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Republicans Set to Debate; Obama: Being Blamed for GOP Rhetoric is "Novel". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 10, 2016 - 16:00   ET



ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to a special edition of THE LEAD. I'm Erin Burnett, in for Jake Tapper, who is moderating tonight's big debate.

We are live from the University of Miami, where the stage is set and it's going to be a full crowd. A lot of people here, I can tell you, a lot of people. This is going to be a big one. We're four-and-a- half-hours away from the final Republican debate before next Tuesday's winner-take-all primaries in Florida and Ohio, those game-changer states.

The stakes could not be higher. In fact, there may not be anyone else left for Donald Trump to debate after next few days. We shall see. Trump himself says it's over if he wins Florida and Ohio.

Our correspondents, our analysts, our experts, the best of the best political team on television all standing by for our big pregame show as we are here in the debate hall because it's getting so close. Do you remember when there was an undercard debate? Do you remember those nights? Remember that? You forget so quickly, right?

Now there are only four podiums behind me. Some of the remaining candidates are hoping that the time they get on stage tonight isn't their last time. They want to keep fighting.

Sunlen Serfaty is here with me inside the debate hall.

And, Sunlen, this is going to be a very big night. And this is -- I'm trying to contextualize it for everyone watching, because we can see all the seats. There are going to be a lot of people in this debate hall watching tonight.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Erin. You know, the stakes, as you said, are very high and this is where it will all go down, right here on this debate stage, so pivotal for so many of the candidates. All four of them really looking for a breakout night tonight.

I want to give you a little tour of the debate set here. As you can see, four podiums, four lecterns set up here. At center stage right here, this is the lectern where Donald Trump as the front-runner will be. To his right will be Marco Rubio, Florida Senator Marco Rubio. To Trump's left will be Senator Ted Cruz, and over here is where Ohio Governor John Kasich will be.

As you can see, a real intimate setting between the four of them. Only about a few feet in between them. This will be their view looking out here, as you said, an expansive debate hall. It will be filled with an audience in just a few hours. There will be a lot of energy here in the debate hall.

And just moments ago, we saw John Kasich do a walk-through, situate himself up there on stage. He, of course, needs a big night going into that big vote in his home state of Ohio on Tuesday -- Erin.

BURNETT: All right, Sunlen, thank you very much. I just turned around while Sunlen was speaking because she seems so far away. There are so many rows and rows of seats.

I want to bring in our political panel to talk about this crucial debate in the next few hours.

Our political commentator S.E. Cupp joining me, along with political commentator and former Ted Cruz communications director Amanda Carpenter, the former Michigan governor, Hillary Clinton supporter Jennifer Granholm, Donald Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany, and our CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger.

We are the women of the world here.




BURNETT: All right.

I just want to start off, Gloria, with we were in Houston looking at a much smaller and more intimate space. This is a very big space. A big part of what's happened in these debates thus far has been the booing and the clapping and the catcalling that may come from the audience.

There's going to be a lot of people here tonight.

BORGER: There's going to be a lot of people here.

We at CNN try to keep that to a minimum and try and get the audience evenly divided that way, although Donald Trump has complained about that. There are going to be a lot of people here, but there are going to be fewer people on that debate stage.


BORGER: And so what you're going to see now is people -- these candidates understand that this is it for them. Marco Rubio's stakes could not be higher. He's got to win the state of Florida or I would argue that's it. He says he's got to win. He's not said he would pull out, but he's got to do well. John Kasich, this is all about getting to Ohio. Cruz, this is about being the alternative. And Trump, I think this is about trying to be presidential, OK, because he's now at a point in this race where he is the clear front-runner and he needs to start acting like a president.

JENNIFER GRANHOLM (D), FORMER MICHIGAN GOVERNOR: Don't you think he's going to go after Kasich, though?

BURNETT: Absolutely.

BORGER: If others go after him, I bet he responds.

BURNETT: And that's the question. So, Donald Trump says he wants to be more presidential, a softer tone, Kayleigh.

He says that, but then someone comes after him and all of sudden, it almost seems that he cannot control himself. The Donald Trump, the real Donald Trump stands out. Will he be able to hold back?


KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think he will. We saw in the last debate exactly what you're mentioning where he took this presidential tone in the beginning, but when he was attacked by Rubio, it descended quickly.


BURNETT: Literally, it descended.

MCENANY: It did.

I think we're going to see a different Donald Trump tonight. And he has to point to those numbers. For instance, if Rubio calls him a con man, he needs to take that and turn it around to substance and say, really, I'm the con man? What about you, who were elected by the state of Florida, but didn't show up to vote on the omnibus bill?


You told them you were against amnesty before you were for amnesty. You are the real con man. He's got to use those moments and turn it to substance.

BORGER: Do you think he should call him little Marco again?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, Donald Trump cannot change who he is.

He has turned our debates into political performance art. That is not going to change tonight. It's just a matter of who he is going to aim the fire at.

And I think you're absolutely right. John Kasich is performing pretty well in Ohio. Now Donald Trump is saying, if I finish well, if I win Florida and Ohio, I'm the nominee. He's going to come after John Kasich. And John Kasich has not engaged in this so far.

If he gets hit and doesn't return fire, he's going to look really weak.

BURNETT: He's got a big decision to make on how to do that.

And then of course you have Ted Cruz, who's coming out to show he's the alternative and show he's the one who can actually win this. He came out today, Amanda, talking about a certain -- quote, unquote -- "demographic of voters" that's going for Donald Trump. It was a -- let's see what you think, whether it was an insulting thing to say or not.

Here's Ted Cruz today.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald does well with voters who have relatively low information, who are not that engaged and who are angry and they see him as an angry voice.

Where we are beating him is when voters get more engaged and they get more informed.


BURNETT: More informed, what does that mean? Is he just saying they don't know what they're talking about? Is he saying they're not intelligent? What is he trying to say?

CARPENTER: Well, here's the thing. Donald Trump supporters are attracted to his personality, the way that he projects strength.

If his voters were concerned about his inconsistencies and policy positions, they wouldn't be Donald Trump supporters. I think along the way, Cruz has learned that the base of Donald Trump's support isn't going anywhere and it's easier for him to get voters from other candidates, like Marco Rubio, like John Kasich, than it is Donald Trump.

BURNETT: But, S.E. Cupp, he's winning now, he's winning highly educated. He's winning people who are not highly educated. He's winning across all demographics now.


I don't think this was smart of Ted Cruz. For one, I think you can patently say -- it's patently false that Trump supporters are not engaged. A lot of these are first-time caucus-goers. Trump is bringing out people who traditionally weren't engaged in the political process.

Whether they have researched his record or care, I don't really think is the point. And at some point, Ted Cruz hopes to get these voters. And at some point, if Ted Cruz does get these voters and makes it to a general election, he will need all of them to come out and support him, so I'm not sure that this was a politically wise way to frame this argument. I get his frustration, but I think he could have done a better job.

BURNETT: We hit pause for one moment.


GRANHOLM: Break out the popcorn. That's all I can say from the Democratic point of view.


BURNETT: Exactly.

All right, everybody, please stay with me.

Donald Trump promising to soften his tone at tonight's debate. Does this really sound to you, though, like the new and softer side of Trump?


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think Islam hates us. There's something -- there's something there that -- there's a tremendous hatred.




BURNETT: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

This afternoon, Donald Trump signaling that he wants to bring the GOP party together behind his candidacy, saying he can be a unifier. But even as he promises a so-called softer debate tonight, he is causing some criticism with controversial comments today.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta joins me now from the CNN post-debate spin room.


BURNETT: Jim, are we seeing Trump change his tone for real, do you think, tonight, or is he just saying that he will change his tone?

ACOSTA: I'm going to say no, Erin, I don't think so. We are live inside the spin room?

This is where all the candidates or maybe some of the candidates and their operatives will come in after the debate to tell us that they all won what is about to take place here in a couple of hours.

But you're right. Donald Trump says he is expecting a softer debate tonight. He is not likely to get one. A top Rubio adviser tells me that while Marco Rubio will probably stay away from those more personal attacks about Trump's tanning methods or his hand size, he is still going to attack Donald Trump's business record.

And as for Donald Trump, we should point out he is stirring up some controversy all on his own, as you mentioned, telling our Anderson Cooper what he thinks about the religion of Islam. Here's what he had to say.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think Islam is at war with the West?

TRUMP: I think Islam hates us. There's something -- there's something there that's -- there's a tremendous hatred there. There's a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There's an unbelievable hatred of us.

COOPER: In Islam itself?

TRUMP: You're going to have to figure that out.


ACOSTA: Now, because Marco Rubio's back is against the wall here in Florida, the Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, tells me that they do expect Marco Rubio to be on the attack tonight, even if those attack lines might not be on a more personal level.

And we should point out Donald Trump is looking for a double knockout punch on this upcoming Super Tuesday, maybe the biggest Super Tuesday of them all, knocking out Marco Rubio here in Florida, John Kasich in Ohio.

Erin, we're hearing Trump already starting to set up his lines of attack aimed at John Kasich. Last night, he referred to John Kasich as an absentee governor in Ohio. We have not heard Donald Trump really go after John Kasich, but Kasich is creeping up in the polls in Ohio, so that tells you everything you need to know, Erin.

BURNETT: All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Some saying John Kasich has a better chance of winning Ohio all out than Marco Rubio does here in Florida.

Let's bring back our panel, S.E. Cupp, Amanda Carpenter, Governor Jennifer Granholm, Kayleigh McEnany, and Gloria Borger.

S.E., what Donald Trump just said about Islam, he did not differentiate between Islamists and Islam as a faith. Purposeful?

CUPP: Yes, I think it was.

And I think it's pretty cowardly to respond to a reporter's question with, well, that's for you to figure out. You figure that out. You're going to have to figure that out. The leader of the free world needs to have thought these things

through. The leader of the free world needs to make important distinctions between the religion of Islam at large and Islamic terrorists.

The leader of the free world needs to make important distinctions between the religion of Islam writ large and Islamic terrorists.

[16:15:05] The leader of the free world needs to respect Muslims who put on a uniform and fight under the banner of the United States of America.

So, I thought that was a pretty cowardly moment. That's not coverage there, that's not strength, that's insecurity.


KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's important to know what happened 15 seconds later. Anderson Cooper said to him, are you speaking of radical Islam or are you speaking of Islam? He said radical, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference though.

So he did say radical Islam. He said it repeatedly during his campaign. He said I have Muslim friends. I love the Muslim people. However --

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: So, you think that's taken out of context?

MCENANY: I absolutely do.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Why did he say you figure it out then?

MCENANY: He said, you figure it out, and then he said radical Islam. He made that distinction. And the fact if he said it then or 15 seconds later, I really think the argument that he's somehow against all of Islam is going to fall on deaf ears when 15 seconds later he said this is radical Islam. I'm speaking --

CUPP: Over and over again he is given opportunities to exactly make these clarifications, whether it's on David Duke and white supremacy --

MCENANY: And he did.

CUPP: -- banning Muslims or this, and he doesn't. He really dances around it, Kayleigh, and it's intentional.

MCENANY: He does not.

CUPP: Because he wants -- he does not want to say something that he thinks will alienate this small corner of angry Americans.


BURNETT: Why would it take Anderson then saying, do you mean radical Islam or Islam, right? He should have said in the answer, well, radical Islam is what I'm talking about. That would be the first thing he would say as he would say it's a religion of peace or whatever you've heard say from both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both political sides of the aisle.

MCENANY: Because he's talking about Islam as a political entity. He's talking about the theology that comes from the Koran that says find your enemy and kill him. That it what he is talking about when he said Islam. He was not thinking of the Muslim people.


JENNIFER GRANHOLM (D), FORMER MICHIGAN MAYOR: No, he wasn't. That's what a president has to do.

MCENANY: But the effort to paint him as a racist and a bigot and somehow anti-Islam, I just think people aren't buying that. He commanded 49 percent of support in a poll last month in CNN, you know, most people are not buying that he's a racist, he's Islamophobic.

BURNETT: You're saying he didn't think about it?

GRANHOLM: No, he doesn't think about these things. What I'm saying is I don't know that it was intentional or not. Whatever it is within him, he is unpredictable and erratic and, therefore, he is not somebody you would want as your commander in chief.

I do want Donald Trump's fingers anywhere near the nuclear codes. He is a danger, and, honestly, on our side, of course, I'm a Democrat and I support Hillary Clinton, there's a reason why people believe she would be the best commander in chief compared to someone like him.

BURNETT: Gloria, what's the strategy on answering those questions?

BORGER: I don't think --

BURNETT: You take it the easy way, and just answer the question, but he had to be prodded and prodded, right? So, maybe Kayleigh is right. But why would that be the strategy?

BORGER: So, the chief strategist of Donald Trump's campaign is Donald Trump. There is -- you know, Corey Lewandowski is running the campaign but there is -- you know, this is Donald Trump. And I think just like the answer on torture, which he then had to clarify or change his position, I should say, the next day, sometimes he gets out ahead of himself.

And when you're running to be leader of the free world, this can be a real problem, particularly if you're going to become the nominee, which by the way he is the front-runner here. so, it needs to change.

GRANHOLM: This will be a subject tonight. I'm sure this will be the form of an attack and I think the second piece of things that's going to be a form of attack is what was presented by a super PAC against him last night, which is about his outsourcing, the fact that he's got lines of clothes from China, from Mexico. To me at a point where everybody is talking about jobs, maybe I'm

biased because I said, certainly, everybody's been on your side, too, this issue I think will be the subject of an attack on Donald Trump. Why can you say that you are pro-job, great, you're going to bring these jobs back when all you've been doing is outsourcing and sending work to China?

BURNETT: The question, if his answer is, well, that's what the laws and the rules allow so that's what I did. That would be the Donald Trump answer. That I'm a pragmatist, I did what I did as a businessman.

BORGER: Stop me before I do it again?

BURNETT: Would that work?

MCENANY: That would work. That's a very simple answer --

BURNETT: But it's like he said with his taxes, right? I pay as little taxes as I can by the law, the laws where I could do this. But -- would that work?

BORGER: But I'm going to change the law so people can't be take advantage of it.

GRANHOLM: To protect you from people like me.


MCENANY: Even he has said I want companies to not engage in corporate inversions and to do that, I need to make an economically hospitable climate where businesses can stay here, where they're not taxed more than 15 percent, which is part of his tax policy. He has said that needs to happen in order to keep companies here. He has clearly explained why companies including his own have chosen to go abroad.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He also said he would slap punitive taxes on countries he didn't like, that didn't say, build the wall and pay for it, as he directed. He said that he would direct apple to make iPhones here. He said he'd bring manufacturing back by making Ford Motor Company come back to Michigan bringing jobs.

These things are not only tyrannical, they're impossible. You can't do them. If you were doing them, we wouldn't be living in America anymore. You don't dictate where and how businesses conduct their businesses from the Oval Office.

[16:20:03] BURNETT: It is amazing how much latitude a president has on trade, though, which is a totally separate issue but more than many people might think.

Speaking of presidents, the president of the United States right now, Barack Obama, has been asked whether he feels responsible for the Donald Trump rhetoric and the rhetoric out there on the GOP side as some have alleged. Here's how he responded to that question today.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have been blamed by Republicans for a lot of things, blamed for their primaries and who they're selecting for their party is novel.


BURNETT: He's sort of laughing there.

GRANHOLM: He's so restrained in saying that. He wants to LOL, laugh out loud, at such a ridiculous charge honestly.

What I think is going to -- I mean he is -- the president has been so restrained and measured and I think that contrast alone between him and someone like Donald Trump will bode well for the Democrats in November.

BORGER: I think Trump supporters feel as betrayed. They don't like Barack Obama. No Republican primary voters like Barack Obama. But I think these primary voters feel as betrayed by the Republicans and the Republican establishment as they do by the president of the United States.

MCENANY: And the fact that Democrats and independents are coming over and voting for Donald Trump, that's not happening because they're disconcerted with the Republican establishment. That's happening because they're disconcerted with their own president. So, it's worth mentioning this is not just Republicans turning out to vote for Trump.

CUPP: And I think it's -- I think it's completely fair to suggest -- look, there's blame to go around for Trump. There's logistical blame, some of the rule changes that were made three years ago have created an environment for Trump.

But I think it's absolutely fair to say that the president, this administration, his tone, some of his policies, the divisiveness has laid a groundwork for someone like Trump. The conditions are there for someone like Trump to emerge and thrive. I think that's completely fair.

So, for President Obama to say, "Well, I've been here for nearly eight years but none of this has anything to do with me," I think that's pretty arrogant.

GRANHOLM: I don't know --

CARPENTER: I do think there is an argument to be made about Obama's broad use of executive power has kind of created a pathway by Donald Trump to say that I can go into the White House and do these things that I think are tyrannical, but people think that the White House can do these things now because of Barack Obama.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you all very much, Amanda, Kayleigh, Governor Granholm and Gloria.

And don't forget, we are just hours away from our Republican debate tonight moderated boy Jake Tapper, who's usually sitting here at this time. I'm doing duty so Jake can get ready. He's got to take a shower and shave and look good tonight.

Our coverage begins at 8:30 Eastern right here on CNN.

Well, Marco Rubio says he's not going anywhere. At a nearly empty stadium at one of his campaign events in his home state of Florida, raising worries for some supporters.

And then the last time they faced off on stage, the Republican candidates talked about everything from lying to the size of their body parts. Now, the RNC is calling for the campaign to tone it down. But is it too late?


[16:28:01] BURNETT: Welcome back. We are live from the University of Miami this afternoon.

The four remaining GOP presidential hopefuls clashing tonight at the CNN Republican presidential debate. It is their last chance to make their case before the winner-take-all Florida and Ohio primaries on Tuesday. It is a do-or-die for some of the candidates. If they don't win next week, almost certain to see fewer people at the next debate.

Let's bring in our political director, David Chalian.

Florida and Ohio, when we say a crucial moment, there's a lot of crucial moments, but this one really is a do or die. Tonight is Marco Rubio's chance.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: This is his chance, there's no doubt about that, because he has been in a bit of a tailspin and this is going to be his best last shot before the Florida primary on Tuesday to turn that around -- large audience that he's going to have, even in Florida to turn that around, and he has to because if he loses Florida, I just don't see how he's going to have a rationale to move forward.

BURNETT: And also to the point that people have been making on his political future, he's young, he's in his early 40s, he has a lot of ambitions. So, to stay in beyond Florida if he does lose, is -- some would say is political suicide. It doesn't make sense for him.

CHALIAN: Well, and apart from that, what usually happens is that if you lose a contest that all the expectations are you have to have to go on, the money stops flowing, the staff starts getting a little disconcerted, so it becomes a rough thing.

BURNETT: I spoke to a man coming to the plane down here, a Florida voter coming back to vote. He said he was going to be voting for Marco Rubio. But he's worried about the polls. You know, you want to pick a winner. In his case, he was going to switch to John Kasich. Didn't rule out Donald Trump down the line but he didn't want to vote in the primary for Donald Trump.

But he was already concerned about Marco Rubio.

CHALIAN: Right. Listen, Donald Trump is going to have a two-front war because he has a competitive race with John Kasich in Ohio. Donald Trump told Anderson Cooper if he wins Florida and Ohio, he thinks it's done.

Now, if you come to think of it --

BURNETT: Is that fair?

CHALIAN: That's not true because there are many more contests to go and I don't see everybody else sort of folding up and going home. There's going to be a prolonged contest here.

Do I think if he wins Florida and Ohio convincingly that he is by far and away --

BURNETT: Presumptive?


CHALIAN: Without a doubt, but I don't think the field disappears. He's still going to have to go through these nominating contests potentially all the way through the calendar in June.