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At This Hour

7.3 Million Ballots Cast So Far, Early Voting Begins In Fl; Rishi Sunak To Become Britain's Next Prime Minister; U.S. Disputes Russia's Claim That Ukraine Plans To Use Dirty Bomb. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 24, 2022 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone. AT THIS HOUR just over two weeks until the midterms and Florida's governor and his opponent face off in a critical debate. Plus, the U.K. is set to make history with its next prime minister and a wakeup call for America's schools. A new report underscores how far behind kids have actually fallen during this pandemic. This is what we're watching AT THIS HOUR.

Thank you so much for being here. I'm Kate Bolduan. It is 15 days to Election Day. And the numbers show there has been a surge in early voting so far. Already, 7.3 million Americans in 39 states have cast their ballot. Another state, Florida, is kicking off early voting as we speak today. That state is also set for a very big debate tonight between Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and his Democratic challenger Charlie Crist. This will be their first and only debate of the campaign. So let's get started right there in Florida, CNN's Steve Contorno is in St. Petersburg for us. So Steve, what are people expecting with this big debate tonight?

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: Kate, the stakes tonight could not be higher, 1.2 million people have already voted by mail in Florida. That's almost half as many as we saw four years ago for the entire election, or as you said early voting starts today. And this is the only debate, so the stakes could not be higher for the candidates, especially Charlie Crist. He goes into tonight's down in the polls and facing a significant fundraising a disadvantage. And that's going to give him trouble for the final weeks of the campaign because he doesn't have enough money to be up on air as much as Ron DeSantis. So this is going to be really one of his last chances to talk directly to Florida voters.

And I expect him to talk a lot about abortion tonight. This is an issue he has put front and center in his campaign. In Florida, there's now a 15 week abortion ban for most cases. That's a law that Governor DeSantis signed earlier this year. And DeSantis has said he would go even further on abortion to quote, protect life. But he hasn't said what that is and I expect Charlie Crist to really try to pin down DeSantis on this tonight. Also I'm going to expect to hear DeSantis have to explain more information about these migrant flights that took people from Texas to Martha's Vineyard. He's going to want to talk a lot about the pandemic and what he did to reopen Florida. And these two guys have not shown much affinity for each other. So Kate, I expect them to mix it up quite a bit.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. It's good to see Steve, thank you so much for setting it up. So as the midterm elections enter a final stretch here, some signs suggest that momentum is shifting back to really where it began in this cycle towards Republicans. CNN's Harry Enten has been looking through the numbers. He's here with much more on that. It's good to see you Harry. And can we start with his momentum shift, if you will. You see the Democrats position some of these key Senate races actually worsening. So what are you seeing?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR DATA REPORTER: Yes, so let's take a look at what I would call five key Senate races, Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin. I have the October 24th numbers here, I got the September 1st numbers there. If you look at September 1 in all of these races, the Democrats were ahead by anywhere from let's say two points to upwards of seven points. Now look at October 24th. What do we see there? Well, Nevada Democrat there is down a point. In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, the Republican is up three points.

And the leads in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia have all shrunk with the exception of Georgia where it's the same but it has actually shrunk from the beginning of this month. Democrats must win at least three of these five races. And right now, they're all within the margin of error. So Republicans could end up winning all five basically dooming Democrats chance to hold on to control.

Now, let's sort of zoom out and say, OK, we just looked at the individual races. Let's look at the Senate at large. What's the chance that Democrats hold on to the Senate? At the beginning of October, at the beginning of October, the betting mark, it's 5:38, Jack Kersting, these are statistical models in the betting markets all had Democrats favored to hold on from anywhere from 55 percent to 68 percent.

But you look now, you look at the betting markets. In fact, Republicans are favored, Democrats have less than 50 percent chance of holding on, 5:30 having Jack Kirsten, less than a 60 percent chance that Democrats hold on. So it does seem that momentum is with the Democrats or excuse me with the Republicans when it comes to United States Senate.

BOLDUAN: But Harry does the movement, if you will, the momentum extend beyond those Senate races, moving away from Democrats still?

ENTEN: Yes, so look at the generic congressional ballot. All right, that's a simple question that the U.S. nationally, no, do you prefer the Democrat or Republican in your district? It's not name. Look at this trend line that we essentially see, right as Roe v. Wade was getting overturned, Republicans had a three point advantage. Then on July 24th, it shrunk to a two point. August 24th tied, September 24th, Democrats actually took the lead on this measure that is basically something that none of us were saw. But look now it's October 24th, Republicans back in the lead with a two point advantage, the further away we get from Roe v. Wade being overturned. [11:05:14]

BOLDUAN: Yes. And people are always looking, I mean in every midterm cycle to see the impact of the president on the midterms. We -- this is something obviously we've looked at and talked about a lot. But Biden himself likes to say that the election is a choice, not a referendum. What are you seeing there?

ENTEN: Yes, so look, I think history sort of tells the story here, right? Joe Biden's approval rating right now, which is 42 percent. We don't know what the eventual net house seat gain will be. But if you look at Trump, Obama, and Clinton, all of them had approval ratings in the 40s. Look at the opposition party, 40 seat net gain, 63 seat net gain, 54 seat net gain, the only time with the President's party actually gained seats in the last few decades was when the President's approval rating was 63 percent. I do not believe at this particular point based upon where everything is trending that Joe Biden can escape that history with an approval rating of just 42 percent.

BOLDUAN: Not long to find out exactly where it is all going to land anymore. It's good to see you, Harry, thank you.

ENTEN: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Joining me now for more on this is CNN chief national affairs correspondent Jeff Zeleny. Hey, Jeff. So you've been in on the ground in several of the states that I was just taking through with Harry I mean, from Michigan and North Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania, you've been on the ground and really talking to voters. So putting the polls to the side for just a moment, what's the feeling and I don't know the nuance, if you will, that you're getting on this cycle from your reporting?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, it is very much sort of ending as the campaign began, and the economy and inflation really are front and center as we talk to voters. And Democrats can feel that, of course, there was a bit of a change in the summer, of course, abortion rights and protecting a democracy, you know, certainly are important to some voters. But across the board, generally, we're getting the feeling that this is coming back to a typical midterm election when it is a referendum on the president.

But we should point out, this is a state by state grind it out kind of campaign here. It's very difficult to put a national lens over this midterm election race, and candidates definitely matter. The quality of candidates matters. So that is why Republicans are optimistic, Kate, but I would say that's a very measured optimism. In the House, they definitely believe that they are in the driver's seat to win a majority. The question is how big of a majority. The Democrats are trying to remind voters, if Republicans were the majority, look what you are going to be getting here, trying to remind them of, you know, of the things that they will be missing out if Democrats are not in the majority.

So independent voters are still out there, they do still exist. And that is really what the targets are on here in the final two weeks. BOLDUAN: In these final two weeks. We are also at the same time hearing from leading voices in Democratic politics, even just over the weekend, that it had the feeling that the winning message amongst Democrats was kind of still being worked out, if you will, I want to play for everyone, Bernie Sanders, as well as Speaker Pelosi.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): I am worried about the level of voter turnout among young people and working people who will be voting Democratic. And I think again, what Democrats have got to do is contrast their economic plan with Republicans.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), HOUSE SPEAKER: Nobody said we're doing abortion rather than economy. But it's about both.


BOLDUAN: What are you hearing about that, in that messaging?

ZELENY: I mean, there's no doubt that that is sort of the yin and the yang of the Democratic messaging here. There's no doubt that they come from very different wings of the party Speaker Pelosi and Senator Bernie Sanders. But the reality is, I'm hearing more Democrats talk about abortion rights as an economic issue as a kitchen table issue. So yes, there is a blending of this. But what's interesting, usually midterm elections are about one general thing, you'll remember back in 2010, of course, so they were about Obamacare.

In 2018, it was a referendum on the Trump administration. This year really has been a tale of two elections, Democrats have been trying to talk about abortion rights, democracy, Republicans have been pushing crime, inflation, the economy. So there is very much a difference in this midterm cycle than other previous ones we've covered. But at the end of the day, Senator Sanders has some company out there where people say you need to focus on the economy and inflation. So that really is the question here going into the final 14 or 15 days.

But we should point out more than 7 million Americans have already voted, that number is counting hour by hour here. So that is also a different dynamic.

BOLDUAN: Another way I guess we should look at it is it's election day, every day until now until November 8th. One final thing I wanted to play for you, Harry, went over the impact of a President kind of in the course of recent history on a midterm cycle. One thing that Joe Biden continues to face at the very same time as facing the midterm is also questions about his own future. I want to play for you what he said when he was asked by Jonathan Capehart about this.



JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The reason I'm not making a judgment about for running and not running, once I make that judgment, a whole series of regulations kick in. And I have to be I treat myself as a candidate from that moment on. I have not made that formal decision, but it's my intention, my intention to run again. And we have time to make that decision.


BOLDUAN: When you're out and about, are people talking about this when talking about the major issues that they face that their families face ahead of the midterm.

ZELENY: No, I mean, the kitchen table issues are the front and center to everyone but political junkies, the average person, regardless, you know, is not following what former President Trump said over the weekend that he is going to have to do it again, he said or what President Biden is saying, but political types definitely are. And the reason why it matters is of course, Democrats are sort of concerned and wondered about the future of their party. So this is an unusual case here. You know, most presidents run for reelection, win or lose, Joe Biden has not yet said, but I can tell you talking to folks at the White House and Democrats, they are at least planning for him to do so. But that comes in November or December or even January.

For now, the next few weeks, Democrats have plenty of work on their hands that will shape the final second half of his first term. So the White House is trying to not get ahead of themselves. But it's a question that, of course always comes up particularly when he's the oldest American president on record.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. And it can be both things right. It can be the thing on top of minds of Republicans -- of voters right now, but it also can be very much an very important question very shortly after the midterm. It's great to see you Jeff, thanks, bud.

ZELENY: Thank you, Kate. So the U.K. has its next prime minister and he makes history in the process. So who is Rishi Sunak, details from one to next?



BOLDUAN: AT THIS HOUR, we know Britain will soon have a new leader and it is former finance minister, Rishi Sunak. He was elected the new leader of the Conservative Party this morning, which of course is setting the stage for him now to make history. CNN's Bianca Nobilo is in London for us with much more on this. So Bianca, for everyone who -- for so many people there that are wondering the question who Rishi Sunak is, what do we need to know?

BIANCA NOBILO, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: Some in the country are even wondering that question, Kate, because he isn't that well known in terms of what he believes and some of his background yet. He's most well known in Britain for the role that he played as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the pandemic here in Britain. He gave strong performances and it was actually tipped to be the next leader of the Conservative Party based on them. But what's his background? Well, in some ways, he's had quite a traditional route to power. He went to a prestigious school, Winchester College here in England. Then he went on to Oxford University where half of Britain's prime ministers had been educated, studied, politics, philosophy, and economics, did an MBA, went into banking, and went into politics.

Only seven years ago, he was elected as a lawmaker, so it's a steep rise, definitely. And he's a trailblazer now, because he's the first ever Prime Minister of color. First ever Asian Prime Minister, first ever Hindu Prime Minister. So while some parts of history conventional, he's also really charting a new course and being a historic figurehead for that community here in this country.

BOLDUAN: Yes, making history. So what happens now that he's effectively now Prime Minister?

NOBILO: He is. Well, let's be honest, Liz Truss has been Prime Minister in name only for about a week now, certainly, since she resigned on Thursday. So Rishi Sunak is now elected as leader of the Conservative Party. And quite soon, it could happen as soon as this evening, Kate, he will go to King Charles III and be invited to formally form a government and become the new prime minister. Liz Truss will have to go to the King before that, to formally resign.

We're expecting to hear more from the Prime Minister as the days go on, who will likely give a speech behind the podium here at Downing Street. But just a few moments ago, he addressed the nation from the Conservative Party campaign headquarters. It was a short and sweet speech, he said that he was honored and humbled to have won this leadership contest that being Prime Minister will be the greatest honor of his life, and that he wants a government of all talents. He's really trying to explain that he's going to reach across the divisions in the party, and he wants to get them together and focus on the business of governing in the national interest during what he describes as a profound economic crisis.

BOLDUAN: Profound challenges before him the moment he takes office, it's good to see Bianca, thank you, as always. I'm going to turn now to the war in Ukraine. U.S. officials are disputing Russia's latest claim that Ukraine is planning to use a dirty bomb, adding that Russia could be using this very latest statement, without backing it up as an excuse to escalate the war even further. CNN's Fred Pleitgen is live in Ukraine for us. Fred, what are you hearing about this?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the U.S. believes that all of this is nonsense. So what the Russians are saying there's absolutely no evidence to suggest that the Ukrainians might want to use what's called a dirty bomb. And it's quite dangerous rhetoric that's actually coming from the Russians, Kate. Because if you look at what a dirty bomb actually is, it's an explosive device that releases radioactivity, this is not a full on nuclear explosion, like you would see in a big atomic bomb.

But this is a conventional explosive device that they'd be talking about laced with radioactive material, but certainly something that could release radioactivity over huge the area here in Ukraine and obviously elsewhere as well. So this is something that potentially could be very dangerous. The U.S. and its allies, and of course, you had the Russian speaking to Lloyd Austin just yesterday, they say that this is transparently false. They say that this could be the Russians using all this as a pretext for escalation.

Of course, Kate one of the reasons for that could be because the Russians are simply losing on the battlefield here in Ukraine especially here in the south where I am, in the Kherson region, there are talks that the Russians might be evacuating this area. However, Ukrainian military intelligence believes that there's actually new Russian units coming here into this area, the Russians might be taking a stand here, nevertheless, in total, going very badly for the Russians, especially in the south of Ukraine. And that's why the U.S., France and Great Britain all believe the Russians might be trying to escalate certainly the rhetoric very, very concerning.


BOLDUAN: It's good to see you, Fred. Thank you.

Joining me now for more on this is CNN military analyst retired Major General James "Spider" Marks, it's good to see Spider. So Russia, as Fred was laying out, Russia is now accused Ukraine of planning this, the two attack with the so called dirty bomb. But Ukraine along with United States, U.K., France, pushing back on that very strongly. I mean, the NSC spokesperson calls the Russian allegations a pretext for escalation. You know, one thing we have seen in Russia -- is Russia, accusing others of what they are potentially planning to do themselves. What could that mean in this scenario?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: You know, I don't think the Russians need a pretext based on what we've seen in terms of escalating the conflict. What this really means is, it's a declaration on the part of the Russians. And we've seen that, a lot of Putin's hardliners have acknowledged that there's some significant problems in the organizational structure and leadership on the battlefield.

So, you know, my view of all of this is that the Russians truly see themselves at kind of a break point. They're not going anywhere. Ukrainians are achieving great tactical success on the ground, and you're looking at the potential evacuation, or the evacuation of Kherson and the potential further isolation of Kherson as an indication that the Russians have some significant problems. But they don't need an invitation. They don't need to declare what it is they're trying to do. They've been doing this quite effectively with both precision and indiscriminate fires, rather randomly.

BOLDUAN: Yes, it's a great point. You know, the commander of Ukraine's ground forces fighter spoke ABC News in a new interview. And this is the general who won the battle of Kyiv in the spring, and then also won the battle of Kharkiv in September. I want to play for you what he says now about the end game.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give me your vision of how this physically ends, what that looks like.

GEN. COL. OLEKSANDER SYRSKIY, COMMANDER OF UKRAINIAN GROUND FORCES (through translator): It's when Ukrainian flags will fly all over our borders, including Crimea.


BOLDUAN: General, what do you think of that answer coming from coming from a fellow general?

MARKS: Yes, very difficult for Ukraine to achieve those objectives. I mean, it's incredibly admirable. What you want to hear is that tone of optimism, and the fact that there is a possibility that all of Ukraine can be returned to the Ukrainians. But let's be frank, in 2014, there weren't very many voices saying the occupation of Crimea in the Donbass by the Russian forces was criminal behavior. In fact, the world, Ukraine included, simply yawned at it and it became status quo.

The challenge is, is there's a mismatch between what's being said in terms of a desired in state that is the removal of all Russian forces from Ukraine to include Donbass, Crimea, and what NATO and Ukraine have been able to achieve, which is quite significant. But it's not the removal of those Russian forces. I think there's a mismatch. If there was, in fact, an intent on the part of the NATO forces led by the United States to really get Russia out of Ukraine, we would have seen an increase in the capabilities to include fighter aircraft early on, more attacks in the Black Sea Fleet. Those kinds of activities really would have strategically isolated Russian forces. We don't see that. We see great tactical advances, not that overarching operational or strategic adjustments.

BOLDUAN: Yes, it's good to have your perspective as always, thank you general.


Breaking news, that we're just -- that we're following very closely, students evacuating a St. Louis high school after shots are reported. There is new information just coming in. We're going to get to that next.


BOLDUAN: Here's some breaking news we need to get to right now. We're following a reported shooting at a high school in St. Louis. What we're showing you here are some pictures of students outside the school. You can see law enforcement as well as the school was being evacuated. CNN's Brynn Gingras, I'm sorry, Brynn is joining me now working on gathering some more details on this. What do you -- what have you learned about anyone injured and also the suspect?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Kate, well, you can see it's still very active situation. We're still gathering information. But what we know is that there was an active shooter situation this morning at central visual and performing high school that's a high school in St. Louis, Missouri and the police have confirmed that the shooter inside the school was stopped and is now in custody.


We also know that at least two students were injured and are on their way to the hospital or already there. It's unclear the extent of their injuries but we're also seeing reports of possibly more injury.