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[17:00:01] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, final countdown. The Democratic presidential candidates are less than four hours away from their first debate right here on CNN. Hillary Clinton and her main challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, will square off for the first time. Will they try to build themselves up or knock their opponent down?

On the line. The future is now for three underdogs: former Virginia senator, Jim Webb; former Maryland governor, Martin O'Malley; and former Rhode Island governor, Lincoln Chafee. Can one of them seize the moment and become a real player in this campaign?

And Trump tweets. Taunted by Clinton during a rally outside his hotel, Donald Trump says he'll not only be watching the Democrats debate. He'll be live tweeting his own comments during the showdown. Does he have a score to settle?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer live in Las Vegas. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're just hours away from the first Democratic presidential debate right here on CNN. As the clock winds down, the excitement level is going way up here in Las Vegas. We're coming to you live from inside the debate hall at the Wynn Hotel.

The candidates have begun arriving here to get their first look at debate hall. It will be the first time that the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, goes up against her main rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont; and the long-shot candidates, former Maryland governor, Martin O'Malley; former Virginia senator, Jim Webb; and former Rhode Island governor, Lincoln Chafee.

For the underdogs, this is a make or break moment. Their big chance to make an impact that could keep them in this race. For Sanders, the self-described socialist with a strong core following, it's a chance to appeal to a wider audience of Democrats.

And for Clinton, it's a chance to move beyond her e-mail controversy, answer her critics and boost her status as frontrunner.

Clinton took some shots at Donald Trump on the eve of the debate as she joined a union rally just outside the Trump hotel here in Vegas. Trump says he'll be watching the debate and promises to live tweet as the Democrats do battle. Our correspondents, analysts and guests, they have full coverage of

this extraordinary event coming up. Let's begin with CNN's John Berman. He's down on the stage where the candidates will debate. Set the stage for us, John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, right now, right behind me, Bernie Sanders, getting his tour of the debate stage. Such an interesting moment to see these candidates on the stage for the first time. I find out where they get to stand, where they have to look, where their families will be sitting. All want to know that, because they looked to their families so often for comfort.

The lectern, where you can see Bernie Sanders standing right now, that is where he will be at the debate. Directly to his left will be Hillary Clinton. These lecterns, fairly close, just 20 inches apart. The same distance they were at the Reagan Library debate, the Republican debate, just a few weeks ago. That is fairly close.

One other difference I can tell you, being in this debate hall, it is cool. I don't know if it's because it's a Las Vegas casino, and they set the temperature low to keep you awake, but there is a definite chill in this room right now. These candidates have 3 1/2 hours to go before they walk up here for the real thing.

They have two-minute opening statements. That also a difference in this debate. One minute to answer questions from Anderson Cooper and the other people asking questions. Thirty seconds for rebuttals if they get called out by name. And again, you can see Bernie Sanders up there. He's been spending today and yesterday working on possible exchanges, scenarios, Q&As that might come up how to address other candidates if they go after him. Bernie Sanders says he's only talking about Hillary Clinton if she talks about him first -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. John, thank you. And as you can see, the candidates have been arriving here to get their first look at debate hall. You saw Bernie Sanders there.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's got more on these late-minute preparations -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're standing by in this loading dock area behind the Wynn Hotel and casino here in Las Vegas as the candidates are arriving. This is where they're coming in.

Just a few moments ago we saw Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont. He arrived. I had a few moments to chat with him. I asked him whether or not tonight is a big showdown between himself and Hillary Clinton. He said, no, this is an opportunity to talk about issues of economic fairness.

I also asked him whether or not he's going to be offering a stout defense of his views on socialism. He went on to say that there are countries around the world that have governments that basically practice democratic socialism. He says it's no different than what he's talking about for this country. And then finally, Wolf, you know, I just wanted to find out, you know, how is he preparing for this? Is this the biggest moment of his political career? He said yes, by far this is the biggest moment of his political career. Who would have thought that Bernie Sanders, after all these months and months of campaigning would really be giving Hillary Clinton this run for her money?

[17:05:09] Now speaking of Secretary Clinton, we expect her to arrive or her campaign advisers to arrive any moment now with the same walk- through behind stage, onstage there inside the Wynn Hotel to check out her place at the lectern -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll get back to you, Jim Acosta. Thanks very much.

I want to go back to the stage now where these five Democratic candidates will debate. They're getting ready for this debate. Our senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is there. Brianna, what are you seeing?


Behind me, you see Bernie Sanders surrounded by, certainly, a lot of folks here who have been putting on the debate and are just explaining to him the logistics of where the moderators are going to be. And you also see a number of his aides with him, and they're answering questions that he may have about just the sort of details about how this debate is going to go.

I will tell you, as we do wait to see whether or not Hillary Clinton herself is going to be doing a similar walk-through that we've seen Bernie Sanders do, that we've seen Jim Webb do.

It's interesting that it seems like her team isn't necessarily trying to even really manage those expectations, as we see so often in debates where you see aides downplaying how good someone is going to be. She, by far, has the most experience when it comes to debates of this level. She's done more than two dozen debates. Most of them have been on a national stage, like this one.

They've all been very high-profile from the time when she was first running for Senate in 2000. So she will be coming either at some point soon or perhaps when she does come onstage at 8:30 Eastern for the debate. That is possibly the first time that she would be on stage. We're still waiting to see exactly what's going to happen there, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brianna, stand by.

I want to bring in our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger; our chief national correspondent, John King; and our CNN political commentator, Michael Smerconish. You've been doing some reporting, Gloria, on Bernie Sanders, his debate strategy. How tough is he going to be going up against Hillary Clinton?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think he's going to give pointed answers. If she challenges him, he will challenge her right back. If she says, "Oh, Bernie, how are you going to pay for all of these wonderful things like free college tuition?" He's going to go right back on her.

He's not going to be afraid to differ with her. He's going to say, "I've been consistent over the last three decades. You have not been consistent."

And then, what he needs to do, and what they're concerned about, is that he needs to show himself as presidential, somebody who is electable as president of the United States and not just a democratic socialist, right?

BLITZER: That's what he calls himself, a democratic socialist. He's not a capitalist; he's made that point.

BORGER: That's right. That's right. But he needs to show he can win the presidency.

BLITZER: You've moderated these kinds of debates, John. So they all go in, promising they're going to be nice, polite, substantive, policy-oriented. But something often happens, and they go after each other. What could trigger that?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think what's most likely to trigger him tonight is not Senator Sanders or Secretary Clinton, who both come in. She has the debate experience, as Gloria noted. Bernie Sanders needs to prove he's presidential. They both like and respect each other from their days in the Senate.

They're not looking to go after each other. Yes, they might have some heated and contentious policy debates, but I don't think it will be personable.

But what about Martin O'Malley? What about Jim Webb? What about Lincoln Chafee, who are desperate, on the verge of extinction in the race? Do they spice it up to the point that it brings the other candidates?

If you look at past debate history, there are some people who say Bernie Sanders has a temper. Will that come out tonight, if necessary? Hillary Clinton sometimes can be sarcastic or biting in her humor, if pushed, but they're both also very experienced. This is not a group of inexperienced people. No, only Hillary Clinton has been on the presidential debate stage, but these are not newcomers, unlike the Republican field where you have all the outsiders. These are established, senior politicians.

BLITZER: One of the problems that Hillary Clinton might have is she wants all those Barack Obama supporters in the Democratic Party but, at the same time, she's distancing herself on some key Barack Obama issues, like this new trade pact with the Pacific, which he says is great for the American worker, great for the American people, great for the environment, which she says is horrible.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: We're used to these pivots in election season. What's unusual in this cycle is that the word of 2016 thus far is authenticity. I mean, that's really what unites Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

So what's different, Wolf, I think, in this -- this debate is she's going to have to explain her policy changes without sacrificing authenticity. I don't know that most voters are going to be able to follow the logistics and the details of the TPP deal. She has an explanation as to why she thinks that the final product was too sympathetic to big pharma. That might get lost in translation, but people are going to be looking at her body language, her facial cues and want to know is she telling it to us straight?

BLITZER: It's a delicate line, Gloria, she has to walk right now. She wants those Barack Obama supporters, at the same time on a sensitive issue like this, she says he's wrong.

[17:10:05] BORGER: Right. And she -- so she wants to rebuild the Obama coalition. She's moving to her left. She doesn't want to lose independent voters if she were to become the nominee in a general election. It's a really hard path to navigate.

And I think we've seen her try to navigate it with -- with some difficulty. You know, this is somebody whose husband was president of the United States and invented the third way of Democratic politics, which was attack to the center.

Now she's moving from the center to the left, because the Democratic Party has moved to the left, and all of these candidates are to the left of where Hillary Clinton was when she ran the last time.

BLITZER: And when it comes to mainstream Democrats out there, John, how vulnerable is Bernie Sanders on the gun issue?

KING: Well, on the gun issue, because many issues we've seen Hillary Clinton move to the left to try to counter Bernie Sanders, especially on economic issues, on the gun issue, that is a potential where she might criticize him, saying where have you been? He's from rural Vermont. What he has said is I represent people in rural Vermont who are hunters, who are collectors, and you have to respect that.

What he has recently said is we have to have a conversation about gun control. But in the past, he has voted against background checks. He has been endorsed in prior races by the National Rifle Association. So does that come up as an issue tonight from Secretary Clinton? You can look for Governor O'Malley to make that point, as well, too. Guns is one of the issues on which he is more -- hard to say this about a guy who says he's a democratic socialist. But he is more to the right of the rest of the Democratic field.

BLITZER: Interesting development. Guys, stand by. We're going to have much more, much more on what's going on and behind us. We're seeing the candidates. They have started arriving. They're going up to the lecterns there, and they're getting a little feel for this room. About 1,500 people are going to be in the audience. Millions will be watching.

We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: We're back. We're inside the debate hall here at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. We're counting down to the first Democratic presidential candidates' debate.

Right now one of Hillary Clinton's top aides, Huma Abedin, getting ready in the building. She'll be checking out the lectern, the podium. We're going to be watching what's going on.

Let's bring back Gloria Borger, John King, Michael Smerconish. Hillary Clinton's been on the defensive on the whole e-mail controversy, how will she use that tonight if she's going to go on the offense?

BORGER: Well, first of all, I don't think any of the people on the stage with her are going to attack her on the e-mail controversy. Sixty-eight percent of Democrats think Hillary Clinton is trustworthy, it's not an issue for them.

Whether the journalists will ask questions about e-mails remains to be seen. I presume that perhaps -- perhaps they will.

Hillary Clinton took her a long time to admit that it was a mistake, finally admitted it was a mistake. And I'm sure she's got a couple of one-liners in her pocket to handle it. And I presume if she's asked about it, she will take responsibility. She will say it was wrong again.

And then she will say, that's not important to the American people. Here's what's important to the American people. And start talking about issues.

BLITZER: Then she'll say, look at the Republicans. They're admitting now. Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, this is all political. They're going after her.

BORGER: Right. Exactly.

KING: She needs to be careful here, though. Yes, the Republicans gave her a gift when Kevin McCarthy said he was just being inarticulate. But if you listen to what he said, what he seemed to say was Hillary Clinton was doing great. And then we formed this special committee to go after her and look what her poll number have done.

Now again, the broad swath of Republicans say that's not fair. But that's kind of what he said on a FOX News program. However, since then the president of the United States, her boss, has also said it was a mistake. And that she shouldn't have done it and should have known better. And so she has to be careful.

Barack Obama is very popular with Democrats. He's still the leader of the Democratic Party. So she doesn't want to get so happy to have a partisan conversation with Republicans about this.

My question, I agree with Gloria completely, that most Democrats don't think this is a big issue, but her numbers have come down around Democrats. Do one of the long shots take the chance to go after it is a question of judgment. But it is an opening for her judgment. And why didn't she listen to her boss, who sent all cabinet secretaries a notice, saying we want you to keep this in the government system.

BLITZER: And the president also said he didn't know she was using a private e-mail server.

SMERCONISH: And I would say there's a temptation among all of us to conflate the two. They are two different issues: the email issue, the Benghazi issue. I think the Benghazi issue, because of the Kevin McCarthy situation, has lost a lot of its steam, at least among non- partisans. Among Republicans, they still loved that issue, but these are two differently different things.

BLITZER: Michael Smerconish, Donald Trump, he's sort of hovering over this debate tonight, even though he's not here in Las Vegas. He does have a big hotel here in Las Vegas. He tweeted this. He said, "At the request of many, and though I expect it to be a very boring two hours, I will be covering the Democratic debate live on Twitter," to which Hillary Clinton tweeted, "Glad you'll be watching. It's going to be huge!"

Am I the only one willing to admit I'm thrilled that he's going to be tweeting about this? I think it adds a new dynamic to it. He is the elephant in the room.

The question for me is whether Anderson Cooper will be following the Twitter feed of Donald Trump and will feel comfortable in tossing in a question that is prompted by the Donald.

BORGER: Then he won't be the elephant. He'll be a questioner.


BORGER: Could be.

BLITZER: Donald -- Donald Trump has a presence here, even though obviously he's not here.

BORGER: And by the way, even if he weren't live tweeting, which I'm also thrilled he's doing, even if he weren't doing that, he's going to be raised by these candidates, don't you think, because they don't want to fight with each other. I mean, they want to -- they want to talk about Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

SMERCONISH: They want him to be the face of the Republican Party.

BORGER: Of course. Of course.

SMERCONISH: That's why she went to the hotel yesterday.

BORGER: Right.

KING: But the Trump effect on this race has been fascinating, No. 1, because of the outsider factor, very different than the Democratic primary, because they've all held office.

But No. 2, the Republican race will get there eventually, I'm sure. But it is yet to be an ideological fight. There's great ideological differences among the candidates, but it's been much more about personalities because of Trump, and Carson, and Fiorina.

This is an ideological fight between Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders and the others trying to get into the debate about taking the Democratic Party even more to the left than President Obama. When he was elected, a lot of people said, the country go for a guy this liberal? They now believe, if you look at the Electoral College, that they can go a little bit more to the left and still win. We'll see.

BLITZER: There's a lot we're going to see. Because we're only just getting started, guys. Thanks very much.

Coming up, a preview of the very different strategies we're likely to see from the candidates tonight. We're awaiting the start of the first Democratic presidential debate of this campaign season.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The excitement is clearly building here in Las Vegas, as we count down to the first Democratic presidential debate. This will be many voters' first opportunity to get a closer look at the candidates. So we're likely to see very different strategies as the debate unfolds.

Let's go down to the stage. Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is there. I know the candidates, their aides, are looking at the lecterns. They're up there on the podium. What are you seeing?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they are. And Hillary Clinton is not going to do a test run on this -- on this stage tonight.

One of her top and longest serving aides, Huma Abedin, is waiting in the wings just behind me here. She's taking a couple photographs of the stage, probably going to show her boss what the stage actually looks like. She's getting a sense of what this evening is going to be.

But you're right: the strategies are different for every candidate. Secretary Clinton, first and foremost, wants to show that she's ready to be president. She wants to show that she's preparing for this moment her entire life.

She also wants to restore some of that trust and credibility that's been eroded over the summer with the e-mail scandals and other things.

And she also is trying to show that she is a fighter. You may not like her in the end, one aide said, but she is going to show that she's a fighter for you. Now, Bernie Sanders, of course, is going to be on this stage, the

biggest stage of his political life so far. I'm told by his aides that he wants to show that he has mainstream values. Of course, this is a Democratic primary campaign, and he is a democratic socialist from Vermont. So he's going to show that he is part of the mainstream.

Also, he is a leader of the populist movement. Of course, he's been speaking to rallies and crowds across the country. But tonight, his biggest audience yet, his biggest chance to grow that movement, so look for him to talk about that movement again and again.

And also, he wants to show that he's a credible general election candidate, a champion for the middle class and for independent voters, Democrats, as well as he says, even a few Republicans.

Finally, Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland. He wants to show that he is a proven executive, the only candidate of these three who has been a mayor and a governor, spent some 16 years in office.

He also wants to show that she's a generational change. He's 52 years old. Hillary Clinton, of course, is 68. Bernie Sanders, 74. He wants to show that he is a new generation of Democrat here. That his biggest moment is, he's been calling for so many debates, he wants to make clear that he actually deserves a shot on this stage.

So those are three top candidates. And of course, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, as well. Also want to get in their moments here. And you can see behind me right now, Huma Abedin is going on stage. She is taking a look at all of the podiums.

Of course, Huma Abedin has been, really, with Hillary Clinton for ever since she was the first lady in the White House. She has been her longest serving aide. She is looking at that podium right now right in the middle of this stage, checking it out, looking to the left and right.

These podiums, really, are so close together, some 20 inches apart only. So you can see her there, sort of checking out this scene.

Interesting, of course, that she came out, but Hillary Clinton herself did not come out. She's preparing for this debate. She's with her advisers. I can tell you, Wolf, Huma will be giving her a full report -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I don't understand why the candidate herself wouldn't want to go out there, take a look at it, get a feel for that lectern, see what's going on, get a feel for the room. Any explanation why Huma Abedin, her top aide, is doing it, as opposed to Hillary Clinton?

ZELENY: Wolf, I would assume it's because Hillary Clinton has done so many debates. She did 25 debates in the 2008 campaign. We all remember those so well. Some were here in Las Vegas. So she knows what it's like. So I think she probably does not want any of us to be watching her, sort of look at the stage here. She wants, you know, to be having some private rehearsal time, some

private moments. When she takes this stage when the debate begins in just a couple of hours, that is going to be the first time any of us see her. So I'm guessing that she just wants to sort of be relaxing a little bit and does not want to be made up for the moment.

So Huma Abedin will report back to her what this stage looks like. But I'm not that surprised at this, Wolf. She's debated so many times. She has all of the information she probably needs -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

And there's Huma Abedin at the lectern over there right now.

While the main focus is here in the debate hall, we're also keeping a close eye on what's called the spin room, where top representatives of the campaigns, perhaps the candidates themselves, will be mingling with reporters.

CNN's Kate Bolduan in the spin room right now.

So Kate, what do we expect to see tonight?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is really where, after the debate, the action begins, Wolf.

And yes, a lot is said in this two-hour debate. But right afterward, this is what you're going to see.

Through these doors, you're going to see the surrogates from the campaigns or the candidates themselves, as we definitely saw with the last Republican debate, flooding into this room to speak to you and to make their case to the more than 700 members of the credentialed press that are going to be at this debate.

This place is so packed -- you've seen these things, these spinner sticks -- this is what -- you have to hold these up in order for you to see the candidate or their surrogates. You'll see these all throughout the room.

Why do they come here after having so much to say in the debate? This is where they have to make their case. They often, they declare victory, of course, each candidate and campaign.

They also come here to try to define, in their view, the most memorable moment in the debate before, let's be honest, their rivals do. And this is the opportunity where they downplay any flubs.

Essentially, the way to think about it is this room is where the next phase of the campaign really kicks off. Why this is where all of the action is, right after the debate.

And here's a really interesting note. Most of the surrogates that you see in this room are advisers that you've seen on TV that are often talking to the media, high-level folks with the campaign. Jim Webb, we found out, he's enlisted three of his oldest friends to come to be surrogates for them. Interestingly, because these friends told CNN they didn't even know what a spin room was until Jim Webb asked them to come and speak on his behalf. Just a little note of how very unusual and different some of the approaches for these candidates are, Wolf.

BLITZER: More than 700 journalists have applied and received credentials to cover this debate here in Las Vegas. It's going to be jam packed in that spin room later tonight.

All right. Thanks very much, Kate, for that. We'll get back to you.

Want to get some insight from our political commentators. Ana Navarro is here. She's a Jeb Bush supporter, friend of Marco Rubio. Donna Brazile is a Democratic strategist. Dan Pfeiffer is a former senior adviser to President Obama. Van Jones also a former special adviser to the president.

Guys, stand by. We're getting some new information, even as we speak right now. Want to take a quick break. We'll digest what we're learning when we come back. Stay with us.


[17:37:17] BLITZER: Welcome back. This is just outside the Wynn Hotel here in Las Vegas. People are there, some Bernie Sanders supporters, they're walking around, as well. There are supporters for the other campaigns, as well. The Democratic presidential candidates, they're arriving for tonight's first Democratic presidential debate of this campaign season.

We're back with our political commentators, Ana Navarro, Donna Brazile, Dan Pfeiffer, Van Jones.

You know, there's been a little fight, highly unusual. Two Democratic members of Congress. One's the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The other's a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Tulsi Gabbard. They're fighting over how many debates there really should be. And as a result, for whatever reason, Tulsi Gabbard thinks she was disinvited by the chair of the DNC from even coming to this Democratic debate. It's pretty ugly.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Wolf, let me just say this, I...

BLITZER: I know you're a vice chair of the DNC yourself.

BRAZILE: I have every confidence that, you know, no matter how much this conversation goes on, the truth is, Debbie and Tulsi are rooting for those five candidates who will be here tonight.

This is about the candidates and what they offer to the American people. We have a lot of what I call ideas that the American people want to hear from the candidates. So, we will figure out the number of debates. How many times we're going to appear with Wolf Blitzer. Because I know it's all about we need more debates with Wolf, because we want Wolf. But, no, this is about the candidates and what they will do to help the American people.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: All right. The people of America just saw master class on spinning from Donna Brazile right now. Look, it does not take...

BLITZER: She's a master.

NAVARRO: She is a master. She's got a master's degree on this. It does not take rocket science.

Hillary Clinton is the establishment candidate. They want to protect the establishment candidate. Mistakes can happen at debates. They want to control the number of debates. And they have a problem because debates and the other candidates are demanding more debates, including people like Vice Chair Tulsi Gabbard. And so it's turned into this very ugly she said/she said playing out on national media.

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I just want to say, I know them both. I respect them both. Tulsi Gabbard is a rising star in this party. Tulsi Gabbard should be here tonight.

The reality is we do not have enough young veterans in this party, enough young women in the party, enough people of color in this party. She is a trifecta, a quadfecta. Not having Tulsi Gabbard here, whatever the reason, I think is a very, very bad sign. I hope that she will be at all the rest of the them, sitting next to Debbie. We need those two women together, but we need Tulsi.

BLITZER: Tulsi, she's an Iraq War veteran. Yesterday she was promoted from captain to major in the Hawaii National Guard. She certainly is a rising star, and the fact is that she's not here, for whatever reason, is unfortunate.

NAVARRO: I don't know, but in a battle, I want her in my trench.

BLITZER: Me, too. Me, too.

All right. Let's talk a little bit about Hillary Clinton now distancing herself from the president of the United States on this trade deal in the Pacific with Asian countries. She says it's bad for America. Why would the president be doing something, supporting it so enthusiastically, if Hillary Clinton says it's a bad deal?

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think Hillary Clinton has a steep hill to climb to explain to the American people tonight why the trade deal that she called to be a gold standard just a few -- just a few years ago is now something she's against.

I will give her the benefit of the doubt that it's a sincere position, but she's got to make a credible case.

Because I think, from a political tactics point of view, this is a mistake. It is better to defend a sincerely held, politically unpopular position than to get attacked for flip-flopping your position. She's going to get attack on TPP, no matter what. BLITZER: She did that on the Iran nuclear deal. She came out in

favor of what the president worked on, even though politically, she may have been able to score some political points by opposing it.

PFEIFFER: I don't think she's trying to distance herself from the president. I think she knows that the president, that the path to the nomination to the White House runs through the Obama coalition. And the -- she needs -- she's not running for the Obama third term, the Bill Clinton third term.

BLITZER: She's going to alienate some Barack Obama supporters, a lot of them in the Democratic Party, by distancing herself from the president on this and other issues.

JONES: She might, but on this issue in particular, this trade deal was a deal that his base really hated. He had to go with Republicans to get that trade deal done. I think she's safe there.

But if she starts to run up over and over again, not only the flip- flop, but flip-flopping against the president, then I think she runs into a real buzz saw.

BLITZER: How much should she use her husband as a surrogate in this campaign? He's here in Las Vegas. I don't know if he's going to be in this room tonight. But remember, eight years ago, he wasn't used that much. He may arguably be the most popular Democratic politician out there.

BRAZILE: Can I make some breaking news? Hillary Clinton is her own woman. And yes, she is married to a famous man and a great leader of our country, as well, but this is about her vision and what she intends to do. While everyone would like to see Bill Clinton out front and center in all of these states and all of these -- being a surrogate, because he is a super spouse, this is about Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: Don't you think he'd help her?

BRAZILE: Hillary Clinton -- I mean, Bill Clinton could help all of us. And God knows, he will be a tremendous asset to the campaign. He already is an asset.

NAVARRO: He's a double-edged sword, and they understand that. He overshadows her. He's got incredible political talent, natural political talent. She doesn't. She's got to work at it really hard. She's got the authenticity problem. She's got the likability problem. She's got the trustworthiness problem.

So I think it's -- you know, it's awkward, because the other spouses are going to be here. Bill Clinton is in town. John Podesta told me today he's going to be watching it on TV like the rest of the American people.

PFEIFFER: We experienced this in '07 and '08, which is when Hillary Clinton was campaigning in Iowa, Bill Clinton was in New Hampshire. When Hillary Clinton was in New Hampshire, Bill Clinton was in Iowa. That is a tremendous asset to the campaign.

JONES: I say, let the big dog bark. Let him bark. I love Bill Clinton. People who hate Bill Clinton love to listen to Bill Clinton. He is an -- I think he is an unqualified asset. For every one dumb thing he says, he'll say 100 smart, brilliant things.

BRAZILE: How many votes did she get in 2008? Eighteen million. Eighteen million. That's the highest number of any candidate in any presidential primary in the history of this country.

JONES: And I don't think it is...

BRAZILE: So let's set the record straight. She is her own person. She's her own woman. I know we sometime need to attach a man to our collar, but she doesn't -- she loves him. She will use him. But she is her own woman.

NAVARRO: Nobody's arguing that. But I mean, the point is, look, you don't let him loose at this point, because he did make mistakes in 2008. He made mistakes in South Carolina that were costly to her campaign. Now, the moment they start needing him, you're going to see them release the Kraken.

BLITZER: Yes, and there's no doubt he did help Barack Obama get re- elected in 2012.

And when he was running -- when he was running as a candidate himself and she was up on the stage, he would often say you get two for the price of one.

NAVARRO: He's the best surrogate the Democrats have, except for his wife.

BLITZER: All right. We'll see. Let's see if he shows up here tonight.

Coming up, terrorism is not going away after the presidential election. We're going to take a closer look at where the candidates stands -- stand when it comes to fighting ISIS. Do they favor airstrikes, putting U.S. troops on the ground.

And a new report says Russian-made missile downed Flight MH-17 over Ukraine. How do the candidates plan to deal with Russia's Vladimir Putin?


[17:48:55] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Whoever ends up in the Oval Office from either party will inherit the war against ISIS.

You're looking at live pictures from inside the debate hall here at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. The candidates are getting ready to approach all sorts of issues including national security issues.

Brian Todd is joining us with a closer look at this part of the upcoming debate -- Brian. BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, when discussing who would do

what against the fight -- in the fight against ISIS, there's some key differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. First off, arming and training the Syrian rebels. Hillary Clinton has said consistently she is in favor of arming and training the Syrian rebels. Bernie Sanders has been opposed to that.

Sanders, though, he wants to arm only the Kurdish Peshmerga forces saying that this is a force the U.S. could trust. Now airstrikes, both of them are in favor of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS. Both of them are opposed to U.S. boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS. But Sanders seems more apt to favor the idea that Middle East countries, especially the wealthy ones like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, should do the lion's share of the fighting on the ground.

Here's what he had to say not long ago on that.


[17:50:05] SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have got to be supportive, air attacks, special forces, and so forth. But the bulk of the fighting must be done by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, countries in the region.


TODD: And again when he talks about that, he's talking about those countries putting troops on the ground. Sanders has said that countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, quote, "need to get their hands dirty in the fight against ISIS" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, it's a whole notion, this -- the controversial idea of a no-fly zone. And there are differences between these candidates on that sensitive issue.

TODD: That's right, Wolf. Take a look at this. Hillary Clinton has consistently said she does favor a no-fly zone. She says it would make it more difficult for Bashar al-Assad's forces to bomb Syrian civilians, refugees and others. But Bernie Sanders has said he opposes it. On Hillary's position on this, here's what she had to say in Iowa not long ago.


HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need to try to set up and enforce a no-fly zone to try to stop the outflow of refugees so people can stay at home to try to stabilize the situation on the ground, prevent Assad's air force from continuing to bomb its own people.


TODD: And again Bernie Sanders opposed to a no-fly zone. He basically believes that this is going to make a complex war even worse. He thinks it's going to draw the U.S. further into an entanglement in the region, Wolf. He is very much opposed to that idea.

BLITZER: Another key difference could be something that occurred back in 2008 when then candidate Barack Obama made it clear that he opposed going to war in Iraq back in 2003. She voted to go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. Sanders, he voted against the war. He could draw on that again tonight.

TODD: He certainly could, Wolf. You know, again, Hillary Clinton did vote in 2002 when she was a senator to authorize use of force against Iraq. Bernie Sanders was a congressman at that time. He voted against it. Again, though, drawing on the Barack Obama theme from 2008, Barack Obama was not a senator at the time. He did not vote. But he has made it clear all along and he made it clear in 2008 when he was debating Hillary Clinton that he was opposed to the Iraq war from the word go. And he just pounded on that theme when he was in debates with Hillary Clinton.

Bernie Sanders could kind of draw on that tonight to question Hillary Clinton's judgment on these big issues drawing on what Obama did in 2008, Wolf. We'll see if he does it tonight.

BLITZER: All right. Brian Todd, thanks very much.

We're coming up, getting ready for the debate. Let's bring in the former House Intelligence Committee chairman, our CNN national security commentator, Mike Rogers, also our CNN political commentator Peter Beinart, a contributing editor for Atlantic Media.

She was secretary of state, Peter, for four years under President Obama obviously. Is national security foreign policy going to be a strength for her going into this campaign, going into this debate tonight or potentially not such a strength?

PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's interesting. It would be a strength because she has more experience than the other candidates, certainly more than Bernie Sanders. But if you look at her positions on the issues, they don't necessarily line up with where Democratic base voters are. Of course her support for the Iraq war which is very unpopular hurt her against Obama in 2008.

BLITZER: She says now that was a mistake.

BEINART: Right. And that hurt her a lot in 2008. She's more hawkish on Syria than not only Bernie Sanders, but I think where than most Democrats are. And so I think that although she may use the experience card, when people begin to understand more the differences between her and the field, they might find actually they line up closer to Sanders.

BLITZER: She disagrees with the president on a no-fly zone over Syria, she disagrees, as we just heard, with Bernie Sanders. She supports a no-fly zone. They disagree. That potentially could be a big subject tonight.

MIKE ROGERS, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY COMMENTATOR: And I think it will. And if you look at her time as secretary of state, she had some conflict. They bumped heads a little bit on the policy on Afghanistan, on Syria, and other places including Russia by the way in some circumstances. And I agree, tonight it causes her some problem. But in a general election, she -- that hawkish stance is probably more appealing to a broader set of voters. She's going to have to thread this need because I think on this stage with this audience this is not a great place for her to go.

BLITZER: Because you say with a broader sense of, you know, support among all Americans, but not necessarily among that Republican base which is her primary target right now.

ROGERS: Democrat base.

BLITZER: I mean, the Democratic base. Yes.

ROGERS: The Democratic base. Yes, and I think if you look at where Sanders is and you look at the tabs on that polling, they are completely where he is on all of those issues which is oppose to where Hillary Clinton is on those -- on national security issues.

BLITZER: Former Senator Jim Webb, he could be a wild card on this national security issue tonight because he's a former secretary of the Navy, a former assistant secretary of Defense, a U.S. senator, a Marine.


BLITZER: He knows a lot about these issues and he could presumably go after Hillary Clinton on some of these sensitive issues.

BEINART: And that will be great for Bernie Sanders because Bernie Sanders doesn't want to be the person doing the attacking, but he won't mind if someone else does the attacking. Lincoln Chaffee also opposed the war in Iraq. I think the danger for Hillary is that Webb and Chaffee go after her hard on the war in Iraq, Sanders get the credit because he doesn't have to look like the heavy.

[17:55:05] BLITZER: Peter Beinart, Mike Rogers, guys, thanks very much.

Coming up, the Democratic candidates, they have been arriving here for the first presidential debate right here on CNN. Hillary Clinton and her main challenger Bernie Sanders getting ready to face off for the first time. But will Donald Trump steal the show? The Republican frontrunner says he'll be watching the debate, he'll be live tweeting as the Democrats go at it.


[18:00:06] BLITZER: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting live from the CNN Democratic presidential debate here in Last Vegas.