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CNN Live Event/Special

Caucus Doors About to Open in First Crucial 2024 Contest; Trump Says, We're Going to Have a Tremendous Night Tonight; Pastor was Set to Caucus for Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) Tonight, Now Backing Haley; Countdown To Iowa. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired January 15, 2024 - 18:00   ET




ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: And the breaking news, the doors at caucus sites across Iowa are beginning to open at this hour.

Good evening. I'm Erin Burnett in Washington.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: And I'm Wolf Blitzer in New York. Welcome to CNN's special coverage of the Iowa caucuses. We are counting down to the first votes of this election, a truly, truly historic night.

BURNETT: And, Wolf, there are four major contenders, all hoping to score a win to get on the board here for the 2024 campaign. And we are now less than an hour from the first clues about the outcome from our entrance polls of people going to those caucuses. Trump, Haley, DeSantis and Ramaswamy all making last-minute appeals before the caucuses actually convene.

Trump, of course, is the heavy favorite, but it is important to remember that there are things you just don't know and how it will impact the dangerous record cold weather could affect turnout in a big way. That could have a serious effect on the race for second place, which really could determine whether DeSantis or Haley are a real threat to Trump, Wolf, as the race moves past Iowa.

BLITZER: And we have a team of our correspondents inside caucus sites and at the candidate's headquarters as we begin our special coverage.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is in Des Moines for us. Jeff, this is a big test, a huge test tonight for Trump. How strong of a grip does he have there?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, he has had a tremendous grip on this Republican Party, but tonight will be the first time that voters have a chance to weigh in and decide whether they would like him to essentially have a rematch with President Joe Biden. Of course, Iowa is the beginning of the road. The question is, by the end of this evening, will it be the end of the road for some candidates?

There is no doubt that the Trump Organization has been preparing for this evening for months and months. They have built a significant ground organization. I have seen it. I've been inside their headquarters. It is dramatically different than it was in 2016, when many of their supporters admitted not exactly knowing what an Iowa caucus was. Now, they do know that. They have precinct captains in all of the 1,657 precincts that are spread out across the state. Of course, the other campaigns are also working extensively on the ground.

Wolf, but let's think of a little bit of history here. The Trump campaign has been really trying to manage its expectations. They are expecting to win. Virtually, every Republican here also expects Trump to win, but the question is by how much. The biggest winning margin in the Iowa caucuses so far is 13 percentage points. That came back in 1988 with Bob Dole over Pat Robertson. So, the Trump campaign is saying that would be a win, but there's no doubt that the bar is slightly higher than that given the fact that he was up 28 points in the latest Iowa poll in yesterday's Des Moines Register. So, there certainly are high expectations.

But, Wolf, as we talked to Republican advisers looking at this race and the race as it goes forward, really a central question is, does the former president surpass that 50 percent mark? If he does, that certainly sends him on perhaps a glide path to the nomination.

There have long been three tickets out of Iowa. Wolf, depending on the order tonight, if Ron DeSantis would happen to come in third place, there could just be two tickets out of Iowa. But for now, at least at this hour, campaigns are still calling all of their supporters, trying to make sure that they will get out to the caucus sites now in just two hours time. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Jeff Zeleny reporting for us, Jeff, thank you very much.

Jessica Dean is joining us right now from West Des Moines, where she's with the DeSantis campaign tonight. Jessica, as we mentioned, we're waiting on those very first entrance polls to come out of Iowa. What will the DeSantis team be looking for?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they're certainly looking to see just how turnout will shape up tonight and if the weather and how the weather might impact that. As one adviser was saying to me, will it be geographical? Will it be the fact that people in rural areas can't get out on the roads? Will it be age related, older people, might they not want to get out in the cold?


They just don't know. That is a big X factor tonight.

But what I'm also told is that DeSantis really spent this day feeling what I'm told is relaxed, ready to roll, ready to go, very loose, that he feels good and optimistic about going into tonight.

They're also relying on this extensive ground game that has been touted for months now put together by the super PAC aligned with DeSantis, Never Back Down. They told me they've knocked on some 940,000 doors across the state. They have precinct captains all across the state and all the various counties. They're hoping that could be a difference maker tonight, especially when you throw in the weather and what that might be doing when it is harder perhaps for people to get out, trying to make sure that their supporters make it to this caucus site.

But as Jeff noted, Wolf, nobody has more riding on Iowa than Ron DeSantis. He's placed so much of his energy, his money here, and he wants a strong showing tonight. Will the voters give it to him? That's what we're watching for.

BLITZER: We're watching. We will stay in close touch with you. Jessica Dean reporting for us, thank you.

Kylie Atwood is over at Nikki Haley's Iowa headquarters tonight. Kylie, what are the expectations that you're hearing from the Nikki Haley camp?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, listen, Wolf, Haley's campaign and Nikki Haley herself are saying that they're hoping for a strong showing here in Iowa. They aren't defining exactly what that means. They aren't saying if that means coming in number two or number three here in Iowa, where she is battling it out with Ron DeSantis to try and become the one who is competing with former President Trump throughout the rest of the Republican primary.

Now, one of the things that Haley's camp felt was important today was the fact that she got out and she actually saw voters here in Iowa in a number of events across the state all within driving distance to Des Moines, of course, because the weather has been so awful over the last few days, they didn't want to get stuck in another part of the state.

But one of the things that surprised me when I was at those events earlier today is that there were a number of undecided voters who were in the audience. They were listening to Nikki Haley. Some of them are looking at New Hampshire. They see she has momentum there. That's one of the reasons that they're thinking about supporting her here because it could boost her into New Hampshire in a really formidable way.

But not all Iowans feel that way. Of course, some said that Iowans make their own decisions and Nikki Haley telling them over the course of the last few days that Iowa is going to set the tone for the Republican primary.

BLITZER: Kylie Atwood reporting for us. Erin, back to you.

BURNETT: All right. And, you know, listening to Kylie, John, talking about the voters trying to make that calculation, do you vote for Haley because it might help in New Hampshire and create momentum and sort of the chess game that people are playing. But who is doing well where when you look across Iowa and you look at that Haley-DeSantis battle?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, we'll see if the voters shock us, but right now, we assume, based on all the data, it's a race for second place. So, here's one way to look at it. You go back to the 2016 map. Again, Donald Trump came in second in Iowa. The rest was history after that. But this is what it was still competitive. This is the test tonight for Haley, DeSantis, anyone else running against Donald Trump. Can you prove he's vulnerable? Can you make it competitive?

So, the gold counties here, that's Ted Cruz, especially for Ron DeSantis, rural America has become Donald Trump's foundation. Can you compete with him among farmers and evangelicals out here? For Nikki Haley, it's a test too. Can you come in a strong second or third in these counties to prove the knock on her? She's only getting moderates and independents. She can't win conservative voters. It's a test for her.

One other way to look at it, though, if you come in and look at it this way, if you look at the -- oops, that doesn't want to work for me there. All right, let me come out of this and come out and then sometimes she gets it. She is the total population of the state, right?

You see these lighter red counties, might be hard to see at home, those are places Marco Rubio won, right, in the place. That's where you have big numbers. People don't have to drive as far to the polling places. That is Haley's bread and butter. She must win in the suburbs. And if DeSantis is going to prove, forget she doesn't really have momentum, he has to chip into that too.

BURNETT: All right. So then when you get to that voter that Kylie was just talking about, what does all of this mean for the primary calendar and the situation that you're in where, you know, even if Trump is ahead, you've got this race for second and how long does that continue?

KING: The how long does it continue will likely depend on the margins tonight and then what happens next. Look, Iowa is first, right? Like it or not, some people don't like it. It's first. Then we go to New Hampshire a week from now. Then we go out first week of February to Nevada. There's a primary and a caucus. The caucus gives the delegates. Nikki Haley might win that primary, doesn't really matter for delegates. Trump has the state party pretty wired. They think he's going to get that. Then you go to Nikki Haley's home state here February 24th.

So, six weeks from now, we will have four contests in the books. If Donald Trump is four and O, we really might not have to talk about Super Tuesday, we might not have to go into March. If Donald Trump is four and O, he's going to be impossible or near impossible to stop. So, that is the challenge, can somebody come out of here with enough momentum to change the calculations in those three?

BURNETT: All right. So, we're obviously in Washington tonight, but you have spent an extraordinary amount of time in Iowa over the past months talking in, you know, incredibly in-depth substantive conversations. You've recorded some of them, but a lot of time with voters.


So, what are they saying?

KING: Well, about half of the party loves Trump and wants Trump, and about half of the party doesn't. It doesn't mean they wouldn't vote for him in November. Most of them, not all of them would. So, what happens tonight?

Let's start out here, Sioux City, Woodbury County. Donald Trump won this county in 2016, eight years ago. Priscilla Forsysth was one of the people who was drawn to this new insurgent outsider, Donald Trump. Tired of the tweets, tired of the toxic talks. She's for Nikki Haley. And, again, that's what makes this area a big test for Haley. Listen why.


PRISCILLA FORSYSTH, IOWA REPUBLICAN VOTER: But there was always something about DeSantis I didn't like, and I couldn't put my finger on it. I liked the way Haley came across in the first debate. Usually, to me, the debates don't make a big difference, but they kind of did this time.


KING: You hear that a lot, Erin. We heard that a lot over the last five months from women in Iowa who are warming to Haley. Although Priscilla last night was trying to get some information about caucusing from the campaign, she raised some serious doubts about their organization. The Haley campaign organization said she couldn't get the information that she needed.

But now let's come here to the Des Moines suburbs. Polk County, next to it is Dallas County, suburban moms here. If Nikki Haley is going to succeed, suburban women who turned away from Trump in 2018, 2020 and 2022, we'll introduced you to two here, Betsy Sarcone, Jaclyn Taylor, both working moms, both single moms, both entrepreneurs, both saying toxic tweets, toxic language. Goodbye, Donald Trump. They're for Haley.


BETSY SARCONE, IOWA REPUBLICAN VOTER: If DeSantis were to gain momentum and gain a big part of the vote, that I would go with him in order to have somebody viable to take on Trump.

Like I said, my heart is with Haley. That is where I would really like those votes to go. However, if it came down to it, and like I said, kind of falling on my sword to go with DeSantis, I would do it.

JACLYN TAYLOR, IOWA REPUBLICAN VOTER: I see Nikki Haley helping us identify back with what our culture is, what our vision is and what our mission is as a United States, not a divided states.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: You heard the emphasis on united there from Jaclyn. A lot of women like that. They just think Trump is too divisive. A lot of them love his policies, loved his policies. They just can't take it anymore.

Betsy Sarcone, you heard the chess game there. I'd vote for DeSantis if I thought we could all consolidate on one candidate. She's been going back and forth. She told us she's going in Haley tonight in part because of that last poll showing her in second place.

So, two more voices, both of these voters loved Trump's policies. Both of these voters voted for Trump in 2020. Different opinions today, Chris Mudd and Shanen Ebersole. Listen.


SHANEN EBERSOLE, IOWA REPUBLICAN VOTER: I think that I would lean towards Haley. I think that in the face of people calling names, in the face of people yelling and screaming in front of her, she held her composure.

CHRIS MUDD, IOWA REPUBLICAN VOTER: I am. I haven't seen anything that would change the way I think about Trump. I think he's the best guy to lead our country. And I don't see anybody else on our side that can really pick up where he left off four years ago.


KING: Where they live, Erin, where they live on the map is what makes it so fascinating. Shanen Ebersole, this is the 2016 map, she's way down here. Of the 99th counties, Ringgold is 98 in terms of population. It is a tiny county. Look at how many people voted there. She's going to be outnumbered. This is a very conservative county. She's going to stand up --

BURNETT: So, 106 people.

KING: 106 people voted for Trump and he got 32 percent of the vote. She's going to stand up there and be for Nikki Haley, where she's outnumbered. Can Nikki Haley prove herself in rural Trump country? That's one big test from someone who thinks, move on.

Chris Mudd lives up here in Blackhawk County. Ted Cruz won this county, right? You've got the small city, but then you have a big suburban area out here pretty close, right? But Trump was a distant third. I mean, not distant third. They were all lumped together there. This is Trump country now. Can Trump prove -- start to rebuild in the suburbs? Chris Mudd says nothing is going to sway his mind. He said Trump would have to get out of the race for him to change his mind.

BURNETT: It is amazing, though, just to emphasize here as we go, like 1,585 votes, that's nothing. 50 votes is not -- I mean, you know, that when you talk about a turnout expected tonight of, what, 120,000 they're saying is expected. That is going to determine so much for the whole country. I'm not saying it good or bad, but it is just -- KING: It is what it is. Whether you like it or don't like it, Trump and the Republicans kept it there. You're right. Look at that, shy of 52,000 votes. And he won 45,000 votes and he came in second place. Then he went on to win New Hampshire and, again, the rest is history.

BURNETT: The rest is history now.

All right, and next, I'm going to talk to a longtime pastor who prayed with DeSantis before last week's debate and was supposed to speak for DeSantis tonight. He was caucusing for him, committed, but he has just switched his support to Haley. Why the change of heart?

Plus, Trump's team expressing concerns that the cold could affect turnout and hurt them. So, what's the mood inside the former president's headquarters right now as voters head for those caucus sites? We'll take you there live.



BURNETT: And welcome back to CNN's special coverage of the Iowa caucuses, where we're just moments away from the first entrance polls. It will give us the first sense of who is voting and maybe how they're voting.


Just an hour away from the caucuses starting, people's minds are still changing. We know about a quarter of voters had said they were undecided on that Des Moines Register poll.

And we're learning from our own Eva McKend how one retired pastor who personally prayed with Ron DeSantis before primary events and had been set to speak for him at his caucus event tonight has had a change of heart. He's now for Nikki Haley, and he is with us now.

Pastor John Palmer, I really appreciate you taking the time to be with us and to share your thoughts on this, because, obviously, it's not a decision you came to lightly. And what was the reason? What made you change your mind right now when you're finally at the day of voting?

JOHN M. PALMER, RETIRED PASTOR, CHANGED SUPPORT FROM DESANTIS TO HALEY: That's a really good question. Thank you, Erin. As I view leadership, I think of two pillars that are really important in leadership. One is character and the other is competency. And both of those are really, really important.

And as I looked at the cast of candidates, I came to the conclusion that Haley was the best at both of those, that she has good, solid character, she's a person of integrity and honesty and transparency, and she also has the competency, the skills to be able to lead, to bring people together, to cast vision, to work with people across the aisle, and to be able to help build America and help us move forward.

And so as I looked at those two pillars, character and competency, she seemed to me to be the one that came to the top in both of those.

BURNETT: So, I know, obviously, you spent time with Governor DeSantis and you had prayed with him before events, including at that debate last week. And I understand that that was a major turning point for you at the CNN debate. You were there, and I know you did pray with DeSantis beforehand, and then you were in the room. So, you actually watched the whole debate in person. Was there a specific moment that made you see those issues of character and competency differently?

PALMER: Yes. I had the privilege prior to the debate to pray with the governor and his wife, along with a couple of other pastors, and I really have a great deal of respect for Governor DeSantis. But it was during the debate that I began to get a sense that Governor Haley really was able to articulate a vision that is very positive and forward-thinking and that she has the skills to lead.

And as I looked at both of them together, standing just a few feet apart from each other, it just became clear to me that even with her eyes and her voice and the way she spoke that she convinced me that she could be a better leader for our country.

Nothing against Governor DeSantis, I'm sure he would do a great job, too. I just feel like she edges him out in this area of competency, the ability to lead. I believe they both have both people of good character, so that's not an issue for me. But it was in the area of competency. Even during the debate, she seemed to address the issues head on and with a greater clarity than the governor, Governor DeSantis did.

BURNETT: So, I know that you obviously told the DeSantis campaign today that you had changed your mind. You made that call and did that. What did they say?

PALMER: They were very gracious. They were very gracious, and they understand that this is a process. And I'm just one person in one of the 1,657 precincts, and they were very gracious and kind, as I thought they would be.

And I was with Governor Haley yesterday and then this morning and was able to connect with her for a bit, pray with her, and I feel really confident in my decision to support her tonight.

BURNETT: Well, Pastor Palmer, I really appreciate your time for explaining all of that to us and to our viewers, as people get ready to watch you and the others in your state, all of your people in Iowa, to start this vote and see how this actually goes tonight. Thank you.

PALMER: Thank you very much. God bless you, and thank you for all that you do.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you so much, Pastor. Wolf?

BLITZER: Erin, thank you very much.

Let's get some reaction to what we just heard. And Ana Navarro is with us. You heard the pastor. [18:25:00]

He was behind Ron DeSantis, even prayed with him, as we heard, but now he's going to caucus for Nikki Haley. What do you think?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: What do I think? God forbid I question a man of faith, but I think he wants to be with a winner. And I think he feels the momentum changing for Nikki Haley.

It's hard for me to imagine that he's supported Ron DeSantis all along. And now on the day of, he decides he's not competent. Well, it took you this long after you prayed with a man to realize he's not competent? I think it's very obvious. He's reading the tea leaves, he's reading the numbers, and people like to be with a winner.

It's a dangerous thing for DeSantis because we've all worked on campaigns, and when a campaign starts to smell of defeat, it is very hard to Lysol over that smell.

BLITZER: That's an interesting point. Adam Kinzinger, let me get your reaction to what DeSantis told Iowa voters, the Iowa voters, about Trump's endorsements of Republicans. Listen to this.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can be the most worthless Republican in America, but if you kiss the ring, he'll say you're wonderful. You can be the strongest, most dynamic, successful Republican and conservative in America, 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: You think DeSantis would have been helped if he had spoken like that earlier?

ADAM KINZINGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I mean, absolutely. Like this is the line. If he's not going to go after Donald Trump for anything else, if I could go back four months and advise Ron DeSantis, it would be like, do this. It's not like you're going to be buddies. You're not going to be Trump's V.P. Like go after him.

Donald Trump is a -- he's a complainer. He's a victim of everything. He's a bellyacher. He's a crybaby. Those are the kind of things that bother him to hear and bother his people to hear. That attack line should have been part of DeSantis' mantra from day one. Instead, he's doing it the night before the caucus. I'm glad he said it but I don't think that's going to change.

NAVARRO: Well, don't you think he said it as a direct response to Marco Rubio, the senior senator from his state of Florida, endorsing Donald Trump, the guy who labeled him Little Marco in 2016? KINZINGER: That's your state. You guys are a little crazy over there. Got a little internal battles going on.

NAVARRO: Everybody hates each other. There's no love lost between DeSantis, Rubio, Scott.


BLITZER: Any of them. You know, Jamal, the final Des Moines Register poll, as we noticed, it's very interesting, more than 60 percent -- look at this, more than 60 percent of likely caucus-goers said that if Trump was convicted of a crime before the general election, it would not necessarily impact their support. 19 percent said it would make them more likely to actually support him.

JAMAL SIMMONS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, you know, well, it's so disturbing. We had a little conversation off camera about the last president who got a majority of the vote, George W. Bush. And when I think back to the Republican Party of that era, on this Martin Luther King Day, when we had Republicans who would appoint people of color to jobs and they would support voting rights and they'd reached out to Latinos, and now the energy in the Republican Party is around somebody who's been indicted so many times on so many issues. But it's also around taking away affirmative action in schools, taking away diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Charlie Kirk from Turning Point is talking about rethinking Martin Luther King. He wants to attack Martin Luther King then, he said. It just says how far we've come from a Republican Party that was a part of building a stronger America where all of us get to participate and one now that seems like it wants to take America away from so many of us at a day, particularly we have the Iowa caucus on the day of Martin Luther King Day, and we're not talking about these ideas of how to bring America together. We have these divisive ideas that are really powering the debate right now.

BLITZER: Yes, very divisive indeed. Scott Jennings, we're only minutes away now from receiving our first entrance poll results. This is very significant. We were polling people as they go into the caucuses. Normally on election nights, we have exit poll results, but we're going to get entrance poll results very, very soon. And we're going to be looking at very specific numbers, specific groups. What are you looking for?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, what do people with college degrees do, because Nikki Haley needs this group. But there's some evidence that they've been rebounding for Trump. That's number one. Obviously, the metro versus rural splits is number two.

I'm not sure we're asking this tonight, but I'm sort of interested in the first time caucus-goer. The Trump people have been putting a lot of stock into their first time caucus-goer recruitment. And although they don't have a long, demonstrable history of showing up at the caucus, obviously, Trump's people tend to be the most enthusiastic. I'd like to see if they brave the weather tonight and turn out.

And then the final thing, really, is just the margin. Does Donald Trump match what the Trump match what the polling says he ought to do?


Does Ron DeSantis outkick his coverage? Does Nikki Haley's dependence upon Democrats and independents cause her to fall short? All of those things will play into the margins, and we'll have a big to-do about how we view New Hampshire and South Carolina beyond.

BLITZER: And let me get your thoughts, because you live in Florida, Ana. Marco Rubio, your senator in Florida, he just endorsed Donald Trump over his home state governor, DeSantis. What do you make of that?

NAVARRO: Well, what can I say to you? One more time when Marco Rubio has shown a tremendous lack of loyalty? I remember when Nikki Haley, who everybody thought was going to be in the Jeb Bush camp in 2016, endorsed Marco Rubio, and she endorsed him when it really mattered, right before the South Carolina primary.

Look, I don't think anybody is going to go out in below freezing weather, rush to the caucus because Marco Rubio endorsed Trump or did not endorse somebody, but I do think it makes Marco look very little. And I don't mean his physical stature, I mean his loyalty, his lack of follow through, his lack of principle. He is now kissing the ring, as Ron DeSantis said, of a man who made minced meat out of him and was incredibly, personally offensive to him during 2016.

BLITZER: Do these endorsements really make a difference?

JENNINGS: I think they play into the overall narrative. And for Donald Trump, the narrative has always been inevitability. And when you have so many elected officials, senators, congressmen, local people, county Republican chairs coming forward, when you have notable people saying, I'm with Trump, it is another log on that fire of inevitability.

Of course, the biggest log would be if you blow everybody out tonight by 25 or 30 points. So, I don't think any individual endorsement is make or break for him, but just the drumbeat of how they've rolled them out, it's been a number of them over the last few days, I think they probably have a whole bunch ready for the next couple of weeks. It has been a systematic and, frankly, textbook way to keep the narrative alive that he's the frontrunner and nobody is getting close.

KINZINGER: And I have no clue why. Like you're a U.S. senator. These people used to be strong, kind of independent people. Why do you feel the pressure to endorse now? Why does Marco Rubio feel like he's under such pressure to endorse Donald Trump? I mean, I don't know when he's up again, but he's probably got some time in the Senate. It blows my mind.

But there's this like fear now. It's like back in the day, the Roman emperors used to invite the Senate in and basically throw food at him just to humiliate him, and the Senate would take it. It's almost like that's happening now here.

NAVARRO: The reason to do it now is to do it before Nikki Haley comes in second and goes into New Hampshire. The reason to do it now is to be able to stick it to Ron DeSantis, who there is, as I just said, no love lost between before Ron DeSantis is defeated. So, that's --

KINZINGER: I like that part, that like stick it to Ron part. That's kind of interesting.

SIMMONS: But also don't we know that Donald Trump is keeping count of who's with him and who's not with him and he's going to punish the people who aren't with him. And so he knows. And so people are jumping on the train because they got to be --

JENNINGS: Don't count out their constituents either. I mean, the good people of Florida and a lot of Republicans nationally want these endorsements to come in. They're hearing from their people, too.

BLITZER: And we'll hear more, I'm sure. All right, guys, stand by.

Tomorrow night, this is important right here on CNN, I'll be moderating a town hall with Ron DeSantis live from New Hampshire. That starts 9:00 P.M. Eastern tomorrow night.

Up next, Trump expressing confidence tonight. Listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: We're going to have a tremendous night tonight. The people are fantastic.


BLITZER: We're going to take you to Trump's campaign headquarters. That's coming up next.

Plus, the excitement building as we count down until the doors close and folks start caucusing. Our Brian Todd is actually inside one of the caucus sites where folks are ready to make history. We'll be right back.



BLITZER: We're back with CNN's special coverage of the Iowa caucuses. In less than 30 minutes from now, we will get the first entrance poll results of the night, our first glimpse into how Iowans will vote. And we are also standing by tonight for more information. All this coming as Donald Trump's team is trying to temper expectations amid late momentum from Nikki Haley and an aggressive ground game from Ron DeSantis.

CNN's Kristen Holmes is joining us live right now. She's over at Trump's caucus night headquarters in Iowa. How is the Trump campaign feeling right now, Kristen?

KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the campaign is feeling very confident. They believe he's going to win, but, of course, the question is how much is he going to win by. We have all seen the polls that show him leading by roughly 30 points. Whether or not he can get a margin that large still remains to be seen.

I've talked to a number of senior advisers who have tried to play down that number, saying that anything over 12 percent would be historic. Anything over 12 percent would be something that they would celebrate.

And right now, it really is just a waiting game. They have done everything they can. They have built out a robust ground game here in Iowa to try and get as many people to the caucus sites as possible. Now, just waiting to see who actually shows up. Donald Trump has been urging his supporters not to get complacent with those poll numbers, not to be affected by the weather.


We know that his team had arranged for cars to drive people to caucus locations if they couldn't get there. We also know that at certain points they had taught people how to actually caucus.

I think Scott was just mentioning to you that one of the big groups that they targeted were these first-time caucus-goers. They need them to show up tonight and actually caucus. That is a huge part of these numbers that you are seeing.

And again, yes, they believe he is going to win, but they want the biggest margin possible because they want to stop any momentum Nikki Haley has going into New Hampshire and set the tone for this primary season. Erin?

BURNETT: All right. Kristen, thank you very much. And so everyone here to talk about where we are, I mean, Jim, the big question is, how many tickets are there out of Iowa? We keep talking about this. If it goes, as the polls indicate and Trump wins, can Haley and DeSantis both move forward?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, I mean, typically there are three tickets out of Iowa, but we've been talking about this being a race for second place. This is almost like a race for survival for Ron DeSantis. If he finishes behind Nikki Haley by a substantial margin, his ticket out of Iowa might be back to Tallahassee.

And I think the big question looming over everything is this the beginning of the Republican Party as a whole coming home to Donald Trump. Your interview with Governor Sununu in New Hampshire, Marco Rubio coming out today and saying that he is endorsing Donald Trump, Kim Reynolds, the governor of Iowa, who has endorsed Ron DeSantis saying today, well, if Trump is the nominee, I'll support him. I mean, it's awfully early for these politicians to be worried about their political livelihoods. That typically happens around Super Tuesday. It's happening in January.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they think it's about survival.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Could I just add one other thing, and that is that after New Hampshire comes South Carolina. This is Nikki Haley's home state. If you look back at the recent polls, CNN had a poll October 31st, there was another one in November, Donald Trump is leading Nikki Haley in her home state 29 to 30 points. So, yes, Nikki Haley is doing better. Yes, she may exceed expectations tonight. She may do very well in New Hampshire. But she -- you know, what happens after that? Donald Trump still has his grip on this party.

BURNETT: Yes, you just -- there is no runway laid out, right?

BORGER: There's no sort of clear path for anyone. You can say, yes, Nikki Haley will win New Hampshire, and maybe that'll give her momentum going into South Carolina, but there really isn't a clear path for anyone other than Donald Trump at this point.

And you talk about all these people endorsing Donald Trump early. It's for their own political survival. They're sort of like let's get on the Trump train early, because that will be good for us. And I think that's just the thinking.

This is -- make no mistake about it, this is Donald Trump's Republican Party. That's what it is. It's not a combination of moderate Democrats and whatever else, whoever else is going to be voting in New Hampshire. This is his party, and the loyalty to him is immense, and it has grown since the indictments.


BORGER: And I think that there's a lot of people believing that it's unstoppable.

BURNETT: But what was it -- I think it was under your sources, or your sources was saying that if you get out now, if you're Haley or DeSantis, that some people around them are saying, keep a skeleton campaign ready.

ACOSTA: Yes, Anthony Scaramucci was telling me that yesterday.

BURNETT: Anthony Scaramucci was telling you yesterday, you interviewed him from Davos. Yes, I mean -- Jonah, it is this unprecedented moment. Because, I mean, I guess we were saying this off camera earlier, but it seems like the whole country is accepting that Trump is probably going to be the nominee and really soon, that's what people expect. But they're kind of thinking there could be some big black swan event, and the whole thing gets upended.

JONAH GOLBERG, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. So, I agree with you, except for the phrase, it seems like the whole country, right? I think the Biden people, their data people say, most Democrats aren't paying attention and don't think that Trump is actually going to be the nominee, and that's one of the reasons why they haven't come home yet. In the heart of the GOP, the primary electorate, that's true. And that's also why the Haley campaign and the DeSantis campaign are betting on a change in mass psychology.

Howard Dean was the runaway, dispositive frontrunner until he lost the Iowa caucuses, and, overnight, his support evaporated across the country. This kind of thing happens where if you have a loss, it takes the wind out of your sails of inevitability. And that's the only way Nikki Haley can parlay this into a victory is if she comes -- as a surprising finish here, wins in New Hampshire, all of a sudden people are like, wait a second, Donald Trump is not this behemoth, he's the -- behold the God who bleeds, right? And then you go into South Carolina with that argument behind you.

It's still an uphill climb for her. But that's the only argument they got.


And I think that it's important to remember that Donald Trump is not inevitable.


He is not Baba Yaga. He will not destroy all of his opposition. He is an actual politician with an actual background.

And I think it's been interesting to watch how he is treating himself as if he was never precedent or that his presidency existed in some other timeline when only good things happen. It's interesting talking -- watching them talking about COVID, the thing he was president during.

I was there. I was there. It was -- it didn't go the way. He's talking about it.

And so I think it really is about that idea of removing the inevitability, make it -- make it more clear that this doesn't have to happen. I think a lot of Americans actually, most Americans are watching football right now. And God bless them.

But for the Americans who are paying attention to politics right now, it really does feel like it can't be it. This can't be it. This can't be what we're getting now.


ACOSTA: What happened, we were just talking about this as were going to commercial break earlier, we heard Ron DeSantis taking it to Donald Trump. And we were saying around the room where there was that Ron DeSantis where, you know, I mean, they waited -- they blew it, they waited until the 11th hour when people have already, you know, figured out their caucus site and their battle plan for going out and casting that secret ballot.

COASTON: They treated him as if he was inevitable. And so they had to sound like him, be like him.

JONAH GOLDBERG, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Also, they I treat it as if they were -- Ron DeSantis, is a quintessential post-Trump candidate. But we weren't post-Trump yet.


GOLDBERG: Right? And that's the whole weird disconnect.

BURNETT: Hand it to him, Trump to fall away and I didn't know what to do when Trump was competing with.

BORGER: It's as if people are waiting or some people, I should say, are waiting for some external event --


BORGER: -- to occur, that has really nothing to do with the way Donald Trump has campaigned or the way these candidates have campaigned. But some external event to somehow occur and change the trajectory of the -- what now seems to be an inevitable Trump nomination, although we were not 100 percent sure about that. But can you sit around and wait for something like that to happen or should --

ACOSTA: They did.

BORGER: We were talking about should these candidates have gone after him earlier instead of tonight, yesterday.

ACOSTA: They completely banked on this sort of Jack Smith, black swan, whatever you want to call it strategy, and that at some point, some meteor was going to come from outer space and knock Donald Trump off the political stage. And these other candidates who had not alienated his base by going after him would reap the benefits and it just didn't happen and it was a bad strategy.

BURNETT: When you put it that way, it sounds so absurd and yet it's what happened.

ACOSTA: It is happened. It's like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

BURNETT: All right, all right.

Next, we're going to talk to two Republican insiders who are up close with tonight's contests and talk about whether they expect Trump to over-performed or underperformed. And were going to check in with our Brian Todd, who is live right now inside an actual caucus site.



BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage of the Iowa caucuses. Right now, voters are shuffling into caucus sites throughout Iowa to make their choice for the GOP presidential nominee. And they're turning out to, despite punishing below zero temperatures, Governor Ron DeSantis using them the harsh conditions as part of his last- minute pitch. Listen to this.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you're willing to go out there and this temperature and dedicate a few hours of your -- of your life to do in the Iowa caucus, you know, and you're supporting me, I'm going to give you -- I'm going to be fighting for you for the next eight years.


BLITZER: Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He's over at a caucus site in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where doors just opened.

Brian, tell us what's going on?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, people have already started to check in, and the caucus won't be called to order for more than another hour. So a lot of buzz, a brewing here in Council Bluffs at precinct eight here at Kirn Middle School. This is where people check in. I'm going to take you through the process and you're going to get a good sense here of just how grassroots this process really is.

People check in here, you sign in here, match your ID to your address to make sure that everything is copacetic. If the address doesn't match, you've got to reregister. But then, you get one of these.

This is a sample ballot. Just how simple it looks here. That's great. You've got your candidates of choice here. You circle one of them. That's when you start to vote.

If they run out of these, Wolf, this is what people can put their votes on. That's how kind of simple and beautiful this process is. And what makes us really excited about covering this is that to get to see it all in real time.

This is where the caucusing is going to take place. In this room here at Kirn Middle School, the multipurpose room. Some voters have already started to sit there at 07:00 local time, 08:00 Eastern Time. They call the caucus to order. They do the pledge of allegiance, then they elect by voice vote the permanent chair and secretary of the caucus.

Then the candidate surrogates, two of whom were already here well make speeches. They get about three minutes to give their speeches. And then the vote starts to happen. What's really kind of cool about this, as I mentioned, just how grassroots the process is.

Take a look at this. Once they fill out these ballots, this is what they put them in here. Popcorn buckets, they're going to circulate these and these seats will be filled with people, hopefully in a couple of hours where all of this will be going on. Once the votes are collected, put in the buckets, there'll be put on what's called Form E, which is the tabulating form. It's an orange sheet.


And these caucus officials behind us will tabulate all that, put it on an app and send it to Des Moines for the final count. So, you're going to get to see it all in real time, Wolf. And that what -- that's really what makes us really jacked about covering the Iowa caucuses because were going to get to show all of this to you in real time. BLITZER: Brian Todd, as he always does, an excellent explanation.

Thanks very much, Brian, for that.

For more insight on what we could see tonight. I want to bring in two longtime Iowa Republican insiders. Jeff Angelo is a popular conservative radio host and former state senator, and David Kochel. He's GOP strategist, who has worked at six Republican presidential campaigns.

David Kochel, will let me start with you. Trump is expected to do very well tonight based on all the recent polling. But you're thinking might actually over-perform expectations. And if you do, why?

DAVID KOCHEL, FORMER STRATEGIST ON JEB BUSH & MITT ROMNEY CAMPAIGNS: Well, that's what they're looking for, Wolf. They'd been at 51 in the "Real Clear Politics" average. They kind of need to hit over 50.

They are more organized that they were in 2016 by a long ways. They've got about 1,700 precinct leaders. They've got these little white hats with gold-trimmed saying Trump caucus captain, and they have sent a lot of information out to these caucus captains and the organization is real and it's happening on the ground.

So I think they want outperform that. We'll see whether or not they're able to.

Jeff Angelo, do you think that Trump could actually over-performed tonight?

JEFF ANGELO, CONSERVATIVE RADIO HOST IN IOWA: No, I don't think so. I think that this is one of those caucuses where the weather really does make a difference. I think Trump has the most enthusiastic supporters.

But I think that even some of the hardy Trumps supporters tonight are going to look at 30 below zero wind chills and say, you know what? I think he's got it in the bank I think that I need to go out there, so I think he I think he comes in under 50 tonight.

BLITZER: Interesting, David, it seems to be a toss-up right now over whether Haley or DeSantis will actually placed second. But you say Haley has the momentum going on right now. What are you seeing there on the ground?

KOCHEL: Yes. She her events have grown over the last couple of months with the debates earlier in the fall. She's really grown support over the last few months and she's really pulled even with DeSantis, even a little ahead and as Iowa poll that we saw over the week again.

And he's built this great machine, of course, and he's got great endorsements. Governor Kim Reynolds, Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader here who matters a lot. So it's really going to be that muscle on the DeSantis side with all that spending, all those resources, all the grassroots against momentum, which really does that has -- that has really created the difference for a couple of the candidates in the last few cycles, momentum counts for a lot. BLITZER: Jeff, you said last night that DeSantis is poised for a second right now, what are you looking at that gives you that confidence?

ANGELO: I think that his turnout operations very impressive. I think he's got his own people to -- I'm talking to people who've come in from Florida and Texas to these minus 11 features, some of them say I'm going to put on a scarf and I'm going to go ahead and door knock for Ron DeSantis.

So I'm impressed with that. I'm also impressed because of the governor's endorsement that gives him access to the governors turnout operations. So I think it'll be robust tonight.

BLITZER: David, what does it say to you that Trump could win big time potentially in a state that he spent far less time compared to his rivals?

KOCHEL: Well, Trump isn't really like any other candidate. Obviously, he was president for four years. He's been on the ballot here. General election valid twice.

A lot of these voters still think he is president, Wolf. You know, people come to him. He doesn't have to go to 99 counties. He's a celebrity. He's the biggest presence in the party, so he really doesn't have to play by the same rules.

Other candidates who are trying to get known, maybe they've seen Ron DeSantis on Fox a few times. They know that Nikki Haley was the ambassador. They got to go out and look for votes.

It's just a little different for him. We've never really seen another candidate like Donald Trump, right?

BLITZER: Jeff, for the candidate that comes into the third place tonight, we'll that candidates still have a path potentially to win the nomination.

ANGELO: I think DeSantis does not. I think if he comes in third place tonight, he should drop out. I think he's done. There is no path.

I think if Haley comes in third tonight, she still thinks she's going to do well in New Hampshire. And, of course, in South Carolina, I think the she stays in. But if DeSantis is third, he really is done.

BLITZER: Yeah. What do you -- what do you think about that, David?

KOCHEL: I think he's right. I think it's much lower stakes for Nikki Haley. She's run a multi-state campaign. She's well in the second place in New Hampshire. New Hampshire doesn't just follow Iowa's lead. Oftentimes, they'll say, we're not really sure what you did. We'd rather do something else.

And, you know, her being the home state, former governor of South Carolina, it's really hard to see the future a path for DeSantis if he finishes third. And even if he finishes second, but just a little bit ahead of Nikki Haley, he's going to have to tell us, where's the next state where he's going to compete? He finishes third in New Hampshire, third in South Carolina, which is what the polling strongly suggests now. It'll be a tough road for him.

BLITZER: All right, guys, thank you very, very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching. We're just moments away from getting the first entrance poll results from Iowa as people gather across the state for caucus night.

Our special coverage will continue right now.