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THE SITUATION ROOM

Clinton, Trump to Face Off Tonight; Sen. Reid: 'Trump is a Racist'; Clinton, Trump to Face Off Tonight; Inside Trump, Clinton Debate Preparations. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 26, 2016 - 17:00   ET

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


JAKE TAPPER, CNN: That is it for "THE LEAD." I'm Jake Tapper. I will see you back here at 7 p.m. Eastern for more of CNN's live coverage of the first presidential debate. I now turn you over to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer and one Mr. Anderson Cooper. They are both in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:23] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, final preparations. The stage is set. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton get ready to go head to head just hours from now. What to watch for on debate night.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Closer than ever. The candidates could not be more different; the stakes could not be higher. A new polling shows the race couldn't be tighter.

BLITZER: Dueling styles, dueling strategies. How each candidate is getting ready for tonight's highly anticipated debate.

COOPER: And good afternoon. I'm Anderson Cooper.

BLITZER: And I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're live here at Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island, in New York state, where four hours from now, two presidential candidates will face each other for the very first time on this debate stage right here on CNN.

Some logistics already have been determined by a coin toss. Hillary Clinton will stand on the right side of your television screen. She will get the first question of the night.

As we head into debate night, new polling shows just how tight this race has become. The CNN poll of polls, averaging the five most recently released national polls, has Hillary Clinton leading by just two points, 44 to 42 over Donald Trump. Over the next two hours, we're going to have everything you need to know to get ready for debate night. We begin with how the candidates are getting ready themselves.

Let's start with Donald Trump. Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is standing by. Jim, what has the Trump campaign's message been today, leading up to this debate?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Trump campaign is saying they are making the case that all of the pressure tonight is on Hillary Clinton. In a memo, a talking points memo, that we obtained from the Trump campaign, they are saying it is Hillary Clinton who has been dropping in the polls. It is Hillary Clinton who dropped out of the limelight so she could do debate prep over the last four days.

And not surprisingly, Wolf, they are trying to downplay expectations for Donald Trump, saying he's going to be himself tonight, that he hasn't been doing the kind of debate prep that we normally see from candidates. He's only been working with his advisers, no one-on-one with a stand-in for Hillary Clinton.

But, Wolf, very interesting to come out of this talking points memo before this debate, they are trying to lay the groundwork, just in case Donald Trump does not have a good night tonight. They are saying, basically, that the fact checkers out there in the news media, including CNN, are a propaganda arm of the Clinton campaign, so if Donald Trump does not have a good night tonight, it's not his fault; it's our fault -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Jim, who are some of Donald Trump's personally-invited guests for tonight?

ACOSTA: Well, we do know they put out a list earlier today. Retired General Michael Flynn, who has been a top national security advisor, he will be sitting in Donald Trump's corner as one of his notable guests, according to the Trump campaign. Obviously, his family and close advisers will be there, as well.

But Wolf, I think it's also important to note the Trump campaign says that a Benghazi survivor will be in Donald Trump's corner tonight. That's an indication that Donald Trump plans to hit Hillary Clinton with Benghazi. And also, a Gold Star mother, just in case Hillary Clinton decides to bring up that controversy over the Khan family. Remember the Gold Star family that got into a fight with Donald Trump over the summer. If she brings that up, Donald Trump will point to a Gold Star mother that he has in his corner tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim, thank you. Jim Acosta reporting.

We're also getting some insight -- inside information from the Clinton campaign right now, including the guests that Hillary Clinton has invited to tonight's debate. Brianna Keilar is joining us with more.

Brianna, what's the latest we know about Hillary Clinton's debate preparation? Was it still ongoing in a formal way today, and who's she bringing over?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, that's right. It has been ongoing in a formal way, and she has mostly been doing that in Westchester County, not far from her Chappaqua home. But as of early this afternoon, she has moved not too far from the debate venue here at Hofstra University to be on Long Island.

One thing very interesting that CNN has learned is that the person standing in as Donald Trump, her longtime and somewhat controversial confidant Philippe Reines, came to debate prep earlier this week being quite gracious right out of the gate, congratulating Hillary Clinton on barriers that she has broken. Certainly something that Hillary Clinton may not have been expecting in a way to try to prepare her for a very different Donald Trump.

So she's preparing for that: a Donald Trump who could be gracious, maybe one who comes out swinging. She's obviously going to be preparing to fact check him. She's going to be trying to get under his skin.

[17:05:02] But also, Wolf, it's very important for Hillary Clinton, as her campaign sees it, to sell voters on her. Not just sell them against Donald Trump.

So she has many tasks that she has to accomplish tonight.

BLITZER: And as far as the guests she's personally invited to sit up front, what do we know about that?

KEILAR: That's right. So the guests she's invited, some of them speak to her strengths. Some of them speak to Donald Trump's weaknesses. She's invited a 9/11 survivor, someone who was injured in the attacks on the World Trade Center when she was a senator, and this is someone that she had a relationship from after the attacks. So that is someone who will be in her area.

As well as a young woman who has cerebral palsy, someone that Hillary Clinton met back when she was 9 years old. That speaks, obviously, to Donald Trump and his insults of a disabled reporter, making fun of how he physically moved, but also of Hillary Clinton's recent economic message of an inclusive economy, as she put it, which includes disabled Americans.

And then the very controversial one, as you know, Wolf. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. This was an announcement that caused quite a kerfuffle earlier this week. He's a longtime -- been trolling Donald Trump. He is a billionaire. He's someone who's been a television host, as well. And she has them there to be a counterpoint to Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar reporting for us. Brianna, thank you very much.

Our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, has been talking with both sides, both campaigns today. Dana is joining us right now.

Dana, so what are you learning about what we can anticipate tonight?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, just to add to what Brianna was talking about with regard to how Hillary Clinton is preparing, I was talking to a senior Clinton adviser, who was saying that, even though she is prepared to fact check Donald Trump, because they think it's important -- I mean, they've been signaling that for the last week plus -- that than her primary goal tonight is to reach -- expected 100 million viewers, in a way that she hasn't been able to before. To seize on the opportunity to have this kind of audience to hear her answers in length and in depth, and to really put forward her policies of what she would do as president and why she would be president. And the idea of fact checking, this advisor said, is more of an opportunity cost than anything else.

BLITZER: What about Hillary Clinton's campaign, what are they bracing for from Donald Trump tonight?

BASH: Well, I just think it's fascinating that we're hearing that Philippe Reines, who has been playing Donald Trump in debate prep, has been playing the polite Donald Trump, praising her for breaking glass ceilings over the past few days.

Because it's not just that she's preparing that way. It's that they let us know that, because they want us to be prepared for that more docile Donald Trump, if he does show up, which you know, he certainly might. He has been very scripted lately. He has been very disciplined, very unlike the Donald Trump that we saw for a year or so during the primaries.

BLITZER: Almost all of his speeches lately have been read from a teleprompter.

BASH: Sure.

BLITZER: He used to criticize the other side for doing that.

BASH: Yes, he did.

BLITZER: No he does it almost routinely.

So what do you think? What can we expect from Trump tonight?

BASH: Well, you know, the Trump campaign sources have been talking, too. They insist that he hasn't been doing the regular debate prep, that he has been studying up on policy issues, a combination of policy and performance.

But one interesting note that I was told. Bobby Knight, the famed Indiana basketball coach, he has not only been a surrogate for him. He's actually been at Trump Tower and he was involved in some of the debate prep over the past couple of days. And he actually had a meeting, or walked into a meeting with Trump's communications team and was talking to them about it.

So it just kind of goes to show how unorthodox the Trump campaign is. We knew that, but this is just one piece of very colorful evidence.

BLITZER: I mean, maybe he's giving him some inspiration.

BASH: That's what I mean.

BLITZER: He was a great basketball coach, as we all remember.

BASH: Yes. BLITZER: Dana, don't go too far away. We've got an exciting,

important night coming up.

Hillary Clinton will certainly make history the moment she steps onto the debate stage. One of the big questions of the night is what to expect from her opponent. Donald Trump repeatedly has insulted women for the way they look over the years, and has a problem right now, if you believe the polls, with women voters in general. We'll talk about that and a whole lot more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:14:00] COOPER: What an incredible day here in Hempstead, New York, at Hofstra University. We are just hours away from a history- making debate here at Hofstra.

For the first time, a woman will be on the debate stage as a presidential nominee from a major party. That is certainly unique in and of itself.

What makes it even more fascinating is that the man she will be going head to head with has a history of making comments about women that some have found troubling.

We also have a candidate who has -- does -- is not from a political background, who's from a business background. To see the clash of these two people is going to be an extraordinary thing. This begins tonight when Trump and Carly Fiorina, of course, were asked when Trump said, quote, "Look at her face, would anyone vote for that?" Let's take a look at how Fiorina responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARLY FIORINA (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I think she's got a beautiful face, and I think she's a beautiful woman.

JEB BUSH (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: To subject my wife into the middle of a raucous political conversation was completely inappropriate, and I hope you apologize for that, Donald.

TRUMP: Well, I have to tell you, I hear phenomenal things. I hear your wife is a lovely woman...

BUSH: She is. She's fantastic.

TRUMP: I don't know her.

BUSH: She is absolutely the love of my life, and she's right here. And why don't you to apologize to her right now.

TRUMP: No, I won't, because I said nothing wrong.

MEGYN KELLY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: You called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals. Your Twitter account has several...

TRUMP: Only Rosie O'Donnell.

KELLY: No, it wasn't. For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O'Donnell.

TRUMP: Yes, I'm sure it was.

Honestly, Megyn, if you don't like it, I'm sorry. I've been very nice to you, although I could probably not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn't do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So will there be any of those dynamics on the debate stage tonight? We will wait and see.

With us on the panel, CNN "INSIDE POLITICS" anchor John King. Senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson is joining us, also political director David Chalian. Chief political analyst Gloria Borger is here. To my left Trump supporter Andy Dean, former president of Trump Productions. Also, CNN political commentator and Clinton supporter Bakari Sellers; political analyst and "USA Today" columnist Kirsten Powers; and national security commentator and volunteer adviser to the Trump transition team, Mike Rogers.

A lot to talk about. I mean, John, it -- I don't like to use hyperbole or to hype things up, but this is going to be an extraordinary night. Probably one of the most watched political events in recent history.

JOHN KING, CNN "INSIDE POLITICS" ANCHOR: And often debates are overrated; debates are overhyped. This race has become so close six weeks out, that I don't -- I don't think you can overstate the importance of this for both of these candidates.

Donald Trump sees momentum in the race. He needs to have a performance tonight. We know 100 million plus might be watching. But can they close their eyes at the end of the night and say, "That was a president. That was a president"?

If they can, if he can get over that bar tonight -- and there's been a whole debate about is his bar lower than her bar, I don't -- just forget about it. They're both applying for the same job. If you can get over the bar in the minds of people out there that he's a president, he's a potential commander in chief, he can handle the classified information Chairman Rogers used to have to handle and make the tough calls, then Hillary Clinton has a problem, because right now Donald Trump has the best friend in politics, momentum. The question is can he carry it forward?

COOPER: Chairman Rogers, are you concerned at all about his grasp of detailed policy issues that may get drilled down on in this kind of a debate format, which is unlike the previous debates Donald Trump has done? MIKE ROGERS (R), FORMER HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE CHAIR: A couple

of things on that, Anderson. One, a candidate is allowed to mature over the course of the campaign. This is not somebody who's dealt with national security issues. That's one example. He hasn't dealt with those issues. He hasn't lived those issues. He didn't get up every morning thinking about those issues. So a candidate, in my mind, is allowed to mature on that.

I think you are probably going to see a better prepared Donald Trump. I don't think he's going to give you the 10-step program on how to beat ISIS. I don't believe he needs to do that.

But I think what people are looking for is what are your principles behind it? So when you say you're going to defeat ISIS, you say you're going to ask your general for that, what are your principles to defeat ISIS? If they can lay that out, if Trump can lay that out, it will be in contrast to where Hillary Clinton has been on those same issues.

And I think that's the contrast people are looking for. I'm not sure they're looking for the food fight. Maybe I'm just an eternal optimist. They might be looking for the food fight on the stage tonight, but I think it's going to be a policy debate. And those differences, I think, will get heightened over 90 minutes -- hard to hide in 90 minutes.

COOPER: Kirsten, I mean, to John King's point about Donald Trump, you know, can he come off as so many people see, as a president? Can Secretary Clinton do that, as well?

One of Secretary Clinton's possible strategies will be to try to go after Donald Trump and annoy him...

KIRSTEN POWERS, COLUMNIST, "USA TODAY": Right.

COOPER: ... in some way to kind of validate her argument that he doesn't have the temperament.

POWERS: Yes, well, she's going to need to do that, because he typically is the kind of person who sort of strikes after somebody strikes him. So he will probably come in trying to look very presidential, and she's going to have to do something to goad him.

One of the ways to do that, obviously, the thing he's most sensitive about is how much money he's made, how successful he is. Does she start talking about the fact that you really haven't made as much money as you say that you have. You haven't shown your tax returns. Is there something that could goad him? And I think we've seen that it doesn't take that much, usually, with him.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I think she's going to -- she's -- in talking to a senior Clinton adviser, I think she's going to go after him on his lies, as they see them and as we fact check them ourselves. You say no.

But she -- I'm told she's going to remind people who Donald Trump was for the last 15 months if he decides to take the high road tonight, which they say they anticipate. And they say they've spent a lot more time on the high road than on the insulting Donald Trump, because they believe that's what he's going to do, but they're going to remind people of who he was during this campaign and what he said.

COOPER: Well, Andy, as a Trump supporter, what do you think he needs to do?

ANDY DEAN, FORMER PRESIDENT, TRUMP PRODUCTIONS: Well, I think you're right that Trump is going to try to take the high road, and I think that Hillary is going to try to poke the bear. She's going to try to get under his skin.

[17:20:01] And I think Donald at first can be playful about it. And he can say, "Hey, Hillary, I'm trying to behave tonight. You're making it difficult." But if she keeps going in after him, he'll look weak if he doesn't respond.

So I think Donald is a great counter-puncher, and if you set him off, then we'll see him respond, but he has to do it in a respectful, presidential manner, but I think he does that with intelligent humor. And that's really, I think, his saving grace, intelligent humor, and I think we'll see that tonight.

COOPER: Are you allowed to call him Donald?

DEAN: Probably not. A chip in my arm just went off.

COOPER: Bakari, I mean, as a Clinton supporter, what worries you most tonight?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: What worries me most tonight is the game of expectations. As John said, they're both applying for the same job, but the fact is, Hillary Clinton has to go in, and she has to do exceedingly well. She doesn't just have to win the moments; she has to win these moments by these very large amounts and run up the score.

With that being said, one of the things that Hillary Clinton has to come off tonight is being -- is inspirational. And that sometimes is very, very difficult for Hillary Clinton to do.

I expect to see a lot of that, because what she's going to do is attack Donald Trump's main campaign theme, which many people say he's lying, but it's to make America great again. And I think she's going to attack that and show why we are a great country. The progress that we've made and where she wants to take it.

I expect her to be very inspirational, very sharp. Because at the end of the day, with all due respect to Donald Trump and, you know, being a former reality TV host, she is the former secretary of state. And I think that she's going to come on stage with that gravitas and that policy depth.

COOPER: I mean, David, Nia, they both have very different visions of where America is right now. And I'm wonder how much we're going to hear about that tonight, how much they both want to kind of show the difference.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I think we are going to hear their visions. There's no doubt that they want to take advantage of this massive audience that they're going to have to be able to get their own positive message out there.

But I do think that -- and this gets at what Gloria was saying, what John was saying earlier -- the single biggest concern for the Clinton campaign is that Donald Trump leaves this debate somehow normalized as a presidential candidate. That he -- right now majorities of the country, Anderson, say that he doesn't have the temperament for the job. A majority of the country says that he cannot handle the responsibilities of commander in chief and is somehow is now on a parallel platform with Hillary Clinton in the eyes of voters, that is such a significant development.

[17:22:25] COOPER: Well, the Neon. I mean, if that's true, then Hillary Clinton basically cannot go through this debate as she would a debate maybe if it was Jeb Bush or somebody.

BORGER: Right.

COOPER: I mean, on Andy's idea of poking the bear, it sounds like she would have to.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think she has to, because that's the entire argument. If you look at what's going into this debate, the ad that's up, that is all about Donald Trump's words about women and young girls looking in the mirror with Donald Trump saying awful things about women. That is the Donald Trump that they want to fixate on remind people of.

So she's got to find a way to bring that out of him. Is it mockery? That's been typically the way that President Obama has gone after him. She's done that, too, if you remember in the DNC speech. She talked about him, you know, when he said that he knows more than the generals. And of course, she said, "No, you don't, Donald."

So I think that's what she has to do. But listen, that's going to be hard, and can she do that? It's not something we've seen her do with him standing right there.

KING: Just think about the investment she has put into this strategy, Anderson, months and millions, tens of millions telling the American people in her speeches and the TV advertising, he's a loose cannon, he's a sexist, he's a misogynist. You don't want him in the situation room on a big night. He's a narcissist. He's unfit; he's unstable. She has spent months and millions of dollars making that case.

Imagine if Donald Trump leaves the stage tonight, and the American people say, where was he?

But, to flip the coin, Donald Trump has to stand there for 90 minutes. Donald Trump was very smart during the Republican primary debates. When it got into the policy discussions, when it got into back and forth between the candidates over actually exactly how government works, how you pay for things, he would step back and retreat and just let the other candidates duke it out. He can't do that tonight. No commercial breaks, 90 minutes, one on one with a woman.

SELLERS: I -- thank you. I agree with that point wholeheartedly, because we keep saying she has to bait Donald Trump. But there's a question about Donald Trump has the stamina to withstand 90 minutes of this fact-driving debate. He's never done that before.

I was looking at his talk time totals from the Republican primary debates. We're talking 8 minutes, 12 minutes, 11 minutes. He has to do more than that today. And I think the Clinton campaign is counting on him withering as the night -- as the 60 ad 75-minute...

COOPER: Well, before he was doing teleprompter speeches, you know, he was giving what, for his supporters, were very effective campaign appearances in front of huge crowds, talking extemporaneously. So he can certainly fill time. I don't think it's...

DEAN: Yes, he has a massive command of the facts. I mean, I've seen him, I remember, at a Las Vegas rally. And I mean that sincerely. He'll walk up with literally three or four notes, and he will talk for an hour 15, hour and a half about policy issues, about everything going on.

So this idea that, I think, is out there that Donald Trump doesn't have the intellectual rigor is proven wrong by the fact that this is somebody who's run over 500 companies and built an empire.

BORGER: It's not what he wants to talk about. It's -- it's what the questions are, as opposed to when he...

DEAN: Maybe he can do both.

BORGER: ... as opposed to when he gives a speech.

[17:25:09] COOPER: Let's -- we've got to take a quick break. Just ahead, a short time ago from the Senate floor, Harry Reid fired off his sharpest attack yet on Donald Trump. He flat out called him a racist. The latest on that ahead.

Also tonight, Hillary Clinton heading into tonight's debate without the big lead she had last month. Next we'll hear from Donna Brazile, interim chair of the Democratic National Committee about what is on the line tonight for her party's candidate and how much fact checking Secretary Clinton intends to do during the debate.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: And welcome back to debate night in America. The debate is still a few hours away, but Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is already throwing punches at the Republican nominee. Today on the Senate floor he did not mince words. He called Donald Trump a racist. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) [17;30:58] SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: Virtually every time Donald Trump says or does something discriminatory, and that's often, the media utilizes a catalog of buzz words to describe his actions. The press use words like "hateful," "intolerant," "bigot," "extremist," "prejudiced," to name but a few. Yet, there's always one word that many of the press conspicuously avoid. "Racist." They never label Trump as a racist. But he is a racist. Donald Trump is a racist. Racist is a term I don't throw around lightly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Well, this is certainly an escalation in the war of words for Reid, who's used the Senate floor in recent weeks as a launching pad for attacks against Donald Trump.

Our senior political reporter, Manu Raju, is in Washington with more on Senator Reid's comments. The fact, Manu, that Harry Reid said this on the Senate floor, that makes this all the more significant.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it does, and you know, he's actually going a lot further than his own party's nominee. Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine both have resisted calling Donald Trump a racist, but Harry Reid, who's retiring at the end of the year, likes to stir the political pot; and he's certainly doing with Donald Trump here.

In fact, Anderson, ten days ago I asked Harry Reid point blank, "Do you think that Donald Trump is a racist?" and at the time he said this to me. He said, "I don't know. All you guys have a job to do," referring to the media. He said, "You make that decision. I'm not going to."

Well, clearly Reid wants to inject this line of argument ahead of tonight's debate. And one reason why could be tightening poll numbers in a lot of these battleground states. Democrats are getting nervous about Trump doing better with some minority groups, including Hispanics, including some African-Americans. They're worried about the Senate Republicans keeping the majority here. And if Harry Reid can help bring down Donald Trump's poll numbers, that helps his chances, his party's chances of winning back the Senate in the fall, and of course, Hillary Clinton winning, as well.

COOPER: This certainly isn't the first time that Reid has talked about Donald Trump before. They've had, you know, exchange of words in the past.

RAJU: Yes, that's right. He's called -- Harry Reid has called Donald Trump scammer in chief, called him a liar. When I interviewed Senator Reid, he said that Donald Trump is a complete fraud. So he clearly sees his role as calling out Donald Trump.

He did the same thing in 2012 against Mitt Romney, at the time falsely claiming that Mitt Romney did not pay his income taxes. And Mitt Romney later released his income taxes, showing that he did pay his taxes. But he and his team believe that it was an effective line of argument, to use his perch to go after a presidential candidate, and that's one reason why they're doing it so aggressively against Donald Trump here in the last few weeks, Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, Manu Raju. Manu, thanks very much.

Let's go back to Wolf with some new poll numbers -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Anderson, a new CNN poll of polls shows Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in this race closer than ever. The big lead she had back in August has vanished.

And while both candidates have record high unfavorable ratings, Clinton still lags when it comes to trust. In a recent McClatchy- Marist poll, 44 percent of likely voters said "honest and trustworthy" better describes Donald Trump; 36 percent said Hillary Clinton. Those are the latest numbers on the so-called trust gap heading into this high-stakes debate tonight.

Joining us now, Donna Brazile, the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee. Donna, thanks very much for coming in.

DONNA BRAZILE, INTERIM CHAIR, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: It's a great honor to see you always, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me get your immediate reaction. Harry Reid says Donald Trump flat out, on the Senate floor, is a racist. Do you agree?

BRAZILE: First of all, Harry Reid, who is a great public server, he's not on the ballot this fall. I'm a person who believe that I cannot tell you what's in your heart.

But I can tell you that, based on what I've seen and the things I've heard, the birther movement that Donald Trump, you know, used to catapult himself into the national spotlight, that was really demeaning; that was demoralizing. If that's not a textbook what I example of racism -- again, I don't know what's in his heart. I'm not going to smear Donald Trump the way he smeared President Obama.

[17:35:08] I want to focus on the policies that I think will bring the country together, someone who has fought and the champion for change, and that's Hillary Clinton. She's someone who has spent her entire career championing equality for all people, not just minorities in this country and women, gays and lesbians, labor, organized labor.

So I want to focus on the things that I believe I know, and that is I know Hillary Clinton. I know her heart. This is a woman I actually know. I've known her for over 33 years when she was a champion working at the Children's Defense Fund, ensuring that every child had a head start and a healthy start.

BLITZER: How much of tonight do you think she'll be fact-checking Donald Trump?

BRAZILE: I wouldn't spend too much of my time fact-checking. As you know, fact-checking Donald Trump is like trying to find the moisture content in the ocean. What she should do is pivot to the future. Talk about the future. Tell the American people what she will do. The only way to close the so-called trust gap to Hillary Clinton is to tell people, "You can trust me to do 'X,' 'Y,' and 'Z.'" That's why she stood with the law enforcement officials on 9/11. That's she has proposed legislation in the past. You can trust her to get things done on behalf of the American people, whether it's for veterans, whether students. That's what Hillary Clinton should do tonight.

BLITZER: Why does she have such a problem when it comes to the honest and trustworthy issue?

BRAZILE: Look, people don't trust the media; they don't trust politicians. They hate everybody in Washington, D.C., but you and me, of course. And that's part of what's happened in America. It's so polarized; people are so divided.

What Hillary Clinton needs to do tonight is talk into the camera, look at the American people and remind them that she is someone who has gotten things done on their behalf.

BLITZER: Do you think Lester Holt, the moderator, should do real-time fact-checking if somebody says something that may not be accurate, may be a lie? Should he correct that?

BRAZILE: I think he can set it up in such a way to say, "As you well know, this is what you've said." Now, remember, Wolf, we have tapes. We have -- we're all on video. So there's a way to do it. But it should not be done to distract us from the overall, what I believe tonight's debate is about: what is best for the American people? This is about our future. There's so much at stake this fall. I think both candidates should focus on the substance and leave the soundbites alone.

BLITZER: You think that will happen, this will be a high-level debate? Or will it be very, very tough?

BRAZILE: I mean, what we're doing tonight is a change in ideas, talking about, you know, issues, topics. No. We all know. We watched Donald Trump throughout the primary. Donald Trump loves the TV. He loves drama. He's a reality TV showman.

What Secretary Clinton should do is to not focus on Donald Trump, his hand movement or his gestures but talk to the American people and really connect with the American people. It's about the American people, their future, not Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Donald Brazile, the interim chair of the DNC, thanks very much for joining us.

BRAZILE: I miss you both. I miss you.

BLITZER: She's on leave from CNN. But we'll see what happens when there's a permanent chair at the DNC.

BRAZILE: Yes.

BLITZER: Thank you very much.

The view from the other side of the debate, I'll speak live with Sean Spicer. He's the chief strategist and communications director for the Republican National Committee. He's standing by live. We'll get his take on what we're about to see, in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:42:35] BLITZER: The crowd is here. The people are beginning to arrive. We're just a little bit more than three hours away from the beginning of this historic debate here at Hofstra University.

People are wondering which Donald Trump will show up for tonight's presidential debate. Will it be the brazen, take-no-prisoners Donald Trump we saw at many of the Republican primary debates, or the more polite version of Donald Trump? Will that version show up tonight? Hillary Clinton, we're told, has been preparing for both versions of Donald Trump.

In the meantime, Trump campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, has been calling Trump the Babe Ruth of debating, despite his lack of experience.

Joining us now, Sean Spicer. He's the chief strategist, the communications director for the Republican National Committee.

Sean, thanks very much for joining us. Want to talk about the debate, but your quick reaction to the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, on the Senate floor flatly saying Donald Trump is a racist.

SEAN SPICER, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE: I'm almost speechless. There's a good thing that Harry Reid's retiring, because I think the people of Nevada and the people of this country have had it with Harry Reid. He tried to pull the same thing with Mitt Romney. But Harry Reid is leaving. It looks like we're going to replace him with a solid Republican. Nevada's trending -- continuing to trend for Donald Trump. So if he thinks Donald Trump is a racist, then he thinks a lot of -- the majority of the people in Nevada think so, too. And I think that's pretty sad.

Harry Reid's policies -- you know, he's retiring because he couldn't -- he couldn't stay in the Senate any longer. The people of Nevada were ready to throw him out. So it's good riddance to Harry Reid. And we'll let the people decide.

But the polls out this morning, both nationally and the state battleground polls you showed, showed that the trend continues to go in Donald Trump's direction. So I don't think that a majority of Americans actually share Harry Reid's view.

BLITZER: Why is that trend moving in Trump's direction, not only in the national polls but in the key battleground states?

SPICER: I think there's two reasons. No. 1, you have a candidate who's the agent of change. I think people know who Hillary Clinton is. She's been on the scene for 30 years. They know -- they know what they're getting with Hillary Clinton, and they're ready for something new. They're ready to change it. No. 2 is, I think we've got the best and most robust ground game and

infrastructure, bar none, of any campaign that we've seen in history. The combination of those two things: the campaign and the candidate, the candidate and, excuse me, the infrastructure are what's leading us to victory. And again, you're seeing it. In a place like Iowa, they're 50,000 votes under where the Democrats need to be in their absentee and early vote. That's a big problem. People are not turning out for Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: So which Donald Trump shows up tonight: the brazen, outspoken, tough, feisty Donald Trump or a more reserved, laid-back Donald Trump?

SPICER: In both cases, he's the agent of change.

[17:45:00] So, you know, whether you're speaking in front of a large group or a small group, the one thing that's consistent is this message that we've had enough of Washington status quo, we're ready to change. That Donald Trump unequivocally showing up tonight. How he handles each particular question, I think, is going to depend on the flow of the debate.

BLITZER: She's going to hit him on a lot of issues including, for example, why he refuses to release his tax returns.

SPICER: But --

BLITZER: How will he respond?

SPICER: I think he's going to respond in kind. He's going to make sure that he answers the question, but he's also going to push back. This is not a guy that is going to sit back and politically correct -- with politically correct responses. He's going to continue to be the guy -- he's not -- I think the tone's going to be or, well, might be a little bit different, but he's not going to sit back and not answer it.

And I think that's what America is ready for and that's why, frankly, he is surging in the polls. It's because people are ready for someone who stands up and fights.

BLITZER: Why did he invite a Benghazi survivor, a man by the name of Mark Geist, to come tonight, sit in one of the special front row seats there? What is the message he's sending --

SPICER: In part --

BLITZER: He is --

SPICER: But Mark Geist spoke at the convention. He's always been a --

BLITZER: He's sending a message to Hillary Clinton who invited Mark Cuban.

SPICER: Sure. Mark Cuban. But Mark Geist is someone who spoke at our convention. He served his country honorably. He's come out and been very supportive with our party and Mr. Trump in particular, and I think Mr. Trump wanted him to come.

BLITZER: And so, basically, you see this high level or low level tonight? How do you see it unfolding?

SPICER: In terms of what?

BLITZER: Are they going to get into policy --

SPICER: Oh, I think -- right.

BLITZER: -- issues or substance, or will it be name calling?

SPICER: No, no, no. I think there's going to be two things at this. The style and the substance are going to be both really important tonight. I think that's where -- it is not just -- I think that's what people are looking for. They want to -- they know what you're getting with Hillary Clinton, they know that. They want to come out and see is this somebody who can be the President of the United States? Is this the acceptable alternative to Hillary Clinton? I don't like her. I want a reason of vote for Donald Trump. And I think tonight, he's going to them one.

BLITZER: Sean Spicer, thanks for coming in.

SPICER: Thanks for having me in the SITUATION ROOM. I like what you've done with it.

BLITZER: Thank you. It's a nice place. Last minute preparations are underway here at Hofstra University on Long Island wherein, just a little over three hours from now, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, they will face off in their first Presidential Debate. We're going to get an inside look at how the candidates may be preparing when we come back.

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ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And welcome back. We're at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York where in a little more than three hours from now, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are going to face off in their first Presidential Debate right here on CNN.

The debate is the also the first time one of the major party presidential candidates is a woman, and the other beat out everyone else in his party with really no political experience. How are these very different candidates preparing? It's a question we've been looking at a lot over the last couple of days. Let's check in with Don Lemon, host of "CNN TONIGHT." Don?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, let's check it out. Anderson, thank you very much. This is CNN's practice debate stage that we're sitting on where we're going to set the scene for tonight's unprecedented matchup.

Former Presidential Debate coaches Lanhee Chen and Paul Begala, they're here with me. Lanhee Chen helped Marco Rubio prepare to face Trump this year and Mitt Romney back in 2012. And Paul was an aide to Bill Clinton and he's also the head of a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton.

Gentlemen, both of these candidates have been really readying for tonight here in New York, Clinton at a hotel near her home in Chappaqua and Donald Trump at his namesake tower in Manhattan, of course, Trump Tower. And President Obama, you might remember, practiced with this mock set up in Nevada in 2012. That's Secretary John Kerry and adviser Ron Klain with him. Ron Klain has been helping Secretary Clinton this week as well.

So let's turn now to the guys who know about this. Lanhee, is there such a thing as over preparing?

LANHEE CHEN, DIRECTOR OF DOMESTIC POLICY STUDIES AND LECTURER IN THE PUBLIC POLICY PROGRAM, STANFORD UNIVERSITY: I think there can be, Don. I mean, particularly when you get to the point where you've prepped all the facts and the figures and you know exactly what policy you want to talk about.

You really need to be loose on debate day. That's why we always kept Governor Romney down on debate day, maybe we'd have some light back and forth. But really preparing especially on debate day, I just don't know if it accomplishes very much. It's like cramming for a test. Once you know the information --

LEMON: You're surprised that she was preparing today?

CHEN: I was surprised, yes. It seemed a little overkill to me.

LEMON: Yes. So, listen, I want to ask you guys, one important thing is the study of how to turn a negative into a positive. And I want you to look at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, how they both tried to flip the script. Look at this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I say, not in a braggadocious way, I've made billions and billions of dollars dealing with people all over the world.

HILLARY CLINTON, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I was part of the very small group that had to advise the President about whether or not to go after bin Laden.

TRUMP: I've never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they're going to do it. That's what leadership is all about.

CLINTON: I took on the drug companies. I took on the insurance companies. Before there was something called Obamacare, there was something called Hillary Care. And I worked really hard --

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Because frankly, I'm the most solid person up here. I built a tremendous company and all I want to do is make America great again.

CLINTON: Senator Sanders did call me unqualified. I've been called a lot of things in my life. That was a first.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LEMON: Paul, it seems like most viewers would sort of see through this tactic. Is there any better way of getting through a tough question?

PAUL BEGALA, ADVISER, PRO-CLINTON SUPER PAC: Yes. Well, first off, that is the primaries and they're trying to jockey within their own party and they're trying to establish themselves, especially Donald Trump who has never held public office.

Tonight, I want to hear a lot more words beginning with "you" than "I," right? The challenge -- everybody is talking about how Hillary Clinton, how is she going to deal with Trump? What if he's outrageous? What if he's calm? I think he'll be perfectly calm. Like, Don, he's an adult and they'll fill him with Xanax or horse tranquilizer. He'll be fine.

What I want for Hillary to be able to do is not just talk about "I, I, I."

LEMON: Right.

BEGALA: I negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the West Bank. She did -- or Gaza, I think it was -- but instead, "You, here's what I'm going to do for you." This is a job interview even more than a debate.

LEMON: You need her to be authentic. You need to see her personal side?

[17:55:02] BEGALA: Yes, and what motivates her to take these positions.

LEMON: Right.

BEGALA: Why is she for child care? She was a working mom with kid at home and she understands what that's like, but I haven't heard enough of that from her.

LEMON: Except for the, you know, people here working with Donald Trump, you may know more about working with him and we're going to talk about that, about working with Donald and preparing Marco Rubio.

CHEN: Yes.

LEMON: How do you go up against Donald Trump? We'll talk about Lanhee -- we'll talk about that with Lanhee and Paul in the next hour. Thank you very much. Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Hey, Don, thanks very much. Much more ahead from Hofstra University. In our next hour, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton facing off in just about three hours right here on CNN. It's going to be an amazing night, no doubt about it. New information about how the candidates are prepping, what the moderator is and isn't going to do, all of that ahead, next.

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