Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz; Republicans Prepare to Debate; Ex-Mexican President: 'Not Going to Pay for Wall'; GOP Debate is Last Showdown Before Super Tuesday. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 25, 2016 - 18:00   ET



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: final showdown. The GOP candidates arrive for tonight's CNN debate here in Houston. It's their last face-off before Super Tuesday. And if his rivals can't stop Donald Trump's express soon, will they try for a brokered convention?

Attack mode. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz badly need to land some punches tonight. And with Trump's tendency to hit back hard, the debate could easily turn into another bare-knuckled brawl.

And a former GOP contender is piling on -- 2012 nominee Mitt Romney is in a public spat with Donald Trump over tax returns after hinting the billionaire has something to hide.

Plus, with the debate taking place in a border state, the immigration battle is heating up, the former Mexican president warning Trump that he's not going to pay for the -- quote -- "F'ing wall" and warns Latinos against what he calls a crazy guy.

Want to welcome our viewers in the United States and watching around the world. Wolf Blitzer is preparing to moderate tonight's Republican debate. I'm Anderson Cooper, along with Chris Cuomo.


And welcome. We're live from the University of Houston, site of tonight's CNN Republican presidential debate now just two-and-a-half- hours away, a critical showdown, the final GOP debate before Super Tuesday, when delegates are up for grabs in more than a dozen states.

The candidates have arrived here at the debate hall, where it may be the last chance for Donald Trump's rivals to try and slow his momentum. The front-runner has won three states in a row and is riding high in polls. Ted Cruz leads in his home state of Texas, but has spent much of his time clashing with Marco Rubio, who hasn't won a single state and trails Trump badly in his own state of Florida.

John Kasich and Ben Carson will stand at opposite ends of the debate stage tonight. They are taking heat for acting as spoilers and need strong performances to fend off the increasing pressure to bow out. There's a wild card tonight as well, as the GOP establishment shows growing anxiety over Trump's lead -- 2012 nominee Mitt Romney has gotten into a public feud with Trump over tax returns.

Romney suggests Trump is hiding a bombshell. Trump called him a dope.

And first on CNN, as Marco Rubio scrambles for support, his campaign is telling donors and power brokers that it's preparing for a brokered convention as a way to keep the nominee away from Trump or Cruz.

The tension building, the stakes high, and we have the kind of coverage only CNN can deliver.

The candidates have checked out the debate hall here. They are now making their final preparations. That is the room inside the debate hall.

We begin with CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

What are you learning from the campaigns, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, Donald Trump better have his body armor on tonight on this debate stage behind me.

With the GOP front-runner looking to run the table on Super Tuesday., Trump's rivals are signaling they are going on the attack tonight. A senior adviser to Ted Cruz tells me the Texas senator is no longer going to -- quote -- "take it on the chin" when it comes to Trump calling him a liar.

Cruz has been more aggressive in going after Trump in recent days, urging voters not to fall for P.T. Barnum, and that this adviser tells me we will see that play out on the stage later tonight. This could also be a make-or-break night for all of the contenders vying to be the anti-Trump in the GOP race.

Marco Rubio has sharpened his rhetoric in recent days, saying Trump supports parts of Obamacare. We will probably hear Trump's response to that later on tonight. And a pro-John Kasich super PAC is going after Rubio, disputing the notion that the Florida senator should be the establishment's number one candidate.

As for Rubio, my colleague M.J. Lee is reporting the Florida senator's advisers have been meeting to prepare for the possibility of a brokered convention, but Rubio needs to survive long -- all the way to the convention. He's going to have to do some winning before then. He needs to win his state of Florida. A new poll there shows him losing to Donald Trump, but Rubio's team is telling me take it to the bank. He will win in Florida -- Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Jim Acosta, not-so-secret secret coming out of the Rubio camp. We will talk about the implications there.

There no question there's so much riding on tonight's debate. The showdown could turn into another brawl among the Republican rivals.

Let's turn to CNN political reporter Sara Murray in the spin room.

Sara, a key Republican establishment figure is throwing fuel on the fire now. What do you make of the Romney situation?


You would think that Donald Trump would be brawling today with other Republican rivals from this cycle, but the guy he's fighting with is the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, who has said there could be a bombshell in Donald Trump's taxes, is calling on Trump to release his back taxes.

Now, as Trump is wont to do, he took to Twitter to respond today. He said, "Mitt Romney, who was one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics, is now pushing me on tax returns. Dope."

And he even released a photo, Donald Trump did, of him signing his tax return, a huge sheet of paper there talking about how ridiculous the whole thing is.


Now, none of this is prompting Governor Romney to back down from his criticism. He decided to join this Twitter battle today weighing in and saying: "Methinks the Donald doth protest too much. Show us your back taxes, Donald Trump." He used "#whatishehiding."

Now, Mitt Romney knows betters than most how damaging the tax issue can be. He was really slow to release his tax returns four years ago. When he did, he faced a lot of criticism about his low tax rate and also about his overseas holdings. The questions for Donald Trump would be, what kind of charitable giving do you have? What is your overall tax tab?

We were just speaking right now me to Alex Conant, who is the spokesman for Marco Rubio's camp. He says he does believe that Republican voters should get a look at these candidates' tax returns before we hit the general election. He said Marco Rubio will release his own returns in just a few days -- back to you, Anderson.

CUOMO: But a bombshell, obviously, Sara, is a little more of a shoulder shrug if you don't have the there there, the proof. So, we wait on that.

What else are you hearing out of the Rubio campaign, this odd tension between the urgency of telling everybody, vote for me now vs., hey, we will maybe do a brokered convention? What are you hearing?

MURRAY: We were just talking to Alex Conant about that as well. While he'd not comment specifically on what Terry Sullivan had to say, he said he still expects Marco Rubio to sew up enough delegates to win the nomination before we get to California, but he reiterated this is going to be a long slog campaign. He said their campaign is preparing for any possible scenario.

That's sort of how they are spinning that little discussion to us today -- Anderson. COOPER: Sara Murray, thanks very much for the latest.

Joining us is Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He also serves on the Judiciary Committee and he has endorsed Senator Marco Rubio's White House bid.

Congressman, thanks very much for being with us.

This new Quinnipiac poll shows Rubio way below Trump in his home state of Florida. Rubio's campaign says not to worry. Senator Tim Scott couldn't say on this program just yesterday that Rubio had Florida in the bag. Given these numbers, what do you say? Does Rubio have his own state?

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ (R), UTAH: I hope so. He needs to.

I think as you look at the home state, just as Ted Cruz, if he can't pull off in Texas, I think Marco Rubio needs to pull off Florida. That's just my personal opinion. And Mr. Kasich, if he thinks he's going to stay in the race, the governor is going to have to pull off Ohio. You are expected to win your home state.

COOPER: At this point, though, if the race doesn't become a one-on- one matchup, how does your candidate -- if Cruz doesn't drop out, if Kasich doesn't drop out and Carson, how does your candidate actually start to win anywhere? Where on the map do you see him right now winning?

CHAFFETZ: Well, look, this is the challenge for Republicans. If we actually want to have a nominee who is conservative, then you better rally around somebody.

And I think the most conservative person that can win in November is Marco Rubio. And we have got a decision as a party. And there's still millions of votes to be had. That's in part why I'm pouring my heart and soul behind Marco Rubio. He is that conservative. He is principled. He's not going to surprise us. He's going to make us proud.

And he can rally and expand the tent, so that when we take on Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, we can actually win, with a conservative.

CUOMO: The math isn't exactly clear anymore that this coalescing theory around one candidate, in particular Marco Rubio, would be enough to wind up more than balancing the field against Trump.

But that's a little bit theoretical, because, as you said, we have to see which way the votes go. But tonight is practical. Tonight is real. What's is your advice to Senator Rubio about what to do on that stage?

CHAFFETZ: Well, to answer the first part of your question, Donald Trump has not broken 50 percent.

In South Carolina, he got less than a third of the vote. There's still a lot of votes out there and a lot of people that I think are still shopping and trying to find the right person. For the debate, I think Marco Rubio just needs to be Marco Rubio.

You don't need to try to pretend to be somebody else. And if you do pretend to be somebody else, you are going to get called out on it. Just be the passionate conservative that talks from his heart and his soul and Marco Rubio will be doing just fine.

COOPER: Do you believe he should start to go after Donald Trump to try to confront him more directly than he has?

CHAFFETZ: Marco Rubio's style is to be aspirational. I think he's got a very detailed plan, the most detailed plan that I see out there in the field.

If he gets hit, I think he will hit back. I know in New Hampshire, to use a sports metaphor, he threw a little bit of an interception. But you know what? You can still go out and win the Super Bowl even though you throw an interception in the first quarter.

I think he's going to be just fine. He talks from his heart, he knows what he believes. And he just -- he's probably not going to throw the first punch, but that second punch will be quite a punch to the gut, if he gets one.

COOPER: In terms of -- Marco Rubio has said that he is the most qualified in terms of foreign policy, the most experienced to become president.


Aside from committee assignments, which is what he often names, I mean, can you name a specific plan he has to defeat ISIS that's really anything different than what's already being done?

CHAFFETZ: You can't dismiss his committee assignment when you are on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He's seeing the same intelligence that the presidential level intelligence is seeing.

Nobody else in the field is having those types of experiences. So, for instance, I went into Libya. I was the first person after Benghazi to go into Libya. I talked to Marco Rubio, who had also been to Libya. I don't think anybody else in the field had been to Libya.

He's done good things on human trafficking. He understands the world. He's traveled the world. You can't just dismiss seeing that intelligence, digesting it and having those secretive discussions in a classified setting.

COOPER: But in terms of policy, does he -- I mean, how is he -- how is he any different than any of the other candidates? What can he offer?

CHAFFETZ: If you look at his world view and his understanding of the world, whether it be the Middle East, North Korea, the South China Sea, just watch the debates. I think it will play out tonight on the program. He understands this,

he can articulate it, he has a vision for it, unlike the others, who have trouble just articulating who these leaders are, which countries are even involved, understanding the Sunni-Shia relationship and how we put together a force to actually win and defeat ISIS.

I think he has the most comprehensive plan. But everybody needs to go and look at their own Web sites and hear them out and make their own decisions.

CUOMO: Well, to this point, clearly, it hasn't been resonating, as we look at the results. And that winds up raising another practical concern for you and all of his supporters, which is, if he does not get the delegates that are necessary and Trump doesn't, is Rubio's best chance at this point a brokered convention?

CHAFFETZ: Well, yes, again, you have had no candidate that's broken the barrier of 50 percent.

When Mitt Romney was in the fight in Nevada, he was north of 50 percent of the vote. No doubt Donald Trump is doing well. He's got three wins. I'm not trying to take anything away from him. But let's understand that you have got millions of votes out there, more proportional votes than we have had in the past. And a brokered convention is still a very distinct possibility.

COOPER: We are going to take a short break. We are going to have more with Congressman Jason Chaffetz in just a moment.

Our coverage continues.



CUOMO: We're back with Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He backs Senator Marco Rubio's White House bid.

It's good to have you with us, Congressman.

Now, last time you were on this show, it was Wolf Blitzer. This time, it was Anderson Cooper. Both times, it was the same question, which is, can you point to a major specific achievement that Rubio has had in the area of foreign policy? Because you tout that as his advantage. You want to answer that today?

CHAFFETZ: Well, yes, as I said before, the work he did in a bipartisan way on human trafficking was a very important thing.

When you talk about the future of little girls and what they have done, it's been very important. And there's also a contrast with Ted Cruz. Marco Rubio has been in support of the National Defense Authorization Act. Ted Cruz votes against that.

Marco Rubio is voting for an increase in pay and Ted Cruz is voting against a pay raise for our troops. Those are distinguishing features in the two candidates that actually have to vote and participate on things.

CUOMO: Right. Human trafficking, you are going to find very little audience for people who are opposed to trying to stop it around the world.

But when you're dealing with the big-ticket issues of the threats to America of ISIS and what to do in the ongoing wars in Syria and Libya, can you point to something that Marco Rubio wants to do that others do not?

CHAFFETZ: Well, again, if you go to, he lays out what he's trying to do in building that coalition.

It's very much different, very different from what Donald Trump is trying to do. And, again, if you look at the actual votes and the leadership that it takes to pass a National Defense Authorization Act, there's one person in this race that's voted against that. And that's Ted Cruz.

And if you talk to the military and the people that are there on the ground and fighting, there's a huge difference between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. There's just -- it's a vote. It's what senators do. He has spent time in the area. He's been on the Intelligence Committee. That's the way I see it.

COOPER: There's very few people, though, who don't believe that there should be a coalition of people fighting ISIS, particularly from Muslim countries.

The question is, what's different about Rubio and can he actually achieve that? There's a reason why the coalition has not been built, because a lot of these states are frankly not willing. They don't see ISIS as their primary enemy.

CHAFFETZ: Well, look, a lot of them take a very different stance than, say, the Democrats.

I think the Republicans have been very united in saying that the Iran deal was absolutely wrong. You're right. There's not a lot of daylight and difference from the fact that Republicans are absolutely totally opposed to what the president did in Iran.

Now, does that mean that that's going to be a distinguishing factor? It is in November. But is it right now? They are all pretty strong in saying the Iran deal was absolutely, totally and fundamentally wrong.

CUOMO: So, can you say right now that Marco Rubio would repeal the Iran deal, which, as you know, may not even be possible, but are you saying that that would be his intention?

CHAFFETZ: Yes, absolutely.

I have heard him talk about that. Yes, I would expect that. I think most Republicans feel that way. CUOMO: Do you think that that's a good idea to -- can you argue why that's a good idea to undo a deal that your partners wanted and they are so important to the sustainability in that region?


CHAFFETZ: Well, look, we gave the Iranian regime more than $100 billion.

And, as Marco Rubio has talked about, they are not going to use that money to go out and build orphanages. What they're going to do is invest in terrorism and building up their own defenses. And I just don't think it was in the best interest of the United States of America. I really don't.

It's amazing to me that this president took that position, he pushed it down, and Republicans have been adamant across the board in saying it was absolutely the wrong policy for the safety and security of the United States of America.

COOPER: Congressman Chaffetz, I appreciate your time tonight. We will be watching how your candidate does on the stage tonight in about a little more than two hours from now.

Let's bring in our panel, CNN chief national correspondent and anchor of "INSIDE POLITICS," John King, chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and CNN senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson.

John, it's going to be fascinating on the stage what tactics these candidates take against Donald Trump. Is it already too late to now try to take him down?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, it's not too late, but they have let him get to the point ahead in the delegates, which is a pretty modest lead right now, but ahead in the polling if you look at the next round of states as we get into it.

We're entering a very busy phase now. You aren't spending a couple weeks in Iowa and then a week in New Hampshire and then a few days in South Carolina; 11 states vote on the Republican side on Tuesday. Donald Trump just bought about $1.6 million in advertising time. Imagine that. He'd not been on the air. He's ahead in 10 of the 11 states, all but Texas, and he wasn't even running TV ads.

It is inconceivable to think his strength in the race right now is just...

CUOMO: Look, it's an interesting dynamic we have. People will say, don't call it yet. There's only just 6 percent. We have all these other things. Yes, but that assumes things will change, Gloria Borger, that will disrupt the polling, that will disrupt momentum, that will disrupt his advantage. What are those things?


GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, potentially one of the other two guys dropping out -- or three guys, I should say.

CUOMO: And then what happens? What happens if everybody leaves expect Marco Rubio?

BORGER: But you can't assume that...


CUOMO: But even if it did.

BORGER: Cruz's supporters could go to Trump.

CUOMO: That's right.

BORGER: You really don't know.

And I think if I were Donald Trump, on Texas, and I don't know what you think about this, John, but why focus and spend all this money in Texas? It's in his interest, I would think, to keep Cruz in the race, because then you have these two guys going after each other.


COOPER: You think it's in Donald Trump's interest...


KING: Gloria is absolutely right, because if Cruz wins, then he stays. If he loses his home state, it's pretty embarrassing. There will be a lot of pressure to leave. So, Cruz stays, and that delays until March 15. It delays for another six, eight, 10 contests.


CUOMO: Delays what? If Cruz stays in the race, why is it good for Trump?


KING: Because Rubio and Kasich stay in too until March 15.

COOPER: Keeps the field still divided.

KING: This home court advantage thing, if you can win your -- everyone says -- Jason Chaffetz just said to you if Rubio can't win Florida, what's the rationale for his candidacy?

We will see if he can. Kasich has said I'm not going anywhere until Ohio votes on March 15. In the meantime, even if they win their home states and Trump is winning everything else, he starts to pull away in the delegates.

BORGER: You don't want to test the proposition that if it's one on one that Trump has a ceiling, if I'm Donald Trump. So keep Cruz -- let Cruz win Texas. Why not?


COOPER: Nia, it was just announced Mike Huckabee's daughter has joined the Trump campaign. Thinking about possible vice presidential picks for Trump, could this signal anything?

I asked Trump about this yesterday, about what he's thinking about in terms of a vice president. Obviously, he said somebody who could actually fill the role of president if something happened to the president. But he also talked about not having a businessperson, somebody with political experience, somebody who could help him actually in Washington get things done.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a little bit early to be talking about who the number two on a Trump ticket would be, but as you laid out there and Trump laid out last night, Mike Huckabee would fit that bill.

He was a Southern governor, he was a pretty successful governor. Lots of African-Americans voted for him when he ran in Arkansas. But I do think this is really about Arkansas, which is voting on March 1. Huckabee, obviously, from Arkansas. Sarah Huckabee worked for him in some of those campaigns he had for president.

And it's also just sending a signal that Donald Trump is serious, serious about the different coalitions in this party, Huckabee of course representing evangelicals and homeschoolers, the kind of folks who are in Arkansas and Iowa. I think it's more about that, just him sending this signal to the chattering classes and to the Republican Party that he's getting serious. He's bringing in different counselors who are known and who have a name brand and a constituency.

Also notable that last week, for instance, it was reported that Giuliani is also kind of an informal adviser. So you have got sort of two different types of people there who are lending him support and giving him advice.


CUOMO: It's interesting. You keep hearing from the New York power circles that's people are reaching out to Trump for one of two reasons. One is to try to get him to stop what he's doing and the other one is to help him keep going with what he's doing.

Either way, he's getting a lot of attention. Now, what you have is a different dynamic, John King, when you're looking at the Rubio race. We're all hearing the same kinds of things. People are nervous about where the path is forward. And then we hear word that, with one hand, they're saying, whoa, don't go so fast about Rubio not getting the votes he needs and the other hand is a phone talking to donors about a brokered convention.

What is that move?

KING: Well, look, you should plan for all contingencies in life. Everyone plan for all contingencies in life, including candidates in a race for president. Do some Republicans think now that you can't stop Trump, you're not

going to beat him, so the only way to stop him is to keep him from getting a majority, getting 1,283 delegates by the convention? Some think that. We're only four contests in. Let's see it play out.

But here's a proposition for you. Let's say hypothetically Donald Trump gets 900 or 950 delegates. So he doesn't win and Rubio is second with 500 something and Cruz is third with 300 something.

Do you think after -- so the first ballot Donald Trump doesn't win. Do you think that Donald Trump delegates are then going to say, OK, let's do Rubio? The guys who are running behind Trump, if we get to a convention, and Trump does not have a majority, they will face a choice if he's the leader.

Do you give it to the leader anyway, say democracy rules, he didn't get the majority, but he got the most? Or then I think it would have to be somebody new? It would not turn into a floor fight. It would be a bar fight if you try to tell the Trump delegates, we're going to give it to Cruz or Rubio. I just don't see that's happening.

BORGER: There's no such thing as a brokered convention anymore, because there aren't any brokers. Who could do that?

CUOMO: It's just broke.

BORGER: It's just broke, right.

COOPER: So, how would it work?

BORGER: I don't even know how it would work.

The old rules were, and I think, and, John, you would know more about this than I do, but that when they were afraid of Ron Paul last time around at an open convention, they said you had to win a majority of eight states.

Now, every convention reconstitutes itself and comes up with new rules. So what are the rules, if you went into a convention where nobody had a majority? If you went into a convention, they'd have to write new rules. You think the Trump people are going to lie down and play dead when you write those rules?

Absolutely not. So there are no power brokers anymore. There are very committed delegates for Donald Trump. And then, as John points out, what do you do, say, oh, by the way, maybe we'd like Paul Ryan to be the nominee? I don't see how you do that without going through the process.

KING: I don't think it's going to happen.

BORGER: I don't think so.

KING: But if it happens, I do not see somebody who came in second, third or fourth ending up being the nominee.

BORGER: Right.

KING: If you have an open convention and you go three, four, five ballots and nobody who ran wins at that point, then -- again, I don't think this is going to happen, but then I think then they start saying, where is Mitt Romney, where is Paul Ryan? Or it goes to somebody new.

But this is fantasy land. The challenge for these candidates right now is, if you aren't Donald Trump, the challenge is to find a way to beat him and beat him consistently. They have not been able do that.

BORGER: You can't disenfranchise your base of the party, when you actually want to win a general election.


COOPER: Particularly when you have turned out new voters, when you have a lot of enthusiasm about the person.

KING: The customer is always right.

CUOMO: Although the people who would be at the convention for Trump aren't the same ones who are for him out on the hustings, but the point still stands.

Nia-Malika, thank you very much. Gloria, John, appreciate it.

If that's fantasy land, then what we have tonight is, again, an all- important reality. What happens on the GOP debate stage is going to make a big deal going on. The factors that go into it, we're going to talk about as well.

This man, the former president of Mexico, has just weighed in, in a big way, and used language that even Donald Trump doesn't like.


COOPER: Welcome back. We are live from the University of Houston where the CNN Republican presidential debate begins just about two hours from now. It is the candidates' final face-off before Super Tuesday.

[18:33:40] Donald Trump will be the target tonight. For his rivals, it's a final chance to slow down the front-runner. Let's check in with the CNN chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, the candidates will provide plenty of fire tonight. But now an outsider, former Mexican president, is also lashing out at Trump and probably giving him a gift.

ACOSTA: That's right, Anderson. So much of an outsider, he's outside of the country. Donald Trump is battling with a different kind of Fox today. After fighting with the pope, the Bushes, Mitt Romney, now Donald Trump is fighting with the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox. The former Mexican president was asked by Jorge Ramos at Fusion about Trump's vow to make Mexico pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Vicente Fox had some harsh words for saying Mr. Trump, tear down that wall. Here's what's he had to say.


VICENTE FOX, FORMER PRESIDENT OF MEXICO: I'm not 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, democracy cannot take us to crazy people that doesn't know what's going on in the world today.


ACOSTA: Now as he often does, Trump fired back on Twitter. We put this up on screen saying the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, horribly used an "F" word in attacking me.

Of course, Donald Trump, who is known to use a few F-bombs himself.

[18:35:06] We should point out Vice President Joe Biden, who was down in Mexico today with the current president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto. He apologized to the leader of Mexico for some of the rhetoric out on the campaign trail on the Republican side, namely, Donald Trump. Here's what's Vice President Biden had to say.


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 what some of 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 of 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.


ACOSTA: Now, while Democrats, including the vice president, are seizing on this fight between Donald Trump and Vicente Fox, I talked to a top Republican strategist today, Chris, who said this is sort of a gift to Donald Trump to have the GOP front-runner fighting with the former president of Mexico probably will play well with Donald Trump supporters and probably here tonight, as well -- Chris.

CUOMO: You know, Jim, what does he want to talk about? Justifying whether his economic plan adds more to the debt than the current administration or building a wall and how the Mexican former president is against it? Easy decision for Donald Trump.

All right. So let's discuss with our CNN political commentators, Ana Navarro, Kevin Madden and S.E. Cupp.

So Ana, we're hearing the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from the former president in Mexico. Donald Trump says he wants an apology. Really, what he probably wants to say is thank you. What's your take?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's the best thing that could happen to Donald Trump. The best thing that could happen to Donald Trump today. Maybe the only thing that would have been better is if Vicente Fox had said it in Spanish.

Look, you know, for -- I can see Vicente Fox's position. Right? You know that Mexico, Mexicans, a very nationalistic country. They have to be very offended at some of the things Donald Trump has said.

But it played right into his hands. It is a great gift with the Republican base to get into a fight with the former president of Mexico. Sure as hell beats getting into a fight with Pope Francis.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Biden's comments and using the word "apologize" to -- down in Mexico. I mean, that plays right into Donald Trump's hands.

COOPER: I think there's no doubt you're going to hear that on the debate stage from one or more of the candidates talking about Joe Biden apologizing in a foreign country for rhetoric that's being said on the campaign trail.

MADDEN: Potentially. I mean, I don't think that's the best line of attack from Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. I think there are other things they'll want at the top of their agenda, things to attack him on.

But certainly, Donald Trump is -- the next time you hear him on the campaign trail, he's going to be reveling in the fact that he has now gotten us into this one-on-one debate with somebody like Vicente Fox. He's going to be using that to his advantage. He's going to be using it to stir up his supporters.

CUOMO: And, you know, it also makes him, S.E. Cupp, makes him look like the big man, right? You know, he's being taken on by former presidents, popes. It gives him a sense of dominance.


CUOMO: So with that in mind, what do you think the adjustment is, the calibration is on that stage tonight for a Rubio, for a Cruz when they want to be considered the man?

CUPP: Well, I absolutely would take on Trump on that Biden apology. I mean, the whole problem with Trump is that he's a gift to Democrats. He allows Democrats like Joe Biden to inaccurately but convincingly paint all Republicans with the same brush. You heard Joe Biden apologizing for some of the candidates. We know he's talking about one candidate. He's talking about Donald

Trump. But whether it's Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Joe Biden, they're all really able to paint the entire Republican Party with a Trump brush, even despite the fact that the other candidates have regularly and routinely gone against Donald Trump.

So I absolutely would, if I were Rubio or Cruz, talk about the damage that Trump is doing to the Republican party and that he is a gift to Democrats like Hillary Clinton.

COOPER: Kevin Madden, I've got to ask you, I mean, you were the senior communications strategist for Mitt Romney. What do you think his strategy is in coming forward now? Coming forward yesterday and questioning Donald Trump when is he going to release his taxes? Is he hiding something, suggesting there may be a bombshell there.

MADDEN: I think it's born of a frustration that the campaigns right now haven't gone after Donald Trump with -- with a harder edge.

COOPER: So this is a signal to the other candidates...

MADDEN: I think it's a signal that this is -- look, this is how you do it. And I think the other part of that message is, by the way, what I'm doing right now to going to soften him up that so you can attack him and also...

[18:40:10] CUOMO: Who asked him to do it?

MADDEN: I don't think it was coordinated.

CUOMO: It was his idea to call out taxes after what happened with Harry Reid?

MADDEN: Right, because let me put it this way, if it was coordinated, I think the other campaigns would say, "Hey, Mitt, I don't think you're the best guy to make that attack."

COOPER: We should point out to our viewers, in case they don't remember, he was hit hard by the Democrats for not releasing his taxes. Finally, he did release them.

MADDEN: And nobody betters than Governor Romney knows the effectiveness of that attack and how it exposes you to a certain vulnerable message that you are -- you are hiding something or you aren't being transparent enough. And that is a potential vulnerability for Donald Trump, should he decide to continue to not...

COOPER: But has Trump inoculated himself from some of that criticism? I think -- I can't remember if it was you who made the point last night that, you know, when the Democrats did it against Mitt Romney, it allowed the Democrats to define Mitt Romney, who was largely unknown to a lot of voters.

Donald Trump is a known quantity and has come forward already and said, "You know what? I'll tell you one thing. I want to pay as little taxes as possible." MADDEN: And the qualification I had for it last night, which is that

this is a potentially very effective attack on a traditional candidate. Donald Trump, we've seen is not that traditional.

COOPER: People like that he's rich. It's not a net worth statement.

MADDEN: He's been unapologetic, Chris. He said, "Absolutely, I try to keep my taxes low. I don't want to give any more money to the government so that they can waste it." And that has been a bridge between him and his supporters who buy into that economic populism.

COOPER: We've got to take a short break. We're going to have more from Ana and S.E. and Kevin. We're going to take a short break. Our coverage continues in just a moment.


[18:46:28] CUOMO: There is a lot going on in the race for president ahead of tonight's big CNN GOP debate.

Let's get back with our political commentators to make sense of it all. Here you have Cuomo and Cooper with Ana Navarro, Kevin Madden and S.E. Cupp.

So, let me ask you this, Kevin, but again, you are just too good a source about Romney having worked on the campaign.

NAVARRO: You do know he was known as the sixth son, right?

CUOMO: Yes, I do. And he --

NAVARRO: Hopefully, he'll get 1/6 of the inheritance.


MADDEN: I have a trust fund, though.

CUOMO: So, what are the optics of it? From the Trump perspective, here comes the party at me. They're supposed to be fair. Now, they have the guy who's the last nominee coming up about taxes being echoed by other village elders. It can seem a little contrived.

MADDEN: Well, I think the hard part about it, too, is it can serve as a rallying point for so many Republicans who felt like Mitt Romney and the campaign we ran didn't run hard enough. And wasn't successful. And that's some of what you've seen in Donald Trump's response, right? Mitt Romney didn't fight hard enough, I will. Mitt Romney didn't win, I will.

And it has served as a bit of a motivator for some of his supporters. You'll continue to see that, which is, that's the past. I'm the future --

COOPER: Do you think Romney continues to kind of be in the forefront of -- MADDEN: I do, I do, because I think there's two things -- first, he

cares about the direction of this party and he thinks -- sorry, the direction of the country, and he thinks it would be important for him to lead some of the criticism against somebody he thinks would be a -- would not be a good president. Also would not be a good nominee for the party, a good representative of the party. So, I think he believes that deeply and will continue to have a voice in this process.

COOPER: Interesting.

NAVARRO: It's got to be incredibly frustrating for Mitt Romney. He's got to be tearing the beautiful head of hair out because, look, Mitt Romney got labeled a flip-flopper. Donald Trump has flip-flopped on every possible issue under the sun and yet the label has not stuck to him.

CUOMO: Different time. Donald Trump is seen as an antidote to the ills of that party and the process.


NAVARRO: Donald Trump has embraced his wealth and said I'm very, very rich. He's turned it into an asset.

So, I think he's just judged on a very different scale than everybody else.

COOPER: S.E., there has been so much talk over the months of a Trump ceiling. Let's look at this Quinnipiac poll from Florida. Trump stands at 44 percent beating Rubio in his home state. Look at his numbers in Nevada that he won with.

As GOP candidates continue to drop out, it's possible you'll see Trump break that ceiling and cross the 50 percent threshold. This whole notion that if other candidates drop out, it ends up being a one-on- one contest that benefits the anti-Trump. That may not be true at all.

CUPP: It may not be. You know, when the campaign first began, I think, for example, Ben Carson and Donald Trump shared some voters. I think as Donald Trump ratcheted up his language, a lot of those Carson voters didn't go to Trump. They went to other candidates who were more convincing candidate. More electable.

But, sure, there's no guarantee that if, say, Ben Carson or John Kasich dropped out that those voters would definitely go to Marco Rubio or Ted they could go with Trump, but what I do know is as long as there are four other people running against Trump, that only benefits Trump. And we'll never really know if there's a contest between a Trump and a Trump alternative until there's only one Trump alternative.

Now, who is going to tell Ted Cruz, who has actually won a primary, to get out now? [18:50:02] Who is going to tell Marco Rubio, who is now besting Cruz

in a number of different contests, to get out? From my point of view, it only makes sense for Ben Carson to drop out. You could even make a case that Kasich could go into Ohio.

So, it's -- you know, it's a tough spot and that's why you're seeing the gloves come off. I think tonight is going is to be a hugely, hugely important debate for all of these contestants.

COOPER: Yes. But about an hour and 40 minutes just ahead, a critical showdown in tonight's CNN Republican debate. Can Donald Trump's rivals try to slow his momentum ahead of Super Tuesday? Is that even possible when delegates, of course, in Super Tuesday are up for grabs in more than a dozen states? And what does the frontrunner need to do tonight to help him stay on top? We'll ask a supporter next.


[18:55:24] COOPER: We are counting down to the CNN Republican presidential debate. A little over 90 minutes away.

Joining us now is Kayleigh McEnany. She's a Donald Trump supporter.

Kayleigh, good to have you on the program.

Trump hasn't focused on specifics. He said he'll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it. He says he'll knock the hell out of ISIS, doesn't explain how.

At a certain point, if he becomes the nominee, could we be looking at a candidate that really does not have a lot of meat on the bone in terms of specifics for these policies?

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, DONALD TRUMP SUPPORTER: I don't think so. You know, right now, the beauty of Trump is his simplicity. He puts forth a very simple message, "I'm going to make America great again." He brings forth the outline of his policies in debates and it resonates with voters. But if you go on Trump's websites, you see detailed policies, how they're going to work, you see the specifics you want.

But a debate format isn't necessarily where he's going to bring those out. He wants to drive home his simple message.

COOPER: But I'm not talking about -- I'm not talking about a debate format. I'm just talking about in interviews and speeches which he gives quite often. I mean, don't you want the president to be familiar with the specifics, the very detailed specifics, of a policy rather than just saying, well, you can go to this website where maybe somebody else has written it out?

MCENANY: I think he gives those specifics. So, for instance, with health care, he says --

COOPER: Really?

MCENANY: -- he doesn't want to see Americans dying on the streets. When pressed for those specifics, he says health care savings account. I'm going to erase boundaries in state lines and allow there to be a free market system. I think he's given a lot of those specifics.

But really, he's driving home the simple message right now and I think it's working.


COOPER: Right. But those are two sentences -- it's definitely working, but those are two sentences describing his health care plan. Can you say three or four more sentences to describe his health care plan?

MCENANY: I think he certainly could. He's a very smart man. He's build a $10 billion brand. But the point is we look to other candidates who have laid 12-point visions.

COOPER: But you cannot?

MCENANY: Hillary Clinton has eight, 12-point visions. Donald Trump can do that. He certainly can. He's a very smart man. But people are tired of the 12-point visions that never get implemented in practice. Obama gave us all the specifics that he wanted, but really, we're in a dire place in this country. So, people want strength more so than 12-point plans.

COOPER: Well, I'm not asking for a 12-point plan. I'm asking for two or three more points. Can you give any other points other than the two you gave on Donald Trump's health plan?

MCENANY: Sure, sure.

COOPER: But those are the only that we have actually heard from Donald Trump about his plan.

MCENANY: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, let's pivot to the tax plan where he says anyone under --

COOPER: No, no, I'm talking about the health plan.

MCENANY: The $25,000 doesn't pay taxes.

COOPER: The health plan. I'm talking about the health plan.

MCENANY: Those are the two key prongs of his plan. Repeal -- OK, the health plan, repeal Obamacare. Replace it with health care savings account. Replace it with competition across state lines. Those are the broad outlines of his plan. And that's all he needs to put forth at this time.

COOPER: Those are two.

MCENANY: Those who -- no, those are the two prongs of the policy. And I think it's an important on. And you can go to his website to find the detailed nitty-gritty.


CUOMO: Kayleigh, you know what the point is. You know what the point is. He's not winning or fighting this fight on the basis of policy.

That's not what he's offering right now. What he's offering is an antidote to the frustration with the process, the frustration with the party and it's resonating. There's no question.

It's now that he has this position and if he maintains it and he becomes the nominee, everything changes in the general. And just looking at Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders and telling them how much you don't like them won't be enough. Do you believe that he will change in a way to capture minds and hearts the way you need to, to win an election in this country?

MCENANY: He does -- I don't think he needs to change. You look at South Carolina where 92 percent of voters who voted were angry with the federal government. Likewise you look in Nevada, 94 percent were angry the federal government.

People don't like what's happening. They don't like Obamacare, where you had 2,000 more pages in Obamacare. What you get in practice is a flawed and broken system.

Voters are rejecting Washington. They're rejecting specifics really. And they want them to capture -- they want Donald Trump to capture their anger, speak to them, purvey strength. When he gets in the White House, you're going to see a very successful country.

COOPER: All right. Kayleigh, thanks very much. Thanks very much for watching.

I'm Anderson Cooper. You've been watching THE SITUATION ROOM with Chris Cuomo.

CNN's special coverage of tonight's presidential debate continues right now with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT." I'll see you back in an hour.