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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With Maryland Senator Ben Cardin; Iran Controversy; Terror in Indonesia; Republicans Set to Debate; Trump-Cruz Fight Intensifies Hours Before Debate; New Iowa Poll: Clinton Neck-and-Neck with Sanders; New Iowa Poll: Clinton Neck-and-Neck with Sanders; El Chapo's Flirty Texts Revealed. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 14, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:17]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Starbucks terror. ISIS claims credit for deadly attacks targeting an international hub near a symbol of American capitalism and culture -- tonight, new information about the apparent mastermind of the carnage.

Outrage at Iran. As freed American sailors share new details about their detention, there is growing anger within the U.S. military about images of the sailors seen around the world.

Secret surgery. We're learning the drug lord El Chapo went under the knife and it may be linked to his infatuation with a TV actress. Stand by for El Chapo's flirty texts with the actress that helped authorities find the fugitive.

And Trump's new ammo. He's heading into a prime-time debate with a big jump in his national lead and he has a new line of attack against his biggest threat, Ted Cruz. Will a large loan from a Wall Street bank cause Cruz to lose some support in Iowa?

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

Tonight, ISIS killers are reaching into yet another part of the world striking for the first time in Southeast Asia. The terror group is claiming responsibility for attacks in the capital of Indonesia that began near a Starbucks at a busy commercial hub popular with foreigners. At least two people are dead and 24 wounded.

Also, top Pentagon officials are responding to growing questions about Iran's brief capture of 10 American sailors. U.S. officials are debriefing the sailors about the ordeal and how their ships wound up in Iranian waters. Senator John McCain tells CNN Iran scored a great propaganda victory by releasing images of Americans in custody.

I will talk about all of that with the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ben Cardin is standing by live, along with our correspondents and analysts. They're covering all the news that's breaking right now.

First, let's go to our senior international correspondent, Ivan Watson. He's right near the scene of that new ISIS attack.

Ivan, what is the latest?

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The Indonesian police have identified one man they believe is the mastermind of this ISIS attack in Jakarta, the attack that began with a suicide bombing in that Starbucks over my shoulder there.

They call him Bahrun Naim. They say he's an Indonesian that went to Syria to fight alongside ISIS and he's now trying to spread an ISIS network throughout Southeast Asia. And that's something that the Pentagon has warned about, that the Australian government has warned about as

well. Fortunately, though, this was a brazen attack, a deadly attack that left two bystanders killed, it was not a mass casualty attack the likes of which we saw in Paris a few months ago. In this case, most of the casualties were actually the attackers themselves, at least five killed, Indonesian police say.

An anti-terror source tells CNN there is a blog that has Bahrun Naim's name and it's highly possible that that blog can be linked to the suspected ISIS leader as well, and that blog we have taken a look at does include instructions on how to carry out terror attacks, another little piece we're learning in the puzzle behind the most brazen and deadly attack that Jakarta has seen in six years -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Ivan Watson on the scene for us in Jakarta right outside that Starbucks.

Also tonight, 10 American sailors are revealing new details about the incident that landed them in Iranian custody for less than 24 hours. they're being debriefed right now by U.S. officials.

Let's turn to our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, top Pentagon officials face some serious questions about what happened.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Just a short time ago, Secretary Carter saying that sailors made a navigational error which led them into Iranian waters. We learned earlier today that they had engine trouble as well which prevented them from then evading Iranian forces as those forces approached them, the sailors outnumbered, it appears, and then boarded at gunpoint.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): The two U.S. Navy boats had drifted into Iranian territorial waters near an island where an Iranian naval base is located, when Revolutionary Guards, their guns drawn, boarded the boats and disarmed the 10 U.S. sailors. Fifth Fleet commanders became alarmed when the sailors missed a planned check-in call. The base consulted the boat's onboard GPS system and discovered the

vessels were inside Iranian waters. The Navy then launched a search and rescue operation by sea and air. One Navy helicopter spotting the boats moored onshore leading them to conclude the nine men and one woman were in Iranian custody.

[18:05:13]

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a misunderstanding.

SCIUTTO: What happened next is sparking even more outrage both inside and outside the military. Iran broadcast and re-broadcast images of the captured sailors on their knees across the world.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: That may be how an intercept happens, but what doesn't happen is we then don't film the Iranian or whoever's sailors on their knees with guns drawn. We don't tape their officer apologizing on behalf of the country and disseminate this to the world.

SCIUTTO: Administration officials continue to insist the standoff could have been much worse, without the diplomatic channels resulting from nuclear negotiations with Iran.

JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: The video on the face of it is -- it's difficult to watch. There's no question about that. And nobody likes to see our sailors in that position. But we've got our sailors back in less than 24 hours. And nobody got hurt.

SCIUTTO: The nuclear deal will take effect as soon as this weekend, including the end of punishing economic sanctions on Iran, freeing up tens of billions of dollars in Iranian assets now frozen overseas.

The taking of the U.S. sailors is the latest in a series of provocations by Tehran. In December, firing a barrage of rockets near an American aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. In October, testing a ballistic missile in violation say U.S. officials of a U.N. resolution banning such tests. In addition, Iran continues to hold four American citizens on what the U.S. considers baseless or trumped- up charges.

And U.S. officials believe Iran also knows the whereabouts of former FBI agent Robert Levinson who went missing in Iran in 2007. It's a charge Iran repeatedly has denied.

KINZINGER: I think this administration is willing to stomach just about anything to make sure this deal goes ahead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: The Geneva Conventions do prohibit parading of prisoners of war or opposing forces on camera.

But, today, the State Department said that while the images are disturbing, the Geneva Conventions do not apply in this case since the U.S. and Iran, Wolf, are not at war. BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, thank you.

Let's talk a little bit more about the capture of these 10 American sailors.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, joining us.

Barbara, as you know, there is growing concern and there's a sense that there will be any kind of long-term fallout, that there is fear there could be some serious fallout for the U.S. Navy over this.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, behind the scenes here at the Pentagon, the most senior Navy officials are very concerned about this, and very quietly -- they are not allowed to speak publicly about it right now. Here is what they are pointing to.

This video was propaganda, pure and simple, in the eyes of the U.S. military. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the State Department not willing to go that far yet, but what other purpose did it serve is the question we keep hearing?

Now, if the U.S. Navy boards a ship and takes mariners who are in U.S. territorial waters or a suspect ship, the procedure itself is somewhat the same. The Navy puts -- disarms them, puts them on their knees and makes sure that they aren't a threat. That is not the issue.

The issue is what the Iranians did next, parading this video around the world, showing these Navy sailors in this situation. When the U.S. Navy does it, they do not generally, almost never that we can find, show the faces of those that they have captured, even when they are pirates off the coast of Africa in the past. They do not show faces.

The U.S. Navy, the U.S. military does not parade people for propaganda value. So that is a major concern. And the long-term impact also concerning the Navy, because what they are pointing out is this may not be the only time. The Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese all getting more assertive at sea -- a lot of worry there could be more encounters.

And the question is, what will happen the next time there's a situation like this, when the U.S. military, the Pentagon, the Obama administration so far not speaking out strongly about this time, Wolf?

BLITZER: Barbara Starr, thank you.

Joining us now, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

I want to talk about Iran, the sailors in a moment, but let me get your take, first of all, on ISIS. They're claiming responsibility for this Jakarta explosion right outside a Starbucks there, not far from McDonald's, a Burger King, coming a day after a tourist area in Istanbul was attacked by ISIS. Is ISIS successful now threatening Westerners, not just in the Middle East, but all over the world?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, we know that ISIS this is a threat. We know that there are foreign fighters that go to Iraq or Syria and fight with ISIS and then return to their host country.

[18:10:07]

That's what happened in Indonesia and the attack that took place today, radicalization of people from countries that go train with ISIS and then return and cause problems in their own country. This is a growing threat. It's happening in more and more countries. Yes, it's a matter of major concern.

We have to fight this by, first of all, cutting off the roots for foreign fighters, secondly, sharing intelligence information, so that we can track these individuals if they attempt to return to their countries that they are arrested, so that they cannot cause harm in their country.

We also know there's a threat to the West, in that many of these individuals are coming from countries that have friendly relations with the United States and the visa waiver program where they could end up in our country. We have to be very careful about this.

BLITZER: Certainly true.

The fight against ISIS, the president said the other night in his State of the Union address this is going to be a generational war. You agree with him?

CARDIN: Yes, I think there is no quick ending particularly to the recruitment issues that ISIS has, the fight that has been historic based upon the differences in the Middle East. Those issues are not going to be resolved quickly.

What we need to do, though, is be able to root out ISIS' ability to maintain territorial issues and then cut off their recruitment, cut off their financing and be able to track any of our people from any country that go and tries to become radicalized by ISIS.

BLITZER: How long is that going to take?

CARDIN: It's going to take time. There is no question. There is no quick answer to this.

We can't win this battle through just military operations. It also involves having governments in Iraq and Syria that will respect the rights of all of its citizens, so individuals in certain communities don't feel like their only protection is to go to the extremists.

It is going to take time. And we know that we have had serious problems with governments in the Middle East that protect the rights of all of its citizens. That's why the United States worked very hard with the Iraqi change to get a government there that could represent all the ethnic communities. In Syria, Assad has to leave.

We are fighting two battles in Syria today, one for the future of Syria in making sure Assad is no longer there. The other is ISIS. So we have got to be able to get governments in place in the Middle East that will be responsible to all the citizens.

BLITZER: But you got to admit, Senator, that that Shiite-led government in Baghdad, led by Haider al-Abadi, the Sunni Iraqis don't trust that government. Certainly, the Kurdish Iraqis don't trust that government. That has not turned out the way the U.S. hoped it would.

CARDIN: This is a matter in evolution. There is no question that there are still serious issues, but this government is better than the prior government.

And we are establishing better ties with the Kurdish population and with the Sunni tribes. So, we are doing a better job, but we still don't have -- and you're absolutely right -- the confidence we need, so that when we take back territory, that we can keep that territory and stop the recruitment by ISIS in that region. So, we still have work to do.

BLITZER: And that government has got to do a better job with the military. When ISIS goes into a big city like Mosul, they can't just run away, leave their U.S. weapons behind and let Mosul -- take over the second largest city in Iraq.

CARDIN: No. Absolutely.

BLITZER: Senator, we have much more to talk about, including Iran, those 10 American sailors, what they were forced to do, much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:18:02]

BLITZER: We're back with Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, let's talk about the possible fallout from Iran's brief capture of 10 U.S. sailors. You opposed that Iran deal that -- the nuclear deal with Iran, but the supporters say if the U.S. had not brokered that deal, those sailors might still be in custody. You agree with that analysis?

CARDIN: We're dealing with Iran.

Iran is a country that does things that are very hard for us to understand. They still hold four Americans as hostages. It's a good thing that they return the sailors quickly. Otherwise, it would have escalated. They clearly would not have gotten any relief under the Iran nuclear agreement while those soldiers were being held.

But they can't leave it alone. They do the video and they do the propaganda. They test us. And that's why we have got to be strong in the way that we deal with Iran as it relates to their support of terrorism, as it relates to their human rights violations. We have got to be tough with Iran.

BLITZER: The secretary of state, John Kerry, he quickly called up his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, the foreign minister. I think they spoke four or five times to try to resolve this, which was resolved quickly.

That is the result of the year or two years the U.S. was dealing with Iran on the Iran nuclear program, right?

CARDIN: Absolutely.

And it is good news that the soldiers were -- the sailors were released quickly. It could have escalated into a much, much more serious situation. No question that diplomacy can be helpful. But let's recognize who are we dealing with and let's not be fooled to think that they are going to, all of a sudden, Iran, become consistent with our values.

It's not going to happen. They still have four of our hostages and they're still an active supporter of terrorist activities. They have been involved in so many different activities that are contrary to U.S. interests.

[18:20:00]

BLITZER: Listen to this exchange I had with President Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, about the funds that are about to go into Iran's coffers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: If they want to give a billion dollars in weapons to Bashar al-Assad or a billion dollars to Houthi rebels in Yemen...

SUSAN RICE, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: No, they can't do that, Wolf, because they will still be under an arms embargo that would prevent them from sending weapons anywhere.

BLITZER: But what if they are not sending weapons? What if they are just sending money?

RICE: Well, they may be able to send money, yes.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk about this deal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, well, they're obviously going to use some -- if they get $100 billion or $150 billion, whatever they are going to get, and that money is going to start flowing in the coming days when the implantation of the nuclear deal takes place.

They basically can spend that money however they want. Is that your analysis? CARDIN: Well, the answer is yes and no.

I introduced legislation at the end of the year last year along with many of my colleagues who both supported and opposed the agreement, so that we track where that money is spent. If they use it to support terrorism, then we do have tools available that we can use and impose sanctions against Iran for increasing their terrorist activities.

So we can take action. The question is, will the Iranian agreement be interpreted in a way that prevents us from doing everything we need to prevent Iran from increasing their terrorist activities, hopefully, eliminating that. And that's an area of concern to many of us, but the answer is, if they use those funds for issues such as terrorism, we can take action. And we'd hope our international partners would join us.

And many of us are going to be pushing for that.

BLITZER: Was your legislation signed into law by the president?

CARDIN: No, no, this is legislation that was filed. We knew that we weren't going to act on it until this year. I think there will be great interest in Congress as to how we oversight the Iranian agreement.

Legislation I authored with Senator Corker is law, the Review Act, which does require periodic notice from the administration as to compliance with the nuclear agreement, but we think we got to go further. You also have to be very careful how Iran uses these increased resources and whether they use it for nefarious activities, in which we have tools available to us to prevent that, that we use those tools, and we're not inhibited by the nuclear agreement.

BLITZER: Any prospect the Iranians might release those four Americans they have been holding, including a "Washington Post" reporter, a former U.S. Marine? They say they don't know where Robert Levinson is, the former FBI agent, although the U.S. believes the Iranians have him.

Any prospect that in exchange for the tens of billions of dollars they are about to get, they might release these Americans?

CARDIN: Well, there is no question that they have no reason to hold these Americans in custody. They have done absolutely nothing wrong.

And I know that there's been much conversation about these Americans being returned to their homes. I would hope we would use every opportunity to get them home. And, obviously, as we are talking more with Iran in this setting, I hope that we use that opportunity to do what we can to bring our Americans home.

BLITZER: Senator Cardin, thanks very much for joining us.

CARDIN: Thank you. Thank you.

BLITZER: And just ahead, Canada controversy, New York values, the war of words heating up between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

And intercepted text messages between a fugitive drug lord and a glamorous actress, what do they reveal about El Chapo?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:28:19]

BLITZER: Tonight, Donald Trump's national lead has more than doubled in a new poll as he prepares for a Republican presidential debate later tonight.

There could be fireworks, as Trump's once friendly competition with Ted Cruz appears to be getting uglier.

Our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, is in South Carolina for tonight's debate.

Trump has some new ammunition to use against Cruz, Dana, isn't that right?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He does have new ammunition.

And you remember, Wolf, at our debate last month, both of them had started to go after one another from afar, but in front of one another on the debate stage, they both kind of threw up the white flag. Don't expect that tonight.

I'm told, especially from sources within camp Cruz, that he is willing and ready to fight.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASH (voice-over): The GOP front-runner is way out front, a commanding 13-point lead over Ted Cruz in the latest NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, and not letting up on whether his Canadian-born rival is eligible to be president.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Got a little problem. You got to sort of make sure you can run. You got to make sure you run. A lot of lawyers say you can't run if you do that. You can't be born in Canada.

BASH: Cruz, neck and neck with Trump in Iowa, says it's a sign the billionaire is concerned.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This issue did not seem to concern Donald until a little over a week ago, when, suddenly, he was trailing in the polls in Iowa.

BASH: That after Cruz went after Trump for what he called New York values.

CRUZ: Donald comes from New York, and he embodies New York values.

BASH: Trump, Mr. New York, wasn't going to let that go, hitting back with tales from 9/11.

[18:30:04] The way they handled that attack was one of the most incredible things that anybody has ever seen.

When you want to knock New York, you've got to go through me.

BASH: So will all this erupt on the debate stage tonight?

TRUMP: You know, they attack, but they don't understand. Unlike this country, I attack back.

BASH: The back and forth between the leading GOP contenders is playing out as Cruz grapples from the fallout from a report he borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from his wife's employer, Goldman, Sachs during his 2012 Senate run.

After his event in South Carolina Wednesday night, Cruz quietly huddled with aides to discuss his response. A rare glimpse of crisis management that goes on inside every campaign.

Clearly not wanting to let the issue fester, Cruz then walked over to cameras...

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hello, everyone, welcome to South Carolina.

BASH: ... for an unplanned press conference.

(on camera): Senator, how do you explain to your supporters that you got a very large loan from your wife's Wall Street bank in order to fund your upstart insurgent Senate campaign?

CRUZ: Well, the premise of your question is not right. Heidi and I...

BASH: You didn't get a loan?

CRUZ: The premise of your question is not right. Heidi and I, when we ran for Senate, we made the decision to put our liquid net worth into the campaign.

BASH (voice-over): He said as part of that, the Cruzes got a loan from Goldman Sachs, borrowed against their stocks and assets.

CRUZ: If it was the case that they were not filed exactly as the FEC requires, then we'll amend the filings. But all of the information has been public and transparent for many years, and that's the end of that.

BASH: Not so fast when Donald Trump sees Cruz as his stiffest competition right now.

TRUMP: I hear it's a very big thing. I hope he solves it. I think he's a nice guy, and I hope he gets it solved.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BASH: That gives Donald Trump an opening, should he choose to use it, since he talks all the time about how he doesn't need anybody to help him finance his campaign.

And I should note that, Wolf, Ted Cruz is trying to turn this issue into a positive for him. He actually sent out an e-mail to supporters, asking for donations, because he said "The New York Times," which broke the story yesterday, is after him. And they should try to help him to fight back against the mainstream media -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Dana, thank you.

Dana Bash in South Carolina for us. Let's talk about all of this, the race for the White House among the Republicans.

Joining us, Republican strategist and CNN political commentator, Ana Navarro; former Romney communications director, Eric Fehrnstrom; and Donald Trump supporter Scottie Hughes. She's the chief political correspondent for the USA Networks.

Scottie, how will Donald Trump respond to the attacks he's probably going to face today?

SCOTTIE HUGHES, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, USA NETWORKS: Well, the thing is, you have to realize, Wolf, it does Donald Trump no good to go after Ted Cruz in such a public place one on one. If you talk to most of the supporters within mainstream and grassroots, these that support Donald Trump, their second choice is Ted Cruz and vice versa.

Anything that Donald Trump does that goes against Ted Cruz, his supporters are extremely loyal, and therefore, when Ted Cruz, this does damage him enough to take him out of the race, Donald Trump is going to need those voters to get behind him, if not in the primary but definitely in the general when he goes up against the Democratic contender.

BLITZER: Eric, beyond the details of this Cruz loan, it does sort of highlight Ted Cruz's connections to big banks, to Wall Street. He comes from a pretty elite education: Princeton, Harvard Law School, clerking in the Supreme Court. He's trying to highlight his "Duck Dynasty" connections, if you will, but some of his critics say he's being hypocritical.

ERIC FEHRNSTROM, FORMER MITT ROMNEY CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Yes, I think you're right, Wolf. It certainly fuels the narrative that Ted Cruz says one thing publicly and then does another thing or says another thing privately.

In this case, he's very critical of Wall Street banks, but he went on bended knee, asking for a bailout in the form of a personal loan to keep his Senate campaign afloat.

But nobody's accused him of doing anything illegal. It's a perception problem only. I think his bigger issue are the constitutional questions that have

been raised over whether he is constitutionally qualified to be a candidate for president. This is not an issue that Donald Trump alone is talking about. We also have faculty members, scholars at Harvard Law School that have weighed in and said there are some real questions here.

So this is what Ted Cruz needs to address tonight. He's got to put it to bed, because that's the issue that's hurting him the most in Iowa and elsewhere.

BLITZER: You read, Ana, this article in "The Weekly Standard" that claims Ted Cruz was engaged in inconsistencies. For example, in 2013 he said, referring to Edward Snowden, "If it is the case that the federal government is seizing millions of personal records about law- abiding citizens, and if it is the case that there are minimal restrictions on accessing or reviewing those records, then I think Mr. Snowden has done a considerable public service by bringing it to light."

Much more recently, he told "The New York Times," "It is now clear that Snowden is a trader and he should be tried for treason."

[18:35:06] Is there a flip-flop here?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, how do you say flip-flop in Canada? There definitely is a flip-flop.

And I think Ted Cruz has got to be very careful about this because, you know, we're coming to the end. People realize that it's an issue that's beginning to give him some headaches.

Marco Rubio has been hitting him pretty hard on this national security issue now for months. And I think that's what you're seeing him in response to. It's taken him three years, from 2013 to 2016, to go ahead and say that Edward Snowden is a traitor.

For a long time he wasn't able to label him or define him but yes, when you have last-minute conversions less than a month away from a caucus, it brings up the question of is he flip-flopping?

BLITZER: Scottie, will Donald Trump, the man you support, will he be on the attack tonight against Ted Cruz?

HUGHES: No, I think -- he can't go directly about this. But I think this speaks to the strength of Donald Trump. And they call him Teflon Don. I mean, they've thrown everything at Donald Trump, and he's remained No. 1 and gained strength -- ground.

Now we're actually seeing No. 2, Ted Cruz, being thrown these hurdles. And guess what? They're hurting him. The latest Iowa polls, he's slipping a little bit.

So I think this actually just speaks to the strength and the appeal that Donald Trump has to everybody, regardless of what anybody has thrown at him. BLITZER: What do you think the strategy, Eric, should be between Cruz

and Donald Trump? They're clearly the Republican presidential frontrunners right now.

FEHRNSTROM: Well, look, Trump has complete command in the field. It's been that way now for the past five months. And his debate strategy is not an aggressive one.

You'll notice that he'll attack. He'll respond when he's attacked. He'll, of course, answer the questions that are put to him, but he sort of hangs back, and he lets the rest of the field mix it up.

Now, it's going to be a little bit of a different format tonight, because we have fewer candidates on stage. There will be six instead of nine at the last debate in December. So that's going to give each of these candidates more talk time, more flexibility to maneuver.

And because it's a late-starting debate, I think you'll see a shotgun start. In other words, people know that they have to make an impression in that first hour of the debate before people turn it off and go to bed.

So I expect a lot of fireworks, but I don't think Donald Trump is going to be the one throwing the first blows.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by. There's a huge battle underway on the Democratic side, as well. We'll review the latest when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:42:11] BLITZER: We're back with our political team and new evidence that the Democratic presidential race is neck and neck, with Bernie Sanders closing in on Hillary Clinton.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is joining us from New Hampshire right now, where Sanders is campaigning tonight. Sanders is way ahead in New Hampshire right now. He has some new momentum in Iowa, as well. What's the latest?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: He certainly does, Wolf. And when you're surging, you face more scrutiny. That's what Bernie Sanders is undergoing now.

The Hillary Clinton campaign says that he has not been forthcoming enough about how he'll pay for some of his plans, but regardless of this back and forth, there's no question the race is on.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you so very, very much.

ZELENY (voice-over): She said she never wanted a coronation. Now Hillary Clinton is getting her wish and more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!

ZELENY: Bernie Sanders threatening her march to the Democratic nomination. A new Iowa poll today from "The Des Moines Register" shows the race effectively deadlocked. But it's a troubling trend for Clinton. As her support has dipped, Sanders has surged month by month. He's heading into the final two weeks with real momentum.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Close the tax loop.

ZELENY: He's promoting a populist message, like in this new television ad today.

SANDERS: There are two Democratic visions for regulating Wall Street.

ZELENY: But now Sanders facing intense pressure to get specific on other issues like health care. He's yet to explain just how he would pay for his universal healthcare plan but told CNN's Dana Bash earlier this month he would before the voting begins.

SANDERS: We have more to do, and we will be doing that in the very near future.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Before the Iowa caucuses?

SANDERS: Yes.

ZELENY: Sanders' campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, amended that remark, telling CNN this week he may not meet that deadline. The question is how Sanders' plan affects middle-class taxes. Clinton says it would.

H. CLINTON: Well, if you wait too long, nobody will have a chance to see them or analyze them, and so I am very clear.

ZELENY: It's not just Hillary. The Clinton family has rallied to her aid.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think she's the best candidate.

CHELSEA CLINTON, HILLARY CLINTON'S DAUGHTER: My mom never gives up.

ZELENY: Sanders supporters are unfazed. His strength reaches across the party, a coalition that looks like Barack Obama's in 2008. He's leading Clinton decisively among independents, voters under 45, and first-time caucus goers, according to the new Iowa poll.

But Clinton is raising doubts on guns...

CLINTON: It's time to pick a side.

ZELENY: ... and whether his plans sound too good to be true.

CLINTON: I wish that we could elect a Democratic president who could wave a magic wand and say, "We shall do this. We shall do that."

ZELENY: It sounds like a remark she made eight years ago, when her lead collapsed.

CLINTON: You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, that's a bit of a political "Throwback Thursday" right there about watching that video from 2008. But just a short time ago, just a few minutes ago, Wolf, Bernie Sanders told me that he will indeed disclose his healthcare plan, how he will pay for it, before the Iowa caucuses.

[18:45:09] He cleared up any confusion about that. So, watch for that in the coming days here and he said he is not engaging in negative campaigning as the Clinton campaign accused him of doing today, Wolf. But I can tell you, with about two and a half weeks to go, this is a very competitive contest -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, 18 days to be precise until the Iowa caucuses. Stay with us, Jeff.

I also want to bring in our chief political analyst Gloria Borger, our CNN political commentator Dan Pfeiffer, he's a former senior advisor to President Obama, and Republican strategist, our CNN political commentator Ana Navarro is still with us as well.

As you know, Gloria, some progressive organizations, MoveOn.org, "The Nation" magazine, they have endorsed Bernie Sanders. But Sanders' surge, is it at least in part an anti-Hillary sentiment that's being expressed?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I think people are raising questions about Hillary Clinton and the way you look at it is not only that Sanders' numbers have gone up, but also you look at the number of uncommitted or undecided voters in this Iowa poll, and you see that last month, that number was at 8 percent, Wolf.

Now, the number is 14 percent. So, what that tells you is that the closer you get to this election in Iowa, the caucuses, the voters are saying, wait a minute now, I'm going to give Sanders a second look and I'm not going to commit to Hillary Clinton, and I'm going to sort of stay back and look at this race, which is why you see them now taking each other on frontally.

BLITZER: Jeff, you're on the trail, you've been following both of these candidates. You're among Sanders supporters now. Are they looking for details? Do they think Hillary Clinton's attacks will resonate with primary voters?

ZELENY: Wolf, certainly not among this crowd. I mean, these are true Sanders believers. There is a massive line outside this building here on the here in Hanover, New Hampshire, and it happens in Iowa, as well. So, what Hillary Clinton is trying to do is raise doubts among some of those voters that Gloria was just talking about, some of those undecided voters. I'm so struck by that 40 percent of Iowa caucus- goers say they could change their mind. So, that is the universe that Secretary Clinton is going after trying to raise doubts about electability and other things.

But, Wolf, to this crowd, you can see behind me here, no one here has questions about Bernie Sanders but she's trying to reach people who are not yet decided.

BLITZER: Yes, Bernie Sanders clearly resonating over there.

Dan, you worked on the team that beat Hillary Clinton back in 2008 when you worked on then-Senator Barack Obama's Democratic presidential campaign. Do you see echoes now of what happened then?

DAN PFEIFFER, FORMER SENIOR ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: There are certainly some, wolf, in the sense that Bernie Sanders is running a very aggressive campaign in Iowa much like President Obama did back then. But I think it's important to recognize that this is not 2008. Bernie Sanders is not Barack Obama. There are a lot of differences here.

And so the real test for Bernie Sanders is not going to be if he can win Iowa and New Hampshire, he can do that. I'm not sure if he will, but he can. It's what is his ability to expand his coalition beyond the primarily white liberals who make up those states? Can he get African American voters, Latino, more working class voters? If he can do that, he can replicate Barack Obama's success. He has not yet shown an ability to do that.

BLITZER: Ana, the former President Bill Clinton, he said, paraphrasing what he said, he said he's happy they are debating issues, policy issues and not surprised that the gap is narrowing. He thought it would have happened 60 days or so ago. Is that real or is that spin?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's probably a little bit of both. Look, it's good for Hillary Clinton to have competition. To be the anointed one and have a coronation would have been the worst thing that could happen to her. Now, those ideas that he's happy that it is this close, that Sanders keeps inching up, that she keeps inching down -- no, he can't be happy about that. Like Yogi Berra said, it's deja vu all over again.

One of the big differences between today and 2008 is that in 2008, there were, what, seven, eight Democrats running for the nomination. Today, it's basically Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and nobody expected the 74-year-old socialist from Vermont who started the poll, this race at 2 percent to give her a run for her money.

BLITZER: There is a possibility, Gloria, Bernie Sanders could win in Iowa and New Hampshire. BORGER: Oh, yes, there is. And the question is as Dan was raising,

where does he go after that? You know, does he go into the south where Hillary Clinton has a fire wall? I would argue. And I think it's a question of whether he can bring new voters into the system to get out there and vote like Obama did.

NAVARRO: If he wins those two states, we've got a brand new race, because the momentum he gained --

BORGER: Right. But remember Bill Clinton lost Iowa and New Hampshire and then went on to win the nomination.

[18:50:02] BLITZER: '92.

BORGER: Yes, he did.

BLITZER: Dan, do you see a pathway to the Democratic presidential nomination for Bernie Sanders?

PFEIFFER: There's a pathway, but I think it's very hard. You know, I think Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton is more like Howard Dean versus John Kerry, or Bill Bradley versus Al Gore, than it is Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton.

He has to do something that no other insurgent candidate other than Obama has done, which is broaden your coalition, be able to win in the South, be able to win in the West, be able to do more than just win Iowa and New Hampshire.

BLITZER: Is Hillary Clinton, Ana, stronger when she's being challenged?

NAVARRO: I think so. You know, I remember in 2008 when we saw that emotional Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and yes, I think that after the loss in Iowa, the shocking loss in Iowa, she came back stronger and she -- you know, she showed a lot of grit staying on through June.

But it's also very worrying to see, she's not wearing well. People know her and they're not liking her any better.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Well, we're going to continue our analysis. Stand by.

Also ahead, the fugitive drug lord El Chapo Guzman infatuated with a young actress. Was it the reason behind a secret surgery? Tonight, we have new clues in their intercepted text messages.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:55:51] BLITZER: We're getting a first look tonight at text messages between recently recaptured drug lord El Chapo Guzman and the actress who helped arrange his interview with Sean Penn for "Rolling Stone" magazine.

CNN's Brian Todd is working the story for us.

Brian, these are surprising exchanges between El Chapo and Kate del Castillo.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They are surprising for their flirtatious nature, Wolf. Tonight, a Mexican official is telling us Mexican authorities intercepted these texts, many of them sent before El Chapo's meeting with actress Kate del Castillo and actress Sean Penn. Some of the messages just don't seem like they come from a murderous drug kingpin.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): The decidedly unglamorous leader of the largest drug cartel in history, allegedly responsible for thousands of deaths, comes across as strangely kind and caring, even paternal as he bantered with this glamorous TV actress. Newly released transcripts of text messages between Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and actress Kate del Castillo before the drug lord's secret meeting in October with her and actor Sean Penn suggest the kingpin was infatuated with her.

In one of the exchanges published in a Mexican newspaper, "Melenio", El Chapo uses the code name "Papa". He says he is eager to meet her and that, quote, "You are the best of this world. We will be great friends. I will take care of you more than my own eyes." Del Castillo replies, "I'm beyond moved that you say you will take care of me. No one has ever taken care of me."

A Mexican official tells CNN the Mexican government was aware of Del Castillo's communications with the drug lord before the secret meeting at one of his compounds, that Mexican authorities had intercepted their texts.

CARL PIKE, FORMER DEA SPECIAL AGENT: Once you step out of routine like sending the text to her, it's feasible that this led to his capture.

TODD: CNN has learned the drug lord who twice escaped from authorities using elaborate tunnels wanted to make a movie about his own life and was obsessed with the gangster films "The Godfather" and "Scarface." And while he wasn't planning his movie, he was telling the attractive actress about his plans to drink tequila and dance with her.

IOAN GRILLO, AUTHOR, "GANGSTER WARLORDS": El Chapo Guzman is a guy from a poor village in the mountains. So, perhaps the idea of being with a woman on this level, sophisticated, beautiful, that really enticed him.

TODD: It appears Del Castillo wasn't above enticing him either. Texting him after their meeting, quote, "I haven't been able to sleep much since I saw you. I'm very excited about our story. It's true. It's the only thing I can think of."

El Chapo replies, "Let me tell you that I'm more excited about you than the story, my friend." She texts, "Ha, ha, ha! Knowing that makes me really glad. You make me blush."

(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD: Now, with all of that back and forth, it appears El Chapo before their meeting had no idea who Sean Penn was. Quote, "What is that actor's name?", he texts an associate. And in a new twist tonight, CNN is told by a Mexican official, some weeks before the secret meeting, El Chapo had sexual enhancement surgery to improve blood flow.

Now, CNN has reached out to Kate Del Castillo several times for comment on her meeting with El Chapo and on the text messages. She has not responded but does say in a new tweet, quote, "Many have chosen to make up items they think will make good stories and that are not truthful. I look forward to sharing my story with you" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting. Brian, you are getting details on how El Chapo is being guarded right now. What are you learning?

TODD: That's right, Wolf. Tonight, a Mexican official is telling us that while he is being held at the same prison where he escaped, he is being constantly moved around among eight different cells with no set schedule. El Chapo has got two guards watching him 24/7, reinforced steel and concrete grids two feet thick in the walls and floors of the cells and there are armored vehicles and helicopters patrolling outside the prison.

BLITZER: Let's hope he stays inside the prison. Unfortunately, he got out twice before.

Thanks very much, Brian Todd, for that report.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter. Go ahead and tweet me @WolfBlitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNSitroom.

Please be sure to join us once again tomorrow, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTRONT" starts right now.