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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With California Congressman Darrell Issa; Stopping Trump; Democrats Focus on Jobs, Economy in Michigan; Trump Reverses Position on Torture; Democrats Focus on Jobs, Economy in Michigan. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 4, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Donald Trump changes his stance on torture less than 24 hours after saying in a presidential debate that military commanders would follow his orders to water-board terror suspects. Now Trump is vowing to obey the U.S. law banning water-boarding. What's behind the dramatic reversal?

Below the belt, astonishing exchanges between the GOP candidates in their latest face-off, being described by some as vulgar and a new low in American politics. The candidates, they are back out there on the campaign trail tonight. And we're standing by to hear from Donald Trump. After last night's slew of insults, why are his rivals vowing to support Trump if he wins the nomination?

Flint face-off. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders preparing to go head-to-head in the CNN Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan. But, first, they will be battling for delegates in the Super Saturday primaries and caucuses. Who has the advantage as Nebraska, Kansas and Louisiana prepare to vote?

And dirty tricks. The bitter Republican battle for the White House echoing another campaign that gave rise to the attack ads that dominate modern politics. After more than half-a-century, is political history repeating itself?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking political news tonight, a sudden and dramatic reversal by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump on torture.

Trump now saying that if he's elected, he will follow the law banning water-boarding by U.S. forces. But on the debate stage last night, less than 24 hours ago, he was vowing to order military commanders to subject terror suspects to water-boarding and even more, insisting that officers would follow what would be an illegal command.

It was one of a number of jaw-dropping moments in the debate, which was marked by shocking, insulting and what some call vulgar exchanges. We're also following the Democrats, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

vying for voters in three states tomorrow. And on Sunday, they will make their cases directly to the entire country in our CNN Democratic presidential debate live from Flint, Michigan.

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our guests, including Republican Congressman Darrell Issa. He's a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And our correspondents and expert analysts, they are also standing by.

Let's begin with the race for the White House among the Republicans.

Our political reporter Sara Murray is in New Orleans for us tonight.

Sara, Trump is holding a rally there in a little while. What's the latest?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Donald Trump will be here in just a little while. But the big news coming from Trump today is that in the face of backlash from foreign policy experts and from national security experts, he is changing course on his tough talk on torture.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We should go for water- boarding and we should go tougher than water-boarding.

MURRAY (voice-over): That opinion is changing tonight, as Donald Trump backs off his position on torture, the GOP front-runner releasing a statement saying he understands "that the United States is bound by laws and treaties and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws."

The slip comes after Trump was pressed on his pledge to target family members of terrorists, a violation of international law.

TRUMP: I'm a leader. I have always been a leader. I have never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they're going to do it.

MURRAY: Today on the trail, pressing issues like national security are taking a back seat to another top concern for Trump.

TRUMP: When little Marco spews his crap about the size of my hands, which are big. Look at that. Those hands can hit a golf ball 285 yards.

MURRAY: Trump still making the case that size matters, which might be true if were talking about the size of his delegate count. But, of course, he's talking about his hands again.

TRUMP: Little hands. Little hands.

MURRAY: Fresh on the heels of a surreal and at times vulgar debate.

TRUMP: He hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands. I have never heard of this. Look at those hands. Are they small hands?

(LAUGHTER)

TRUMP: And he referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem.

MURRAY: That appeared to leave John Kasich looking on in disbelief.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have never tried to go and get into these kind of scrums that we're seeing here on the stage. And people say everywhere I go, you seem to be the adult on the stage.

MURRAY: Candidates today are showing only passing concern that voters might come away revolted.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Nothing surprises us anymore. This man is -- as I told you, he's injected a level of vulgarity into the political discourse that we have never seen.

MURRAY: Meanwhile, Trump is continuing to defy political convention, bailing on CPAC, a prominent conservative confab this weekend, in favor of holding his own political rally.

MURRAY: All as Trump's rival slam his brand of conservatism.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When a politician tells you he's going to be flexible, that means he's getting ready to stick it to you.

RUBIO: He really doesn't belong at a conservative gathering. Donald Trump is not a conservative.

[18:05:05]

MURRAY: The anti-Trump crowd continuing to splinter, struggling to craft a path to 1,237 delegates, to wrench the nomination from Trump's grasp.

RUBIO: His road to that number is hard, Ted Cruz's is hard, mine is hard. But we will see how this plays out.

MURRAY: As Ted Cruz warns, a contested convention spells disaster.

CRUZ: A brokered convention is the pipe dream of the Washington establishment.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, the vote will be splintered among fewer candidates now.

As we know, Ben Carson did not show up for that debate, saying he did not have a path forward. He's made it official today at CPAC, saying he's dropping out of the race. Instead, he's going to lead a Christian group set on getting the Christian vote out in November -- Wolf. BLITZER: The question now, where -- the supporters of Ben Carson,

where are they going to go from here? We will find out obviously beginning tomorrow in these Super Saturday contests. Thanks very much, Sara, for that report.

All of this is being watched very closely over at the Pentagon, where Trump's comments on torture have been raising some significant concern.

Our correspondent, Barbara Starr, is standing by.

Barbara, Trump doubled down on torture, the killing of terrorists' families on the debate stage last night, today making a sudden reversal, as we just heard. Why do you think Trump released this statement today?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I think something very different happened last night, Wolf.

Donald Trump said that U.S. military troops would basically do what they are told by him if he was commander in chief. They will do what they're told. They won't refuse him, and that he was ready to order water-boarding. That is an illegal order.

The U.S. military does not obey illegal orders. In fact, under law, under military regulation, under practice, they have an obligation, in fact, to refuse illegal orders. Water-boarding, torture, illegal under federal law, against the Geneva Conventions, against the laws of armed conflict.

One can only suppose perhaps that Donald Trump's campaign became familiar with those facts, perhaps leading him to make the statement he made today. If he had not reversed, U.S. military troops, service members would have faced the prospect of refusing an illegal order from a commander in chief, and the prospect at the Pentagon of military personnel resigning rather than refusing their orders. I'll tell you, that's the kind of language I heard around the Pentagon today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And you walk around the corridors over there all the time. You speak to top Pentagon officials, military and civilian. Have they been taking Trump seriously or just brushing all of this off?

STARR: Well, I think, you know, until last night, again, I think something really changed with his language last night, saying that they would do what they're told even if it was an illegal order.

The military is apolitical in presidential elections in particular. They absolutely want to stay out of it. Individual people cast their votes, have their views. But to be told you will do what you're told even if it's illegal, I think, after that, there was a lot of concern up and down Pentagon hallways, Wolf.

BLITZER: I believe it. All right, Barbara, thank you.

Let's get some more on all of this. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California is joining us. He's

a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Judiciary Committee. He's a supporter of Marco Rubio.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

First of all, what do you make of Trump's reversal on this sensitive issue of torture, ordering U.S. military personnel to engage in torture?

REP. DARRELL ISSA (R), CALIFORNIA: Well, I think it's an example of somebody who is not ready to be the commander in chief.

He is used to getting things his way. He likes saying things and just having them happen. The reality is that, first of all, the military never did the water-boarding when water-boarding was done at Guantanamo. Second of all, this is a man who mocked and said unconscionable things about John McCain, a man who not only understood torture, but led the fight against even the CIA being involved in what can be deemed in the minds of our enemies as torture.

And somehow Donald Trump wasn't paying attention to that. And it's one of the problems. He calls it flexibility. It looks like his flexibility is based on not studying and then when he makes a gaffe saying, well, I'm flexible, and going to the other extreme. It's a real question about whether or not he's done his homework to be president.

BLITZER: We got a letter today from Senator Lindsey Graham. He wrote to General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asking about the legality of Trump's earlier comments. Is there a question, first of all, about whether Trump as commander in chief would have had the authority to tell U.S. military personnel to engage in what are clearly illegal activities?

ISSA: Well, I don't want to berate this or belittle or anything, but we have had presidents who have given unlawful orders. Right now, President Obama claims that he's going to close Guantanamo, which is directly in violation of laws that have been signed, one of them by the president.

[18:10:01]

Presidents may give unlawful orders and they are sometimes obeyed. But they are not to be obeyed. Every member of the military raises his or her hand and takes the same basic oath that the president takes, and uphold and defend the Constitution and obey the laws, the civilian laws, if you will.

So, my belief is they would not have obeyed the order. As a matter of fact,, I suspect that the Joint Chiefs would have resigned before they would have accepted that order on its face. But let's remember, we're quite a few votes from Donald Trump being the commander in chief, and this may be a good example for military men and women to say, geez, I really like what Trump says sometimes, but is he the right guy to give the nuclear codes to? BLITZER: As you know, more than 50 former national security leaders,

Republicans, they have come out. They signed a letter saying they can't support Donald Trump as commander in chief. Here's the question to you. Would you be concerned for the safety of the country should he become president?

ISSA: Based on what he's done so far, yes.

I think that's a real challenge, Wolf. This man, if he wants to be president, has to show very quickly the kinds of things that my candidate, Marco Rubio, has showed, a willingness for years to study foreign affairs, to be very, very able to carry on detailed conversations and understanding of the issues.

Donald Trump has gone out of his way to not get into details. It's an art of his. But at some point, details matter and an understanding matters, and if this is an example of his understanding of what the commander could order, then I think his supporters may think again.

BLITZER: As you know, Senator Rubio, the man you want to be the next president, he said some really awful things out Donald Trump in recent days, calling him a con man, saying he makes promises he can't keep, just last night said, though he would vote for him if he were the eventual nominee.

And a lot of people point out, just like the other Republican candidates said, if Trump is the nominee, they'd go ahead and support him, it sounds like they are being hypocritical.

ISSA: Well, to be honest, it sounds like they are giving the only answer they can give, which, by the way, is not vote. It's, will you support the nominee?

And that -- you know, that's one of those terrible things, where there's no other answer other than yes. I'm not sure that I believe Donald Trump wouldn't bolt the party if, let's say, he gets 44 percent of the electorate -- of the delegates and then somehow doesn't get the nomination.

But having said that, there was only one answer to give when asked that question. They all gave it. But you didn't see any excitement. If you said would you like to be the vice president to a President Trump, would you be willing to be the secretary of defense to a Donald Trump, some of them might say, well, it's premature and duck that answer, because a Trump administration right now doesn't appear to be one that would be on a steady course, positive and bringing America together.

And all of us, whether you like Marco Rubio, which I do, or one of the other candidates, we should be looking for somebody that's going to be a uniter, not a divider, somebody who has enough detailed knowledge to oversee a very large government, $4.2 trillion, a couple million direct employees, thousands of political appointees that's have to make this bureaucracy do its job. That's a big job. It's not a job for somebody who glosses over details. BLITZER: Well, let me ask you this question because you didn't sign

any pledge. If Trump is the nominee, and it looks like he's got a good chance to be the Republican nominee, could you support and vote for Donald Trump?

ISSA: I have serious doubts about whether or not I could stay -- I won't vote for Hillary. That's for sure. But I'm not going to commit that I'm going to go into that voting booth and cast the top of the ticket.

I have serious doubts about whether Donald Trump would be a mistake. I will tell you, as a member of House, I have real doubts about whether he understands that the problem with Barack Obama is that he doesn't respect the other branches. He thinks he can just write orders.

And a new president of my party and maybe a little bit more my direction politically who does the same thing would be no better. What we need in America is somebody who understands that the president administers laws. He has the bully pulpit, but he has to earn the American people's support. He can't simply bypass Congress and even the Supreme Court, something that I have lived with for seven years under this president. I don't want to live with it for another four or eight years under a president of either party.

BLITZER: Congressman, stand by. There's much more to discuss, lots of breaking political news happening right now.

Much more with Congressman Darrell Issa when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:19:11]

BLITZER: The breaking news: Donald Trump reversing his position on illegal torture less than 24 hours after vowing to order U.S. forces to water-board terror suspects and even go further. Trump now says he will obey the law against torture if he's elected president.

We're back with Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California. He's a member of the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees. He's also supporting Senator Marco Rubio for the Republican presidential nomination.

Congressman, listen to what Trump had to say about Rubio today. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: You know that, in Florida, they hate little Marco Rubio so much. It's true, because of the fact that he never votes. He never shows up to vote.

(BOOING)

TRUMP: So, when you think -- I mean, actually, if you will use -- I will use a phrase, a word that he uses. He has conned the people of Florida into voting for him, and I will tell you what. They are angry because he never shows -- he has the worst voting record in all of Florida.

[18:20:15]

He has the worst voting record in the United States Senate and one of the worst voting records in the history of the United States Senate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Congressman, is Rubio effectively dealing with Trump and all these attacks?

ISSA: You know, he may not be. And it's one of the concerns I have is that Marco, in spite of the fact that he will jab at Donald Trump, some things he just lets, you know, sort of roll off his back.

One of them is the fact that he and Senator Cruz have to miss votes if they're going to be out there campaigning. In the case of Senator Cruz, of course, he will continue to be a senator even if he's not elected.

In the case of Senator Rubio, he made a decision to step down. He made a decision that he would complete his term, not cause any disruption, but he would only be there for critical votes. And, remember, we're in the majority. If Mitch McConnell wants him back for a vote and schedules a vote, he will be there.

But, in the meantime, he and Senator Cruz and Senator Lindsey Graham will miss a lot of votes. It's part of running for president all over the country.

Do I wish he would jab back? But it's just -- you can't jab back at everything that Trump does, because the nature of Donald Trump, even if you are a supporter of him, you have got to understand, every time he opens his mouth, he's demeaning everybody he talks about. It's the strangest thing that I have never heard him say a good word about people that after he becomes president he would have to work with successfully.

Who is it he says good things about?

BLITZER: You agree, though, that Rubio has to win his home state of Florida on March 15, just like John Kasich has to win his home state of Ohio on March 15, winner take all, two states, in order to stay in this race, right?

ISSA: Well, I certainly think that each of these candidates should be their favorite son of their home state.

And I believe Marco Rubio will win Florida. I will be going to Florida later next week. The reality, though, is that John Kasich and Ted Cruz and, of course, Marco Rubio have one problem, which is all three of them are still in this race. And that is really the only way that Donald Trump gets to be the

nominee is if we continue as we get to winner-take-all states dividing by three two-thirds of the vote, while dividing by one one-third of the vote.

And this is the real concern that I think we all have is that, yes, I believe each of those candidates will win their home states and then we have to figure out if they all continue or we make the realization that Trump could win a lot of states by 36 percent and ultimately be the nominee of the party.

That's not earning the nomination. That's gaming the nomination in a multiway race.

BLITZER: What if Trump does really well, but doesn't get that magic number of 1,237? That's the magic number of delegates, pledged delegates he needs going into the convention. Could you see a contested convention develop, and someone, let's say, like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan emerge as the nominee?

ISSA: It's a good question, Wolf.

And it's one that I have thought a lot about. Could it happen? Of course it could happen. But, remember, each of these groups of delegates loves their own candidate. And if they give up their own candidate, is their next favorite somebody else that already earned a lot of delegates?

And I think when you look at the amount of people who are Rubio first and Kasich second or Kasich first and Rubio second, and all the other combinations, what you see is in that second and third round, for example, if John Kasich has the smallest amount, his delegates are not likely to go to somebody that isn't at the table.

They are more likely to say, you know what? My second choice always was. And so I think it's a long shot to look at somebody who hasn't earned a lot of delegates and who wasn't likely the second choice of many of these delegates. And, remember, this is not a smoke-filled room.

The delegates picked by the candidates will ultimately have to give up their candidate in a brokered convention at some point. And I don't think they give it up to somebody untested. I think they more likely give it up to the best of the alternative candidates, which I think, in a two-thirds, one-third would end up being one of the three candidates, not Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Darrell Issa, thanks very much for joining us.

ISSA: Thank you. Thanks for covering this important issue in a very adult way, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

Just ahead, as Donald Trump's lead grows, so does the sense of panic among establishment Republicans. What are their real options, though? Plus, primaries, caucuses and the CNN Democratic presidential debate.

[18:25:00]

We're taking a closer look at how Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, they are gearing up right now for a critical weekend.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking political news this hour: the Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, reversing his position on torture less than 24 hours after strongly advocating it during a presidential debate.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Joining us now, our CNN anchor, Don Lemon; our CNN politics executive editor, Mark Preston; and our CNN senior political analyst, Ron Brownstein. He's the senior editor of "The Atlantic."

[18:30:13] Mark, listen to Trump last night advocating waterboarding.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What do you think of waterboarding? I said it's fine and if we want to go stronger, I'd go stronger, too. Because frankly, that's the way I feel.

Can you imagine -- can you imagine these people, these animals over in the Middle East that chop off heads sitting around talking and seeing that we're having a hard problem with waterboarding? We should go for waterboarding, and we should go tougher than waterboarding.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Mark, and then since then, only a few hours later, he reverses himself. He issues a statement: "I understand that the United States is bound by laws and treaties, and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws and will seek their advice on such matters. I will not order a military officer to disobey the law. It is clear that as president, I will be bound by laws just like all Americans, and I will meet those responsibilities."

It's a pretty major reversal for Donald Trump right now, isn't it?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Is it the growing up of Donald Trump as a candidate? I mean, this is a gentleman who was asked not once but several times whether he'd ever ask God for forgiveness. Now, if you're an atheist I can see you saying, "No, I've never asked him for forgiveness, nor care to."

But even if you even have some inkling of religious or faith inside of you, you would say you had. I mean, everyone's been put in that position.

In this case right here, he's acknowledging that he said something wrong, and it was really a brave thing. We've talked a lot about Donald Trump's anatomy and the silliness of that during last night's debate. But his comments on waterboarding was quite -- you know, it was the most serious thing that was...

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Last night I had the governor -- former governor of Minnesota on, Jesse Ventura. And he served this country and served it well. And said what you're not saying, Don -- this is during the debate -- is what he's proposing is a war crime.

PRESTON: Right.

LEMON: That waterboarding is a war crime, and anyone who's running for president of the United States should know better. Now he's had to reverse.

BLITZER: Were you surprised, Ron, by that dramatic reversal on the part of Trump?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, he also reversed himself within, I think, minutes of the debate on his reversal on high-tech immigrants. You know, where he put out a more moderate line during the debate and then immediately put out a statement after, saying, "Well, no, no, I didn't really mean it about H1-B visas," which is, you know, a target for the right.

Look, Donald Trump is facing the limits as this goes forward. And it may not -- it may not be enough to matter. Facing the limits of trying to campaign at 30,000 feet.

The other candidates are finally forcing him to get into more specifics about his agenda, how he would implement his agenda, and he is stumbling repeatedly on that. And, you know, he has been much stronger at broad strokes and camping out a few very specific positions like mass deportation and building a wall, whose doability is questionable, as well.

But I think he's being forced into more specifics, and the consistent theme is he's having some trouble with that.

BLITZER: Well, you think he doesn't really understand all these sensitive issues, is learning on the job? Is that's what -- that's what's going on?

BROWNSTEIN: I think -- I think it's more -- it's not so much that he doesn't understand them. He doesn't understand, kind of, the history and politics and the playing field on them.

I think that, you know, Trump has done well by painting, as you know, as Ronald Reagan said, not pastels but in bold colors. But what he hasn't done is kind of translate that into a doable agenda.

I mean, take even the idea of mass deportation. You know, when you look at the cost estimates that have been done by that, it would be an enormously expensive undertaking. And it's very difficult to imagine that Paul Ryan, with his views on immigration, is going to give Donald Trump the money to do that. He really hasn't been, I think, pressed so far effectively on how you would do many of the things that he has kind of painted in these broad brushstrokes.

And as I said, now as he's being kind of pushed into that, it may be too late, but it is -- I think it is showing that he has not had the kind of depth of understanding of not necessarily the kind of the choice, but all of the politics and all the history that surrounds those choices.

BLITZER: Having said all that, Don, all three other Republican presidential candidates at the very end of that debate, they pledged that, if he is the Republican nominee, they will support him.

LEMON: Yes, they will support him. But it's interesting, because the member -- certain members of the establishment are saying, you know, "We're not going to support him" in so many words. And I think are trying to -- Mark can answer this better than I can -- are trying to devise behind the scenes a way to take Donald Trump down, which proposes an interesting prospect, come the general election.

BLITZER: What does that do to that Plan B, if you will, if the other Republican presidential nominees say, "If he's the nominee, we're going to be with him?"

PRESTON: I think that they support him now when they're on a stage with...

LEMON: Right.

PRESTON: ... Donald Trump, and he's a front-runner; and they're trying to make up ground. Strategically, they had to say they were going to support him. But there's no sureness (ph) in statements any more in politics. They can turn around and say, "You know what? Donald Trump has been a terrible candidate up to this point. He is saying egregious things. He is not part of the Republican Party. He's certainly not a Republican. We're not going to support him."

BLITZER: Could you see that happening? Because that would be clearly a violation, Ron, of the pledge they made.

[18:35:05] BROWNSTEIN: Yes. I agree with Mark. I don't think that's the last word on this issue. Look, the Republican Party is heading for an extraordinary few months either way.

On the one hand, you have Trump, who almost certainly now is going to get to the convention with the most delegates. But whether he gets there with a majority is something else.

And, Wolf, you know, the dog that didn't bark on Super Tuesday, yes, he showed a lot of geographic reach, and that's unquestionably impressive, but he has not moved this up into another gear. We're not seeing the consolidation of either voters, much less elected officials around him. He is a plurality front-runner at this point who is facing a series of candidates, all who have limits of their own.

And I think that's why you are hearing more and more talk of this Plan B, which is less about any one of these candidates getting past him and individually beating him, but whether collectively, by in effect, partitioning the country, they can hold him below that first ballot majority and open up the convention in some way. I saw Darrell Issa say it would have to be one of these others. If I had a bet it would be more likely someone who isn't on the playing field, if it ultimately came to that. That's a long shot, but it may be the only shot for those who are critical of Trump in the party.

BLITZER: A contested convention, though, right now, Don. A lot of people are talking about that. But if Trump wins some of these big states, winner-take-all starting March 15...

LEMON: Yes.

BLITZER: ... whether Florida or Ohio and moves on, that may all be moot.

LEMON: It may all be moot. And it depends on the math. You know, the magic number, 1,237. It depends on that math. But then, you know, when you -- by the time you get there, as you said, it's a long time to get there. And if you do have a brokered convention, you basically have the Republican Party, the establishment of the Republican Party, going against what the voters of the country want, which shows, you know, how fractured that party is. And I don't know if it can be the end of the party, but I think it could definitely be a death nail.

PRESTON: And it is worth noting, if Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or John Kasich or any of the 15 others that were running for president couldn't get the support, then why all of a sudden in July are they going to be the savior of the party?

And you know, it's worth noting that, if Trump gets close, they're able to deny him 1,237 but he gets to 1,250 [SIC], say, he gets close, he's right on the doorstep, and the Republican establishment prevents him from -- from getting that nomination, Cleveland is going to erupt in flames.

LEMON: Yes, absolutely.

PRESTON: There's no way that thousands of supporters are going to back -- are going to go for that. So I just think they're...

BLITZER: Millions already have voted for Trump, and presumably millions more will. A quick thought. Go ahead, Ron.

BROWNSTEIN: I was going to say, Mark, either way, though, you're kind of heading -- ordinarily, if you have someone who comes in on the brink of a nomination and the delegates and deny him the nomination, that is a recipe for civil war.

But it increasingly appears, and you heard from Darrell Issa just a few minutes ago, that nominating Trump is also a recipe for civil war. Wolf referenced the letter from the dozens of former Republican national security and domestic security officials, saying they would not support him. You have Mitt Romney and John McCain criticizing a potential party nominee in language we haven't heard since Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, some would argue, in 1912. So either -- either path here leads towards intense fissure within the

party. And I think Republicans, it may be moot if Trump gets over the top, which he very well might, but if it isn't, there is a choice between kind of short-term damage and whether you believe there would be long-term damage from Trump imprinting the party in a way that is damaging the brand to the growing populations of millennials, minorities, socially liberal whites, all of whom might view the Republican Party as the party of racial backlash if it nominates Donald Trump.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. There's more coming in.

We also want to alert our viewers, stay with us tomorrow for the Super Saturday primaries, as we're calling them. Primaries and caucuses. I'll be anchoring our coverage. That will begin at 3 p.m. Eastern, continues throughout the night right here on CNN. We'll be all over those primaries and caucuses tomorrow. Much more coming up in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:43:41] BLITZER: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, they're fighting for votes in Michigan today. The state is holding its primary next week. But the two Democrats are also preparing for Sunday's CNN presidential debate in Flint, Michigan, where a water poisoning crisis is angering residents, raising serious questions about government negligence.

Our senior political correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is in Detroit for us with details right now. Brianna, what's the latest?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf.

As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders get ready for the CNN debate on Sunday night, we're getting a preview of the critiques they're going to make against each other but also Hillary Clinton's attacks on Donald Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): Today Hillary Clinton was in the Motor City, laying out her plan to create jobs and taking aim at Donald Trump.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'll tell you, when I hear people running for president who spend all their time bad- mouthing America, it really upsets me. You know what? We've got work to do. Instead of complaining, let's join hands. Let's lift ourselves up. Let's get going together.

KEILAR: But as she turns her attention to the potential Republican nominee, she's taking incoming fire from Bernie Sanders. Also in Michigan, slamming her past support for trade deals that many in this labor stronghold oppose.

[18:45:01] SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The people of Michigan want to make a decision about which candidate stood with workers against corporate America, against these disastrous trade agreements, that candidate is Bernie Sanders.

KEILAR: But Clinton is also courting unions.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I hope they do the patriotic thing and stay in America.

KEILAR: Today at a car parts manufacturing plant, she railed against outsourcing.

CLINTON: If you desert America, you'll pay a price. But do the right thing, invest in your workers and your country's future, and we will stand with you.

KEILAR: As the sanders campaign seeks to undercut her appeals to union workers, highlighting these comments Clinton made about outsourcing while on a trip to India in 2012 as secretary of state.

CLINTON: I think that, you know, there are advantages with it that have certainly benefited many parts of our country, and there are disadvantages that go to the need to improve the job skills of our own people and create a better economic environment. So, it's like anything, it's got pluses and minuses.

KEILAR: With a chance of a Sanders nomination dimming, some Democrats think his attacks will only weaken Clinton for a potential general election.

SANDERS: Secretary Clinton has a number of super PACs.

(BOOS)

KEILAR: But Sanders has millions still in the bank to finance his campaign and is promising to push to the convention this summer.

SANDERS: We're in this race to win. We're doing the best we can do. I think -- I don't run negative campaign ads but I do think it is appropriate that in a campaign, you distinguish your differences with your opponents. Otherwise, why run?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: For Bernie Sanders, this is a chance to create a splash. This debate on Sunday night. As Hillary Clinton opens up her delegate lead over him and, Wolf, the Clinton campaign is expecting Bernie Sanders to come out swinging. They've seen these critiques he's been making when it comes to trade issues which should play big in this union-heavy state. And she is preparing for more of that -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Brianna, thanks very much.

I want to get back to our political experts with some more analysis.

Mark Preston, talking about jobs, the economy in Detroit, Michigan, coming up next week. Obviously, that's a pretty smart strategy, right? MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Not a better place for

it. Certainly, a city that's been left behind by the economic collapse. We saw back in 2008 and quite frankly even before that, with the automobile industry, you know, not doing so well.

In many ways, not a bad place for her either as being part of the Obama administration. Barack Obama went into Michigan and did save the auto industry, many would say, and was able to at least try to keep that propped up. But again, a city that is really hurting as is Flint, Michigan.

BLITZER: We got some interesting poll numbers on a woman president in the United States, don. We asked, is America ready for a woman president? In our CNN/ORC poll, 80 percent said yes, 19 percent said no.

Another question, is it important that the U.S. elects a woman in your lifetime? Thirty-one percent said yes, 50 percent said no, 19 percent said they're not -- the U.S. is not yet ready for a woman president. What do you make of those numbers?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: It's very interesting. It says is the U.S. ready for a U.S. president? Doesn't mean they're going to vote for a woman president or they want a woman president to be in office.

It says to me, as it could be reflected in the polls come election day is that Hillary Clinton stands as good a chance as anyone at this point in history of being elected president. It doesn't matter so much that she is a woman. They would elect her almost with the same probability as they would elect a man. That's a good place to be in America.

BLITZER: Yes.

Ron Brownstein, Donald Trump said he'd be Hillary Clinton's worst nightmare in a general election. Given what we know about his appeal and obviously, he's is doing well among the Republican contest, do the numbers show that the Democrats should really fear Donald Trump as the Republican nominee, let's say in a hypothetical matchup against Hillary Clinton?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, so far not. But Donald Trump has proved that, if nothing else, that he is a destabilizing force in politics. He'd be a destabilizing force in the general election. He's been a master communicator.

Donald Trump's great strength is his enormous appeal among working class whites. It's possible if he was the nominee, there have been polls that have put him as high as 69 percent among white men without a college education in a matchup against Hillary Clinton. That's the number Ronald Reagan hit in 1984 against Walter Mondale.

The catch, Wolf, is those non-college white mail are about half the electorate as they were in '84. If you look at the groups that are growing in the electorate, minorities, millennials, college-educated white women, Donald Trump is looking at unfavorable ratings in all of those groups in the 70s. And just the college white women in the minorities alone could be half of all the voters in 2016.

So, Trump would be a test of this conservative theory that the way back is to increase turnout about millions of culturally conservative, mostly blue collar whites. But he would be running against the headwind of a changing country and an agenda and a message that's largely alienated the portions of that changing electorate that are growing the most rapidly.

[18:50:09] BLITZER: Don, you're going to be part of the debate Sunday night in Flint, Michigan. Anderson Cooper is moderating, but you're joining in the questioning.

This is a really important debate for these two Democrats.

LEMON: Here's why -- there is nothing more motivating, or few things more motivating than fear and anger. I think on the other side, on the Republican side, as you heard Ron Brownstein say, these people are angry. People are upset. And you may say non-educated white men is fewer than when Ronald Reagan is, but they are animated and they want to go to the polls.

So, I think it is important for Democrats in this particular election to try to get some animation behind their voters as well, because it shows that Republicans are turning up at the polls more so than Democrats.

BLITZER: This is history unfolding. Just to be asked to questions presidential candidates, obviously, it's a very, very important responsibility. I know you're going to do a great job.

LEMON: Thanks.

BLITZER: Looking forward to the debate Sunday night. I'll be in Flint helping to cover the lead-up to that debate.

Guys, stand by.

Important note to our viewers as well, the city of Flint, Michigan, still suffering from this huge water crisis. CNN is donating 500,000 bottles of water to the residents of Flint, Michigan. You can help as well. Go to CNN.com/impact for more information.

Also be sure to watch the CNN presidential debate Sunday night 8:00 p.m. Eastern, live from Flint, Michigan. CNN's Anderson Cooper will moderate. Don Lemon will be there asking tough, but fair questions at the same time. All of you should watch this presidential debate. I know I will as well.

Much more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:16] BLITZER: The 2016 race for the White House has been nothing short of brutal so far, but the anger and antics are apparently nothing new. American politics has a long blistering attacks and dirty tricks. Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He's looking at some of the most heated campaigns that are history.

What are you finding out?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're looking at one in particular, Wolf, from which flowed every tactic you're using today used by every single candidate. It dates back to the tail end of the 1950s.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's Rubio!

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Worst spray tan in America.

JEB BUSH (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Jerk.

TRUMP: Biggest liar.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Trumper tantrum.

TRUMP: Little Rubio.

SANDERS: Insults Mexicans.

TRUMP: Low energy.

This is Robin Hood over here.

FOREMAN (voice-over): Amid the scorching words and sharp elbows of this race, every candidate claims to be about the future, but presidential historians know this fight was forged in the past.

Douglas Brinkley --

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can't help but think of 1960 with Nixon and Kennedy with what's going on in 2016.

FOREMAN: 1960, pop culture, Vietnam, the arms race, sex, drugs, and rock and roll were all heating up and the first modern war for the White House was going nuclear.

What made it modern? Number one, it was dirty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every Republican politician wants you to believe that Richard Nixon is, quote, "experienced".

FOREMAN: In what is widely seen as the first television attack ad, John Kennedy used President Dwight Eisenhower's words to damn his own vice president, Richard Nixon.

Asked what ideas Nixon had given the president --

DWIGHT EISENHOWER, FORMER PRESIDENT: If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember because -- FOREMAN: Second, Kennedy targeted blocks of voters with specific

messages, especially minorities.

(SPEAKING SPANISH)

FOREMAN: And third, Kennedy used his youth, good looks and celebrity appeal to generate buzz, even enlisting Sinatra's help.

Nixon's camp fought back, of course.

HENRY CABOT LODGE, 1960 REPUBLICAN VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think the voters will want to have in the White House the man who is the most experienced.

FOREMAN: They had dirty tricks of their own.

BRINKLEY: Nixon wanted to paint Kennedy as being young and inexperienced. He tried to exploit the fact that Kennedy was Catholic.

FOREMAN: But then came that first infamous televised debate where Kennedy's makeup, stage presence, and even his wardrobe all designed to be TV friendly, reduced Nixon to a sweaty mess.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, FORMER PRESIDENT: Which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?

MODERATOR: Mr. Nixon, would you like to comment on that state?

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT: I have no comment.

FOREMAN: Kennedy triumphed and his strategy of attacking --

RUBIO: He should sue whoever did that to his face.

FOREMAN: -- microtargeting voters --

CLINTON: Taking on systemic racism.

FOREMAN: -- and carefully crafting an image --

TRUMP: I've been very successful. Everybody loves me.

FOREMAN: -- has shaped every campaign since, morphing into a simple message.

BRINKLEY: It's not about outfoxing your opponent. It's about destroying your opponent.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: In fact, this type of campaigning, Wolf, was so effective and so startling, it wasn't entirely embraced. We always talked about that big television, first debate, that did not herald the age of immediate television debates. In fact, we didn't him see on a regular basis until Carter/Ford because both sides said this is a great immense power and they weren't sure they could control.

BLITZER: It hasn't stopped since then.

FOREMAN: Not a bit.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman, good report. Thanks very much.

To our viewers, you can relive some of the most ruthless campaigns in American history starting this Sunday night, 10:00 p.m. Eastern. CNN presents our new series, "RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE" from executive producer Kevin Spacey, Sunday night, 10:00 p.m. Eastern, right after the Democratic presidential debate.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.