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THE SITUATION ROOM

Cruz Fires Top Staffer Over False Video; Christie Donors Receive Rubio Fund-raising Email; Cruz, Rubio Battling for Second Place; Sanders Attacks Clinton Ahead of S.C. Vote; Military Shake-up in North Korea as Tensions Rise; North Korea Wanted Talks, But Not About Nukes?. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 22, 2016 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:06] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, fake video fallout. Ted Cruz fires his campaign spokesman for spreading a false claim that Marco Rubio had bad-mouthed the Bible. As his two main rivals accuse each other of dirty dealing, Donald Trump looks to be holding all the aces heading into the Nevada caucuses.

Burn rate. Trailing Hillary Clinton badly in the polls before the South Carolina primary, Bernie Sanders goes on the offensive. But with Super Tuesday looming, is he spending his campaign money faster than it's coming up?

And un-willing. Kim Jong-un scuttles secret talks with the U.S. by refusing to discuss his nuclear program as the North Korean leader inspects his war machine. Is there anything left to talk about?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: On the eve of the Nevada caucuses, Donald Trump may have a good reason to feel lucky. After another big win in South Carolina, his stack of chips is growing while his rivals rip each other apart.

Ted Cruz has just fired his campaign spokesman for spreading a false story about Marco Rubio supposedly disparaging the Bible.

Rubio is emerging as the leading mainstream Republican contender, inheriting some of Jeb Bush's big supporters and donors, but right now his nasty battle with Ted Cruz is for second place.

And John Kasich is making it clear he's still going after the GOP's middle ground, although he tripped himself up today with a clumsy comment about women voters. I'll ask him about that. That's coming up next hour.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is going on the attack and spending heavily in a bid to slow Hillary Clinton's momentum. Polls show Clinton with a big lead in South Carolina just ahead of Saturday's primary. And with Super Tuesday following right after that, the heat is on. I'll speak with Senator James Rich. He's a Rubio supporter, and our correspondents, analysts and guests, they'll have full coverage of all the day's top stories. Let's begin with the disarray among Donald Trump's Republican

opponents.

CNN's Jim Acosta is following all the breaking news for us. I guess the key question right now, can anyone, Jim, stop Trump?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is the question, Wolf. Donald Trump looks like a safe bet in tomorrow's GOP caucuses here in Nevada. The latest polls show Trump is way out in front of his main rivals, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz who are at war with each other with a major political casualty to show for it, the resignation of Cruz's top spokesman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Riding high into Nevada, Donald Trump is holding the best hand in the battle for the GOP nomination. For starters, his two main rivals, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, are busy attacking each other.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Every single day something comes out of the Cruz campaign that's deceptive and untrue.

ACOSTA: Rubio began the day demanding that Cruz fire somebody over a video distributed by the Texas senator's campaign that falsely accused the Florida Republican of dismissing the Bible. The video misquotes Rubio as saying about the Bible, "Got a good book there. Not many answers in it." But actually, Rubio says, "All of the answers are in it." A blatant fabrication. Top Cruz spokesman, Rick Tyler, who circulated the video, apologized to Rubio on Facebook for, quote, "posting an inaccurate story about him." But Rubio snapped, "That's not good enough."

RUBIO: At some point there has to be some level of accountability. Otherwise, you're running an operation where you're sending the message to the people that work for you, "Go out and do anything you want. And if you get caught, we'll just apologize, but we'll keep doing it."

ACOSTA: Hours later, Cruz stunned the campaign world saying that he asked for Tyler to step down.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This morning I asked for Rick Tyler's resignation. I had made clear in this campaign that we will conduct this campaign with the very highest standards of integrity.

ACOSTA: The bogus attack on Rubio was the latest incident raising questions about how Cruz has conducted his campaign. Trump seized on the flap, tweeting, "More dirty tricks."

Trump is also getting help in the form of an unforced error from John Kasich, whose awkward remark about the women backing his first state Senate campaign in the late 1970s annoyed one supporter.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We just got an army of people who -- and many women who left their kitchens to go out and go door to door and put yard signs up for me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: First off I want to say your comment earlier about the women came out of the kitchen to support you, I'll come to support you, but I won't be coming out of the kitchen.

KASICH: I gotcha.

ACOSTA: Kasich later explained it was just an off-the-cuff remark.

KASICH: I'm real, and maybe sometimes I might say something that isn't artfully said as it should be.

ACOSTA: Trump, who holds a commanding lead in the delegate count and is poised in the polls to rack up another big victory in Nevada, is boasting his support comes in all shapes and sizes.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So we won with highly- educated, pretty well-educated and poorly-educated, but we won with everything. Tall people, short people, fat people, skinny people, just won.

ACOSTA: But Rubio, who spent part of his childhood in Nevada and his supporters are getting aggressive. The pro-Rubio super PAC started airing this new attack ad, pounding Trump and Cruz.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump, erratic, unreliable. Cruz, calculated, underhanded.

ACOSTA: And Rubio is attracting more establishment support, picking up new GOP endorsements.

TIM PAWLENTY (R), FORMER MINNESOTA GOVERNOR: This is a three-way race. At the moment, as a practical matter, it's between Rubio, Cruz and Trump. There's some others in the race, but I don't think they're going to be in the race that much longer.

ACOSTA: Some in the court want Kasich to drop out to funnel his support to Rubio. Kasich laughed off that idea.

KASICH: I think it's funny. I think it's funny. I think it's ridiculous.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, Rubio is touting a slew of new endorsements he picked up today from Bob Dole to Jeff Flake and Orrin Hatch. As for the Trump campaign, it is confident about its chances in Nevada, but this is a caucus state, Wolf. They remember what happened last time, and as for those endorsements and Rubio, it's about delegates at this point, not endorsements.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta. Thanks very much.

I want to dig deeper into the troubles that forced Ted Cruz to dump one of his campaign's top staffers today. CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is following Senator Cruz for us in Nevada. Senator Cruz says this is all about maintaining high standards. What

else is going on over there?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Senator Cruz moved very, very quickly on this. It's very clear that he wanted to get out front of this and to send the message that his campaign has zero tolerance when it comes to people spreading lies and falsehoods.

Senator Cruz spent the morning investigating this personally himself, and after that is when he decided to call for Rick Tyler, his communications director's resignation. Here's more of what he said at this remarkable press conference here moments ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRUZ: If other candidates choose to go into the gutter, we will not do the same. Rick Tyler is a good man. This was a grave error of judgment. It turned out the news story he sent around was false. But I'll tell you, even if it was true, we are not a campaign that is going to question the faith of another candidate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: Now, the Rubio campaign has already responded to Senator Cruz. Alex Conant, he spokesman for Rubio says in a statement, quote, "Rick is a really good spokesman who had the unenviable task of working for a candidate willing to do or say anything to get elected. There's a culture from top to bottom in the Cruz campaign that no lie is too big and no trick too dirty. Rick did the right thing for apologizing to Marco. It's high time for Ted Cruz to do the right thing and stop these lies."

Wolf, I was really struck by how short of a life span this controversy had. It was only about 24 hours. Rick Tyler posted his first apology late last night overnight. And I do think that this speaks to sort of the sensitivity and the nervousness within the Cruz campaign right now about this narrative that's growing around their campaign, that their campaign is one of lies -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Sunlen, for that report.

Joining us now here in THE SITUATION ROOM, Republican Senator James Risch of Idaho. He has endorsed Senator Rubio for president of the United States. Senator Risch, thanks very much for coming in.

What's your reaction to the decision to fire the campaign spokesman on the Cruz side?

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R), IDAHO: Rick Tyler wasn't the problem. Isn't the problem. This thing has gone on for some time.

Look, I was there in Iowa on the ground when the rumors started flying that Ben Carson was going to drop out, and people should consolidate with Cruz. I was astonished. I asked him, "Where is this coming from?" They said it was coming from the Cruz campaign. So it started then, and then there was this apology that came out. Then, of course, you had the Photoshopped picture of Marco Rubio

shaking hands with President Obama, with their left hands and heads placed on the wrong thing. Then along comes -- this is a cultural problem within this campaign. And it's not just good enough to say, "OK, well, we're going to fire one guy. Everything is fine. Everybody forget about what happened."

You can't forget about what happened. This is something that, if a person is going to be president of the United States, they're going to have to run a campaign that is credible and that is honest.

BLITZER: So the buck stops with Senator Cruz, you're saying, not Rick Tyler, who was fired?

RISCH: Always.

BLITZER: And he personally, do you believe, knew about these -- the phony Photoshop ad, the phone calls, the robo calls, and this latest development suggesting that Marco Rubio is not a Bible-loving Christian, if you will?

RISCH: Well, you don't know what he knew. All I know is that campaign has consistently put out falsehoods that -- that are not good. So who's responsible? Always the person at the top.

BLITZER: Rubio said of the Cruz campaign, it's willing to say or do anything in order to win. Donald Trump immediately tweeted out, "Ted Cruz has been playing an ad about me that is so ridiculously false, no basis in fact. Take ad down, Ted. Biggest liar in politics."

Do you believe Ted Cruz is the biggest liar in politics?

RISCH: Look, Wolf, I don't want to -- I don't want to go there with you on that, but I can tell you this. This campaign has been full of falsehoods, starting when I was there on the ground in Iowa. And it's disgusting, really.

BLITZER: You're a member of the Senate.

RISCH: I am.

BLITZER: Cruz is a senator. Rubio is a senator. What's the difference between Rubio and Cruz, as a fellow senator, from your -- I know you like Rubio.

RISCH: You know, that's a really good question, Wolf. And I'll tell you how you judge this. There are several senators who are supporting Marco Rubio, including myself, the most conservative, including Orrin Hatch, the most senior member on our side, and including a bulk of what I call the young discontents, the recent people who have come in. Great senators.

All of those people are supporting Marco Rubio. They know him; they work with him. Just like myself that have spent hundreds of hours with Marco Rubio, working on intelligence matters. Not one senator is supporting Ted Cruz. BLITZER: Why?

RISCH: I think that we'll let the people who are watching this make their own judgment.

BLITZER: You tell me what you think. I mean, you've worked with Cruz. Why -- none of his colleagues like him, apparently.

RISCH: There is no comparison between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Marco Rubio is a guy that, when I met him, I said, you know, this is -- there's something unique about this person, something that -- where he carries the right stuff. This is a man who can be president of the United States and should be president of the United States.

BLITZER: You like Marco Rubio, obviously, even though he's only 44 years old. Is that too young? Some people say -- some Republicans say the American people elected a first-term mid-40 president seven years ago. That would be President Obama, and they don't think the country needs another first-term senator.

RISCH: Well, you know, the remarkable thing about that is the fact that he and Ted Cruz are essentially the same age. Nobody ever says this about...

BLITZER: Ted Cruz is 45 -- a little bit older, a few months older than Marco Rubio.

RISCH: A few months. Marco Rubio always says he feels like he's 45. So -- but in any event, as Marco Rubio has pointed out on a number of occasions, it isn't the age. Excuse me, it isn't necessarily the age. Barack Obama is no better today than he was seven years ago when he took office. It is the individual. It is the experience they have. It is the judgment that they have.

Marco -- Marco Rubio has had an outstanding career. You recall it started with the establishment not wanting him to run for the United States Senate, and yet he beat an incumbent governor.

BLITZER: I just want to be precise. As far as I know, not one U.S. Senator has endorsed Cruz, but do you have any other information? Has one U.S. Senator endorsed Cruz?

RISCH: None, zero. And I suspect that it's going to stay that way.

BLITZER: Why do you think that?

RISCH: Again, it's the comparison between the two. There is a -- there is a vast difference between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. It's no different than in your church or somewhere else, where people are looking for a leader, people are looking for someone that they want to be in charge of things. People coalesce -- peers coalesce around someone, based upon their experience and their knowledge.

BLITZER: We have more to discuss but very quickly, he did the right thing, Cruz, in firing Rick Tyler, do you believe that?

RISCH: Clearly. But again, this goes way back. This is too little too late. This is a culture that's developed in this campaign.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Senator. We've got more to discuss. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:18:03] BLITZER: We're following the breaking political news in the race for the White House. Senator Ted Cruz has fired one of his campaign's top staffers earlier today for distributing a video that falsely depicts Senator Marco Rubio of dismissing the Bible. Cruz says it's about maintaining the very highest standards and integrity for his campaign, but the news brought a new flurry of tweets from Donald Trump denouncing Cruz as a world-class liar.

We're back with the Republican senator, James Risch, who has endorsed Marco Rubio. Assuming, Marco, you like Rubio, but let's say Rubio can't get it. Who would be a better Republican nominee, Trump or Cruz?

RISCH: I'm not going to take that. I'm not going to take that. I can't answer that question. I don't know.

BLITZER: Who's more qualified to be commander in chief?

RISCH: I can't answer that. Marco Rubio clearly. And not by a little bit but by a long shot.

Look, I've spent hundreds of hours with this guy, working on national security issues, fighting with the administration, working with the administration to craft policy on national security issues, on foreign relations issues. The other two guys aren't even close to where Rubio is.

BLITZER: He's doing amazingly well. You've got to admit.

RISCH: He is. There's no question about that.

BLITZER: If he gets the nomination, you'll support him, right?

RISCH: Well, if -- I have always voted for Republicans, so I will vote for Republicans from now probably until I die.

BLITZER: So if it's Trump versus Hillary Clinton, you would vote for...

RISCH: I will vote for Republicans.

BLITZER: Donald Trump. It's hard for you to utter those words.

RISCH: Well, look, this fight has got a long ways to go.

BLITZER: Not necessarily. If he does really well, Trump, on Super Tuesday, then March 8, March 15. This thing could close up pretty quickly.

RISCH: Wolf, you and I have been doing this a long time. I've been 34 years in this business. I've never seen anything like this. This is very, very different from what we've seen before.

BLITZER: Because in the past, whatever Republican candidate won in New Hampshire, then won South Carolina, that Republican candidate gets the nomination.

RISCH: And I think something that Trump supporters are saying is legitimate, and that is what's all this about? If it was anybody other than Donald Trump, this thing would be over. The coronation would be on, but it's not.

BLITZER: We'd be talking about the vice-presidential running mate.

[17:20:03] RISCH: But it's not. They're not measuring the drapes. The media like yourself and the -- and his supporters are not doing that. They're also not talking about the running mate, the others on the side. This is a for-real race. It's a three-person race from here on. And it's going to be a knock-down, drag-out race as we go forward.

BLITZER: Let me shift gears dramatically for a moment while I have you here.

RISCH: Sure. Absolutely.

BLITZER: You're on the intelligence committee. The ceasefire that was announced today by the secretary of state, the Russians, is it going to work? Is it going to end the fighting in Syria? Because over the past four years, hundreds of thousands of people have died in that civil war. Millions have been displaced and made into refugees.

RISCH: Well, the simple answer to your question is no. This was an agreement between Russia and the United States. Russia has accomplished it. It's gold. They came in there to prop up the Assad regime, to diminish the people who we supported. That is the rebels who are trying to undo it. They've gotten what they wanted. So now they've sat down in the United States and said, "OK, we're going to have a ceasefire."

ISIS wasn't at the table. Al Nusra wasn't at the table. Al Qaeda wasn't at the table, and they are the most vicious fighters. They are doing horrible things. They're going to go on. I mean, there's nobody talking about that ending.

So you know, it's fine to talk about Russia and the United States, but -- but identify it for what it is.

BLITZER: So what you're saying is the cease-fire effectively has solidified the Russian, the Iranian support for the Bashar al-Assad regime, and it's going to stay in power?

RISCH: Absolutely clearly. You couldn't have said it better.

BLITZER: James Risch, the senator from Idaho, thanks very much for coming in.

Stand by. We're getting some breaking news about the Marco Rubio campaign working behind the scenes to get more Republicans to join in. We'll update you on that when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:26:14] BLITZER: More breaking news in the presidential race. We're getting new details about how Marco Rubio's campaign is trying to unite establishment Republicans and get them behind his campaign.

Our special correspondent, Jamie Gangel, has been working her sources. She's joining us now with new information. What are you learning, Jamie?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, apparently, all is fair in love, war and political fund-raising. Marco Rubio has put out a new fundraising letter, but if you look at the very bottom, it says it was sent by Chris Christie. This is because Chris Christie, who has not endorsed Rubio, has sold him his fundraising list. So you have to look very closely at the fine print, but he's going after Christie's people.

BLITZER: We're showing the e-mail on screen right now. It's -- so what you're saying is that they basically sold their fundraising list to the Rubio campaign. Is that what you're saying?

GANGEL: Right. This is done all the time. It was done for money. Chris Christie, I am told, is nowhere near ready to endorse Marco Rubio. He is still very angry. About those negative ads that Rubio ran in early January. But -- and he's also friends with Kasich and friends with Trump, so this is not an endorsement, but it was sold.

BLITZER: Jeb Bush dropped out, as we all know. His supporters, his money, his endorsement. What are you hearing about that?

GANGEL: The scramble for his donors is quite remarkable. And some people immediately have gone to Rubio. Others are taking their time. Some are considering Kasich and others.

But what's interesting is a lot of them are calling each other, trying to find out what are you going to do, what are you going to do? Because Jeb has not given a signal yet about what he's going to do. And many of these donors are long-time Bush donors. They're very loyal to the family from Bush 41, Bush 43, so they're sitting on the sidelines waiting to see if there's a signal from the campaign.

BLITZER: If there's a signal from Jeb Bush or George W. Bush or Barbara Bush or one of the -- one member of the Bush family. David Swerdlick is with us, as our own chief political correspondent, Dana Bash. What are you hearing about all of this, the possibility that some of the Jeb Bush team could eventually go towards Marco Rubio or maybe some of the other Republican candidates?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, exactly what Jamie was -- is hearing, and that is that there already are some who are going onto team Rubio, but there is a -- it's going to take a little while for some of these wounds to heal, because a lot of people who loved Jeb Bush, who loved the Bush family are still smarting about the fact that Marco Rubio ran in the first place, because they thought he should wait his turn.

He's younger and that he should respect his mentor. But I just want to say that your reporting on the Chris Christie selling his fundraising list to Marco Rubio is -- when you take a step back and remember the two of them going at it, I mean, it's kind of unbelievable. People out there are cynical about politics, there's a good example of why, right? That Chris Christie, who clearly was so annoyed with Marco Rubio that he tried to take him out in the last debate that Chris Christie participated in, it's kind of remarkable.

BLITZER: Yes. And he really hurt him in New Hampshire, as we all know where he came in fifth in New Hampshire, in part because of that misstep during the debate. But a lot of the Jeb Bush supporters, David, I assume you'll agree, eventually will probably feel most comfortable with a fellow Floridian, the junior senator.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "WASHINGTON POST": A fellow Floridian and a fellow member of the establishment. And to my mine, frankly, the fact that Bush got out of the race when he did is a de facto endorsement of Rubio because Rubio had the most to gain. Even though it's not a -- even though it's not a statement of endorsement and even though there is this, as Dana says, this bad blood between the campaigns, he basically is helping Rubio the most by removing himself.

[17:30:11] BLITZER: Dana, we heard from Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader. He was on television today, saying he could work with Donald Trump if he were the Republican nominee. Are more establishment Republican leaders beginning to assume that Donald Trump might, in fact, get the Republican nomination?

BASH: I just spoke to Kevin McCarthy to try to see exactly what he meant by that, and he said that his point was simply that he can work with anybody. Not that he was saying that he necessarily wants Trump to be the nominee.

What I read from that, and he said -- insisted this wasn't what he was suggesting but certainly other Republicans in the House and Senate have said this, is they certainly would rather have Donald Trump than Ted Cruz, because they don't think that he -- A, they don't think he's somebody that they would like to work with, but more importantly they don't think he's somebody that could appeal broadly enough that he can actually win the White House.

BLITZER: I'm going to be speaking soon with John Kasich, the Ohio governor who's a Republican presidential candidate. You're hearing new information about him, as well.

GANGEL: So right before we came on the air, just as Dana was saying, I spoke to a major GOP bundler, who says there is panic about Donald Trump. Everyone finally seems to have their heads wrapped around the fact that Donald Trump could be the nominee, and as a result, they say -- and this was from someone connected to the Bush family.

So this is not Rubio, that they are actually going to make an effort. They're going out to speak to Kasich to see whether they can pressure him.

BLITZER: Pressure him to do what?

GANGEL: To get out.

BLITZER: To drop out?

GANGEL: And to get behind Rubio. I reached out to the Kasich campaign. They said, "Ha! No!" That was the quote.

BLITZER: Yes. He was laughing. We saw him on tape a little while ago. I'll ask about that when I speak with him live. That's coming up soon. But he presumably wants to stay in, at least until Ohio and Michigan, some of these Midwestern states where he believes he can do well. He did well in New Hampshire, came in second.

SWERDLICK: Right. He's got a second-place finish to show and some Midwestern states coming up, as you say, Wolf. But I think, right, as long as Kasich stays in, that's actually probably helping Donald Trump.

And if you look at what Trump was able to do in South Carolina, right, it wasn't that people voted for him because he was conservative. It wasn't because he was so much in line with their values. It was because people felt like he was the most forceful Republican candidate. And right now the establishment Republicans aren't sure what to do with that information, I don't think.

BLITZER: Donald Trump -- Rudy Giuliani, all of a sudden, his name has surfaced, as well, some suggestions that maybe he's consulting or helping a little bit Donald Trump. What, if anything, are you hearing about that?

GANGEL: I think that this is a fascinating story, because what it says is that Rudy Giuliani is advising Trump, that he went to meet with him a couple of times. I think the question now is are other people doing that? Is Trump beginning to understand that he needs to put together a kitchen cabinet, some more establishment people who have been around the block before? And not only is he going to put them together, is he going to listen to them?

BLITZER: What are you hearing about that?

BASH: Well, or the flip side of what you just said, which is are more people who would never have dreamed that they would at all advise, never mind support a Trump Republican candidacy, are realizing if that ship is sailing, we better make sure that it's got all the proper gear on it, right?

So I do think, though, that unclear how specific the advising is, because Rudy Giuliani does have experience in presidential politics, didn't go so well, so maybe just generally about what it's like to be a politician.

BLITZER: As Trump has said, he's putting together a national security team of advisers. BASH: Right.

BLITZER: Maybe he'll be on that list. We'll see.

BASH: That would make more sense.

BLITZER: We've invited -- we invited Rudy Giuliani to join us. Hopefully, he'll be joining us during the next few days. We can discuss all of this.

Were you surprised that Rick Tyler, the top campaign spokesman for Senator Cruz's campaign, was dumped today by Senator Cruz?

SWERDLICK: No, I wasn't, for the reasons that Sunlen gave in the report earlier. And that was that there's this narrative building now about Cruz and his, quote unquote, "dirty tricks." So, you know, if this had been the first instance where people were accusing him of something like this, he probably could have apologized, and the campaign probably could have salvaged him. But with the issues that came up in Iowa with Dr. Carson, with some of the other things that happened in South Carolina, I just feel like it was probably strategically impossible not to.

BLITZER: Cruz won in Iowa. He's the only one, as he keeps pointing out, that has beaten Donald Trump so far. Didn't do great in New Hampshire. In South Carolina he came in third, just behind Marco Rubio. He's got to get some wins, though.

BASH: He does. They all do. Ted Cruz has to get some wins. The next big primary day, March 1, that is going to be so, so, so key for Ted Cruz, because it's a lot of southern states. He has been campaigning hard there. He was there in August, when everybody was looking at him, saying, "What are you doing in these -- in Tennessee and states like that?" That's the reason why. He was trying to build a long-term insurance policy. And now it's time for him to try to get it to pay off, and that's clear (ph).

[17:35:20] BLITZER: Your assumption is tomorrow night in the Republican caucuses in Nevada, Trump is going to win that, as well, right?

BASH: That is the assumption right now. But -- you know, we assume that's going to happen.

BLITZER: These are caucuses.

BASH: The caucuses are unpredictable, but I will say the same thing goes for Marco Rubio. He hasn't won anything yet. At least Ted Cruz has won something. Marco Rubio hasn't won anything yet.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. We have more to assess.

An important programming note for all of our viewers: 8:30 p.m. Eastern Thursday night, the five remaining Republican candidates will meet head to head in the next GOP presidential debate. I'll be moderating that debate from Houston, Texas, only here on CNN, 8:30 p.m. Thursday night.

Coming up, Bernie Sanders goes on the offensive against Hillary Clinton, trailing badly in the South Carolina polls and with Super Tuesday just around the corner. Can he slow her momentum?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:40:44] BLITZER: Let's turn now to the Democratic race for the White House. After a loss in Nevada and trailing badly in South Carolina polls, Bernie Sanders is stepping up his attacks today on Hillary Clinton.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is following the Democrats. Joe, can Sanders slow Clinton's momentum ahead of Super Tuesday?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at U. Mass Amherst tonight, waiting for Bernie Sanders to make his appearance. Look, his campaign is showing it's got a lot of life left in it after that loss in Nevada.

He's ramped up the rhetoric today, added multiple stops to his campaign schedule, and he's also hitting Hillary Clinton for appropriating many of his ideas on the campaign trail.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bernie, Bernie, Bernie!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bernie, Bernie, Bernie!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bernie, Bernie, Bernie!

JOHNS (voice-over): Bernie Sanders is going on offense today after his loss to Hillary Clinton in Nevada.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What the American people have got to determine is which candidate, whose life work is about standing up to the billionaire class, standing up to Wall Street, standing up to corporate interests and who does not?

JOHNS: And tweeting about the lack of transcripts for Clinton's paid speeches: "It's been 17 days, 6 hours and 32 minutes since @Hillary Clinton said she would look into releasing her paid speeches to Wall Street."

He spent the weekend in South Carolina, even stopping by a fried chicken dinner after church to court a key demographic, African- American voters.

SANDERS: I'm here to ask for your help, to help lead this country in the political revolution.

JOHNS: But Clinton is riding high after her weekend win.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Some may have doubted us, but we never doubted each other; and this one's for you.

JOHNS: polling shows Clinton has the advantage in South Carolina, in part thanks to her strong showing among African-American voters there.

MORGAN FREEMAN, ACTOR: She says their names, Trayvon Martin...

CLINTON: Trayvon Martin.

JOHNS: She's out with a new ad voiced by Morgan Freeman that invokes Trayvon Martin and the Flint water crisis.

FREEMAN: She speaks for a city poisoned by indifference.

CLINTON: We need action now.

JOHNS: And the battle between the two candidates is sharpening. Clinton hit Sanders hard over the weekend for overpromising.

CLINTON: You shouldn't say that unless you can really deliver it. If the numbers don't add up, it's wrong to make those promises.

JOHNS: And Sanders accused Clinton of copying his message.

SANDERS: I think our message is resonating, and obviously, the proof of that is that Hillary Clinton is more or less echoing much of what we are saying. I think that indicates the success that we are having.

JOHNS: Even with her Nevada win, Clinton still faces doubts about her trustworthiness from some voters.

CLINTON: I understand that voters have questions. I'm going to do my very best to answer those questions. I think there's an underlying question that maybe is really in the back of people's minds, and that is, you know, "Is she in it for us, or is she in it for herself?" I think that's, you know, a question people are trying to sort through.

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JOHNS: The latest disclosures show what we already knew, that Bernie Sanders is raising a lot of money, but he's also spending a lot of money, as well, bringing in, in January, around $21 million, spending about $35 million. That is what you might call a very high burn rate for the Bern -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Joe, thanks very much. Joe Johns reporting for us.

The two Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, will come face to face with the voters of South Carolina for the final time right here on CNN tomorrow night. The final time before the next contest. The Democratic town hall moderated by our own Chris Cuomo, live from Columbia, South Carolina, 8 p.m. Eastern tomorrow night, only here on CNN.

Coming up, Donald Trump is holding the best cards on the eve of the Nevada primary as his main rivals accuse each other of dirty dealing. It's a caucus out in Nevada, I should point out. Can anyone stop the front-runner?

And it's a job that's more likely to end with a firing squad than a pink slip. Kim Jong-un has a new army chief, but for how long? A military shakeup in North Korea. We'll update you.

[17:45:00]

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BLITZER: North Korea gets a new army chief, but there's not much job security in that position. And it could end with a firing squad instead of a pink slip.

CNN's Brian Todd has been looking into all of this for us.

Brian, what are you hearing about the latest shake-up by Kim Jong-Un?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A lot of goings on there, Wolf. Take a look at this. This is the front page of what's called "Rodong Sinmun," North Korea's ruling party's top newspaper. It is announcing that this man, that man, General Ri Myong-su, he just got a big promotion and is one of the most powerful people in the country. The problem is he's working for a vicious young dictator who has already taken out several top generals before him. And tonight North Korea's ruling elites are as nervous as ever.

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[17:50:07] TODD (voice-over): Kim Jong-Un pays a, quote, "surprise visit" to his air force. Looks confident in a Fedora as he inspects the combat readiness of his fighter pilots. The man sitting next to him has just been promoted to one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. He's Ri Myong-su, the new chief of the North Korean Army's general staff.

During Kim Jong-Un's bloody high-stakes military shake-up, three of the past four top generals before General Ri are believed to have been executed or disappeared.

MICHAEL GREEN, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: It starts to look a bit like ancient Rome in the era of Caligula or other authoritarian regimes where getting these top jobs is almost a death sentence.

TODD: One of General Ri's predecessors, Hyon Yong-chol, was reportedly executed by being blown apart with an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of people. His apparent infractions, pushing back on Kim's orders and falling asleep at meetings. Analysts say for the impulsive, violent young leader, General Ri may be a safe choice. He's in his 80s, started his career in the Korean War, he was a close confidante of Kim's father, Kim Jong-Il, and appeared with the father so many times he's actually on a North Korean postage stamp.

But even the trusted General Ri has run afoul of the young Kim.

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN": He has been disappeared on occasion as have many other leaders but the point is, because he's so old, he probably doesn't have the ambition to take over the army.

TODD: A steady, nonthreatening hand right under Kim could even be a stabilizing influence at a time when tensions along the DMZ are feverishly high. Within just six and a half weeks, North Korea tested a nuclear bomb, test fired a long-range rocket. South Korea shut down the lucrative Kaesong industrial complex the two nations share.

American stealth fighter jets flew low over South Korea and now North Korea's leading party newspaper calls South Korean President Park Geun-Hye a, quote, "tailless, crazy old female dog." One senior U.S. official who tracks North Korea closely tells CNN it's worth watching North Korea's elites to see how unsettled they may be by Kim's behavior and if it gets to the point where they fear for their own safety and mount a challenge to him.

GREEN: When you change the chief of the North Korean People's Army, that coercive instrument of the North Korean state with this rapidity, something is wrong in Pyongyang.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now analysts we spoke to say if Kim is challenged internally, it could take two possible paths. Maybe the army is simply able to diminish his power, keep him there as a figure head to preserve the Kim family blood line which is so very important to North Korea's stability, or possibly one top general becomes so fearful for his own safety that he takes matters into his own hands and assassinates Kim himself. An increasingly likely possibility given the incredibly bloody purge of all these top generals -- Wolf.

BLITZER: You're also hearing that an organized coup by several top generals would be unlikely. Why?

TODD: Experts are telling us, Wolf, North Korean generals are the most surveilled top officials in the country. They are constantly followed, videotaped, wiretapped. If one of them talks with another about a coup, he'd be busted instantly. Other top officials are fearful as well. We're told the diplomats, when they leave the country, their families are basically held hostage until they return.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you.

Let's bring in our global affairs correspondent in, Elise Labott.

Elise, we're learning about some of the efforts by U.S. in North Korea potentially to start some sort of dialogue, peace talks. What are you hearing?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: Well, Wolf, this goes back to October when South Korean President Park was here meeting with President Obama. President Obama was asked at a press conference why he wouldn't be willing to give North Korea a deal along the line what the U.S. had with Iran, that nuclear deal. And President Obama said, you know, actually, we would be willing to have such nuclear discussions, possibly leading to a deal and other things, but the North Koreans had shown no interest in that. And the very next day, the North Koreans went on state television,

said, you know, these nuclear talks have failed, the only thing we can do is have negotiations on a formal peace treaty which would end the Korean War. You know, right now they are operating under this armistice from 1953 and they said that's all we'd be willing to discuss.

And a couple of days later they went to the U.S., passed the same message through diplomatic channels and after a lot of consideration within the administration the U.S. came back and said, listen, we would be willing to talk about a peace treaty and all other things. Aid, security guarantees for Kim Jong-Un, but only if you're willing to talk about the nuclear subject as well. And the North Koreans said, no. They're not even willing to broach the nuclear issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As a result, there's limited, if any, hope that some sort of dialogue talks between the U.S. and North Korea which have happened in the past could be resumed?

LABOTT: Well, you know, the U.S. still says it's ready to talk. And let's face it. You know, after that nuclear test that North Korea took last month, the Obama administration was really criticized for not giving -- offering a similar nuclear deal like it had with Iran which seems to have some success.

[17:55:06] And here they did do that. And this is actually a concession for the U.S. You know, when President Obama took office, he was originally looking for North Korea to actually take steps before having peace talks. Now they are saying they would be willing. But North Korea doesn't even want to broach the nuclear issue. So until they are willing to meet the U.S. halfway I think we're going to see a lot more confrontation and a lot more provocations in North Korea.

BLITZER: Most of the experts I've gone to, North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear program, its nuclear arsenal.

LABOTT: No.

BLITZER: They think that's the only thing that basically prevents South Korea or Japan or the U.S. from moving in.

LABOTT: Right.

BLITZER: So I wouldn't hold my breath for that.

LABOTT: Me neither.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Elise, for that report.

Coming up, as his two main rivals accused each other of dirty dealing, Donald Trump looks to be holding all the aces right now as they all head to the Nevada caucuses.

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