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CNN Live Event/Special

CNN Covers The Republican Presidential Debate. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired January 10, 2024 - 23:00   ET



GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am asking for your support in the Iowa caucus on Monday, January 15. I'll be a president that you can be proud of, and I promise you this, I will get the job done and I will not let you down. Thank you and God bless you all.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Our thanks to Governor DeSantis --


-- and Governor Haley. Governor DeSantis and Governor Haley, thank you so much, both of you, for being here tonight. Thanks to our audience, to our host, Drake University, for Dana Bash and the whole CNN team. I'm Jake Tapper. Thank you so much for watching. Be sure to join us Monday, January 15, at 4:00 p.m. Eastern for CNN's coverage of the Iowa caucuses. Anderson Cooper and Kaitlan Collins are going to pick it up right now with more on the debate. See you tomorrow.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: And you are looking there at the debate stage at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Tonight's CNN republican debate, the last one before Monday's Iowa caucus, is just now wrapping up. Joining me here in just a moment, one of tonight's two contenders, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: Yeah, Anderson, he and Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor, were one-on-one for the first time on the debate stage with far more focus on each other on that stage than their competitor who was not there, Donald Trump, the former president, who is holding a rival town hall just a few miles away.

COOPER: That's right, Kaitlan. Neither she nor Governor DeSantis focused anywhere near the same fire on him as they did on each other as there are respective records in state office. The two also pulling no punches right from the very beginning of the debate when it came to questioning the other's sincerity and honesty.


DESANTIS: Nikki Haley is running. We don't need another mealy-mouthed politician who just tells you what she thinks you want to hear just to try to get your vote than to get in office and to do her donors' bidding. She was in another state, and she said the people of Iowa's votes need to be corrected.

This is somebody that wrote in her book that Hillary Clinton inspired her to first run for office. I remember Hillary denigrating people on the republican side as deplorables. We don't need a candidate who's going to look down on middle America. We've had enough of that.

NIKKI HALEY, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're going to find out tonight that there's going to be a lot of Ron's lies that have happened. There are at least a couple of dozen so far that he has done.

So, what we're going to do is rather than have him go and tell you all these lies, you can go to and and look at all of those. There are at least two dozen lies that he has told about me, and you can see where fact checkers say exactly what's going to happen and exactly why it's wrong.

So, it will cover the fact that he's only mad about the donors because the donors used to be with him, but they're no longer with him now, and that's because he's upset about the fact that his campaign is exploding.

You're going to see the fact that he has switched his policies multiple times, and we'll call that out tonight. But every time he lies, Drake University, don't turn this into a drinking game because you will be over-served by the end of the night.


SANTIS: Nikki Haley has this tactic. If you hold her accountable to her record, first she'll say, I never said that. Well, one good rule of thumb, if she says she has never said something, that definitely means she said it. And then she'll say, you're lying, you're lying. That means not only did she say it, but she's on videotape saying it.


COOPER: So, there's certainly plenty of that sprinkled throughout the night, but no shortage of substance either, as each field of questions from our Dana Bash and Jake Tapper will be fact checking some of their answers tonight and seeing how they landed with the same group of Iowa voters who've been watching and reacting to every debate so far.

We'll also talk about Chris Christie's announcement late today that he is leaving the race and the criticism he leveled at tonight's debaters and the rest of the 2024 GOP field.

With me tonight, CNN's John King, CNN "NewsNight: anchor Abby Phillip, also our CNN political commentators from both sides of the aisle, David Axelrod and Scott Jennings are here with me. Abby, what stood out to you?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN HOST: It was a strong night for DeSantis. It was. And you could see the pressure on Nikki Haley that has been building for some weeks now. She is in the barrel now as the front-runner of the second tier of candidates here. That also kind of underscores the other part of this, which is that the two of them were so busy in this, I don't know, cage match with each other that you almost just didn't even notice that there was a Trump of it all, which is critically important in Iowa where he's leading.

So, I don't know. I mean, at the end of it, I thought to myself, who won the debate? It's really unclear because there was so much back and forth that you almost got lost in it. It was hard to see the forest through the trees, frankly, between these two. But on Nikki Haley's part, she really needs to solidify where she is.


I don't think she did that tonight. She seemed flustered, frustrated. She said on multiple occasions that DeSantis was demeaning her, which seemed to imply that she was taking it really personally. I don't think that really helped her tonight.


JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I saw two sets of tactics to each candidate differently. You're right, there was not a ton of direct confrontation with Trump. But Haley, now with Christie out of the race, did go a little farther than we hear normally. Trump lost, Biden won. She said it clearly. That's running against what most Republicans still believe to this day.

But she said Trump lost, Biden won. She criticized him very critically about January 6th behavior, saying history would hold him to account, and she said his argument in court the other day about presidential immunity was ridiculous.

Not a ton. Not a full-frontal assault on Donald Trump. But her realizing that if she's going to have any hope, she has to consolidate the anti-Trump vote. So, a little tougher there.

To Abby's point about DeSantis, he knows where he is, and he knows how important this state is to him. This is a much more conservative electorate here in Iowa than you will have in New Hampshire. School choice, immigration, woke, transgender, a reckoning coming against the Faucis and the science and the Washington bureaucracy. He is appealing. That's a very Trumpy, Trump-based message.

But it's also, if he has any hope, it's to be strong here. Everyone assumes Trump is going to win here. We'll see what happens on Monday. But to be stronger, he was playing conservative, conservative, conservative, conservative all night long because that's Iowa.

COOPER: Given that Chris Christie was the candidate who was the most aggressive against Trump, does that make sense that they would not be very aggressive against Trump?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, yes, I think that the Christy parable is -- it's discouraging to people about frontal assaults on Donald Trump in this Republican Party. And I agree, John, that Haley went farther than she has gone before, but only in the second round of -- when it was elicited by the very good questions that they were asked, by Dana and Jake, that kind of forced an answer.

I agree with Abby. I thought, you know, Haley has done very well in these debates and she used a lot of same material that we've heard before. But he got under her skin.

And I think more importantly, whether she -- whether she and DeSantis finish on Monday is less important than what it means for the race in New Hampshire. I think she's going to -- she has already been attacked there on the air by Trump on immigration. I think you are going to hear a lot more of that. I think you are going to hear more on the entitlement attack, which is very, very potent.

Her stated position that we should raise the retirement age of social security for new entrance into the workforce, I mean, it may be an intellectually respectable position, I certainly can make the argument, but it is a very volatile issue, and Trump and DeSantis have both taken the other side of it.

So, I think we saw some previews to come. If she's rattled by these things, she better gets her act together because I think this is just the beginning.

KING: But that's just a great example of how much Trump has changed the Republican Party. It used to be the Republican Party position. We have to deal with these things because of the fiscal costs. So, whether it's raising the retirement age or find other ways, find other cost savings. And now, you're right, Trump has made that anathema, and DeSantis, who used to be for it, is now against it.


SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'll answer Abby's question. I think DeSantis won tonight. I think the first 12 or 15 minutes didn't help either of them. I thought the initial squabbles made them both look fairly small, frankly.

But I think DeSantis settled down as the night went on, and Haley, to Ax's point, continued to be rattled. I think Haley drastically overplayed her hand on this website business.


JENNINGS: I think it hurt her. I think it cratered her throughout the night. And it sounded like someone to me, the more she went to that well, like someone who couldn't defend their own record. I mean, it became this crutch. It was like --

AXELROD: A life raft.

JENNINGS: It was like a rhetorical sandwich board. And it didn't -- I think that the more she went to it, the more annoying, frankly, it seemed throughout the night. I thought the immigration exchange, to your point, was critical, and I thought DeSantis won on that. Something Haley did, though, that I did appreciate. She does not have the majority position on Ukraine.


JENNINGS: For the Republican Party, she does not have the majority position. She stuck to her guns on that, and she defended it better than you hear most politicians who are currently in office do.

DeSantis, though, where he was on that topic was right where the republican primary vote was. So, I appreciated Haley because that's my position. I appreciated what Haley said. But even in that exchange, DeSantis found himself where the primary voters are, and Haley found herself outside of it.

PHILLIP: Yeah. I mean, she -- that was probably her best answer of the night. It was crisp. It was consistent for her. But then DeSantis landed this punch on her --

AXELROD: Yeah, yeah.

PHILLIP: -- that was basically, you can take the candidate out of the U.N. --


PHILLIP: -- but you can't take the U.N. out of the candidate. They obviously planned for that.


But a critical moment for him to try to take something that she has been using as a strength and make it a weakness, for this Republican Party, that may very well work even though this is Donald Trump's U.N. ambassador. I mean, that's the irony of it all.

Those policies that Nikki Haley is talking about, those are Donald Trump's policies, and yet it could very well be a weakness for her here.

KING: But that gets at the defining question for the next two weeks, likely to be answered in the next two weeks, Iowa on Monday, and then New Hampshire later in the month. Is this -- are the roots of Trumpism getting deeper, stronger in the Republican Party or can a Nikki Haley pull it back? The internationalists of the more traditional positions on entitlements.

All the data tell us the Trump wing of the party is not only strong but strengthening all these House Republicans, all these other candidates around the country.

She is trying to essentially say, if you want your old Republican Party, Iowa, you go first on Monday, New Hampshire then follow. If you don't saw or stop Trump by then, forget about it.

COOPER: We're going to be talking to Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, shortly here. Let's go to Kaitlan in New York. Kaitlan?

COLLINS: Yeah, thanks, Anderson. We've got our panel back here with me. And Alyssa, as we were watching this debate play out, obviously, Donald Trump was not on that stage. That was the one thing that Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley really agreed on, which was that he should be on that stage. But neither of them really sought to draw a contrast with Trump in a meaningful way.

And there was this one moment where Jake and Dana were asking them about Trump's post about overturning -- terminating the Constitution and how they felt about it. This is how Nikki Haley responded to that question.


TAPPER: Governor Haley, is there any meaningful difference in how you and Donald Trump view the Constitution?

HALEY: I mean, look, you take an oath to the Constitution, and I think what you're saying is Donald Trump basically said that the election was stolen. He went on and on talking about the election being stolen. He said that January 6th was a beautiful day. I think January 6th was a terrible day, and we should never want to see that happen again.

That election, Trump lost it. Biden won that election. And the idea that he's gone and carried this out forever to the point that he's going to continue to say these things to scare the American people are wrong. I think what happened on January 6 was a terrible day, and I think President Trump will have to answer for it.

DESANTIS: As president of the United States, you will preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. You can't just terminate the Constitution. I mean, I know he does, you know, word vomit from time to time on social media, but, obviously I will uphold the Constitution.


COLLINS: What did you make of those answers?

ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I mean, listen, this should be the lowest hanging fruit. I wouldn't say either of them knocked that question out of the park. But bigger picture takeaway from the night, I think Ron DeSantis won the night with the base. He hit Donald Trump on Fauci, on COVID lockdowns, on not doing enough to quell unrest during the BML protests.

But I think Nikki Haley won the night as far as the broader republican electorate, acknowledging that Joe Biden won the election, acknowledging that climate change exists, starting to kind of talk about future-looking policy.

But at the end of the day, you have Donald Trump as the overwhelming presence here, and they barely touched him. By the way, Donald Trump during this was truthing out at the candidates. He went after Nikki Haley far more than Ron DeSantis. So, I think that tells you where his head is. But it's really hard to see how they think they're going to be able to overtake him while barely laying a finger on him.

COLLINS: David, what did you make of it?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Listen, I don't want to, you know, Kristen had said this before and Abby said it as well, seems small, the debate seems small for some reason, right? It seemed like people bickering back and forth, it was lost in the granularity, and I don't think either of these folks came across as particularly likable, which is incredibly important.

You know, this is -- this is something that Trump does incredibly well. Whether you like his policies or not, he walks into the Dairy Queen, everybody loves him. It's a gag where you can just feel it.

This stage, you know, nobody wants to sit next to either of those people on a long airplane trip. Right? That's not what you want to do, right? And so, you have to convey that. You have to get that across somehow to the voters because it's to some extent a popularity contest.

COLLINS: I mean, they did come right out of the gate, Jamie, attacking one another. It was in their first statements, which was notable, because in their back-to-back town halls last week, they kind of stayed out of the direct criticisms of one another. It's not surprising because they were both on stage, but it seemed like they were forgetting almost that Donald Trump was in the race.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: No question about it. Look, the gloves came off. And I was told by both campaigns that that's actually what they wanted. That Haley had to do a knockout punch and same for DeSantis. So, that was certainly the tenor of what you got. But it turned into everything but liar, liar pants on fire. I mean, my wonderful --

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Only because there was a website.


GANGEL: My wonderful producer, Elizabeth Stewart, has been going through the transcript, counting it up. I think we're now at 14 times that Nikki Haley said that. I spoke to someone on both the Haley campaign and the DeSantis campaign. The DeSantis supporter said that they were pleased, but it was not the knockout that he needed.


The Haley person said, she's proving her point that he's the wrong guy, but not that she's the right one.

COLLINS: Stand by because I do want to hear the rest of your thoughts on how this night went for both of these candidates and what it meant for who was not on that stage. I do want to go back to Anderson who is in Iowa right now.

COOPER: Kaitlan, thanks very much. I'm here with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. How do you think it went tonight? DESANTIS: Good. You know, I think that it was lively, but that's what we need. We started with eight people and that's hard because you're just kind of trying to get a word in edgewise. We had two people. I thought the moderation was great. I think it was substantive. All the questions were things voters would care about one from another.

I do -- I just heard a little snippet about that about not taking on Trump. You know, I hit him. Obviously, he should have been on that stage and we would mix it up more. But, you know, they talked about his quote about using the Insurrection Act to go into the cities. He had the BLM riots on his watch. He never did a thing to stop any of the writing. He didn't give any federal support.

And so, we hold him accountable for that. We hold him accountable for not building the wall, not doing the deportations and other broken promises, but it's easier to do that when somebody is going to go on the stage. I think the reason that he doesn't go on the stage is because he knows that there are vulnerabilities in his record.

COOPER: You were asked tonight about the character issue. You asked about -- if you believe former President Trump has the character to be president again. I want to play what you said.


DESANTIS: I appreciated what President Trump did. But let's just be honest. He said he was going to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it. He did not deliver that. He said he was going to drain the swamp. He did not deliver that. He said he was going to hold Hillary accountable, and he let her off the hook. He said he was going to eliminate the debt, and he added $7.8 trillion to the debt. So, we need to deliver and get this stuff done.


COOPER: You didn't answer about whether or not he had the character.

DESANTIS: Well, that is how I view that question. It is about -- leadership is not about the show. It's not about the entertainment, which he has a premium on that. He can beat anyone on that. Leadership is all about delivering results. And if you deliver the results, that's what people want to see. He was not able to deliver on those core promises.

COOPER: Do you think he has the moral character?

DESANTIS: Look, I think he's got -- I think since the 2020 election, it has been -- it has been interesting watching his evolution on social media. Let us just put it this way. I think that he doesn't get as much scrutiny for the stuff he's doing on social media right now. I imagine, if he ended up being the nominee, that's going to change, and I do think that would turn off a lot of voters.

COOPER: I want to play the thing you said about the Black Lives Matter protest that you just referenced. Let's play that.


DESANTIS: He was president during the worst rioting in the modern history of this country, the BLM riots in the summer of 2020. When I saw that happen in Minneapolis, in Florida, I called out the National Guard. We had state law enforcement deployed. We said, you're not burning down our cities in this state. And you know what? It didn't happen.

He sat in the White House and tweeted law and order, but he did nothing to ensure law and order. As your president, I will never let our cities burn. You have every right to stop this runaway rioting. In fact, you have a duty.


COOPER: What do you think he should have done as president?

DESANTIS: Well, he did have the right to invoke the Insurrection Act. I mean, that -- that's one of the whole reasons the Constitution was created, because they feared mob violence. You had places like Minneapolis that were burning down. And by the way, that has not recovered. It's going to take probably decades to recover. He could have gone in and brought the National Guard, federalize the garden, and kept order.

I think it -- because it came off the question about, you know, I think in the media, they're saying Trump is going to be some madman, he's going to abuse all his powers, I get that's a narrative, but if you actually watch his four years, a lot of the tale is him not using the perfectly lawful authority that he had during COVID.

COOPER: You would have used the Insurrection Act?

DESANTIS: I would have used it. And then, for example, during COVID, a lot of us were telling him to fire Dr. Fauci. He didn't have to put him on that COVID Task Force. Not only did he not do that. Fauci's -- Trump's last day in office, he gave Fauci a commendation. He oftentimes would complain about people who were in his administration. But he had the authority to fire them if these things weren't done, and he never really did that.

And so, you know, I get like people try to do the narratives, but I was there and I remembered he had opportunities to follow through his campaign promises and didn't necessarily do it.

COOPER: Governor Chris Christie, obviously, dropped out of the race. What did you make of that?

DESANTIS: I was a little bit surprised. I mean, I thought that he was going to stick through New Hampshire and kind of see how it goes. But, at the same time, I mean, you know, people got to do what they think is right.

COOPER: Chris Christie was caught on a hot, as you probably know, before he made this announcement. He -- I just want to play what he said. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS CHRISTIE, FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: She's going to get smoked and you and I both know it. She's not up to this. DeSantis called me, petrified that I would --


COOPER: It then got garbled you couldn't really hear.


Did you call him and were you petrified?

DESANTIS: Yeah, no, I mean, look, I've been the Fallujah and Ramadi. I mean, this is not -- I did call him just because I thought he was being treated poorly with all these people saying like, you know, you should go. I said -- I said, you have every right to do this. And I think a lot of it is -- he and I both kind of needled Nikki Haley on it.

Chris is against Trump. Right? Nikki is becoming a darling of the people who are more than never Trump. And yet, she won't answer the question about whether she would accept the VP nod (ph). She gives all this mealy-mouth response.

What is wrong with just saying no, I would not under any circumstances say that? I think the fact that she has not done that is part of the reason Chris had been staying in, and I think that's part of the reason I think he has had those choice --

COOPER: Do you think she would agree to be vice president --


COOPER: Under Trump?

DESANTIS: I do, because I think why would you not just say, I would not -- I've said I would not? Why not just say that? She will not give a yes or no answer to that because if she says yes, she loses the support from the people that don't like Trump. If she says, no, then that forecloses potentially her ability to be on the ticket.

COOPER: And you say categorically, you would not serve as vice president of Trump?

DESANTIS: No, and the reason is -- well, a couple reasons. One, I can do more for Florida and the country serving as president rather than my last two years as governor, but I can do more for Florida and the country serving the last two years as governor than being vice president.

That's just -- I mean, what do they say? A bucket of warm something not good for T.V.? It is not like a job that you really do anything. The only reason I'm in office is to accomplish things for folks. And so, it has no appeal to me. I've said categorically I would not do it, and not just for Trump, for anybody.

COOPER: There's a poll in New Hampshire that says the second choice for a lot of Christie supporters would -- the majority is Nikki Haley. What would you say to Chris Christie's supporters tonight to try to reach out to them?

DESANTIS: Well, look, Chris, even though he was in the blue state, he has a more conservative record as governor of New Jersey than Nikki has as governor of South Carolina. We saw a lot of the differences tonight.

I mean, I think her response just constantly saying you're lying does not -- does not pass the smell test. She's on video saying all this stuff. I mean, literally, she was at a Fox News town hall the other night. The governor said, you said the social security age is way too low. I never said that. Then they play it. Okay, I did say it.

So, I don't think that that was effective, but I think that if you look at Chris, what he was able to do in a very blue state, his record was more conservative than Nikki Haley's. And so -- and I think if you look, I've been willing to hold to Trump accountable. I just do it more from the right than more focused on some of the things that the media likes to talk about. But I've been out there very frank, and I let her rip.

COOPER: In terms of what you need to do here in Iowa, what is -- in the past, you said you were going to win in Iowa.

DESANTIS: We're going to do well. But here's the thing.

COOPER: What is well for you?

DESANTIS: I do better when I'm underestimated. I like being the underdog. And so, I'm not a prognosticator. I think if you look at what we've done here, the organization that we built, the tens of thousands of Iowans that have already committed to Knoxville, everything, we've done it the right way. We've gone to all 99 counties. I think you're seeing that. You're going to start to see that more and more, even through the weekend, as more people get. My people are going to come out in negative 20.

COOPER: It is going to be brutal weather Monday.

DESANTIS: They're going to come out. They're going to come out and do it. But at the same time, it's like, you know, I'd rather be underestimated. So, well, I hope everyone says all that, and then on caucus night, you know, would do well.

But I've also pointed out, the people that have won Iowa sometimes, a lot of times haven't won the nomination, and then people have lost and won. It's all about accumulating delegates. And so, everyone's going to get some delegates here, and you kind of move on.

Nevada is just me and Trump basically because Haley is not in the caucus there. Yes, the state party's rigging it for Trump. We know that. But you know what? It's not going to be fair every place in the country. So, let's compete.

COOPER: So, how do you -- how do you see, say, second place in Iowa, whatever it is?

DESANTIS: We got a lot of -- we got a lot of room to do.

COOPER: Because New Hampshire, obviously, you have not been as aggressive.

DESANTIS: We're going to go in there strong. We are going to do that. Once I was done -- I mean, my view on it has been it's more of a momentum state. I think what happens in Iowa, we'll pay. I think we should have a debate there. I think WMUR is going to do one. We want to do that. We'll be barnstorming there all eight days and do well.

So, I think that has been more a strategy there. Then we'll go from South Carolina the day after that, probably take some couple days in Florida just to be at home for a couple days, then go to Nevada. We're going to compete in the Nevada caucus. I think that's really important. So, you're going to start to see this.

And I think, you know, Chris is out. I think, you know, Vivek, obviously, didn't qualify for this debate. And so, then the question is, is Trump, you know, how does he perform? Because I can tell you, I'm not seeing the enthusiasm for him on the ground that we've seen. You drive around Iowa, you don't see the flags, you don't see the things.

You know, there's a lot of those people who are like, well, they're saying he's going to be the candidate, so I guess, but then when we get in front of them, they're like, okay, you know, I do (ph). I had a lady at the town hall last night at Fox News. She was leaning Trump coming in. She's like, well, after this, you know, I'm from the governor.


So, as more people start to pay attention, and I've seen a difference in Iowa just since the calendar turn in the 2024, more people are coming to our events, more undecided voters are coming.

So, I think the caucus night is going to be clarifying. I think these are going to be clarifying. But I think part of the fallout from the debate tonight is, you know, Nikki, you know, she just, you know, I think she lost her cool. She's constantly saying you're lying. That doesn't do it. Her record is her record. She wouldn't explain, you know, why she was taking these positions.

I think to just say that, I don't think that people buy that. I think you've got to be more substantive. I think you have to be credible as to how are you going to be a nominee of a party that really is focused on working people in small business and less on the big corporations than maybe the old guard Republican Party.

COOPER: Her criticism of you is that a lot of those donors, which you were criticizing her for, used to be your donors -- DESANTIS: That's actually not true. I mean, think about it. She's got the founder of Linkedln who is a liberal Democrat. That was never anybody. She's got BlackRock CEO. We kneecapped DST in Florida. We took money out of our -- moved from BlackRock out of our pension. She has bragged about being there with Larry Fink. He's the king of DST.

So, I mean, those people were never in my camp. She's got a lot of people who are, I think, more liberal donors. The question is, why? I think a lot of it is because they're never Trumpers. That's why I find it out that she just won't say she won't be the VP.

COOPER: Another criticism of you was that you essentially have not run a good campaign, that you have wasted tons of money.

DESANTIS: Here is the thing. First of all, that is all process stuff. She is citing an organization that's an outside group that I don't even control. People in Iowa, they don't care about process stuff. They care about the substance and they care about the leadership. So, she spent a lot of time focusing on --

COOPER: There has been a lot of turnover in your campaign, though, hasn't it?

DESANTIS: In the PAC side. But here is the thing. What does that have to do with what's going on in the country? I don't think people care about these PACs. So, I just think, like, you know, we had this -- she brought that up in relation to her failure to do school choice.

It's a huge issue for Republicans. We've delivered on it in Florida more than anyone. And she did -- she failed on it and she blamed the legislature. And I said, that's not leadership. And then she pivots to talking about commercials and polls and stuff.

No process stuff. I've not been asked one process question in any town hall I've done in any state during this whole campaign. It's all substance all the time.

COOPER: If you don't have a strong showing in -- what is the strong showing for you here in Iowa?

DESANTIS: We're going to do well. I mean, I'll let you guys play the expectation game. I'd like -- I'd rather be underestimated. I do better when I'm an underdog. You know, we're going to do well. And I think people are going to see, okay, who can honestly compete with Trump? Because if you look, if Trump weren't running, I would get most of those votes, right?

Haley does not have purchase with core conservatives. And you have to do that to be able to win a republican nomination. She's going to New Hampshire, she's catering to more of the Democrat-leaning, which is fine in a general election.

You know, you want to be able to do that. But if you're not getting any support from conservatives, you are dead in the water, especially against somebody like Donald Trump. With me, I can compete with him in that lane in a one-on-one. I think that's what we're looking to do. Get it to a one-on-one, get him on the debate stage, and then let people do it.

You know, a lot of the times when you have differences, when you're on the stage together, that's when people really start to process that. I think that has been strategic on his part, to not be willing to go on the debate stage, because he knows that this stuff would resonate with conservative voters.

COOPER: Viewers might not know, but your five-year-old son was in the front row, on your wife's lap. Did he make it through the whole debate?

DESANTIS: He stayed the whole time, all the way to 10 p.m. And keep in mind, that's 11:00 East Coast time.

COOPER: Yeah. Impressive.

DESANTIS: He was a trooper.

COOPER: All right, Governor DeSantis, appreciate it.

DESANTIS: Thank you.

COOPER: Thank you. Kaitlan, back to you.

COLLINS: Anderson, interesting conversation you had there, had a lot of people here in the room talking.

Audie, I wonder what you made of Governor DeSantis's answers there, listening to him, you know, going after Trump.

CORNISH: First of all, his whole demeanor, right? Like --

COLLINS: Completely different than on stage.

CORNISH: High energy, obviously feeling very good about his performance, very sort of light and chatty and it makes you wonder like, gee, maybe he could have been doing sit-down interviews a lot more. That is clearly --

URBAN: That guy -- that guy was likable.

CORNISH: Yeah, like that seems a lot more interesting. I mean, the other thing I want to say is, yes, he was trying to make comments about Trump, but Trump was down the street saying that if it wasn't for him, Ron DeSantis would be a pizza guy or at a law firm.


And I think that speaks to the shadow boxing going on here. They are pulling their punches on a person who doesn't even see them as relevant to the conversation. And that -- it's lucky they both talk about being underdogs because they are.

COLLINS: Joel Simmons, what did you make of that?

JAMAL SIMMONS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, that interview was spectacular for Ron DeSantis. He was -- as we've all said, he was very good in it.

I was struck in the debate about something that was a much -- was a bigger thing for me. This idea of the class divide that exists inside the Republican Party now. He attacked Nikki Haley. It's warmed over corporatism. He attacked her for making millions of dollars on a corporate board, and then he started talking about elites who sold out the middle class for China.


It is amazing to me as a Democrat to sit in here with a Republican Party basically sound like Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Nikki Haley is running in New Hampshire where she's winning more educated voters, wealthier voters, people who are probably more moderate.

It's interesting to know whether or not her victory in New Hampshire will at all help her, if she wins New Hampshire, if she does really well in New Hampshire, if that will help her at all anywhere else after this because it might be that Ron DeSantis is really more in touch with the working and middle-class voters that now populate the Republican Party under Donald Trump.

COLLINS: But the question is, of course, are those voters still with Donald Trump or are they willing to vote for Ron DeSantis? And I wonder what you made of that argument, not only that you definitely saw Ron DeSantis making that appeal, but also the question of whether or not Nikki Haley herself, who some argued had more to lose in this debate, whether or not she made up the ground that she's lost in some of her recent town halls and moments in Iowa.

KRISTEN SOLTIS-ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This more populist turn in the Republican Party is not new. In fact, it was kind of Donald Trump in 2016 who heralded the beginning of that shift, who saw a market out there in the GOP electorate and tapped into it.

And so, the problem DeSantis has run into is that he has been trying to run as Trump but slightly not, and most voters who like Trump just kind of wanted the original formula.

And so, what's fascinating is that in that interview he just gave, he was not just Trump but slightly different. He was his own person, he was personable, he had his own message. And it's just -- it is interesting to wonder what's the alternate universe where that guy shows up starting in January when Trump's poll numbers were a little bit lower. Republicans were still reeling from a tough midterm election. It's all interesting to wonder about this.

Now, Nikki Haley, I think her problem tonight is, her message is, I'm going to be a new generation of Republican. And her adversaries in the party say, there's nothing new about what you're doing. What you're doing is a back to the future. What you're doing is a return to the past, a Republican Party that doesn't exist anymore.

And I think rather than her driving this narrative of new generation of leadership over and over and over again, that's the message discipline you need, not here's a website over and over again. That's where I think she failed tonight.

COLLINS: Yeah, the debate had strong 2016 vibes and hoping that Donald Trump will fall away. One of them will be able to take that. Back more in a moment. We have a lot more to discuss from that two-hour debate, including the man that we have been talking about despite not being on that stage next to his two competitors, the former president, and his competing town hall not far from where that debate took place, that and a look ahead as the voting is in just five days from now.



COLLINS: Well, tonight's debate did share one thing in common with all the others up to this point. Donald Trump, the frontrunner so far in this race, stayed far away from the stage. This time, he was at a televised town hall that was also happening in the same city in Des Moines. Yet he did not show up to the debate.

CNN's Kristen Holmes was tasked with watching it all unfold. She joins us now. Kristen, so what did the former president say when he was speaking with voters tonight?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kaitlan, he actually ended up backtracking on a lot of what we've heard him say on the campaign trail, in rallies, as well as in interviews. He has said that his campaign is about retribution. In fact, one of the lines from an early campaign speech was, I am your retribution.

Tonight, when asked about that, he said, oh, I'm not going to have time for retribution if I'm reelected. He has refused to answer the question directly as to whether or not he would be a dictator in office, no matter how many times Sean Hannity tried to get him to, only saying, I'll be a dictator on day one and blowing off the question. Tonight, he used that same quip, but then followed it up with, no, I will not be a dictator.

So, it has to raise the question as to who exactly he's trying to reach with five days until that voting begins. Now, he was also asked about Chris Christie dropping out of the race. He used the opportunity to take on Nikki Haley. Take a listen.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Chris Christie was in, and he got a hot mic. I heard about it. I thought actually the biggest story wasn't the fact that he dropped out. Nobody cared too much about that. But he had a hot mic where he was talking to somebody about the weather.

And he happened to say that she doesn't have water to take, she'll be creamed in the election. And -- I mean, I know her very well, and I happen to believe that Chris Christie is right. That's one of the few things he has been right about, actually.



HOLMES: In this tape, he said smoked, that Hailey will be smoked, not creamed. But I will note that I've talked to a number of senior advisors who are projecting confidence in New Hampshire, saying that this isn't going to affect what they believe the overall trajectory of the race, will be that Donald Trump is going to win.

But, Kaitlan, that being said, they are not a campaign that is acting as though Nikki Haley is not a threat. They are pouring $4.5 million between the campaign and the Super PAC into advertisements hitting Nikki Haley on immigration in New Hampshire.

For the next several weeks, the Super PAC, MAGA Inc., is spending $1.3 million alone every week to attack just Nikki Haley. So, clearly, despite their confidence that they are projecting, there is some concern there and they do believe that her numbers are on the rise.

COLLINS: Yeah, the truth always comes out in those advertising numbers and where they're putting their focus. But Kristen, at another point, he was also asked about comments that he has made in the past blaming people who are pro-life for some of the republican losses, many of the republican losses that we've seen across the country. What did he say about abortion?

HOLMES: Well, Kaitlan, this is something that he truly believes. He believes that Republicans lost in 2022 because they went too far towards the pro-life movement. He doesn't believe it's a winning argument. He has said in private that he does not want to campaign on abortion.

As we know, he has a very fine line to walk because he also wants to take credit for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. So, here's what he said. He essentially was saying that you have to win elections first before you can make any changes. Take a listen.



TRUMP: I happen to be, for the exceptions, like Ronald Reagan, with the life of the mother, rape, incest. I have -- I just have to be there. I feel -- I think probably 78% or so, Paul, about 78%, who's Ronald Reagan. He was for it. I was for it.

But I will say this. You have to win elections. Otherwise, you're going to be back where you were, and you can't let that ever happen again. You've got to win elections.

If you look at it, Ron DeSantis, I don't know what he really believes because, you know, you never know with the politician, and he's just another politician as far as I'm concerned. But his poll numbers have gone down to a level that he's going to be out of the race very soon.


HOLMES: So, he was also specifically about the heartbeat bill. That's kind of what he's referring to there. It seemed like he was implying that Ron DeSantis had been down in the polls because he had signed an abortion ban in Florida. That was six weeks.

But I do want to note one thing that we didn't play just now because it's the first time I've ever heard Donald Trump actually say this out loud. We know he said it privately, but out loud. He said five to six weeks, we're talking about the heartbeat bill, some women don't even know they're pregnant, which is an argument that we've heard often but not ever from Donald Trump himself and not often from conservatives or pro-life -- in the pro-life movement.

Donald Trump has told people around him that he does not want to get behind any sort of national abortion ban. Again, he doesn't think it's a winning issue. He doesn't want to sign off on that. That's why he's always trying to push this to the states.

COLLINS: Yeah, but amazing to hear him articulate it, because the reason six-week abortion bans can be in place is because the Supreme Court justices that he appointed helped overturn Roe v. Wade.

HOLMES: That's the fine line. That's absolutely the fine line that he's going to have to continue to walk and if he is the nominee in a general as well.

COLLINS: Kristen Holmes, thank you very much for that. Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Kaitlan, thanks very much. Back here with the panel in Des Moines. It is interesting to hear the former president talk about abortion in that way, given his appointment to the Supreme Court.

PHILLIP: Yeah. I mean, look, I like to remind people, Donald Trump, before he was the Republican candidate, he was very pro-choice, you would say, in the political sphere, pro-abortion. He understands the politics of this issue.

He is not wrong that the position that probably has the most support from the American public is one that includes more exceptions, that has a higher threshold, not six weeks but more like 20 weeks, 15 weeks, 20 weeks.

And he can say that because he put the justices on the Supreme Court so he can get away --

AXELROD: He's got a golden --

PHILLIP: -- with asking for concessions because he can always pull out the card. I put them on the Supreme Court. I overturned Roe versus Wade. It's really hard for the other candidates to contest that. Ron DeSantis is trying by saying that he's not, you know, pro-life enough. But the voters do not agree. They simply do not agree with Ron DeSantis on that.

KING: Again, it's one of the many ways in which Donald Trump has just thrown out all the old rules, all the old principles of the Republican Party, and made it the Trump Party. And this is what frustrates, whether it's Governor DeSantis or the 10 people who ran against Trump in 2016.

On abortion, an issue that usually does play in this state, has in past Republican caucuses been, you know, the quicksand for candidates who don't give the right answer.

A lot of evangelicals, 60% plus of the voters on Monday here are likely to identify as evangelicals. And Donald Trump, as Governor DeSantis was saying in the debate, he has changed his mind or he has abandoned us on this issue. He did raise the debt. He did not build the wall. And yet -- you know, this is what frustrates the other Republicans, that Republican voters say, yeah, but he's Donald Trump.

AXELROD: Can I make another point on what he said? You know, it is interesting, the contrast he said, well, DeSantis, you know, he is a politician, so you got to take that -- let's wait.

I think people look at Trump and he says, you know what, you got to win elections. This is where the public is. I think -- in a weird way, I think people say, well, he's being honest, he's authentic, he is not BSing us.

I think that's part of what works for him, and I think that's what's working throughout his -- people do not look at him as a politician in the way that they look at around DeSantis or Nikki Haley or any of the others. I'm talking about his supporters here who are very hostile to the prevailing politics. I think that's part of his strength.

JENNINGS: I agree with you that he has changed some of the party orthodox, not a lot of issues. But you just heard him articulate his position on abortion which actually is a traditional republican position. It has been in recent years where the party has moved, I think, further and further to the right.

But Trump hugging Ronald Reagan on that actually is articulating a -- you know, for most of my career, what was the traditional republican position? Pro-life, some reasonable limits for the exceptions. To Abby's point, that's a winning -- that's a winning hand, if you get into an abortion debate nationally, which I assume we're going to do because Biden is going to want to run on that.


What Trump just articulated is not going to sound all that scary. In the primary, he did the Supreme Court.


JENNINGS: You can say whatever you want about Donald Trump. He did the Supreme Court.

AXELROD: It's a Trump card.


PHILLIP: But the fundamental issue, I think, for these other candidates is that Trump is, frankly, not a principled candidate, so you can't kind of undermine him on the idea that he has said one thing and done another. Voters have priced that into Donald Trump.


PHILLIP: That he's going to change his position, that he's going to go where the political winds blow, and they are fine with that. And so, if you're a Nikki Haley or a Ron DeSantis, it gets harder to try to kind of be in this sort of sanctimonious place and say, well, he's not pure enough on this issue because the voters have basically said, well, that's his authenticity.


PHILLIP: This is a real issue for these candidates.


PHILLIP: They cannot undermine the flip-flopping which voters see as authenticity.

JENNINGS: Transactionalism has become authenticity for him because a lot of voters are cynical about politicians anyway.

AXELROD: Right, exactly.

JENNINGS: And they like it that --

PHILLIP: They don't believe you anyway.

JENNINGS: They like it that Trump admits the transactionalism, whereas they don't think the other politicians will admit it, and that's where he always scores on the authenticity. He will tell you the truth even if it makes him look like a, you know, like a flip-flopper on something.


COOPER: We're going to take a short break. Just ahead, we touched on this a moment ago. More on what Chris Christie's decision, ending his presidential campaign, means for this race now without taking a swipe at the remaining candidates' refusal to take on the former president. We'll talk about it with New Hampshire governor and Haley supporter, Chris Sununu, next.



COLLINS: When Governor Chris Christie announced that he was ending his presidential ambitions, he also said that he was unwilling to say that the former president -- anyone who is unwilling to say that the former president is unfit to be president is, and I'm quoting Chris Christie now, "unfit themselves."

Haley and DeSantis were both asked tonight if the former president has the character to hold that office. Neither answered the question directly. Governor DeSantis did mention Trump not fulfilling his campaign promises. He gave a similar reply when Anderson just asked him that question again a few moments ago. Haley responded and said -- quote -- "his way is not my way."

Joining me now is Republican Governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Nikki Haley. I should note, governor, thank you for being here. Why do you think both of the candidates on stage tonight were unable to answer that question with a yes or a no?

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH): Well, I don't think it's that they're unable. I think that the candidates spend their time talking about what they're going to deliver, right? They're not going to spend all their time just trying to do the Trump question and all that sort of thing. I know that gets kind of the headlines, but they're there to earn the trust and the votes, specifically of the Iowa voters. It's effectively a neck and neck race.

I know DeSantis has said he's going to win Iowa. Trump says he's going to win Iowa. They've both set very high expectations. They're not quite the expectations on Haley's side, but she's obviously doing incredibly well because she's just still getting out there earning the votes, not worrying about what the other candidates do.

So, I'm not surprised about that at all. Nikki took on Trump, I think, pretty strong. Talking about January 6th, talking about election denial in the debate tonight. So, there's no question where Nikki stands. She's not playing for second place. She's playing to win this thing and bring this country together. She has made it very clear where she stands on Donald Trump.

COLLINS: Well, it's not just that. It gets headlines, governor, with all due respect. He is the front-runner right now in this race by pretty wide margins, depending on which numbers you're looking at. Do you not think that they should be able to say yes or no if the person who is right now beating them in this race has the character to be president again?

SUNUNU: Well, again, I think it's a nuanced question. I really do. These guys are focusing on earning the votes. They're not going to start -- they're not earning more votes by placating into an anti- Trump crowd per se. Nikki Haley has to talk about what she's going to deliver, build a pro-Haley crowd. Ron DeSantis is trying to do the same thing. He's trying to build that pro-Ron DeSantis crowd.

So, you don't do that just by tearing Donald Trump down 24-7. Chris tried that. God bless him. He had kind of a one state, you know, one issue strategy. It didn't work out. I applaud him.

I think Chris is a good friend. He ran hard. Interesting workout. it's not a winning strategy, especially when you're talking to the republican base, the republican base that just wants to see how we're going to galvanize the party together, how to bring the country together.

So, I think they did a great job focusing on where their focus needed to be to build their base and their support to have a strong showing in Iowa. And, obviously, Nikki isn't just trying to have a strong showing in New Hampshire. She's on the verge of winning this state. So, it's a much different issue there as well.

So, that's what you have to do. You have to talk about yourself, grow your own support. You don't do that just by focusing on all the other candidates.

COLLINS: Well, they didn't focus on him much at all. I mean, do you think that's a nuanced question to ask whether someone has the character to be president? I mean, do you think that Trump has the character to be president because you've endorsed someone else in this race?

SUNUNU: Look, I think most of us are all going to support the Republican nominee. There's no question. Because when it comes to the general election and who's going to be president, if it were Trump out there, let's remember, he's running against Biden.

We all need Biden to lose. The socialism, the Bidenomics, it's all a bunch of bull. It's destroying the American middle class. It's destroying the American economy. This is crushing families. That's at the end of the day what folks are going to be focused on.

So, I get it. I mean, I get it. You know, where folks are, where the media wants to go with questions like that. But, you know, it's a trap that they're not necessarily going to fall into. It's a trap that isn't going to build their base. They're going to focus on themselves and that should be expected.

COLLINS: One thing that Governor DeSantis brought up when he was asked about that tonight is he believes that Trump is going to be on trial. He was talking about that being a distraction. But governor, there's also a chance that the former president could be a convicted felon by the time people are voting. I mean, even if he's a convicted felon, if he is the Republican nominee, does that mean you're still going to vote for him?


SUNUNU: Look, I think right now, most of America, it looks like they would vote for him because he's winning. He's beating -- Biden is so bad that Trump is actually beating Biden in most polls.

COLLINS: But what about you, governor?

SUNUNU: Okay? So, most of America is right there. Yeah, I'm going to support the Republican nominee. Absolutely. Yeah, that shouldn't shock anybody. That shouldn't be a surprise to anybody, that the Republican governor and most actually of America is going to end up going against Biden because they need to see a change in this country. I know -- again, have the issues around the election changed the dynamics of the Republican primary? No. That's not an issue with the republican base right now. It's just not and clearly not one that's holding the American public at large back because, again, Trump is up one point.

I love Nikki Haley because she's up 10, 15 points on Biden. She wins Senate seats and House seats and governorships and brings all of those other opportunities to the states and the country to actually get stuff done

But, you know, make no mistake about it, Biden is that bad of a president that even Trump would win.

COLLINS: You're saying he's that bad of a president that even Trump would win even if Trump is a convicted felon?

SUNUNU: Yes. The polls say yes. People know that. Guys, the four court cases that are out there, we'll see kind of where they are. But right now, they're not playing into whether folks would vote for Trump or not. I mean, I can be as surprised as that as you, but that's just where it is right now. That's a fact.

Look at the polls. The data is clear. It's not just one poll. It's poll after poll after poll that shows that Trump would be kind of at least within that margin of error. It would be a nail-biter to be sure.

Now, some of these other candidates like Nikki, they're going to win by double digits. And that's a fundamental difference. That means you actually get stuff done.

But, again, you know, you can talk about those issues as much as you want, but it's not what the American public is looking at, maybe what the media is talking about, but not what the American voters are looking at right now.

COLLINS: Well, it could be in the general election, certainly. That's what even Governor DeSantis has articulated. Governor Sununu, thank you, though, for your time tonight here joining us.

SUNUNU: Welcome.

COLLINS: And back with the panel now. Alyssa, I wonder what you make of -- I mean, Governor Sununu had kind of inched closer in previous interviews, saying that he would vote for Trump if he is a Republican nominee. He is obviously endorsing Governor Haley, and he's out here supporting her. But he basically just points blank said, yes, he would vote for Donald Trump even if he is a convicted felon.

GRIFFIN: Well, I'm not going to criticize my favorite governor, Chris Sununu. I will say this. Reading the tea leaves here, I think there's a bit of a dance that Republicans who are engaging in the primary need to play in.

He's obviously the most vocal supporter of Nikki Haley, the most prominent, somebody who could be instrumental in getting her over the edge in New Hampshire. I think for him to come out and go full never Trump and go full Chris Christie could be harmful to Nikki Haley.

So, I'm going to read into this. This is a strategic calculation because fundamentally, what I think was missed in that conversation, I know Governor Sununu knows, is there is a lot -- there's a portion of the Republican Party that's not small that does care about having the conversation around Trump's character and around his fitness.

Now, that's not where the base is, but we are also -- we are a party that is going to -- you need to turn out not just the base to win the elections, to be able to win a general election. And the idea that you would run a convicted felon against Biden purely to beat Joe Biden, I mean, what would that say about our party?

So, I think -- I'm assuming this is a tactic. I've heard it from other politicians, kind of in this game, but I think the public is not there.

URBAN: I'm much more cynical. I think that Governor Sununu was -- he knows that Nikki Haley maybe the vice-presidential candidate and wants to keep that alive, right? He doesn't want to -- you know, he's one of her biggest supporters and doesn't want to --

COLLINS: But does it surprise you?

URBAN: Not really. I mean, you know, you had an interview, a famous interview a little bit back with the former attorney general who is no fan of the former president. He said, listen, I will jump off that bridge when I come to it. Remember that?

COLLINS: Yes. It is hard to forget. I do remember.

URBAN: And so, a lot of Republicans, you know, it is Joe Biden's famous quote, don't judge me against the Almighty, judge me against the alternative, and he's a pretty bad alternative.

CORNISH: In all of this language, you can translate around the idea of negative partisanship, which is that so many voters basically go to the polls and vote against something, not for something. That's the --

URBAN: It has worked for Democrats.

CORNISH: It has worked for a lot of people because that's the phase of politics that we're in. And I did hear a little bit of that kind of nihilism in Sununu's comments as well. Sorry to be intentional.

SIMMONS: No, no, no. You know, I listened to this and it reminds me, I'm going to admit something I probably shouldn't have been on national television, but I'm not a Taylor Swift fan, right?

GRIFFIN: Oh, mistake, mistake.

URBAN: Oh, boo.

CORNISH: Wrap it up. SIMMONS: But let me tell you, a lot of my friends are Beyonce fans. And so, when everybody got really excited about Taylor Swift, I was like, why was I to be able to tell a Swift thing? All my friends went to go see Beyonce, not Taylor Swift.

I think about that when he starts talking about Joe Biden being so bumbling. I think so many Republicans live in an information funnel where they're constantly fed information about Joe Biden. He stumbles down the stairs. He's polling badly.


He can be beaten by anybody. So why not have Donald Trump? Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by seven million votes. Joe Biden got over 300 --

URBAN: But that was a different Joe Biden, Jamal.