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CNN Live Event/Special

Iowa Caucus Underway; Trump Team Concerned Because Of The Weather; Ron DeSantis's Campaign In Iowa, Expects To Change Minds; Haley And DeSantis Attacks Trump In The Final Hours; Soon: First Entrance Poll Results As Caucuses Get Underway; Trump Team Tempers Expectations Amid Haley's Rise; Iowa Facing Coldest Caucuses On Record, Threatening Turnout. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 15, 2024 - 17:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: This is the moment the 2024 presidential race here in the United States truly begins. Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: And I'm Erin Burnett. And welcome to CNN's special coverage of the Iowa caucuses. Wolf, we are standing by finally for the first votes.

BLITZER: Yeah, we've been waiting a long time. Today's caucuses have the power to not only shake up the Republican Party, but also to make or break several of the candidates. Now coming up, we're now expecting our first entrance poll results from Iowa. This will give all of us a glimpse into what caucus goers are actually thinking as they show up to their caucus sites.

And the candidates are using the final hours to push for votes. Ron DeSantis is holding his last campaign event of the day. In just a few minutes, Nikki Haley now heading to her last event. They're both trying to stop their biggest challenger, Donald Trump. We're also watching the weather very, very closely, which as of tonight is below zero and could have potentially a major impact on the turnout.

BURNETT: And we have a team of reporters inside the caucus sites where people are going to be showing up shortly and at the candidates' headquarters as we begin our special coverage here on CNN. So, let's start with Kristen Holmes, who is joining us live from Donald Trump's caucus night headquarters.

So, Kristen, there had been some concern from Trump's team despite the massive lead that he's shown in the polls and the Des Moines Register poll, that his supporters may feel complacent and stay home. We haven't heard so much from him today. So how are they feeling right now?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, right now, Erin, it's just a waiting game. They have been trying to temper expectations. You talk about them being concerned about people not showing up. It was really two-part. One was because of that 30-point lead that we saw in a number of polls. They do not want his followers or supporters to not show up because they think, oh, someone else will show up.

The other part of this is the weather. Donald Trump himself has been very concerned about the weather, saying it's cold, asking allies, asking advisors, do they think this is going to affect the turnout? Remember the goal here. The goal is, yes, to win, but there's no real question among his advisors whether or not he's going to win. They believe he's going to win. But what they want to do is win by a definitive enough margin to actually set the tone for the primary season and also stem any momentum from his GOP rivals going into New Hampshire particularly when it comes to Nikki Haley.

So, they feel good about tonight. They feel good about the fact that they believe that they are going to win, but whether or not they're going to hit a number like 30 or 28, like we saw in that Des Moines Register poll, that just seems unknown at this point.

And I will note, even before we saw these weather reports showing these incredibly low temperatures, we were hearing a tempering of expectations from Donald Trump's advisors, essentially saying they didn't believe the margin was as large as those polls were showing.

Again, they do believe he's going to win, but how big is that margin going to be? They are hoping for a definitive win in these caucuses tonight, but again, right now they feel like we have done everything we can. We have put the pieces in place. Now we just wait and see what the results are.


BURNETT: All right, Kristen, thank you. And let's go now to Steve Contorno because he's in Cedar Rapids. That's where Ron DeSantis will be taking the stage at his last event of the day before the votes are cast in a few moments. So, Steve, where is his campaign right now and how are they prepared for tonight? How are they gonna spend the evening?

STEVE CONTORNO, CNN REPORTER: Erin, Ron DeSantis stepped foot for the first time in his life in Iowa in March of last year. He has since touched nearly every corner of the state, been to every single county, has had more than 100 stops. This visit today at the Sports Bar in Cedar Rapids, this will be his final campaign stop in the state of Iowa and they are really hoping that work that he has put in is going to pay off and they believe that they have a ground game here that is built to withstand the conditions.

They have 1,600 precinct captains. They have someone registered and signed up to speak at nearly every caucus, people, including lawmakers from back in Florida, longtime friends, people who have worked for him for years. They'll be speaking at caucuses trying to convince Republicans that it's time to vote for them. He is also offering rides to people to get to the caucus sites. I've been told from one campaign official, quote, "if it means shoveling a driveway, we will do it." And they may have to do it in parts of the state like Cedar Rapids. It is cold here. It is negative 15 degrees outside. The roads are very icy. Parts of Des Moines that we have visited, the streets are plowed. Around here, there are still roads that are very slick. We've talked to people who have had trouble getting their cars started, tires blown out. So that is gonna be an obstacle for his campaign, but they believe that they have the infrastructure to do it. Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much, Steve Contorno, on the scene for us. So, joining us now, Ron DeSantis' campaign manager, James Uthmeier. James, thank you so much for joining us. How are you feeling, first of all, about your chances tonight? Any concern about potential turnout issues?

JAMES UTHMEIER, DESANTIS CAMPAIGN MANAGER: We feel very good. Over six months ago we built the ground game that can withstand temperatures and weather conditions like tonight. We've got a chair in all of 99 counties. The governor has visited every one of those counties. We've got over 1,500 precinct captains, speakers lined up for every site. As was just mentioned, rides available.

Our team is convicted. They're passionate and they're ready to get out and vote. They've been looking forward to tonight. You know, we know we're underdogs. We've been written off many times before, and we're very excited to beat the odds tonight.

BLITZER: The final Iowa polls, as you well know, showed Nikki Haley taking second place behind Trump. And longtime Iowa Republican strategist David Kochel saying he thinks Haley now has the momentum behind Trump. Are they all wrong, you think?

UTHMEIER: The polls have been consistently and notoriously wrong in predicting the outcomes here in Iowa. The voters know that here. They're dismissing these polls. It's hard to poll this caucus state with so few people voting, especially in weather conditions like this. So, the voters are going to go and they're going to make the decisions tonight.

All of you at home, it's not the polls that pick presidents, it's not the media that picks presidents, it's you, your voice and we believe the voters, they want to look forward. They want a president who's a proven winner, whose results oriented and that is Ron DeSantis.

He's the only candidate that's delivered on every single one of his promises and then some from universal school choice to record tax relief for families, keeping the state open during COVID. There's a reason why Florida is the number one destination for new movers these days. It's the free state. And if he could take that vision to the White House, he would turn this country around.

BLITZER: James, as you know better than any of us, the DeSantis campaign has certainly poured a lot into this state. He's traveled, as he says, almost every day to all 99 counties. Where does he need to place for tonight to be a success? Is it within 10 points of Trump?

UTHMEIER: Listen, you know, I'm not going to answer that directly. We're going to beat the odds tonight. Expectations have been set very high for the former president with many polls on people predicting him winning by 30 plus points. Ron DeSantis has put in the work. He's spent the time here.

But, as you mentioned, Nikki Haley, she also has heightened expectations. She's spent more than any other candidate in this state. She's attacked Ron DeSantis with more money that's been spent against Donald Trump and Joe Biden combined. Governor Sununu, he's predicted a strong second for her, but I don't think that's what's going to happen tonight. I think it's going to be a major letdown.

And I think, you know, second place or bust for her right now given the large amounts of money that her Wall Street-backed supporters have pumped into this state.

BLITZER: I noticed that Governor DeSantis will take an unconventional path after Iowa, planning to hit Governor Haley's home state of South Carolina instead of straight to New Hampshire, the next primary state as all of us know. Why is that? What message are you trying to send there?

UTHMEIER: Yeah, we're going to hit South Carolina en route to New Hampshire. You know, we're certainly not skipping New Hampshire.


The governor's, you know, message of freedom and liberty resonates very, very well in that state. But South Carolina has a lot of similarities to Iowa. There's a strong faith and family presence. The governor does very, very well there. We've got crowds exceeding capacity at our event space. We've got a strong ground game there. We believe our message is going to resonate very, very well.

And, you know, Nikki Haley, you've got to win your home state if you're going to win the nomination. I don't think that's going to happen, and unfortunately that's going to be the end of the road for her. It's also a conservative state. As we've seen, almost half of Nikki Haley's supporters are Democrats and independents that are not going to come out in a Republican primary.

Ron DeSantis has the proven credentials as a conservative, and he's the only candidate that can unify the party of both Trump supporters and people that would like to go a different direction, move forward, and fix this country for once and for all.

BLITZER: James Uthmeier, let's stay in close touch. Thank you so much for joining us.

UTHMEIER: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

BLITZER: And this important note to our viewers. Tomorrow night I'll be moderating a CNN town hall with Ron DeSantis live from New Hampshire. That will start at 9:00 p.m. eastern tomorrow night.

And coming up, Trump may be marching towards victory in Iowa, but what about his support nationwide? John King is standing by at the magic wall for us.

Plus, Ron DeSantis really stepping up his attacks on Trump today. Listen.


RON DESANTIS, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But if you don't kiss that ring, then he'll try to trash you. You know what? You deserve a nominee that's going to put you first, not himself first.


BLITZER: So why did he wait so long to really hit Trump? We'll be right back.



BURNETT: Welcome back to our special coverage of the Iowa caucuses. Right now, standing by for the first votes in this election. And John King is back at the magic wall. So, Trump has been dominating in the polls, obviously. Okay, but when you look in that and you look at the state, where are his supporters? And we always hear also about how Iowa is not representative of America. What does it tell us, Iowa, about the national picture?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It can tell us quite a bit, actually. So where are Trump's supporters? Let me do two fingers for the first time this election cycle. We'll go across the top of Iowa. We'll come across the bottom of Iowa. Now, why did I do that? Let's go back and take a look at 2016. This is the first election for Donald Trump, right? His hostile takeover of the Republican Party beginning. What happened within those lines? That's Ted Cruz and Donald Trump splitting rural evangelicals, farmers, your rural vote across the state. They split it, right?

Donald Trump splits it with Ted Cruz. Ted Cruz wins the state. Donald Trump, though, comes in a close second, goes on to New Hampshire, and the rest is history. Well, those lines also matter when you come forward. Let's look at 2016. Let's look at the presidential election. What happened in those same areas? That's Trump country. Rural America becomes Trump country. That matters in Wisconsin. That matters in Michigan. That matters in Pennsylvania. That matters in Georgia.

And so rural America becomes Trump country. That's 2016. It happens again in 2020, right? Rural America is Trump country. And so yes, Iowa is a red state. It's more conservative, more white than the rest of America, but we still learn some important lessons about Trump's voters. If he does very well up here again, and down here again tonight with Ron DeSantis -- think of DeSantis as Cruz, right?


KING: Does Trump blow him out or do they split it again? That'll tell us about his strength with his bedrock base, rural voters. BURNETT: All right, and do you see any vulnerabilities within the

numbers so far?

KING: So, use the same map. This is Iowa 2020, right? Donald Trump wins overwhelmingly. Well, where's the blue? That's Joe Biden, right? This is Joe Biden in 2020, right? Circle these areas and come back, okay? Now let's go all the way back to 2016, all right? And look at the Republican presidential primary right there. Okay, those same areas, right? That's Ted Cruz, right? The areas Biden won, that's Ted Cruz. Why? It has suburbs. That's Marco Rubio.


KING: It has suburbs. This is Marco Rubio. It has suburbs. Story County tonight, right? This college town of Ames, but Story County as well, north of Des Moines. Des Moines itself here is in Polk County right here. Donald Trump from the beginning has struggled in the suburbs. He beat Hillary Clinton in the general election in the suburbs. He got blown out by Joe Biden in the --


KING: So, do we see -- that's his vulnerability. That has been his kryptonite. Suburban America has been Trump's kryptonite. Do we see tonight that it's still the case or do we see tonight that he is at least starting to rebuild that. Not only Republicans, right? He has to win over independents, moderates, very soft Republicans, when you get to Pennsylvania, when you get to Ohio, when you get to Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin. But do we see seeds of that tonight? That's what we'll look for. That has been his vulnerability. We'll see.

BURNETT: And how it can tell us a lot for the general election as well. All right, and while polling, of course, does suggest that Trump's nomination could be, and I mean, I'm putting all this emphasis on these words for a reason, because we just don't know the votes yet, but polls do suggest it could be a sure thing. His Republican rivals have been out of the campaign trail all day today, arguing that Trump is a deeply flawed candidate. Here they are.


NIKKI HALEY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We can't continue to be a country in disarray with the world on fire. And we can't do that with four more years of chaos. And we can't defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos. And we need a strong America that we can be proud of. And the only way we do that is if we make sure we elect someone who can win in November. We can't go through another nail biter of an election. Seventy-five percent of Americans have said they don't want another Trump, Biden rematch.

DESANTIS: Donald Trump is the party of the Washington, D.C. establishment. They've lined up behind him.


I am the part -- I'm the candidate that would be a change agent in Washington, D.C.

I mean, Trump is running for his issues. You know, Haley's just doing what the donors want. I'm running on your issues and your family's issues.

VIVEK RAMASWAMY, REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have to open our eyes people. They're not going to let this man get anywhere near the White House again. But our America First movement cannot end with Trump because it didn't start with Trump.


BURNETT: All right, everyone back with me here in Washington. So, Jane, sky high expectations for Trump. But it was interesting because I know you've been looking at, you know, Iowa pollsters and what they're -- and we keep hearing that, oh, does he break 50?


BURNETT: But you're actually hearing 60.

COASTON: I was just checking in with Patrick Ruffini and he's thinking 60. And I think that that's the issue here, is that it's actually how well could Trump do here. And it's interesting to see, you know, DeSantis and see others talking about how they're going to be -- they're standing up against the establishment that is Donald Trump.


COASTON: That argument's not going to work. We have heard for eight years that Donald Trump is anti-establishment, that he's breaking with the Washington consensus, whatever that is, and to now start arguing that Donald Trump is now the part -- you know, the member of the D.C. establishment. Even if that's literally true, it will never become culturally true in this particular area.

And so, I think it really is about how well does Trump do. And I think it's so interesting to see how this has become about trying to sound like Trump while trying to beat Trump. And that's just impossible.

BURNETT: Right, right. It's like when you can have -- what was it that you said?


BURNETT: Why have Diet Coke when you can have the real thing?

ACOSTA: Basically, yeah. I mean, and I'm struck by how easy this has been for Donald Trump. You know Ron DeSantis went to all 99 counties in Iowa and what did his supporter tell you in the previous hour? He's not the most captivating candidate. I mean after 99 counties you should be captivating at least somewhat. And when I was talking to this Trump advisor earlier today, he said another ingredient in the secret sauce for Donald Trump this time around is the RNC basically, you know, bent over for Trump. You know, they allowed him to not participate in these debates. BURNETT: Yeah, they have. They've bent over backwards, changed the rules.

ACOSTA: Trump spent more time in Manhattan, at the courthouse of Manhattan than he did in Des Moines. And in the words of this Trump advisor, the RNC, and I -- forgive me, I know a lot of kids are home from school today, has no balls. And we're back where we were in 2016, and during the Trump administration. The Republican Party is Donald Trump and Donald Trump is the Republican Party.

GLORIA BORGER, SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, but now what we're seeing is this expectations game that Jane was talking about, which is The Trump supporters, including one of his kids, is saying, it's the media who is now saying that Donald Trump should get over 50 percent because if we don't get over 50 percent, then we're gonna be perceived as not doing as well as we should have done.

So, what they're trying to do now is say, okay, let's lower these expectations. We never really said over 50 percent, which of course they did. So, you know, they're trying to put a cap on it somehow, just in case.

BURNETT: And there is a complacency. It's, you know, we talk about the weather, but also when your candidate's ahead, Jamie. It was interesting. An Iowa voter was speaking to one of our reporters on the ground. This is, you know, in the Des Moines Register poll, a quarter of voters say they're still persuadable.


BURNETT: That's still a big number. I mean, it is the day of the caucus. They've been out there nonstop for a year and a half. So, this voter says, I'm definitely not going to caucus for him, referring to Trump. He doesn't need me; he's got everybody else.

GANGEL: So, two things, one is in a caucus, your neighbors, your fellow islands, they're there to convince you to go with them.

BURNETT: There's no social pressure here.

GANGEL: This is not, you don't get to go in, let's just remind everyone in a secret ballot, undecided last minute and just go.


GANGEL: You don't think --

GOLDBERG: It's not the democratic system in the Iowa caucuses for the Republicans.

GANGEL: No, it's secret.

GOLDBERG: You have a secret ballot.

GANGEL: You have a secret ballot.

GOLDBERG: You have a secret ballot.

BURNETT: And the conversation is public.

GOLDBERG: The conversation is part of it, sure.

GANGEL: The conversation is --

GOLDBERG: And all the speeches and its communal, but you do actually get a secret ballot.

GANGEL: But it's a private vote.

GOLDBERG: Look, I agree the RNC is a paper tiger. Democratic parties -- both parties are incredibly weak institutions. I think, you know, what Gloria was saying earlier about how the thing that is killing -- one of the things that has gotten college-educated Republicans to rally around Trump is the indictments and the criminal stuff that makes him into this martyr. I think it's an incredibly stupid reason to rally around a candidate, but I think it's true, and that narrative has helped a lot.

There's another thing. Ron DeSantis' entire argument for running after the 2022 midterms was that Trump was gonna be a weak candidate and couldn't win. And that looked like a plausible argument for a very long time. You now have matchups where you have Trump beating in seven out of the eight battle ground states Joe Biden. So, you can't, like Nikki Haley making this argument, I tend to agree with her.

BURNETT: Like electability. Yeah.

GOLDBERG: But like electability is a sort of necessary but not sufficient argument.


And when it looks like Trump could win anyway, it makes it very hard to compel people to say we have to go with the --

BURNETT: It is interesting. You were talking to, and I know a lot of your Trump sources, and it was interesting because I know everyone, and it's true. Every time that there's been something bad that happens to him legally, his poll numbers go up.

ACOSTA: It is.

BURNETT: But that those advisors are telling you they are not worried about the competition. They are still worried about the court cases.

ACOSTA: They're definitely worried about the court cases. The plan all along is to try to get these court cases pushed back beyond the 2020, excuse me, 2024 election, past November, in the hopes that he'll win and be able to pardon himself or put an AG in there who will put these cases to bed and so on.

But getting back to what Jonah was saying just a few moments ago. I mean, yes, we can talk about how the court cases have helped Donald Trump and solidify the Republican Party behind him. I think also at the same time, we have to get to what Wolf was just saying before the commercial break. Why did it take Ron DeSantis so long? I was there in 2012 when Rick Santorum came out of nowhere and won those Iowa caucuses. Those candidates were going at each other tooth and nail. This time, it just did not happen this time around. It is the weird --

GANGEL: They never went at Trump. They never --

BURNETT: They don't.

GANGEL: They never went at --

ACOSTA: DeSantis and Nikki Haley went after each other in a conventional way, sniped at each other the other night at that CNN debate.


ACOSTA: Trump got none of that.

BURNETT: They didn't get the most important adage, the enemy of my enemy.

GANGEL: Yeah, right.

ACOSTA: The guy at the top.

BURNETT: Should be my friend, and that was not the way it was. All right, all stay with me. We are just about 90 minutes away from the start of the Iowa caucuses.

So, what exactly will be taking place tonight? We're gonna go through those details and get to the bottom of that. A special report is next.

Plus, after tonight, on to New Hampshire. That is where Nikki Haley has the endorsement of the state's popular Republican governor, Chris Sununu. So, what's he hearing about Haley's chances tonight? He'll be our guest.



BURNETT: And welcome back to our special coverage of the Iowa caucuses. You're looking at live pictures right now from Cedar Rapids. That's where Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to take the stage in a moment. That will be his last event before voting starts. The caucuses are a complex process with a very significant impact on the entire election season. The results tonight could make or break DeSantis and Haley and change the entire race. So Tom Foreman is at the magic wall now to walk us through it because these rules are incredibly complex. And the Republicans do caucusing differently than the Democrats. So how exactly is this going to work?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Erin, absolutely all eyes were going to be on turnout tonight. 2016 whopping numbers already the prediction for tonight is generally going to be lower than that. But it could drop even lower if enough people have trouble getting to the polls. Nonetheless, let's talk about the procedure involved here. Typically what happens with the caucus is they happen in all 99 counties, numerous sites in many counties, they start at 7:00 p.m. local time.

Typically, there are speeches given on representatives from the various candidates who say vote for this person, vote for that person, then people vote in secret on paper ballots, the GOP rules say you have to be a Republican, a registered Republican to take part in this, even though you can register at the site, if you want to tonight. But this is very much a party activity, not a state activity.

Now, what happens afterward? Usually somebody gets a majority, that person has declared more or less the winner in the state. But this is not a winner take all proposition. It is proportional. So when you look at the 40 Iowa delegates are competing for tonight. This many total delegates are at stake. This many are needed to win the nomination nationally. So if you get a proportion of this, you're just getting a tiny start on what you need to win the nomination.

Nonetheless, it is considered an important measure of where you stand, although we should note that when you look in the past, look at the winners of recent Iowa caucuses, none of whom became the candidate, none of whom became the president. So it's indicative but it is hardly a concrete predictor of what's going to happen next. The real question in all of this, though, is who does show up? The weather in this state is going to be absolutely brutal this evening.

There's a big worry about that as our Jeff Zeleny reported. Another issue, they've changed the locations of some caucuses. So some people may be driving further than they normally would to reach the caucus, that may also have a dampening effect. You know, Iowans are used to this weather, they're used to this political system, they normally find a way to battle through it. But this is a very unique challenge, Erin. And we will see who's up to it to cast their vote.

BURNETT: All right, man, all eyes on that and of course on that turnout, what happens to it with this weather. Wolf?

BLITZER: Interesting. Erin, standby. I want to get back to our panel right now, Scott Jennings, the Republican candidates and their allies, we are now told have spent more than $123 million in Iowa for tonight's caucuses. What does that say about the importance of what's about to happen?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's important to win the votes but also what are they buying? Narrative, they're buying momentum, you know, they're buying a storyline here. So if you're Donald Trump, you're trying to buy dominance. If you're Nikki Haley, you're trying to buy momentum and if you're Ron DeSantis in the position he's in now, you might have been trying to buy the comeback kid narrative.

I would point out inside that spending, the candidate who has by far been the biggest recipient of negative ads, Ron DeSantis. I think outside groups have spent about $48 million on negative ads against DeSantis which is more than Trump and Biden have faced combined. So you could see at least early on, that was a candidate they were worried about, and they did bury him with it.


BLITZER: Yes. And as we say, in politics, money talks.


BLITZER: For sure. Jamal Simmons, Trump wrote this on his social media site earlier. He said Nikki Haley could never win in the general election, because she doesn't have MAGA and never will make America great again. Ron DeSanctimonious, he said, at least is MAGA-lite, but many diff -- many Democrats, of course, say there's no real difference between any of these candidates between Trump and his rivals. Listen to Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois.


GOV. J.B. PRITZKER (D-IL), BIDEN CAMPAIGN NATIONAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER: Tonight's contest is simply a question of whether you like your MAGA Trump agenda wrapped in the original packaging or with high heels or with lifts in their boots.


BLITZER: Do you think voters are going to buy that argument?

JAMAL SIMMONS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: About the lifts and the boots?

BLITZER: No. About the MAGA.

SIMMONS: Yes, so listen, I think the MAGA voters have consistently come out 2016, 2020. But they keep getting beaten, right? So they show up for Donald Trump. He's Narrow the field for Republicans, right? But they go deep, and they get as many MAGA voters as they can. But the rest of America comes out and says no, thank you. That's what we saw in 2020. We saw it in 2022. We saw in the midterms in 2018.

So when it comes into a general election, I just think those voters don't have the majority of the American sentiment. One thing was interesting about what you said earlier, when you were reading the quote from Donald Trump, Ron DeSanctimonious, right, he has a nickname for him. He did not have a nickname for Nikki Haley. If Nikki Haley surprises people tonight, look for her nickname, look for Trump to begin to do to her what he's done to every other candidate when he trains his sights on her and trains the forces of that MAGA crowd we've been talking about gets some focused on attacking her. It's going to be brutal. Wolf?

JENNINGS: Can I make a comment about that question. The question that has been a thought exercise going on in the Republican Party about what if Trump did not get the nomination, would he actually support a different Republican for President? Would he tell his people to stay home? There is a world here where he's the only electable Republican because he's the only one who can get his base to turnout.

I agree with you. It's not been quite enough in some of these cycles. But if another Republican got the nomination, and he effect -- he went rogue, where would that leave them?


JENNINGS: We've seen it.

NAVARRO: In the -- right, in the Senate after, so we've seen this before. And look, I think he's already, to your point, Jamal, I think he's already begun doing a little bit of this with Nikki Haley. He hasn't given her a nickname, but he's begun floating around the birther theory, like he did with Obama, very effectively, in some corners against Nikki Haley.

I was just in the break. I was texting with David Kochel, who you mentioned earlier, he's done 40 years of Iowa caucuses, worked on six presidential campaigns. His prediction is Trump under 50, which is a bad night for Trump, if that's the case, and Haley squeaking past DeSantis, momentum beats mechanics.

And you know, to me what was interesting is to -- the two DeSantis surrogates we've had on the air since we've been on, the donor and his campaign managers both alluded to Ron DeSantis did in Florida, 100 percent of what he promised. I think that's one of the things that's actually hurt him that he had a Florida Legislature that was a rubber stamp. And the past all of the crazy ideas, banning books, banning AP history, going after Disney, taking away the Disney special district, all of these things that made people look back I said we don't want this nationally.

BLITZER: Adam, give me a final thought.

ADAM KINZINGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: By the way, J.B. Pritzker statement really bothers me, if I can just say that. For him to say that Donald, it's just what flavor of MAGA you want. Donald Trump is uniquely dangerous to this country. And until the Democrats understand that and say that, they don't get the fact that we talked about there has to be a unnatural alliance and unholy alliance between the sane right, the center and the left when he's saying Nikki Haley is the same as Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Adam Kinzinger, thanks very, very much.

Nikki Haley hitting the airwaves in New Hampshire releasing a new ad tonight that targets Trump. Watch this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The two most disliked politicians in America, Trump and Biden. Both are consumed by chaos, negativity and grievances of the past.



BLITZER: Plus, we'll take you back to Iowa where people are starting to show up for the caucuses tonight. What does it tell us about the turnout that's about to unfold.


BURNETT: And welcome back to our special coverage, the first votes of the 2024 presidential election. The Iowa caucuses will get underway in just about two hours. Right now the candidates are making their final pitch to voters. This is Ron DeSantis right now on stage in Cedar Rapids. And late tonight after the caucuses are done, these candidates will turn their attention to New Hampshire. That is where the second voting contest will take place a week from tomorrow.


Joining me now New Hampshire's Republican governor, Chris Sununu, who of course has endorsed Nikki Haley. Governor, I appreciate your time. So we're in the final hours here before the Iowa caucuses get underway. Are you hearing anything that's changing your expectations of what Haley will do tonight and what success for her looks like in Iowa?

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R-NH), ENDORSED NIKKI HALEY: Well, look, I think there's already a lot of success for Nikki Haley in Iowa because she didn't set expectations, right? Trump and DeSantis set expectations. They were both going to win. And again, it can only be one winner, obviously, you know, the caucuses are really geared toward Donald Trump. He's the most likely -- has the most likely chance of winning there.

But Nikki Haley is surging in the polls, right? And so anything that she does at this point out, is just a great job for her in Iowa and definitely gives her a little more momentum, little more gasoline on the fire as she hits the ground here in New Hampshire tomorrow. It's a one on one race, right? It's Trump versus Haley, Trump versus Haley. And that's kind of how it's playing out.

She's surging. She's the only one with momentum. The only one when you talk about poll numbers moving. She's the only one across America anyone's talking about right now. Because folks are galvanizing around that which was always the goal, right, just to narrow the number of candidates down. That's happened faster than we thought it's really become that one on one race. She's got all the momentum, which means there's a lot of possibilities ahead.

BURNETT: You know, in the Des Moines Register poll, though, it was interesting. They talked about troubling signs for caucus goers enthusiasm for Haley, talked about her support being on shaky ground. And then kind of got to the point is that the quote from the pollster her enthusiasm numbers, I think are on the edge of jaw dropping, and they seem at odds with a candidate moving up. Do you have that concern about that? That, yes, momentum and all the conversation, you're right. But those enthusiasm numbers are still there. SUNUNU: Sure, but there's never been an expectation that Nikki Haley was going to absolutely win second place. It looks like she could, that's amazing, right? That's beating expectations without a doubt. So again, if she -- if that all kind of come to fruition, that's great. She really has a chance not just to come in second. We've solidified that. She has a chance to beat Donald Trump, something nobody thought was possible just a couple of months ago, beat him right here in New Hampshire.

So however, she comes out of Iowa, it's going to be terrific because we're again, there was no bar set there like those other two had set for themselves. I think Ron DeSantis has even said he's not even coming to New Hampshire. I mean, at this rate runs where is he going to go South Carolina, her home state?

BURNETT: Well, he's going to be there tomorrow night doing a town hall with Wolf Blitzer. So I can assure you, he'll be in New Hampshire tomorrow. We're promoting it. He's coming tomorrow. I want to ask you about something Trump did, though, that you were a part of Governor, social media post today, which is where he's been spending most of his time. He began by saying that you did not have, in his words, the guts to run for president. He called you politically dead.

He then went on to say something that I want to quote unquote, talk, OK, talking about you and others. He is now the very unpopular governor of New Hampshire who endorsed Nikki Birdbrain Haley, who is seldom able to be Crooked Joe Biden in the polls and will never be the Democrat party in reality. Sununu is Chris Christie without the weight. He does lots of television and just spews out false, fact after fact. Now, Governor, I'm not reading this to make you smile or to make you groan or even have you, you know, deign to respond to it.

I'm asking you for this reason, you have blamed Trump's words for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol. You said his words matter. And this is just a case in point that they have not changed. But you have said you'd vote for him if he's the nominee. How do you justify that to yourself?

SUNUNU: Oh, it's easy, because the country can't take Joe Biden anymore. Look, I don't think Trump's going to be the nominee. We're working hard to make sure that doesn't happen, of course. But at the end of the day, Joe Biden has made this actually where Trump could actually beat him. So again, something no one thought was possible six months ago, this is how bad President Biden is. When you talk to middle American families that are getting crushed by inflation, that can't stand the fact that we're not securing the border that we're told that was going to be discipline, fiscal discipline from Joe Biden, and nothing and it hasn't happened.

This wokeism is going everywhere. It's really affecting families. So yes, of course, at this point, we'll take almost anything to get Joe Biden out of there.

BURNETT: OK. But your bottom line is then that you think Joe Biden is a greater threat to America than Donald Trump? SUNUNU: Joe Bidenism would be is -- it has proven to be a much worse leader than anyone in the Republican primary at this point. That's why, look, Nikki Haley is great because she doesn't have a nail biter with Joe Biden. She beats him by 10, 15 points, and all the Republicans win. That's why we're getting behind Nikki Haley.

BURNETT: All right, Governor Sununu, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

SUNUNU: You bet.


BURNETT: All right, and still to come people beginning to make their way to caucus sites and we're going to take you inside one precinct where there is excitement building tonight. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage of the Iowa caucuses. The voting set to start very soon with some voters now telling CNN their minds aren't necessarily made up at least not yet. So tonight could be crucial. I want to go straight to CNN's Boris Sanchez. He's in a caucus location in Des Moines where the doors are now open. Boris, walk us through what you are seeing and what will happen tonight.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, not a lot to show you right now from the Viking Theater here in Grandview University in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa. But in just a few short hours, we're going to watch the caucus process unfold a window into democracy. At any moment, the precinct chairs are about to arrive. And as soon as they get here, they're going to start setting all of this up. I'm going to give you a look behind me. Essentially, what they'll do is lay out the ballots that they've prepared for the evening. And then as people start rolling in, the doors will close at 8:00 p.m. Eastern and that is when the process begins. They're going to say the Pledge of Allegiance. They're going to then elect a caucus chair for this precinct.

About 300 people expected at two precincts at this site at Grandview University. Then the campaign representatives are going to give short three to five minute speeches in favor of their preferred candidate. After that, the ballots are then passed out. And that is when we will see the very first action in the 2024 presidential cycle, obviously very exciting. So why does this precinct this area matter? It's in Polk County, again, the suburbs of Des Moines. I've been texting with Trump campaign officials who tell us that they're going to be watching this very closely in part because it'll give them an indication on how Donald Trump will do in the suburbs, specifically with suburban women.

And if he fears, well, especially against Nikki Haley here, it could mean a good sign for the President, former president I should say, going into the general election. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right, we'll stay a very close touch with you. Thank you, Boris.

Up next, our special coverage of the Iowa caucuses will continue as we are now standing by for our first look at the entrance poll results, entrance poll results from today's contest.