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Benghazi Committee Backlash; Will Biden Run?; Democrats Prepare for First Debate; Candidates Face Off Tomorrow for First Time; Ex- Staffer: Benghazi Probe "Hyperpartisan". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired October 12, 2015 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Hillary Clinton has the most chips at the table for tomorrow night's debates here in Las Vegas. Will luck be a lady?

I'm Jake Tapper, and this is THE LEAD.

The politics lead, just one day away, a big fight feel in Las Vegas, as all the Democratic candidates get ready to face each other on the same stage for the first time, and all the candidates taking swings at Hillary Clinton ahead of the main event as new polls show that rumors of her demise may be greatly exaggerated.

Plus, is it decision time for Vice President Joe Biden? The vice president at home with family as everyone turns their attention to Vegas. But will his presence still be felt?

Also, a bombshell that could have an impact on tomorrow's debate and this race. A former investigator of the Benghazi attack claims that the real goal of the committee is to sink Hillary, not to seek the truth, though he's not exonerating Clinton. He says she's got lots to answer for. And he will respond to the House Committee on Benghazi's charges against him coming up.

Welcome to THE LEAD.

While polling shows queens high in our politics lead, we are pushing everything to the center of the pot here at the Wynn Resort in Sin City, Las Vegas, Nevada, adding a new show to the strip tomorrow night, the first Democratic debate. Welcome to THE LEAD. I am Jake Tapper live from Nevada.

Nevada is, of course, the site of the third primary or caucus contest in next year's Democratic presidential race, February 20. Mark your calendar. But right now the focus is on tomorrow night as candidates are trying to prepare for the Democratic debate.

What cards are Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb holding? What can Martin O'Malley do to make the final table of the Democratic race? After riding a summer-long hot streak to become the chip leader in New Hampshire, is Bernie Sanders now playing with house money? Or will his luck change? And does Hillary Clinton need to do more than just cover the spread? If she busts tomorrow night, will that be enough to convince Vice President Joe Biden to pony up and join the table?

I want to get right to CNN senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, these new CNN/ORC polls out this morning from Nevada and South Carolina seem to suggest that Democrats still think Clinton is the safe bet.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, because they believe, Jake, that certainly if you see Bernie Sanders doing well in New Hampshire that after that there may not be a pathway for him to get to the nomination.

So Hillary Clinton they think is still at this point doing significantly better than he is. But at the same time, the idea of a loss in New Hampshire would be stinging for her. So you will see her as she is on stage tomorrow night along with the rest of the contenders here trying to refurbish her image.

She has been preparing for this debate, working with lawyers who have a lot of experience on debate prep, including with President Obama. They have been sitting in as Bernie Sanders, as Martin O'Malley as she does debate prep. And then Bernie Sanders, it seems, at least according to his team, that he hasn't been doing as much full-on mock debate as Hillary Clinton, that he's been studying up on the issues and as they say it that he's starting to run through what they call exchanges.


KEILAR (voice-over): As Democratic presidential contenders get ready for their first debate in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton is the candidate to beat in two states that could be key to slowing a Bernie Sanders surge. A new CNN/ORC poll of likely Nevada caucus-goers shows her besting Sanders by 16 points.

The spread is even bigger in South Carolina. Clinton leads Sanders by 31 points. And the Vermont senator sees opportunity in this debate to draw contrast with Clinton.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't get into personal attack attacks. You know that. But are there differences of opinion that should be discussed? Of course there are. That's what an election is about.

KEILAR: Sunday on NBC, Sanders tried out one of his main debating points, that Clinton is late to positions that he always supported, like her now opposition to a trade deal she backed as secretary of state.

SANDERS: So people will have to contrast my consistency and my willingness to stand up to Wall Street and corporations, big corporations, with the secretary.

KEILAR: Sanders trails Clinton nationally in the polls, but his lead in the all-important first primary state of New Hampshire makes him tough competition for Clinton. In 2008, she came from behind to win the New Hampshire primary after this moment went viral.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I just don't want to see us fall backwards.

KEILAR: She spoke about it in a BuzzFeed podcast.

CLINTON: When it was over, I just felt drained. I didn't feel anything other than that. I didn't realize it was going to be such a big deal, to be honest.

KEILAR: Tuesday night, the five Democratic contenders will take the stage at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. For the lesser known candidates, like former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, the debate is a chance to find support that has so far alluded them.


But one of the biggest potential challengers to Clinton and Sanders won't even be there. Vice President Joe Biden is still weighing whether to run. On CBS, President Obama said he understands why Biden might get in.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you're sitting right next to the president in every meeting and, you know, wrestling with these issues, I'm sure that for him he's saying to himself, I could do a really good job.


KEILAR: Now, another reason why these new CNN/ORC poll numbers have some Democrats more bullish on Hillary Clinton has to do with the black vote in South Carolina.

She gets 59 percent of this key voting demographic for Democrats if Joe Biden is in the race. But check this out. You take Joe Biden out of the race, she pops all the way up to 84 percent, Bernie Sanders only at 7 percent. He's really struggled to speak to black voters in a way where they have been receiving him well. And so that's good news certainly for Hillary Clinton -- Jake.

TAPPER: Brianna Keilar, thanks.

Let's talk all of this over with some people who are part of the best political team on television.

We have with us Hugh Hewitt, Van Jones, and Patti Solis Doyle.

Patti, let me start with you.

First of all, what do you think Hillary needs to do tomorrow? Is it really just a first do no harm type thing or does she need to aggressively make the case if she gets attacked?

PATTI SOLIS DOYLE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: She needs to do a few things. First of all, let me say right off the bat she's an excellent debater.

She knows these issues backwards, forwards, sideways. But she's going to get attacked. We just saw that Bernie Sanders is going to go after her on the consistency on some of these issues. I imagine Martin O'Malley is going to do that too. She needs to come prepared for answers on TPP, and Keystone and coming in late on those issues.

And I think she needs to show some humor, a light side of Hillary Clinton. She's done arguably -- some of the best moments on her campaign have been on "Saturday Night Live" and "Jimmy Fallon." I think she needs to have some light moments.

TAPPER: Van, you saw in Brianna's piece Bernie Sanders' abysmal numbers with African-American voters in South Carolina. Obviously, that's the fourth contest, I guess. But still it speaks to a larger weakness of his. We just heard Congressman Keith Ellison, who is a major -- he's from Minnesota -- a major progressive voice, is endorsing him. Will that make a difference?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, it might make a difference.

Keith Ellison is incredibly well-respected. He's African-American. He's one of the few Muslims in Congress and he's very, very outspoken. He's a leading indicator. A lot of people will take Sanders more seriously because of Keith. But I think this whole party has a problem. This is the whitest field that we have seen since 1992.

There's no Sharpton. There's no Carol Moseley Braun, no non-white people there. And this is a party that has to get not 60 percent, not 70 percent, not 90 percent, but 94 percent of the black vote to win. This is a big problem for the whole party. The Clintons get the black vote by default, but nobody has made a case that they can do better.

If Biden gets in, he might be able to make that case. But Bernie Sanders has so much room to grow with the black vote. He should take the opportunity tomorrow to make his case why a white guy from Vermont should get the support of a party with that much black participation.

TAPPER: Hugh Hewitt, if you were advising Bernie Sanders or Martin O'Malley, a very unlikely scenario, but if that were to happen, how would you advise to go after Hillary Clinton, whom you have been critical of for a long time? How would you advise to do it in such a way that you don't risk coming across as a mean guy beating up on, you know, a trailblazer?

HUGH HEWITT, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I would do two things.

One, I would bring up the Russian reset button, because I believe that is the most vulnerable part of her catastrophic tenure at Department of State. And Secretary Clinton can be counted onto try to avoid the Libyan fiasco. But I would also try and get Jim Webb in the conversation.

You used an extended boxing analogy earlier. Jim Webb actually is a famous boxer. He won a -- he lost a three-round match with Oliver North in 1967 at the Naval Academy, one that he thought was stacked against him and one about which he's been bitter for 40 years.

I would try and get him into -- on foreign policy especially, because he is very critical of the former secretary of state's foreign policy. So I would try and throw the ball to Webb to do the body work on the former secretary of state, rather than yourself, because there's no upside in going down.

TAPPER: Now, Patti, you talked about how you think Secretary Clinton's going to face challenges from O'Malley and Sanders on the consistency issue.

And the point of fact is that Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton were part of the Democratic Leadership Council, the idea Democrats should be more moderate. That was how Democrats were in the '90s. And now the Democratic Party has shifted to the left. There are more people calling themselves liberals and she's trying to shift with it. Isn't the consistency charge fair?

SOLIS DOYLE: Look, I think she faces some trust problems, without question. She had a really abysmal summer. She was hit hard by the e-mail controversy. And she's going to have to face these questions in the debate.

But, in fairness, you know, on TPP, for example, it's been two-and-a- half years since she's been a part of the negotiations on that deal. The deal changed. So, yes, she did a flip-flop on it. She did reverse herself. But she's got her reasons. And she's going to explain them on the debate stage.


TAPPER: Quick button.

JONES: She has a problem on the personality side when she tries to be more authentic. Who she authentically is, is a moderate hawk.

So when she tries to get right on the personal relatability side, she hurts herself on the policy side. When she tries to get right on the policy side by following the rest of the party on trade and other stuff, she seems less authentic.

Right now, she's trapped between trying to improve personal relatability and then trying to move on policy. It's tough. She can do it, but it's tough.

TAPPER: All right, have to leave it there.

Patti Solis Doyle, Van Jones, Hugh Hewitt, thanks, one and all, for being here. Really appreciate it.

The CNN team is working hard to make this debate unlike any other in the past. How are we utilizing this massive venue here in Vegas to make this different?

Plus, how social media will be a big component of what you see at home, that's next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


[16:15:23] HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You may remember that when I was first lady I fought for health care reform.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was as some of you know the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, for eight years.

MARTIN O'MALLEY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am the only candidate for president with 15 years of executive experience.

JIM WEBB (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I spent five years in the Pentagon, four of them as an executive.

LINCOLN CHAFEE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm the only one running, Republican or Democrat, that has been a mayor, a governor and a United States senator.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Of all the gin joints in the world, we picked this one for five Democrats to pony up and place their bets.

I'm Jake Tapper. We're' live outside the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas for our politics lead.

We are all hoping the Democratic debate tomorrow night turns out to be as exciting and dramatic as one of the Vegas heists in "Ocean's 11" and not like say "Ocean's 12." By the way, debate requires more manpower to pull off. Building the new main attraction on the Vegas strip, the CNN debate stage.

Our John Berman is going to give us a behind the scenes look.

John, how does all come together and what do you expect when the candidates come together tomorrow night?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN CO-ANCHOR, EARLY START: You know, it came together with a lot of work, Jake. A hundred fifty people, 10,000 person hours in this debate hall, 150 moving lights. My favorite statistic: 10 to 15 miles of cable.

But the most important number, five -- up on that stage behind me five lecterns. You can see they're getting ready for rehearsal right now. Those are not the candidates. Those are students from UNLV and the College of Southern Nevada. They're getting rehearsed.

Anderson Cooper, you can see where he will be standing. He is the moderator this time around. Also, Dana Bash and Juan Carlos Lopez from CNN Espanol, they will be asking questions as well.

Let me show this debate hall. It's a ballroom in Wynn Las Vegas, about 1,300 seats in this room right now. They put seats out overnight. People here will be from the DNC, the campaign, CNN, Facebook, also the Wynn Las Vegas.

A bigger crowd, Jake, than we had at the Reagan Library. That was about 450. So, it could get a little more ruckus this time around.

Here's a new feature in this debate. People can submit questions, I mean you the audience through Facebook. You go to, this screen right here is where they will be read. Don Lemon will read these questions. You can still post right now, by the way. You can post videos. You can post questions. They too will be part of this debate.

Again, the stage behind me is where it will all happen, Jake. Pretty interesting as you've been talking about Hillary Clinton has been doing mock debates with Bob Barnett, a big-time Washington lawyer who's been at this for years. Jeff Weaver, Bernie Sanders campaign manager, told me this morning the day they set aside to work on these exchanges, set pieces back and forth between the moderator and other candidates on specific issues they want to try to anticipate moments that might arise in this debate -- Jake.

TAPPER: John Berman, thanks so much.

John's going to be riding off on his white tiger after this segment.

Hugh, I just want to ask you, a lot of people -- it's no secret that you're not a huge fan of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A lot of people think if she gets a nomination, the demographic advantage she will have will just be very, very difficult for Republicans to beat.

How do you counter that?

HUGH HEWITT, CONSERVATIVE RADIO HOST: I think she's got a glass jaw. I'll tell you I was a little stunned in our first segment because I was agreeing with Patti she has a flip-flop problem. I was agreeing with Van that she has an authenticity problem. I disagreed with you I liked "Ocean's 12."

But I do believe that she's not exciting the base that she needs to excite. And I speak about young women especially, who ought to be off the charts turning out for her and they are not. There is a Clinton fatigue problem in this country which is pronounced. They've been like the permanent cornea implant in our eye for the last 25 years and I think people are tired with her.

TAPPER: Patti?

PATTI SOLIS DOYLE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I disagree with you. Look, I think she's got -- she's building her coalition. She's got African-American support. She's got Hispanic support. She's got support from women.

And it's broad and it carries into not just the first four states but beyond that you've got the south. You've got the west.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: People forget, Hillary Clinton has been one of the most respected women and humans on earth for decades. So, I think that, you know, we might in the political world get tired of her but still one of the most famous people in the world.

DOYLE: She's been voted the most admired woman, what, 12 years?

TAPPER: Patti, I mean, there are problems. I mean, if you look in the polling more than the registered voters, not just Democrats but registered voters, she's under water. More people have unfavorable impressions of her than favorable impressions.

[16:20:01] Now, it's not that can't be turned around, but that is a problem.

DOYLE: It is starting to turn around though. She had a really bad summer, nonstop e-mail controversy. She handled it pretty badly. But now, she's handling it quite well, I think. She's answering all the questions. She's done a number of interviews. I think she's going into this debate with the wind at her back a little bit.

JONES: The shocking thing is Bernie Sanders though. Bernie Sanders, you -- if we were sitting here a year ago and we said Bernie Sanders of all the people in American life, Bernie Sanders would be doing this well would be destroying governors, other people, would be coming in really with the wind at his back I think we'd be shocked.

I think he has tapped into something. There's still a disappointment with the Obama years. There is a little distrust factor there with the Clintons. And this base is hard to be inspired and to believe in something. And Sanders discretion that is.

TAPPER: And, Hugh, you and I have talked about this -- what Trump is doing on the right, in some ways, in some ways, Sanders is doing on the left.

HEWITT: Sure. He's exciting people who haven't previously been excited. Now, I'll tell you -- a year ago, I thought she was inevitable and I thought she was going to be the prohibitive favorite. Now I fear that Joe Biden will get in because it will be harder for my Republican candidate to beat the vice president than it would be to beat the former secretary of state.

TAPPER: Hugh Hewitt, Van Jones, Patti Solis Doyle, thank you so much. Really appreciate it.

Don't miss your first chance to see the Democratic presidential debates on one stage at the CNN Facebook Democratic debate. Coverage starts tomorrow at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. Anderson Cooper will be the moderator. You can weigh in on the conversation using #demdebate.

September 11th, 2012, the events of that date will haunt the rest of Hillary Clinton's political future no matter what happens here in Vegas tomorrow.

But now, a bombshell revelation: one man fired from the Republican-led committee charged with investigating that day says the panel seemed to change and hyper-focus on Hillary Clinton. He does not exonerate her. But he does say there are issues with the committee. His claims and the response that's getting today coming up next on THE LEAD. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:26:36] TAPPER: Welcome back. We are here live in Las Vegas. The Democratic candidates will go head-to-head on stage tomorrow night for the first time in 2016 presidential campaign.

Welcome back to CNN's THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Today, there is major fallout from a story that could have a huge impact on tomorrow night's debate on the entire presidential race. It's one that leaves some families with some painful questions. A fired former investigator on the House Benghazi committee told me that the Republican-led panel looking into the fatal attack on the U.S. posts in 2012, the panel became partisan and hyper-focused on Hillary Clinton instead of looking more broadly at all the agencies and individuals responsible for wrongdoing.

The committee today pushed back on his claims forcefully. And for the first time in a TV interview, the Air Force reserve intelligence officer responds.


TAPPER (voice-over): Bradley Podliska at first blush seems an unlikely target of the wrath of his former bosses, the Republicans on the House Benghazi Committee. An Air Force reserves intelligence officer, Podliska is a self-described conservative Republican who once interned for the conservative Media Research Center.

MAJ. BRADLEY PODLISKA, U.S. AIR FORCE RESERVE: I just want to state for the record I'm not here to absolve Hillary Clinton of any wrongdoing. Hillary Clinton, in the end of this, is going to have a lot of explaining to do.

TAPPER (on camera): What do you think Hillary Clinton needs to explain?

PODLISKA: Unfortunately, I'm not permitted to get into any more details than that.

TAPPER (voice-over): Podliska says in march the investigation took a turn after the "New York Times" broke the story of Hillary Clinton using a personal e-mail server for State Department business. After that happened, the investigation's broader focus narrowed, he says.

PODLISKA: And I was told that things were now changed. That this was going to be what they termed an agency-centric investigation. This actually meant they were going to focus on Hillary Clinton and on the State Department.

I was focused on other agencies, other individuals, other organizations that, you know, for the post-attack piece were responsible and I thought were culpable and should be held accountable for what they were doing.

TAPPER: Podliska had been investigating the intelligence agencies and the post-Benghazi talking points, why the administration initially blamed the attacks incorrectly on an anti-Muslim video.

PODLISKA: In June, I was meeting also once again with senior leadership. And they told me -- they were angry at me. They said we know that you have your post-attack piece, only right wing nut jobs care about that.

And what they were referring to is Representative Jim Jordan. I'd worked very closely with Representative Jordan. I will say he's an honest, decent, trustworthy man. This guy rolled up his sleeves. He was willing to investigate any organization, any individual, any agency as long as he could find the truth for the victims' families.

TAPPER: But now, Podliska is preparing to sue the committee for firing him he says because of his need to take time to serve in the Air Force reserves and for objecting to what he calls a partisan hyper-focus on the Democratic presidential candidate.

The committee denies these charges saying in a statement that Podliska never mentioned Secretary Clinton at any time during his counseling for deficient performance or when he was terminated. The committee says as the mediation process prepares to wrap, he is demanded money from the committee. The committee has refused to pay him and he has now run to the press with his new salacious allegations about Secretary Clinton.

(on camera): As you know the committee says they fired you for other reasons including putting classified information on an unclassified system.

PODLISKA: Complete and total fabrication. I was accused of a security violation, along with several other people. When I asked them, hey, what here is classified?