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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With New York Congressman Chris Collins; Republican Presidential Candidates Facing Off Tonight; Rubio Facing Make-or-Break Contest; Carson to Endorse Trump on Friday. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 10, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: 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, the Texas lawmaker picking up an endorsement from a fellow senator, but will the rest of the party rally around one of its most widely disliked members?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer inside the debate hall where the GOP candidates will soon take the stage. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're live here on the campus of the University of Miami. We're counting down to tonight's CNN Republican presidential debate, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich in their last battle before five major primaries next Tuesday that could shake up the GOP race or leave Donald Trump the party's inevitable nominee.

Extremely high stakes tonight for Trump's rivals fighting to keep their campaigns alive and likely targeting Trump tonight, Ted Cruz now saying he's in a two-man race with Trump and picking up a notable endorsement from his colleague Mike Lee of Utah. So far, he's the only U.S. senator backing Cruz, whose hard-line tactics have made him one of the most unpopular lawmakers up on Capitol Hill.

And there's new controversy tonight surrounding the Trump campaign after an African-American protester was punched in the face by a white Trump supporter at a campaign rally. The 78-year-old man now charged with assault.

Let's get a preview of tonight's big debate, a potential game-changer in one of the most unpredictable political races in recent memory.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty begins our coverage.

Sunlen, what can we expect to see tonight?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I would expect to see a sense of urgency from many of the candidates up here on this debate stage later tonight. This debate is coming at such a critical and such a pivotal time in the course of this campaign. This is the last debate before voters head to the poll in the winner-take- all states of Florida and Ohio.

So, so crucial to so many of the candidates making their last pitch tonight. Many oft camps will likely be looking to create that breakout moment for themselves to potentially breathe new life into their campaigns, specifically Marco Rubio and John Kasich tonight.

Donald Trump will be there right at center stage as the front-runner. To his right will be Marco Rubio and to his left will be Ted Cruz. Likely much of the focus tonight on blunting Trump's momentum going forward. A lot of heat directed likely at center stage -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sunlen, you have been covering the Cruz campaign extensively. What's the strategy from Ted Cruz tonight?

SERFATY: Well, it's all about pushing this into a two-man race on behalf of the Cruz campaign. That's what their goal is to do.

So what we will likely see Ted Cruz up there on the stage is to present himself at the most viable candidate that can be the alternative to Donald Trump. And this is the most part what we have seen him do on the campaign trail, largely ignoring two-fourths of the candidates in this race, John Kasich and Marco Rubio. He's been exclusively focused on taking down Donald Trump.

I suspect we will see a lot of that from him here tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen, thank you.

The front-runner, Donald Trump, is expecting a fresh barrage of attacks tonight, especially from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. He went after Trump, Rubio did, aggressively starting at the last debate. But Trump returned blistering fire, taking a toll on Rubio's campaign.

Let's bring in CNN's Jim Acosta.

Jim, Rubio's attempt to take on Trump really seemed to have backfired, as it has, I must say, for several of the other candidates.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

And Donald Trump likes to say that. Every time he's attacked, it backfires on the person who is doing the attacking. He's still standing. Donald Trump, for his part, he is saying he's expecting a softer debate tonight. But tell that to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, as Sunlen was just saying.

I talked to Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. He tells me that they understand Marco Rubio's political life is on the line tonight. He will be more aggressive as this is perhaps the Florida senator's last chance to shake up this race in front of millions of voters.

We have heard Rubio say in the last 24 hours, Wolf, that he now regrets poking fun at Trump's appearance. A top Rubio adviser tells me the Florida senator will avoid those personal attacks, but they still see Trump's business record as fair game. So, that means more hits on Trump University and so on.

The other big front looming in this nomination battle is John Kasich's home state of Ohio. There's new polling showing the Ohio governor may be moving ahead of Trump in that state. That explains why Trump called Kasich an absentee governor last night in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

We may hear more of that tomorrow morning from Donald Trump. Get this, Wolf. He's scheduled a post-debate news conference, another example of how Trump likes to shake the daily campaign narrative. If he suffers a setback tonight, he can always hit the reset tomorrow morning at this news conference tomorrow morning, Wolf.

[18:05:02]

BLITZER: Jim, we're also learning about an incident at a Trump rally involving an attendee charged with assault. Tell us what happened.

ACOSTA: That's right. This is not the first time we have talked about an incident at a Trump rally.

This is just the latest episode of some violence breaking out at one of his events. Last night, we should show this to our viewers. This is video off of YouTube of a protester being led out of Trump's rally in North Carolina last night. As the protester is heading out of the arena, he is sucker-punched, did not see this coming, by a Trump supporter in the crowd.

Now, police in Fayetteville say that that Trump supporter has been arrested, and we should also point out, Wolf, that Trump has dismissed these scuffles that almost seem to happen on a daily basis at something that just happens from time to time considering the size of the crowds he draws at these events. He gave that explanation at his news conference on Saturday night.

We should point out the Trump campaign does make an announcement before every rally saying please don't touch the protesters because they expect these protests to break out, but, obviously, this one Trump supporter was not listening to that plea from the campaign when he sucker-punched that protester being led out of that arena last night -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And he's now been charged, as you say. All right, thanks very much, Jim Acosta.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Joining us, Republican Congressman Chris Collins of New York. He's supporting Donald Trump.

Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

And I know you said you are endorsing Trump because you believe Donald Trump, in your words, has clearly demonstrated that he has both the guts and the fortitude to bring jobs back to the United States, take on ISIS and make America great again. But what has he done to demonstrate that, for example, he understands

the challenge ISIS poses? He doesn't very often provide specifics, specifics at all when asked.

REP. CHRIS COLLINS (R), NEW YORK: Well, Wolf, again, thanks for inviting me on to the show.

And, yes, I'm a strong Trump supporters but he has very clearly stated he's going to secure our borders, he's going to defeat ISIS, get our jobs back and make America proud again as we stand tall against Russia, North Korea and Iran.

But as to some of the specifics, we all know that the threat that ISIS is to the United States of America. We have seen the terrible videos of beheadings and other atrocities, that they hate our way of life. In fact, they hate the way most of the world is living. So I don't think you have to get into a lot of specifics for all Americans to realize how bad ISIS is.

And the strength of our military, as Mr. Trump has said, we can take ISIS out, but we have a president now that has no strategy whatever. He's never articulated a strategy. He's tied the hands of many of our troops in how we're dealing with these monsters.

So, I have every confidence and I think most Trump supporters do as well. As president of the United States, Donald Trump will defeat ISIS, and he will stand up to the ayatollah.

BLITZER: What would he do?

COLLINS: He will stand up to Putin.

BLITZER: Congressman, but, specifically, what would he do if he were the commander in chief to destroy ISIS?

COLLINS: First of all, as the commander in chief, I know we'd have a strategy that would involve other nations as well as his advisers.

But absent other nations joining us, our airpower is superior. And Mr. Trump has stated, I think fairly clearly, he's going to take ISIS out. And we have just not been as forceful, frankly, as we could be. We have a commander in chief that's not a forceful leader. He has no strategy.

It starts with strategy. And one thing I can tell you about a chief executive of a successful business, strategy drives the day.

BLITZER: But would he just continue what President Obama is doing, manned airstrikes against ISIS? Unmanned drone airstrikes? Having advisers there working with locals? There are international partners, if you will. Would he, for example, move U.S. ground forces into Iraq and Syria to try to retake Mosul, to try to destroy Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria?

COLLINS: Well, Wolf, it's not my place to speak for the president of the United States, commander in chief Donald Trump. That will be for he and his advisers and his secretary of defense and his chiefs.

But I can tell you, myself and many of Trump's supporters know, of all the candidates standing on the stage tonight, and certainly in comparison to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, there is one man that will defeat ISIS as commander in chief, and that is Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Would you as a U.S. congressman support ground troops moving in to destroy ISIS?

COLLINS: Well, as none of us want to see our ground troops in another conflict.

All of us are saying we're going to need advisers. And with that said, we have to defeat the monstrosity of ISIS, and I would defer to other experts in coming back to Congress with what their plans are. And at some point in time, you have to say, all options are on the table. You don't tie your hands behind your back as you are negotiating with monsters like ISIS.

[18:10:10]

BLITZER: Because most of the experts, as you know, Congressman, they say airstrikes, they can degrade, but they won't completely destroy.

The only way to destroy ISIS is to send troops, whether U.S. troops or foreign troops or others. You have to get in there on the ground, basically go house to house.

But we will leave that issue on that point. Another thing...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Go ahead, Congressman.

COLLINS: Well, I was going to say, it's also getting the local, the Kurds and the others involved, arming those forces that are on the ground. It's their territory.

We have done a deplorable job under Obama in helping what could be our allies with boots on the ground, not American boots, other boots on the ground. And, ultimately, that's what I know America would prefer, having the boots on the ground from those other nations. It's their country. Having them as the ground force.

BLITZER: He also, Donald Trump, he blasts companies for moving outside of the United States, manufacturing products outside of the United States.

You have mentioned that you want him and he wants to bring jobs back. But, as you know, some of his products are, in fact, manufactured outside of the United States, the ties, some of the suits made in China, some of the dress shirts made outside the United States. The accusation against Donald Trump is, he's being hypocritical. He's willing to manufacture products outside the United States and bring them back to the U.S., but he says that shouldn't happen.

Your response.

COLLINS: Well, what it is, China and Mexico both are cheating through manipulation of currency, a country like China that steals our intellectual property, doesn't live by the same labor laws and environmental laws we do.

They have this built-in advantage, which is not fair trade whatsoever. And you have to at some point in time say, we're not going to tolerate that. But as long as we have a president and a government that allows that cheating to occur, private sector business, who is in -- they are in business to make money, are going to go where it's cheaper.

We need to have barriers as needed to level the playing field if that's what it takes in order to have it no longer a financial incentive for people to go over there and take advantage of lower wages in a country that steals our intellectual property, manipulates currency and does not live by the same environmental and regulatory burdens.

The government has got to level that playing field, or we're going to keep losing jobs. The theft of jobs, and I believe Donald Trump as president is going to sit down and set those standards where they're not going to be able to cheat any longer.

BLITZER: So, as long as the cheating goes on, do you think all of Trump ties, suits, shoes should be made here in America?

COLLINS: No, I do not think you can tell a private sector business person to put his business in 30 percent or 40 percent price differential when, unfortunately, that's the unlevel playing field this president has put our country in.

We need to stop the cheating. But a private company is in business. This is a capitalist country. You can't say otherwise. They are in business to make money. In fact, any public corporation that does anything to disadvantage their shareholders, they have a fiduciary responsibility to make money, and part of it would be going where costs are low.

But they are low because they cheat. They don't play by the same standards. So, I don't think you can say anything is wrong with Donald Trump in that as a private sector businessperson, which he is -- thank God -- the others are not -- they have no experience. We have a chief executive, not a chief politician in Donald Trump.

He knows how they are cheating, but also as a private business guy, he has an obligation, frankly, to go to where the costs are lowest. That's what a chief executive in the private sector does.

BLITZER: Congressman Collins, we have more to discuss. I want to take a quick break.

COLLINS: Sure.

BLITZER: We're counting down to the start of this historic Republican presidential debate here on the campus of the University of Miami. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:18:37]

BLITZER: We're just over two hours away from the start of tonight's CNN Republican presidential debate here at the University of Miami. This is just five days before a handful of critical primaries, including winner-take-all contests in Florida and Ohio. Lots of delegates at stake.

We're back with Republican Congressman Chris Collins of New York. He is supporting Donald Trump.

Congressman, once again, thanks very much for joining us

COLLINS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know you have said you don't agree with Donald Trump's call for a temporary ban on all Muslims coming into the United States until the U.S. can figure out what is going on as far as terrorism is concerned.

But listen to this exchange he had last night with Anderson Cooper here on CNN.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You agree with him on that?

COLLINS: Well, Anderson, I -- or, Wolf, I believe he was talking about radical Islam. I believe that was actually clarified today.

So, no, certainly, I would never say Islam hates us. But I will say -- and I agree with Donald Trump -- that radical Islam not only hates America. They hate the standard of living of the civilized world, when we're talking about ISIS and some of the other -- al Qaeda and the other radical Islamic extremists, they absolutely hate us.

[18:20:10]

And that was a narrative I understand has been clarified. It's radical Islam, not Islam, which, obviously, we know there are a lot of people that practice that faith that do not feel that way.

BLITZER: Yes, and I'm sure many in your own district in Western New York as well.

Let's talk about the debate tonight. Donald Trump says he really doesn't like these debates. He skipped one, as you know, in the past. What kind of Donald Trump do you think will be at the debate tonight?

COLLINS: Well, all of us would hope we'd see a debate of a little bit more substance. I mean, getting right down to some level of detail, that's what we would all hope for.

I know that will come some day. And I think, though, the reality is, you have got some folks tonight who are very desperate for wins, and absent those wins in Florida and Ohio, you are going to see folks dropping out. One thing we know about Donald Trump, if you punch him, he's going to punch back. Let's hope that doesn't start.

I don't think he would start that fight, but I think we also know that if there are others punching at Donald Trump tonight, you are going to see some punching back. As much as we'd like to see a more substantive debate, we're all going to see in about two hours.

BLITZER: Congressman Collins, you're absolutely right. Donald Trump has made it clear, you hit him, he hits you right back, and sometimes a lot more ferociously, if you will.

Chris Collins, thanks very much for joining us.

COLLINS: Happy to be with you, Wolf. Any time.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Just ahead, the pressure clearly tonight on Marco Rubio. Is it do or die for the Florida senator? Florida primary just five days away. We are going to go inside his strategy.

And who has the most to gain tonight? We're going to talk about all of that and a lot more as we count down to the CNN Republican presidential debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:26:44]

BLITZER: High stakes in tonight's CNN Republican presidential debate, and now just about two hours away, the pressure especially intense on Senator Marco Rubio.

His campaign has lost momentum in recent days. The Florida senator must win his home state's primary next Tuesday to remain viable.

Let's talk about all of this with our CNN political commentators, Ana Navarro, Republican strategist Kevin Madden, and Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany.

Kevin, the strategy for these three -- for the four Republican candidates tonight, what do you think going into this debate? What do they need to do? KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think one of the things I'm

going to be looking for is whether or not Marco Rubio still goes really hard after Donald Trump.

I think he's expressed regret for going after Donald Trump in a very personal way, but I think he's going to continue to go after him on the substance. He can't be very schizophrenic about his strategy. He has to keep up with the hard attack that he's been on for the last month.

I think the other thing is whether or not Ted Cruz begins to try and peel away some Marco Rubio supporters as he presents himself to voters as the best, most viable alternative to Donald Trump, vs. going right at Donald Trump.

Those are some of the dynamics I'm going to be watching for tonight.

BLITZER: Because Cruz says essentially it's a two-man race right now, Cruz and Trump. What does Cruz need to do tonight? What kind of strategy do you think he will use?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: He needs to walk a fine, fine line, because on the one hand, he doesn't want to antagonize Marco Rubio and his supporters because he's seeking this unity party. He's seeking folks -- Marco Rubio saying after Tuesday, if Rubio loses, what we need to do is unify and make this a two-man race and let's get behind Ted.

On the one hand, he can't antagonize Rubio. He can't really go after him directly. But, on the other hand, he needs to convince people to vote for him instead, because he's clearly made the decision to play in Florida, not for the purpose of winning Florida, but for the purpose of knocking Rubio out of the race.

BLITZER: Because he thinks once Rubio is out...

NAVARRO: It becomes a two-man race.

BLITZER: ... he will have a better chance. He's still got John Kasich to worry about.

Kayleigh, you think Trump needs to hit two specific points, or at least a couple points, in order to be successful tonight.

KAYLEIGH MCENANY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Absolutely.

With regard to Rubio -- because Rubio is the name of the game -- we're in Florida. He needs to win Florida, of course Ohio as well. But with Rubio, he hasn't been hit on Social Security. That is huge in Florida. We're in a state where there are more retirees than anywhere in the country. And Marco Rubio wants to raise the retirement age for younger people.

He has also considered not putting the cost of living adjustment in there for Social Security. Likewise, he needs to hit him and say look at the audience and say Marco Rubio promised all of you who voted for him he'd stand against amnesty. He did not.

And, finally, he needs to say Marco Rubio also reneged on his obligations in the U.S. Senate. He wasn't there to vote against the omnibus bill.

With regard to Kasich, he needs to paint him as an absentee government and he also needs to say the Cato Institute, despite you saying you balanced the budget, gave you one of the worst ratings ever on spending. How do you address that, Kasich?

NAVARRO: Look, I think Marco needs to try to get under Trump's skin, which he did with things like when he brought up the undocumented Polish workers that had worked on the Trump sites.

But I think Marco did something last night which to me came across as very authentic, very genuine. And maybe he tries it on this stage, which was, he admitted that going into the gutter to go after Donald Trump, that going in with those personal attacks that made him look like a schoolyard bully did not work.

[18:30:03] He admitted that it had been embarrassed his children. I think that was a -- refreshing admission of a mistake by a politician. A very human moment. And I think he might try it on the stage today. I hope he does.

BLITZER: Because it's not often you hear politicians basically acknowledge they made a -- they made a mistake.

MADDEN: It's not. And it is important, I think, to acknowledge that and move past it in order to go on. This race, when Marco Rubio has done the best,has flourished when he says, "I'm the ideas guy. I'm the visionary. I'm the one who has the command and control of the issues that the American public cares about."

So when he went into the personal attacks, that was very much a departure from what really got Marco Rubio, you know, positioned as a national Republican leader.

So when he goes on those substance and he holds, to Ana's point, tries to hold Donald Trump to the details, which Donald Trump hasn't really provided much of in the way of any of the issues that he's prevented, that's where I think he's at his strongest.

BLITZER: Which Donald Trump, Kayleigh, do you think will show up tonight, because lately, he's been trying to act a little bit more presidential and wants to bring unity to the party. But on the other hand, you hit him, he hits you right back.

MCENANY: Yes, I think the presidential Donald Trump will show up initially. And he will remain that way. But Donald Trump cannot appear weak when attacked. That is what people like about Donald Trump. They see him as a fighter. "He's someone who's going to fight for my values, fight for his principles." And if he stands down when attacked, that will not come up well. That is not an authentic Donald Trump.

I think he'll fight when attacked but take the presidential tone as much as he can.

NAVARRO: He's not physically or psychologically capable of resisting fighting back when he's attacked.

BLITZER: It's worked so far for him.

NAVARRO: Right.

BLITZER: You know, so far, he's been successful.

MCENANY: Sure. And we need someone like that, after Romney and McCain, who a lot of Republican voters criticized for not fighting enough against Obama.

MADDEN: I was struck by the -- by Anderson Cooper's interview the other day, where he struck a much more unifying tone. The President Trump that showed up, I think that particular energy. And whether or not President Trump, who is trying to be more of a unifying force, shows up onstage tonight.

But Kayleigh's right. I mean, the one thing that -- when candidate Trump shows up, is when he's attacked. Really going after folks. Non-relenting in offering the counter-punch to some of the other candidates. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out onstage tonight.

BLITZER: And I know you're friendly with Marco Rubio. You lived down here in Miami. He's your senator. How does he convince people, though, in Florida that he -- that he's got a real shot, not just at winning Florida, but capturing enough delegates to be the Republican nominee?

NAVARRO: Look, I don't think he can make the argument that he can capture enough delegates, I think, at this point to be the Republican nominee. I think that's a very hard argument for him to make.

I do think he can make the argument that he is electable, whereas the other three on that stage would lose to Hillary Clinton. I think he just has got to show his heart and fight his heart out. He's got to leave it all on that debate stage. People have got to see that he still has it in him.

Voters can smell a dying campaign. Right now Marco's campaign is wounded. You know, it looks like one of those old stale hotel lobbies that get a funny smell. He has got to show that he's still in this, that he's got the heart, that he's got the grit, that he's got the strength, that he's got the perseverance, that he's going to do it.

He's got to show up there, all of him with all his enthusiasm, and he's got to have a great debate. He cannot afford to have a lukewarm, mediocre debate.

Tonight Marco needs to bat it out of the ballpark. He needs to convince Floridians to vote for him, that voting for him is not throwing away their vote.

BLITZER: Do you think he can do that?

MADDEN: I do. Look, I've seen Marco Rubio. He happened to travel with Governor Romney a lot during the 2012 campaign.

BLITZER: You worked for Governor Romney.

MADDEN: And I -- when I worked for him, and when I saw him on the campaign trail, and big audiences and small audiences really embrace expectations, really be that strong visionary leader that so many people feel is the -- is exactly what the Republican Party needs, especially to serve as a contrast to Hillary Clinton, who's been associated with the last 25 years of American politics. That's the Marco Rubio, Ana's right, that has to show up and fight and make his case.

NAVARRO: And we saw him rebound. Remember, we saw him rebound after a disastrous debate and election result in New Hampshire and come back strong in South Carolina. Marco needs to show that he can rebound again. It becomes a harder sell as this goes along. But you know, he has got the ability to do it.

BLITZER: All right, guys. Stand by. We have more to discuss.

Let's take another quick break. We're counting down to the Republican presidential debate here in Miami. Much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:39:20] BLITZER: Marco Rubio has voiced regret for some of the personal comments he made about Donald Trump in recent days. Personal attacks, counter attacks. They certainly haven't helped at the polls.

Our senior political reporter, Manu Raju, is inside what we call the spin room here at the University of Miami.

Manu, you have some details of Rubio's strategy for tonight. What are you learning?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you think that's Marco Rubio is going to lay off Donald Trump. You're going to have to think again, because what I'm hearing from Rubio officials is that he's going to really make the case to Florida voters that this is the state that can stop Donald Trump.

He's going to say that he's the only one who can beat Donald Trump, and a vote for John Kasich or a vote for Ted Cruz, essentially, is a vote for Donald Trump. Now watch for Marco Rubio to try to draw Donald Trump out on some policy issues. We started -- started to see him to do that in the Houston debate that you moderated, Wolf. They think that was a very effective line of attack.

In addition, that attack about Trump being a con artist, someone who uses questionable business dealings. That is something that he plans to raise, as well.

But that's not just -- that's not it. He wants to remind voters why they voted for him in 2010, what they liked about him, in addition to say he's the most electable Republican. That's been something he has been saying all along, that he can unite the Republican Party in this do-or-die state. All these key arguments really need to penetrate, Wolf. Otherwise, it's going to be the end of the road next week, if he . They really need to penetrate or it could be the end of the road if he does not win this state, Wolf.

BLITZER: He's got to be at the top of his game tonight. Thanks very much, Manu, for that.

The Republican presidential debate once again less than two hours away. So how are the candidates performing? How will they perform tonight? That can certainly determine who wins the Florida primary along with every single one of Florida's 99 delegates.

Let's bring in our experts: CNN Politics executive editor Mark Preston; political analyst Ron Brownstein -- he's a senior editor at "The Atlantic"; and Rebecca Berg, a national political reporter at Real Clear Politics. Also joining us, CNN political commentator Ryan Lizza. He's the Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine.

Who seems to come in tonight, Mark, among these four Republican candidates with the most confidence?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: No doubt about it, it's Ted Cruz. You know, he picked up some victories over this past week. Some of them were surprising. And the fact is, he's making the argument that he is the true alternative to Donald Trump. Marco Rubio has been the most disappointing candidate, you know, up to this point. And John Kasich is just hanging on by a thread.

So confidence-wise, you have Ted Cruz coming in. But let's not discount Donald Trump. Because Donald does believe if he comes in and he's able to win Florida and Ohio on Tuesday, he thinks it's over.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm going to be a little different. I don't think -- I think Cruz is also, and the remarkable thing about this race is, Donald Trump who is a plurality front-runner.

If you go back and you look, at this point in 2008 John McCain was moving up toward 50 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney at this point in the race was moving up toward 45 percent of the vote.

Donald Trump is usually staying around 35 percent. In fact, that is a share of the total vote. Out of all the votes that are cast so far, he's at 35 percent. So he is a plurality frontrunner who is not taking that next leap into kind of near majority status.

The problem is no one else is broad enough either. Ted Cruz lost in Mississippi, another state that he probably should have won. A Santorum state or a Huckabee state. And he continues to struggle, Wolf, among those voters who are not evangelicals. That's why I think Ohio, North Carolina and Missouri are so critical for him. Because once you get past that, you're down to very few states where evangelicals are close to half of the vote.

BLITZER: If he wins, Rebecca, those states, Donald Trump, on Tuesday, he's well on his way.

REBECCA BERG, REAL CLEAR POLITICS: He is well on his way, Wolf. And that's why, of course, we're looking at Ohio and Florida, also, as very important states, because these are winner-take-all contests.

And especially Florida. It is such a big delegate prize. But what Republicans are thinking at this point is that this race is still not over, even if Donald Trump wins Ohio and Florida. The delegate map certainly wouldn't be in Republicans' -- anti-Trump Republicans' favor.

However, it would still be possible to push this to an open convention, and that a big part of that is what Ron mentioned, that he has been to this point a plurality winner. He's not trying to share the vote that a front-runner should or would usually in this case, but because it still isn't winnowing fast enough, he has had that advantage.

BROWNSTEIN: There's a limited catch-22 that Mark and I have talked about. On the one hand, the forces opposed to Trump need Rubio and Kasich need to win their home states, to deny Trump those delegates. On the other hand, if they win, they stay in, and they divide the vote further.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask Ryan, Ryan Lizza: if Trump, let's say, were to win Ohio and Florida, maybe the -- Kasich and Marco Rubio would drop out, but Cruz isn't going anywhere. And then it becomes a two- man race. What happens then?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think one of the threads through this conversation is, you know, the fact that he's a 35 percent plurality, not a majority nominee right now or front-runner.

The two sides are hardening, right? The pro-Trump forces are hardening. They're not moving to any of the other candidates, but the anti-Trump forces, the people who are saying they will never accept him as the nominee, are hardening.

So you are not going to get other people out of the race. You're not going to get the establishment giving up on denying him the nomination until he is standing on that podium in Cleveland accepting, you know, giving his acceptance speech.

So I just think both sides have hardened. You're not seeing like 2008 or 2012 when McCain and Romney started to pull away with the race, and you heard voices of the establishment say, "OK, the race is over. Let's pull together and concentrate on the Democrats." That's not happening now and I doubt very much it will happen through the summer.

BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit, Ron, about Ohio right now. The latest CNN/ORC poll, and I'll put it up on the screen. Trump 41, Kasich 35, Cruz 15. Rubio at only 7 percent.

[18:45:04] Winner-take-all Ohio next Tuesday. Other polls show Kasich slightly ahead.

It could be very close there.

BROWNSTEIN: It could be. And Ohio is a very interesting state in the Republican context, because it is almost half the voters last time were evangelical Christians and a major of the voters were blue collar whites.

And that -- where Donald Trump has really put this race, put the other candidates in his rearview mirror is that he's broken that hold on those blue collar evangelicals. He beat Ted Cruz among them in both states this week in Mississippi and Michigan. He's beaten them in a number of them and I think that is what allows him to keep it close.

If Kasich can get through Ohio and maintain his viability by winning Ohio, a lot of what comes next is better for him. A lot of the coastal states coming up, which are somewhat more moderate where he could have a little more purchase as the alternative to Trump as oppose to Cruz, but he's got to get through this first.

BLITZER: And, Rebecca, there are some interesting poll numbers here in Florida where we are, a CNN/ORC poll. We asked likely Republican candidates, have they decided who they are going to support? Sixty- seven percent said they are definitely decided already. Twelve percent said they are leaning one way, 21 percent said they are still deciding -- presumably what happens on the stage behind us tonight could help them make a final decision.

The question is, how will they move?

BERG: Absolutely. That's why this is such a critical night for Marco Rubio because he needs to shift the direction of this race. Right now, it's not a direction that's good for his campaign. His campaign seems to be on the verge of collapse if not already collapsing or collapsed.

And so, he needs to reassure voters he has a place in this race, that he is not on the decline. And that he has something to offer the Republican field and that he's not just playing spoiler in this state. And so, that's what he's going to try to do tonight.

It's still very difficult, Wolf, because this is not a state that everyone goes and votes on Election Day. There's a lot of early voting in Florida. Many people have already cast their ballots. And so, their minds can't be changed. But that 20 percent that's still deciding, that's going to be Marco Rubio's target tonight.

BLITZER: As you know, Mark, a lot of people have already voted already in Florida. They haven't given us the results. But a lot of people, they have early voting here in this state. That could have an impact.

PRESTON: It could have an impact. And, look, the Rubio folks are hoping it helps them.

The problem with that is, though, could some of them have voted for Jeb Bush who is out of the race?

So, look, Marco Rubio's future in many ways can be determined in the next five or six days. If he loses Florida, I'm not of the mind-set that he can never run for governor. But if he loses Florida by a lot, if he comes in third place, if Ted Cruz were to come out of nowhere, Marco Rubio were to third, that would be devastating I think for Marco Rubio, certainly in the next few years if he has any eyes on the governorship.

BLITZER: Ryan, what do you think the strategy for these four candidates on the stage behind us today is going to be? Are they going to come out swinging or will they be more reserved?

LIZZA: I think Rubio is going to trap himself by swinging wildly from a policy future-oriented message to those few days when he sort of became a stand-up comedian and just -- you know, just did anti-Trump jokes and is now saying he sort and so there's sort of this Al Gore- like question of which Marco Rubio are you going to get on that stage tonight.

And I think, honestly, Trump has sort of rattled him to make him sort of swing back and forth between those two strategies. But, look, Trump is the front-runner. You have to go at the front-runner if you're going to win the race.

BLITZER: Go ahead, Rebecca. You wanted to weigh in. If Trump comes out swinging if all of them come out swinging, who wins?

BERG: Well, that's the question, right? I think Marco Rubio does need to measure his attacks a little bit more. He came out this week and started sort of apologizing for the rhetoric he's been using on the campaign trail, the way he mocked Trump's hair, his hand, just very personal attacks.

So, I think what we're going to see from Marco Rubio and these other candidates are more focused attacks on Donald Trump, on his record, on his business dealings, on some of his business failings, sort of in the vain of what we've seen from these groups like Our Principles PAC that have been attacking him on the air. And those attacks are usually the most effective in politics. So, we'll see.

BROWNSTEIN: But, you know, one thing that's really striking, Wolf, is that with the victories in Michigan and Mississippi, Trump re- establishing his momentum toward the nomination, exactly as he's steamrolling toward the nomination, every warning light on the dash board in terms of the general election is blinking red.

The NBC/"Wall Street Journal" today reported, he had the most favorable/unfavorable of any presidential candidates they have ever measured and key groups in the Democratic coalition, the groups that are growing in their electorate -- millennials, minorities, college- educated whites. He has unfavorables at 70 percent or above.

So, yes, he is strong within the context of the Republican coalition as a plurality front-runner but many of the things that have made him so popular in that coalition have caused a lot -- dug a deep hole with groups that he's going to need if he is the nominee in the general election. And so, you have the Republicans kind of this very odd position of a guy who is on the brink of a nomination but yet looking enormous challenges in terms of the general election.

BLITZER: We heard Ted Cruz say that Trump is perform willing because he's appealing to low-information voters. Trump has got millions of voters already who might resent the fact they're being called low information voters.

[18:50:04] PRESTON: Right. And what exactly did he mean by that? Was he saying that voters are not smart, are they stupid, or was he saying that they're not tuning into the race and they're tuning in to Donald Trump who he doesn't believe is delivering a conservative message?

So, right now, Ted Cruz, his appeal right now is that he is the true conservative. Now, in the interview that he did was very interesting where he made those remarks. He did it with David Brody who is, you know, arguably --

BLITZER: With Christian Broadcasting Network.

PRESTON: Christian Broadcasting Network.

And, look, when Republicans go to talk and they want to talk about faith and politics, they go to David Brody. He does a very good job.

Trump -- rather, Cruz was sending a message across to voters, social conservatives that he's leading to Trump. But at some point, he's hoping that they'll turn and come to him. But Ron's point, Cruz has a problem, a math problem, as he moves into April and May. But still he says that he is the conservative alternative. And at least he's winning, Marco Rubio is not.

BLITZER: People are beginning to come into this debate hall here in the campus of the University of Miami. It's going to be very full very soon, but you can see people arriving right now. A hot ticket here in Miami.

Ryan, the latest Donald Trump comments on Islam, how do you think they'll play in these Republican contests?

LIZZA: Well, I mean, to be totally honest, he's been pretty consistent and pretty anti-Islam since the beginning of this campaign. He's called for a ban on anyone of the Muslim faith coming into this country and when he did that, his poll numbers went up.

So, I think -- you know, one of the mysteries a lot of people have been trying to figure out is why do religious conservative support Donald Trump? You know, the issue of Islam among a lot of evangelicals is more important these days than the traditional social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage.

And, you know, to a lot of people what sounds like bigotry is something that is apparently appealing in Donald Trump when he talks about Islam that way. It's something that I hear a lot when I go to Republican rallies and I'm talking to the most socially conservative voters in trying to figure out why they support someone who is not religious like them.

BLITZER: More people arriving here at the debate hall on the campus of the University of Miami. Let's take a quick break. Much more as we await the start of this historic Republican presidential debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:00] BLITZER: We've got breaking news. Multiple sources now telling CNN that Dr. Ben Carson will endorse Donald Trump tomorrow morning at a 9:00 a.m. news conference in Palm Beach. Dr. Carson, the former Republican presidential candidate, will endorse -- we're now being told by multiple sources -- will endorse Donald Trump.

Ryan Lizza is with us.

Ryan, this is a significant endorsement. Dr. Ben Carson, he has a lot of supporters in the Republican community.

LIZZA: It certainly is. We were just talking about evangelicals and leaders in that movement. And, look, if you look at the issues that Ben Carson has talked about historically, they probably line up a little bit closer with Ted Cruz and he's saying, no, Ted Cruz is not the candidate of social conservatives, Donald Trump is.

So, you know, usually, I'm not a believer that endorsements matter all that much, but this is pretty significant. He was consistently getting double digits in the polls. He has a huge base of supporters out there. His favorability ratings in the Republican primaries have always been very strong. He's well-liked.

So, a little surprising considering how hard Donald Trump went at Ben Carson, mocking his famously earlier in the race. So, a little surprising Ben Carson has turned the other cheek and put all that behind me. And, you know, I'll be eager to hear the back story, Wolf, of how Trump courted Carson to make this happen.

BLITZER: We'll certainly hear it morning at that news conference it's going to be at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, where Donald Trump has his club. Specifically, you're looking ahead to the five states, the Ben Carson endorsement, I assume it'll help Trump here in Florida, but also probably North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, elsewhere as well, right?

LIZZA: Look, endorsements are important for Trump. Less so for some of the other candidates frankly, but Trump is sort of his own island, right? He doesn't have a lot of elite support. He doesn't have a lot of support in -- among what you might call Republican validators, right?

So, Chris -- that's why the Chris Christie endorsement was somewhat significant because it was so surprising. So, someone as popular as Carson is in the Republican party stepping forward and saying he's OK with Donald Trump, I think those things, I think they matter for a candidate like Trump who is obviously so nontraditional and has so much opposition among so many pockets of the Republican Party.

At the same time, maybe not terribly surprising because Carson another outsider would have been a little unusual for Carson to back one of the remaining senators or politicians in the race.

BLITZER: Yes. I'm sure Senator Cruz is deeply disappointed. I'm sure Senator Rubio deeply disappointed. They would have loved Dr. Ben Carson's endorsement.

But once again, repeating the headline right now, CNN has confirmed from multiple sources that Dr. Ben Carson will endorsement Donald Trump tomorrow morning.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. We're standing by for the Republican debate.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" picks up our coverage right now.