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CNN Live Event/Special

GOP Candidates Face First Test Of Primary Season In Iowa; Trump Goes After Rivals And People At Center Of His Legal Troubles; Rep. Zach Nunn (R-IA) Discusses Iowa Caucuses; Biden Camp Eyes Iowa Closely As It Prepares For Trump; Tonight, Iowans Brave Frigid Temps In First 2024 Test. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired January 15, 2024 - 13:30   ET



MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And then insisting on being in court even when his presence is completely not required.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: And claiming he has to be in court and then he's been taken advantage of --


COOPER: -- and fundraising over that.

HOOVER: And then it's completely disingenuous, as we would expect.

But the other thing that he does effectively is joke about it. I mean, it's a -- it's troublesome that he is so damn funny, is what a liberal Democrat told me the other day.

I mean, he says I've been indicted more times than Al Capon, right? He has all of these one off and these jokes that trivialize the justice system, trivialize the fact that there's a real process happening.

And frankly, none of his opponents take on the narrative because they are afraid of the voters not going for it.

COOPER: Well --

HOOVER: So it's an unchallenged narrative.

COOPER: Also framing a vote at the caucus as this is your retribution as opposed to vote for an issue, build a wall, overturn Obamacare, which, obviously, he never did.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST & ANCHOR: Yes. Look, in political -- there's an old political slogan, "Hang a lantern on your problem." That's what he's done. He's saying, look I've been indicted, I'm having these court cases, they coincide with the election, I'm going to lean into it, I'm going to play the victim.

Victim and grievance is one thing that populace strongmen do. But it also does make a mockery of the Republican Party's traditional plan to represent the party of law and order. There seems to be no speedbump with folks saying maybe it's not a good

idea for the nation or for our reputation to nominate someone who's been indicted 91 times and could be convicted before the election.

And it trivializes the stakes for our democracy. And I think it's in a dangerous way.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, the grievance narrative is resonant with his core voters. And we know that it's resonant with some of these evangelical voters who feel like they have been attacked. They feel like Covid was a government effort to shut them down.

So he knows that it plays with people also who are afraid of change in this country. We saw this in 2016. If you are afraid, if you have anxiety about racial and cultural and social changes, those are his folks.

So he knows, when he's sitting in court and he says I am your retribution, I'm taking these hits for you, right?

And yesterday, he even said, hey, if you are sick and dying, go vote, then die --


FINNEY: -- because that will help. You will be glad you did. It's that part of that narrative.

COOPER: That's an effective message.

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It is an effective message. I think we will learn tonight and then in New Hampshire whether or not we've really had a primary process at all.

Part of that really ties into Donald Trump's messaging around these indictments that he's had and his opponents -- and I put that in quotation marks to some extent. They are using the same language that Trump does.

So when Donald Trump gets indicted, not only do Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis not go after Donald Trump, which they would for any other candidate for any other office, they use the same rhetoric, a weaponized system of justice, two-tiered system of justice, things like that.

So if this is smooth skating for Donald Trump over the next two months, the DeSantis and Haley campaigns, essentially, it'll be a Zamboni to make sure there was no crack in the ice for Trump.


HEYE: They have mirrored his rhetoric precisely.

COOPER: You can make the argument that it's wise -- maybe not wise in order to distance themselves from the former president. But Chris Christie was calling out the former president and, clearly, that was not a message that resonated.

AVLON: Christie had his own problems, obviously, and was never going to get there.

But you could also argue a process argument. When Donald Trump was in front of a courthouse -- and that's a campaign appearance as much as any other thing.

When he said I should be in Iowa and New Hampshire, that's an opportunity for Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis to say and he's not going to be in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, all of these swing states. He's going to be distracted and we need somebody laser focused on Joe Biden.

FINNEY: Something we haven't talked about, as a woman of color running in a Republican primary, first of all, how amazing is it that that is not a new thing. That we have women running for president.

But she's actually, I think, her way of going after Trump, the men have all been like, ah, you've got to hit them hard. That does not work.

Listen to what she was just saying in that interview just now. People don't want to worry about MAGA. She's trying to create a bridge for the people who might be a little bit soft, who might say, we should maybe have a plan B, maybe we should be with someone else.

And the way she has gone about Trump. It's not personal attacks. She has talked about the chaos but she's also talked about, it's got to be about the future, it's got to be about you, the people, instead of attacking him directly. And she's made more substance of attacks.

I actually believe that is going to show. And that is how women have to campaign. There's a whole lot of research behind it. And I think that may be the right strategy.

AVLON: You know, the only thing I would say, look at him attacking her. She's got the most muscular foreign-policy positions and credentials in the entire field. And that is defined as tough in any objective definition. But that's an attempt to undermine her.


And I agree. I think the fact she is an historic candidate but we don't talk about it a lot because she doesn't play identity politics, which I think is part of her appeal.

And you know, I think most people get the joke that Donald Trump doesn't really -- he may say they're coming after me on the way to get to you but it's always about him, right? It's always about him.

And I think Nikki Haley is trying to offer people an off ramp to the future. And we will see if the caucus goers want to take that or whether that

ends up changing the trajectory of the entire race for the nation. COOPER: Everybody stand by. We're just hours until the caucuses.

Candidates are counting their endorsements. The question is, do they matter when Iowa voters meet to talk about who should be the Republican presidential candidate. We'll discuss with a congressman from Iowa ahead.



COOPER: We've seen a number of last-minute high-profile endorsements for Donald Trump and Nikki Haley in the run up to tonight's Iowa caucuses.

Sunday on CNN, former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan threw his support behind Haley, saying while it's, quote, "pretty clear" Trump will win Iowa, he thinks Haley has all of the momentum to make her for a strong nominee in November.

For his part, Trump picked up endorsements from two former presidential rivals. In Florida, Senator Marco Rubio, and North Dakota's Governor Doug Burgum announced their support for the former president.

Joining us now, Congressman Zach Nunn, who represents Iowa's third district.

Congressman, thanks for being with us.

Iowa voters will be caucusing in a few hours. You have chosen to remain neutral at this stage. Why is that?

REP. ZACH NUNN (R-IA): Well, Anderson, here in balmy Iowa, where it's almost 30 degrees below zero with the windchill, I think we will get the most important endorsement possible this caucus season and that'll come directly from the people of Iowa.

Our job in Congress -- this is my first term -- has been to be a great ambassador and getting some of these candidates to spend time with Iowans.

And here's why this is so important. It's at the church rectory, it's at the high school gymnasium tonight, the neighbors will talk to neighbors, not only on social media or in line.

This is an opportunity to actually talk with each other and say, these are the candidates who have spent time, who have echoed my concerns and want to see a better government and a secure border and better country, let's make that championship tonight.

I'm very excited that Iowa gets to be the starting line for what will become a great race to become the next chief of the United States.

COOPER: I don't know if this played a role in choosing not to endorse one particular candidate. Your 2022 race was one of the closest elections in the country. You won by about 2000 votes out of more than 300,000 votes cast.

Your district is considered a toss-up for 2024. Do you worry, for instance, a Donald Trump on the ticket could drive more Democrats and Independents to the polls?

NUNN: Anderson, you are right, this is still the most competitively drawn district in the country right now. And I've got 750,000 bosses back home. They're Republicans, they're Democrats, they're Independents.

The best thing I can do is to be able to bring folks to Iowa to have that conversation. And we are seeing people across the political line here really getting engaged with candidates who spend time here.

Candidly, I wish the Democrats would come back to Iowa and spend some time talking to Iowans here. Because this is really a ground-up opportunity for voices to be heard at that grassroots level verses a top-down approach, like will probably see in South Carolina where a candidate is designated.

So the endorsement process here is part of it. More importantly, tough races like ours mean that we've got to have a voice for what's important in America being represented in the White House but also in Congress.

So I'm also very open to hear tonight, when I go to my caucus, to hear what Iowans want to see happen in Washington.

COOPER: Trump endorsed you in 2022. Haley campaigned for you. Let me ask you about both candidates. Haley has been warning voters that the Trump presidency would bring more chaos, says the country won't survive it. Do you share some of those concerns or criticism?

NUNN: I'm privileged to have -- actually, everybody in this race has come out and supported me. I think a lot of that is the fact that, as a freshman member of Congress, we've been very pragmatic about getting real solutions for Americans, energy independence, the economy moving.

And most important, as a military guy myself, someone who is focused on mission accomplishment.

Let me tell you this. Whoever walks away from Iowa tonight will start a great stride towards taking back the White House and doing things that are important for my voters.

And that is border security, whatever political party you are, improving the economy, driving down inflation, and here in Iowa, very importantly, making sure our farmers and our farm communities are taken care of.

I'm proud to be a champion on that. I know the candidate who will emerge tonight will be very successful in driving those policies forward in Washington in a way that we just haven't seen in the last three years.

COOPER: OK. You didn't answer the question but that's OK. I get it. The former president, though, he did endorse you. He is known for retribution. Are you worried, by not endorsing him at this stage, you can incur his wrath down the road?

NUNN: Anderson, I'll be clear on this. We are supporting Iowans to give them the opportunity to have a voice on this.

People who come out the day of and make endorsements, that's all well and good. The one that matters is the one that happens starting at 7:00 tonight when Iowans sits down with Iowans and make the endorsement. They're really going to drive the start of this race.

I've been proud to be able to get support from candidates on all sides. I also have a number of Democrats that support me.

The key is that we had pragmatic leaders in Washington who are going to stop the system as normal that's been so corrupt and nonresponsive to needs right here in Iowa.

That is what will be the takeaway from tonight is who is answering to the people in the heartland right here in Iowa --


NUNN: -- and is going to make a difference in Washington, D.C.

COOPER: Right. The former president, in his closing arguments, has said Nikki Haley is not, quote, "strong enough" to be president. Do you think she is?

NUNN: I think any of the candidates that are walking out of Iowa could walk into the White House day one and be a great leader.


You just need to look at, again, from what Nikki Haley did when she was U.N. ambassador that really drove a strong narrative that the U.S. was going to support our allies in Israel and here at home when she was governor.

The same could be said of Governor DeSantis as well as President Trump. These are strong leaders on the national stage who are ready to be president day one.

We've had somebody else in the White House for three years, still struggling to find their footing. And I think Iowans are frustrated by that. And again, I will say people on the independent level are ready for change.

COOPER: Congressman Zach Nunn, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

NUNN: Appreciate your time, Anderson. Thank you.

COOPER: President Biden and Democrats are keeping a close eye on Iowa to see what will happen and how it could impact his reelection campaign. We are live from the White House, next.



COOPER: Happening now, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is in Pella, Iowa. That's on your left side of the screen.

And in minutes, Governor Ron DeSantis will be speaking to voters is Sergeant Bluff. Both are making their last-ditch pitches. We are following them on the ground and we'll bring you any headlines.

Meantime, the Biden campaign is closely watching the Iowa caucuses today along with the rest of us. The communications director tells CNN they are gearing up to make the November election fight about, quote, "more freedom and more democracy in America."

CNN's M.J. Lee is at the White House for us.

So what are people there saying about this process?

M.J. LEE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, tonight, obviously, kicks off the Republican primary contest. There are no votes being cast for Democratic candidates.

But tonight still has everything to do with President Joe Biden because it is the beginning of the process of determining who the president will face off against come November.

Like so many people who have been paying attention to the 2024 cycle, most Biden campaign advisors and people in the Biden world believe, for the most part, that it will end up being Donald Trump that the president faces off against in November.

I am not saying that there are not folks who cannot foresee a scenario where something wacky or something unexpected happens but, for the most part, the preparations that are underway right now for the general election are about the president facing off once again against Donald Trump.

I will tell you, there is a bit of a sense of impatience in the Biden campaign for the Republican process to really move forward. They would like for the country and more voters to sort of start seeing this reality that they think is real, which is that Donald Trump will be on the ballot in November.

Their internal campaign research shows the majority of undecided voters at this moment in time still do not believe it will be Donald Trump. Advisors that we have spoken to say that, for the most part, this is because people are still pretty tuned out of the election.

But they are very antsy right now. They are very eager to draw the contrast between President Biden and former President Donald Trump.

That is why we hear them talk so much about what the first four years of the Trump presidency looked like and making so many warnings about what the second Trump term could look like.

In the meantime, they are also making all the preparations that they feel they need to have a strong fight in the general election.

That includes fundraising. We were told by the campaign, in the fourth quarter of the last year, they raised some $97 million. And they had more than $100 million of cash on hand. They had $117 million to be precise.

Those are resources that the campaign very much expects will eventually go towards battling it out against Donald Trump come November -- Anderson?

COOPER: M.J. Lee, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

This is not just caucus day. Of course, it is also Martin Luther King Jr Day. The civil rights icon was born January 15, 1929. Events are taking place across the country to honor his life and legacy.

Mr. King's birthday was made a federal holiday in 1983. The Memorial Foundation, the organization behind the construction of the Martin Luther King Jr memorial on the National Mall is holding a wreath laying ceremony.

Meantime, Bernice King, Dr. King's daughter, honored her father on social media posting:

"Thank you for lifting the power of love and thank you for believing that we can defeat injustice without destroying one another. Thank you for your courage and compassionate action. I remember you today on your 95th birthday. I remember you always."

Up next, much more of our special coverage as we count down to the Iowa caucuses.



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: Good afternoon. I'm Kaitlan Collins in Washington, alongside Anderson Cooper in New York. This is our live coverage of the Iowa Republican caucuses, the first nominating contest of the 2024 race.

This is the historic contest already. Well on its way to being the coldest Iowa caucuses on record. So the candidates are battling each other and their supporters will battle the subzero temperatures when they convene in a matter of hours.

The outcome could set the tone for the Republican presidential race going forward.

It could also answer some lingering questions that we have, including how strong Donald Trump's grip on the GOP base really is. Could Nikki Haley leapfrog Ron DeSantis as the strongest Trump alternative in this race? And will the Republican field shrink following the Iowa caucuses tonight?

Let's start in west Des Moines with CNN's Jessica Dean.

Jessica, what are we seeing and hearing from the candidates as they are speaking to the voters hours before they are set to convene tonight?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kaitlan, they are giving their final pitch to voters. But what is interesting is, in talking to people who are involved with these campaigns, the big X factor is what you walked through, the weather. Nobody really knows for sure exactly how that is going to impact turnout tonight.

Obviously, when you are caucusing, as we've talked about, you don't just go in and check a box any time throughout the day. You have to arrive at your caucus site at a certain time, go into the meeting and participate.

So it requires a tremendous amount of organization on the part of the campaign and the voters to get them there.


And so as someone said earlier today, what does this exactly impact? Does the weather impact geography in terms of rural voters? Maybe the roads aren't as good. Does it impact age? Is it older voters who may be less inclined to get out in these types of temperatures? That is just what people don't know right now.