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CNN Live Event/Special

Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley Face Each Other in Last Debate Before Iowa Caucuses. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired January 11, 2024 - 00:00   ET



JAMAL SIMMONS, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: He's polling badly. He can be beaten by anybody so why not have Donald Trump? Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by seven millions. Joe Biden got --

DAVID URBAN, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: That was a different Joe Biden, Jamal.

SIMMONS: He's the only person in politics who's ever beaten -- that's ever beaten Donald Trump, right?


URBAN: In 2020.

SIMMONS: So my point is this. I think this information funnel is going to lull Republicans into asleep, in the same way that many Democrats who don't believe, we saw this earlier, don't believe Trump may actually end up being the nominee. I think people need to wake up a little bit and realize these two people may be on the ballot, and that's going to be very tough for each one of them to beat the other.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: I think Beyonce and Taylor Swift probably don't want to be compared to either of them, but we'll be right back to have Jamal finish that thought.

Everyone, stay there, because I do want to welcome our viewers who might just be joining us tonight. It is now midnight here in New York, 11:00 p.m. in Des Moines where Anderson is. And we are now less than five days out from the Iowa caucuses. The final Republican presidential debate before those first votes are going to be cast is now on the books.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, the only two making the cut this time. Donald Trump, again, staying away, holding that town hall instead nearby.

For more on how all of this landed, I want to go to our Gary Tuchman who's with a group of voters that we've all gotten to know throughout the campaign as they and he spend debate nights together watching and talking about it.

Gary, I know the gang is back assembled. GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The gang is back together,

Anderson. We've watched all five of these Republican debates with the same group of loyal Republicans from Story County, Iowa, right in the middle of the state, the largest city as Ames, Iowa, where Iowa State University is. Four of them we watched on TV in Story County, but we invited them to Des Moines. They took the 35-mile drive down here to watch it in person.

It's nice being with all of you again. The very first question I have for you, who do you think won this debate? I'm going to ask for a show of hands. The reason we're with the same group of people all five times, we want to see what's changed in their opinions and what hasn't changed. So who thinks DeSantis won this debate? One, two, three, four. Who thinks Haley won this debate? One, two, three, four. That's eight. Looks like some people -- who did not vote? Why didn't you vote?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought that Donald Trump won the debate. I thought it was --

TUCHMAN: He wasn't here, but you're saying he won by not being here?


TUCHMAN: And, Jim, I think you think the same thing?


TUCHMAN: So four, four, two. So we have a draw. What's interesting, the first debate, you thought Ramaswamy won. The second debate DeSantis, third and fourth, Haley, and now we have a draw. For those of you who picked Haley, tell me what you thought Haley won this debate?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I think we expected them to go at each other, and obviously that's a little bit uncomfortable, but I think she did a good job defending some of the attacks that we've seeing in the state, and really explaining why they were not true. And then also at the same time talking about a vision for the future and why she would be the best to go up against Joe Biden, which brings coattails all the way down the ballot.

TUCHMAN: Who do you think won the debate?


TUCHMAN: Why do you think DeSantis?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I actually think just the opposite. I felt like Haley didn't stand up for herself as much as I've seen her do in the past. I felt like she was weak, and when she couldn't come up with some answers, she kept deferring to how DeSantis isn't a good leader because he can't manage his campaign finances.

TUCHMAN: Well, the important question we have here after these five debates is, are all of you -- most of you when we started were undecided which Republican candidate you're going to caucus for. None of you are about to switch to the Democrats. But none of you had decided which candidate, a couple of you have, but now everyone is ready to caucus. Raise your hand if you are ready to caucus for Ron DeSantis? One.

Raise your hand if you're ready to caucus for Nikki Haley? One, two. Raise your hand if you're ready to caucus for Donald Trump? One, two, three, four. Is there any other candidate who anyone else here is going to caucus for? Who did not raise their hand? Three of you? So you're not going to caucus? It's going to be too -- it's supposed to be like 30 below windchill on Monday, you're not going? No, I'm just kidding. Why did you raise your hand?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because I'm not decided yet.

TUCHMAN: So who are you thinking between?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Between Trump and DeSantis.

TUCHMAN: And how do you make your decision between now on Monday?


TUCHMAN: You don't know? What about you, Cody (PH)?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm also stuck between Trump and DeSantis. And we'll just see how it goes, I guess. The feeling that I get on Monday.

TUCHMAN: You're going to wait for the feeling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The feeling better strike because I don't have an answer now.

TUCHMAN: And who else hasn't decided? You --


TUCHMAN: Who are the candidates you haven't decided between?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trump and DeSantis.

TUCHMAN: And how are you going to decide, Don?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm just going to keep watching. And --

TUCHMAN: Keep watching what? You've watched the preeminent debate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I know. I'm looking for a sign.

TUCHMAN: A sign.


TUCHMAN: OK. Well, if it happens while we're talking for the next minute, let me know.



TUCHMAN: Have you learned anything from these five debates? For example, have any of you completely changed your mind about the candidate you are going to caucus for from watching these five debates? Anybody? For example, what were you thinking, Judy, when the debate started? Who were you think of caucusing for?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I had no idea that's why I started -- I mean, to the debate watch parties so I could watch the debates and have other people, and their comments, to see if it could help me make up my mind.

TUCHMAN: So no one has changed their mind basically? Some of you are undecided, but have any of you switch from one candidate to another? Yes, Cody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When they started, I was pretty certain on DeSantis. And he's done good in the debates, it's not that that's changed my mind, but now that Trump is polling a lot better against Biden, and has seemingly a much better shot in the swing states, I find myself kind of leaning back towards Trump. And I'm stuck in the middle between them.

TUCHMAN: But are any of you bothered by the fact, maybe politically it makes sense that Donald Trump wasn't here, but you haven't learned anything from him because he wasn't in any of the five debates? Does that bother any of you? Yes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think it bothers me, I think he's out on the road a lot, he's doing town halls, he is, you know, at Sioux City, he's in Davenport, he's Des Moines. And so I think that we're really getting a good gauge of where he stands on the issues. What I like for him to come to the debates? Of course I would. But I think it helps him not being here because all they do is attack him, because he's the clear frontrunner. And so I think at the end of the day, Donald Trump won this debate, and I think that's why a lot of people are going to go out and caucus for him.

TUCHMAN: Well, he didn't win this debate. He wasn't at this debate. What do you think about it?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that you have to earn the vote of Iowans. And not showing up to the debate, not putting in the work, not even visiting, you know, a majority of counties in Iowa, you're losing Iowans' vote by not caring about them.

TUCHMAN: Well, regarding the abortion issue, he's been criticized for that. He could've cleared it up if he was here. Does that trouble any of you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would have liked to see him, at least, participate. I understand the strategy of not attending the first ones, but I would like to have seen him here but it certainly hasn't this week change my mind. TUCHMAN: Final question for you all. Were these debates good for the

Republican Party?


TUCHMAN: Are you confident that the Republican Party is going to win this presidential election?


TUCHMAN: Have you any doubts?


TUCHMAN: Not even because of some of the things Donald Trump is accused of, and might get in a lot of trouble for? Well, you are innocent until proven guilty, but it remains to be seen what happens him. But you're all confident about your party's chances?

Thank you all for talking with us. We want to end this by saying, thank you for joining us each of these five times. A pleasure meeting all of you.

And Nikki Haley won most of these debates so there are two and a half of them because she split the win this time. But it's Donald Trump who's going to get most of these people's votes at the caucus five days from now.

Back to you, Anderson and Kaitlan.

COOPER: Gary, thanks very much, and thank you, everybody, for participating yet again.

Back now here with the panel. I mean, it's interesting to hear and see the evolution of those folks this time.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSNIGHT WITH ABBY PHILLIP: Yes. I think it's about -- I think that's about kind of where these have ended up. They're all interested, they're flirting, they're dating with these other candidates. They like Nikki Haley but at the end of the day most of them are caucusing for Donald Trump. And we will see what happens next week, but that has been the sentiment all along.

And closing the deal for these other candidates has been much more difficult than perhaps they appreciated. Even at the stage that Nikki Haley is in right now, she still lacks some things to be desired for these voters clearly.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the math there is kind of what we'll be going through on Monday night. If 10 voters -- just take every 10 voters go to a caucus, if there are four or five votes for Trump, and then two for DeSantis and two for Haley or maybe the next county, it's three for Haley and two for DeSantis, then that's how Trump wins, right, that's how Trump wins.

And so then the question is, does he get over 50? He's essentially an incumbent president, right? He's the leader of the Republican Party. Does he get over 50 and then what's the gap between wherever Trump is and who is second? Or second and third clump together. My first caucus here, you had Gephardt, Simon, and Dukakis, they were all within a point or two of each other. Iowa was like, huh, who knows, on to New Hampshire. Dukakis ends up, you know, becoming the nominee.

If Trump comes out of here with a huge lead, that helps in New Hampshire, where that's probably his weakest state at least early on the calendar. That would be his weakest state because independents can vote and other people can vote. But I think that was representative of what we're going to be doing Monday night. Does Trump really get half and then what has the other half (INAUDIBLE)?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's always been true that if DeSantis and Haley run relatively close to each other, that's a huge plus for Trump. And that -- it feels like that may be where we're heading.

You know, just watching this whole thing tonight, listening to these people, the fundamental flaw with DeSantis campaign from the beginning was that he could offer himself as a new and improved Trump.


You know, Trump who eats with a fork and knife or whatever you want to say, but he -- and the fact is, you know, there are a lot of people who want the real thing here. And no matter well -- I think DeSantis, you know, he said tonight that he likes to be underestimated, well, he spent most of his campaign setting himself up to be underestimated, and then he got pretty good at the end. But, you know, the strategy is one that you have to question. You know, he wasn't going to depose the champion.

KING: And one other point about that, he says, in your conversation earlier, he says he's in. He was talking about Nevada and South Carolina and going on, and he's just trying to give a show. However, if he comes in a distant third here, there'll be a lot of pressure on him, number one, to get out, to give somebody a clear shot at Trump. That's what the anti-Trump people will say. But he's also the governor of a big state, and you don't want to get too weaken politically, especially if you think you might want to have a future.

So -- but the question there, to his point, and it's an interesting point he made that, you know, his supporters, we talk about the poll earlier, where Christie -- so 65 percent of Christie supporters in New Hampshire said in our poll they would go to Haley, that Haley would be their second choice. DeSantis' playbook, he thinks a lot of his supporters would go back to Trump, which would be interesting.

PHILLIP: Or vice versa, he said that he thought Trump supporters would come to him, but the question in my mind was like, who's going to get rid of Trump so that those voters come to you? It's like not going to happen by osmosis, unless he's waiting on --

AXELROD: The other reality in New Hampshire is there aren't a lot of DeSantis voters to split up. He's only like 5 percent or 6 percent. SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: They've evaporated

from the Republican Party the idea that even if you like Donald Trump, you've got to vote for somebody else to try to beat Joe Biden. That's the one thing that really destabilized both DeSantis and Haley, everybody else. For a long time, that was the conventional wisdom. Everybody loves Trump, but nobody wants to lose.

But the worst thing that ever happened to DeSantis and Haley were all these national and swing state polls showing Donald Trump beating Joe Biden. Now I don't know if he's destined to beat Joe Biden or not, but in the average Republican mind right now the strategic voting argument is completely devastated when you pick up the paper or pick up your Twitter feed in the morning, X feed, sorry, and you're like, wait a minute, the guy that I really like, the original, the authentic thing, is actually beating Joe Biden, and vindication is at hand.

AXELROD: And yet they still tried to work tonight.

PHILLIP: And by the way --

AXELROD: The idea -- they still tried to work the idea that he's too frayed and --

JENNINGS: And maybe they're right. And maybe they're right. And honestly, Trump might be harder to elect. The flipside argument is, if he's not the nominee, how many infrequent political participants that would vote for Donald Trump wouldn't vote for any other Republican? And that's an argument you don't hear a lot, but there's a lot of people he brings into this thing that they're not sticking around for some other average, run-of-the-mill politician.

COOPER: The other argument that didn't really pan out was that voters would penalize the former president for not participating in these debates. That that would be a sign these focus group voters, that certainly wasn't an issue for them. Ron DeSantis did criticize the former president for not participating. I just want to play some of what he said.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Donald Trump should be on this stage. He owes it to you, here in Iowa, to explain this change he's had and this positioning, to explain why he has a tough time saying whether a man can become a woman or not, to explain why he wants to build a billion-dollar plus big, beautiful, new FBI building right in the heart of the swamp, in Washington, D.C.. He needs to explain why he didn't build the wall and why he added $7.8 trillion to the debt.

Every candidate needs to earn your vote. Nobody is entitled to your vote. And he comes in here every now and then. He does his spiel, and then he leaves. I've shown up to all 99 counties because it's important. You're a servant of the people, you are not a ruler over the people.

(END VIDEO CLIP) JENNINGS: I think DeSantis, the kind of candidate he is, not yet a national candidate, he had to come here and work it. But the average Iowa Republican caucus-goer knows Donald Trump. They know him. They knew him in '16, he didn't win here, but they knew him. They knew him as president, they knew him in '20, they know right now. They don't need him to drive around to 99 counties to know him, and I'm not sure there's a piece of information that could be introduced about him that would make you like him more or like him less right now.

AXELROD: You heard in that -- I'm sorry, Abby.

PHILLIP: Yes, I was going to say, I mean, you're going to say the same thing perhaps.


PHILLIP: In the focus group, they were like, would've been nice to hear from him but we know what he stands for. The voters are not pining to hear Donald Trump in the sense that they need him to be tested by Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. In fact, it would be so much more beneficial to Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis for them to get batting practice against Trump rather than Trump to get batting practice against them.

KING: I think it also goes back to the point you guys were making earlier about Trump's brand.


Trump's brand is I'm the rally guy, I'm not the retail guy. And he's been able to sell that. You know, again, old school Iowa, you're supposed to go to all 99 counties. You're supposed to have the county chair and you're supposed to do that stuff. Donald Trump has just reinvented that part of it. And you're right about that. He has brought new people into the party. I do think Monday night, again, that's going to be a huge test. Who shows up? Especially if it is as cold as they say it is going to be.

AXELROD: Well, the one thing that Donald Trump has this time that he didn't have in 2016 is a real organization. He's got real pros running it. They have a very well-conceived plan about how to go after voters who are registered, who are Trump people, who haven't participated in the caucuses, and they've got a lot of manpower out there.

COOPER: Which again is so interesting because there was also that argument a while ago which was, well, who will he find to work for him? You know, who with quality would work for him? He has good people around today.

AXELROD: Yes. Yes.

COOPER: For this race.

AXELROD: Yes, yes, yes.

JENNINGS: And speaking of the team, I think through this debate process, you know, they made the strategic decision not to participate in any of this stuff. And they've been criticized for it by the other campaigns. They have not been penalized for it by the voters, and look what happened tonight. You've got Haley and DeSantis up there, ripping each other apart, and Donald Trump is over on FOX News hammering batting practice fastballs into the upper deck, and heading into an Iowa caucus, heading into New Hampshire. Who strategically would you rather be? Someone hammering those batting practice pitches or these two?

AXELROD: Well, that was the point.

JENNINGS: I mean, they made the right call.

AXELROD: The was the point the guy in the focus group was making. Trump has won every one of these debates because his opponents were tearing each other apart, and he basically danced away from it.

PHILLIP: And look, I mean, from what I've seen of what Trump did in that town hall, I'm not sure that any of the sort of moments, the more controversial ones, the gaffes or whatever, would even have been challenged by DeSantis and Haley if they were on a debate stage. So that's a problem, too. Trump says all kinds of stuff, but they're not really willing to go there, to take him to task on it. So, really, what would be the point?

The other thing, as you interviewed Ron DeSantis, talking about what are the expectations for him on the organizational front, Trump is more organized this time around, so is DeSantis is supposed to be. But if he ends up coming out of Iowa basically in the same place as Nikki Haley, to me that calls into question the value of all of that ground game here in Iowa.

AXELROD: Well, you know what, Abby, I mean --

PHILLIP: Because --

AXELROD: Having participated in this process, if we're winning campaigns and losing campaigns, it turns out that you can be really well-organized, but you have to have a good candidate, too. I mean, you have to have the product, it's not just the deliverance of the product or the operation to bring voters. It all has to work together. And, you know, for the longest time in this campaign, he wasn't a very effective candidate. And the bigger point is he was fishing in Trump's pond and that was a wrong place to be.

COOPER: By the way, when you're working for a candidate, do you call them the product to their face? I'd be curious to know.


AXELROD: Yes. Only after the fact on national television.

COOPER: We're going to take a quick break. Just ahead a fact check on what we saw tonight at this debate, and perspective from our Jeff Zeleny who's been on the campaign trail including Iowa and is nonstop. We'll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


COLLINS: It was the final debate before the first contest in the 2024 election that played to an audience of Iowans who have been seeing more candidates up close in the last few weeks than most Americans see in a lifetime, maybe even more than their family members.

Jeff Zeleny has been on the ground in Iowa talking to these voters for the last several weeks, really months here. So he joins us now with what he made of tonight's debate going on and what caucus-goers may have made of that.

Jeff, you know, you've been talking to a lot of these voters. What are their top issues? What are their thoughts on these candidates? What stood out to you tonight?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kaitlan, believe it or not, there are still voters who are undecided going into the final stretch here, in the final four days of campaigning, and you may wonder how can you be undecided after millions of dollars in television ads. If you're into politics, you've likely had a candidate either dropped by your town or knocked on your door.

And the reason is, some of these candidates, some of these voters, excuse me, are looking for a winner, or looking for someone they believe can be the leading alternative to Donald Trump. So talking with some of these voters who are watching the debate tonight basically, you know, the debate validated their views. If you like DeSantis going in, you like him coming out. If you like Haley going in, you thought she did very well.

But a couple of things stand out here in the next couple of days. The candidates are moving to strategic points across Iowa. Nikki Haley is focusing on the suburban areas, the larger suburban areas. That is a key part of her strategy. Trying to win over some of those perhaps moderate Republicans, but also some of those people who want to move on from the former president.

As far as the Florida governor, he is flying early tomorrow morning to Rock Rapids. That is near South Dakota, about as far away from here in Des Moines as you can get. He'll be having five events tomorrow. So he is really trying to touch as many people as he can.

So, Kaitlan, at the end of all of this, the ground game and an organization is so important, but as is the mechanics of all this, as is the momentum. So one DeSantis adviser I talked to tonight was pretty optimistic. But they expressed a little bit of disappointment in the sense that they thought that Nikki Haley would be back on her heels more and would be more sort of defensive. That was not the Nikki Haley we saw. We saw her with an air of confidence tonight.

So going into the final stretch here, both of these candidates are essentially at parity. But, Kaitlan, more importantly, they are in each other's way to be the leading alternative to Donald Trump -- Kaitlan.

COLLINS: Yes. And he is certainly still leading definitely in Iowa. Jeff Zeleny, thank you for that, those takeaways from voters.

Back here with the panel. And David Urban, listening to Jeff saying they're looking for a winner here. They're trying to see what that candidate is going to look like. Did any of the performances tonight, either of them change voters' minds, do you think?

URBAN: I don't know. If people watch the Anderson Cooper interview of Ron DeSantis, they may have changed their mind. I'm not sure how many people tuned in in Iowa after that. But I'm not quite sure that anybody, you know, made the case that they could be the alternative tonight who had -- you know, we watched the interview of the Iowa voters, right, the people -- you know, the kind of the watch group.

And those people were set already in their ways and so nobody switched over during the debate tonight or to that point had switched their minds. So I don't think anybody really -- things have changed.


I think Trump is still the guy to beat here clearly. And I think that the folks will -- you know, I was just talking to Kristen about this before, you heard the gentleman say, you know, the day I wake up when I wake up that day I'll kind of make my mind up. You know, I was wondering, if that's the kind of person who's going to go there and vote for Trump because it's what they know, right? It's kind of muscle memory.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is how I've described the Republican electorate using a kind of a goofy analogy. It's like somebody who really likes meatloaf. And they go to the diner every week and they order meatloaf, and then one day the server comes by and goes, you know we have some specials today, maybe they're interested in the specials. If you tuned in to tonight's debate, you wanted to hear the specials.

I don't know if anybody watching tonight's debate is going to say, you know what, maybe I won't order the meatloaf. And that's the problem that they're facing. People I think are still going to go with what's comfortable. Right now 40 percent to 50 percent of Republican voters in Iowa think Donald Trump is comfortable. That's probably enough.

COLLINS: We heard earlier from Trump on abortion and that answer that he gave, and saying about what was a winner, what was not. There was also an extended back-and-forth between Governor DeSantis and Governor Haley on their views on abortion. Obviously something that is very important to voters in Iowa. I just want to listen to what that sounded like.


DESANTIS: I think she's confused on the issue. I think she's trying to speak to different groups, with different things, but when she says things like pro-lifers need to stop talking about throwing women in jail, that's a trope. No one I have ever met thinks that that's something that's appropriate. These women are in vulnerable situations. They don't get any help a lot of times from these fathers who, you know, don't want to be there supportive.

A lot of times they don't have resources themselves. So it's a very difficult situation. And we've got to have compassion for those situations. But I think when she starts bringing that in, that's using the language of the left to try to attack pro-lifers. So I think that that is wrong.

NIKKI HALEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am unapologetically pro- life. Not because the Republican Party tells me to be, but because my husband is adopted. And I've got my two sweet children sitting in front of me and I had trouble having both of them. These fellas don't know how to talk about abortion. I have said over and over again the Democrats put fear in women on abortion and Republicans have used judgment.

This is too personal of an issue to put fear or judgment. Our goal should be how do we save as many babies as possible and support as many moms as possible. That's what we're going to focus on doing. We're not going to demonize this issue anymore. We're not going to play politics with this issue anymore. We're going to treat it like the respectful issue that it is. And the tropes that he want to talk about, you keep saying, where is anybody talking about putting a woman in jail or giving her the death penalty? South Carolina. There is legislation right now that would put a woman in jail if she got an abortion.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Governor.

HALEY: That's why I say that.

TAPPER: Thank you, Governor. So --


TAPPER: I do want to remind --


ALYSSA FARAH GRIFFIN, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Arguably the winning line of the night from Nikki Haley these fellas don't know how to talk about abortion. We're not going to judge them. We're not going to demonize them. In any traditional election environment, take the Trump factor out, she would in a way be the frontrunner because she can tackle an issue like this that matters to the base.

But that in the post-Roe era, you cannot have as hardline of a stance as Ron DeSantis does. We have seen ballot initiatives in deep red states protecting abortion rights that Republicans have turned out to vote for. In Ohio, in Kansas, in Kentucky. There is a disconnect in the post-Dobbs era of where Republican voters actually are. And Nikki Haley is representing the broader view there. But on the flipside, you have Donald Trump on another network today

actually going against Ron DeSantis, saying he wants the six-week ban -- he wants to ban abortion after six weeks, and basically saying we need to be pragmatic. Her answer reflects both the pro-life viewpoint and I think a majoritarian in the Republican Party viewpoint, whereas Donald Trump is just flip-flopping on it.

COLLINS: And it's going to be on the ballot in Florida we know as well.

Jamie, what did you make of that?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, I just want to -- I'm sorry, I have to go back to Governor Sununu a minute because I'm a little obsessed with him, and I didn't get a chance to say something. You know, when Nikki Haley's most prominent surrogate right now, right after a debate, basically says he would vote for Donald Trump, a convicted felon, I think at the end of the day, all of these policy, all this substance, yes, it's important, it's interesting, this is Donald Trump's party. It's this race, as Jared Kushner, his son-in- law, said he hijacked the party.

Governor Sununu is a very adept politician. He could have pivoted. He could have said we're not going to talk about Donald Trump tonight. He didn't show up. He's a coward. But they have learned what we saw earlier tonight from Chris Christie, you hit him head on and you're not in the race anymore.

COLLINS: And so essentially you think all the substance that they went through tonight, Social Security, healthcare, abortion, Ukraine, it doesn't really matter because people -- a huge surrogate for Nikki Haley in the first primary state still says he's willing to vote for him.


GANGEL: When we saw Gary Tuchman's focus group, you know, who won, such and such, said Nikki Haley, some said DeSantis, who would you're going to vote for? Donald Trump, most of them.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And also pay attention to what Trump himself pays attention to. And one thing I noticed about his posture tonight in his townhall was that it was much more calm, a little less demagogue, and actually addressing some of the issues that people have raised concerns about, specifically the dictatorship, concept, how he would sow chaos, whether there would be retribution.

These are things that I know it was a million years ago that Joe Biden presented very well in a speech, and I heard Donald Trump answering that. He didn't bother with any of the stuff that they were talking about, but he knows it does resonate with people that concept of chaos and the fear of what he might do. And he was trying to counter that by presenting kind of like a calm image. And I think that makes a lot of sense because people haven't seen a lot of him.

People haven't been paying attention. They've only seen him in courtrooms. And he's starting to roll out the version of himself, he thinks, will be more appealing.

ANDERSON: I think that's 100 percent correct. In 2016, he ran as the chaos guy and voter said, yes, that's what we want. And then in 2020, he tried to run again as the chaos guy. People said, I don't know if I'd like that.

URBAN: Too much.

ANDERSON: Yes. But this time around, both Biden and Trump, I think get that voters don't want chaos and the problem is voters think that Biden, you might have the control room as empty, Trump, that's a wrecking ball, so who's actually going to create stability, calm, normalcy in my life? Voters want it. It must be that Trump's advisers have gotten to him and have said, you need to tone this down. However --

CORNISH: He was arguing that it was overblown.

ANDERSON: -- he is Donald Trump.

CORNISH: He was arguing that it was another conspiracy, like the other things that -- like Russia or Ukraine. This is what he was saying about how people are viewing his threats to the electoral process.

COLLINS: He's arguing the chaos stuff is overblown.


COLLINS: Because that -- I watched the moment tonight, a debate in 2015, it could've been tonight, Jeb Bush was calling Donald Trump the chaos candidate, and Donald Trump said, that's not true, they want you to think I'm unhinged, but I'm not unhinged.

CORNISH: Yes, but now he has a whole narrative behind him around the prosecutions themselves. Every single prosecution is part of his ongoing narrative of persecution. And the difference is how he's presenting that to the public. It's starting to be a pivot and it's not what we see in the stump speech where he's saying I am your retribution.

ANDERSON: But the problem -- go ahead.

SIMMONS: But we should always remember, also remember this. This campaign, while these debates, debate is great, Donald Trump's town hall was great, they're also going to be fought out on social media. So a lot of this debate will end up cut up in the clips and put on Instagram, put on TikTok, put on Twitter, people will never see the context of it.

So one of the things the Biden campaign will do is remind people that -- he says he's not chaos, but look at January 6th. He says he is not chaos, but he had put in Supreme Court justices that got rid of Roe, and look at what's happening to women around the country, they've been trying to get abortions, or when it doesn't work out. So there will be enough evidence in the social media context to make the case. And then tonight, just lastly, Nikki Haley said something that I'm

sure will end up -- won't be on social media because these voters may be too old, but she said that she wants to raise the Social Security age. This is -- I mean, we've been doing this for a long time. Social Security is a killer in a general election for somebody who says they want to raise the Social Security age with older voters.

GRIFFIN: She did specify for younger voters, not for those who've already paid. But it's --

SIMMONS: That's what -- sure.

GRIFFIN: In soundbite context, you are right.


SIMMONS: That's not what the ad makers will do.

CORNISH: TikTok is not going to like that.

COLLINS: Yes, the context is in there. We have to take a break here. We will be back in just a moment because up next Governor DeSantis made a pretty big claim tonight about doing more than President Biden to help Americans who are in Israel after October 7th. We'll have a fact check on that and more comments from tonight's debate in just a moment.



COOPER: And welcome back. We're in Des Moines, Iowa.

The candidates threw around a lot of claims tonight on the stage. Right now we want to see how some of them stand up to the facts in the name of keeping them honest.

CNN's Tom Foreman is here with report cards, starting with the claim that Ron DeSantis made about his actions after Hamas's October 7th terror attack on Israel.

Tom, what did you see?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Anderson. DeSantis accused the Biden administration of turning a blind eye to Americans stuck in Israel after that attack by Hamas. Listen.


DESANTIS: And you know what, Biden wasn't helping Americans get out of the war zone. These are people that were stranded, so I did an executive order, we scrambled planes, and we rescued over 700 Americans from Israel, and brought them back safely to the state of Florida.

(END VIDEO CLIP) FOREMAN: The attack was on October 7th. As the counterstrikes began, the U.S. State Department began arranging departures for Americans. And the first official flight came out on the 13th. Only the day before that did DeSantis declare a state of emergency to free up funds in Florida for the same purpose so his airlift of Americans did not begin until after the Biden administration's effort was well underway. DeSantis's claim that he had to do the job because the White House would not is false -- Anderson.

COOPER: You also fact-check comments Nikki Haley made about immigration during her time as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

FOREMAN: Yes. She said tonight that when she was at the United Nations as part of team Trump, they took very strong and very effective action to impede illegal crossing of people and drugs over the U.S.-Mexico border.


HALEY: We went and put drug boats on the water to keep the drugs from coming, but we said, you have to have them processed from here, you can't have them come. We were able to stop that flow. We've got to go back to do that.


FOREMAN: We were able to stop that flow. That's a big claim.


Well, Pew Research found apprehensions of people in 2019, for example, rose to the highest level in 12 years, Team Trump's stiff enforcement did not stop the flow, and the number of apprehensions still remained below what we have seen in years past. And of course DEA numbers have never shown the flow of drugs across the border to have stopped under any modern president either.

So she overreached. Haley's claim is false, Anderson. We have a whole lot more. You can go to our Web site,, where we have all of our fact-checks.

COOPER: All right, Tom, thanks very much.

I want to show the calendar of upcoming Republican presidential contests. These are all occurring over the next six plus weeks. Obviously the Iowa caucuses on Monday. Eight days later the New Hampshire primary. Then on February 8th, the Nevada caucus. Then on February 24th, another big one, the South Carolina primary.

Back now with our panel. So let's talk about how this and what the next couple of weeks look like after what happens here.

KING: If you look at the calendar, again, I think as we go through the policy differences, the personal difference, the squabbling between the two candidates on the debate stage tonight, or with Donald Trump. If you put that calendar back up on the screen, right there, you see the New Hampshire primary. If you're going to stop Donald Trump, you have to do it in either January or February, but I would argue, if he gets two wins out of the gate then it becomes almost impossible.

If nothing's ever impossible, Joe Biden lost the first three contests in 2020, he's president of the United States, very different circumstances, very different party, very different -- you know, so you never say never, but just -- you just said, Iowa Monday, and New Hampshire the week after that, this is the moment for the Republican Party. Do we want Donald Trump to be our nominee again or, whether it's because we don't like Donald Trump, or we don't think Donald Trump can win, or we're going to pick somebody else?

And everybody else but Donald Trump is the longest of long shots. You could argue, I guess based on the polling data in New Hampshire, that Nikki Haley has the best of the long shots according to the data today, but it's by no means, do not get in the car and drive to Vegas.

JENNINGS: But understand, New Hampshire is not the same as even South Carolina. Let's say Haley gets close or even beats Trump in New Hampshire, you'd think maybe, hey, she was the governor of South Carolina. Maybe she'll get hot down there. No. I mean, South Carolina, look at the polling right now. He's crushing in South Carolina. And then you get beyond that. So in some ways the most fertile ground, the best it's ever going to be is in New Hampshire. And from there, even if you keep the ball bouncing, from that point forward if you're Haley or DeSantis, you're bouncing it on very sharp spikes.


KING: Just let me please, if you would let me -- that, to me, is the defining question.


KING: Right, in the sense that, is the Trump takeover complete? Are the roots deep enough to make it permanent? Because remember, we're old enough, not you, the rest of us are old enough to remember, South Carolina used to be the traditional, establishment state. If Iowa did its thing, and New Hampshire did its thing, South Carolina said, OK, here's George H. W. Bush, here's your nominee, now we're done with the rest of you, we do this.

So if it does that for Donald Trump, especially with the home state former governor on the ballot, that tells you everything you need to know. Or does she get -- if you -- I guess the big question is, if Trump is proven to be vulnerable, I get New Hampshire is not a big Republican state, undeclared voters can vote, but if he's proven to be vulnerable, would that finally change things?

AXELROD: I don't know if she can beat him in South Carolina. And, you know, the population is such that -- although there is an influx of a lot of new residents, we've discussed this earlier off camera, that may change the dynamic a little. But I do think that she's going to have to up her game if that happens. I mean, I don't -- and maybe I'm changing the subject, tell me if I am but -- COOPER: We got time.


AXELROD: You know, I don't think that she can perform the way she performed tonight. The thing about the presidential process is it gets harder all the time. And now Donald Trump is going to fully train himself and his resources on her. He's already doing it with ads.


AXELROD: He's going to keep that up and he's going to increase that, and he's going to turn his own guns on -- rhetorical guns on her. And we'll see how she handles that, but the same old-same old is not going to be good enough in the next round.

PHILLIP: She has to -- her biggest strength in this race is going to be showing voters that she is competitive against Trump, that she has momentum. If she starts to lose momentum she undermines her own argument. In that respect, I do think New Hampshire does matter because it allows her to say, I have something going here, give me another day, you know, I lived to see another day. If she loses that, I mean, I don't like saying it's over but it could very well be over.

She has to show momentum. No other candidate is doing that. DeSantis, as confident as he was tonight, is not actually yet showing momentum, which is why the caucuses matter extremely for him.


But he hasn't even shown that there's a path for him a day after the caucuses. So --

JENNINGS: Well, he could shock the world. I mean, look, you know, in a world where DeSantis gets super close to Trump or beats him here, which I -- you know, look at the polling, it's highly unlikely but that's what would make it shocking if it happened. And that would be a major narrative shift. I actually don't think it would be a huge narrative shift if Haley gets close to Trump or even beats him in New Hampshire because of all the places left to go here, that's the place where you would expect something like that to happen.

You mentioned South Carolina being the place where the -- you know, it sort of gets back and protects the establishment, well, let me tell you, Trump is the establishment of the Republican Party.

KING: He is now.

AXELROD: Right. Right.

JENNINGS: He is our establishment, the elected officials are for him, the county chairs are for him, and so South Carolina may yet play its traditional role of protecting the establishment frontrunner of our party.

AXELROD: Yes, I don't know. You know, just on South Carolina, it's just this nagging feeling that if she shows well in New Hampshire, if she beats Trump in New Hampshire, that there will be a kind of -- there will be some home state sentiment for her in South Carolina. It may not be enough to win but the notion that she's going to get blown away, I don't know.

PHILLIP: I'm with you on that. I mean, I think it's not necessary -- it's not a done deal, but again it's all about tomorrow. Can you make an argument to the voters that this is not all for nought. The issue is that psychologically for Republican voters, many of them are asking, what is the point? So the candidates have to answer that. They have to answer that by saying, yes, I can be competitive against Donald Trump.

JENNINGS: If we get to South Carolina, you know who's looming? Tim Scott has said nothing, Trump has been courting him, I'm not sure Haley has. If it comes down to South Carolina, you wonder, he's kind of a contender for vice president. Does he swoop in and go with Trump over his former governor?

COOPER: Everyone, thank you.

More reaction to tonight's debates, some closing thoughts, next.



COLLINS: Before the break, you heard Scott Jennings talking about the expectation games for Haley and DeSantis, and to that, in his conversations with Governor DeSantis tonight, you heard Anderson ask him about the prospects, what he believes is going to happen not only on Monday, but after that.


COOPER: In terms of what you need to do here in Iowa, what is -- I mean, in the past you said you're 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.


COLLINS: Of course, we'll be watching to see what happens when the voters decide on Monday.

Here back with our panel. David Urban, when you talk about liking being the underdog, is that because you are the underdog?


URBAN: I think, you know, he's trying to lower expectations, right? So he's going to say, look, if I get above 12 percent, I'm going to be super happy, so that when they get 25 percent, he can say, look, I did exceedingly well. And, you know, he's not going to say he's going to win, he's not going to say, you know, poll at 40 percent after the caucus are done, 40 percent of the caucus-goers. So, you know, he's trying to lower expectations at this point because you want to exceed them, right?

And so there's really one -- DeSantis will do very well here, I think, because we heard where he's going tomorrow, to the extreme far corners of Iowa. If you look at a map of where he's been, all 99 counties, he's hit them all, he's playing really the conservative areas very hard. He's playing for that vote and I think he'll do well. Iowans like to be asked their vote. They like to see people in their kitchens, in their diners, and DeSantis is doing that very well.

GRIFFIN: But his challenge is going to continue to be why see the cover band when you can see the original? This is what he runs into with Trump is the juxtapositions are kind of the differences he's highlighted. They've very minimal. It's, you know, some minor things around COVID lockdowns, some minor things he would have done differently on immigration. He doesn't litigate his unfitness, he doesn't litigate his character, he doesn't litigate the -- you know, 91 felony accounts against him.

So I think you can't take too much from a focus group, but it does kind of reflect what I hear from a lot of Republican voters is if Trump is in the race, and that's what we want, we're going with him, we're not going to go with Trump light. I think Nikki Haley, to her credit, at least has carved out a different lane, but it's going to be hard for her in New Hampshire. She's got to perform extremely well. But then it goes on to her home state of South Carolina, where she's underwater against Donald Trump.

So what is the game plan going forward? Is it momentum out of New Hampshire, try to carry that through South Carolina, and into Super Tuesday? It's an open question. It's Donald Trump's race at this point.

URBAN: But does she have momentum? If she gets -- if she comes in a distant third here, what does that do for New Hampshire?

COLLINS: A lot of the conversations have been about that momentum that she has had in other states. Certainly we saw the latest CNN poll from New Hampshire but I think the question about that momentum is, did tonight show that she took advantage of that? Did it set her apart from DeSantis? Or, Audie, did you kind of see that they're still on that race for second place just with each other?

CORNISH: I mean, I don't want to put too much stock in debates and town halls, not the bosses, because it's just in this media environment, it's just really hard to break through in that way. But Alyssa made a really good point that just to kind of translate for people, if the candidate cannot tell you we're going to do this in the state, this in the state, and then we're going to go here, it's because they don't really have a plan. And they're not able to articulate to you these are the voters that

will support me on this journey. And the fact that every time we bring up a state, we bring up the wall that will follow immediately after for that candidate. Her own state, like those are really difficult conversations to take any farther, right, because you're just not hearing them say this is who I appeal to, this is why, and this is how I'm going to get through this process. I'm not sure it's there.

GANGEL: For both of the candidates, I mean, you talk about exceeding expectations, but Iowa was supposed to be the big win for DeSantis. So, that kind of showing --

CORNISH: Yes, to be talking about being an underdog after --

GANGEL: Where does he go right to New Hampshire? South Carolina?


With Nikki Haley, yes, we have seen a change, but if she doesn't really come close to DeSantis in Iowa, maybe a couple of points, if she doesn't perform really well in New Hampshire then, as Alyssa said, she's going to her home state of South Carolina where she --

URBAN: Can get smoked.

GANGEL: -- has very little support.

URBAN: To paraphrase, going to get smoked.

CORNISH: Somebody. We don't remember who.

COLLINS: Who that was. Yes. The governor, before he dropped out earlier, I mean, Ron DeSantis did enter this race seen as the biggest threat to Donald Trump when he announced that he was running, he is closing this right before Iowa, you know, in this one-on-one with Nikki Haley on stage. Also focusing a lot of his ads on her as well.

ANDERSON: He, at this point, I think understands that he is highly unlikely to be the Republican nominee in 2024. You know what, Ron DeSantis is not that much older than I am. He has a long time in American politics, and there is going to be a presidential election in 2028, one in 2032, and so on and so forth. And so it may well be that he understands that it's unlikely, it's probably not going to happen for him in Iowa, it's definitely not going to happen for him in New Hampshire.

But what does he do after that? What's his next act? And he could have a very interesting fall with this kind of, gosh, what would have happened if only we had nominated him instead? That would set him up very nicely for a future run.

COLLINS: We'll see what happens on Monday. The fifth and final debate before the Iowa caucuses just ended. Now the decisive phase of this in every campaign, it's the voting. We get to see what the voters decide. That is just days away. In Iowa, it starts on Monday, then on to the first primary in New Hampshire. More primaries, more debates, still ahead.

For now, catch a replay of tonight's two-hour debate right here after a quick break.