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Poll Shows Trump Leading Rubio in Florida; Mexico's Fox: 'I'm Not Going to Pay for that Wall'; Republicans Debate Just Hours Away Ahead of Super Tuesday. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired February 25, 2016 - 17:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Watch the last Republican debate before Super Tuesday only here on CNN, 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

[17:00:10] That's it for "THE LEAD." I am Jake Tapper. I turn you over to Chris Cuomo and Anderson Cooper, who are manning THE SITUATION ROOM for Wolf today, who is preparing for the debate. See you later -- see you later on tonight.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, GOP showdown. The Republican presidential candidates just hours away from a pivotal debate here on CNN. Extremely high stakes for everyone not named Donald Trump.

On the attack, Trump's closest rivals, but talking about him is one thing. Saying it to him on the stage quite another. So how far will they go when it counts?

Brokered convention? Top Rubio donors told in a closed-door meeting that the Florida senator is now preparing for a contested nominating process. And bracing for a messy and unpredictable battle to keep Trump from becoming the nominee. Are Republicans facing civil war?

Path to victory. Trump has a huge lead in the delegate count. So Super Tuesday could make or break his remaining rivals and push Trump closer still to the nomination. What we see here tonight could make all the difference.

Wolf Blitzer is preparing for tonight's Republican presidential debate. That means you've got me, Chris Cuomo, along with the man, Anderson Cooper. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We are counting down to tonight's CNN Republican presidential debate here in Houston. This will be the last time the candidates face off before Super Tuesday. The biggest primary battle of the 2016 race for the White House. Donald Trump more than ever the man to beat tonight, coming off three consecutive primary and caucus victories, still far ahead of his rivals in the polls.

Tonight's contest especially critical for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, battling for second place as they try to sell themselves to Republican voters as the best alternative to Trump.

Now CNN has learned that Rubio is preparing a two-pronged attack: come strong at the debate tonight but also prepare for a brokered convention. And speaking of attacks, former Mexican president, Vicente Fox,

blasting Donald Trump and his plan to build a wall on the border, which he says he'll make Mexico pay for. Fox saying in an interview, quote, "I'm not going to pay for that f'ing wall. He should pay for it."

We are covering all of that and more this hour with our guests, our correspondents and our expert analysts. They are all standing by.

So let's begin with CNN political reporter Sara Murray. She's in the spin room.

Sara, CNN is the first to report that the Rubio campaign is preparing for a brokered convention. What do we know?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Chris. This is great reporting just coming in from our M.J. Lee, who had people who were in the room for this meeting that Rubio's campaign manager had with donors in Manhattan last night, where they essentially said, "Look, if we're going to be able to sew up this nomination on our own, we need John Kasich, we need Ben Carson to drop out." It does not look like that is happening any time soon.

And so their alternative scenario is a contested convention. This will be where Rubio does not get the number of delegates he needs to go to the nominee, and it becomes a convention fight. And I think this reflects the reality we're seeing in some of these upcoming states that Rubio does not have the numbers he needs to win.

Let's take a look at Florida. This has been a make-or-break state for Marco Rubio. We now have a new Quinnipiac poll out. Shows Donald Trump at 44 percent, Marco Rubio at 28 percent. This is an indication that he might not be able to win his home state, which would be a long-fought delegate fight that gets you to a contested convention.

The other candidate who is really mucking up this race for the other folks in it is Ted Cruz, Texas senator. And Texas is coming up on March 1. It is the crown jewel. Ted Cruz promises he's going to win. And a new poll shows good signs for him. This is a Monmouth University poll; puts Ted Cruz at 38 percent, Donald Trump at 23 percent.

Now, if you think Trump is going to take that lying down, think again. We are now hearing that they bought $1.6 million in advertising for the Super Tuesday states. Half a million of that is going right to Texas Senator Cruz's backyard right up on the airwaves in Texas.

So all of this, if it hasn't already, Jake -- or if it hasn't already, Chris and Anderson, sets the stage for a big fight on this debate stage this evening.

Back to you guys.

[17:05:02] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, it's going to be a fascinating night. Sara, thanks. Ahead of tonight's debate we've been watching an unfolding war of words between Donald Trump and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. It is happening on Trump's favorite battlefield, Twitter.

CNN's Jim Acosta has more. Jim, it started with Romney yesterday saying there might be a bombshell in Trump's tax returns and saying that he should release his returns as well as Rubio and Cruz.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Anderson. I just tried to ask the RNC chairman should there be an additional podium for Mitt Romney behind me on those debate stage. He said no and sort of laughed off the question.

But Anderson, Donald Trump may be spending time tonight debating a leader who won't be on this stage and that is the last Republican nominee for president, Mitt Romney. As we know, as you said, Romney is calling on Trump to release his tax returns, warning a bombshell may be in there.

And in vintage Trump form, the GOP front-runner went on a tear on Twitter, tweeting "Mitt Romney" -- we'll put this up on screen -- "who is one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics is now pushing me on tax returns? Dope!" That's a quote from Donald Trump on Twitter.

And then he posted a pic of one of his recent tax returns saying, quote, "Signing a recent tax return. Isn't this ridiculous?"

Now for his part, Mitt Romney did fire back, taking to Twitter himself and saying, "Methinks the Donald doth protest too much." If I could use my Shakespearean there. "Show voters your back taxes. #WhatIsHeHiding."

Now, Anderson, I've talked to -- and Chris, I've talked to a couple of sources close to Mitt Romney, one who's worked with Mitt Romney for many, many years, who said that the former Massachusetts governor is trying to show the candidates who are in the race right now how to hit Donald Trump and draw blood as this one source said.

You know, Mitt Romney, for all of his flaws, knew how to wield a blade from time to time. He's trying to show the candidates how to go after Trump later on the stage tonight -- Chris.

COOPER: Jim, fascinating. We'll see if it does, in fact, come up tonight during the debate.

CUOMO: Let's get a little insight right now, shall we? Joining us here on set is the Republican National Committee communications director, Mr. Sean Spicer.

Good day to have the job, Sean.

SEAN SPICER, RNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: This is mine, huh? We've got a beautiful setting here and a great venue for a debate. And I expect another great debate of the cycle. I expect nothing less than another, really, sort of combative, exciting, enthusiastic exchange of ideas.

CUOMO: What about all the Romney stuff? What's going on? What do you know about the origin of this? It doesn't seem random.

SPICER: No, I don't know, but I don't what's happening on the back side. I know that this is the point in the contest where candidates, supporters, people that want one person to do better than another really start realizing that this is the time that you've got to engage. Super Tuesday is in a couple of days. You've got 11 states, 595 delegates at stake.

Another 963 delegates from March 1 to March 15. If you're going to get engaged, if you want to be our nominee and get the 1,237 delegates necessary to be the nominee, this is it.

COOPER: Did it surprise you that it was Mitt Romney who came forward yesterday with this? He himself obviously had -- you know, had said he wasn't going to release his taxes, came under great fire from then- candidate Obama about that.

SPICER: I mean, look, Governor Romney has not been real active so far in picking a side, so it was somewhat of a surprise that he chose now to get engaged.

But again, if you're going to get engaged, this is the time to do it. And I think you're seeing individuals for pro and con, each of these five individuals really find this is when they want to jump in. But if you don't get engaged now, it may be too late.

COOPER: Does it help your eventual nominee to have all this hashed out during the primary stage?

SPICER: Absolutely.

COOPER: Have Donald Trump answer these questions...

SPICER: Well, not just Donald Trump but all of them. Look, in 2008 Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton went at it until June epically. I mean, they called each other names. They, you know, had their surrogates attack. Hillary Clinton accused Obama of not -- of a bunch of racial issues.

And at the end of the day, the intensity and the enthusiasm that was on that side worked out for them. It propelled them to victory. The McCain side...

COOPER: And it made them better candidates.

SPICER: It made them better candidates. They were battle tested.

But at the same time, you look at what happened to McCain. He was out there really struggling to get attention, because you had this two- person epic battle going on.

On our side, look, this is an exchange of ideas. We've been out of the White House for eight years. Our side knows what's at stake, not just about being dormant for eight years but knowing that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would take this country in the wrong direction. We're fired up.

COOPER: It does seem interesting that -- I mean, some people have said that Donald Trump has not really faced that sort -- I mean, he's faced critical interviews or tough interviews from media but has not faced that kind of barrage of attacks from another candidate. That Rubio and Cruz have essentially been focused on each other.

SPICER: You've seen that the money that's been spent against him, the interviews. I mean, he's talked to you guys countless times. He's talked to every other network. So, you know, far be it from me to judge what's tough or not. But you can't say that any of our candidates haven't had the exposure necessary to head into a general election without being tested.

CUOMO: They're certainly offered the exposure. So if that's the story on Romney, that this is the time to get involved if you want to be pivotal, and I guess the only other phrase that applies to him is has he eaten on the insane root? Because taking Trump on, on Twitter is one of the most perilous things.

[17:10:06] SPICER: Look at you quoting Shakespeare.

CUOMO: How about that? I saw it written on your hand.

So let's look at the other headline. This idea that Marco Rubio is meeting with party officials to think about a brokered convention, we know what that means.

SPICER: He's not met with any party officials. He may, from what I understand from the reporting on CNN, is that his supporters are talking about a strategy, but there is no...

CUOMO: There's been no contact with the party.

SPICER: Absolutely not.

CUOMO: You will not take the bait that I just laid out there.

SPICER: Thank you very much. But look, this is plain and simple. If you get 1,237 delegates, you are the nominee. Right? That's it. If you don't -- so there's two things; there's two strategies. One is get 1,237. The other strategy is stop someone from getting 1,237. It's up to each campaign to decide which route they want to go.

COOPER: Do you think this is going to go -- I mean, early on people were saying this could go all the way to the convention. Donald Trump just the other night in his victory speech was saying he actually thinks it's going to end a lot sooner.

SPICER: I think, look, we've got as I mentioned a lot of delegates at stake on March 1. And a huge amount, another close to thousand between the 1st and the 14th. If someone racks them up, and the voters choose -- but this is up to the voters to decide. If one candidate is able to rack them up early, then yes, they will be the nominee.

But if the voters decide that they want to split that vote or give someone another lead or slow the process down, then that's what's going to happen.

What's unique about this cycle is that more voters in more states are participating in this process than ever before. That's what's different. So it used to be that you'd come out of the early states, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and then Florida and another state; and you'd go through the South.

We've got 11 states on March 1 and then another few on the 5th, and another few on March 8, and then you go to winner-take-all, where you've got Ohio and Florida on the 15th. There's a lot of delegates available in a very, you know, 14-, 15-day window. So that really has the ability to change this field to shake it up real quick.

You've got a leader right now that's leading with 60 or 70 delegates. In Texas alone, you have 155 delegates. In Florida you have 99 delegates at stake. We're real early. Six percent of the delegates were selected in February; 60 percent of the delegates are going to be selected in March. We've got to keep some perspective as to where we are in the cycle.

COOPER: We've got to take a short break. We've got more. Our coverage continues in a moment. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:16:46] COOPER: Welcome back. We're counting down to tonight's CNN presidential debate here in Houston. The candidates are preparing to field questions from our own Wolf Blitzer, who of course, will be the moderator. We're back with the Republican National Committee communications director, Sean Spicer.

Obviously, you're not -- you're not privy to what's going to happen on the stage tonight from...

SPICER: You can tell me.

COOPER: From the various candidates, not from our side, but how -- how much do you expect Rubio and Cruz to go after Donald Trump? Because at this point, they really have been aiming their fire at each other. Donald Trump has been aiming his fire at Cruz. And to your point earlier, if not now, then when?

SPICER: I think, as I mentioned in the last segment, you've got -- you've got a very crucial period in the cycle coming up. You've got two strategies that I see. One is try to fight to be the second-place alternative to the front-runner or go straight at the front-runner, but those are the only two.

And I think each of these campaigns has got to make that decision. You've seen folks in the past, frankly, taken on Mr. Trump head on head, and to some degree, in the back of their mind, they're probably thinking that hasn't worked too well. At the same time, the field is narrow. You've got five people on stage tonight, so the dynamic is different, and the opportunities have been different than they have in the past.

COOPER: At a certain point, though, some -- all these guys who are running to be in second place who are running to be in second place have to start winning somewhere.

SPICER: That's right. And that's why I think you have to figure out for yourself is your goal to take out the No. 2 or No. 3 and try to go for one-on-one match or straight out try to go for No. 1.

But the time -- time isn't your friend at some point. These contests, while I think this is probably going to go until late March or April, at some point there is -- you become a presumptive nominee, not just by clinching the 1,237 delegates. But if you get to 900 or 1,000, it's going to become difficult for someone to catch you.

CUOMO: It's interesting. We're thinking along the same line about this. The interesting part, or the intrigue is that, to many, it does seem that presumptively, you know that it's got to be Trump. Where are the paths? Are they that likely for someone to catch up to him the way the polls are showing in all the states that are coming up?

SPICER: Look, like I said earlier, I mean, you've got 6 percent of the delegates, right? So this isn't even the first inning. It's the first out of the first inning of the game. And you've got to say to yourself now going forward someone, you know, he has racked up a nice little lead in that first part of the first inning, but you've got 155 delegates in Texas alone, which will be on March 1. As I mentioned before, 99 in Florida.

There's a lot of delegates at stake real early. So if you can kind of come back, then like any contest, you can make the math work for yourself. But you've got to -- I mean, the one difference between this game and, say, a sports game is that there is a perception and a momentum that's very different. Once you get ahead by a certain amount, I think the perception is that you are the presumptive nominee, you are the front-runner that can't be caught and it's difficult to change that. Your support dries up; your resources dries up.

So if you don't engage early in this process, in the next few weeks, I think that's going to be trouble if someone is not able to go one on one.

COOPER: Have you ever seen a race like this? I mean, you have now the leading candidate of the GOP was somebody who, during that first debate, was asked to take, essentially, a loyalty test by the moderator to the GOP.

SPICER: I don't think anyone has seen a cycle like this. When we started this cycle back in August of last year with 17 really qualified and diverse individuals taking two stages. We're down to five. It's been historic in so many ways.

And I think we, as a party, are very proud of the number of people that we've brought, the audiences. Look at -- look at the last four states. We have broken records in every single early state for the number of people who turned out. That's contrasted to the Democrats, they're down in every one of the four states.

I think that this is translating into a very good year for the Republicans. We're seeing the intensity, the enthusiasm and the numbers are bearing out. It's not just the ratings from the debate. It's the number of people who are signing up, who are coming out to these early caucuses and primaries and wanting to take part in the process.

COOPER: There are a lot of folks on the Democratic side, a lot of people on our air who are pundits, who have sort of been gleefully saying they cannot wait to see Donald Trump being the nominee for the GOP going against whether it's Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Do you think Democrats are underestimating that battle?

SPICER: Well, whoever the nominee is, frankly at this point, I mean, look, any Democrat that's gleeful needs to kind of look at their own candidates are. You've got one that's a 74-year-old socialist. Right? Just stop and think about that.

Whether or not you're a liberal or a conservative, the idea of moving this country in a socialist direction is just something that I never thought would happen in a lifetime.

The other candidate is someone who's under investigation by the FBI, and that's frankly who most of these people are pinning their hopes on. And I think if that's who you, as a Democrat, is going to be your savior, that's a big problem.

Most Americans don't trust Hillary Clinton. They don't think that she's truthful. They don't think that she lives by a set of rules that are by -- that are separate for herself and Bill, and I think that that's a big problem. If you are a Democrat, I would not be -- I would be much more concerned...

CUOMO: Their problem -- their problem is clear, no question.

SPICER: Right.

CUOMO: How close is the GOP to putting their arms around Donald Trump?

SPICER: It's up to the voters. Once the voters pick a nominee, we will embrace whomever that is. And it's -- so as I mentioned earlier, more states will decide, more voters will decide. Our job is to create a level playing field for these individuals, give them the resources necessary to win in November, but embrace whomever that nominee is and win.

COOPER: Sean Spicer, thanks very much for joining us.

SPICER: Good luck tonight, guys.

CUOMO: Good luck to you. COOPER: All right. Coming up, we have the former president of

Mexico, who is lashing out during an interview with an "F"-bomb directed at Donald Trump's proposal to build a wall on the border.

Plus Vice President Biden in Mexico apologizing for the rhetoric by Republicans on the campaign trail. What will this mean tonight?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:26:55] CUOMO: Ahead of tonight's Republican presidential debate here in Houston, Donald Trump is demanding an apology from former Mexican president Vicente Fox for the language he used. This irony involves an interview today where Fox blasted Trump as crazy and egocentric. And as for Trump's vow to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, Fox said, quote, "I'm not going to pay for that f'ing wall."

CNN's Jim Acosta is back with us. Jim, Trump is quite put out by Fox's expletive.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Chris and Anderson. Donald Trump is tangling with a different kind of fox today. After battling with the pope, the Bushes and Mitt Romney, now Donald Trump is fighting with the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox.

The former Mexican president was asked by Jorge Ramos with Fusion about Trump's vow to make Mexico pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. It is a staple of just about every Donald Trump event. Vicente Fox was having none of it and was quite spicy, you might say, in disagreeing with that proposition. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VICENTE FOX, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I declare, I'm going to pay for that (EXPLETIVE DELETED) wall. He should pay for it. He's got the money.

JORGE RAMOS, FUSION: Are you afraid that he's going to be the next president of the United States?

FOX: Not at all. No, no, no. Democracy cannot take us to crazy people that doesn't know what's going on in the world today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now Trump, who's been known to use a few f-bombs himself, fired back on Twitter, saying, we can put this up on screen. Former president of Mexico Vicente Fox horribly used the "F" word when discussing the wall.

Trump going on to say that he would have caused an uproar had he used that word, and he's caused uproars in the past. But we should note, in just the last several minutes, Anderson and Chris, Vice President Joe Biden down in Mexico with the current president of Mexico, Enrique Nieto. Biden apologized to the Mexican people, he said, for some of the GOP

rhetoric, namely from Donald Trump that we're hearing out on the campaign trail. Here's a bit of that sound from the vice president. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's been a lot of damaging and incredibly inaccurate rhetoric, and I would argue I feel almost obliged to apologize for some of what my political colleagues have said.

It is about Mexico, about the Mexican people. It's a heated campaign season. And I just want you to know, Mr. President, that the most heated of the rhetoric you've heard from some of the competitors for the nomination for president is not who we are as the American people. It is not a view that is the view of the majority of the American people. It's the exact opposite. It's the opposite view.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, the vice president may have apologized there, but Democratic strategists will tell you, Anderson and Chris, that they are very much looking forward to using Donald Trump's rhetoric on Mexico in the upcoming general election campaign.

Donald Trump was

[17:30:00] bragging the other night in Nevada that he did well among Latino Republicans, but when it comes to a general election, it's going to be a very different matter altogether -- Anderson, Chris.

COOPER: Jim, has Donald Trump responded at all about Joe Biden essentially apologizing? I imagine that is going to be sort of the next wave of comments by at least, if not Trump, by other GOP candidates.

ACOSTA: He has not, but as of yet, as we know, Anderson, Donald Trump likes to rip news from the headlines and make it his own. So I would imagine it's just a matter of time. And given the fact that Trump has been tangling with the Pope, the Bushes, Mitt Romney and now the former president of Mexico, I would assume the vice president is next on his list, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Jim Acosta. Jim, thanks very much.

Let's get more now on the GOP race with CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, CNN senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson and CNN Politics executive editor Mark Preston.

Gloria, it is a little rich for Donald Trump to be shocked at the use of language by the former president of Mexico.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Shocked? How could he possibly do that, right? And I think, you know, seeing Joe Biden also apologize -- Joe Biden can't keep out of this race either, you know. I think Trump takes every opportunity he can. He knows exactly what he's doing because this -- in his tweet about FOX, he's playing to his base. This will be great. He's picking a fight with FOX. Works for him. So why not do it? It is rich, but it works, right?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Pick up the other side of that then, Nia. What is the perceptive downside to having the former president of Mexico show the obvious disdain for this idea?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, I think broadly if you look at the demographics in this country and you think about Trump's rhetoric here in terms of illegal immigrants, in terms of building the wall and forcing Mexico to pay for it, we already know that he isn't doing well in the polls among that broad spectrum of Latino voters.

CUOMO: We just had one today.

HENDERSON: Yes.

CUOMO: That showed really tough numbers for Trump.

HENDERSON: Yes. Essentially 80 percent of Latinos view him unfavorably. So if you think about states like Nevada, which he won in this last caucus, but in a general election, say, like Nevada, a state like Florida, a state like North Carolina, even Virginia and the entire south, which is growing in terms of the Latino population, that's where it starts to hurt because we know that any president is going to need to do well among that demographic to win.

COOPER: Mark Preston, let's talk about expectations for tonight. We had Sean Spicer on earlier in the broadcast saying essentially the clock is ticking for attacks against Donald Trump. I mean, if other candidates, Rubio, Cruz, are going to make a case against Donald Trump, it would seem to be that the time is now because there's not much time left on the calendar, frankly.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: You're absolutely right, Anderson. And the stage behind me we expect to be very hot tonight. What we expect to see -- you know, what's probably going to happen is you're going to see Ted Cruz and Donald Trump tangle pretty toughly up here on the stage. At the same time you're going to see this crossfire with Trump in the middle, and Cruz and Marco Rubio throwing punches at each other through Donald Trump because Cruz and Rubio right now, Anderson, believe that one of them has to leave the race in order for the consolidation to continue to try to get Trump out of the race.

So as Sean said earlier to you, that the clock is ticking. I have to tell you talking to Republicans in Washington, establishment Republicans right now, they're kicking themselves because they have come to the realization that it's almost too late at this point. That Donald Trump right now has got so much wind behind his back that he's on his way to the nomination. If anything is going to derail him, it's going to have to happen tonight, they believe.

CUOMO: Well, and then comes Mitt Romney. So, Gloria Borger, of the thick and bipartisan rolodex, can this just

be coincidence that Romney and other party elders all of a sudden pop up all talking about Trump's taxes? Romney of all people?

HENDERSON: Right.

BORGER: Romney pulled a Harry Reid on him.

CUOMO: He did.

BORGER: Because remember Harry Reid did that to --

CUOMO: He went full Reid.

(LAUGHTER)

BORGER: Went full Harry Reid on him and by the way, gave the Republicans something to say tonight at our debate. To talk to -- to talk to Trump about. You know, Rubio can make the comparison and say, you know, I'll put my taxes out there. I'm still paying off my student loans or I just finished a year or two ago. Where are your taxes?

CUOMO: How far can it go? Like, what's the worst things that could be in it?

BORGER: Honestly it won't hurt Trump.

HENDERSON: Yes.

BORGER: He's inoculated himself to a great degree on this because he said, hey, I try to pay as little as I can in my taxes. The only way it could hurt him is that he might not be as rich as he says he is.

COOPER: Right. I mean, the two things that Romney pointed to is perhaps he's not as rich as he says he is and also perhaps he has not given as much money as he's sort of maybe has indicated from time to time that he has. But regardless he has sort of inoculated himself against this already by saying to your point, you know, I pay as little taxes as possible.

BORGER: Right. And it was -- it was, for Romney, who paid, I think, around 15 percent because it was mostly investment income, right, it was not earned income.

CUOMO: It wasn't income. It was investment capital.

BORGER: Right, right. So it was a little bit more embarrassing for Romney, obviously. But for Trump, you know, we'll have to see.

[17:35:03] Look, the taxes are done.

HENDERSON: Yes.

BORGER: Right? He could just -- he could just put it out there.

COOPER: And we should point out Donald Trump -- I mean, I asked him about this yesterday.

BORGER: Right. Exactly.

COOPER: He sort of seems to now be hedging his bets. Previously he had said, well, you know, we're going to figure out the time when we're going to do this. He now seems to be saying well, we're going to look at this to see whether or not we do this at all, whether we do --

HENDERSON: That's right.

CUOMO: Right. He's saying what Hillary Clinton, where are your e- mails, where are your speeches, why do you hide things from the people? That's a little bit of a trap.

HENDERSON: That's a little bit. I think so -- what I don't think the average voter in the Republican primary process is like my goodness, when is Donald Trump going to release his taxes?

CUOMO: Yes.

HENDERSON: It's just not an issue and it's just proving once again that Donald Trump is playing by his own rules. Most presidential candidates have released these. But he's like --

COOPER: And it's been an issue for Donald Trump.

HENDERSON: Yes.

COOPER: I mean the idea that he is not as rich as he says has clearly been an issue in the past that has struck him, has annoyed him, but it's a question of "Forbes" magazine says he's, you know, $2 billion, $3 billion $4 billion rich.

HENDERSON: Yes.

COOPER: Right.

BORGER: It's not going to affect his people. People are solidly there.

COOPER: It's the difference between $2 billion or $4 billion.

HENDERSON: Yes. Exactly. I think for those people -- I'd rather have either.

COOPER: Great problem to have.

HENDERSON: Yes.

BORGER: If there is an Achilles heel for Donald Trump, and I'm not sure there is, it's that late deciders, we've seen in the most recent contests have been splitting -- going towards Marco Rubio.

COOPER: Right. BORGER: So if there are people still undecided out there, and I'm not

sure there are a lot, and I'm -- that this could have around the edges I would say.

COOPER: Mark Preston, though, in terms of just a path forward, I mean, Ted Cruz, even if he wins Texas, you know, you look at the map, where does Marco Rubio actually win? Where do they actually start to kind of pick up the delegate numbers that they would need to compete with where Donald Trump will shortly be after Super Tuesday?

PRESTON: Well, even if Ted Cruz does win Texas, it could just be a symbolic victory in many ways because the way that they apportion delegates, it's not a winner-take-all on March 1st. So symbolically Ted Cruz could win Texas, he could win, you know, a plurality of the delegates perhaps but he's not going to win all of them. But if you look at Marco Rubio he has problems in some ways. If you look down at Florida we have a new Quinnipiac University poll right now out of Florida that shows that Donald Trump has a 16-point lead over the native son, Marco Rubio.

Now when Jeb Bush exited the race, the hope was is that you would see this consolidation certainly in a state like Florida where when it votes on March 15th, the winner takes all 99 of those delegates. And to Gloria's point about late deciders going for Marco Rubio, if we are to believe this Quinnipiac poll right now, there's only two in 10 Floridians who haven't made up their mind at this point.

BORGER: Right.

PRESTON: Thirty percent said that they could change their mind. And this is what is very troubling for the Republican establishment. It's 21 percent right now said they would not support Donald Trump. That means 80 percent of them would. I mean, these are numbers that are starting to flip because I think there is this thought, an inevitability right now that Donald Trump is going to be the new nominee.

COOPER: Yes. Mark Preston, Nia-Malika Henderson, Gloria Borger, thank you.

A lot to look forward to as we countdown toward the CNN debate tonight, less than three hours from now. We're going to take a short break. Our coverage continues in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:42:54] CUOMO: We are live in Houston where CNN's Wolf Blitzer will moderate tonight's all-important Republican presidential debate. The final GOP face-off before the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses.

And first on CNN, Marco Rubio's campaign now said to be preparing for a brokered convention. Yes, sources tell CNN Rubio's campaign manager delivered that news to top donors at a closed door meeting.

Let's discuss. We have political commentators Ana Navarro and S.E. Cupp.

So let's deal with that headline. Yes, we've got to talk about the favor that the former Mexican president just did Donald Trump by being angry about the wall but Rubio as well.

Ana, this idea. You know a lot of his top donors. What do you hear about this and what that means preparing for a brokered convention?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Just go ahead and kill me now, why don't you? I mean, the idea of a brokered convention --

CUOMO: Do I need --

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: I need the inside scoop.

NAVARRO: Look, I've got to think that Marco's people, Terry Sullivan, who may not be the, know, snugliest of bears but certainly is very smart understands that if he's going to say something in a closed door meeting to donors, it will invariably get out. So I think they are floating this idea on purpose. It's got to be. Nobody says anything closed door these days with the intention that it's going to stay within closed doors.

Look, in our lifetime there's never been a Republican nominee that hasn't won one of the first four early states. Marco Rubio has not won one of the first four early states. He's not leading in any of the Super Tuesday states. Florida is huge for him and a poll came out today that doesn't look good. So they need a plan B.

CUOMO: Down 16 to Trump.

NAVARRO: So if you're going to convince donors that you've got a path, one of those paths would be a brokered convention.

COOPER: And if you can't win in your own state, I mean, if -- you know, I mean, a lot of people thought, OK, Rubio spent time in Nevada as a kid. That didn't seem to work and obviously in Florida this latest poll shows him down significantly. I mean so --

NAVARRO: Well, there's another poll that came out today in Florida, too, from the Associated Industries of Florida that's a very reputable organization.

[17:45:04] It's got it a lot closer. It still has Trump leading Rubio but by single digits, by seven or eight points, not by 16 points. I think Marco is going to have to spend the time and resources in Florida, which means he's not going to be able to go anywhere else because winning Florida March 15th is crucial.

COOPER: And that poll, I should point out, doesn't really use the same standards that CNN would use, say, in a poll that we would really put a lot of faith in. In terms of brokered convention, do you think there's any reality to that, S.E.? S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, that could definitely

happen but I'm not sure sending the message to donors or voters that this could go on for a while is the most useful thing for Marco Rubio. I think you want to make it look urgent. You have to go out and vote now. It's now or never if you want Marco Rubio to win. That's the message I would be sending.

COOPER: And isn't the question for Marco Rubio tonight, do you go after Donald Trump? I mean, do you do what you have not done before?

CUPP: Right.

COOPER: I mean, he's been focused a lot on Ted Cruz, as has Donald Trump.

CUPP: Right.

COOPER: Do you now decide this is the time?

CUPP: Look, there's two schools of thought here. No one has lived to tell the tale of going after Trump and really, you know, surviving. It doesn't usually turn out well. On the other hand, what does Marco Rubio have to lose at this point? It's the only thing he really hasn't tried. He's positioned himself to be the candidate that can win and so he's kind of left Donald Trump alone in his own lane as the anger candidate. And Ted Cruz in that same lane.

But it's time, you're on the stage, there's only five people up there now for the first time. This might be the time to finally go after him. And by the way, I don't think it's attacking Donald Trump to point out that he likes parts of Obamacare. That's campaigning.

CUOMO: No, but there is an odd macho metric going on within the GOP when they get on that stage. How do they look at each other and what do they say.

NAVARRO: Go ahead, Cuomo, explain macho metric.

CUOMO: I mean, look, you don't have to explain it to know it when you see it. Right? I mean, so the question is, will Rubio step up and be his own person when Trump looks at him. You know, we're assuming that he's going to drive the game tonight. Probably not. But we will certainly see and we have Wolf Blitzer there. We know that he can keep it in line. His name in German means the man who makes lightning. Let's see what happens tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Looking at a live picture of the debate hall where tonight the Republican candidates for president will be gathering in about two hours and 30 minutes or so.

CNN Republican presidential debate, the final face-off ahead of Super Tuesday when roughly half the GOP delegates needed to win the nomination will be up for grabs.

Let's take a closer look now with CNN chief correspondent and the anchor of "INSIDE POLITICS" John King.

We've heard now former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, in an interview talking about Donald Trump, using something profanity to talk about not paying for the wall. Is that just a big present to Donald Trump?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So heading into a bunch of primaries that are predominantly in the south and anywhere you have Republican voters angry about illegal immigration. Donald Trump is in another debate with a global leader about building a wall. Donald Trump is a very happy man. That makes Donald Trump a happy man. This is one of his big issues. So sure, he loves this.

CUOMO: Does it distract also from what's going to happen tonight? because this is a very pitched battle to figure out how somebody finds a path to the delegates they need to beat him. And now they're going to be talking about this. This is not their strong ground to go after Trump.

KING: I do not think you can overstate the importance of tonight's debate for everybody. But especially everybody not named Donald Trump because we're about to move from what I call the momentum phase. The first four primaries about trying to get victories to get momentum into the math phase. When the calendar gets crowded and you start to rack up delegates. And Trump leads the momentum phase, 3 in 1. 3 in 1 is a pretty good record in any sport, including politics. So let's look at it. Right now Donald Trump has 82 delegates. Right? You need 1283 to win. So I'm just --

CUOMO: Now go slow, John, because you know who you're dealing with.

KING: We're just getting started here. But Donald Trump has 82. And you see Cruz at 17, Rubio at 16, Kasich at 6 and Carson at 4. That's a pretty good lead. Now you get again 1283 to win. But now we're going into 11 states have Republican primaries or caucuses on Tuesday. 11 states. 595 total delegates at play on Tuesday. So if Trump keeps winning, just do the math at home, folks. You know, it's proportional still. We're not in the winner take all phase for the Republicans. But Trump essentially is going to get three, four or five --

CUOMO: What are the X factors? How does he -- how do they cut into him? Obviously they're still running for a reason. How do they get to him?

KING: So let's assume, the polls show Ted Cruz ahead in his home state of Texas. Let's assume that Cruz wins Texas. He has to win Texas otherwise the rationale for running you can't win your home state. But even if Cruz wins Texas, I think we can show you the map here, you can do a scenario right now Trump is ahead in every other state. So if Trump goes 10-1 on Super Tuesday, and he's 10-1 and second place in Texas, we could come out of Super Tuesday. You see the states right there. Texas is the biggest prize, 155. But there's some big baskets there.

Georgia with 76, you know, Tennessee and Arkansas as well, and Virginia, 49, 58, 42 across there. Alaska votes, Minnesota. Look at the scenario for post-Super Tuesday. If Trump went 10-1 post-Super Tuesday he could come out within the ballpark of 345 delegates. That's a quarter of the way to victory. And Cruz and Rubio would be somewhere in the ballpark of 183, 187 each. So way behind. Well, at that point, how do you catch up? The guy is 10 laps ahead of you. Even if you run a perfect campaign from that point out but they also --

COOPER: And this argument that some of them make that, well, look, if it was just a one-on-one contest, then there would be more votes against Donald Trump. There's a flaw in that in which if a Ted Cruz drops out, it's very possible a lot of his -- a lot of those voters would go to Donald Trump.

[17:55:06] KING: And when does that happen?

COOPER: Right.

KING: Let's assume Cruz wins Texas. So he will stay. He will say I proved I can win again. Then Rubio who's trailing in Florida right now, and in March 15th John Kasich and Marco Rubio in their home states have to win or else people will turn to them and say, you've got to get out. But -- first we got Tuesday and Trump is going to build -- looks like he's going to build a lead.

CUOMO: First we have tonight which is going to be a big lead-in to what happens on Tuesday. And that's why we need you here tonight to watch Wolf Blitzer moderating this last big debate of the Republicans before Super Tuesday. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Happening now. Final showdown. The GOP candidates arrive for tonight's CNN debate here in Houston. It is their last face-off before Super Tuesday and if his rival can't stop Donald Trump express soon will they try for a brokered convention.