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THE SITUATION ROOM

Republican Debate. Aired 18-18:15p ET

Aired September 16, 2015 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and this is a special edition of THE SITUATION ROOM.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

A colleague and good friend, Anderson Cooper, is with us tonight.

We're moments away from this, the second GOP presidential debate right here on CNN. It's a double-header here at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

Anderson, by all accounts, this is going to be a lively, lively evening.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: It is electric right here in the auditorium. And all 15 candidates will take the stage.

In the first matchup, the candidates are fighting just to stay in the race. In the main event, of course, they are going to be focused on tripping up the front-runner, Donald Trump, and getting their policies across.

The billionaire businessman says, bring it on. A lot to look forward to tonight.

BLITZER: And, presumably, they will.

Trump leads the latest nationwide poll, but, statistically, it's technically a dead heat with another outsider, Dr. Ben Carson. And in today's latest poll out in New Hampshire, Carson is clearly closing the gap, basically neck and neck with Trump, as Carly Fiorina, Anderson, she is moving up to third place.

COOPER: That's right.

And everyone else, including early leader Jeb Bush, is back in the pack. Now, if they are to break out of single digits, they have got to show that they can take down Donald Trump and, as they stand next to Ronald Reagan's Air Force One, they have to stand out as presidential material, someone who can lead in a time of crisis.

BLITZER: A huge, huge challenge for all of these candidates.

Let's get the latest on what is going on, only moments away from this Republican presidential debate.

CNN's John Berman is over here at the debate stage -- John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Wolf, I feel like I'm standing at the 18th green at the Masters.

Forgive me if I speak in hushed tones, because the audience is all around me as this debate is about to begin any second. Behind me, you can see the four lecterns right there, remember, four candidates in the first debate, those polling at the bottom of the polls.

The second debate, which begins at 8:00 p.m., 11 candidates there arranged by their position in the polls, which means that Donald Trump front and center, literally. Ben Carson will be on one side, Jeb Bush on the other.

And when I say on one side, I mean close by side. These lecterns, the top separated by just 20 inches. That is much closer than the first debate. These candidates will literally feel the presence of those right beside them.

Now, this debate will be a little bit different than the first one in another way, too. Not so much back and forth between the moderator, the questioners and the candidates themselves, but hopefully a discussion between the candidates, face-to-face, looking at each other, just inches away, discussing the issues, where they agree and where they disagree.

And this audience, one more time, that I'm in between right now, it's a smaller crowd. They're here nodding to me right here, 500 people, not thousands, like you saw in the basketball stadium before, intimate, but intimate can sometimes mean even more tense -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. John Berman, thanks very much. We will stay in close touch with you.

Anderson, there is electricity here, you have got to admit.

COOPER: There really is. There is a lot of excitement not just for this debate, but obviously the debate, the main debate that comes afterward.

Donald Trump knows he's going to be the center of attention tonight, as he has been. He's leading in the polls. His opponents, some of them may be on the attack against him, but in addition to playing defense, Donald Trump also needs to convince more voters he has the temperament and ideas to be president. He's far out in the lead right now.

Let's go to CNN political reporter Sara Murray. She's in a room overlooking the debate hall. That's where the candidates will the gather -- Sara.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, right now on my left, there is room with the four candidates who will participate in the first debate. They are sitting in there chatting, probably trying not to let their nerves show.

Any minute now, someone will come to escort them behind me and they will head over to my right to the debate stage. Now, we're still waiting on the arrival of Donald Trump, who of course will take center stage in our later debate.

The challenge for him is, it seems like just in recent weeks, it's come all to him that this is real. He's really a presidential candidate and now he's talking about toning it down, about trying to be a little bit nicer.

When he gets to the debate stage, it is going to be a challenge to do that, to kind of tease policy specifics, but still also maintain the flair, maintain the straight talk that's gotten him as high as he is in the polls right now. We will have to see how Donald Trump sort of navigates that line tonight.

BLITZER: Sara, thanks very much.

All of Donald Trump's rivals will be trying to make a big enough impression tonight to attract voters, donors so they can keep their campaigns alive.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, has a closer look at some of the different strategies of Trump's main opponents.

What are you finding out, Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, so many candidates on the debate state and so many different strategies.

Here are a couple things that we're watching. Ben Carson, he's been closing in the polls on Donald Trump across the country as well as in those early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. So, Carson advisers tell me that he will be a kinder and gentler outsider.

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He is going to of course show that he's a different type of candidate than Donald Trump. And he also will be appealing to some of his biggest core supporters, those evangelicals, the social Christian conservatives in Iowa, so key to this presidential process.

Of course, Jeb Bush, all eyes will be on Jeb Bush. Most Republicans thought that he would be the front-runner at this point in the race. He's going to present himself as strong and forceful, but one adviser tells me he's not going to be loud and aggressive. He is going to say all the things to Donald Trump that he's been saying sort of from long distance, but he's also going to intersperse it with policy.

Look for Jeb Bush to show that he's Oval Office-ready, in the words of one adviser. Finally, Carly Fiorina, this is the first time that she will be on this big stage. Of course, she's been having a bit of a war of words with Donald Trump from long distance. We will see what she says when she is face-to-face with him. As John Berman said earlier, these podiums are so close together.

That certainly changes the dynamic here. But watch Carly Fiorina. She's so up on policy. We have seen her do so many interviews. She will show that she's ready for the job as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thanks very much.

Anderson, as you know, we're only minutes away from this debate. It doesn't get a lot, much more -- bigger -- much bigger than this, I should say.

COOPER: Yes. We're just about nine minutes away or so, 8:52.

Now, remember, this is just the first round of debates between the four lower-tier candidates, and then the main debate happens after that.

We're joined by CNN political commentator and the host of CNN's "SMERCONISH" Michael Smerconish. Also joining us, CNN political commentator and Republican strategist Ana Navarro.

There's so much to look for, to try to keep score of tonight.

BLITZER: It certainly is.

And, Michael, let's talk about some of the big issues that could come up in the course of this debate tonight. You have been talking to a lot of campaigns. Who is going to be best able to take advantage of this conversation?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, I think tonight three words are key, commander in chief.

I think there is going to be a lot of foreign policy discussed. The lead issue with regard to foreign policy is, how do we defeat ISIS? And I think that this forum, and we have talked about this extensively, just 500 people, not a big audience on which someone like Donald Trump can feed.

I think it's going to force more substantive answers. There will be opportunity for follow-up and he will have to provide detail.

COOPER: But Trump is leading the polls. When GOP voters are asked, who can best handle ISIS foreign policy, a lot of them are naming Donald Trump.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: I think that these three questioners, I think that Jake, and Dana and Hugh Hewitt are going to demand specifics, rather than, I will defeat ISIS. I'm the guy best prepared to take them out.

What exactly will he do? That's what I want to know.

BLITZER: Ana, what do you think? ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think we're going to see a lot

more interaction among the candidates, because I think a lot of them realize that giving answers is not enough.

They have to stand out in this opportunity. It's a unique opportunity they are getting once a month. There are some companies here that are running on fumes. They really need to be able to give a strong performance because they need to attract voters, attract donors, attract support and go up in the polls.

I think you are going to see a lot of energy from them. Look, for those of us who are political junkies, this is like the Super Bowl. And you want -- you're rooting for your team, but you want a good game.

COOPER: The difficulty you have during the main debate, you have 11 candidates on the stage, not a lot of time for each of those candidates to really get across or get into a lot of specifics. Let's look at talk time from the last debate.

Donald Trump led the talk time.

BLITZER: Here is the picture of these four candidates who are walking out, getting ready to walk out on the stage. There you see them. These are the second-tier candidates, as we say. They're all walking out to the stage.

You see George Pataki. You see Governor Bobby Jindal. You see Senator Lindsey Graham. You see Rick Santorum. These are the four who will be questioned first, Anderson, and that will set the stage for the main debate, the prime-time debate, 11 Republican presidential candidates.

COOPER: And in terms of talk time, Donald Trump got the most talk time the last time, I think more than 11 minutes.

Some of these other candidates tonight, it's critical that they try to get as much time as possible in order to get their ideas across.

SMERCONISH: And the best way to do that is engage him. Right?

If Trump is going to be the person to whom most of the attention will be given, then you want to engage him and hope that he takes you on. I think, arguably, you're better off being one of the four on the stage that's about to play out right now than one of those candidates on the periphery of the main stage, because, look, the entire nation is tuned in right now to CNN.

This is, as Ana said, like a Super Bowl. They're getting a lot of attention for just four individuals. I think you would rather be one of the four than perhaps one of the 11.

NAVARRO: Oh, heck no. I think you're totally wrong on that.

Let me tell you, there is not one of those four that would not rather be on the big stage than the J.V. team.

COOPER: Just the pure number of people who are going to be watching the main debate rather than this one.

But, Ana, isn't there a danger near taking on Donald Trump, one, going toe to toe with somebody who is quite adept at fighting and punching back hard, counterpunching hard? But it also takes up time from trying to define yourself and tell what your vision is for this country.

NAVARRO: But I think there is no option. There is no option, because he has become such the shiny object in this race, that if you don't become part of that game -- we saw Bobby Jindal, for example, tried in the last 10 days.

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He's been getting no attention, so he did an entire press event and speech around criticizing Donald Trump.

COOPER: It didn't work for Rand Paul, though, in the first debate. He went after Donald Trump hard. His poll numbers are still very low.

NAVARRO: But, you know, a month has gone by since the last debate.

I think they got their feet wet. I think they got their bearings about them, what it's like to be on a stage with this TV personality who is very TV-savvy. So, I think you are going to see much more experienced debaters today.

BLITZER: You know, we're waiting for Donald Trump to arrive here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

He's not here yet, but he should be arriving, Anderson, any moment now.

Is it fair to say, in this prime-time debate, the second debate, 11 Republican candidates, he has emerged already as the star of the show?

SMERCONISH: There's no doubt about it. I don't think that there would be the level of interest in this debate at this early stage of the campaign but for Donald Trump.

Wolf, I have said previously I think there are two debates about to play out, I don't mean the J.V. debate and then the varsity debate. I mean on that main stage, you have maverick candidates like Trump and like Carson and also like Carly Fiorina, and then you have got establishment candidates. And who emerges from each of those constituencies I think is what you want to keep your eye on.

COOPER: Although it seems like every establishment candidate, reading poll numbers, looking at the success of Donald Trump and Dr. Carson, is now trying to show themselves as -- even if they have a long history in Washington, as being an outsider, though they have inside experience.

NAVARRO: Well, that's true.

But, look, the seasoned candidates, the veterans, they know that things go up and down and change. Let's remember that, at this time in 2008, 2012, you had Dick Gephardt ahead. You had Hillary Clinton up by 19 points in 2008. You had Rick Perry ahead. You had Rudy Giuliani ahead.

Have we talked about President Giuliani or Presidency Perry lately?

COOPER: Although there is a danger for some of these candidates to say they're playing a long game. Nobody expected Trump to be this successful and last this long at a certain point.

NAVARRO: Including the two of us.

COOPER: He's very, very far out in front. And there's no sign -- depending on -- gambling everything on Donald Trump just imploding, that could be a very bad bet.

SMERCONISH: And I think that the strategy of many of the campaigns -- and I have spoken to them -- is just to hang in there, because it's an honest point. They think that there is great fluid in this system.

And it's not going to remain as constant as it is right now, and you want to be there if and when he falls.

BLITZER: I know, Ana, you're a friend of Jeb Bush. You support Jeb Bush. You're also a friend of Marco Rubio. But if somebody would have said to you not that long ago, his super PAC, the PAC that supports Jeb Bush is going to spend $25 million in the next few weeks in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina to try to jump-start his campaign, which is in deep trouble right now, $25 million that they were hoping to hold for more important days in the months ahead, you would have been surprised.

NAVARRO: Well, I would have been surprised if somebody would have told me he was going to have a super PAC with $100 million. So I think it's kind of proportional with what he was able to raise.

COOPER: But it's not a good sign that he's spending $25 million this early in the race. He would obviously prefer...

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: You would rather have the money to spend than not.

BLITZER: Donald Trump, we're told now, is arriving here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. There is his vehicle. I think he's going to be arriving. That's what we're told.

Let's see if he walks out of this vehicle and gets ready to go inside. Presumably, he's going to watch this first debate and then get ready for his debate. The first debate, Anderson, as you know, is only these four Republican presidential candidates, the second-tier candidates.

Almost all of them, at least three of them have indicated to me and to you that they are really going to go directly at Donald Trump in this first debate. They are not mincing any words. Several of them are suggesting -- George Pataki, he says he even couldn't vote for him if he's the Republican nominee.

COOPER: And the question is, will Donald Trump try to change tack or will he and Dr. Ben Carson, looking at their poll numbers, say, you know what, Trump is going to be Trump and Dr. Carson is going to be Dr. Carson? It's gotten them this far and why change anything now?

SMERCONISH: Anderson, if he were self-deprecating, if he showed some humor, if he wasn't the aggressor in this debate, it might bode very well for Trump to be seen in a different light than we have seen him thus far.

NAVARRO: But I think that's wishful thinking. Even when he tries to be nice, at some point, he goes back to his normal Trump script.

BLITZER: But in fairness to Donald Trump -- and, Anderson, you and I have spoke to him over the years.

COOPER: Sure.

BLITZER: He will go after you when you go after him first. He's not necessarily always going to simply start the fight, but, if you start a fight, he will finish it.

COOPER: And, look, there is a lot of anger out there and there is a lot of frustration out there.

BLITZER: All right, hold on a second, hold on a second.

Here is Donald Trump, I think, a picture of him. Here he is finally arriving. There, you see him in the front seat of that vehicle. He is going to walk inside just in time for the start of this debate, Donald Trump walking into the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

He didn't actually do the walk-through earlier, like so many of the other presidential candidates, but, then again, he doesn't do a lot of the stuff that other normal presidential candidates, Republican presidential candidates or Democratic presidential candidates, do. He's walking in right now. We are going to watch what is going on.

In the meantime, Anderson, you and I will be back after this first debate. We will be here throughout the night.

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Our special coverage begins right now.