Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Supreme Showdown; Clinton Momentum; Trump Wins; Rubio, Cruz Targeting Trump Ahead of Debate; Clinton Favored in S.C., Sanders Looks to Super Tuesday; Source: GOP Governor Vetted for Supreme Court Spot; U.S. Skeptical of Russia As Syria Ceasefire Nears. Aired 6-7p ETp ET

Aired February 24, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:01]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Can Cruz repeat his Iowa victory in his home state of Texas, and can Rubio win anywhere?

Supreme showdown. President Obama taking on a new tone in his standoff with Senate Republicans over a Supreme Court nomination. Now we're learning a GOP governor is on the president's short list to fill the vacant seat. Will Obama try to force the Senate's hand?

Fighting ISIS? Terrorist forces fair game under a cease-fire about to take effect in Syria, but the U.S. is increasingly skeptical of Russia's intentions as it reshapes the battlefield ahead of the truce. Does the U.S. have a plan B should the cease-fire crumble?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is on assignment preparing for Thursday night's Republican presidential debate.

I'm Brianna Keilar. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And we are counting down to the next battle between the dwindling field of GOP candidates. The CNN Republican presidential debate right here in Houston tomorrow night, it will be taking place behind me here.

Donald Trump will once again be center stage, his lead now stronger than ever after his commanding win of the Nevada caucuses. The GOP front-runner sounding more certain than ever of winning his party's nomination, now talking about what he is looking for in a vice presidential running mate.

And now his wife, Melania, taking on a more public position, speaking out about her husband and her role in his campaign and defending some of his most controversial policy plans.

We're covering all of that and more this hour with our guests, our correspondents, and our expert analysts who are all standing by for us.

Let's begin now with CNN's Phil Mattingly. He has the latest on the GOP race. So, Phil, Trump's momentum stronger than ever now, after overwhelming -- after his really overwhelming win in Nevada.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Brianna.

He's going into tomorrow night's debate in Houston bordering on the prohibitive favorite. And that has set off a scramble not just among donors or supporters, but also the candidates themselves.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Tonight, Donald Trump on a victory lap.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We polled fine, and we really won big last night.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MATTINGLY: An air of inevitability starting to set in for the Republican field. For Donald Trump, winner of three straight contests, a to-do list for his first day in office.

D. TRUMP: The first thing I would do is knock out some of the executive orders signed by our president, especially the one on the border. I'm going to work out immediately to knock out Obamacare and we're going to start taking care of the vets and our military.

MATTINGLY: And his wife, Melania, stepping on to the public stage and offering this about her role in the front-runner's campaign.

MELANIA TRUMP, WIFE OF DONALD TRUMP: I'm on the phone with my husband a few times a day. He calls me. I call him. I tell him what is going on. He's on the road. And I give him my opinion.

MATTINGLY: For other Republican candidates, a furious sprint to forestall a Trump nomination, Texas Senator Ted Cruz picking up the endorsement of his home state governor, Greg Abbott, just days away from the crucial Texas primary.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We got six days, six days to lead in Texas, to lead the country, so let's get to work.

MATTINGLY: Florida Senator Marco Rubio, big-name endorsements and big donors flocking his way, trying to convince all that there are states he can win.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm going to tell people who I am and why I'm running and I'm going to give them a choice. If they elect me, they are going to have someone that unifies this party, grows this party, governs this country responsibly.

MATTINGLY: And Ohio Governor John Kasich campaigning today in Mississippi and Louisiana.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's really not what the score is at the first quarter. It's what the score is at the end of the game.

MATTINGLY: While also setting his sights squarely on other March contests in Michigan and in his home state of Ohio, vital to his hopes for survival.

Now each candidate is mapping out a crucial week ahead in the lead-up to Super Tuesday, Trump starting in Virginia today, then moving on to a swing through the Deep South, Rubio and Cruz targeting their own must-win states.

RUBIO: I didn't just become a conservative like a year-and-a-half ago when I thought about running for president. I'm as conservative as anyone in this race.

CRUZ: The only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump and the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump is this campaign.

MATTINGLY: Amid new suggestions the race might already be over.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY: Now, Brianna, the reality is there is still an opening for another candidate to walk through. You have Super Tuesday, 25 percent of the delegates available for Republicans are up for grabs.

Then you move on a couple weeks into winner-take-all states like Ohio, say, Governor John Kasich or Florida, say, Senator Marco Rubio, but something has to change in the current dynamic for anybody else to step out. Brianna, as you know as well as anybody, as long as four other candidates are fighting for that slot to fight Donald Trump one on one, there are big problems for the rest of the field.

[18:05:03]

KEILAR: Yes, there certainly are. Phil Mattingly for us, thank you so.

And the Super Tuesday stakes are especially high for Ted Cruz. He desperately needs to win his home state and its trove of delegates.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is here in Houston.

And, Sunlen, this battle for Texas is on.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is, Brianna.

And Senator Ted Cruz really is doing absolutely nothing to tamp down expectations, even though it is going to be a very tough slog for him over the next six days. The stakes for him are so high. And I think that's really why we have seen him ratchet up the rhetoric and kind of claiming how pivotal a week it is. He says this will be the most important day of the entire election in reference to Super Tuesday.

The Cruz campaign of course rolling out that big and key endorsement here in Texas of the governor, Governor Abbott. His endorsement goes a long way here on the ground. This state is rich with delegates, something that Senator Cruz noted earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Texas has 155 delegates. It is the crown jewel of Super Tuesday. Texas has alone almost 15 percent of the delegates you need to be the Republican nominee. And as the men and women know here, Texas has a history of standing and leading the fight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: And Cruz had something of a combative press conference with reporters here earlier today, peppered with questions over what his path forward is if he doesn't do well on Super Tuesday. Here's how he responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CRUZ: I believe we're going to do well.

QUESTION: Better than 50 percent?

CRUZ: I believe we're going to do well. That is going to be up to the voters. I would note, I'm curious how many reporters asked Marco Rubio after losing four states in a row, so when do you drop out when you haven't won a state? To win, you have got to win states. You have got to win delegates.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SERFATY: It can't be overstated again how much the Cruz campaign strategy really does hinge on the outcome of Tuesday. Senator Cruz says he will campaign hard, he will campaign aggressively going forward -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Sunlen Serfaty, thanks so much.

I do want to talk about all of this with now Scottie Hughes. She's a Tea Party activist and a key Donald Trump supporter.

Scottie, thanks for being with us, and certainly a great day for you and all of those supporting Donald Trump. He's coming off of three big wins now.

Does he have a target on his back? What does he need to do to be prepared for tomorrow's debate with that in mind, perhaps?

SCOTTIE HUGHES, USA RADIO NETWORKS: I think he's always had a target on his back. And the more you have, the more you have to lose.

But going into tomorrow night, I kind of compare him to kind of Secretariat. He's in that final stretch of this run. And if he just puts his blinders on and focuses on the questions from Wolf Blitzer, ignore all the riffraff that are coming from the other campaigns. Focus on Wolf, focus on the audience and, more important, focus on the American people. I guarantee we are going to continue to see the real Mr. Trump who we

see in these town halls like the one that we saw with Anderson Cooper a couple weeks ago, the one we saw today that saw with Pat Robertson and CBN, the kind of town halls that make people fall in love with who they want to have as a president of the United States.

KEILAR: But what does he do if Ted Cruz continues on stage with some of the attacks that he's had on Donald Trump, on his Christian values, on his record on abortion, supporting abortion rights? How does Trump plan to fight back on that?

HUGHES: It's real simple. You rise above. You go diplomatic.

Not to quote Scripture, but you shall know a man by his fruits. And if you look at his fruits, personally, he has five very accomplished, very respectful children who are out there on the campaign trail working for him. Professionally, we know this election is coming down to jobs. And, currently, the Trump Organization employs 22,000-plus employees, gives them health benefits, gives chances for people to go to school and have education.

And those kind of points right there is better than any billboard or any slick commercial or any painful attack that they try to hurl at him. That is exactly why his message is resonating with the American people, because his actions speak louder than his words, unlike some of the other candidates who are up there on the stage.

KEILAR: But, Scottie, something you said really sticks out to me. You said that he should be diplomatic. And it sort of strikes me that I don't know if -- this is what Donald Trump prides himself on, right, like not even having a diplomatic bone in his body. Do you really think he's going to go that direction?

HUGHES: I think he's said, at the different points of the campaign, obviously, when you have 17 people on a stage like we started off with, you have to find a way to grab the attention, to grab all the headlines.

Now that we're narrowing it down to more of the serious folks, we have seen him at different points in different debates in the past where he's risen above the fray. We sat there and watched the children squabble between Rubio and Cruz sitting there knocking each other out on their Senate records., Chris Christie, Jeb Bush. All of them at some point have had some sort of temper tantrum, and Mr. Trump has just sat there and smiled or kind of rolled his eyes and stayed above it and answered his questions back to the American people.

[18:10:14]

I think the slower -- the closer we get down to that final nominee, he knows his job now is to unify the GOP and the American people behind him as they start to get ready to go against the Democratic Party.

KEILAR: I want to ask you about a Donald Trump in a general election, because I do think it's worth talking about, now that he has put these string of wins together here. I have talked to a lot of establishment Republicans who say they'd actually plan on staying home and not voting for Donald Trump, not voting at all if he were to be the nominee. And so that would mean that he'd need to get some support, perhaps even across the aisle, perhaps sort of in the middle of the political spectrum.

How does he moderate in a general election environment to pull in that kind of support?

HUGHES: Listen, I have some sympathy for those establishment Republicans, because I have been in their shoes for the last two election cycles.

And guess what? We can sit there and talk about the different divisions that the Republican Party didn't go after as the reason why we lost. The reason why we lost is that we disenfranchised our GOP base. Now we're going to see the opposite and we're going to see who really is the bigger number, the base of conservatives or these establishment folks that are swearing this.

And the people that are saying that, I'm very disappointed. These are folks that are in leadership. They are supposed to be setting the example for the Republican Party, and yet they are acting like the children in the back seat of the car. The car needs to be pulled over and they need to be spanked at this point.

Now, Mr. Trump, the good news about him is, when you go and you go to his rallies, you don't see one demographic. You see a diversity, with the majority of these people as these numbers are coming back in, this exit polls, are people who have never been engaged before. They haven't been involved.

And as we saw last night in Nevada, we saw that he won with Hispanics even out of the two Hispanic names that were on the ballot. So I don't think we know exactly the power that he's been able to have his message, because, in the end, it comes down to the economy and security. And I think that is what the American people, regardless of what party you're in, that's what you care for.

KEILAR: Do you think he makes a play, and how could he do this successfully, for Sanders' supporters, who many of whom really do not like Hillary Clinton?

HUGHES: Oh, absolutely.

When you sit there -- and if I was a Sanders supporter right now, I would be just fit to be tied. I would be so angry at this idea of superdelegates. Today, we saw Harry Reid come out and endorse Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid that has served next to Bernie Sanders for 20 years.

When you see people are behind -- of the Democratic Party are behind Bernie Sanders, for whatever reason, it's pretty hard to sit there and slap their opinion across the face by this idea of superdelegates who are more of the establishment getting to choose a candidate over the people. Of course, I think he goes to their play. The difference between the

two of them is, is where Bernie Sanders just wants to give the people the fish, Mr. Trump wants to teach them how, so they can continue. And I think once he can start to resonate that message with them, I think you will see a lot of those folks who it's their natural desire to stand on their own two feet and not be enslaved to the government, will continue, will possibly come over and join the Trump camp.

KEILAR: All right, Scottie Hughes, stay with me. Many more questions ahead.

Donald Trump is feeling pretty confident. How do we know? He's talking about who he might pick for a vice presidential running mate. We will have more on that ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:17:55]

KEILAR: Well, Donald Trump is solidly leading the Republican presidential field after his victory in Nevada.

It's his third straight win. And now he's talking openly about a possible running mate.

We're back with Trump supporter and Tea Party activist Scottie Hughes to talk about this.

This is probably one of the most interesting stories of the day, I think, Scottie, trump talking about this today, possible V.P. picks. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

D. TRUMP: I do want somebody that's political because I want to get lots of great legislation that we all want passed that's just sitting there. For years and years and years, we have things sitting there that would be so good, including proper health care and other things. We're going to probably choose somebody that's somewhat political.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: OK, so political, which I think, you know, maybe we read to be someone who is a little bit more of a political insider, has a little more Washington institutional knowledge.

Let me know if I'm wrong on that, from your perspective. But he didn't name names here. You thinking of anyone that he may be evaluating?

HUGHES: Well, I have a couple of my favorites.

But let me tell you, in the past cases, don't take this the wrong way. The V.P. slot was really just meant for somebody who was kind of pretty. We never really knew what the V.P. did that much. They always were kind of there to be the nice guy of the group. And I think, in this case, is Mr. Trump knowing he's going to have to

go in there and kind of be Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball to destroy all the bureaucracy and all the walls that have been put up.

(LAUGHTER)

HUGHES: I know. Take that image.

KEILAR: I know. I have got it.

(CROSSTALK)

HUGHES: I'm sorry.

But just sit there and take out all of this riffraff that's been built up for the last eight years. He's already said he's going to revoke President Obama's executive orders, as many as he can initially, off. But I think the V.P. slot is someone that we don't also need to think as a vice president, but truly somebody, since this is going to be a long-term process, who will eventually run into being president, will take over when Mr. Trump is done with his administration.

So I think names like...

KEILAR: OK, but, Scottie, but you cannot -- I cannot let you -- OK, go, go, go. You were saying names.

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: You have tell us what you -- what you think.

HUGHES: I know -- I know how to work with you. You want names.

You know, personally, I could see him looking to former presidential candidates, that ones that he worked well with on stage. Mike Huckabee was not just wearing a Trump tie just to be nice. I think Mike Huckabee would be a good choice for evangelicals.

[18:20:08]

I think actually Senator Marco Rubio, I have always said, is young. The one issue that he disagrees about with him on, immigration, Mr. Trump is pretty smart.

I wish that Cruz would still be in the running, but I don't think -- I think the bromance has now officially gone into a full divorce. But I think you could also look at Giuliani, Gingrich. And I think he's going to look to his Cabinet for also some of those folks as well.

KEILAR: OK.

What about, you know, some of the female candidates? Is Nikki Haley out because she endorsed Marco Rubio? Do you think Sarah Palin would be out, I don't know, perhaps maybe she's -- she's run before, but maybe she's not enough of a Washington insider.

HUGHES: Yes. No, I don't think it's going to be a Sarah Palin. I think it could be a governor like a Nikki Haley.

The problem is, Nikki Haley is having some own -- she gave her endorsement to Marco Rubio in South Carolina, and look what it did. Absolutely nothing. But I do have a lot of respect for her.

I would love to see a female candidate kind of emerge. Susana Martinez's name keeps getting circulated. We have got a couple -- Joni Ernst would be phenomenal to throw out there. So, I think there's a couple names that they're -- my own, Marsha Blackburn here in Tennessee, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, a good friend of all of ours. There's a lot of good, strong females that would make great candidates as well.

The good news is, he's got lots of options.

KEILAR: Yes, and Joni Ernst from Iowa, that could be key.

OK. Let me play something else. This is the sound of something else that Donald Trump also had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

D. TRUMP: We won the evangelicals. We won with young. We won with old. We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: OK. So I think we know what he's saying. People who do not have a college education, he's performing better with them. Do you think he could have chosen his words a little better than calling this group poorly educated?

HUGHES: No, because here's the thing. People have taken that as an insult. I consider that to be absolutely to a certain extent a praise, because those are the people that are on Main Street.

Those are the people who have -- the decisions made by politicians in the Beltway are affecting day to day. These are the people who are losing their jobs as industries like Carrier decide to go across the border. I don't think this was meant to be an insult. I think this was meant to show that everyday people are the ones that are hurting the most and these are people that are being hurt by politicians like Senator Cruz, Senator Rubio, who have been in D.C., who have done nothing to help them.

Some people make take that as an insult. I took it as a compliment that those are the folks that Mr. Trump is here to stand up for and to help.

KEILAR: All right, Scottie Hughes, I wrote down those names that you picked. So, we will see if Donald Trump is the nominee. We will revisit this and we will see just how well you did and what you think your picks were for the V.P.

Scottie Hughes, thanks so much for being with us. HUGHES: I feel like I'm back in school again. Thank you.

KEILAR: I know, right? It's a quiz. All right.

Well, just ahead, we have more on Trump. He's going to be center stage in tomorrow night's CNN Republican presidential debate, under attack very likely from many sides. What is at stake for the GOP front-runner?

Plus, the Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Now she has the momentum. What can he do to slow her down in these final days of their fight for South Carolina?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:28:00]

KEILAR: Donald Trump now leading the delegate count, more than 4-1 ahead of his closest rivals, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, after Trump's overwhelming win in the Nevada caucuses.

I want to get more now with CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger, CNN senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson, CNN politics executive editor Mark Preston, and CNN senior political analyst and senior editor of "The Atlantic" Ron Brownstein.

Just a bonanza here of political insight. I'm so excited about this.

We look at Trump, this big win in Nevada. Is he unbeatable now, Gloria?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, he's won three golds and a silver. Right?

KEILAR: That's not bad.

BORGER: At some point, you have got to say you're going to be the medal winner here.

KEILAR: You are like the Michael Phelps of the -- right, is that what you say?

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: At some point,you say that.

BORGER: And he's got his two chief opponents going after each other, which is also really good for him. Right? And if this were any other candidate other than Donald Trump, we'd be picking his vice president for him right now.

And maybe we will do that anyway, but, you know, I think you have to say Donald Trump is on his way to this nomination.

KEILAR: And we are going to do a little exercise, all of us, of picking his V.P. BORGER: Oh, good. Good.

But I do want to ask you first, Nia, looking at Marco Rubio, he is going to have his chance in the debate to take aim at Donald Trump if he wants to.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

KEILAR: Does he really have it in him to go after him?

HENDERSON: That is the big question about Marco Rubio.

As we know, he spent a lot of his time going after Ted Cruz, to some success. They're both kind of stuck in those 20s in terms of the percentage of the vote they're getting, but can he on stage sort of do what a lot of the establishment wants the last establishment man standing man to do?

And that is take on Donald Trump. So far, his theory of the case has been something will happen to Donald Trump. He will implode on his own.

BORGER: Well, that's worked.

HENDERSON: Yes, that's worked.

But he's got to get those voters, those moderate and suburban voters that Trump is doing so well with. He has got to present his case and I think take Donald Trump on. He said that he's not interested in doing that. He said, I don't want to be the Republican to take -- you know, tear down another Republican.

BORGER: At some point.

HENDERSON: But he's clearly doing that with Ted Cruz.

KEILAR: Well...

HENDERSON: So, I mean, yes, a spotlight on him tomorrow.

[18:30:08] KEILAR: Mark, what do you think?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: You know, Brianna, this campaign has been all about moments. Everyone seems to have had a moment so far. And quite frankly, tomorrow night is going to be the biggest moment. Because as Gloria said, right now Donald Trump appears to be on the fast track to the nomination.

You really have to go back to Saturday where he had the clean kill in the South Carolina primary. Last night he just had such a big victory in Nevada.

I'll tell you, Republicans right now in Washington are very worried, but they're starting to come around to the fact that Donald Trump may become their nominee. And I was talking to a Republican earlier today who just said, "We

don't know what to do. It's really up to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz right now to try to stop Donald Trump."

And as Nia says, we just don't if Marco Rubio has it in him. He did go after Donald Trump at one point, and that's when Donald Trump said that George W. Bush was responsible for 9/11.

Marco Rubio had spoken up and said that, in fact, Donald Trump was wrong, but that's really the only time. I expect tomorrow night, Ted Cruz, though, he needs to go after Donald Trump. If he is not successful tomorrow night, then Ted Cruz is in deep, deep trouble.

BORGER: I agree.

KEILAR: OK, Ron, I do -- I do want to talk about this potentially who a running mate would be for Donald Trump, if he is the nominee. He's talking about it, and you know, you have a very good sense of who he appeals to. And even who he doesn't.

And I wonder if, in a general election, where do you think -- especially, I mean, I'm hearing from a lot of establishment Republicans who say, "Look, I would stay home. I'm not voting for Donald Trump." Now, they're saying that in all seriousness. And so Donald Trump is going to be looking in other places for votes than I think someone else. Some other Republican who would be the nominee would be looking for votes. How do you see that playing out? Which VP pick do you think would help him?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's a little early to be thinking about Donald Trump's VP picks.

KEILAR: Come on. Come on.

BROWNSTEIN: There's still another round of competition to go.

But, look, I'm -- some people are starting to wonder whether Marco Rubio is running for president with one eye on possibly being Donald Trump's vice president. And it is striking that he has chosen not to make a stronger case against the front-runner at a moment of kind of maximum vulnerability.

You look at what's coming up on March 1. I mean, you've got one set of contests in the South where you have Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas. Where you have big evangelical and blue-collar populations. And that really is a killing field for Ted Cruz. He has to do well there or it's hard to see him being viable on March 2.

Then you have a second set of contests, Brianna, that are more white- collar and secular. You have Minnesota. You have Massachusetts. You have Vermont. You have Virginia. Which really are do or die, I think, for John Kasich and Marco Rubio. And then you have Georgia, which is kind of a culmination of both of these.

So, I mean, they -- you know, there's an urgency here. If they cannot find a stronger argument against Trump or a broader coalition against Trump, they're going to be sitting there on March 2, looking at a situation where he is, I think, virtually impossible to stop.

And then you are talking about someone like Rubio. The other name that I think would make a lot of sense to talk about is one you mentioned before, Joni Ernst, especially if Hillary Clinton is the nominee. She is someone who is very popular with kind of the insurgent parts of the Republican Party. She was really the first woman elected statewide to senator or governor in Iowa and could be a very attractive choice.

But I think the more immediate problem is whether any of these candidates can find an argument or a coalition that can slow down Trump before March 1. Because he may be able to win both fronts of this war. The blue-collar evangelical side in the South, the white- collar, more secular side outside of the South.

BORGER: You know, if I were Donald Trump, I'd want these guys to keep staying in the race.

KEILAR: Yes.

BORGER: I know Trump talks about...

KEILAR: Fighting for the same territory.

BORGER: Right. Trump talks about destroying Rubio in Florida and Cruz in Texas. But if I'm Trump, let those guys continue in the race because -- and he doesn't need to get to 50 percent. Then he's fine. Then the fight is easier for him in many ways.

And, you know, the question I have about Rubio is, you know, if he can't win Florida, and early, early polling shows Trump ahead there, I mean, one day he might want to be governor of the state, it is...

HENDERSON: It looks like maybe he is playing that long game. I mean, he's 44, 45 years old or so. He's got 10, 15 years ahead of him to be governor, maybe to be vice president, maybe to be president one day. And if he sort of comes in second in this race, you know, that doesn't hurt him.

And maybe he wants to avoid Trump, because Trump might bring some things out that will be damaging to him.

KEILAR: All right, guys. Hang tight with me. We have more ahead. And I want to talk to you about it. Bernie Sanders is trying to court African-American voters. So important in South Carolina this Saturday.

And also looking ahead to southern states who will be going to the polls on Super Tuesday. We'll be talking about that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:39:34] KEILAR: South Carolina is the next big battleground for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with the former secretary of state enjoying a double-digit lead -- and a big one at that -- in the polls ahead of Saturday's primary. CNN senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns is in South Carolina for

us tonight. And Joe, Clinton and Sanders are making their case there to voters. They certainly did last night, as well, in the CNN town hall.

[18:40:00] JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's very true, Brianna. A new line of attack for Bernie Sanders today, accusing Hillary Clinton, essentially, of actively backing the 1996 welfare reform law that her husband, the president, signed into law.

Some activists have said that bill removed the social safety net for young children. The Clinton campaign has said it actually reduced the child poverty rate.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): Tonight another big endorsement for Hillary Clinton.

REID: I think the middle class would be better served by Hillary.

JOHNS: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid telling CNN's Manu Raju he's all in for the former secretary of state.

REID: She's a person who is a very quick learner. All you need to do is look what happed after 9/11. She did do a good job. She fought for New York like I've never seen anyone fight.

JOHNS: Reid's announcement comes after Clinton's victory in Saturday's Nevada caucuses and could give the Democratic front-runner a boost heading into next week's Super Tuesday contest when Democrats will vote in 11 states.

Looking to blunt Clinton's momentum, Bernie Sanders is hitting the road, rallying supporters in Oklahoma and Missouri.

While Clinton is keeping her focus on the next state up on the calendar, South Carolina, where she holds a big lead in the polls.

CLINTON: It's a special treat for me to have this opportunity to spend some time with all of you.

JOHNS: Democrats in the Palmetto State will cast their ballots on Saturday. And while Sanders splits his focus with other states, he says he's not conceding the first in the South primary to his rival.

SANDERS: We're not writing off South Carolina. You all know that on March 1, there are a dozen states that are holding elections. And the nature of the world is that we've got to go out.

JOHNS: South Carolina played host to CNN's town hall Tuesday night, providing both candidates an opportunity to make their case to African-American voters, who account for over half the Democratic electorate there.

CLINTON: Our experiences may not equip us to understand what a lot of our African-American fellow citizens go through every single day.

SANDERS: When youth unemployment in the African-American community for high school graduates is 51 percent, 51 percent unemployed or underemployed, we've got a plan to invest in jobs and education, not jails and incarceration.

JOHNS: Sanders again attacking Clinton for not releasing transcripts of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs.

SANDERS: I am very happy to release all of my paid speeches to Wall Street. Here it is, Chris. There ain't none.

JOHNS: Clinton stating that she would comply if Republicans agree to do the same but countering that she's being held to a higher standard.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Will you agree to release these transcripts? They have become an issue.

CLINTON: Sure, if everybody does it, and that includes the Republicans. Why is there one standard for me and not for everybody else? I mean...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: Bernie Sanders continues on his road tour tomorrow to Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois. The Clinton campaign announcing that former president Bill Clinton will join the get-out-the-vote effort here in South Carolina on Thursday -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Thank you, Joe Johns.

And a sudden change of tone by President Obama now offering sympathy for Republican lawmakers, vowing to ignore any Supreme Court nomination he makes. And tonight, we are learning a GOP governor is among those on the president's short list to replace the late justice Antonin Scalia.

CNN White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski has the latest on this. How is the president's rhetoric on this changing, Michelle?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Brianna. It was just about a week ago we heard the president slamming Republicans for their stance on this, talking about the venom, the rancor in the politics.

Today, though, he took nearly ten minutes, while he's sitting there with the king of Jordan, to carefully make his case. And this time he's using phrases like he understands the political pressures involved. He recognizes that. Even that he's sympathetic.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOSINSKI (voice-over): One day after top Senate Republicans insisted they will not hold hearings or even meet with the president's nominee...

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: This decision ought to be made by the next president.

KOSINSKI: President Obama launched into a nearly ten-minute impromptu speech on why this should happen.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it will be very difficult for Mr. McConnell to explain how, if the public concludes that this person is very well-qualified, that the Senate should stand in the way simply for political reasons.

KOSINSKI: The president expressed frustration just days ago.

OBAMA: We've almost gotten accustomed to how obstructionist the Senate's become when it comes to nominations.

KOSINSKI: Today a strikingly different tone.

[18:45:01] OBAMA: I understand the posture that they're taking right now. I'm sure they're under enormous pressure. I'm sympathetic. I recognize the politics are hard for them.

KOSINSKI: Republicans have made much of the president himself joining a filibuster against now Justice Samuel Alito in 2006, something the White House says he now regrets.

President Obama today also posted on SCOTUS Blog, optimistically adding, "As senators prepare to fulfill their constitutional responsibility to consider the person I appoint, I hope they'll move quickly."

Now comes word that one of those potential nominees currently being vetted in that big black binder is Republican Nevada governor and former federal judge, Brian Sandoval, says top Senate Democrat Harry Reid.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: I know if he were picked, I would support the man. He's a good person.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KOSINSKI: Governor Sandoval's office says he's not been in touch with the White House on this, although that doesn't mean he's not being vetted.

In the meantime, the White House has been trying to set up a meeting here with leadership in the Senate judiciary committee, but it's unclear if and when that meeting will happen, even if people would be willing to show up other than a Democrat Senator Leahy -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Michelle Kosinski, thank you so much for that report.

And we are now back with our experts.

I just have to acknowledge. Did you see that binder? The binder full of justices, you know? He's walking down the sort of near the colonnade there. It's pretty funny there. I want to get your reaction, Gloria, this report that Michelle just put out, is the president -- is he serious about nominating a Republican governor? I mean, there's -- I mean, there's a lot of calculus here on both sides, right? He's sort of saying to Republicans, hey, you won't even have a hearing for one of your own.

BORGER: You know, I think Harry Reid, first of all, in raising this publicly is kind of tweaking the Republicans --

KEILAR: It's so unlike him to do that. I mean, it's just so weird.

BORGER: I don't think Harry Reid is really advising the president on whom to nominate for the Supreme Court. But, you know, and I think the president is going to nominate the person he thinks he wants on the court who, by the way, is willing to take the nomination, OK? Because it's kind of a nonstarter.

KEILAR: Yes

BORGER: So, that's a whole other ball of wax there. So, Sandoval is not popular with Republicans. He's raised taxes and --

HENDERSON: Yes, he's for abortion.

BORGER: Right.

KEILAR: That's huge.

HENDERSON: He is Latino, though, right? And --

BORGER: Oh, that will do it. Yes.

HENDERSON: In the midst of this campaign where Latinos are going to be so important and then you have the Republicans kind of stonewalling against somebody who is not only one of their own but also Latino. I think the politics in that way could work for this White House. But, you know, we'll see.

BORGER: It's a base motivator for both sides.

KEILAR: Yes. So, Ron, it is a base motivator for either side. It's historically been a challenge for Democrats to get their voters to really be into this idea of, you know, their vote matters when it comes to Supreme Court nominees.

But you think this is something that is really going to get them going to the polls?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, you know, it's interesting. This is more tangible than it's ever been, right? I mean, it's always been an abstract idea. Justices could step down. Justices could pass away.

There could be openings. Now, you literally have the balance of a court possibly for the next 10 or 15 years at stake, clearly, in this election. And I do think that particularly with the polarizing nature of both candidacies, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, that really adds something.

If they are the nominees -- I mean, I don't think if you are Kelly Ayotte or Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, one of these swing states, you really want to answer the question of, are you going to be the decisive vote to allow Donald Trump, say, if he's the nominee, or Ted Cruz to set the balance on the Supreme Court for the next 15 years? And conversely, in some of the, you know, more conservative leaning states, I think that's a very difficult question for Democratic candidates.

So, I do think this will be more tangible than it has been in the past, assuming they don't confirm anyone, because you -- you know, it's not an abstraction. You literally have eight justices. The next president gets to appoint what could be the decisive voice at a time when the Supreme Court is becoming more important because of the frequent stalemates between the presidency -- the executive branch and Congress.

KEILAR: Mark, many observers say it's really going to motivate voters when it comes to these Senate races. I wonder sort of what you think about that, but also this idea, there's no doubt a Sandoval nomination would put Senate Republicans in a tough spot because several of them are up for re-election in kind of bluer states. Is there anyone you think might consider breaking with GOP leadership and saying, hey, let's give him a hearing?

PRESTON: Well, listen. If Governor Sandoval is nominated by President Obama, it really puts Republicans in a tough position for a couple of reasons. One, he is a Republican, despite the fact that some of his positions are not embraced by many in the party. He is Hispanic. He is an accomplished legislator, right, and as well as a jurist as well.

[18:50:01] And the fact is, if he gets offered up, Republicans in many ways are going to have to give him a hearing and, quite frankly, give him a vote. Here's the reason why as well, what if Hillary Clinton what if Hillary Clinton wins? What if Hillary Clinton becomes the nominee? What if she wins? Who is she going to put on the court at point?

It's certainly someone who is going to be more liberal than Brian Sandoval. In addition to that, Republicans might look at Donald and say, who is going to put on the court? Even though he could be -- you know, let's assume he wins the nomination.

So, in many ways if that happens, then it is going to put Republicans in a quandary, but I will tell you, Democrats right now, certainly liberals, are starting to raise red flags against Sandoval. So, this is going to be interesting where you have both spectrum of the party fighting over this.

KEILAR: Yes, carving out support on either side, which would doom him as well.

OK. Let's talk, Nia, about South Carolina and also Super Tuesday for Democrats, because the name of the game here is attracting support from black voters. Bernie Sanders, I mean, he is so far behind Hillary Clinton on this. So, what is it, just about kind of digging into her margins?

HENDERSON: I think that's what it is. We saw him try to do that last night at that town hall, coming out and embracing Barack Obama, essentially saying one of the reasons people are stone-walling against Barack Obama on this Supreme Court justice pick is because he is African-American, which was, you know, something we have heard from him before.

I also think Bernie Sanders is trying to target activists. The activists sort of black left, people like Cornell West out there stumping for him. Killer Mike is out there. Spike Lee has a radio ad that he cut in South Carolina.

So, if he can cut into the margins and attract younger African- Americans who are twice as likely to vote for Sanders or back Sanders as they are Hillary Clinton, then he might be able to make some noise in South Carolina. I mean, you know, it'll probably still be -- it's still going to be a bit of a divide down there, but he's got to not get blown out first on Saturday and then Super Tuesday.

KEILAR: If he doesn't do better with black voters and Hispanic voters --

BORGER: He had 22 percent, I think, in Nevada. And that wasn't good enough and it's not --

KEILAR: And even for Hispanic, he said, in entrance polls, look, I won. But you had the Hillary Clinton campaign saying when you look at Hispanic precincts, it went for Hillary.

BORGER: Look, he just has to appeal to a more diverse electorate, can we say?

HENDERSON: Yes.

BORGER: Hispanics, African-Americans, he's got young people, which is great. And he's just got to make it much more diverse if he's going to run a national campaign because that's the Democratic constituency in urban America.

KEILAR: Gloria, Nia, Mark, and Ron, thank you guys so much. Really appreciate you being on the panel tonight.

And just ahead, growing skepticism of Russia's intentions of ceasefire in Syria. Does the U.S. have a plan B?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:18] KEILAR: A partial cease-fire in Syria set to take effect in just three days, but the U.S. is growing increasingly skeptical about Russia's intentions and is now being forced to consider a plan B.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is working the story for us. Barbara, what's the latest that you're picking up there?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, tonight, the Pentagon is increasingly worried that the Russian military is rewriting the map of Syria.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): Heavy airstrikes and shelling at Syrian forces try to take a key town in the northwest after ISIS moved in. Fighting ISIS is still fair game under a cease-fire that is just days away from going into effect.

But Russian and regime forces are dramatically reshaping the battlefield before the agreed stop in fighting with the rebels.

The British foreign secretary making it all public.

PHILIP HAMMOND, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: What we have seen over the last weeks is very disturbing evidence of coordination between Syrian Kurdish forces, the Syrian regime, and the Russian air force.

STARR: U.S. intelligence indicates Kurds in the west are working with the Russians to attack moderates the U.S. supports, even as other Kurdish groups press from the east, groups the U.S. wants to fight ISIS.

It's all putting Russian influence potentially in control of the border area next to Turkey, a NATO ally.

Tonight, U.S. uncertainty about Moscow's compliance runs high.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: There's a significant discussion taking place now about plan B in the effect that we don't succeed.

STARR: The Pentagon also doubtful.

PETER COOK, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: I think there's a certain dose of skepticism.

STARR: Russia says it will comply with the cease-fire, but if it does not, what is plan B? Several U.S. officials say there could be more sanctions on Russia or pressure on Russia to stop what Washington says is indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

But for now, Plan B stops short of any U.S. military action. The U.S. already flies under the eye of Russian radars across Syria, a U.S. official tells CNN. Middle East allies could wind up supplying advanced weapons to the opposition, such as shoulder-fired anti-air missiles. That would be a dramatic escalation and risk ISIS getting its hands on them as well.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: The next thing the Pentagon is watching is Russian maneuvering around Raqqa, the capital of ISIS in Syria, watching to see if and when the Russians begin to make their move on that crucial city -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

I'm Brianna Keilar. Thank you so much for spending time with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.