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Clinton, Sanders in High-Stakes Debate Tonight; Republicans Prepare for Trial by Fire in South Carolina; New Cruz Ad Slams Rubio on Immigration; Clinton, Sanders in High Stakes Debate Tonight; Kim Jong-Un Executes Top Military Official. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 11, 2016 - 17:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: -- Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tonight in the "PBS News Hour" Democratic presidential debate. That's here on CNN, as well as PBS stations, at 9 p.m. Eastern.

[17:00:09] That's it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper, turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Debate night. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders face off for the first time since New Hampshire. Sanders is riding high after his stunning victory, but Clinton's new strategy is to go right after him. The fireworks just a few hours from now.

Toned-down Trump. As other Republicans step up their harsh rhetoric out there on the campaign trail, is Donald Trump trying out a kinder, gentler approach? And how long will that last?

And un-opposed. Kim Jong-un's inner circle gets smaller as the North Korean dictator executes his army chief. Is he afraid of a coup? And after dozens of executions and disappearances, who's left to pose a real threat?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Start with the breaking news. The stakes couldn't be higher. You're looking at a picture of the debate hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where just four hours from now Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will have their first showdown since the New Hampshire primary. The PBS News Hour Democratic presidential debate will also air right here on CNN.

After being pummeled by Sanders in the primary, Clinton will try to get back on track tonight. And she just landed a very big endorsement. But Sanders is on a roll, and his campaign cash is rolling in.

Republicans are going all out ahead of the South Carolina primary. Marco Rubio today slammed his opponents, claiming he has foreign policy experience that they simply lack.

Jeb Bush says Rubio has no record of accomplishments, and Donald Trump, for now at least, all of a sudden, he's going a bit positive. He's dropping an ad critical of Ted Cruz, and he's focusing in on touting his own record.

After a nuclear and missile test, North Korea's dictator reportedly executes the chief of his army's general staff, continuing a ruthless purge of his inner circle. Is it a sign that Kim Jong-un's regime is growing shaky?

Our correspondents, analysts and guests, they'll have full coverage of all the day's top stories.

Let's begin with the Democrats in tonight's big showdown. CNN political correspondent Brianna Keilar is live from Milwaukee.

Brianna, there's certainly a lot riding on tonight's debate.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, there sure is and Hillary Clinton spending two down days just to prepare for tonight's debate, which both the Clinton and the Sanders campaigns see as crucial.


KEILAR (voice-over): Bernie Sanders is looking to build on his momentum following a big win in New Hampshire.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The honesty (ph), the energy and the excitement that the Democratic Party will need to succeed in November.

KEILAR: While Hillary Clinton is hoping to reset the race with a strong performance.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I know I have some work to do, particularly with young people.

KEILAR: In advance of tonight's showdown, Sanders took a victory lap that included an appearance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," where he gave the host a little help with his monologue.

STEPHAN COLBERT, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT": Senator, these shows start with a host standing up talking to a camera.

SANDERS: Stephen, that's what the elites want you to think.

KEILAR: Sanders also seized on the opportunity to promote his vision for the country.

COLBERT: Why do you think the younglings like you?

SANDERS: They look at a world with so many people, and they say why not. Why can't all people in this country have health care? Why can't we make public colleges and universities tuition-free? Why not?

KEILAR: Sanders' Granite State victory is proving to be good news for his campaign coffers. The campaign says it raised more than $6 million in the 24 hours after polls closed Tuesday night. As the Democratic primary fight enters a new phase, both campaigns are ramping up their outreach to African-American voters, a key voting group in the South Carolina primary later this month.

Clinton today picking up the endorsement of the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not even close. It's Hillary Clinton.

KEILAR: The endorsement event also putting Sanders' role in the civil rights movement in the spotlight. Sanders has talked about attending the 1963 march on Washington.

SANDERS: I was way, way back there, one of the several hundred thousand people who was here.

KEILAR: But Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights leader and a Clinton supporter, downplayed Sanders' history with the movement in comparison to the Clintons.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: I never saw him. I never met him. Was involved in the sit-ins, the Freedom Ride, the march on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery and directed the Voter Education Project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.


KEILAR: I spoke with a Clinton campaign source today who said she's going to try to draw compelling contrasts on issues that she sees being of import to African-American and Hispanic voters. Namely that would be crime, immigration and guns. Guns perhaps the area where there's the most clear contrast between Sanders and Clinton, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very powerful statement from Congressman John Lewis there. Thanks very much, Brianna.

Let's go to our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, you've been on the campaign trail with the Sanders campaign. How are they handling expectations, first of all, for tonight's debate?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, they're trying to get them in check. I mean, it's been a very big week for the Sanders campaign, no question about it, bigger than they anticipated. That 22-point win in New Hampshire has sort of raised the bar and the stakes for them.

But I'm told that one senior advisor is just going to keep doing what he's doing. It's been working so far. But Brianna is absolutely right: as the Clinton campaign focuses more on guns, on criminal justice reform, on immigration, the burden is going to be on Senator Sanders to spend more time on this and to go back through his sort of tangled issue on guns. That is one of the things that they believe is sort of holding him back here, especially with women voters. He did very well with them in Iowa and New Hampshire, but that is a central concern to them.

But first and foremost, he was out campaigning yesterday. He was on "The Late Show" last night. He has not spent as much time preparing for this debate as she has, Wolf.

BLITZER: This is their first debate, clearly, since Sanders' very impressive victory in New Hampshire. How could this one be different than some of the earlier ones?

ZELENY: Wolf, I think the biggest difference is the moment that we are in here. I mean, she does not walk on the stage as the undisputed front-runner at this point. She certainly has many, many advantages, but there are so many eyeballs on both of them here. The dynamic is different.

So I think it could be different in the sense this is more of a national audience. This is more of the race is playing out forward here. And minority interests, the interests of the core base of the Democratic Party, will be front and center. And look for Hillary Clinton to talk more about the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders, of course, has been an independent his whole career, and she's trying to make that point clear. At the same time, she is trying to look like she would be new and different, as well. So look for her to try and tap into some of that, you know, newness, that anti-establishment view. It's tough for her to do, but she would be an historic figure. She would be the first woman president. She will say that again and again tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thank you.

Let's get more on the upcoming debate, but I want to turn to the race for the Republican presidential nomination right now. The candidates there are already in South Carolina today. They're gearing up for a primary contest that's famous for some brutal tactics and scorched- earth attacks.

Our political reporter, Sara Murray, is following the GOP campaign. She's joining us now with more. What's the latest over there, Sara?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. South Carolina is known for dirty politics, but there are at least a couple candidates who are trying to keep it positive. And if you can even believe it, one of them is Donald Trump.


MURRAY (voice-over): In the rough and tumble South Carolina primary...

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The last thing we need is another Bush. That I can tell you.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You want an entertainer in chief? Someone who will say whatever he wants, you know, to make it all about him? Insult people, divide people, basically just talk trash?

MURRAY: It's a battle to dethrone Donald Trump.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald Trump has zero foreign policy experience. Negotiating a hotel deal in another country is not foreign policy experience.

MURRAY: After his big victory earlier this week...

TRUMP: New Hampshire, what a great place. What a great place.

MURRAY: Trump's rivals are pouncing, while the blustery billionaire has mainly trained his fire on his favorite foil, Jeb Bush.

TRUMP: He's a low-energy person. He's a stiff. MURRAY: South Carolina's prominent evangelical population could be

setting up a showdown between Trump and Ted Cruz.

CRUZ: I'll tell you, in the state of South Carolina, I don't think people are interested in someone, a Republican candidate who's pushed partial birth abortion, who won't defend marriage and who supports big government bailouts.

MURRAY: Cruz won Iowa, but it's Trump who has the faithful following here in the Palmetto State, where his rallies regularly draw thousands.

Now Trump is trying a different tactic. His campaign says it's replacing this ad that takes on Cruz...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What kind of man talks from both sides of his mouth on amnesty for illegals on national television and still denies it?

MURRAY: ... with this sunny spot instead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I came to hear Donald Trump's business plan for America.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's really cool to hear him speak the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tells it like it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Make America great.

MURRAY: His campaign saying they believe Trump's more positive tone in New Hampshire seemed to lift him there. Meantime, John Kasich is trying to preserve the positive message that carried him to second place.

KASICH: It's all negative. How in the heck can you sell negative? You know, I want to talk about what I'm for, my vision, my view, my positive.

[17:10:03] MURRAY: But even he says when attacked, he's ready to strike back. KASICH: Somebody wants to poke at me and they do, they're already

starting, that's OK. You know, I'm not going to be a pin cushion, though. I don't take crap from anybody.


MURRAY: Now, Donald Trump is calling out some of his rivals on the campaign trail for bad behavior. He took to Twitter to say, "We are getting reports from many voters that the Cruz people are back to doing very sleazy and dishonest push polls on me. We are watching!"

Now, Donald Trump has pledged this positivity in South Carolina, but tonight he's actually campaigning in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So we'll see if that promise works across state lines -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see how long that lasts. All right. Thanks very much for that, Sara Murray.

She's already in Louisiana with Donald Trump.

Let's discuss the state of the race right now with Scottie Hughes. She's the chief political correspondent for USA Radio Network. She's also a Donald Trump supporter.

Scottie, thanks very much for joining us. What do you make of this Trump decision to pull that very negative attack ad against Ted Cruz and replace it with a more positive message about his own campaign?

SCOTTIE HUGHES, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, USA RADIO NETWORK: OK. Well, let's talk about the people of South Carolina first, because that's what this directly has to do with.

They are known for having shrimp and grits, great palmetto trees, and knowing how to have the most dirtiest of all dirty campaigns, whether it's on the Republican or Democrat side.

And so Mr. Trump has realized that he's already proven that he can throw punches. He's already proven that he can take them, so now he has to show that he's the adult in the room when everybody else is acting like children, which is a great move from him. And I like the fact that he doesn't have to respond back to these.

I've said before on your show in the past, Wolf, eagles don't hunt flies. And right now the rest of these candidates are acting so childish and not focusing on what makes them the best person for president, rather tearing others down. That's not what's good for the Republican Party.

And I know we read one of the other tweets. Donald Trump probably said the best tweet he's ever said. He just tweeted out, saying the Republican Party with the help of conservatives made so many promises to their base, but they didn't keep them. That is why we are in the situation today, and it's all about building trust. That's why Donald Trump believes at this point in South Carolina he needs to go positive. BLITZER: I understand the need to go positive to show that he's the

adult in the room, if you will, but let's say Ted Cruz, who's a major challenger, has got a big support, a lot of support among the evangelicals in South Carolina, let's say.

Let's say he really goes after Trump. Is Trump not going to respond?

HUGHES: Well, it depends on what he accuses him with. But it's real simple to answer Ted Cruz when he goes after him for his conservative record. Right now, we're sitting here where the president is about to push forward a -- I think it's like $4.1 trillion budget, Wolf.

Within that budget is the taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood, abortions, something that evangelicals overwhelmingly are against funding for. And yet, do you see Ted Cruz out there in Washington, D.C., doing everything he can to fight or any of these senators? They're not. Their records speak louder than their words do on the campaign trail, Wolf. And Trump knows -- Mr. Trump knows it's just easier to point out how they faltered on these type of issues and spent more time on the campaign trail than actually caring about the jobs that they were elected to do right now.

BLITZER: All right. Scottie, stand by. We have a lot more to discuss, including the latest attacks by Marco Rubio against Donald Trump. He says it's one thing to negotiate a hotel deal, but claims the Republican front-runner has no national security foreign policy experience. We'll get to that and a lot more when we come back.


[17:17:50] BLITZER: We're following new and important developments in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. The field is narrowing after Donald Trump's overwhelming victory in New Hampshire, and the remaining candidates are fighting for the chance to knock the GOP front-runner from his perch.

We're back with Scottie Nell Hughes. She's a Trump supporter. Senator Marco Rubio said today -- and I'm quoting him now -- "Donald Trump has zero foreign policy experience. Negotiating a hotel deal in another country is not foreign policy experience."

Your reply?

HUGHES: Well, I think that's a lot more experience than sitting in a committee room like Senator Marco Rubio has now.

Let's call this what it is. Senator Rubio sits on the committee for foreign -- foreign intelligence and as well as relations. He gets to have access to special information that nobody else does, so of course he can sit there and repeat and say these talking points and people have to take him for what it is without validating.

Now, looking at this, Wolf, we're seeing all this negativity here. Let me just make one thing clear. It's not -- if it's the truth, it's not negative; it's called the truth. And I'm sorry if it makes other people look bad or other candidates look bad. If these people right now sit there and go, "Mr. Trump is always the

first person to say the negative," my question for them is what has he said that hasn't been true? I'm sorry that the truth hurts, and you have to feel the pain.

We are seeing the most childish of things coming even out of Marco Rubio and others. There's a hit piece out today on Mr. Trump asking -- sitting there talking about how last night, he ordered his ribeye to be well done. That is how petty we are getting in this campaign right now.

So no wonder, with all of these things coming at Mr. Trump, that he's rising above the fray, because in the end he knows the Republican Party is going to have to unify and go after the Democrats, who are actually a lot stronger than the majority of conservatives are actually being able to estimate.

BLITZER: As you know, the former president, George W. Bush, he'll join Jeb Bush, his brother, out there on the campaign trail in South Carolina on Monday, this coming Monday. Trump has been very critical of the former president. How do you think he will respond to all of this?

HUGHES: I think it's going to be very simple. He's going to point out the last two years of George W. Bush. An administration that actually caused the financial crisis that we had in 2008 and the reason why we have had eight years of a Democrat president, because they could not take any more of this GOP-controlled Congress or the GOP president or else our country would be even more in financial issues. That's why another reason why we don't need another Bush in office.

BLITZER: As you know, Donald Trump has focused a lot of his energy going after Jeb Bush, even when Jeb Bush was not polling well in Iowa, or for that matter, in New Hampshire. But some see him as still a major competitor because of the money that his campaign has, the super PAC his campaign has. Does Donald Trump still see Jeb Bush as his main threat?

HUGHES: I don't think he's a threat. I don't think Mr. Trump ever saw him as a main threat. I mean, let's look at it: Jeb Bush in New Hampshire spent, what was it, $400,000 -- or $4 million in New Hampshire and only came in fourth and fifth. He's spending the dollars and not getting the results.

Which comes back to Bernie Sanders saying we need to take the money out of politics, that money is what is controlling these politicians. Well, if you really believe that, then Donald Trump is your man, because he's by far spending the least and getting the best results. Because the truth and honesty are what produce the results more than the mighty dollar.

BLITZER: Why is Donald Trump today in Louisiana at this big rally that he's getting ready for? The primary there is March 5.

HUGHES: Well, because it's the long game. That's the one thing like I've said. The Republican Party has not had this strategy, Wolf. They sit there and think just in the short term, that we need to do these little sprints. That's not how you succeed in business, and that's not how you succeed in anything.

And Mr. Trump is going, "You know what? I've got the SEC right around March 1, that Super Tuesday is right around the corner; and I need to make sure that I already show love to everybody else." He does a great job of that.

When you're sitting -- and like I said, he's not spending the taxpayer dollars. He's not spending donor dollars. He's spending his own money, so he's being very smart. Maybe if that's what we had to take, where everybody had to spend their own dollars, they would realize things instead of sitting here and pouring all their time and effort in small little pockets, spreading it around the country and making sure that everybody could hear the good message of a great future president.

BLITZER: Scottie Hughes, thanks very much for joining us.

HUGHES: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are getting ready to face off in their first debate since New Hampshire. Sanders riding high after a big win in New Hampshire. Can aggressive new tactics put Hillary Clinton back on track?

And North Korea's leader ordering another execution, this time it's his own army chief. What's the young dictator afraid of?

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


[17:27:02] BLITZER: While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders prepare for tonight's Democratic presidential debate, the Republicans are getting ready for the traditionally nasty South Carolina primary.

Joining us now our CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash; our politics executive editor, Mark Preston; CNN political commentator Hilary Rosen; and assistant editor of "The Washington post," David Swerdlick. Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

Mark, what is Trump's primary goal right now in pulling this very negative attack ad on Ted Cruz and going positive.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Well, it's the best of both worlds, right? Because he was able to put it out there, plant the seed in the minds of South Carolina voters; and then pull it back and say, "Look, I'm going to be a good guy about this."

You know, it's very easy for him to switch out another ad and go negative again. He already has the ad time already purchased. But I think it was smart by Trump. Because look, if we saw anything out of New Hampshire with John Kasich was that being a nice guy actually does pay off. Being Donald Trump, being a nice guy certainly catches a lot of people

off-guard, and I think will probably be good for him.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And he actually had some moments, an extended period of time in New Hampshire, where he...

BLITZER: Who's he?

BASH: He, Trump, did sort of take the negativity out of his stump speech.

I was actually struck by it. It was a couple of days -- I'm losing all track of time, but a couple of days after the Iowa caucuses when he -- where he didn't do as well as he had hoped. He totally changed up his speech. He talked a lot more about what he would do, why he's so different than anybody else, first-time politician, knows how to make deals, all of that. And for a time, he really didn't sort of mix it up with the others.

He told me in an interview a few days ago that his father used to say to him, "You know what? Take the -- sometimes it's important to take the lumps out." And what that advice was meaning to say was, you know what? You don't always have to be so hard charging.

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't think he's listening to his father, though. Because Mark is right. He's having this both ways. We're now talking about this ad, so he doesn't have to run it, because people are going to go to, you know, YouTube or anywhere else and find the ad.

BASH: Exactly.

ROSEN: And they'll be able to see it and he's still attached to it.

BASH: He's totally attached to it. You're absolutely right.

BLITZER: The attack ad against Ted Cruz.

BASH: But the point is, is that all of that negativity and the insulting, that was overshadowing his core message; and so he wants to have both. He wants to be able to stay positive, as well.

BLITZER: Let me play, David, this ad. This is a Ted Cruz ad targeting Marco Rubio and the issue of illegal immigration.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Has anyone else here struggled with being lied to?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I voted for a guy who was a Tea Party hero on the campaign trail. And then he went to D.C. and played patty-cake with Chuck Schumer and cut a deal on amnesty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does that make you angry?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Angry? It makes me feel dumb for trusting him. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Maybe you should vote for more than just a

pretty face next time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you guys have room for one more?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on in. Come on in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on in, you can have frank's chair.

CRUZ: I'm Ted Cruz, and I approve this message.


BLITZER: What do you think of that ad?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think it's pretty effective ad, Wolf. Look, on resume value, at least, these guys are very similar. They're the same age.

[17:30:00] They're both of color. They're senators. They're both from sun belt states, so they're trying to get separation from each other. I think Cruz's camp realizes that they, at least, can count on the support of those hardcore Tea Party folks, those hardcore conservatives that put him over the top in his Texas Senate race against David Dewhurst, so they're trying to say that Rubio is not that, that he's a pretty boy, he's a lightweight and they'll probably swing back around to his flip-flop on the Gang of Eight.

BLITZER: Yes. Both children of Cuban immigrants to the United States.


BLITZER: You know something about these kinds of ads. Pretty effective?

HILARY ROSEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it probably will be effective for a narrow piece, but you know, the nastiness about just calling him pretty face is the reason why people actually don't like Ted Cruz. So he risks actually making his negatives harder when he goes after people with such a direct insult.

BLITZER: But they liked -- they liked him in Iowa and there's a lot of evangelicals in South Carolina as well.

ROSEN: Yes, but he -- you know, Ted Cruz is the reason that the Republican Party is coalescing around other folks. And so, you know, it can drive people away just as easily.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Let's just go back to the beginning with Donald Trump. Donald Trump is now stepping back and being the nice guy and he's letting these two senators hit each other, hit each other, and who just sits back and watches, Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Where does John Kasich, the relatively moderate Republican governor of Ohio, twice elected, very popular in Ohio, did very well in New Hampshire, where does he fit in, in the immediate future, let's say in South Carolina and Nevada?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: In the immediate future in South Carolina he doesn't fit in very well at all and they know that very well inside the Kasich campaign. They are not only trying to lower expectations about doing well there, it happens to match with the reality. They don't expect to do well there. They just want to kind of tread water, stay alive, bring in money. He actually got a pretty big backer, financial backer today, Ken Langone, who is a billionaire who supported Chris Christie. He now has gone over to John Kasich's camp. That's great news for him for that long-term plan. He just wants to stay in the game until he can get to the Midwestern states in the middle of March.

BLITZER: David, there's another Republican presidential debate Saturday night. Rubio, he had a slip-up in the last Republican presidential debate a week or so ago. What does he need to do this time?

SWERDLICK: Well, I think he's got to figure out a way to shed that idea that he's got these canned lines and that he overuses them. He won't have an attack dog like Christie there attacking him so now he's got to look and anticipate what is Rubio -- I mean, excuse me, what is Cruz going to do to try and throw him off his game because as Mark said, right, they're really going at each other right now to see who's going to be the guy to take on Trump a little further down the road.

BLITZER: Hilary, you prepared candidates for these kinds of debates. Don't they usually get these kinds of talking points, keep hitting, stress, don't get too complicated, stress these points. Sort of backfired in this particular case for Rubio.

ROSEN: Right. Well, they -- it backfired because, first of all, he repeated something, then it sounded exactly the same, and he'd been doing it for the last couple of days. But what you try and do is give candidates enough breadth in their preparation so that they have some things that are familiar to go to. But they have to really be responsive to the moment and that's the skill of debating.

The good ones don't come in with the canned answers. The good ones come in able to react quickly and feel the room.

BASH: But what might be a preview is today Marco Rubio changed a lot on the trail. He started hitting Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, extremely hard by name which he was not doing in New Hampshire.

BLITZER: He did that yesterday when he was here.

BASH: He did. Sure did.

BLITZER: In an interview with me in THE SITUATION ROOM as well.

Guys, stand by. We have a lot more to discuss, including the big debate tonight, the Democratic presidential debate. We're not that far away from it in Milwaukee. You're looking at live pictures right now. Three and a half hours from now, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, they face off. We'll be right back.


[17:38:12] BLITZER: Take a look at these. These are live pictures coming in from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. This is the site of the PBS NewsHour Democratic presidential debate which will be simulcast tonight right here on CNN 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

We're back with our political experts and the breaking news. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, they're getting ready for that high stakes debate tonight, especially for Hillary Clinton it's crucial after the lopsided results in New Hampshire where Bernie Sanders won.

You know, she did get a major endorsement today, Dana, from the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee. They came out in big numbers. They said they want her to be the next president of the United States, not Bernie Sanders.

BASH: That's right. It was really a show of force because a lot of those individual members of Congress had already endorsed her, but the symbolism and the idea of them all getting together and embracing her, again, is not just symbolically but also with their PAC, their political action committee, which means, you know, they can put political might behind her is a very big deal because that is exactly the kind of constituency that she and her campaign have been banking on after they left New Hampshire and Iowa where the Democratic constituencies are a lot more white. South Carolina is quite different --

ROSEN: Fifty percent.

BLITZER: More than half of the Democratic vote.

BASH: Yes. Exactly.


BLITZER: In 2008 it was African-American.

BASH: And it's not just South Carolina, it's all over the south and in other places that have more urban Democratic populations.

BLITZER: It's a very important constituency there.

And listen, David, these are powerful words from Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, as all of us know. He was asked about Bernie Sanders and his record on these issues. Listen to this.


REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: But I never saw him. I never met him. I would chair the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963 to 1966. I was involved in the sit-ins, the Freedom Ride, the march on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and directed the voter education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's a pretty powerful statement right there. Bernie Sanders, he says, he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s. He did come to Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, spoke, but you just heard John Lewis saying he never saw him.

SWERDLICK: Right. So I think it always bears repeating that Congressman Lewis is the hero of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He has tremendous respect across the board in this country including from me.

I will say this, though, I see this issue a little differently than him in this way, Wolf. It seems to me that as congressmen they might evaluate Senator Sanders not on what he did during the Civil Rights Movement but on his 25 years in Congress with these other members of Congress. And you know, today when I heard that Congressman Lewis made that statement, I actually called one of my college mentors who had gone on the Mississippi Freedom Rides and asked him what he thought of that and he said something similar, you know, that, A, he had tremendous respect for John Lewis, but B, that he thought the issue was what was Sanders prepared to do now.

BLITZER: As a long-time member of Congress. But some of these members said over these 20 or 25 or 30 years, even as a member of the House and a member of the Senate he did not take a leadership role on a lot of these issues.

ROSEN: Well, that's what's interesting is that, you know, Bernie Sanders served in Congress with John Lewis for many years, and the fact that Congressman Lewis would go out and say something so stark is, you know, a testament to their loyalty to Hillary Clinton. And the fact that so many of Sanders' colleagues in the House and Senate say we know this guy and we are working and yet we want Hillary Clinton. You know, it makes you wonder.

And I think in particular on these civil rights issues, you know, it shows the divide really, whereas Hillary Clinton has really always been on the civil rights side of progressive politics. Whether it's women or African-Americans, LGBT, Latino, whereas Bernie Sanders views his progressive politics more on the economic side. And in some cases those two places haven't really met the same way these caucus members have thought about it.

PRESTON: Right, but to see someone like Representative Lewis, who we all respect, I mean, everybody respects him, and to come out so forcefully against Bernie Sanders certainly sends up that red flare in the sky to show you how concerned the Clinton campaign is now that Bernie Sanders is coming on strong and really is starting to galvanize that left. I mean, there is concern there.

BASH: I'm glad you said that because he is a civil rights icon but he is also a very shrewd politician who is extremely close with the Clintons. Extremely close. So that was a political statement more than anything else.

BLITZER: Some of us who covered Bill Clinton during his eight years, a lot of African-Americans, you probably remember this, Hilary, used to call him the first black president because he was so close to the African-American community.

Bernie Sanders, though, to his credit, take a look at the money he has raised since his very dramatic powerful win in New Hampshire. I'm looking at the numbers in the first 24 hours. $6.4 million, which suggests this campaign is going to go on and on and on.

PRESTON: Right. So we reported this on election night the other night in New Hampshire, that the Sanders campaign is not looking at a singular geographical fight right now. They realize that South Carolina is out of their hands. Nevada they might actually win. I mean, there's going to be a battle over that. But what Sanders is doing right now, as Dana is talking about how Hillary Clinton is focusing on the south where there's a huge African-American contingent, well, Bernie Sanders is going states like Colorado and Massachusetts and Minnesota and Oklahoma. A lot of these states have caucuses driven by the grassroots because it really is a delegate fight and he sees this as a possibility to spread this out.

BLITZER: Do you think there's going to be some clashes tonight in the Democratic presidential debate?

SWERDLICK: Yes, absolutely. Because what we've seen based on what we were talking about here is that there's this real fight right now in the South Carolina primary over the African-American vote, which is the majority of the Democratic vote in South Carolina, and there's this sort of arms race going on right now about who can appeal most to this core Democratic constituency. You know, you have sort of the Democratic black establishment like Congressman Lewis lining up with Secretary Clinton. You have folks like Cornell West and rapper Killer Mike lining up with Bernie Sanders -- Senator Sanders.

BLITZER: Harry Belafonte now, too.

SWERDLICK: OK. I was not aware of that.


SWERDLICK: Right. So it's this escalating, you know, divide or at least competition for the black vote.

ROSEN: But my advice to Hillary Clinton tonight is not to go too aggressive at Bernie Sanders. You know, her surrogates are doing this pretty aggressively. But people really want to see Hillary Clinton for who -- in sort of the thoughtful, optimistic, hopeful way that they see Bernie Sanders. And her supporters really need to see that she actually can be inspiring as opposed to cunning.

BLITZER: What are you looking for tonight?

BASH: No, I thought that's very interesting because the last debate she obviously hit him very hard for making these accusations by insinuation. You know, not actually saying it. And there was some booing in the audience. Now who knows, you know, what that really meant out there in the real world with the Democratic voters. [17:45:02] But it is -- look, it's a fine line. It is a really fine

line. She's got to show spirit, she's got to show optimism but she's also got to try to put him in his place.

ROSEN: It's tougher, though, and it is harder for women. I do this media training as you mentioned.

BASH: Hundred percent.

ROSEN: Women come across much more differently when they are aggressive and negative than men do. And she has to hold back in a way that he doesn't. It's not fair, it's true, though.

BASH: Yes.

BLITZER: And the problem she has, she has a lot more experience in national security, foreign policy, but he keeps coming back to that vote she did in favor of the war in Iraq and she keeps -- he keeps slamming her on that, so I don't know how willing she's willing to try to show off on her expertise.

SWERDLICK: Right. I don't know what Secretary Clinton can do about that. That was one of the reasons that then Senator Obama emerged in 2008, because he had opposed publicly the Iraq war and she faces that same problem with Senator Sanders.

I think the thing for Secretary Clinton, though, I agree it is harder for a woman to be expressive and passionate on the stump. At the same time I think at least in the case of Clinton, she does well when she does that. Her speech the other night sounded passionate. Even people who didn't want to support her could see that she was passionate about the race.

ROSEN: Her best answer on the war, by the way, is even after that vote, Barack Obama chose me to be secretary of state.


ROSEN: She gave that answer in the first Vegas debate as you recall. She hasn't repeated it much since and it was successful.

BLITZER: And she could go -- she could go one step further and say he asked me to be secretary of state, he didn't ask you, Senator, to be secretary of state. He asked me. That's what she could say.


BASH: She could.

ROSEN: She could take debate lessons from you.

BLITZER: All right.

PRESTON: They're watching right now.

BLITZER: Thanks very much. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, they face off just a little over

three hours from now in the PBS NewsHour Democratic presidential debate which you will see right here on CNN and your local PBS stations, that's tonight 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

Coming up, North Korea's volatile young leader appears to have executed yet another top official in his inner circle. Is Kim Jong-Un afraid of losing his grip on power?


[17:51:24] BLITZER: The North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un appears to have executed yet another top military official. The latest in what's becoming a disturbing pattern for the young dictator.

Brian Todd has got details. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight U.S. officials telling us they are watching this situation very closely because of all the trouble coming from North Korea recently. Rising tensions at the border. A major missile test. A nuclear test. And now the mysterious death of a top general very close to Kim Jong-Un.

A U.S. Defense official telling us tonight this appears to be one of the most senior officials executed by Kim. One analyst says this could be a signal of a real instability at the top of the regime.


TODD (voice-over): North Korea's reckless young dictator turns against one of his closest advisers. General Ri Yong-gil, the chief of the North Korean army's general staff. Said to be executed at the orders of Kim Jong-Un. That's according to a South Korean official with knowledge of North Korean affairs. If this is confirmed, a U.S. official tells CNN it's another example of Kim's extreme brutality. The South Korean official cited three reasons why General Ri might have been executed.

(On camera): Factionalism, misuse of power and corruption. What does that really mean?

GREG SCARLATOIU, THE COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN NORTH KOREA: In this case, most likely, General Ri Yong-gil was purged and executed because something that he did or something that he said was interpreted as being disloyal to the leader. Perhaps he attempted to command too much loyalty from those around him.

TODD (voice-over): South Korean intelligence says Kim has executed at least 80 top officials since coming to power in late 2011. By most counts, that's shockingly more than were executed by his father Kim Jong-Il. With Ri Yong-gil's reported death, experts say three of Kim's last four top army generals have either been killed or disappeared.

JONATHAN POLLACK, BROOKINGS INSTITUTIONS: He leads by intimidation, fear, outright execution. It's just -- it imparts to anyone within the North Korean system that be very, very careful about what you say and do. Don't run afoul of the young Kim.

TODD: One of those top generals who ran afoul, Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol, was reportedly executed with an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of people apparently for pushing back on Kim's orders and nodding off at meetings. Kim's own uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was believed to have been executed for creating his own power base building a side fortune from overseas trading operations. He was called, quote, "despicable human scum." A traitor for the ages after his death.

Analysts say it's not just the purged official who's targeted but sometimes three generations of his family, a practice which might prompt those closest to Kim to turn against him.

SCARLATOIU: Maybe some of those senior officials might start considering alternatives to the Kim Jong-Un regime.


TODD: But Human Rights Monitor Greg Scarlatoiu says any attempt at a coup against Kim would be difficult. Spies are everywhere inside the regime, Scarlatoiu says. And North Korean generals are the most intensely surveilled people in the government -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's amazing when you think about it. It's not always for offenses like treason or corruption that these officials are targeted. What else is going on?

TODD: It can be on almost anything, Wolf. There are published reports that the architect of Pyongyang's new airport was executed simply because Kim didn't like the design of the airport. He sometimes executes people for their religion, their sexuality. Everyone walks on eggshells around this dictator -- Wolf.

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

Coming up, we're counting down to tonight's big Democratic debate. The first face-off between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton since New Hampshire.

And can a big endorsement put Hillary Clinton back on track?

[17:55:03] She just gained the backing of the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus. But Bernie Sanders answers with a big named backer of his own.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Head-to-head, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton about to face off for the first time since his commanding win and her unnerving loss in New Hampshire.

Sanders riding high into their next battles while Clinton struggling to change her fortunes. Will tonight be the night? I'll ask Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon. Palmetto push. The GOP candidates storming South Carolina. Tweaking

their messages ahead of the primary, unleashing on each other and especially against Donald Trump. But we're standing by for a Trump campaign event. We're watching him roll out a new campaign strategy. Will it work?

Truce or dare --