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Interview With Republican National Committee Communications Director Sean Spicer; Republicans Prepare to Debate; Mass Shooting Investigation. Aired 18-19:00p ET

Aired December 14, 2015 - 18:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: How did she ensure no one would see her calls for jihad when she came to the U.S.?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is on assignment preparing to moderate tomorrow's Republican debate. I'm Brianna Keilar at the Venetian Las Vegas. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're now just 24 hours from the final Republican presidential debate of the year, and tonight the Donald Trump juggernaut that's dominated this campaign is stronger than ever, according to a new poll. It puts him at 41 percent. That is up from 28 percent in October. Polls are also showing dramatic gains for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, now in second place nationally at 14 percent and in a virtual tie with Trump in the critical state of Iowa.

And as the candidates prepare to debate terror and national security, there's breaking news as well in the San Bernardino terror investigation. Sources now telling CNN it was two cell phones found at the home of Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, that led FBI dive teams to search a nearby lake.

We're told that metadata from those phones showed the couple at the park where the lake is located on the day of the massacre.

We're covering that and more this hour with our guests, including the Republican National Committee chief strategist and communications director Sean Spicer, and our correspondents and expert analysts are all standing by.

I do want to begin, though, with CNN's John Berman. He has more on the latest polls and the new lay of the Republican political landscape -- John.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Brianna, I just came from the debate hall where 24 hours from now it all happens. Wolf Blitzer just running through a dress rehearsal to get ready for the big debate. Two candidates will walk on that stage with bragging rights, Ted Cruz surging ahead in some Iowa polls, and Donald Trump surging ahead nationally at an unprecedented level.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BERMAN (voice-over): In a campaign like no other with a front-

runner like no other, a new poll like no other. For the first time, Donald Trump breaks 40 percent in a national poll from Monmouth University, 27 points ahead of his closest rival. It is also the first poll wholly taken since this controversial proposal.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

BERMAN: A notion that will be tested in the last Republican debate of the year, the first debate since the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

TRUMP: How crazy are we allowing ourselves to be subject to this kind of terror?

BERMAN: Trump finds himself center stage at the CNN debate with a new next-door neighbor, Ted Cruz who has surged into second place in national polling and is running out in front or close in Iowa.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: God bless the great state of Iowa.

BERMAN: Until now, Trump and Cruz have remained friendly foes, almost campaign comrades. In 24 hours, that could come to an end.

TRUMP: And I like him. He's been so nice to me. I mean, I could say anything, and he said, I agree, I agree.


TRUMP: But I think the time will come to an end pretty soon, it sounds like.

BERMAN: Trump is previewing a possible line of attack. Compared to Senator Cruz, he says he is Mr. Agreeable.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Why should voters go for you over Ted Cruz?

TRUMP: Because I'm more capable, because I have a much better temperament, because I actually get along with people much better than he does. BERMAN: Trump even accused Cruz of being a little bit of a

maniac while in the Senate. Cruz opened up a can of '80s in response, tweeting, "In honor of my friend @realDonaldTrump and good-hearted maniacs everywhere," and he tweeted a link to the movie "Flashdance. "

Trump will not be the only challenge for Ted Cruz. Senator Marco Rubio already calling him weak on national security.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Each time he's had to choose between strong national defense and some of the isolationist tendencies in American politics, he seems to side with the isolationists. (END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: There are some candidates having problems as they walk into this stage into Las Vegas, Mike Huckabee suffering a campaign shakeup. His well-respected, well-known communications director, Alice Stewart, announced today she is leaving that campaign -- Brianna.

KEILAR: John Berman, thank you so much.

Donald Trump is already here in Las Vegas. He's getting ready to hold a rally tonight.

And CNN political reporter Sara Murray is there for us.

Sara, I think a lot of people are wondering if this Cruz/Trump sort of fight that we're seeing in the polls is going to play out on the debate stage. What are you hearing?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think that's what everyone is wondering, and you saw there from Donald Trump, you know, he's getting a little sharper when it comes to Ted Cruz.


But the interesting thing with Trump is while he loves to throw punches at campaign events like this one, he tends to be a little more demure on the debate stage. You will remember looking back at a couple of those debates, there were long stretches where it seemed like Trump just faded into the background.

And so I think the big question and the challenge for Trump now is, do you change your strategy? Does that approach change now that Ted Cruz is much closer to him in Iowa? Will Trump feel like he has to go after him on a much bigger platform?

KEILAR: And Donald Trump's doctor, as so many doctors of candidates do, has released a letter about his health, but this one's pretty unique. Tell us about this.

MURRAY: That's right, Brianna.

We're used to candidates' doctors releasing letters about their health. I don't think we're used to any letter like this. The Trump campaign released this letter today. It calls Trump's lab results astonishingly excellent and it points out that he's lost weight over the last 12 months. He's lost weight while campaigning.

He has no history using alcohol or tobacco, but the line that I think everyone is talking about, the line that really jumps out from this note is the last one from Trump's doctor saying, "If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the health individual ever elected to the presidency."

Brianna, that is a much more glowing note than I think most candidates have received from their doctor and kind of a similar rhetorical flair to what we see from Trump.

KEILAR: Indeed. All right, Sara Murray there ahead of Donald Trump's rally, thank you so much.

I want to talk about all of this now with the chief strategist for the Republican National Committee, communications director Sean Spicer.

OK. So, I want to ask you about Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. We have these two clear front-runners here, but what are you hoping to see from them tomorrow night?

SEAN SPICER, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, not just them, but we're going to have 13 candidates take the stage tomorrow night.

We're about 45 days out from the first votes being cast in Iowa. And I really hope that there's a robust, substantive discussion that gives some voters a real opportunity to distinguish who they want to support. But what I hope overall happens is what we have seen in the last few debates is a real level of intensity and enthusiasm for what's happening on our side.

KEILAR: You mentioned that there's 13 candidates, so there's actually two debates tomorrow. Right? You have the undercard debate. Some people have called it the kiddie table. Is that going to continue after this debate, do you think?

SPICER: I think every debate, we have an analysis with the network partner and we look at it.

Right now, considering the number of qualified candidates, it's been an easy decision to maintain that and we will continue to make those decisions on a case-by-case basis. But, so far, when you look at the level of folks that have been on both of those debate stages, it's unprecedented the level of qualifications that they are bringing to the table.

The interesting thing is, again, you look at someone like Carly Fiorina or Chris Christie, who has had the opportunity to get out there and get their voice heard and then propel themselves back onto that main stage, that's a real important opportunity for voters to be able to hear.

KEILAR: I know that when it comes to the candidates, obviously, you're with the RNC, you have to remain unbiased. You can't put your finger on the scale for any of them. But, right now, you have Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

And I think both of them really struggle with the establishment part of the Republican Party. We have seen this sometimes with other candidates who ultimately do win the nomination. With that in mind, what is the -- I guess, what is the strategy of the RNC if you end up with a candidate where you really have kind of to build a coalition around them that maybe wasn't so natural in the primary?

SPICER: Well, the beauty of what happens -- and there's a lot of myths about this place, how we operate.

We're very neutral in the process. We're the resource provider. We provide the ground game, the data and the digital opposition, the messaging research, the opposition research. And so what we do, despite what a lot of people think we do, is make sure that those resources are built up and that the staff is built out on the ground in battleground states, that the lists are made, et cetera, et cetera, and that whoever the nominee is, that the voters will decide, because that is what this is really all about.

Voters will elect delegates, delegates will elect the nominee of our party. And then we will be able to sit there and hitch our wagon to whomever that is and provide them the resources necessary to win in November.

KEILAR: Are you confident that Donald Trump will make good on his pledge, if he's not the nominee, to, you know, not run as an independent?



SPICER: Because, I think, look, every...

KEILAR: Because he's been making sounds that are definitely not as sure as what you're saying.


SPICER: Honestly, look, I believe a lot of this is media-driven. Everyone wants to needle him over and over again.

Donald Trump has said, when he's been asked point blank, do you have a problem with the RNC, he says, no, absolutely not. I think Reince has done a great job. I think Reince has bent over backwards, as we have with all these candidates.

I think what he gets upset is sometimes when the -- quote, unquote -- "establishment," someone who was involved in Republican politics 10 years ago, takes pot shots at him, which I think a lot of candidates do, but Donald Trump, Ben Carson are new to the political system. And sometimes it's hard to distinguished the RNC vs. the GOP establishment.

But at the end of the day, every single one of those candidates who will stage knows tomorrow night that only a unified Republican Party beats Hillary Clinton.

KEILAR: But, in fairness, Donald Trump tweets out polls about an independent run by himself. That's not tamping down speculation.



SPICER: Right.

But, when asked about it, he's been very clear about it. So, look, your question is, am I confident that he's going to either be the nominee or support the nominee? Yes.

KEILAR: OK. All right.

So reports at this point in time, and this is the first debate where you have really faced this, talk about whether there's going to be a brokered or a contested convention for Republicans. All of the sort of like minutia of the delegate stuff aside, because I have heard you answer this question before, is the RNC prepared for that to happen?


We're prepared for a fire, too. I don't expect there to be a fire, but what we do is, look, we're a party that's had two hurricanes the last two conventions, so we take preparation very seriously, as we should. Are we -- the only way, though, that we end up in a brokered convention is if the voters elect delegates and no candidate receives the 1,237 necessary to take the nomination.


KEILAR: You think it's overblown?

SPICER: Of course it is.

It hasn't happened in almost four decade.

So, again, if it happens, it will be up to the voters to make that determination because they won't have given any one candidate the requisite number of delegates to achieve a majority. And if that were to happen, which I believe it's a small, small chance, then we as a party will be prepared for that and we will be prepared for another hurricane. We will be prepared.

KEILAR: Very Boy Scout of you.


SPICER: That's very...

KEILAR: All right, Sean Spicer with the RNC, thanks so much.

SPICER: Thanks.

KEILAR: Now, the final Republican presidential debate of the year, it's now less than 24 hours away. The GOP candidates facing off here at the Venetian Hotel here in Las Vegas tomorrow, they will be doing that with Wolf Blitzer moderating.

And if you have any questions for the candidates, send them in. You just go to and comment on the top post. We certainly do want to hear from you. And we will back with more in just a moment.



KEILAR: We are back now at Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas counting down to the Republican presidential debate moderated by our own Wolf Blitzer.

And, tonight, Donald Trump really more than ever the man to beat, with a new national poll putting him above 40 percent for the very first time.

I want to get more now with CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger. We have CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod and CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

The story going into this debate on national security, Jeff, is that Ted Cruz is surging in the polls, and we look at Iowa, and he's doing very well, and this is very key. People want to know, are we going to see a Ted Cruz/Donald Trump showdown? And yet at the same time sometimes Donald Trump kind of disappears in the background a little bit here.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: For as much as we have talked about this Ted Cruz and Donald Trump showdown, I think it's not as likely to happen on stage as it is sort of before and after.

The reality is, if you look how Donald Trump has performed throughout all these debates, he's very confident, he's very self- assured, but he is fine being in the background just a little bit because substance is not his strength always, necessarily, perhaps to be charitable here.

And I think that, you know, there's no reason for him to stick his neck out there. But the question is if Ted Cruz is asked, will you say in public what we have heard you say privately, what does he say to that? So I think, that you know, Trump is no shrinking violet, but he does not need to pick any fights here or engage any fights.

And Ted Cruz is a funny person. We have seen how he's responded with humor. I think that there's no reason to think he will not have a strong debate tomorrow night.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I was speaking with a senior Cruz adviser who said there's no point in attack Donald Trump from their point of view.

If Trump attacks them, they will be ready to go back. But they believe that everybody has gone through the audition now and people want to see a commander in chief. And they don't want to get petty and small, because they are in a pretty good spot right now, particularly because they seem to be running away with Iowa. KEILAR: If Ted Cruz's words from that audio message leak where

he says that he thinks that, you know, Donald Trump and his candidacy will peter out, how does that play on the debate stage?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think it's certainly there, and it's hanging there. Trump has noted that he doesn't say to my face what he said behind closed doors, and he may be tempted to say that again.

I agree with Jeff. That's been Trump's habit in these debates is to be a little lower-key with his opponents, but he's faced with something here that he's never been faced with before. He said on TV the other day, I don't go down, I just go up.

Well, in Iowa, he's not going up, he's going down, and Cruz is going up. That's is a sequential process, so that is not inconsequential. Donald Trump is aware of that. he may just take Cruz on, on the things that he says in private as opposed to what he says in public.

BORGER: But don't you think there's a danger for Donald Trump in taking Cruz on like that? Because Cruz has real support. Cruz has support among evangelicals that Ben Carson is losing. He's got real Tea Party support and he's got libertarian support. He's not just another guy at 2 percent in the polls right now.

ZELENY: I was in the audience in Iowa on Friday night when Trump started taking on Ted Cruz. He said he's beholden to the oil companies, that's fine, that's fine, that's what he has to be, it's a senator from Texas.

He did it in a pretty skillful way. So, I'm not sure there is that much of a risk for Trump. His fans are going to be with him thick and thin. The reality is, he's not expanding that. It's not growing it.


AXELROD: But, Gloria, he's not been one to make those kind of finely calibrated strategic decisions.

BORGER: Right.

AXELROD: That's not his way. So if he sees something in his way, he tends to bowl over it, not navigate around it.

KEILAR: Right. I want to ask you about a report today in "The Washington Post" by Tom Hamburger. It's fascinating...


KEILAR: ... from a campaign reporter perspective talking about the data collection that Ted Cruz's campaign is the doing to pinpoint voters to figure out what they are like, and depending on what they are like how to talk to them, really how to sort of motivate them.

What did you think of that article, bad idea, good idea for Ted Cruz?

AXELROD: Well, I was impressed by the level of their sophistication. They're building on some work that we did in 2012.

KEILAR: And that was so key for President Obama.

AXELROD: It was, and we did the same thing, not necessarily to this level, to give our people in the field tools as to how to approach individual voters and which voters not to approach at all.


The only surprising thing about that piece, from my perspective, was how open the campaign was about it. We never talked about our tactics. In my view, tactics are meant to be executed, not spoken about, at least until after the election.

Why they're -- before a vote is counted, they are touting their techniques and their operations, to me, was a little bit bewildering.

KEILAR: Yes. Why would they do that? Because one -- I have also heard, though, that some Republican donors are tremendously worried about Republicans catching up technologically to what President Obama had. And obviously Hillary Clinton can just take that apparatus that he had and kind of like put it right on to her campaign.

Is that playing into this?

BORGER: Well, look, I think that the Cruz people are trying to explain their rise in the polls and trying to show that they that they have a campaign that can -- that is going to continue, and maybe that's one of the reasons they are doing it.

I understand what David is saying, but they have a campaign that they say is ready for the South, you know. Cruz has been smart about campaigning in the South, but in Iowa I was told yesterday that they have got 70,000 pieces of data on every single voter.



BORGER: In Iowa. That may be more than Obama had.

AXELROD: I'm sure Marco Rubio is thinking, well, he's willing to let his campaign have that information, but not the NSA.



KEILAR: That's definitely going to be a topic.

BORGER: That's right. That's a point.

KEILAR: Speaking of Marco Rubio, how important of a night is this for him, Jeff?

ZELENY: I think it's an important night. But Marco Rubio has always excelled in really every debate. I cannot think of one debate that he's had where he hasn't sort of incrementally moved the ball along here.

He is slow and steady, but he is approaching this position where he's fluent on every issue. He injects a bit of biography every chance he can. So I think tomorrow night is important for him, because he will be challenging Cruz on his voting record, as David just said, and he has the substance to back it up.

But Marco Rubio is still one of those candidates who he hasn't peaked too soon, that's for sure, because he hasn't peaked yet, but he is going in that direction. And I think that tomorrow night is an important night for him, but he's performed fine throughout, so I think tomorrow he will as well.

AXELROD: Here's the problem for Marco Rubio. He has tried to court each of the constituencies of the Republican Party, social conservatives, Tea Party conservatives, establishment Republicans. And he's done very well at it so far.

The question is, can you ride three horses and end up as someone's first choice? And I don't know. He may end up as everybody's second choice, but he has to win somewhere. And it's not clear to me in the first four contests where that is, maybe here in Nevada. And he has to emerge here as someone's first choice. And so he may have to make some choices in this debate as to which way he orients his candidacy.

KEILAR: Really quick, before I let you go, because we're negative on time.

Very quickly, I want you guys to tell me who you are looking for to maybe have a moment tomorrow night.

AXELROD: Well, I think Cruz will be the guy that everybody's eyes are on.

The guy who I would watch that nobody would necessarily mention is Chris Christie, who has risen in New Hampshire, he's a good debater, and he's a threat to all these center-right Republicans. So he's a guy I'm going to be watching as well.

BORGER: I think Rubio has to look like he can be a commander in chief. He's got to have gravitas, because he is a lot of people's second and third choice. And he's got to tell people, "I can win somewhere," because that's how he's going become popular, by winning.

ZELENY: I was going to say Chris Christie as well. Also -- he's doing a lot in New Hampshire. He's been doing a little bit more in Iowa than people think actually. He has some strong backers from people there, so he doesn't need to win, but a good showing tomorrow night would send the signal that he's still in this race.


KEILAR: As the former "Des Moines Register" reporter, we take that to the bank.

Jeff Zeleny, Gloria Borger, David Axelrod, thank you so much.

The final Republican presidential debate of the year, it's now less than 24 hours away, the GOP candidates facing off here at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas tomorrow night, with our own Wolf Blitzer moderating.

And if you have questions for the candidates, I'm sure you have a ton, send them to us at and comment on the top post.

Now, coming up, we have much more from Las Vegas and the Venetian Hotel on this debate eve. And there's also some breaking news straight ahead.

We have new information in the San Bernardino terror investigation and a terror arrest just outside of Washington, all as President Obama reviews his strategy to fight ISIS.



KEILAR: We are following some breaking news.

We have new details about the investigation into the San Bernardino terror attack and what led FBI dive teams to that nearby lake where so far they haven't found anything.

CNN justice reporter Evan Perez is working the story for us.

Evan, I know you're getting some new information. What are you learning?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Brianna, one of the things that happens after terrorist attacks like this is you starting asking -- certainly people start asking, what if?

In this case, what if the U.S. government, Homeland Security and State Department, had they been able to look at social media of Tashfeen Malik before she was able to get this fiancee visa and come to the United States this year, what if they had checked? They might have found, for instance, that she was posting on social media about her support for jihad.

Well, one of the things that we have learned is that she was using the social media account, but she had it at a privacy setting so that only her closest friends were able to see what she was posting. And she was using a pseudonym.

So, one of the things that -- now investigators have found all these postings, but the question is, if they had done some searching, it turns out, it appears out that they would not have been able to find these postings because they had a privacy setting that would not allow the general public to see it.

[18:30:09] And it does really add to the questions of what can the State Department do and what can homeland security do to make sure that people who are getting these visas are not coming here to harm Americans.

KEILAR: There's also a Maryland man who's been arrested on terror-related charges. What are you learning about that, Evan?

PEREZ: That's right, Brianna. His name is Mohammed ElShinawy. He's 30 years old. And the FBI has been looking at him for several months after they found that he was receiving money from someone in Egypt who they believe was an operative for ISIS. Altogether, he was able to get $8,700 over the last year transferred to him via PayPal and other means.

And you know, we've had probably more than five dozen of these ISIS supporter arrests in the past year alone in this country, but it's very rare. And certainly, this is the first one that I can think of where the allegation is that this person was getting money sent from overseas. And so the question is what was that money going to.

The FBI says that it's possible that this person, ElShinawy, was planning on carrying out a terrorist attack here in this country. This money was intended to help fund that attack or, perhaps, he was planning to travel. That's part of what they're still investigating here. He's charged with material support of terrorism and with giving false statements to the FBI -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Evan Perez in Washington, thank you so much.

President Obama went to the Pentagon today to meet with his National Security Council about his strategy to fight ISIS and to confront this terror threat. It's facing some sharp criticism, though, and also some waning public confidence.

I want to go now to CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

There aren't really changes really afoot here, Jim. This is perhaps more about reassuring Americans who are very worried.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brianna. This week was billed by the White House as a time for President Obama to review his strategy for defeating ISIS, but today it sounded like the president was still selling his existing ISIS plan to a skeptical public as he warned ISIS leaders they cannot hide.


ACOSTA (voice-over): With the public growing anxious about his plan to destroy ISIS, President Obama stopped by the Pentagon, where he offered up a commander in chief image with the wartime rhetoric to match.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are hitting ISIL harder than ever. The point is, ISIL leaders cannot hide, and our next message to them is simple: You are next.

ACOSTA: The president met with nearly every member of his national security team for a deep dive into the military campaign to defeat ISIS.

So far, Mr. Obama said, the U.S.-led coalition has delivered 9,000 airstrikes against ISIS, targeting its oil infrastructure and forcing the terror army to give up 40 percent of its territory.

But the president acknowledged progress isn't coming fast enough.

OBAMA: This continues to be a difficult fight. As I said before, ISIL is dug in, including in urban areas, and they hide behind civilians, using defenseless men, women and children as human shields.

ACOSTA: The president's focus on ISIS comes as Republican White House candidates are slamming his approach as too weak and advocating a bigger U.S. commitment on the ground.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No. 1 is put together a global coalition on the ground made of primarily of Arab Sunnis. It will require embedding alongside them special operators from the U.S. and other international partners.

ACOSTA: Coming on the heels of the terror attack in San Bernardino and, as polls show, the public is losing confidence in the president's strategy. The White House acknowledged it's still formulating its ISIS plan.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think the message that we're trying to convey to the American people is that the president and his team are quite hard at work on a strategy to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.

ACOSTA: Part of that White House approach is tolerance, something senior advisers preached on a conference call with Muslim and other religious leaders, a response in part to Donald Trump, who has blasted the president for not condemning radical Islamic extremists.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, he's wrong. You have to identify the problem. He is not identifying the problem. He's wrong.


ACOSTA: The president will stay on that theme of tolerance when he attends a ceremony to naturalize new U.S. citizens here in Washington. He'll probably make more veiled jabs at Donald Trump then, and he will return to his sale pitch on his ISIS strategy later in the week, when he visits the nation's Counterterrorism Center on Thursday -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

ISIS and the terror threat is going to factor large in this GOP debate. It is about national security after all. So I want to get more now from our political commentators, Kevin Madden. We also have Paul Begala, and I must mention that he is with Priorities USA, the super PAC that is backing the Hillary Clinton run. And we have Michael-Smerconish. You can see his show, "SMERCONISH," right here on CNN.

OK, so let's get right to it. This is a national security debate. Who is best positioned, do you think, Kevin, to really make a splash here?

[18:35:04] KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, if you look at what the voters want right now, one of the reasons that so many voters are responding to Donald Trump is because what they want in a national security debate is boldness, strength and clarity.

Now he's giving voters that without any substance and quite a lot of unconstitutional talk about banning Muslims from the country, but that has actually helped him.

Marco Rubio, though, if you talk to folks who are -- know about national security policy, they will tell you that he has, probably, the best command and control of those issues. And a debate like this could give him an opportunity to really elevate himself on that regard and start drawing contrasts across the entire field with the other candidates.

KEILAR: What do you think?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The problem that -- he's right. The problem with the Trump approach is this, and this is the Republican approach.

The ABC News/"Washington Post" poll, just out this afternoon, 60 percent of Republicans agree with Mr. Trump's proposal that we should bar all Muslims from entering the country. That to me is kind of astonishing. That's what 60 percent of Republican voters want to hear.

But guess what? Sixty percent of all voters oppose it, so they're on the horns of a dilemma, OK? The substance that the base wants is going to cost them the election among the people they need, but -- they need in the fall of 2016.

Having been through a lot of these, though, the primary is about securing your base, but if you do it in a way that alienates the center, then you've cost yourself the president.

KEILAR: There is sort of, I think, for Republicans a foil in President Obama and his national security approach here. A lot of Americans, you know, they want more, or they feel like it's not bold enough, both in strategy and in rhetoric, coming from the White House.

Do you think we're going to hear a lot about that, or do you think we're going to see more sort of Republican on Republican violence in this debate tomorrow? MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think they'll

be uniform, the nine, in their opposition to all things Obama and to the points that have been made by Paul and by Kevin. Simplicity sells thus far.

I think we live in the most complex of times, given what confronts us, Brianna, on a national security basis. And yet, here's Donald Trump with a very simplistic message that is resonating with the public. I think that speaks to our limited attention spans, the 20-second sound bites, and plays well for the time in which we're living.

BEGALA: But there's also this point that you're both making about style versus substance. Clarity matters. I was really struck, watching that tape of our president. He's at the Pentagon. Right? They don't do fake photo-ops. It's a real meeting. He's got all these guys in brass standing around him, and when he delivers the payoff line.

KEILAR: You're next.

BEGALA: "You're next," I have to say he looks down at his paper and he reads it.

OK. I worked for Bill Clinton. I showed Bill Clinton tapes of Ronald Reagan. I'm not ashamed to admit it. Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, and he was a great actor, and you can't do that job if you're not an actor. And so I remember showing, when Clinton was in his first year, showing him tapes of Reagan. Here's how you do it.

And I've got to say, I looked at that line. I read that line. I thought, that's great. It's a great line. It's what I want to hear my president say. I watched the tape, and he didn't deliver it.

MADDEN: And then we see -- and then we hear from the podium, Josh Earnest and others saying we're still formulating a strategy at a time where the public is, like, you know, looking at...

KEILAR: Want it.

MADDEN: ... with a tremendous amount of anxiety. And they're like, "You're still coming up with a strategy?"

I think you're going to see a lot of the -- all of the candidates tomorrow night on the stage start to play off of that and draw contrasts against the White House on that.

KEILAR: OK. Stay with me, you guys. I have many more questions for you ahead, and we'll have more, a little with you after the break.

The final Republican presidential debate of the year is now less than 24 hours away. The GOP candidates are facing off here at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas tomorrow night. Our very own Wolf Blitzer is going to be moderating. And if you have any questions for the candidates -- and I'm sure you have many -- you can send them to us so that we can get them to them. Just go to and comment on the top post there.

We'll have much more with our political panel, ahead.


[18:43:00] KEILAR: We are back now at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, where Wolf Blitzer will moderate the final Republican presidential debate of the year tomorrow night, and tonight there's really growing speculation that this remarkable and chaotic campaign could culminate in a brokered or a contested Republican Party convention.

CNN's Tom Foreman has been working this story for us. So how would this happen, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, as you point out, this has been chaotic with all of these candidates out here. None of the models are really working, so even with the polls as they are today, this is how this could happen.

Let's say that we head into those early voting states, those first four states. And say candidate "A" wins here in Iowa and then maybe candidate "B" wins up there in New Hampshire and then you move over here in Nevada and candidate "C" wins. And more importantly, nobody gets such a lead that everybody drops out and you have two or three or four candidates still contending. And then they keep doing that state after state after state.

If you come out of that into the actual convention, and it is not clear who is leading out there, then you already have a contested convention. And if you go through the first ballot and nobody gets more than 50 percent, right at that moment, Brianna, you have a brokered convention.

KEILAR: And what exactly is being brokered in all of this?

FOREMAN: What is being brokered is delegate votes. After that first vote, none of the delegates will be bound by what happened in their state, but they can start wheeling and dealing. So people who are supporting candidate "B" might go over to candidate "A" and say, "If you'll give us those concessions, we'll support your person over here." Or maybe the people from candidate "D" go over to candidate "D" and say, "You give us a deal, we'll make something happen with you."

No matter how it goes about, at some point somebody will go over 51 percent, and when that happens, they can drop the balloon and call it over. Because it doesn't matter if that's the person who came in with the most support or not. That will be the one that wins. And hopefully, the balloon drop will be a little prettier in the actual convention.

KEILAR: Yes. It's a little better than that.

Wheeling and dealing. We'll see. There's one candidate who says he's really good at the deal, so maybe he'll have a shot to prove it. FOREMAN: Never know.

KEILAR: All right. Tom Foreman, thanks so much.

And we are counting down to the CNN Republican presidential debate and we're back live now at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

I'm here with my great panel, Michael Smerconish, Paul Begala and Kevin Madden.

And that's -- is that really hanging over this debate or this time going into Iowa and New Hampshire, this idea of a contested convention?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, it's only hanging over the reporters who are dying to write about it.

KEILAR: You think we're obsessed with it?

MADDEN: Yes, we are. Because not one single vote has been cast yet, and they are already talking about a brokered convention.

Let's get, you know, into April or May until after everybody has had a chance to choose a candidate before we ever get to talk about this brokered convention talk.

KEILAR: All right. Do you agree, Paul?


KEILAR: No chance?

BEGALA: Every cycle, every cycle people who know nothing about electing a president predict a brokered convention and it never happens, it never will. Voters will decide this, and the Republicans will pick. They will choose between the Neanderthals and the Cro- Magnons and the neoliths and a paleoliths, but they will have a candidate. It's not going to be brokered --

KEILAR: It would be great, though, wouldn't it?

BEGALA: You'll love it.

KEILAR: So much drama.

Oh, wait, I just --


KEILAR: OK. I do want to get back to this poll where you said 60 percent of Republicans are on board with the temporary banning of Muslims coming into the U.S. Well, that means 40 percent are not, and that brings me to my question for you, Kevin, which is at this point in time, and maybe it's a little early to say that this is really the final push towards Iowa and New Hampshire and at this point in time with Ted Cruz who is not an establishment darling and Donald Trump who certainly is not.

MADDEN: Right.

KEILAR: How much is the establishment freaking out?

MADDEN: Well, again, not -- we haven't had a vote yet and we still have 50 days until Iowa.

KEILAR: I know there's anxiety. I'm hearing anxiety.

MADDEN: There's absolutely anxiety, but question is what are you going to do to change it? And I think many of these candidates are going to go out and trying to make a better, stronger case on the issues that they think will matter to those voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. So, we still have a lot of game left. There's a lot of time left on the clock here before everybody has to truly go into panic mode.

But there are clearly those two that are leading are not the establishment candidates, but guess what, the voters get to decide. We'll see. That's what the process is here for.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There's something to be said for fighting within your weight class tomorrow night. It occurs to me if Jeb Bush lands a blow on Donald Trump, Jeb Bush will not be the beneficiary. Jeb Bush perhaps is better served taking a look to his left or right, at Chris Christie who is ascending in New Hampshire and is somewhere I think with 12 percent of the vote maybe in second position and saying, you know, that's the guy that I need to be most concerned about and how do I coalesce the establishment vote to myself as opposed to focusing on Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, or Donald Trump.

BEGALA: Right. The goal for this debate, this is the last debate of the year. You remember the old Bonnie Raitt song, let's give them something to talk about. You probably weren't born yet. But that --

KEILAR: I was too.

BEGALA: If you're a Republican strategist, you were telling your client now, let's give them something to talk about, because this debate will end and then we'll have the Christmas holidays and everybody going to be sitting around the tumula (ph) --

KEILAR: With their eggnog. And you want to have something --

BEGALA: Right.

KEILAR: -- to talk about over the Christmas ham --


BEGALA: And what are you going to talk about, how Cousin Rita dumped Uncle Dave? No, they're going to talk about --

KEILAR: They're going to talk about politics.

I want to ask you something, Michael, that Donald Trump said where he took a shot at Ted Cruz and he was saying -- questioning his judgment and saying he's unyielding in nature. Do Donald Trump's supporters want someone who is yielding in nature? That just struck me as so odd.

SMERCONISH: We were raised, what, people who live in glass houses. Of all of the things that he could say about Ted Cruz, his intemperance and inability to get along with his colleagues is not what you'd expect from a man --

KEILAR: Exactly.

SMERCONISH: -- who has called everyone a loser and worse during the course of this campaign.

BEGALA: Right.

KEILAR: What do you think when it comes to Marco Rubio in this debate? His sights must be set on Ted Cruz, right?

MADDEN: I think so. I think his -- I think more importantly though he still has to go out and talk directly to voters. There's one way to make a case for his candidacy and that's to draw a contrast with Tom -- with Ted Cruz.

KEILAR: I love that, Tom Cruise.



MADDEN: I stopped myself.

KEILAR: You corrected yourself quickly.

MADDEN: But other is to talk directly to the voters that are still -- that haven't made up mayor mind and there's still a lot in the early states about why he'd be the best president. And I think that's where he's going to spend a lot of his time.

BEGALA: Ted Cruz is ready to hit back, not if, but when Marco comes after him. The thing that people think will crush Marco is that Marco actually tried to compromise. Marco was part of the hated gang of eight that actually came up with a compromise. I think it was pretty good. But the fact I think it was good --

KEILAR: That's not good for him.

BEGALA: It is death in the Republican Party. I think Senator Cruz is going to turn to him and say, yes, I bet that's what you're saying, Chuck Schumer behind closed doors cutting your corrupt deal to let more illegal immigrants in.

[18:50:04] I just think that -- KEILAR: Is this risky, though, this line of attack?

SMERCONISH: Well, I don't think it's that risky with regard to Marco Rubio. I don't think he'll take that same demeanor with regard to the Donald. With Trump, I think he'll try to be conversant, dismissive, a humorous line. I think he's got a few up his sleeve and I don't think you'll see him lock on with Donald Trump. Although, I do believe Donald Trump will go after Ted Cruz.

KEILAR: Real quickly, before you go, what you're going to be looking for tomorrow night? Who is the person that you're zeroing in on, whether it's for them to have their last chance or you think this is their moment? What do you think, Michael?

SMERCONISH: Ben Carson, because I think he's on the descent. I think this a last opportunity for him to staunch the bleeding and any vote that he loses is probably going to Ted Cruz.

KEILAR: What do you think?

BEGALA: Jeb Bush, this may be the last time we see him on national television.

MADDEN: Come on.

KEILAR: You think so?

BEGALA: He is disappearing.

KEILAR: He's got a lot of money.

BEGALA: He's going to have to revive himself tomorrow night.

MADDEN: I say Ted Cruz because not only is he going to get it from outsider lane, Donald Trump is going to be attacking him. But that's very well may invite some attacks from folks like Marco Rubio in the establishment lane.

KEILAR: Well, it's going to be exciting.

MADDEN: It will be interesting to see how he handles it when he's getting --

BEGALA: Which, by the way, here's a big prediction. I mean this. Ted Cruz, he's going to attack Wolf Blitzer. I am not kidding.

MADDEN: There's no downside to attacking the moderator.

KEILAR: That's my man. That's my man.

BEGALA: We love Wolf.

KEILAR: That's my guy. And I'll tell you, I'm going to be looking for Wolf Blitzer. That's who I'm going to --

BEGALA: I'm going to give him a flak jacket. (LAUGHTER)

KEILAR: All right, guys. Thanks so much. I really appreciate it.

The final Republican presidential debate of the year is now less than 24 hours away. The GOP candidates are facing off here at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas tomorrow night with Wolf Blitzer moderating.

So, if you have any questions for the candidate, go ahead and send them to us. We're at And you can just comment on the top posts.

We're going to have much more live from the Venetian Las Vegas, next.


[18:56:34] KEILAR: We are live at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, counting down to the Republican presidential debate with our own Wolf Blitzer as the moderator. But one candidate you will not see here is Will Ferrell's George W. Bush. He dropped a bombshell on "Saturday Night Live."


WILL FERRELL AS GEORGE W. BUSH: I've made a big decision. I'm entering the race for the United States of America.


The field of Republicans out there is so messed up, I figured it makes you miss me, doesn't it? And that is saying a lot.

I've already got my campaign song. Ready or not, here I come, you can't hide. I'm going to find you and make you love me. That's a little something from the Fugees.

I'm telling you, I can beat these guys. Let's look at some of the front-runners.

Dr. Ben Carson, I can barely hear him when he talks. I tell you something that's not going to work when you have to go to China or Azerbaijan, where you have to talk loudly so they will understand.

Not to mention, he's some kind of brain surgeon. And I've got news for him, running the country is not brain surgery.

Cruz and Rubio, Rubio and Cruz. Sounds like a Miami law firm. If you've been injured on the job, call Rubio and Cruz.

And then you've got this knuckle head.


With the hair and the 100-foot wall.

Bring that picture back.


I'll tell you something, whenever I get in a bad mood, I just picture his big, fat, orange Oompa Loompa face, I just piss my pants.

Jeb. Oh, boy. Poor, Jeb. You've got to admit, it's a pretty good plot twist that I turned out to be the smart one.

Of course, I wish you would have asked me about the exclamation point on the end of his name. Look, I don't like the taste of broccoli. But it doesn't get any tastier if you call it broccoli!

The Republican voters don't want that. They want someone who is coco for cocoa puffs. But running a government is kind of like driving a school bus. You don't want a crazy person running that bus. You want a simple, underachieving, not very educated but reliable guy behind that wheel, someone with a steady hand who will be on time and get into one or two but no more than four accidents a year.

You already know that someone. And that someone is me. I'll see you in the White House.


KEILAR: Thank you so much for watching. I'm Brianna Keilar.

And "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.