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Counting Down to Wednesday's Debate; Professor at Delta State University Killed, Gunman at Large; More Than 100,000 Acres Burning Across California; GOP Debate: Behind The Scenes. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired September 14, 2015 - 16:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: We are live at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, counting down the seconds to the big event Wednesday night, the CNN Republican debate, the main debate 8:00 p.m. Eastern, the first debate with the other four candidates 6:00 p.m. Do not miss either one.

Right now, we are back with our big 2016 panel, CNN political commentators Ana Navarro and Dan Pfeiffer. And CNN anchor Michael Smerconish joins me as well.

Michael, before the break, I posed the question, for whom is there the most peril Wednesday night? Who has the most at stake and could, if he or she does not do well, not last much longer?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST, "SMERCONISH": The obvious answer is anyone at that happy hour debate. And before we excuse that too quickly, remember that Rick Santorum will be at that table having won 10 states and the Iowa caucus in the last cycle.

Really amazing that he has not been able to gain any traction thus far. On the main stage, I think it's the polar extremes in the terms of the way that they're arranged. It's Chris Christie and it's Rand Paul. I think that both of them are on the bubble. And I think the person with opportunity in this debate, because he showed a little something last time, is John Kasich.

BERMAN: John Kasich.

What about Scott Walker, Dan?




BERMAN: That's the problem. Scott Walker, now, he said he was too Midwestern nice last time. He's been saying you're going to hear more from him this time. The guy was leading in Iowa for a long time and now he's drifting downward and downward and downward in the polls. PFEIFFER: Look, I think this is make-or-break time for Scott Walker.

If he does not have a strong debate, and not just a strong debate, an incredibly strong debate, I think his campaign is for all intents and purposes over.

The money will dry up. He needs to take advantage of this moment. And as you point out, to go from the guy leading in Iowa, essentially the front-runner before Donald Trump in a lot of people's eyes, to be an asterisk in the polls is a tremendous fall. And maybe he has one last shot to pull it back together, and it's Wednesday night.

BERMAN: All right.

Ana, I'm going to put this in a way that's going to make you hate me. You're a supporter of Jeb Bush. You're friends with Marco Rubio. Who has to do better? Who has more at stake Wednesday night?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I think they both do and I will tell you why, because I think the expectations are different for both.

Marco is very good in this format. I thought he had a very good debate the last time. I'm surprised he didn't get more of a bump out of it. Marco's witty. He's got a tremendous sense of humor. He's very quick, incredibly articulate, knowledgeable on foreign policy and there's going to be foreign policy in this debate, because Hugh Hewitt makes it a point.

Jeb, I think, needs to have a better debate than he had the last time. And he needs to make some memorable moments. He can't just have good answers. He needs to have good moments.

BERMAN: In a way, he's raising the stakes on his own performance. There are a lot of articles, there are a lot of leaks, there are a lot of comments from that campaign saying he's going to be more energetic this time. He's raised the bar.

NAVARRO: Listen, no campaign likes process articles.

BERMAN: No, but there have been some for Jeb Bush.

Michael, I want to ask you about an event tonight. Jeb Bush -- not Jeb Bush -- Donald Trump in Dallas, Texas, speaking at the American Airlines Arena, where the Dallas Mavericks play. I guess 20,000 tickets have handed out for free right there. These big rallies are interesting and to have one just a few nights before the debate, he's going to get a lot of attention.

SMERCONISH: What's funny to me is to think of the cycles where two days before the debate, you would anticipate that the candidates were locked away doing a rehearsal where someone was standing in and playing each one of their opponents.

I believe him when he says that he doesn't engage in pre-debate preparation like that. And the proof is he will be with Mark Cuban with thousands of people instead of rehearsing what he will do here. I think that whole unscripted nature is really the key to his success.

NAVARRO: Michael, when you can get away with answering without giving any policy details, what is there to prepare for?

SMERCONISH: Maybe that changes in two nights here. I would like to think that it does. Sooner or later -- this is -- I got to say this has been Chauncey Gardiner kind of stuff thus far, if you remember "Being There."


BERMAN: You like to watch?

SMERCONISH: There will be growth in the spring, right. But he's gotten away with it thus far.

Sooner or later, there's going to be a demand made where somebody's going to say, wait a minute. And maybe it will be Jake in two nights, hold it, I want to follow up on that, what are the details?

NAVARRO: Actually, I think the interaction with Hugh Hewitt will end being very interesting, because I expect Hugh Hewitt to come back and bring it on foreign policy with every candidate.

Let's just remember that Trump just recently called him a third-rate radio host for having asked him some very legitimate questions he couldn't answer.

BERMAN: That's a lot nicer than a lot of the things he's said about a lot of other people. That's practically a compliment.


NAVARRO: That's a very high bar, my friend.


BERMAN: Let me say this about Donald Trump, though. Look, he put out an immigration paper. He says he's going to put out a tax paper in a few weeks which outline some ideas. He's said a lot about the issues.

Dan, how intricate do his plans really need to be? Do voters really care? Do they want to see a 12-point policy paper?

PFEIFFER: They need to know that he has ideas that back up his values.

BERMAN: They seem to be saying yes right now.

PFEIFFER: He's doing very well without policy.

And his general character and his shtick is exceeding the policy, the 12-point white papers of the other candidates. There is a threshold question. If he gets up there and he flubs questions in front of millions and millions of voters like he did on Hugh Hewitt's show, I think that could be a problem. But everything else that would be problem for any other candidate has not been a problem for Trump to date, so who knows.

BERMAN: Dan Pfeiffer, Ana Navarro, Michael Smerconish, great to have you here with us. Thank you all so much for being here.

Do not forget the big CNN Republican debate here at the Reagan Library. It is Wednesday night, the main debate 8:00. The first debate begins at 6:00. We will be here all day beforehand. Do not miss a single second of it.

We will be right back.



BERMAN: All right, welcome back to THE LEAD.

We are following breaking news in our national lead, a professor at Mississippi Delta State University shot in the head and killed. The gunman still at large, as the campus remains on lockdown with classes for tomorrow canceled.

Just last hour, police said they now have a person of interest in their sights.

Let's get right to CNN's Alina Machado.

Alina, what do we know about this person of interest?

ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John that person of interest has been identified as Shannon Lamb. He is an employee at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi.

And according to his Facebook page, he finished his Ph.D. at Delta State in July and had been teaching there for seven years. What we don't know is what is his connection to the professor who was shot and killed on campus this morning. Authorities have identified that professor, the victim of the shooting, as Ethan Schmidt.

The deputy coroner tells us Schmidt was found in his office. He was shot in the head at least once. No gun was recovered from the scene, though investigators did find two shell casings. We have also learned that authorities in Gautier, Mississippi, which is some 300 miles from the campus, they're investigating another homicide that happened there this morning.

They say Shannon Lamb is also wanted in that killing. He was last seen driving a green SUV, John.

BERMAN: All right. Tell me about the law enforcement presence on the ground in that state in that town right now. What are they doing to try to hunt down this gunman?

MACHADO: Well, they're asking the public for help. They're chasing down every lead they can. We know authorities on campus quickly established a lockdown. They

asked students and faculty to stay in place, to stay away from windows as they went through each of the buildings and cleared them. Earlier this afternoon, they said they did not believe the suspect was still on campus, but they were still taking every precaution they could to keep people safe, John.

BERMAN: And what more do we know about the professor who was killed?

MACHADO: Well, we know Schmidt was a professor of history at Delta State, according to his bio on the university's Web site. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas in 2007.

And his first book was just published last year. A university spokesperson says this community is in mourning after losing this beloved professor. Classes, as you mentioned, have been canceled tonight and tomorrow. And we have learned counselors will be there on site to help people who are coping with the loss, John.

BERMAN: Still so many questions. Alina Machado, thank you so much.

Turning now back to our politics lead, whose house? Well, at least for one night, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is CNN's house, at least to share.

Athena Jones posted up by the main stage, Athena, show us around this debate stage, a very, very interesting setup.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, John. I have been calling this the coolest debate set ever. And I bet a lot of our viewers will agree.

Take a look over here. This is Air Force One. It is the Air Force One that President Ronald Reagan flew on. CNN has built this entire platform, this entire stage. It's three stories high. Crews have spent weeks doing so that they could showcase that plane. That plane will be in the back behind the candidates providing the background during the debate.

If you sweep over here, you can see that it's a pretty intimate setup here. Fewer than 500 people are going to be in this audience. You can see people are still working. I like to say the T. in television news stands for team. We have teams working here. They have been practicing all day.

But 500 people in this audience is very, very different from the first debate, where there were thousands of people. This is much more intimate. And so that could certainly shape how the candidates interact with each other, how much they're willing to really go at each other.

I should tell you the audience will be made up of guests of the Ronald Reagan Library, invitees of the library, and also the Republican National Committee. And a few of the folks in the audience will be invited by the campaigns themselves.

There will be 13 cameras.

[16:30:02] This is one of the giant cameras that will be in operation two nights from now. It's going to be an exciting scene on this very unique stage -- John.

BERMAN: Yes, it is. You have that plane you see it right there that Ronald Reagan used Air Force One and the aura blooming over the entire debate. Athena Jones, thank you so much.

More in our National Lead today, the most destructive wildfire of the summer and it is exploding in size by the hour. Homes destroyed, one person dead, now hundreds of people race for cover as flames inch closer to their land.


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman in for Jake Tapper. I'm at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the center of the political universe for the next couple days leading up to the Republican debate here Wednesday night, of course, only on CNN.

Continuing our National Lead today, thousands are fleeing for their lives north of here as devastating wildfires rip through more than 100,000 acres in parts of California.

[16:50:01] Officials say just 5 percent of the fire you're looking at right there, the valley fire, is contained. You can see the cars surrounded by flames on either side of the road as it tries to escape that situation.

Flames swallowing up hundreds of homes and we now know at least one person has been killed as a result of these fires. I want to get right to CNN's Dan Simon, who is on the ground in Middletown, California. Dan, my goodness, the devastation just looks awful.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, I suppose there are lots of metaphors you could use to describe this scene. I think it looks like a bomb went off. Just look at this vehicle. That is ridiculous. That gives you an idea of just how hot this fire got.

And I have to tell you within the past few minutes we've seen the winds pick up. That is exactly what we do not need. You can see the flare-up there behind this is what is called a fuel-driven fire. There is just so much that can be burnt.


SIMON (voice-over): With hundreds of homes destroyed, the massive valley wildfire has become the most destructive blaze of the summer in the parched west. The fire has burned more than 60,000 acres. The conditions are so terrible that the governor has declared a state of emergency for four counties.

GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN, CALIFORNIA: These fires will take lives and they will cause injuries. And we have to do the best we can because we are really in a battle with nature that nature is more powerful than we are.

CHIEF KEN PIMLOTT, DIRECTOR, CALIFORNIA FIRE: We don't see an end in fire season for the months to come. We're planning for that. We're in this for the long haul. We are continuing to use all of the resources at our disposal. Governor Brown provided some additional funding.

SIMON: The fire a hundred miles west of Sacramento spread so fast that people had very little time to evacuate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everything behind the gas station is gone. The school's gone. Store's gone.

SIMON: And that wasn't the only fire to hit Northern California, 70 miles east of Sacramento another wildfire has grown to more than 70,000 acres and still threatening thousands of structures. Together the two fires have destroyed well more than 500 homes.

MELISSA CANCHOLA, EVACUEE: Being with everybody that's going through the same thing makes us feel like we actually have a family right here with us. You know, besides our immediate family.

SIMON: At the Napa County fairgrounds evacuees set up what looks like a tent city. Melissa and her four children are wondering if their house is still standing.

CANCHOLA: I just want to go home, if I have a home anymore.

SIMON (on camera): What do you think the chances are?

CANCHOLA: Not good. I don't think there is anything left.

SIMON: About 5,500 firefighters are working to save the homes, but after four years of drought the area remains a tinderbox with what seems like an unlimited supply of highly flammable fuel.


SIMON: And this fire is just 5 percent contained, so crews have a lot of work to do. And, John, we can also tell you that authorities have confirmed the first fatality. We don't know the circumstances of how that person died, but it's possible there could be some others because we know that others have been reported missing -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Dan, tough images to see. Please stay safe up there. Thanks so much.

Next, back inside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. How it documents the life of this late American leader, plus the special stash of food Reagan always had stocked on Air Force One.



BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman. The CNN debate two nights away, but the stage on which the candidates will debate, it doesn't just magically appear. Our Jake Tapper got a behind the scenes look at all the preparations.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST (voice-over): The debate may still be days away, but it is all systems go here at the Ronald Reagan Library.

(on camera): This is it, the stage where all the magic is going to happen on Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Museum and Library. You can see and hear workers getting the stage ready. Normally this floor doesn't even exist here. We're all getting prepared for what could be a momentous evening in presidential politics.

(voice-over): The Republican candidates will have this as their backdrop, Air Force One.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the plane that flew President Reagan for all eight years of his administration.

TAPPER: It's one of many impressive pieces of presidential memorabilia on display here at the Reagan Library. Library spokesperson, Melissa Giller says Air Force One was always fully stocked.

(on camera): Was there anything on there that was particular to President Reagan?

MELISSA GILLER, CHIEF MARKETING OFFICER, REAGAN PRESIDENTIAL FOUNDATION: There sure was. He loved chocolate cake. So aboard every single flight there was a chocolate cake in the back alley, not just because he loved them, but just in case someone whispered at some point in time, President Reagan, did you know it's Jake's birthday. The cake could come out and sing happy birthday.

TAPPER (voice-over): More than 350,000 people each year visit the library to experience the spectacular Simi Valley setting and pay their respects to our 40th president. He was laid here to rest in his beloved California facing westward so he can forever look out towards the Pacific.

(on camera): This is real?

GILLER: A real piece of the Berlin wall came down in 1991. Ronald Reagan was here when we received the piece.

TAPPER (voice-over): Inside the museum an exact replica of Reagan's oval office complete with a jar of jelly beans or jelly bellies he always kept on hand.

(on camera): It was a way --

GILLER: He gave up smoking.

TAPPER: Gave up smoking. So whenever he had a fix --

GILLER: He had jelly bellies everywhere.

TAPPER: The plane, the oval, trappings of the very office. The candidates will be battling to reach Wednesday night. I'm Jake Tapper for CNN in Simi Valley, California.


BERMAN: And a reminder the Republican presidential debate is Wednesday night. Coverage starts at 6:00 p.m. Eastern. The winner gets all the jelly beans. Jake Tapper will be moderating.

That is all for THE LEAD today. I now turnover to Brianna Keilar in for Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."