's disclosed his finances every four years as required by law.

BURNETT: But he's never put his taxes out.

COTTON: That's why this election is going to turn not on his past but about their future.

He's filed the required financial disclosure statements that any president or any federal officeholder has to disclose every year for the last four years. He'll keep doing that for the next four years.

That's why I believe the American people are more concerned about their future, about their finances than they are about the finances of Donald Trump's businesses.

BURNETT: I do think, though, it's extremely relevant when you talk about someone who has a security clearance and can know every single secret in this country, right, and $400 million, he owes this to somebody, right?

I understand you want to keep questioning the report itself. But my question is if someone is in that sort of debt, in your role in the intelligence committee, would you be okay giving security clearance to that person not knowing to whom they owe that money?

COTTON: Erin, the president, any president, holds security clearance obviously at the highest permissible because of his election to the office. And again this report is speculative. We don't know what the real records are.

One thing we do know is that there's no evidence of any kind of significant debt to Russia or Russia being behind significant financing. I suspect if it was, that would have been the lead paragraph in "The New York Times" and that your network would have been running with it frequently over the last two days.

So, for all those who spent the last three years saying that Donald Trump was somehow beholden to Russia, this report suggests that's not the case. It never has been the case. In fact, this president has always been much tougher on Russia.-

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: Well, it actually doesn't explain at all because we don't know who he owes that money to.

Senator, why shouldn't he put out that information, right, his tax returns and the information that would show who he owes that money to? You're saying this puts out that to rest. Well, absolutely, it doesn't. We don't have any idea to whom he owes that money.

COTTON: Erin, the president has repeatedly filed the financial disclosures required by law. He did not disclose his taxes four years ago. He said he was being audited. He says he's still being audited, and the American people elected him nonetheless because they wanted a president who would help working class American, who would turn around some of the terrible trade deals that Joe Biden helped bring into being, who would finally stand up for working class Americans as opposed to rich Americans and Wall Street.

That's what Donald Trump has done for the last four years.

Joe Biden is not going to do that for the next four years. That's why I think this debate tonight is going to focus on the future.

BURNETT: So, Senator, the president has suggested for months that Biden's mental acuity makes him unfit for office, right? He's done his basement -- his basement beat there.

But now, his campaign says in a memo that went out to his allies, I presume you among them, quote, do not underestimate his abilities in a debate -- referring to Biden, saying, look, he's had decades of experience of this.

Do you think it was a mistake for the president to lower expectations so much for Joe Biden tonight?

[19:45:04]

COTTON: Well, Erin, Joe Biden has a pretty good record when it comes to one on one debates.

Now, last year, when he was in a multi-candidate debate and he debated his current vice presidential nominee, no, he didn't do so well.

But this spring when he was debating Bernie Sanders, I thought he beat Bernie Sanders pretty handedly. He won in 2012 against Paul Ryan. He more than held his own against Sarah Palin in 2008.

Joe Biden has been in Washington for 47 years. So, he should perform well.

Now, if he has to defend his own record and the Obama-Biden record, might not do so well. But I think that Joe Biden is going to come out tonight and be

prepared to debate. But I do believe that Donald Trump is going to beat him because of his superior record on the issues and the fact that Donald Trump will be better for working Americans over these next four years than Joe Biden would be.

BURNETT: All right. Senator Cotton, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

COTTON: Thank you.

BURNETT: And there is much more ahead on tonight's high stakes debate in Cleveland. How will a key topic tonight, the coronavirus, impact the battleground states?

We'll also set the stage for a busy night of fact checking, the candidates and their claims.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[19:50:00]

COOPER: We're a little over an hour away from the start of the first debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden. We expect the president's handling of the coronavirus to be front and center, among many other topics.

We want to go back to John King and the magic wall.

So, how is the pandemic shaping the fight for the all important battleground states, John?

KING: Anderson, it is the number one, number two, number three issues. And you ask voters what they care about the most, that if you've gone through the last seven months, and now as we go into the final five weeks of the campaign, there's no question coronavirus right now making a resurgence. If you look back in the rearview mirror, it has punished.

Now, the current moment as we head into the debate night, into the final five weeks of the campaign, 23 states trending in the wrong direction. They include battle ground Michigan. They include battleground Wisconsin. They include competitive states like Colorado and Nevada, trending in the wrong direction right now, meaning more new infections now than the data a week ago. Twenty-three states, including five states that are trending up 50 percent more new infections this week.

So, if you look at the case curve, remember, this has been the president's albatross throughout the year. Back here in April, this is when the White House released its reopening criteria, three clear steps for states to reopen, cautious steps. But within days, the president essentially said, forget about them, blow the red light, please reopen.

Many states did like Florida, like Texas, like Georgia, like Arizona. There was the summer surge. We have come down somewhat from that.

But look it right here, you have the president heading into debate night and the final five weeks of the race, you do not want the trajectory of new cases going up. That's what it is doing at the moment. We'll see if it flattens out. But right now, 40,000 new infections a day across the country.

Now, the president likes to say the blue states cause this problem. He likes to say that. We're all Americans. I don't like to say that. But he does.

And so, let's see if that comes up in the debate tonight. It is true, the blue states went up the hill first, Washington state, California, states with Democratic governors, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut. But they have come down. They have come down.

You see them and they have largely stayed down. These are the states with Democratic governors.

Look at the states with Republican governors. Most of them carried by Trump in 2016. Look at that, they were the summer surge, the peak of the summer surge, come down some but still above the blue states when you go through this.

So, now, as we look through where do we go into the final weeks of the campaign? The deeper the shading, the higher the positivity rate. So, you see Michigan in double digits, Florida in double digits. That's a warning sign. More cases today means more infections spread tomorrow, means more death down the road.

So, this is a troubling sign for the president as we look this up. And, Anderson, I just want to look at a couple more things. The top five if we go back to Monday, just this week, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, three presidential battlegrounds still in the top five states.

Go back to the middle of the summer surge. It was Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona, all battleground states who suffered badly throughout this crisis. One problem for the president is, the model a lot of people look at, the IHME model, today, we're about 789 deaths so far, still counting. IHME projects by Election Day, 1,200 Americans will be dying every day, 1,200 Americans every day by Election Day, and by January 1st, 3,000.

So, right now, Erin, the dynamic is not working in the president's favor. He's going to have a lot of questions to answer about what he did in the rearview mirror and what he might do to stop that.

BURNETT: That's certainly -- that model obviously is doubling in deaths by the end of the year.

All right. So, Michael, this is -- this is, of course, the crucial question, right? You have the president who is pushed reopen, reopen, reopen, right? And they are in Florida, in swing states. And yet, this is what we're seeing with the numbers.

That is the gamble he is taking.

SMERCONISH: I think the perception of his handling, for better or worse, is baked in. You're a mask wearer or you're not, and persuasion is not going to occur tonight on his handling of the COVID-19.

Frankly, I don't think it's a night for persuasion generally. I think they have different objectives. The president, it's about motivating his base. It has always been about motivating his base.

And for Joe Biden, it's an opportunity to look into that camera and to give solace and comfort to someone who's inclined to vote for him, according to the polls, just needs to make sure he's not a tool of the far left and he has the physical stamina to get the job done.

GREGORY: I would say on the virus, Biden has a real opportunity. He can tell Americans this is how it could have been handled. How did you like how the president handled the biggest crisis of our generation?

This is what I would have done and he needs to say that. This campaign has been different. He has been under ground. It's not like a normal campaign. He can come out and say, this is what it would have been under a Biden administration and, by the way, this is what I'm going to do because this isn't over yet.

HABERMAN: David is right, because this is actually something where Biden made the case repeatedly that the president failed at this, that his administration's response failed on the coronavirus.

I think as Michael said, there is generally an agreement whether you like it or don't like it on what the president has done with the coronavirus. Public polling suggests people don't like it, the majority of people, but I think Biden needs to sell his own story.

GREGORY: I agree with you, Mike. There is a lot that's baked in terms of how people feel.

But if you read Bob Woodward's book, it's amazing. What does the president say over and over again about the virus? It wasn't my fault.

HABERMAN: He says that publicly, too. He says China --

(CROSSTALK)

GREGORY: But it's amazing.

[19:55:00]

The commander-in-chief, the president of the United States says it wasn't my fault. And it's true, there are people going to say, anybody would have had a hard time with this. But that's where Biden has to go on the attack.

SMERCONISH: Despite all the tumult, and all the craziness that has gone on for four years for better or for worse, it's a remarkably stable race. There hasn't been much movement yet.

HABERMAN: But Trump is not winning it and the thing is that every election is both persuasion and turnout.

SMERCONISH: What I'm saying is I think it will take something monumental that by the end of the night, we're saying, wow, the race changed.

GREGORY: Back to your original point, which is I do think Biden has a lot to lose because he's got so much to gain, because he could do really well when Trump is on the ropes here and maybe -- that was my "Rocky 2" reference. Maybe, you know, this is almost over. You know, he has a tremendous opportunity, but a lot to lose if he doesn't do well.

SMERCONISH: I agree. Trump is losing, Biden has more at risk.

GREGORY: Yeah.

BURNETT: All right. All of you, thank you.

And while many voters already have made their minds up, right, as you're talking here, right? Most people have. Very few are undecided.

There are those some and what happens tonight could sway them one way or another, and then they'll have the ability to vote early, so this could be the definitive night.

Our Ana Cabrera is with the group of undecided voters. She's in Ohio tonight.

And, Ana, you found them. You found these undecided voters. You're going to be watching the debate with them and getting real time reaction.

ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Erin. I'm joining you Otterbein University, from just outside of Columbus, Ohio, and joining me are 14 undecided voters from the surrounding area, including the all important suburbs. Nine of the voters who are here with us tonight identify as independents, three as Republicans, two as Democrats.

And they include a police officer, a firefighter, a retired teacher, a few students who will be voting for the very first time this election, a couple stay at home moms among others. So, a very diverse group here. And, again, they all say they haven't made up their mind. They are persuadable.

They want to hear more from Joe Biden and Donald Trump on issues like the economy, on the coronavirus, on health care, on race relations. All topics we know will be covered tonight. And they will be reacting in real time.

We'll be watching with them. They have each been given a device like this and they will be using an app. Let me explain how this is going to work. When they feel strongly that they agree with something a candidate is saying, they swipe up. If they strongly disagree with what they're hearing, they swipe down.

Now all that data is going to be loaded into a system and you'll be able to watch along because at home, you will see a line graph at the bottom of your screen that is recording the responses from our focus group tonight.

So you'll get a sense of how they're feeling throughout the debate. And, of course, afterwards is when we'll be able to bring their responses to you from here. And in the moment, let me just talk really quick with a couple of our participants to see how they're feeling about things going into the debate.

You are here you said, you still weren't exactly sure where you're going but because you're a police officer, you're interested in hearing about law and order, is that correct?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's correct, yeah.

CABRERA: Where is your head at? What are you listening for?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now, I feel like as a nation, there's a lot of separation going on. So, my main concern is I want to see who is going to be the one unifying us that says something that maybe we're talking about bringing people together, everyone is concerned how we're different. I think we could -- we need to be concerned more about what we have in common.

CABRERA: And I know that's something that is important to you, as well. Tell me why you feel undecided still in this moment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I think I've had some interactions with a lot of different friends and it's very polarized. Some are on this side, some are on that side. I listen to what everybody says and I agree with what they say but yet, I go back and forth, I'm kind of looking for some, you know, serious information about issues, some concrete information, especially on Medicare because I'm about to retire, and I just -- I hope that the time is spent constructively and not bantering but truly addressing the issues.

CABRERA: A lot of people shaking their heads here. So, as you can tell you, we are taking extra precautions tonight because of the coronavirus. That's why we're doing this focused group outside with social distancing. We'll be hunkered down for the next several hours with blankets and space heaters as we watch the debate. Again, we'll be bringing you reaction following the debate and we'll see if anybody makes up their mind based on what they hear tonight, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Ana, I think everyone is going to be looking at her group, right, because there are so few undecided and you've got to get your people -- your base to turnout and you got to win over those undecideds. So, they're going to be a crucial group. We'll be checking in with Ana through the night.

Thanks so much to her and now "Debate Night in America" continues.

(MUSIC)

COOPER: And welcome. We are about an hour away from the first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.