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Cruz-Trump Showdown?; Preview of Tuesday's GOP Debate. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired December 13, 2015 - 08:30   ET


[08:30:00] VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: INSIDE POLITICS with John King starts in just seconds.


JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Ted Cruz on the rise in Iowa.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's certainly true that going up is better than going down.

KING: Donald Trump under fire.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Republican front- runner has made a name for himself in the last months by trafficking in prejudice and paranoia.

KING: Republicans rush to call Trump's plan to ban Muslims way out of bounds. But Trump defends the idea and himself.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am the least racist person that you have ever met.

KING: The big debate Tuesday -- Trump and terror fears are the biggest flashpoints.

INSIDE POLITICS -- the biggest stories sourced by the best reporters now.


KING: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your Sunday morning, as we count down to the big Republican presidential debate Tuesday night right here on CNN.

With us to share their reporting and their insights: Julie Pace of the Associated Press, Ed O'Keefe of the "Washington Post", CNN's Jeff Zeleny, and Abby Phillip of the "Washington Post".

Donald Trump is all about winning. Just ask him or listen to just a minute or two of any speech or Trump interview. So what happens if Trump starts losing? It's a big question this Sunday morning, because of a brand-new Iowa poll commissioned for the Des Moines Register.

Take a look here. Texas senator Ted Cruz first place 31 percent; Trump a distant second at 21 percent; Ben Carson slips to third at 13; Marco Rubio at 10; and Jeb Bush at 6 -- rounding out the top five.

Now, the Cruz surge is a big threat to the central premise of the Trump candidacy and the moment is frankly more than delicious. Iowa holds the kickoff caucuses in 49 days. The final debate of the year is Tuesday.

And Cruz just got caught being everything he says he isn't, meaning kind of a typical politician. In public Cruz says Trump's terrific and that he isn't going to attack. But in a speech he perhaps quite foolishly thought was private, he suggested Trump and Carson weren't fit to be commander in chief.


CRUZ: Who understands the threats we face? Who am I comfortable having their finger on the button? And that's a question of strength, but it's also a question of judgment and I think that is a question that is a challenging question for both of them.


KING: And so, here we are. It's a safe bet Cruz gets asked to turn to Mr. Trump and say that to his face Tuesday night. And he either does and invites the wrath of the human chainsaw or he looks weak or maybe two-faced, like the "say one thing, do another thing" politicians Ted Cruz has made his name railing against.

Mr. Zeleny, you were out on the trail with Mr. Trump this week. We do have, it's just a fabulous moment where on that debate stage, we know Trump doesn't like to lose, and now we know Cruz is going to be called out for, I'm going to call that his not quite Mitt Romney 47 percent. But ladies and gentlemen, you live in the 21st century. There are no such things as private fund-raisers.

Where are we?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: We are at a moment of a potential change in this race. I was in Iowa with Donald Trump on Friday, talking to a lot of voters. And even before this poll came out, they -- a lot of people in that room who waited hours to see Donald Trump, a lot of them said, hey, I'm also still considering Ted Cruz.

So this number for Ted Cruz says 31 percent in the Iowa poll this morning is terrific news for him. But even more, 51 percent say he is their first or second choice.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: But, as you said, it's 49 days before the Iowa caucuses. Is Ted Cruz peaking too soon? Is he sticking his head up? He's had such a methodical, strategic campaign -- was that recording and is this poll actually going to make him a target? Yes, it is.

Not just for Donald Trump, though. Everyone suddenly is going to be going after him. Marco Rubio certainly is. Chris Christie certainly is. And this campaign now is ending on a topic different from what we thought it would be on terrorism. It is such a focus of this.

So Ted Cruz will be under the spotlight for that in Las Vegas on Tuesday. I don't think he'll use it as a moment to take on Donald Trump. I think he would be foolish to do so, but he has enough arrows coming at him.

KING: Cruz is a different kind of candidate, because of the evangelical Tea Party base. But if he gets asked, you said that in private, are you saying Mr. Trump does not have the judgment to be commander in chief? You don't trust him. You told your donors, you don't trust him to have his finger on the button. If he punts at that moment, does he look weak?

JULIE PACE, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Well, we all remember that Tim Pawlenty moment from 2012, where he had said something about Mitt Romney the day before and then got asked and basically whipped on it.

KING: Obamneycare.

ZELENY: Health care -- right.

PACE: And for Cruz, this is so important, because so much of his candidacy is about authenticity and saying what he means. "I'm a committed conservative. I'm not going to be waffling."

KING: He's a truth teller.

PACE: "I'm a truth teller." So this is now a recording of him. He can't walk away from the fact that he said it. At the same time, he has been very smart in handling Donald Trump and knowing that if he can draft off of his support for a while, that he could rise to this position.

[08:35:06] KING: So we know that Trump and Cruz have had this bromance. And Trump always says I won't hit you until you hit me. Or we should have the caveat -- until you threaten me. He sees the Cruz rise coming.

Listen to Donald Trump in Iowa the other day. He knows that a lot of Ted Cruz's support in that state comes from the very critical evangelical constituency. Donald Trump just wanted to help them out with the bio.


TRUMP: So I think we're going to do -- we're doing really well with the evangelicals. And by the way, again, I do like Ted Cruz, but not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba, in all fairness. It's true. Not a lot come out. But I like him nevertheless.


KING: Help me. What is -- dog whistle -- what is the point here? Ted Cruz is not Caucasian?

ED O'KEEFE, "WASHINGTON POST": Yes, yes, yes. ZELENY: -- which comes as a surprise to no one --

O'KEEFE: Nobody.

ZELENY: -- because he's been in Iowa so often. That fell flat in the room, I can tell you.

O'KEEFE: Yet, that's exactly what he's trying to do.

PACE: It's also a bit -- it's the trouble that I think Trump has in going after Cruz. Trump has been very one note. When someone threatens him in a state, he goes after them personally.

The difference here is that Trump supporters don't like Jeb Bush. They don't necessarily like Marco Rubio. They do like Ted Cruz. If Trump starts going after Cruz, it could ricochet back on him as well.

KING: And as part of all of this - - one of the interesting conversations, and I think it will get more interesting because of the prospect of Trump starting to lose and what does he do? Does he lash out? He could be a traditional politician and say, Cruz is going to get Iowa, I'm going to go camp out in New Hampshire and try to play the chess that most candidates play.

But that's not the Trump name. Trump is about winning. One of the things he's talked about as Republicans say, is this going to drag on, are we going to have an open convention if nobody has the majority. How do we block Trump?

Trump and Carson didn't like that conversation. They started talking about hey, wait a minute. If you're going to start doing backroom deals, we might leave. Listen, you're going to see Donald Trump at the top of the hour on "STATE OF THE UNION".

Here's a bit of what he told Jake Tapper about the idea should he stay as a Republican no matter what or bolt?


TRUMP: I've been hearing about it. I've been hearing about these closed-door meetings and I don't like that. That wasn't the deal I made. I signed a pledge but the pledge was a double deal. They're supposed to be honorable.

So we're going to find out. If it's that way, they're going to have problems. But I hope it's not going to be that way.


KING: Define problems.

ABBY PHILLIP, "WASHINGTON POST": I think you can expect Donald Trump to get pretty nasty. I mean he's been able to do it successfully and not actually get hurt politically. And I think that he would probably make good on his promise to bolt if he doesn't like the deal that they strike. He's in this to win it and he touted this poll last week where some 31

percent of the people who support him say that they would leave, but most of them would stay with him if he left. And that's a huge problem for the Republican Party.

He knows that and I think he's planning on using that if push comes to shove.

KING: Leverage, if nothing else.

O'KEEFE: But two things. First, the mechanics of doing this, you know, the deadlines are approaching. So if he wants to do this, he's got to start making decisions about that. And that's, you know, a potential roadblock.

The other -- there was a very refreshing moment I thought on Friday when Arizona Senator Jeff Flake was on another network like this and said that the reason that Republicans keep saying, you're not answering the question about will you support him if he's the Republican nominee, is he said, the reason we don't want to say no is that that will fuel the idea that he leaves and runs as a third party candidate. We would rather him realize through this nomination process that he's a loser than just have him lose the race than have him jump and run as a third party candidate and ruin our chances.

A very candid and factual statement that I think a lot of the top-tier establishment elected Republicans are thinking -- that you cannot goad him into dropping out and becoming a third party candidate.

KING: Well, he is, as I said, the human chainsaw. And they worry about him because he's so good. That's not a criticism, actually. Not in the sense that he knows how to use the TV age and his celebrity.

Everybody, sit tight. Up next, will the final debate of this wild year be the last debate for one or more of the struggling Republicans?

First, though, you'll want to watch this. A billionaire and a bald eagle meet and walk away with this week's politicians say and do the darnedest things.


TRUMP: How's my hair? OK.




KING: Welcome back.

Tuesday is the fifth and final Republican debate of 2015, and there's one constant -- Donald Trump is at center stage, because of his steady lead in the national polls. Here's the polls right before the first debate: Trump, Bush, Walker, Rubio, Carson -- that was way back in August.

Let's slide the calendar and jump forward. Debate number two -- you noticed? Trump still on top; then it was Carson, Bush, Cruz, Rubio -- Walker, gone.

[08:45:02] Now, number three: Trump, Carson, Rubio, Bush, Cruz. A little bit of consistency here -- especially these two, big at the top.

Then, before number four, we come over here. Hello, Bush way down here -- Trump, Carson, Rubio, Cruz, Bush.

We head into the fifth debate, just drop the remote. Leave it right here on CNN Tuesday night. Bush is still way down here. You've got Trump and now Cruz has moved up into second place.

Ed O'Keefe, you've spent a lot of time with Governor Bush -- I'm new at this -- but I don't think you're supposed to be going that way.

O'KEEFE: Right. He's on a sled ride right now.

KING: And as the debate Tuesday night that is --

O'KEEFE: Absolutely critical. Every one of these has been for him because of how poorly he mismanaged his expectations coming out of the first one. But big, big sense in Bush world that he absolutely cannot afford anything that resembles a gaffe. Has to at least sustain himself, you know, keep it status quo. Find a way to point out that Trump is someone he considers unserious and unqualified to be president.

But absolutely, positively don't do anything that would upset the apple cart even more. I mean he continues to be on this slide. He saw a modest 1 percent improvement in that Des Moines Register poll. He is sitting at about fourth or fifth place in all of these polls. The way his team sees it, we would rather be there than lower than that, but you've pretty much hit the floor.


Yes, well he's right at the cusp of being in the junior varsity debate when we move into the New Year.

We do know that in the substance of this debate, there'll be a lot of foreign policy, especially focused on terrorism, because of Paris, because San Bernardino. You were out reporting there this past week. A lot of it will be about terrorism.

And one of the things that has stirred the controversy is Donald Trump coming out and saying after that, that we should have at least a territory ban on Muslims entering into the United States. Now, if you look at the public opinion polling, six in ten Americans say that's a bad idea, Republicans are about evenly split on it.

Trump's worried right now about Republicans and listen to how he sells it.


TRUMP: We have to stop the Muslims until we find out what's going on. Does that make sense, by the way? Until we find out --


KING: Playing to the crowd there. And opposing him, you mentioned, Jeb Bush needs to prove that Donald Trump's not serious enough, qualified to be president. The problem is, here's Jeb Bush trying to make that case and you see if you can figure out the problem.


JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's not about the blowhards out there just saying tough. That's not a program, that's not a plan. This is serious business.

CLINTON: This is both a shameless and a dangerous idea.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We betray the efforts of the past if we fail to push back against bigotry in all its forms.


KING: The one thing you know about Trump is he has clarity. Whether you agree or disagree with him, he is clear about what he says. And if you're Jeb Bush or any other Republican standing up and saying you're wrong on this issue, Donald, you're siding with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

What are the three things Republican base voters dislike the most? Their own establishment, the President of the United States and Hillary Clinton.

PHILLIP: That's right. And it's hard to figure out what the alternative is that Jeb wants. Talking to voters this week, I was actually a little surprised by how many Republicans said that they like the general idea of what Trump is proposing. They may not want to say, yes, I totally agree with blocking all Muslims from coming into the United States, but they are in line with that general trajectory of thought. And that's where Trump is going.

And I think there's not a whole lot of room for Jeb Bush in that space. I mean, I don't think he's going to get a whole lot of kudos from Republicans for, like you said, siding with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

PACE: And one of the other problems for Republicans, is no matter what they say about Trump's proposals, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are going to cast them all under the same umbrella.

So it's a kind of a lose-lose situation. They lose with his voters, but they also lose with maybe some of the more moderates or Independents who are going to be assumed to have lumped them in all together.

KING: To your point, Trump sounds, you know, whether you disagree or agree with the policy, he sounds strong, he sounds decisive. He's going to do something. And Republican voters don't think this president is doing anything.

ZELENY: No question. And that is what voters say. I was in South Carolina when Trump was announcing this ban of Muslims, this proposed ban, and people who say, look, we don't like everything he says, necessarily, but so far, nothing he said has convinced me that I'm not going to support him. So I think that this is very popular inside this Republican base, no question about it at all.

There's safety in numbers in some respects. I do think that Jeb Bush and others will get some sort of grown-up points by saying, look, this is not a good idea. But voters are fine with it, by and large, because they are worried and frightened, and they also know it's not actually going to happen. This is a proposal here. And Donald Trump knows exactly what he's doing, politically speaking.

KING: If you add up Kasich, Rubio, Bush, Christi, and Carly Fiorina, you get Trump. And in the debate Tuesday night, does somebody in that center middle group decide, I'm not going after Trump, I'm not going after Cruz, I need to emerge as the alternative. I'm going to have a middle of the road fight here?

O'KEEFE: You know, Jeb Bush tried that two debates ago and it didn't go very well. He tried to hit Marco Rubio.

[08:50:01] So I think at this point, they would probably be better served just keeping their eyes on Trump, and to some extent, Ted Cruz; and by doing that perhaps you emerge as the alternative because you clearly make an argument against those other guys.

And I will say this. While within the Republican Party he may enjoy plurality of support or a good chunk of support for this idea, I have heard increasingly at Bush events, and we know where Bush sits in the numbers, but I've heard from Republicans who show up, I am concerned about what Trump is saying. It's time for this to end. We have to be more serious about focusing on someone else.

And then you talk to the people about who you're thinking about, and they say, Bush, Christi, or Rubio. And that right there is the race in New Hampshire, at least for the establishment. One of those three has to get out on top, and that guy probably goes farther.

KING: We're getting close to the voters actually getting to do this themselves.

Stay put, our reporters share their notebooks next, including talk of a white knight or knights if Republicans do end up with a muddled field -- maybe a contested convention.


KING: Let's head around the INSIDE POLITICS table and ask our great reporters to get you out ahead of the big political news just around the corner. Julie Pace.

PACE: I spent most of last week in New Hampshire, talking to folks in the Republican establishment, and there's a lot of concern among these folks that voters in New Hampshire are not going to coalesce around one of the candidates in that wing of the party in time for the primary, essentially leaving Trump the opportunity to take a plurality of the vote.

You have Chris Christie building a lot of momentum, but he's competing with three or four candidates for those votes. And right now there's no organized effort underway to try to push a John Kasich or Jeb Bush out of the race before the primary, but there are some preliminary discussions happening about what that wing of the party will do if all of those candidates want to come out of New Hampshire and continue on.

And two of the names I heard a lot about were Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, not to run, but essentially to have a come to Jesus conversation with these candidates and come up with a process for winnowing down that part of the field.

KING: Yes, OK. That would be fun. Great -- good luck with that.


O'KEEFE: So John, debates are always a good time for members of the party to get together and talk about other things before the big show. On Monday in Las Vegas, a bunch of Hispanic conservative activists are going to be holding meetings with some of the presidential campaigns to go over their immigration policy and talk about other issues. Representatives of the Bush, the Rubio, the Cruz, and the Paul campaign -- the Carson campaigns will be meeting with this group. This is the same group of Hispanic conservatives that showed up at the last debate and denounced Donald Trump and said that this has to stop.

They're looking to learn more from the other candidates. Maybe at some point they'll make an endorsement. Might not carry a lot of water, but it would definitely allow the person that gets that endorsement to make a general election argument, you know, if I'm able to draw Hispanic support, perhaps I'm the one we should be nominating.

KING: It would be an important signal there.


ZELENY: Well, it's too early to talk about an exit strategy or is it for some of these people. More and more, we're hearing from top donors and supporters and some of these presidential candidates you were talking about, Julie, how long are they going to go here? They made it to the end of the year and is it time to save face?

There's still time to get out of this process before the voting begins. And one person you hear over and over is Jeb Bush. His campaign will say, no, not at all, no chance we will stay in through Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond. We have a path. Increasingly, a lot of his donors do not believe that that is true. So this is the most critical week of this campaign, I believe, for Jeb Bush. The rise of Ted Cruz, only intensifies this conversation among party leaders because for all that worry about Donald Trump, there's equal worry about Ted Cruz being the party's nominee.

So watch stage right to see if anyone is on the verge of leaving.

KING: It's been a terrible year for Jeb, he needs to end it on a better note.


PHILLIP: I just got back from spending a week and a half in San Bernardino. And that investigation continues to expand in ways that I think are pretty surprising. A lot of it's pointing to perhaps an intelligence failure which puts Ted Cruz in a really tough spot. He's supported the National Security Agency's intelligence -- or program that would roll back some of their intelligence-gathering efforts.

And it's not just Rubio that's going to be hammering him on that. We'll see Chris Christie coming out of the woodworks. He's rising in New Hampshire, and this is, he thinks, his central issue. So we'll see who else can maneuver on that issue. And who knows, maybe Donald Trump will jump into the fray as well.

KING: Yes. Another test of how Cruz can take a punch that he's heading up.

I'll close with a bit more on the Cruz momentum and its impact as Jeff just talked about on the Republican Party 2016 thinking. Most top party strategists now view a Cruz Iowa win as a near lock, and no one thinks of him as a one-state wonder because of his fund-raising success and the combination of Tea Party and evangelical appeal.

And so as a Cruz path to the nomination is debated, many of those strategists, just as they do about Donald Trump, think a Cruz at the top of the ticket would be a disaster for GOP senate candidates in blue and purple states, like New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Ohio next year.

Now, the Cruz camp calls this typical misguided establishment hand- wringing, but the worries that either Trump or Cruz will top the ticket are real enough that they play into what Jeff and Julie were talking about just a moment ago -- conversations nationally and in New Hampshire about whether there's any way to squeeze out a couple of the center-right candidates ASAP.

But given the eagles involved and the unpredictability of the past year, most establishment strategists now assume that moment of truth does not come until right after New Hampshire.

That's it for INSIDE POLITICS. Again, thanks for sharing your Sunday morning. We'll see you soon.

"STATE OF THE UNION" with Jake Tapper, live from Vegas starts right now.