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Gearing Up for the GOP Debate; Russia's True Role in Syria; Desperate Search For People Lost In Floods; Candidate Super Fans Show Their Spirit. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired September 15, 2015 - 16:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I want to play a small clip of one of these ads right now.


NARRATOR: Which presidential candidate supports higher taxes, national health care, and the Wall Street bailout?

It's Donald Trump.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: In many cases, I probably identify more as a Democrat.

NARRATOR: Trump wants us to think he's Mr. Tell It Like It Is. But he has a record. And it's very liberal. He's really just playing us for chumps. Trump, just another politician.


BERMAN: So, Dan Pfeiffer, looking at that, what it says to me is that the Club for Growth, which is this conservative group, has essentially said, you know what? I can't count on the rest of you Republican candidates to deal with this Trump thing right now. We're taking matters into our own hands.

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think they're trying to be the first ones in the water to try to encourage the other Republican candidates to do it. I don't think this is a particularly effective ad.

Donald Trump, everybody knows everything there is to know about Donald Trump, either before this campaign started or in his complete omnipresent dominance of the media. And so I think you're going to -- in order to score an effective blow against Trump, you are going to have to either introduce new information people don't know, or do it in a way that is not your typical political ad.

I don't think that's going to work. In a world where Donald Trump and Ben Carson are dominating the Republican field, the typical political stuff doesn't work like it used to. BERMAN: All right, there is someone on stage not a typical politician

tomorrow along with them, Carly Fiorina. She will be a new addition to the main stage.

S.E., you have spoken to the Fiorina people. What's she planning for tomorrow?


She's got a couple of things she wants to accomplish. One, her name I.D. is actually still pretty low. We know her very well, because we have been following her for years, but the campaign thinks of this as a great opportunity to really introduce her to a lot of people and they think when they hear what they see, they will like it. When they see what they will hear, they will like.

She also wants to kind of ignore the hype. I think expectations are very, almost dangerously high for Carly Fiorina. When you fight to be on the main stage, you better prove that you deserve to be there. They're ignoring that. They say she gets the best debate prep ever. She takes questions regularly at campaign events from actual voters and she says she doesn't study up. She feels very prepared.

In fact, she's going to be playing a lot of solitaire on her iPhone to focus and relax. So I think she's feeling very, very good.

BERMAN: All right. Another person who is dealing with some hype right now is Jeb Bush. I think the Bush people and his surrogates have sort of raised the bar here. They have said you're going to see a more energized, a different Jeb Bush.

The super PAC backing Jeb Bush, we can put up the video of it, we don't have to wait for it, but spending $24 million on an ad in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina in support of Jeb Bush.

Michael Smerconish, how much does he need to do here tomorrow night? And are his people right to sort of indicate to us that it's all going to be different for Jeb?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST, "SMERCONISH": I agree with S.E. in saying that Marco Rubio is probably playing a long ball game, going wait this thing out because surely it can't last.

There are a lot of us who are of that opinion who thus far have been proven wrong. I feel differently about Jeb. I think the expectations were high for Jeb. The poll numbers have been in decline. That latest survey that came out today that shows him now tied with Governor Huckabee, tied with Marco Rubio, I think they need to convince their money donors that they made a wise investment or that spigot could begin to be turned off.

BERMAN: Yes, he can't wait. There's no long game. There's only this game tomorrow night.


CUPP: No, when you have that big a war chest, you have to justify it every day.

BERMAN: All right, Dan Pfeiffer, S.E. Cupp., Michael Smerconish, great to have you here with us. Really appreciate it.

I got to read a quick promo right now. Do not miss the Republican presidential debate tomorrow right here on CNN. Jake Tapper is your moderator. Coverage begins at 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We will be on air all night. You can hear the debate across the country on the Salem Radio Network. To find it in the radio in your area, go to

Today's world lead, what is Russia really up to? Its military now in Syria, is it a strategy to fight ISIS or a ploy to help prop up Syria's dictator? The Pentagon now weighing in with its observations.

Plus, the plans to fight terror we could hear from candidates in tomorrow's Republican debate.



BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman in Simi Valley, California, filling in for Jake Tapper, who is making his last-second preparations for the debate here.

Topping our world lead today, Moscow flexing its military muscle. New satellite photos reveal that Russia is increasing its true presence in Syria and building what appears to be a forward operating base in the western part of that country, all of this raising concern that Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing whatever he can to prop up the Assad regime in its desperate attempt to stay in power.

Let's get right to CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon.

Barbara, what's the reaction from the military officials you have been speaking with?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, this is a military move by the Russians, but, very oddly, the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Ash Carter making the decision to really publicly sit this one out.

They are deferring to the State Department and there are plenty of people there that are very concerned.


STARR (voice-over): Russian President Putin now openly defiant in sending Russian weapons and troops into Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We have provided and will provide all the necessary military and technical support. BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to be

engaging Russia to let them know that you can't continue to double down on a strategy that's doomed to failure.

STARR: The U.S. looking for a way to stop a Soviet-style intervention by Putin.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: What we would prefer to see from the Russians is a more constructive engagement with the 60- member coalition that is led by the United States that's focused on degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL.

STARR: But more than a dozen flights of large Russian transport planes have flown from Southern Russia across Iran and Iraq into Syria, carrying half-a-dozen tanks, large artillery pieces and some three dozen armored personnel carriers, as well as some equipment for up to 1,500 troops.


It's all going here to a coastal airfield at Latakia, where commercial satellite imagery has captured airfield construction and improvements. The Pentagon believes all of this will become a Russian operating base.

Secretary of State John Kerry talking again today to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. No indication the Russians are changing their minds.

A new, grim assessment from the head of U.S. military intelligence, suggesting both Iraq and Syria may be gone as countries the world once knew.

LT. GEN. VINCENT STEWART, DIRECTOR, DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY: I could see a time in the future when Syria's fractured into probably two or three parts. Again, not the ideal, because that comes with some unknowns. That's going to be a tough one to put back together, in my view, long term.


STARR: Now, the Pentagon might not able to stay quiet much longer. Tomorrow, General Lloyd Austin, the head of Central Command, the guy in charge of running this war, is scheduled to testify suddenly before the Senate Armed Services Committee, of course, Republican-led, all about the progress in the war and about the Russian involvement.

One U.S. military official telling me a short time ago, expect to see fireworks -- John.

BERMAN: Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon. Barbara, thank you so much.

Joining me now, CNN national security commentator Mike Rogers, former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, what is Vladimir Putin doing here?


There's a warm water port in Syria he's long wanted to maintain and his lease is up in about 10 years. This is his way I think of reestablishing and keeping that warm water port. Think about this. So, Suleimani, after the nuclear deal with Iran, Suleimani, heading the Quds Force, which is their CIA, special forces combined, goes to Moscow.

Shortly thereafter, you see this pretty healthy ramp-up. This is clearly coordinated with Tehran to make sure that Assad, who they both support, Iran and Russia, staying in power, at least for some interim period. So this is a foreign policy effort on behalf of Vladimir that certainly isn't aligned with U.S. interests or really anyone else's interests.

BERMAN: Any sense that the Russian folks on the ground there will get involved in the battle against ISIS?

ROGERS: We have already seen their pilots being more aggressive. They have also brought in not -- in addition to these 1,500 troops, and heavy armament that they will probably provide to Assad's troops and they will probably provide command-and-control, logistics support, intelligence support.

But we have seen a pretty aggressive posture in this new -- some of these new fighters that they have provided, mainly because the Syrian pilots just aren't there yet. I think that you would see probably some Russian involvement in aircraft strikes in Syria. It is not impossible.

BERMAN: Let's turn our focus now to what's going on all around us right now at the Republican library. The CNN debate is tomorrow night. What do you want to hear from the candidates on that stage tomorrow?

ROGERS: Well, listen, I think they all have something a little different to prove.

You don't want it to turn it into some kind of a clown show. That would be I think bad for the Republican brand, certainly bad for candidates themselves. But they do have to stand up and make some points about where they are on things like national security. You know, one of the biggest issues the next commander in chief is going to face is how do you deal with Russia that's kind of pushing its boundaries, how do you deal with China pushing its boundaries, cyber- attacks?

We have never seen the world in such bad shape. That next commander in chief is going to have to deal with it. I think Americans are going to want to see somebody who can encourage our allies and push back on our adversaries in a way that shows strength, but not reactionary. I think that's going to be an important line to walk for these candidates. BERMAN: It's interesting. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack

Obama, our last three presidents, came to office without any real national security experience, so to speak.

Any of the candidates who will be here tomorrow night, do they have experience that you think lends itself well to dealing with the problems around the world right now?

ROGERS: Well, I think a host of them do. I think the Republican Party this year has a really strong bench of candidates.

Some have more experience and have more engaged, and have performed better, I think, on the campaign trail about talking about some of the difficulties in dealing with these really hard problems. You know, the reactionary lines are, I will do nothing or I will send in the 101st Airborne Division.

The truth of the matter is, it's always somewhere in the middle in there to try to do that. And there's a whole bunch of tools in your tool kit to use. These candidates are going to have show that they can reassert American leadership, rebuild credibility with our allies and again push back on our adversaries. There's a lot of candidates out there that can do that.

BERMAN: All right, Mike Rogers, great to have you with us. Really appreciate it.

ROGERS: Thanks.

BERMAN: Coming up for us next, let's me see what is going on -- next in the national league, gone in seconds, the struggle for one community right now, after powerful flooding swept through their town, plus much more from the Reagan Presidential Library right here in Simi Valley, California.



BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman in for Jake Tapper coming to you live from Simi Valley, California, the site of tomorrow's CNN debate.

Turning now to our National Lead, flames erupting across California after years of drought have turned this state into a tinder box, some of most devastating damage coming from the valley fire, swallowing nearly 600 homes with 9,000 more threatened. That fire has grown to almost 70,000 acres.

Firefighters are gaining ground but slow going. Only 15 percent of the fire has been contained. We have learned the wildfire has claimed the life of a 72-year-old woman. Officials said she had multiple sclerosis and couldn't make it out of her home in time.

Now to the border between Utah and Arizona devastation of a different kind, heavy rains led to flash floods in this small community that straddles the border.

You can hear screams, residents caught off guard by the fast moving floodwaters that washed away cars with everything inside of them.

[16:50:06] I want to go right to CNN's Kyung Lah who is in Colorado City -- Kyung.

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, dangerous conditions that this community has seen continuing today. The flash flood warnings still in effect overnight, a desperate search for people who have been washed away during the flash floods.

Some 17 people had been washed away, some uncovered, many found not alive. These were women and children who had been suddenly swept away by flash floods. People came out using shovels, trying to dig through the muck.

Heavy machinery brought in to try to lift some of the heavy debris that was found down river. Cars were found completely banged up and buried in the dirt.

Now what we all are seeing at this particular location, cleanup crews you see the effort here by heavy machines try to clear away some of the muck.

This water that you're seeing, that is a river that existed, but a roadway used to be above it and that roadway is now gone. You can see all the muck above it from the flash flood and then this very, very sad sign.

These are community members, family members who are just staring, waiting and hoping for some word, and all of them keeping their eyes on the sky hoping that there will be better news on the weather front soon -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Kyung Lah for us on the border there between Utah and Arizona.

Here at the Reagan Library, I'm joined by Wolf Blitzer, who has made it all the way out to California. You're about to do "THE SITUATION ROOM" from here. You have advisers for Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, two guys who could play big in this debate here tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": Dr. Ben Carson, he's doing amazingly well right now when you think about where he was only a few months ago, he's really number two just behind Donald Trump, especially in some of those states where these polls show he has really caught on.

So we're going to get into a strategy, will he be low key in the debate tomorrow night or go after Trump? There's been a bit of an exchange as we all know, we'll go through some of that. Ted Cruz, he's got issues, he's not gone after Donald Trump at all.

BERMAN: No. BLITZER: In fact, they were together at that rally in Washington the other day against the Iran nuclear deal. They were hugging. It was a joint rally. They were two co-stars of that production. We'll see what's going on. I want to get into some of their strategy. We'll see how much they're willing to share.

BERMAN: How long is Ted Cruz willing to be nice to Donald Trump if they're going after the same anti-establishment voters?

BLITZER: He's been really nice to him so far. Donald Trump has been very, very consistent. He doesn't go after these other Republican presidential candidates unless they go after him. They say something negative about him, he bounces right back and hits them much, much harder.

So I suspect tomorrow night he's going to wait. He's going to be in the room, you and I were there, he's going to see what's going on. If somebody goes after him, whether it's a Marco Rubio or somebody, I don't think it will be necessarily Marco Rubio, but if it's someone who goes after him, he'll bounce right back.

BERMAN: I bet we're going to see some pouncing. Wolf Blitzer, great to have you with us, looking forward to "THE SITUATION ROOM" in just a few minutes.

Coming up for us, it's not just candidates, it is their fans. See how some of the superfans are showing their candidate loyalty.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That one minute goes by really fast.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-KY), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There are two ways to run, scared and unopposed. I'm not unopposed. So we're going to compete hard.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: To those not supportive yet, you'll get there and we'll continue to work to make sure you get there.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I hear they're all going after me, whatever. Whatever!


BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman in for Jake Tapper. We are live here at Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. We are almost to the 24-hour mark until CNN's debate gets under way right here.

Maybe some of you haven't still decided which candidate you will be backing. Others, well, they back their candidate like I back one direction.


BERMAN (voice-over): What candidate doesn't love a serving of rhythmic chanting? But the sweetest sight on a candidate's campaign trail --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am wearing Trump. I have my Trump purse.

BERMAN: A voter wearing her support on her sleeve or wherever.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You cannot show up at a Donald Trump rally and not make a statement.

BERMAN: Super supporters spreading the word as best they can.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I guess I'm kind of a standard poster girl for Bernie Sanders.

BERMAN: This poster maker says Bernie Sanders is her patronus and for non-Harry Potter fans --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Patronus is a kind of positive force, wisdom, it works like a shield.

BERMAN: But who needs a shield when you've got campaign cardboard, oversized, life size, always agreeable and easy to pose with.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's going to fix everything. I swear.

BERMAN: Enthusiasm isn't just for adults. This tiny Trump fan was infatuated before the fifth grade.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The feeling of meeting your idol, you can't just replace it. You can't -- you can't go around it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Meet the politician moment.

BERMAN: And kissing? Well, it's not just for babies anymore as Chris Christie learned, affectionately, very affectionately. If you're not into smooching stick with stickers like this supporter at least she will be able to change her mind.

Unlike this guy who claimed on Twitter to have won a Jeb Bush neck tattoo in an online bet. Exclamation point needed.


BERMAN: So tomorrow's Republican presidential debate begins here on CNN at 6:00 p.m. That is all for THE LEAD. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."