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Fewest Candidates So Far Will Be On GOP Debate Stage Tomorrow; WAPO: Liz Cheney Weighs 3rd-Party Run For President; Biden In Boston Fundraising For Reelection Campaign; Biden's Reelection Effort Sets Record For Off-Year Ad Spending; Harvard Poll: Biden Leads Trump Among Young Voters; U.N. Chief: Apocalyptic Situation In Gaza, "Nowhere Safe To Go"; IDF: Troops Now "In The Heart Of Khan Yunis" In Southern Gaza; GOP Sen. Tuberville Releasing Hold On Almost All Military Nominees. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired December 05, 2023 - 13:00   ET




BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And then, there were four. The RNC unveiling the least crowded debate stage yet for the 2024 Republican presidential race, especially because the front runner is continuing to stay on the sidelines. Can any of these four catch up to Donald Trump?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN HOST: Plus, apocalyptic with a blatant disregard for basic humanity. That's how one top U.N. official is describing the punishing attacks on Gaza as the Israeli military expands operations in the south. We have a live update from Israel in just moments.

And what we're learning about this house explosion. Police trying to serve a warrant a suspect allegedly shooting flares. We're set to hear directly from police soon. We're following these major developing stories and many more all coming in right here to CNN News Central.

KEILAR: The stage is set for the most intimate yet of Republican debate lineups in the 2024 race for the White House. The RNC announcing four Republicans qualified for the fourth debate tomorrow, Chris Christie, Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy. All will take their podiums in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, trying to woo voters with just 41 days to go until the first true test of their appeal, the Iowa caucuses.

And once again the leading contender, former President Trump will not be there and he -- as he stays away, there's chatter among some Republicans that Chris Christie should get out of the race as another Republican Liz Cheney weighs in entrance, all in the pursuit of the goal of making sure that Donald Trump does not win the nomination.

We begin the hour with CNN's Alayna Treene and Kristen Holmes with us as well. All right, first let's -- I mentioned Liz Cheney there, Kristen, let's talk about what her thinking is here.

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. So now what she's saying, we know one thing about Liz Cheney is that she does not like Donald Trump. She is probably the most anti-Trump Republican. And she has said that she will do whatever it takes to make sure that he does not go back to the White House.

Now, apparently, part of that is that she is weighing a third party run for presidency. Here's what she told The Washington Post. "Several years ago, I would not have contemplated a third party run. We face threats that could be existential to the United States and we need a candidate who is going to be able to deal with and address and confront all of those challenges. That will all be part of my calculation as we go into the early months of 2024."

Now, it should be noted that there are anti-Trump Republicans who do not want her to enter the race. They actually believe that this will take votes from Joe Biden and would propel Donald Trump to the White House something else she said she would take into consideration.

But this has all been part of what she has been doing lately with her new book and also amplifying what a Trump 2025 agenda would look like and what it means for democracy.

KEILAR: So this debate that we're awaiting, how much is at stake here, Alayna?

ALAYNA TREENE, CNN REPORTER: Well, lots at stake. I think one thing is the timing of this. We're six weeks out from the Iowa caucuses. And these four candidates who are going to be on stage tomorrow night want to do everything they can to continue building momentum as we get into the early primaries.

I think one big thing I know a lot of Republicans are looking at -- or the two candidates I should say, they're looking at are Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. Both have really emerged as the candidates that could be an alternative to Donald Trump. But we know that Nikki Haley has done very well at the debates in the past. So I think they're looking to build some of that momentum.

But, of course, Donald Trump, the front runner is not going to be there. He's going to be doing a fundraiser in Florida instead. And that's really frustrated a lot of his opponents, people like Ron DeSantis, who said yesterday, in New Hampshire, why aren't you showing up?

When I talk to Donald Trump's team to his inner circle, they -- I know they told me this, they told Kristen this as well, that they want to make it look like Donald Trump isn't a different league. And that these debates are beneath them and they think it's working and it's effective and that's why he's not showing up.


KEILAR: Yes. He's certainly keeping himself in a different league, on a different planet almost when it comes to these debates. So I mentioned Chris Christie facing some pressure from some Republicans to get out of the race. He clearly is trying to withstand that pressure here. How much is he really under? TREENE: Well, look, I think Chris Christie is interesting, because he's not polling very well. He barely made the threshold for that debate tomorrow night. But he is saying that he is determined to remain in the race through the Republican Convention.

He used to say, at least through New Hampshire, that's where his campaign was really been spending most of their time. Now he's saying I think we're doing well enough to keep on until the convention. But a lot of people want one candidate to, you know, rally around as the alternative to Donald Trump.

And they think that Chris Christie isn't doing well enough to be that candidate. And so they want him to step back and go after either a Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley, someone who they think could beat Donald Trump for the nomination.

KEILAR: What is Trump doing, Kristen, since he's not going to be there on the stage?

HOLMES: Well, this time he's actually just holding a fundraiser. He's been doing this counterprogramming. We saw him do a rally in Miami, just down the street from where the debate was. We saw him do an interview with Tucker Carlson. Now he's just holding a fundraiser. He's going to be behind closed doors.

And just to expand on what Alayna was saying about Trump's team's thinking on the debate, they think they made the right decision by not having him participate in this debate. There was a lot of people, there were a lot of people on the fence when he skipped that first debate.

It wasn't clear, is this going to go in his favor? Is it going to miss out on something? Is he going to not be able to reach certain voters because he's missing these debates? They no longer feel that way. They feel like they've been able to want to control the narrative.

One of the things that Donald Trump is very good at doing. And two, they have seen his poll numbers continue to rise. So there is no indication that he's ever going to participate in any of these events. And I will note, as we reported last week, the RNC is now considering changing its rules to how they hold primary debates, all really in reaction to Donald Trump not participating. So again, they feel like they won this one.

KEILAR: Yes. He hasn't taken a hit. And none of the candidates have hit him really --


KEILAR: -- on the stage. Not too many anyways, right?


KEILAR: We haven't seen them pile on. Alayna, Kristen, thank you so much to both of you. Boris? SANCHEZ: President Biden is also focusing on 2024 today. He's now in the Boston area on a fundraising blitz. CNN's Kevin Liptak has been tracking the president. Kevin, what is President Biden focusing on today with these different events?

KEVIN LIPTAK, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, this is really the most intensive fundraising sprint that President Biden has taken part in since taking office. He'll hit three events here in Boston today, including a concert fundraiser tonight that's headlined by the singer James Taylor. They're calling it you've got a friend and Joe.

But between now and Monday, President Biden is going to hit seven fundraisers all together. He's headed out west next week to Los Angeles. He'll have help from some Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Shonda Rhimes, Rob Reiner all hoping to bring in cash ahead of the fundraising deadline at the end of the month.

Of course, President Biden last quarter raised $71 million along with Democrats that was outpacing the Republicans in the field, but it is lagging behind other incumbent presidents at this point in their presidency. But certainly the campaign says that fundraising is picking up. They said that November was the biggest month for grassroots fundraising since Biden announced his reelection campaign in April.

Certainly, they do expect next year to be a very expensive campaign as they look to position President Biden for reelection, Boris.

SANCHEZ: And on that note, Kevin, there's been a record number of money spent on advertising for this an off-year for Biden's re- election. The top spender, though, is not actually his campaign.

LIPTAK: Yes, it's the Super PAC, in fact, but certainly President Biden's campaign is also spending heavily on television ads. And it gives you an idea of where all of this money that President Biden is trying to raise is going towards. They have spent $45 million on television advertising so far this year, that's far ahead of what President Trump or President Obama spent in the off-year before their re-election.

And what the campaign is doing is really trying to test messaging in these ads ahead of next year trying to see what resonates, trying to see what sticks and you've seen them run ads, including during NFL games about the economy, about health care, even ads criticizing President Trump's record on health care.

But certainly, President Biden's challenge will be to try and reverse his approval ratings, try and convince skeptical voters that he deserves re-election and certainly campaign officials do say that that's going to cost a lot of money. Boris?

SANCHEZ: Yes, some concerning numbers for the White House specifically with younger voters recently published. We're going to get into that in a second.

Kevin Liptak Live from Boston. Thank you so much. Let's dig deeper now with CNN Political Commentator, Kate Bedingfield. She served as President Biden's White House Communications Director.


Kate, thanks so much for being with us. I just referred to the numbers among young folks with President Biden, there's a new Harvard IOP poll on the youth vote. It found that nearly 20 percent are unsure or don't plan on voting in 2024. Voters aged 18 to 29 do prefer President Biden, but it's not a majority. You see it there on your screen.

He's also slipping among black and Latino voters, both by double digits. Seeing those numbers, Kate, what advice do you have for the campaign?

KATE BEDINGFIELD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, the good news for the campaign, for the Biden campaign is that we're still a year out and they have time to work on this. Obviously, seeing a softening in your base, in your coalition is concerning.

I think, based on my conversations with the Biden campaign, they certainly take it seriously. I think some of the key things they can do are to really speak to the things that President Biden has done that have helped, for example, young people. And you saw them do this, this last week on health care, Obamacare.

They really seized on Donald Trump saying he was going to repeal Obamacare. Part of the reason that's such a potent argument, and we certainly saw that in 2019 and 2020 in the Democratic primary. Part of the reason that's such a potent argument is because you're telling people 26 -- who are 26 years old and younger, that they're going to be taken off their parent's insurance.

So it's a really tangible argument about something that will make a difference in young people's lives. And so it's smart for the Biden campaign to jump on that not only to say Joe Biden has done things to make your life better, but also to say, look what the alternative is, if Donald Trump becomes president, this is going to be taken away from you.

And so every opportunity that they have to draw the contrast, not just solely tell people what Biden's done, but also put it in the framework of these are the stakes if Donald Trump takes office, that's a smart thing to do. And that's what they have to do consistently to try to get these numbers back up.

SANCHEZ: Notably, Kate, there is one issue that appears to be energizing some young progressives, and they're unhappy with the way that the White House has handled the Israel-Hamas conflict. You see it on social media, you see it at pro-Palestinian rallies. How much of the issue for the White House is messaging on this? And how much of it is simply policy?

BEDINGFIELD: Well, one thing I can tell you having worked for Joe Biden for many years, he's not going to make a substantive policy decision, particularly in foreign policy based on poll numbers. And I say that not because he's disregarding the impact or the voices or the perspective of the young voters have, but because foreign policy plays out over time.

It requires sometimes difficult conversations, it requires private conversation. Some of the work that he's done, for example, led to the temporary ceasefire that got a lot of those hostages released. But I think that Biden has been very clear that the violence and the level of violence being committed against Palestinians is unacceptable.

I think he will probably continue -- he and his administration will continue to ramp that language up. You certainly saw Tony Blinken talk about that over the course of his last trip, even to Israel. So I think he's going to continue to do that. And I think at the end of the day, he's working toward a solution that brings the violence to an end, which is his ultimate goal.

SANCHEZ: I want to get back to the conversation that Brianna was having at the top of the hour and that's Liz Cheney's sort of toying with the idea of potentially running as a third party candidate. I'm wondering, how does the Biden campaign feel about that? Do you think it helps him or does it help former President Donald Trump?

BEDINGFIELD: I think it's hard to see a world where that helps Joe Biden. I think for Liz Cheney, the -- I think the clear sentence is that if she were to run as a third party candidate, she would likely take more votes from Joe Biden than Donald Trump, in part because she has been such a vocal critic of Donald Trump.

I think, you know, in our current system, it is nearly impossible for a third party candidate to win the presidency. But what a third party candidate can do is leach support from the leading two candidates. I think given her criticism of Trump, she's certainly not palatable to the Republican base.

And I think for a lot of Independents who would have suspicion about her given, you know, some of her more conservative policies that they don't agree with, I think it's really hard to see a world where she does anything but take votes from Joe Biden and ultimately help Donald Trump in that scenario.

So I would certainly hope that she will spend the time continuing to call out Donald Trump to call out the potential threat that a second Donald Trump term would pose and continue ringing the alarm rather than entering the race in a way that I think would almost certainly hurt Joe Biden.

SANCHEZ: Yes. The congresswoman -- former congresswoman has said that she's going to weigh the math. And if she thinks that it'll help Trump win, she will not wind up running for office.

Kate Bedingfield, we get to leave the conversation there. Appreciate the perspective.

BEDINGFIELD: Thanks for having me.

SANCHEZ: Of course. Still to come on CNN News Central, an apocalyptic situation with no safe place to go. That's how United Nations officials describe the situation in Gaza as Israel is expanding its ground operation in the south. We'll take you live to the region in just moments.


Plus, we're expecting to hear soon from police after a massive explosion rocks a neighborhood just outside of Washington, D.C. We'll bring you what police tell us about the blast.

And leader under pressure. Federal officials now putting together a panel taking a closer look at mental health rules for pilots. We have the details just moments away.


SANCHEZ: An apocalyptic situation with no safe place to go. That's how the United Nations is describing the chaotic and dire conditions facing civilians in Gaza today. Many are now digging through rubble searching for anything they can find in the way of food.

The desperation only deepening as Israeli forces are marching further into Gaza. The IDF now says its troops are in the heart of Khan Yunis, that's a city in southern Gaza where hundreds of thousands have fled in search of safety.


Israeli forces have been tightening their grip on the enclave since launching ground operations in October, which of course began with evacuation orders in northern Gaza. The IDF says that its troops in that part of the strip now have the Jabalya refugee camp surrounded.

And today soldiers are ordering many in Khan Yunis in the south to clear out. Let's take you now live to Sderot, Israel with CNN's Jeremy Diamond. So Jeremy, what's the latest on the IDF's ground operations in Gaza?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Boris, the Israeli military appears to be on the brink of a very decisive battle in Gaza's second largest city and that is the city of Khan Yunis where tonight Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi says that his forces have encircled that city of Khan Yunis.

We know that the Israeli military is still continuing to operate in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, but they are beginning to make a very decisive offensive in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. According to both local accounts as well as Israeli military officials, there have been heavy strikes in two key cities there, El- Baba which is in the central part of the strip, as well as in Khan Yunis, where the Israeli military appears to be making one of its primary offensive in the southern part of the Gaza Strip.

There is some indication that senior Hamas commanders may be in that city. And tonight, Herzi Halevi, that chief of staff, is saying that the address for the Israeli military that it is targeting is Hamas. And it is Yahya Sinwar, the group's leader as it moves forward into southern Gaza.

Now, amid all -- amid this offensive, the Israeli military has also ordered fresh evacuations of huge swaths of southern Gaza where hundreds of thousands of people live, directing them to move towards the city of -- even further South City of Rafah, where already hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and are living in overcrowded shelters.

Tonight, the U.N. Refugee Agency is warning that that city simply cannot accept the flow of hundreds of thousands of additional people. They don't have enough shelters for them. The water system is unlikely to be able to support those individuals.

And so now, civilians in the Gaza Strip are facing increasingly difficult choices not only facing the destruction from the airstrikes that they are seeing in some of those key cities, but also, of course, the very difficult choice of whether or not to heed those evacuation orders, whether it's a heads further south, where the conditions simply may not be ripe up for them.

Now, amid all of this, Hamas is continuing to fire rockets towards southern and central Israel. We saw today, as there were rockets intercepted above northern Tel Aviv, indicating Hamas continuing to be able to strike at Central Israel even amid this intense operation by the Israeli military. Boris?

SANCHEZ: Jeremy Diamond live for us from Sderot.

We want to go now to the White House and CNN's MJ Lee, who's there for us. Because MJ, sure you have some new reporting on how the White House is reading their continued insistence that Israel do a better job of targeting Hamas and preventing civilian deaths. Walk us through the reporting.

MJ LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Boris, you know, if you've been paying close attention over the last few weeks, you will have noticed that both White House and other U.S. officials have been increasingly emphasizing this idea that Israel has been heating the U.S.'s warnings about making sure that its military operations are tailored so that they can definitely sort of minimize civilian casualties and the destruction in Gaza.

We saw Vice President Kamala Harris on Sunday, for example, saying I do believe that they have listened when she was asked about this. We've seen other senior officials recently using the word receptive to describe how Israeli officials have been listening to the advice from U.S. officials.

But in private, this is not necessarily a consensus view. One senior administration official telling me that they for one would not be comfortable using the word receptive and that the reality right now is that the White House remains deeply concerned about this next phase of the war where Israel is targeting the southern part of the Gaza Strip with its military operations. And for now, we are seeing, Boris, that the White House is sort of declining to offer any kind of initial or even comprehensive assessment of how those military operations are going given the U.S.'s continued urgings on minimizing civilian deaths. We saw that play out repeatedly with Jake Sullivan when he was in the White House briefing room yesterday.

Basically, the administration saying it's too soon to make those kinds of judgments. But, Boris, it's important to note a part of what's going on here is that the White House has believed all along since October 7 that it is best to sort of quietly and behind the scenes, counsel their Israeli counterparts and really avoid sort of publicly admonishing or criticizing their Israeli counterparts for any of its military operations or any of its decision.


So that is sort of a delicate balancing act that we are continuing to see the White House and this administration continuing to grapple with, Boris.

SANCHEZ: MJ Lee live from the White House. Thanks so much for the reporting. Brianna?

KEILAR: We do have some breaking news coming to us from Capitol Hill. This is on Senator Tommy Tuberville's monthslong holds on military promotions. We have CNN's Manu Raju who is following the very latest. Manu, bring us up to speed here. What's happened?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Senator Tommy Tuberville, after a full year holding up military nominees over his demands, the Pentagon changes abortion policy, just announced that he is backing down. He is not going to hold up all these military promotions that he has been doing all year long to get his demands met.

Now he will allow almost all of them to go through. There are roughly 450 military promotions that have been held up amid this one man blockade. But Tuberville just told a group of reporters with a colleague, Lauren Fox, that he will hold up all of them, except for the handful of four star generals, a four star nominees.

They're about 10 or so, 10 or 11 of those 450 that he wants individual roll call votes on. But the rest of them, under four stars, three stars, and below, all those he can -- will allow to go forward. That means that Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader can go to the floor and simply call for their vote and be -- they can be approved as quickly on a voice vote.

Something that typically has done time and time again for many, many years. What has made this situation so unusual is that these nominees, which are promotions all across the military ranks typically are very quickly confirmed. But Tuberville has tried to block them, to use them as leverage to get his demands met.

He had concerns that Pentagon, its post-Roe policy would reimburse service members to travel out of state for reproductive services, including abortions. He wanted that scrapped. He called that policy illegal. The Pentagon said, no, it wouldn't. And this stalemate for months has persisted.

But Tuberville facing pressure from his right flank, from within the Senate Republican conference over this and calls to potentially change the Senate procedures to allow these nominees to be confirmed without his support. There was this talk among Republicans joining Democrats in that effort, all of which led to pressure on Tuberville to ultimately back down here.

So a significant development in this yearlong fight. Tommy Tuberville has said he's backing down after more than 10 months of holding up these key nominees across the Pentagon. Brianna?

KEILAR: Manu, it seems -- let's just be clear here, it seems Manu -- or Manu, it seems that Tuberville's reasons for this hold that there's been some mission creep over time, right? Initially, it seemed that it was the Pentagon's abortion travel compensation policy, then times he would say that, you know, there are just too many generals, the military's too top heavy.

And then more recently, it seems as if he's justifying remaining this hold on the four stars so that you can look individually at ones that he thinks are maybe more liberal than others.

RAJU: That's right, I mean, but the bottom line here is that he was about to get rolled by his own conference. See, there was no way out for Tommy Tuberville because of the fact that several of them indicated they were planning to vote with Democrats to change the Senate procedures and suddenly circumvent Tommy Tuberville's hold here.

So he decided perhaps it's best just to back down at this point, given the growing and growing pressure. But you're right, Brianna, for so many months, he dismissed that this had its real national security implications. So in the Pentagon, I'm warned about, something senators -- Republican senators like Dan Sullivan warned about, something that Lindsey Graham warned about.

Even Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had raised concerns about Tuberville's tactics. He dismissed all of it, said that he had been speaking to other generals who said there was no problem whatsoever on the battlefield. But the political pressure really has led to this point for Tommy Tuberville.

There really was no way out of this standoff. So he decided to back off allowing most of these 450 military promotions to go through which will happen in the coming days here, Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes. Many of them in very key roles very pertinent to the conflicts that we are seeing playing out in the Middle East, and also in Ukraine.

Manu, thank you for the very latest there. This is obviously a huge development coming off of the hill. We'll continue to monitor it. Let's talk a little bit more about this and also some other topics and pressing topics with Mark Esper, who of course, served as Defense Secretary under former President Trump. He's also the author of, "A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times".

This was pretty extraordinary, Secretary, what we saw coming from Tommy Tuberville here the last several months. What do you think of this development that he's giving up on these holes except for four stars?

MARK ESPER, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Yes, look, it's great news, Brianna, and it's frankly, long overdue. I'm surprised that he broke -- that he back down, that's startling as well.