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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Polls: Trump Keeps Wide Lead In Iowa, Haley Sees Boost In New Hampshire; IDF Claims It Has Discovered "Biggest Hamas Tunnel" In Gaza; Senators Scramble To Reach Border Policy Deal Before Holidays. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired December 18, 2023 - 05:30   ET




JOHN AVLON, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, and thanks for getting up early with us. I'm John Avlon.

Now, we are four weeks out from Iowa caucuses and new polling is painting a picture of what may be in store for the first GOP primary contest. Trump still holding a wide lead in Iowa, but Nikki Haley is gaining some ground in New Hampshire -- it's a big deal poll -- after receiving the endorsement of the state's popular Gov. Chris Sununu who has got high hopes for her there.


GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH): She's going to win in a landslide and that's not an exaggeration.


AVLON: Haley, however, still taking heat for still refusing to openly criticize Donald Trump, even after he made incendiary anti-immigrant remarks over the weekend.


CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You're telling me that someone who says that immigrants are poisoning the blood of this country, someone who says Vladimir Putin is a character witness is fit to be President of the United States was the right president at the right time? Nikki Haley should be ashamed of herself.


AVLON: All right. For more on this let's bring in CNN political reporter Daniel Strauss. Daniel, good morning.

All right, let's take a look --

DANIEL STRAUSS, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER (via Webex by Cisco): Good morning. AVLON: -- at that Iowa poll because this shows DeSantis -- he's got the governor's endorsement -- Kim Reynolds -- not really making a difference. He's having a lot of problems with his super PAC. Nikki Haley making some gains.

How do you see this Iowa primary poll right now in the state of the race there?

STRAUSS: I mean, it speaks, partially, to the popularity of each of these governors. Sununu, for a long time, has been one of the most popular governors in the country of either party. Reynolds, on the other hand, is more middling in the pack of governors' approval ratings -- still above water though.

But it also speaks to the electorate in these two states. Iowa Republican voters tend to be more conservative and more evangelical and they have, so far, very clearly broken to Trump, Trump, Trump. But in New Hampshire, a state where the Republican electorate is a little more libertarian, a little more proudly independent, it's understandable why Haley could gain ground there as she's been doing. So it's just really the difference of electorates more than anything else.

AVLON: You know, the momentum -- clearly, Nikki Haley has got it in New Hampshire. That may be a Chris Christie last stand.

You just heard Christie coming after Nikki Haley on CNN. He's been unflinching about taking the fight to Trump. But how do you see that pressure building on him to consolidate the non-Trump vote?

STRAUSS: I mean, obviously, the fact that he's started to criticize Haley even after, in the last presidential debate, he defended her at moments, really underscores a) how much he needs to do well in New Hampshire, and b) how much Haley is gaining ground and how much of an emerging threat she is to any other Republican candidate who wants to do well in New Hampshire.

So, to me, even more than polling, the fact that Haley's critics are expanding among the remaining Republican presidential candidates really shows that's he gaining momentum.


AVLON: Well, no question. And, of course, you make a key point about the different constituencies in the -- in the two states. Evangelicals fairly dominant in Iowa, Republican circles in the caucus, and an open primary with Independent voters in poll position in New Hampshire.

I wonder -- you heard in the opening Chris Sununu promising a landslide. Is that just being a good surrogate or is there anything rooted in reality to that claim, you think?

STRAUSS: I think it's going to be a good -- it's being a good surrogate more than anything else. Major elections in this country don't really go in landslides anymore. I mean, a 10 percent margin, which is think is better than Haley can dream for right now in the best-case scenario, is still -- is something that very few candidates enjoy, especially in a heated race. It's just like whoever wins, it's not going to be by 15-20 points --

AVLON: Right.

STRAUSS: -- which is what a landslide is.

AVLON: You've got to -- you've got to go back to 2000 where Bush won Iowa and then McCain blew past him with 19 percent in that -- in that 2000 --


AVLON: -- primary.

All right, I want to switch back to Donald Trump -- specifically, to some comments he made about Vladimir Putin. Appearing to use Vladimir Putin as a character reference while running down American democracy. I think we've got that sound.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Joe Biden is a threat to democracy. He's a threat. Even Vladimir Putin -- has anybody ever heard of Vladimir Putin -- of Russia, says that Biden's -- and this is a quote -- politically motivated persecution of his political rival is very good for Russia because it shows the rottenness of the American political system, which cannot pretend to teach others about democracy.


AVLON: Daniel, I noticed that got written up over the weekend in The Washington Post, but on page A14. Typically, a former president citing a dictator as a character reference while running down democracy would get a little more attention.

Is that a sign that we're becoming a little numb to some of the escalating autocratic rhetoric from the former president?

STRAUSS: I think so. I mean, it's -- you know, the thing about Trump, as a candidate, is he's very clear about what he wants to do and what he's offering in -- as president. And he was very clear in 2016 about the kind of president he would be.

And I think here, too, in 2023, we're seeing that now. The even more conservative rhetoric, the more outlandish or explosive comments he makes is something that he knows won't drive away Republican voters. And it's really sort of a new set of rules of gravity for Trump that you wouldn't see for any other candidate.

AVLON: Yeah.

STRAUSS: Voters are used to this and they aren't flinching in their support for him. AVLON: All right. Well, before we go, I want to get to the Ron DeSantis of it all. He got some more bad news over the weekend when the chief strategist for his once-flush super PAC resigned abruptly after a series of other departures.

Break it down for us. I mean, in Iowa, he got the two most coveted endorsements -- the governor, Kim Reynolds. He got evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats. But it's not good to be losing people at a senior level this late in the game.

What's your read on why this is happening and the super PAC drama?

STRAUSS: Right. I mean, for months now, Gov. DeSantis and his wife have been unhappy with some of the ads that the original allied super PAC Never Back Down has been running. And there's been turmoil among leadership at Never Back Down -- so much so that some of DeSantis' allies have split from that super PAC and set up a new one.

The latest departure from Never Back Down is Jeff Roe, one of the most well-known Republican strategists in the business right now. His departure comes after some of his top lieutenants from the super PAC left as well.

And it really just underscores the turmoil that the larger DeSantis orbit is in. I mean, DeSantis has not been able to consolidate the anti-Trump vote. He has not been able to show that he is the far and away most popular alternative to Trump.

And signs of fraying are coming out in staffing. He's -- DeSantis, himself, has had to switch campaign managers. And now, a chief strategist -- someone who is a veteran to many, many -- many, many statewide races and a presidential race -- are now leaving.

It's not a -- I mean, I don't usually put all stock in staff changes. John Kerry, for instance, still won the nomination --

AVLON: Um-hum.

STRAUSS: -- after some changes in 2004. But it's not ideal for a first-time presidential candidate.

AVLON: Not ideal, no, after tens of millions of dollars spent as well.

All right, CNN's Daniel Strauss. Thank you very much.

STRAUSS: Thanks.


AVLON: New video shows what Israeli forces say is the construction of the biggest Hamas tunnel yet discovered in Gaza. The IDF saying it's 2 1/2 miles long and equipped with electricity, ventilation, and communication systems.

Israel has also begun testing flooding tunnels like these with seawater to see if it will help degrade the tunnel network on a larger scale. But this tactic also comes with potential risks to the hostages.

CNN's Nic Robertson has more.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): The tunnels themselves are big -- big enough for fighters and their weapons seen here in this Hamas propaganda video, which was also posted by the Israel Defense Force. They are reinforced with concrete, too.

Two years ago, Hamas claimed to have built 500 kilometers -- more than 300 miles of them. The tunnels are spread all over Gaza. This map, over two years old.

The IDF says that they've discovered 800 tunnel shafts so far and they've destroyed 500 of them. The entrances are often well hidden --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a 20-meter tunnel.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): -- as I was shown by the IDF near a Gaza hospital. Really well hidden, which means the tunnels can be really hard to find.

ROBERTSON (on camera): The idea of flooding the tunnels using the abundant seawater that's along the many miles of Gaza's Mediterranean shore is apparently a creative idea not just to destroy Hamas and quite literally flush them out, but also to reach the parts of tunnels that might never be discovered from above ground.

Now, it's not without its risks. There could be hostages in those tunnels. There are very few details about how precisely the water is getting into the tunnels, how much water, and how fast it's going in, or what you do if you suddenly discover you're flooding hostages, other than the IDF say they have begun carefully testing it and that this method is being trialed on a limited, limited basis.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a tunnel.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): Some of the tunnels are thought to be five floors deep. Some of the hostages who were freed have described them. This elderly hostage helped by her daughter.

YOCHEVED LIFSHITZ, FORMER HOSTAGE (through translator): We began walking inside the tunnels with the wet ground. It was moist all the time. There are huge networks of tunnels underneath. It looks like a spiderweb.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): The IDF says it will proceed cautiously to make sure they are not flooding tunnels where the hostages are being held.

ROBERTSON (on camera): It's significant that more than six weeks into the ground campaign this full scale of the tunnel problem is only now really becoming apparent. Even controlling the streets above is not enough to locate all the tunnels. So flooding seems to be the new best option to really prove the extent of the invisible subterranean network, both destroying Hamas hiding there and denying it their use.

Of course, a key caveat in success here is if you can't find a tunnel and it's not connected to a system you're already flooding, how effective can you be about flooding it and knowing that you're hitting -- destroying the whole of the tunnel network?

Nic Robertson, CNN, London.


AVLON: Lawmakers are failing again to reach a border security deal. The chances they'll come to an agreement before the holiday recess -- well, that's next.



AVLON: Senate negotiators tried and failed again to reach a border security deal over the weekend, missing a self-imposed Sunday night deadline. Lawmakers are racing to push a package through before they leave for the holidays. Now, some negotiators are saying that's increasingly unlikely. They are, instead, calling for a special conference to discuss the negotiations in January.

Let's bring in CNN political analyst Jackie Kucinich. Jackie K -- she's Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe. It is good to see you, my friend.

All right --


AVLON: -- let's break this down for folks because these negotiations are happening in real time. We heard a lot of optimism from the 60 in the center, but we've also heard some frustration. I want to play you a clip from the Sunday shows this weekend and then get your reaction on the other side.


SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-VA): From our Republican and Democrat negotiators who are really diligent and doing a great job. And then, basically, with the White House involved, committed to getting this border under control. That's what I'm really very hopeful for and I think that we're going to see something next week and we'll stay there until we get it done.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): The bottom line here is we feel like we're being jammed. We're not anywhere close to a deal. It will go into next year.


AVLON: Where are you hearing the state of negotiations are now?

KUCINICH: You know, I think it's exactly what you said, John. They had -- there was progress made. There are some things that they have agreed on -- things like some changes to the asylum process -- but there are a lot of things that have not been worked out. And then there's the small matter of circulating anything among their colleagues who are already, on the left and the right, expressing concern that they're in the dark about what is going into this bill.

Border security is an issue that is particularly fraught when it comes to -- when it comes to Congress and it's not something that members are going to allow to be pushed through and, as Lindsey Graham said, jammed on from either side of the political spectrum.

AVLON: You know, I was struck -- I was struck as week or so ago that Mitch McConnell basically said President Biden's got to get involved. And the White House has been getting more --



AVLON: -- involved. For something like a big deal with border security with specific provisions for reform of the asylum process and then the Ukraine and the Israel of it all.

How do you see -- I mean, the far left has been raising its warnings. The same with the far right. Do you think the middle 60 will hold? And how do you see the politics of this as possibly benefiting Biden?

KUCINICH: Well, the closer we get to -- I mean, not only what's going on with Biden but I think the politics of this as we head into January gets more fraught with Republicans, in particular, because you're going to have voters starting to head to the polls in January.

All that said, with Biden, he does have to be careful about it. There are a lot of Democrats who are concerned he's going to give away the store because the Republicans have something he wants, which is funding for Ukraine, funding for Israel. And there are a lot of Republicans who also want these things but they know -- they also very much want changes to the policies at the border, and they know that they have that leverage now.

So the fact -- so -- but the concern that Biden is going to give away the store is very real. And not just the far left, to be clear. We're talking about the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- very concerned about some of the things that are being discussed in these negotiations.

AVLON: Well look, you raise a great point though about the shifting alliances here. On the one hand, Republicans saying they want more time, but that goes directly against the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary, which could sort of cause them to further pump the brakes, questioning whether they will view any coming together as a -- as a political win for Democrats.

And Democrats, particularly in the swing states, starting to sound a little different on these issues.

I want to read you a quote from Sen. John Fetterman, of course, of Pennsylvania, that sort of struck me the other day. "I'm not a progressive," he said. "I just think I'm a Democrat that is very committed to choice and other things. But with Israel, I'm going to be on the right side of that. And immigration," he said, "is something near and dear to me, and I think we have to effectively address it as well."

So while some people are saying look, you're going to give away the store and play into what they characterize as punitive policies pushed by Republicans, Fetterman is sort of saying look, this is good politics.

KUCINICH: And Fetterman is in an interesting position because he is in Pennsylvania, which -- I mean, he's not up for a couple of years but still, he's been a very interesting politician to watch up there.

Listen, no matter where you come from on the political spectrum, immigration is an issue that has been intractable, frankly, for as long as I can remember. And whether this -- whether Ukraine funding is going to be enough to spur people to come together we'll have to see, John. It's a -- but there's no reason to think this won't go into the next year.

AVLON: Wow, Jackie the K. You're giving us the real talk. I appreciate it. But if there's not moral urgency around the border, plus Ukraine, plus Ukraine, where is there moral urgency?

Thanks for joining us.


AVLON: Great to see you.

KUCINICH: Thanks, John.

AVLON: All right.

Overnight, a car crashing into President Biden's motorcade. We've got new video with the president's reaction to the impact. That's ahead on "CNN THIS MORNING."



AVLON: The Buffalo Bills put a Texas-sized beatdown on the Dallas Cowboys and their star quarterback said he didn't do anything to help the situation -- well.

Coy Wire has this morning's Bleacher Report -- Coy.

COY WIRE, CNN SPORTS ANCHOR: Ooh, I like the way you put some mustard on that. Let's go Buffalo. And I say that as a former Bills player.

AVLON: Yeah.

WIRE: Look, for years now, John, it's been, as Josh Allen goes, the Bills offense go. But yesterday they proved to the future opponents they have developed into this entirely new beast. Over the span of the last three seasons, Josh Allen has led the league in touchdowns and turnovers. And against Dallas' defense, he only managed to throw for 94 yards.

But running back James Cook was cooking thanks to a bulldozing performance by the offensive line. The Bills second-year beast (PH) racked a career-high 221 total yards, scoring two touchdowns.

Buffalo beat the Cowboys 31-10. They'd won five straight before that. Buffalo is now 8-6, significantly increasing their playoff chances with three games to go.

And Josh Allen says I'm completely happy to just be along for the ride. Listen to this.


JOSH ALLEN, QUARTERBACK, BUFFALO BILLS: I felt like the kid that didn't do anything in the class project but got an A. But again, I'll do this 10 times out of 10 times, man. Like, just keep on.


WIRE: Now, Taylor was an all-Chiefs fan yesterday, frustrated over missed cues and more dropped passes, including this one by her beau, Travis Kelce -- a wide-open touchdown.

The Chiefs entered the game with a league-leading 29 dropped passes. They had three more on Sunday. But KC still handled business against the three-win Patriots -- a 27-17 win, snapping their two-game losing streak heading into a Christmas Day division showdown against the Raiders.

All right, like father, like son. Check out 14-year-old Charlie Woods chipping in from long distance at the PNC Championship in Orlando yesterday, then pulling out the patented Tiger fist pump -- look. It looks like John Avlon after a good scoop on Capitol Hill. Yeah, baby. Tiger is all smiles.

A great weekend for the entire Woods family with Tiger's 16-year-old daughter Sam caddying for Tiger for the first time as the Woods boys finished 19 under, tied for fifth.

And finally, hook 'em. The Texas Longhorns are your women's volleyball national champs. Asja O'Neal acing the championship point to knock off top-ranked Nebraska.


O'Neal, the epitome of passion and perseverance. She was born with a congenital heart defect. She had surgery as a kid but then the issue came about again in college. In 2019, she had to have another surgery. Doctors telling her you should just give up this sport. And instead, after months of rehab, she returned to the court, leading her Longhorns to a second-straight national title.

John, just recently here, a week or so ago, she was the number one pick in the new Pro Volleyball Federation. What a story to start our day.

AVLON: You've got to love it. Thanks, Andy (sic).

WIRE: You got it.

AVLON: Really appreciate it, man.

WIRE: You got it.

AVLON: Thanks for joining us. I'm John Avlon. "CNN THIS MORNING" starts right now.