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GOP Candidates to Face Off Tonight; Rubio Regrets Attacks, Trump Predicts 'Softer' Tone to Debate; Trump: 'I Think Islam Hates Us'; Final GOP Showdown Before Crucial Florida and Ohio Votes. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired March 10, 2016 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, sunshine stakes. The Republican hopefuls are just hours away from a critical debate in the campaign. Their Florida showdown here on CNN comes just days before a winner-take-all primary that could put one candidate on the road to the nomination and could spell the end of the road for another.

[17:00:29] Make or break. Marco Rubio is losing momentum and trailing in his home state of Florida. He regrets his personal attacks on Donald Trump, so how will he fight back in tonight's debate?

And low information. Ted Cruz is voicing no regrets. He says Trump is taking advantage of supporters who he says are angry, not that engaged and have, quote, "relatively low information." Will Cruz keep up the attacks tonight, and how will Donald Trump respond?

I'm Wolf Blitzer inside the debate hall. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're counting down to the CNN Republican presidential debate, the final face-off before the crucial Tuesday night primaries that include winner-take-all contests here in Florida as well as in Ohio. Our coverage starts three and a half hours from now. Opening statements by the candidates follow at 9 p.m. Eastern.

For some candidates, it's now or never. Donald Trump says if he wins in Florida and Ohio, in his words, quote, "It's over." It probably would be over for Senator Marco Rubio. He insists he'll win here in Florida, but polls show him trailing in his home state.

One poll shows Ohio Governor John Kasich leading Trump in his home state. Senator Ted Cruz, who has won seven states so far, will try to convince Republicans that he's the only candidate besides Trump who can gather enough delegates for the nomination.

Three other big states hold primaries on Tuesday: Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina. Hundreds of delegates are up for grabs. The candidates have been checking out the debate hall here at the University of Miami, and now they're making final preparations. It will be their last chance to impress the voters ahead of Tuesday's contest. The stakes couldn't be any higher.

We begin our coverage this hour with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, first of all, what can we expect tonight?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Donald Trump is expecting a softer debate tonight, he says, but he likely won't get one. Trump campaign advisor -- campaign manager Corey Lewandowski tells me they understand Rubio's political life is on the line tonight and that he will be aggressive. A top Rubio advisor tells me the Florida senator will avoid those personal attacks on Trump's tanning methods and hand size, but they still see Trump and his business record as fair game, meaning more hits on Trump University, Trump Steaks, Trump Water and so on. Trump is all but predicting that Marco Rubio is finished in Florida, finished in this race, and that was his message at his last rally in North Carolina. Here's what he had to say.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Little Marco would say -- I think he's gone, I think he's gone, but who knows? You never know. But Marco -- they hate him in Florida. I want to tell you, in Florida he doesn't show up to vote. They elected a senator, and he's got the worst voting record in the last 15, 20 years in the United States Senate. What kind of a representative -- who wants to vote for him? I mean, if I don't beat Marco in Florida, because Florida is my place, I love Florida.


ACOSTA: Now, Donald Trump is looking for a double knockout punch next Tuesday on Rubio in Florida but also on John Kasich in Ohio. Trump is now getting more aggressive on Kasich, Wolf, calling him an absentee governor. Back in Ohio, Wolf, we have not heard attacks like that from Donald Trump on John Kasich up until this point in the campaign. It means he's getting nervous, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim, there was some violence at Trump's event. What happened?

ACOSTA: That's right. Check out this YouTube video of a protester. We can put it up on screen. He was being led out of the rally last night by law enforcement officials. This was last night in Fayetteville, North Carolina. As the protester is leaving the arena, he is sucker punched by a Trump supporter there in the crowd.

Police in Fayetteville say that Trump supporter has been arrested, and the case is under investigation. We should point out, Wolf, Trump has dismissed these scuffles. And as a matter of fact, he did last Saturday to me. He's dismissing these scuffles at his rallies as something that just happens from time to time, considering the size of the crowds that he draws at these events.

And we should point out that the Trump campaign always makes an announcement before these rallies get started -- we've heard them time and again -- saying please don't touch the protesters. That obviously did not happen last night. And Wolf, in a statement from the local sheriff's department there in

Fayetteville, the sheriff had some choice words for the suspect saying, quote, "No one should be subjected to such a cowardly act." It's hard to argue with that, Wolf.

BLITZER: It certainly is. All right, Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Marco Rubio has voiced regret for some of his own comments about Donald Trump. His personal attacks or counter attacks haven't helped in the polls either.

Let's bring in our senior political reporter Manu Raju. Manu, Rubio's campaign seems to be in big trouble right now. What do you expect we'll hear from him tonight?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you'll hear various messages from Marco Rubio. One, to remind voters why they actually elected him in 2010. That's what I'm told from senior Rubio officials. And they're trying to reconnect with voters and explain his conservative principles, his ideas and some of that lofty rhetoric that we've heard in the past.

But watch him to still go pretty aggressively at Donald Trump and make the case for Florida voters that this is the state that can stop Donald Trump.

And what does that mean for Marco Rubio? He's going to say voting for John Kasich or voting for Ted Cruz is effectively a vote for Donald Trump.

In addition to talking about his business record, watch for Marco Rubio to try to draw out Donald Trump on policy issues. Try to have him fill in the blanks. That's going to be a key thing that Rubio officials believe have been effective using against Donald Trump in the past, including the debate that you moderated, Wolf, in Houston over the health care issue. Those are the types of attacks will -- Rubio will launch tonight so he will absolutely be aggressive, because they know this is a do-or-die state for Marco Rubio.

BLITZER: Certainly is, Manu. You also cover Congress for us where Senator Rubio, he has a lot of support from his fellow Republican senators. What are you hearing from them?

RAJU: Yes, I spent yesterday speaking to a lot of those Republican senators. Very anxious, Wolf. They believe that Rubio is -- probably could go down on Tuesday, and that could be the end of the road of his campaign. And if Kasich doesn't win Ohio, then it's the end of the thing of his. They're debating who's better: Trump or Ted Cruz.

And two schools of thought are emerging. On the Cruz front, they believe he's a true Republican. He's very predictable. We know what he'll say in the election, in the general election, even if he's very conservative. But on Trump, even though he's unpredictable, to say the least, a lot of people believe he can bring out new voters to the polls. I talked to Richard Burr. He's a senator from North Carolina up for re-election. He said to me, "I'm fine running with Donald Trump."

So there's a clear division with the party of what to do if Marco Rubio and John Kasich both go down, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens in North Carolina. Republican primary there, that's next Tuesday, as well. Manu, thank you very much.

Joining us now, the national spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, Katrina Pierson.

Katrina, thanks very much for joining us. I want to start with a little clip from the CNN interview that Donald Trump did with Anderson Cooper last night. It's getting a lot of buzz out there. Listen to this.


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 -- there's a tremendous hatred there. There's a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us.


BLITZER: Does he regret saying Islam hates us, as opposed to radical Islam or extremist Islam? He basically said Islam hates us.

RAJU: Well, I don't think that he regrets saying it when the perception is the reality, when you see thousands of Muslims in a room chanting "death to America" in several places.

We are talking about Islam, and you're right, Wolf, it is radical Islamic extremists that do participate in these types of things. But the bigger picture here is we are so controlled by political correctness, we've allowed this propaganda to spread all through the country that this is a religion of peace, when we see today that countries like Britain and France and even Germany now and Sweden, where they're having a head-on collision with the truth.

We have to start talking about this in a broader perspective rather than separating the idea, because we have a major problem going on in this country, as we are continuing to bring thousands of refugees into this country that we know have been infiltrated by ISIS.

BLITZER: But he didn't say some Muslims. He didn't say radical Muslims. There are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, and many of them, most of them, I dare say, don't hate the United States, don't hate Americans. In fact America has great friends in the Muslim world like King Abdullah of Jordan, for example, a great ally.

PIERSON: Well, right. I mean, it does go both ways, and you're absolutely right about that. But we also have hundreds of millions in the world who agree with these terrorist sentiments and acts.

And here in the United States -- and I'll point to an article written by Ben Shapiro in 2014 titled "The Myth of the Tiny Radical Muslim Minority," there's tons of statistics in there, particularly noting in 2013, a Pew research poll of Muslims here in the United States where 13 percent approved of using violence to defend jihad and 19 percent approve of al Qaeda.

So we have a problem, particularly in the United States, when you have 250,000 to 570,000 Muslims here in the United States that sympathize with terrorism, even though they may not be themselves the one to engage.

BLITZER: But lumping them altogether, that's a problem, Katrina. Consider the case of Kareem Rashad Sultan khan, who was born in New Jersey to immigrants. He joined the U.S. Army after 9/11 to defend our country. He was killed in Iraq in 2007. Doesn't Donald Trump think that -- how can he think that all Muslims -- for he didn't differentiate -- hate the United States, hate Americans?

PIERSON: Well, that's not what he said. He was talking about Islam specifically. And you're absolutely right, there is a difference, and he didn't use the differentiation word. But that's exactly what he's talking about. And most Americans understand that.

We know that people in our world, in the punditry class and in the -- in the ivory towers that make a policy, they want to hear these words that distinguish the difference. And Mr. Trump is speaking very plainly. But there is a difference between Islam and radical Islam, and some would even argue that there isn't.

But the point here is to point out the idea that we have a serious problem that isn't being addressed by the current administration. And Mr. Trump wants to resolve the issue, and no other candidate is willing to get out there and take up the fight.

BLITZER: All right. Let's -- I think you'll agree, though, with hindsight, he should have said "radical Islam" or "extremist Islam," as opposed to just Islam, right?

Well, of course. If he would have said that, we wouldn't be having this discussion today. But I'm happy to clarify any time, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right.

Let's talk about Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders. They had a debate last night, and they were asked bluntly if they believed Donald Trump is a racist. They didn't say no, but they went on to criticize Trump. Could this be a major line of attack from either one of these candidates, whoever gets the Democratic nomination?

PIERSON: No. I think by the time it gets to November, people are going to be tired of hearing the racist charge and the sexist charge. I mean, everyone is tired of hearing that already.

Anyone who knows Mr. Trump knows Mr. Trump isn't a racist. And in fact you'd have to be blind to assume that he is at this point.

No, I think it's really going to be one of those things. Like, going into the general, highlighting the differences between a Trump administration and a Clinton or even Sanders administration, for that matter, is really going to show that Mr. Trump is for the people. There is no political agenda. There are no people to pay back. There isn't Wall Street or super PACs or anyone else that Mr. Trump cares about, because he's the only candidate that's personally invested in the success or failure in this country.

BLITZER: Katrina, stand by. We have more to discuss, including how Donald Trump is preparing for tonight's historic debate here on the campus of the University of Miami.

Much more with Katrina Pierson right after this.


[17:17:14] BLITZER: We're counting down to CNN's Republican presidential debate here on the campus of the University of Miami tonight. We're back with the national spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, Katrina Pierson.

Katrina, President Obama in his news conference with the Canadian prime minister today, was asked if his policies over the past seven years have played a role in Donald Trump's success so far. Listen to what the president said.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have been blamed by Republicans for a lot of things, but being blamed for their primaries and who they're selecting for their party is novel. But what I'm not going to do is validate some notion that the Republican crack-up that's been taking place is a consequence of actions that I've taken.


BLITZER: All right, Katrina, your reaction.

PIERSON: Well, I think that that's partially right, Wolf. I mean, we have Republicans who are effectively rejecting the Republican establishment right now. I mean, we have the two people leading who are said to be the political outsiders, and Mr. Trump is definitely not someone that is on the inside.

So what we're seeing on the Republican side is less about Obama and more about Republicans failing to do their jobs to lead their people on their side, whether it's fighting against some of the reforms that this president has put into place, or simply capitulating and giving this president everything he's asked for. So I think this is really more about the party and less about Obama.

BLITZER: How is Donald Trump preparing for tonight's debate?

PIERSON: Mr. Trump is -- he's definitely -- he's looking forward to tonight, I've got to tell you, and knowing that this is Marco Rubio's last stand. This is an opportunity for Senator Cruz to try and capitalize on that, as well, moving forward. He is definitely keeping up with the news, and he's definitely talking to our policy team. We have an amazing policy team.

And Mr. Trump definitely wants to have a good night tonight. I think he's going to have a strong showing. You're going to see that amazing side of him that everyone loves to see, even though we know that there's going to be a dog pile on Donald Trump, but he's ready, Wolf.

BLITZER: Does he want to tone down the debate tonight and not get into an angry back and forth as happened in the last couple debates?

PIERSON: Well, Mr. Trump always wants to do that. He has always started out that way in debates past. And it's when he's attacked. He's always said, "I'm a counter puncher; I'm not going to attack first."

And yes, I do think you're going to see Mr. Trump, again, come out and just want to talk about his vision and his plans to make America great again. However, if he is attacked, Mr. Trump will make the decision on how to counter punch just the same.

[17:20:12] BLITZER: So we can expect him to counter punch if he's attacked?

PIERSON: He might.

BLITZER: Is the campaign right now, as far as you know, Katrina, preparing for a possible contested convention in Cleveland in July?

PIERSON: You know, Wolf, we are preparing for pretty much anything at this point. You know, we have been subject to all kinds of ridiculous attacks by our own party, by people in our own party who are trying to stop the one candidate that everyone now understands can bring in blue-collar Democrats, that can bring in young people, new voters. The one candidate that can change the electoral votes come November.

So we're really prepared for anything at this point. We're going to fight it all the way through, and I can tell you Mr. Trump is going to be the Republican nominee and the next president of the United States.

BLITZER: Do you think, if it comes down to Trump and Cruz, he'll continue to debate with Cruz?

PIERSON: Well, we'll have to see. Mr. Trump is looking forward to debating whomever. I think everyone has a lot of debate fatigue at this point. So ultimately, Mr. Trump will make that decision.

BLITZER: A final question, Katrina, before I let you go. You heard Jim Acosta's report that a Trump reporter sort of sucker-punched a protester last night at a Trump rally as he was walking out. That individual is now being charged with assault. What's the Trump campaign's reaction?

PIERSON: Well, Mr. Trump -- and I'm really glad in that reporting that you did mention that the campaign goes out of their way to tell people at these events to not participate in things like that and to handle protesters gently and nicely, and Mr. Trump himself has said that at many of these rallies. Mr. Trump does not condone anything like that. We don't know for a fact that this was a Trump supporter. We've also been subject to having plants put into the audience, as well.

But just to reassure everyone, this is not something that's condoned by the Trump campaign. And in fact, it actually does a disservice to the other people who are there.

BLITZER: Hillary Clinton just tweeted as a follow-up, I'll read it to you. This is what she said. She said, "This kind of behavior is repugnant. We set the tone for our campaigns. We should encourage respect, not violence." Your response to that tweet from Hillary Clinton?

PIERSON: Well, and she's absolutely right, which is exactly what we do, what Mr. Trump himself personally does in these instances. And as I said before, and it's been reported many times, even on CNN, that a lot of these people coming to these rallies aren't necessarily Trump supporters.

BLITZER: Katrina Pierson, the national spokeswoman for the Trump campaign. Katrina, thanks very much for joining us.

PIERSON: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're counting down to tonight's historic presidential debate here at the University of Miami. We're getting new information. Stand by. We'll take a quick break.


[17:27:31] BLITZER: We're counting down to tonight's CNN Republican presidential debate here at the University of Miami. Florida may be senator Marco Rubio's home state, but senator Ted Cruz says he's competing hard to win Tuesday's primary here in Florida.

CNN correspondent Sunlen Serfaty is covering the Cruz campaign for us. She join us -- joining us right now near the debate stage.

Sunlen, Trump says he wants to face Senator Cruz one on one. The senator wants the same thing, doesn't he?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's absolutely right, Wolf. Ted Cruz's goal is really to push this race into a face-off with Donald Trump exclusively. Put simply, he has been calling more or less on John Kasich and Marco Rubio to get out of the race. A subtle message to them but a direct message, no doubt.

So a big goal for him here at this debate hall will be to present himself tonight as the most viable alternative to Donald Trump among all of them up there on the stage. It's been interesting to see Ted Cruz out on the campaign trail leading in today almost exclusively focused on Donald Trump. Laser focused on drawing contrasts with him, only mentioning Rubio and Kasich in the vein of calling on their supporters to come to his campaign.

He invites those supporters to come to his campaign. Certainly sets up an interesting dynamic tonight. It will be interesting to see his approach, how he really treats Rubio and Kasich when he has more or less called for both of them to drop out, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Sunlen, Donald Trump likes to hit Ted Cruz for being unpopular, even among his Republican colleagues in the U.S. Senate. Cruz today has a new response to that, right?

SERFATY: That's right. And his response came in the form of rolling out the endorsement of Utah Senator Mike Lee. This is his very first Senate endorsement. So it certainly is notable, and in part a response to that talking point of Donald Trump, hoping to put that talking point to death, so to speak.

And Utah Senator Mike lee appeared here in the spin room at the debate stage and talked about the party unifying behind Senator Cruz. Here's what he had to say.


SEN. MIKE LEE (R), UTAH: I'm sending the signal that it's time to unite, that the time has finally come. The time is finally at hand when we as Republicans need to unite behind one leader.


SERFATY: And interesting that Mike Lee was asked directly should Marco Rubio drop out of the race if he does not win here in Florida on Tuesday. He did not mince words. He said yes, he should, and that he should come to senator Ted Cruz's campaign.

[17:30:01] So interesting that that message is coming from all facets, even the new ones of the Cruz campaign -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen. Thank you.

Joining us now, our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, our chief national correspondent John King and our senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson.

Gloria, Trump wants a softer tone tonight. A, is that really doable? And why would he want a softer tone? So far these debates, even if he doesn't necessarily win, they've done pretty well for him.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the answer to your first A question is not sure it's really doable but he does want a softer tone because I think he understands that it could make him look more presidential. He's the prohibitive frontrunner right now. He could be the nominee after Florida and Ohio. He's got to start looking presidential. The question that I have is once he is attacked, and he will be attacked on this stage, I don't know if Donald Trump has it in him not to punch back. He's a guy who always says, if I'm attacked, I'm going to punch back. And then the third question I have is the people who attack him, how

are they going to do it? Because they cannot make themselves look smaller. That's what happened to Marco Rubio last time on the stage. I don't think Marco Rubio wants to make that mistake again.

BLITZER: Yes. We might be hearing more of "Lying Ted" and "Little Marco" if you will and all of that. But this is an opportunity for Cruz tonight as well.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's an opportunity for Cruz. He wants, as Sunlen just said, to say I'm the only guy who's got a chance. I'm the only guy who's within 100 delegates. I'm the only guy who has proven he can beat Donald Trump in a handful or half a dozen states. That's what he wants to say.

The problem for him is you have Kasich and Marco Rubio who are making their last stand in this debate essentially because their states, Ohio for Kasich, Rubio here in Florida, are up on Tuesday and they're making their last stand. And they understand the stakes here. Kasich needs to win at home to survive. Rubio needs to win at home to survive. He hasn't said he would get out but let's be realistic. If he doesn't win at home, the money is going to dry up.

And so -- and Trump knows the stakes. Florida and Ohio, Wolf, that's 165 of the 367 delegates at stake on Tuesday. Plus if you're winning in Florida and Ohio, and you're probably also winning North Carolina, you're probably also winning Missouri. Because you're winning two diverse states like that. So Trump understands this is a chance not mathematically but psychologically to lock it up and to send a message to the establishment, I win.

So if you're -- Kasich has not attacked Trump but he needs to win Ohio so I think he'll be more assertive. I'm not saying he's going to go after Trump tonight but he needs to be more a part of the debate tonight. And Rubio, I agree with Gloria, he doesn't want to get back into the hands and other arguments, but he -- this is his last stand. And when you're backed up against a wall, you tend to be aggressive.

BORGER: And I think Trump may attack Kasich even though he wants to have a more presidential tone because Kasich is very close to him and in some polls above him in Ohio.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and he's been doing that already basically saying that Kasich is an absentee senator. I think if you look on the airwave you can see that the super PACs, Rubio's super PAC is going after Kasich, for instance, and then Trump is obviously going after Marco Rubio saying that he's the absentee senator for Florida.

So I think the stakes are high for all of these folks tonight. You have Rubio coming in essentially saying whoever wins Florida is going to be the GOP nominee. Polls show him lagging. Can he have one debate performance --

BLITZER: Does he have enough traction now to win Florida on Tuesday? HENDERSON: You know, I think that's the big question. And can a

debate performance, however phenomenal it might be, is that enough to catapult him 16 points ahead of Donald Trump if you believe the polls.

BORGER: In the last -- in the last round of primaries last Tuesday night, there was a shift for Rubio. And it used to be that the late deciders were heavily going to Marco Rubio. That is not the case anymore. The late deciders were going to Ted Cruz and John Kasich more than Marco Rubio. And that may be an indication of things to come. Once you lose momentum like this, it's really hard to get it back.


BORGER: It's not impossible. It's tough.

BLITZER: There's early voting here in Florida, John, as you know.

BORGER: That's right.

BLITZER: And a lot of people have already voted. So we'll see -- they haven't released the results of that. We'll see if there's a difference between the early voters and the same-day voters.

KING: And imagine if you're Marco Rubio and you come up just short.


KING: And Jeb Bush gets a bunch of those early votes because Jeb Bush was in the race until just recently and had a very aggressive early voting program because it is part of the culture -- political culture here in Florida. Imagine if Marco Rubio falls a couple of thousand votes short and you look and you see a big chunk of Jeb Bush votes that grossly outnumber that. But that's the way the system works and you've got to play by the rules in the system that you're in.

BLITZER: Nia, if Trump wins here in Florida, in Ohio, and it's winner take all in both of those states, is it basically over?

HENDERSON: You know, it's hard for the other folks to make an argument that they can overtake Trump and that they should be the GOP nominee. I think the sort of second best option for these folks is do they stay in and deny him the nomination. That seems to be the strategy of Kasich at least. Doesn't seem to necessarily be the strategy of Marco Rubio at this point, who looks like he's got a do- or-die situation here in Florida.

But, you know, they're running out of options, they're running out of time to stop Trump and they tried. They've dumped a bunch of money on him in these super PAC ads but so far he's still rolling.

[17:35:01] BORGER: You know, there's a lot of talk of what I call Crubio, you know, sort of a joint ticket effort. And I don't -- I don't know if that's possible at all. And I also believe it's just as possible that Trump, who has said he would like someone with a political experience, Trump could say, OK, you guys don't like me, let me tell you, I'm going to pick so and so as my vice presidential nominee and kind of blunt that. You know, Trump is all about the art of the deal. Well, if other folks are negotiating, I think he can, too.

BLITZER: All right.

HENDERSON: I think that's right.

BLITZER: Let's take a break. There's more. We're counting down to this Republican presidential debate here on the campus of the University of Miami. Much more when we come back.


[17:40:19] BLITZER: Welcome back. We're counting down CNN's coverage of tonight's critical Republican presidential debate here at the University of Miami. I'm joined now by CNN political commentator S.E. Cupp, Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany and CNN political commentator Ana Navarro.

Ladies, thanks very much for joining us.

Kayleigh, let me start with you and just follow up on this very controversial statement that Donald Trump told -- said to Anderson Cooper in that interview last night about Islam. Listen to this.


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

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think Islam hates us. There's something -- there's something there, there's a tremendous hatred there. There's a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us.


BLITZER: Kayleigh, would he like to revise that statement a bit, Islam hates us?

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think he did because 15 seconds later Anderson went on to ask, do you mean radical Islam or Islam, and he said, I mean radical Islam. And he's repeatedly said this. He's repeated said I have Muslim friends, I'm not trying to indict the Muslim faith. However, he's pointing out something that I think our president fails to point out all too often that there is a strain of radical Islam that has taken over parts of the Middle East, it's operating openly in Syria, in Iraq and Libya, and it's important to call that out. And I think that's what Donald Trump was getting at.

BLITZER: Well, he should have initially said radical Islam instead of just Islam.

MCENANY: I think he was meaning Islam as an ideology. Islam is a political code, Sharia is a political code, it is antithetical to a lot of American values and democratic values. So I think he was meaning --

BLITZER: Not necessarily as a religion.

MCENANY: Not as a religion. I think he was meaning that portion of the Quran when he said Islam generally.

BLITZER: These comments, what impact in a Republican contest do they have?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think it's devastating, and disappointing and dangerous. And the fact that Donald Trump needs someone like Kayleigh to translate what he meant for a wider audience I think tells you everything you need to know. Donald Trump should be very careful when he talks about Muslim Americans and he should make those distinctions clear.

We have Muslims who put on the uniform of the United States of America and go and fight overseas for our freedom, for their freedom. And so to say Islam hates us is sloppy, it's dangerous, it's offensive, it's divisive. I mean, I could go on and on and on and on, but he's constantly -- he constantly goes there. And then his supporters --

MCENANY: Here's the thing.

CUPP: -- say, well, no, this is what he meant, this is what he meant, and sort of like clean it up a little for audiences.

MCENANY: But, S.E., I think most voters understand Donald Trump is not Islamophobic. In fact, if you go look at the --

CUPP: No, I don't think they do.

MCENANY: If you go look at the "Guardian," a very respected British publication, they interviewed one of his Muslim voters, Muslim supporters who said look, Donald Trump is not our enemy. Radical Wahhabism is our enemy. Donald Trump is not and he will protect moderate Muslims like me.


CUPP: You understand what an anecdote is, right? Anecdotal evidence does not tell the entire picture, Kayleigh. And when Donald Trump, if he gets to a general election, I don't think he's going to have the support of the Muslim American community.

MCENANY: I think there are a lot of moderate Muslims who are as terrified of ISIS as are --

CUPP: Absolutely.

MCENANY: Christians, as are Jews. They are --

CUPP: Of course they are. BLITZER: Ana, it does follow several weeks ago when Donald Trump

called for a temporary ban on all Muslims coming into the United States, which generated a lot, a lot of anger out there.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It generated a lot of anger but it also generated him some support, so I think he keeps doing this because it's been working for him. I would like for it to be devastating, as S.E. says, in a Republican primary, but the truth is that there are factions inside the Republican base that agree with him and he has not up to this point really suffered any damage for these absurd, ridiculous, outrageous, blanket statements he has been making since June 16th when he announced.

This is just one more stripe on the zebra. Whether you're talking about Mexicans, whether you're talking about POWs, whether you're talking about Muslims, it is one more stripe on the zebra, but he keeps doing it because he can.

BLITZER: Go ahead and respond, Kayleigh

MCENANY: I think it's easy to broad swipe Donald Trump and say he is a racist, he is Islamophobic and to make these generalizations, but I think 49 percent of the GOP who said that they would support Donald Trump -- this was a CNN poll about a month ago -- understand nuance. They understand this is a temporary ban, isolating a problem within the Muslim faith until we figure out how to not let Tashfin Malik into our country legally on a K-1 fiance visa.

BLITZER: All right. Let me move on and play a clip. This is Senator Ted Cruz. And S.E., I want to play it for you. We'll get all of you to respond. He was -- well, we don't have the clip right now but let me just tell you basically what Senator Ted Cruz said about Donald Trump's supporters. He said Donald does well with voters who have relatively low information.

CUPP: Yes. I don't think that's ever smart.

[17:45:02] It's never smart to criticize the voters that you ultimately hope to get. Whether you agree with Donald Trump and his supporters is a separate thing, but clearly these are voters who are engaged. Many of them for the first time and all thanks to Donald Trump. He's bringing out a lot of new voters and it's not really for Ted Cruz to judge the basis upon which those voters have decided on Trump. It's his job to convince them otherwise. And that was a missed opportunity.

BLITZER: Ana, when you heard that, what was your reaction?

NAVARRO: I agree with S.E. Look, whether they are low information or high information, low education or high education, everybody has the same vote. And should this become a two-man race and should Ted Cruz become the clear alternative to Donald Trump and this go to a brokered convention, at some point we're going to need unity within this party and we're going to need to stop talking about divisions and about sub- labels within the Republican Party and figure out how to have a broad message and a broad tent that we can all fit under, whether you have a high school degree or you have three PhDs to your name.

BLITZER: I suspect a lot of the voters and millions already have voted for Donald Trump probably resent the notion that they are relatively low information voters.

NAVARRO: Particularly coming from a guy who graduated from Yale and Princeton, you know.


NAVARRO: You know, it's a little -- it's a little much.

BLITZER: Let's see --

MCENANY: It's a surprising statement from Ted Cruz, too, because he is an outsider. He's not someone who's part of this establishment elitism. So it's surprising to hear him say something like this.

BLITZER: All right. We have much more to talk about, including Marco Rubio, a lot riding for him tonight at this Republican presidential debate. We'll take a quick break, we'll be right back.


[17:51:04] BLITZER: We're back with our political experts as we await the start of tonight's CNN Republican presidential debate here at the University of Miami. It's the last debate before Tuesday's winner- take-all primaries in both Florida and Ohio.

Ana, I want to read to you a little excerpt of what Eric Fehrnstrom, he was a top Mitt Romney adviser four years in his campaign, wrote today in the "Boston Globe."

"You need three ingredients to be successful. Money, organization and message. Lacking all three, Rubio should exit now to avoid an embarrassment in Florida that could damage whatever he hopes to salvage of his political career."

Your reaction?

NAVARRO: First of all, you know, people assume that Marco's future is in politics. I have never assumed that. I think that people are not used to folks who may actually want a life outside of politics and might actually think that a career doesn't necessarily mean going from one political office to the other.

There is no doubt that Marco's campaign is hurting right now. I can tell you that I'm hearing it everywhere I go in Miami. This debate is very important for him to be able to reset it. He needs to go on that stage and he needs to show grit, perseverance that he's in it to win it. He needs to make the electability argument.

I have seen Marco rebound before. The problem he has is that he's got no mathematical path left to the nomination. So he's got to be hoping and praying that people can buy into the notion of a brokered convention. But I just don't buy the idea that quitting before Florida is less embarrassing than fighting your heart out for your home state and then seeing how it turns out.

I think, you know, you can't get scared out of this race in your home state four days away and go do what, suck your thumb?

BLITZER: Bush quit before Florida.

NAVARRO: Yes. But he quit -- he quit a month ago. He didn't quit four days before the primary.

BLITZER: John Kasich, he's got a tough challenge in Ohio as well. There are mixed polling. Some have him up a little, some have him down a little. All of a sudden today Trump starts calling John Kasich absentee governor. Are we going to see him go more assertively against Kasich? Does he feel threatened, Trump, by John Kasich?

MCENANY: This is a big battleground. You look at Ohio, Kasich has a 62 percent approval rating. That is one of the highest in the nation for any governor. He's very well-liked and to get at Kasich, you have to levy those sorts of attacks. He's an absentee governor. It echoes something the "Columbus Dispatch" said. He's been absent 26 weeks in 10 months. You know, that's a lot to be outside of your states. So Donald Trump has to levy these points, talk to him about spending. Some of the criticisms of Kasich in order to destabilize him in his home state.

BLITZER: I'll ask you, S.E., if Trump wins Florida and Ohio, is it over?

CUPP: Yes, for sure. And that's why these contests tonight, this debate and our contests on Tuesday, are so important. Everything is leading to this. It's do or die for Ted Cruz. It's definitely do or die for Marco Rubio. And I don't think Kasich is really in play here. But, yes. I think any rational person would say if Trump gets Florida and Ohio it's pretty much over.

BLITZER: And Cruz will still stay in.

NAVARRO: Yes, I -- see, I don't agree with that.


BLITZER: And then it would be Cruz and Trump. That would be a two- man battle.

NAVARRO: Look, if Donald Trump wins Florida and Ohio, it is over, kaputz, put a fork in them for Marco Rubio and for John Kasich.

BLITZER: What happens to Cruz, though?

NAVARRO: But it is not over for -- if he's a clear alternative until somebody gets to 1,237. Until that happens, there is always a possibility of a brokered convention, which I wouldn't look forward to at all, but, you know, there are going to be a lot of people holding hope out for that. Until you get to 1237, it ain't over.

CUPP: But Cruz will have a huge deficit, a huge delegate deficit if Trump gets winner-take-all Florida and Ohio.


CUPP: It's just starting way behind.

MCENANY: And even Cruz has recognized a brokered convention would be perilous for the Republican Party.

CUPP: Yes.

MCENANY: He's more open to what they call an open convention. But I would say no matter what happens, if Trump walks away with the most of the popular vote, even if it's not a majority, it would be devastating.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by.

[17:55:01] We have much more. We're counting down to the start of this Republican presidential debate here at the University of Miami. Much more of our coverage coming up.


BLITZER: Happening now, winner take all. The four remaining Republican presidential candidates facing off tonight on CNN in their final debate ahead of the critical primaries next week that could make Donald Trump the inevitable nominee.

What will his rivals do tonight to try to stop him?

Do or die? A last chance for Marco Rubio to save his slumping campaign. A win in his home state of Florida next Tuesday seen as his only hope of staying in the race.

With Trump leading in the polls, will Rubio go on the attack again tonight?

And last hope. Ted Cruz now positioned as the GOP establishment's best alternative to Trump.