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GOP Debate Tonight As Democrats Celebrate Key Election Victories; New Wins Stoke Democrats' 2024 Hopes Despite Biden's Bleak Polls; State Rests Trump Civil Fraud Trial After Ivanka Testimony; GOP Debate Tonight As Republicans Suffer New Election Losses; National Zoo's Pandas Returning To China, After More Than Half A Century Of Panda Diplomacy. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 08, 2023 - 18:00   ET



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WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, as Democrats celebrate important new election wins, Republicans are about to hold another presidential debate without their frontrunner. Both parties studying the results and assessing their 2024 strategies as Donald Trump's GOP rivals are getting ready to take the stage.

President Biden is touting his party's new wins as defeats for Trump and MAGA Republicans. Democrats' political hopes rising amid fresh evidence their defensive abortion rights is a winning issue, even as the president's bleak poll numbers are raising some serious red flags.

And the state of New York just rested its case in the civil fraud trial against Donald Trump and his family business, this after Ivanka Trump's testimony and her attempt to downplay her involvement in the Trump Organization.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room.

Tonight, Donald Trump is deflecting blame for new Republican election losses as he's set to skip another GOP presidential debate tonight. We're tracking the fallout for Republicans and the bolstered hopes of Democrats right now with the first contest of 2024 just around the corner.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is following it all for us. He's in Miami. That's the site of tonight's GOP debate. Jeff, the candidates are coming into this debate with a political environment very different from just, what, 24 hours ago. JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it is a very different view in a much more challenging view for the Republican Party. That is why I am told that to a person, the candidates will argue on stage tonight, that it is indeed time to have a new face of the Republican Party, a new leader of the future of the party.

That argument, of course, though, is complicated not by the rivals on stage but by the one who is not on stage. That, of course, is former President Trump. He'll be holding a competing rally just miles away from here in Hialeah, Florida. He'll, of course, be making his case that he should still be the leader of the party. Of course, he has a commanding lead in this race.

That, however, will not change the dynamic on the stage. So, for the third debate of this primary cycle, Wolf, it is a much different atmosphere, a much different time and tone. The dynamics going into this include five candidates on stage. That is much different than the eight on stage at the first debate and the seven at the second debate. That will give all of the candidates more time to make their pitches and their claims and then go after their rivals.

Nikki Haley comes into this debate riding a wave of momentum. Also an argument which she has been making from the beginning that she says Republicans as a party must stop losing the popular vote, that they have lost in the last seven of the eight presidential elections. So, she is casting herself as a new leader for this time.

Of course, she is on a collision course with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. There's no question that those two, they've been going after each other for weeks. So, we're going to see it up close center stage.

But, Wolf, because of the outcome of the elections last night, no doubt, abortion is front and center in this debate tonight. Nikki Haley has been talking about trying to find a consensus on the complicated and very personal issue of abortion. That's putting her at odds with some of her rivals' views, including DeSantis, who has signed a six-week abortion ban right here in Florida. The other rivals also have different views.

So, Wolf, look for that to be front and center as well as many other issues. But there is no doubt, time is running out for these candidates to make their own claim to be the leading alternative to Trump all the while he, of course, will just be down the road.

BLITZER: Jeff Zeleny on the scene for us, Jeff, thank you very much.

There's a lot to discuss with our political experts. And, John King, let me start with you. Democrats clearly had a good night last night in Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, but there are these polls that are coming out that are pretty bad right now for the president of the United States. So, what's going on over here? Give us your assessment.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a great debate within the Democratic Party. The White House would tell you Governor Beshear won. The constitutional amendment passed in Ohio. Democrats picked up seats. Now, they will control both chambers of the Virginia legislature, that when Joe Biden is on the ballot, those issues will play out the same way. Joe Biden is just not on the ballot now. That's the White House argument.

Democrats say those candidates won despite Joe Biden and that Joe Biden has some very structural problems for an incumbent. If you look at the polls, he's down with Jimmy Carter.


He's down with Donald Trump, two presidents who ended up being one- term presidents. If it was a referendum on Biden tomorrow, he would lose. All the data shows that. And the White House, most people privately say that. That's true.

What they hope to do, though, is, number one, they think the abortion issue is proven winner for them. The question is, is it a winner in Pennsylvania, in Wisconsin, in places with Democratic governors, where you cannot argue that abortion rights are under immediate threat, if you will, under immediate threat, that's a big question. The president has a problem with his coalition. They need to fix it. The White House says they have time.

You can look to yesterday and say, okay, if you have time, if you focus, maybe you can pull this off. If they think because of yesterday they don't have a problem, then they have a problem.

BLITZER: Yes, it's a good point. Kate Bedingfield, how do you see this dilemma facing the Democrats right now? The Democratic brand seems to be okay, the president of the United States brand not necessarily all that good.

KATE BEDINGFIELD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I don't know that it's a dilemma. I think John's point is right, they have time. And also what's going to happen here is what you're going to see is Joe Biden running against an opponent.

Now, presumably, it's going to be Donald Trump. There's no indication at this moment despite what may or may not happen on the debate stage tonight that it's not going to be Trump. And when he's running against an opponent, he's going to have incredibly sharp contrasts to draw. He's going to have really sharp contrasts to draw.

On abortion, we saw in the CNN poll last night, people far and away believe that Joe Biden is more trust worthy and honest. There will be a real character component there, which I think will be good for Biden over time.

You have to remember Trump has sort of weirdly been in the background here. I mean, to the extent that he's been front and center for people, it's been in the context of these trials, not in the context of him making his kind of most bombastic and inciting, shall we say, political statements.

So, I think as Trump comes to the forefront, the Biden campaign has an enormous opportunity to draw that contrast and to build on the success of last night, where we saw these issues are popular and they turn people out to vote for Democrats.

BLITZER: Interesting. Kristen Soltis Anderson, you predicted what happened last night a few days ago. So, you had a sense of what was about to happen and you were right.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: If you turned on the T.V. here in Washington, D.C., in an expensive media market, you were seeing ad after ad after ad going after state legislative candidates in Virginia around two issues, abortion and what they called MAGA extremism.

And so just seeing that alone in addition to the polling and chitchat I've had with other sort of strategists, it was not surprising to see this turnout. Frankly, I think the Youngkin team may have gotten a little out over their skis, set expectations too high.

The reality is that Republicans in Virginia last night did better than perhaps Trump did back in 2020. It wasn't enough to hang on to the legislature. But right now, the biggest benefit that Donald Trump is getting is the fact that Joe Biden continues to poll so low. It has really undercut Republicans' ability to say, oh my gosh, we have a big problem, we need jettison Trump and turn the page.

Right now, there's still too much finger-pointing about, well, gosh, what happened last night, what is going to happen coming next fall for them to clear the decks and set a new strategy.

BLITZER: Daniel Strauss, I want to play a clip for you. This is Republican Senator Steve Daines of Montana. As you know, he chairs the Republican Campaign Committee. He says 2024 will be very different than what happened last night. Listen to this.


SEN. STEVE DAINES (R-MT): The Democrats will have to defend Joe Biden, his policies, with the disaster at the southern border, disaster in the economy, disaster geopolitically, big difference between state races and federal races.

These are state issues they were battling. It will be a very different set of issues in '24 as we look at the United States Senate.


BLITZER: What do you make of that?

DANIEL STRAUSS, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: I mean, he sure hopes so after last night. But at the same time, yes, it's true in the sense that a different, larger voting electorate will be activated and Republicans will look to contrast themselves in some way with their opponents while also tying their opponents to this incumbent White House here.

But at the same time, it's pretty clear that most of the Republicans who come out of these primaries are very conservative, do sort of fit the bill of a MAGA extremist in some way and that Democrats are very eager to hammer them and ask again and again, where are you on abortion, where you on a 15-week ban, where are you on something even earlier than that. And, you know, it's still a question that is on every Republicans' mind, but at the same time, these poll numbers for Joe Biden right now a year not ideal, and that is what Republicans are betting on in the races going forward.

BLITZER: Still a year to go so there's plenty of time for Biden and the Democrats to get their act together looking ahead.

I want to play a clip because it's clear now that the Biden campaign is going to try to make abortion rights for women a key issue going forward given the success that this issue has had for Democrats in several elections since Roe v. Wade. I want to play a clip. This is the vice president earlier today. Listen to this.


KAMALA HARRIS, U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: I think voters have been clear regardless of whether they're in a so-called red or blue state, that one does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree that government should not be telling a woman what to do with her body.


And so it was a good night. And the president and I obviously have a lot of work to do to earn our re-election, but I'm confident we are going to win.


BLITZER: So, is this issue, abortion rights for women, important enough politically for the president to get his numbers back up?

KING: A lot of people thought it would not work again last night after it did right after Dobbs, right? And it did work again last night. So, I think projecting forward, anyone who says it won't work projecting forward, let's calm down and take the elections as they come. It has worked for the Democrats in every election so far since Dobbs.

Does that carry over to a year from now? I don't know. But it's working every once then. So, of course, they're going to stick with it. They're going to stick with it until proven otherwise.

Just that, though, I think the most important thing with that, seeing the vice president of the United States doing something she never does, walking out to the cameras at the White House.

I just came back from Milwaukee. Black voters want to see her. Republicans say she's a liability. Republicans are going to run against her. They're going to do that anyway. The only way to counter that is to get out there and prove you're not a liability. And I'm telling you that, seeing her outside the White House is interesting.

Black voters, the president has an enthusiasm problem. Among his black base, they would like to see the vice president out in America. BLITZER: Younger voters, too. There's a problem in his polls that he has.

All right, every stand by. We have a lot more to discuss. We're going to dig deeper into the warning signs for President Biden despite those big wins for Democrats last night.

And later, what Ivanka Trump said under oath about the fraud allegations about her father and their family's business. The defense now getting ready to present its case. Stand by.



BLITZER: We're back with our political experts breaking down the new election victories for the Democrats despite President Biden's dismal poll numbers right now.

John King, you're the expert. I'll pick up where we left off. His numbers are not very good. But if you take a closer look, he's really gone down in some important categories. We're talking about Biden's numbers with independents, black voters, Latino voters, young voters. They're now worse than they were back in 2020.

KING: And they're key pieces of the Democratic coalition, which is more complicated than the Republican coalition. It has more pieces to it, if you will. But if you think about -- just go into Loudon County, Virginia, right? in 1990, it was 80-something percent white. Now, it's 53 percent white. So, President Biden won it hugely last time. There's a lot of Asian voters now, right, Asian of every persuasion. Some of them are open to Trump or Republican messages on small business, on lower taxes and the crime issue is playing in the suburbs. So, the Latino vote has been drifting. Black men have been drifting away.

So, the complication for the president, he doesn't just have one problem to fix. It's the many different issues within coalition.

Now, again, he has a year to do it and he doesn't have an opponent right now, but it's the depth of it from traveling, if you to go places, this is my tenth presidential election. I remember George H.W. Bush, the incumbent president, 90 percent after the first gulf war. We had what was a pretty mild recession. The American people just didn't believe he was the guy they wanted to fix the economy.

If people reach that threshold opinion, we want something new, it's hard to get them to change their mind. And I think right now, the country is thinking maybe we should have somebody new. And the president better get at that, changing that psychology, forget the specifics. Just change the psychology that we want something new.

BLITZER: Do you think, Kate, Biden can win the election with this drop in voters among young voters, minorities? He needs them for that Democratic coalition.

BEDINGFIELD: No question but look at how people voted yesterday, when people literally went to the polls yesterday and voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates who were touting Biden positions.

So, again, I don't dispute that there are elements of the poll that are concerning, and certainly if they track with the average of polls. Then as a campaign, the Biden campaign has to take it seriously. I know they do. But to look at one poll a year out and compare it to voters who actually went to the polls 24 hours ago and overwhelmingly embraced the Democratic agenda, I don't think, I think that the president -- I think the president has a very clear pathway here. He's got to do the work. But it is clear that those issues motivate voters.

And, again, I would go back to we have not even begun the true head- to-head contest between the president and presumably Donald Trump, who also, in that poll, has enormous vulnerability and has enormously high unfavorable ratings.

So, there's plenty of room for Biden to define himself. But, again, I would say, let's look at what happened yesterday when, in fact, voters embraced this very agenda.

BLITZER: What do you make of this, Kristen?

ANDERSON: So, I think the problem is less that there are going to be a ton of young voters voting for Donald Trump and more that there will be a lot of young voters who either say, I cannot believe these are the choices in front of me and stay home, or they choose to vote for a third party candidate.

I'm normally pretty skeptical of the impact of third party candidates because we're so polarized, people ultimately will fall into one camp or the other, but there have been poll after poll showing whether it's Robert F. Kennedy Jr., or a variety of whole constellation of third party options that wind up garnering about one in four voters, and especially among young voters that's particularly high.

So, this dissatisfaction, I don't think we're likely to see the Trump generation as Generation Z, but I do think that younger voters are frustrated with the options they have available to them. And if they simply sit out the election, that is devastating for Democrats.

BLITZER: And, Daniel, how concerned should the Biden White House and campaign be about the drop in support for Biden among these groups?

STRAUSS: I mean, it's not ideal especially because they have gotten this phrase Bidenomics going in the same way the Obama administration got Obamacare going in everybody's mouth. But at the same time, look, elections are about contrast and this White House does not have a clear contrast.

And the other thing is Biden has been counted out before. This is not his first presidential campaign. And, look, I saw Kate and her team after they won South Carolina and they were buoyant. There were more than a few of Kate's deputies telling me, I told you so. Why did you doubt us? I mean, they knew.

I mean, let's -- like we've got a whole year to go and this is a team that is used to being under radar until they have to be. [18:20:07]

BLITZER: An incumbent president usually has a lot of advantages going into a re-election campaign. We shall see.

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

And be sure watch CNN's post-debate analysis later tonight with Anderson Cooper and Dana Bash. That starts at 10:00 P.M. Eastern.

And coming up here in The Situation Room, Ivanka Trump testifies in New York's civil fraud trial against her father. What she revealed on the stand under oath and what comes next after the state rested its case.

We'll be right back.



BLITZER: In Manhattan today, Ivanka Trump took the stand for hours testifying in New York's civil fraud trial against her father and adult brothers and their family business. The state resting its case shortly after her testimony.

CNN's Kara Scannell is just outside the courthouse in New York with all the late breaking details. So, what were the biggest takeaways from Ivanka Trump's testimony?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Ivanka Trump was on the stand all day here today and she was questioned about her involvement in two specific loans that the Trump Organization was involved in, a loan for the Doral Golf Course in Florida and the old post office building in Washington, D.C. Ivanka Trump testified that she had set up a relationship with Deutsche Bank through one of these bankers and that she was involved in these loans that she said a high level.

But when it came down to the nitty-gritty details of it, she said she didn't recall much of that, including a lot of detail about what was required under the personal guarantee that her father had agreed to in order to get these loans.

And they focused on the old post office building and pulled up an email that indicated that the GSA, which was involved in this deal, that they had identified that Trump's financial statements did not comply with all accounting rules, and there were exceptions to that. She was asked if that came up during an in-person meeting that she attended in Washington with her father meeting with the GSA. She said she didn't recall the financial statements coming up in that meeting, distancing herself from it.

And the key allegation in this case is that loans were decided based on these allegedly fraudulent financial statements. She said she didn't remember that coming up and that the discussions then were about her vision for the project. Now, she was also asked about a penthouse apartment she has here in New York on Park Avenue. And she has an option to buy that apartment for $8.5 million on Trump's financial statements for that same year. It was listed at 2.5 times that amount, more than $20 million. Ivanka Trump was asked about that. She said she didn't know what went into the financial statements. She didn't prepare them, she didn't review them, she didn't approve them, so, again, distancing herself, like her brothers, Don Jr. and Eric Trump, did when they testified last week.

After court today, the New York attorney general, Letitia James, spoke about the testimony. Here's what she said.


LETITIA JAMES, NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL: At the end of the day, this case is about fraudulent statements of financial condition that she benefitted from, she was enriched. And, clearly, you cannot distance yourself from that fact. The documents do not lie. The numbers do not lie.


SCNANNELL: Now, the New York attorney general's office rested their case today in the sixth week of this trial. Trump's team will begin their defense on Monday. Wolf?

BLITZER: Kara Scannell in New York for us, thank you.

I want to bring in our legal and political experts for some serious analysis right now. And let me start, Norm, with you. Did Ivanka Trump's testimony help or hurt her dad?

NORM EISEN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Her testimony hurt her father. She threw him under the bus. She did not defend these financial statements. She said she didn't prepare them, she didn't review them and she didn't approve them. So, if he was looking to her for help, he didn't get it, or a lot of I don't knows and I don't remembers to protect herself.

And then finally, Wolf, there was one Perry Mason moment because this proceeding has been about dishonesty and New York confronted Ivanka with a personal guarantee. Her father was supposed to make a personal guarantee. They confronted her with evidence that the father turned around and demanded that his kids guarantee him for the guarantee. So, it was neither personal nor guarantee. It was like when he said intent doesn't mean we will do it. It was a Perry Mason moment.

BLITZER: Interesting. Some of our younger viewers might not know a Perry Mason moment, but that's another matter.

How significant, Jamie, was it to see Ivanka take the stand and testify?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it's always significant when you know, one of the Trump children take the stand. Certainly, she did not want to be here today. We know that. She did everything she could.

But to Norm's point about whether, you know, this was legally significant, as he laid out, I would also say it was personally significant. Because in Trump world, what's the most important thing? Loyalty. And as we saw with her testimony with the January 6th hearing, she acknowledged in that testimony that she believed her father had indeed lost the election. He's always -- she's supposed to be the favorite child. He normally would not say anything, but he came out and said she was checked out in the final days of his administration.

Bottom line, he's not going to be happy with this testimony today.

BLITZER: What do you expect to see starting Monday when the defense starts calling witnesses?


ELLIOT WILLIAMS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Sure. I think what the defense will try to argue is a few different things. Number one, look, it was a bunch of accountants that were directing things at the Trump Organization and not the executives of the Trump Organization. I think that's one.

Number two, there's a lot of subjectivity when you're talk about how you value buildings. And I think they're going to try to muddy the water a little bit about, you know, about the values of these properties.

And I also think -- and Ivanka Trump touched on this point a little bit today but in a more subtle way than her father and her brothers, this idea of a victimless crime. Donald Trump talked about it a little bit suggesting that, well, no one was really harmed by their misrepresenting and misvaluing their properties.

She said, and Ivanka Trump made a note today that banks were eager to keep doing business with the Trump Organization, therefore, they couldn't have been harmed that much. And that may have been true, banks may have been eager to do business with the Trump Organization but you still might have violated New York law. Those two things can be true at the same time. And I think that's sort of the arguments that they're going to make.

BLITZER: We'll see how that unfolds.

There's another major development that we're watching today and I want your thoughts. The House Oversight Committee has now subpoenaed Hunter and James Biden, the president's son, the president's brother, for impeachment inquiry against the president of the United States. What do you make of this is this?

GANGEL: It was not a surprise. Annie Grayer, who's on our Hill team, has been covering this story all along. So, the fact that this would happen, we knew it was coming. But you have to wonder about the timing. The day after Election Day, which did not go well for Republicans. And it's also the same day that Ivanka Trump, the child of a former president, was testifying. So, it's certainly a day Republicans would like to change the subject.

BLITZER: Is there any evidence, Norm, that the president of the United States committed an impeachable crime?

EISEN: Wolf, as you know, I spent a year working on the first impeachment and the evidence here is -- does not rise anywhere near the standard of treason or high crimes or misdemeanors. Lately,

House Republicans have been focused on two loans from Biden's brother, James Biden, to the president. First, they said it was -- they found the checks. It's evidence of bribery by China. But then it turns out it's a loan. Then they say there's no documentation of the loans. But then the documentation materialized.

It is an evidence-free impeachment, it's debasing congressional oversight and this important constitutional tool, and I think it's going to come back to haunt them. Those subpoenas may not be enforceable in court because they don't have a formal impeachment vote, no impeachment inquiry on the floor, and there's no basis for what they're doing. I think it's an embarrassment.

BLITZER: All right. You tell us how you really feel. Everyone, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, the latest on the Israeli offensive in Gaza amid growing international criticism of the war and the toll it's taking on civilians. We'll go to Tel Aviv for a live report. Stand by.



BLITZER: All right. There's some breaking news we're following. The Pentagon now says U.S. forces have carried out an airstrike against a weapons facility in Syria linked to various groups backed by Iran.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond is joining us from Tel Aviv, Israel, right now. He's got the latest. What are you learning, Jeremy?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Wolf. Two U.S. F-15s striking a weapons storage facility in Eastern Syria. This was just confirmed by the U.S. Department of Defense. This happened in response to attacks carried out by Iranian proxies in the region against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria.

We have watched over the last several weeks as Iranian proxies have ramped up their attacks on U.S. personnel and bases in Iraq and Syria. Since October 17th, 40 times those bases have been attacked by those Iranian proxies leaving multiple U.S. service members with traumatic brain injuries and other injuries the military characterized as minor.

But this is just an ongoing saga in the potential for a greater escalation here, as Iran has employed its proxies to attack not only Israel, but also U.S. interests in the region. Earlier today, in fact, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are also allied with Iran, took down an unmanned U.S. aerial drone, which is another significant move in this story, as we watch to see whether or not this conflict between Israel and Hamas could potentially escalate into a broader regional war, which the U.S. is very much trying to avoid.

BLITZER: Yes, it certainly is. I mean, it's a very serious development, indeed.

We're also getting, and I know you're doing a lot of reporting on this, a new look inside Israel's ground offensive that's ongoing in Gaza. What are you learning?

DIAMOND: That's right, Wolf. We went into Gaza on Saturday with the Israel Defense Forces and today, several other journalists, including Reuters, getting an opportunity to go inside. These are very tightly controlled visits, very limited window and military sensors do review footage. But we are getting a picture in this case of Northern Gaza and some of Israel's military operations.

This is all happening as Israeli forces are moving now into the heart of Gaza city, according to Israel's Minister of Defense. For several days now, we've been hearing that they've been encircling Gaza City, and now they are saying that they are firmly operating within the city, a Hamas stronghold.

Of course, it's very difficult for us to independently verify those accounts by the Israeli military, but all of this is happening as senior Israeli officials are making very clear, Wolf, that the tunnel system that remains below Gaza remains a tremendous challenge for Israeli forces. And tonight, the Israel Defense Forces confirming that they have taken out 130 tunnel systems since this war began.


But, of course, they acknowledge that many, many more still remains.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, Wolf, remains dire. We are watching as hospitals are running out of medical supplies, running out of fuel to carry out their operations. And the U.N. secretary- general is warning that the way Israel is carrying out its military operations, saying that there is clearly something wrong there. Wolf?

BLITZER: Jeremy Diamond reporting from Tel Aviv, Israel, thank you very much.

I want to get some more now on the crisis in Gaza as countless Palestinians flee the Israeli bombardment in the northern strip for an uncertain future in the south.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz has a closer look at their harrowing journey.


SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Taking only what they can carry, families are fleeing Gaza City. They wave white flags made of anything they can find. And as the sounds of war echo around them, they signal yet again that they are innocent.

Now, we're supposed to be in the safe area but you can hear the bombs behind us, he says. All of our houses are gone. Nothing is left.

The Israeli military has been calling for weeks on all those living in the northern part of the strip to move southward, most recently opening what it called safe corridors for limited windows of time, pushing thousands here to Salah al-Din Street, where evacuees describe a harrowing journey.

We saw along the road destruction, dead bodies everywhere and the Israeli tanks would demand to search the youth, she says. We saw one young man stripped naked. We witnessed unbearable scenes.

The only way the reach the route is by foot or cart for those that can find room. There was heavy shelling on our neighborhood and we were forced to flee. We have to use these donkey carts because there's no fuel, he says. They cut everything off to force us out of our homes.

Israeli troops are now in the heart of Gaza City. As Israel's defense minister apparently declared the entire city, the whole of the enclave's largest population center, a legitimate target.

YOAV GALLANT, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER: Gaza is the biggest terrorist stronghold that mankind has ever built. This whole city is one big terror base. Under ground, they have kilometers of tunnels connecting to hospitals and schools.

ABDELAZIZ: The U.N. calls this exodus forcible displacement and accuses Israel of the collective punishment of some 2 million people.

And these routes can be dangerous and deadly. This was Salah al-Din street just a few weeks ago. CNN geolocated and authenticated these videos showing the aftermath of explosions that killed evacuees. You can see luggage among the bodies.

And many fear they will never be allowed to return home. Some here say this is reminiscent of the Nakba, the Arabic term for the expulsion of Palestinians from their towns during the founding of Israel.

We walked a very long way. It felt like the Nakba of 2023, she says. We walked by dead people who were ripped to shreds. Children were very tired because there was no water. People were dying and there were elderly who couldn't walk.

And for those who do make it, bombardment and siege await them in the south, too. There is no true escape.


BLITZER: Our thanks to CNN's Salma Abdelaziz for that report.

Coming up, five GOP presidential candidates will face-off on a Miami debate stage tonight. I'll talk politics with a Republican governor from the key early primary state of New Hampshire.


[18:48:09] BLITZER: Five Republican presidential candidates will be taking the debate stage in Miami later tonight where one of the topics will certainly be the GOP's losses in yesterday's elections.

Let's discus this and more with the New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.

Governor, thanks so much for joining us.

As you know, Trump won't be debating but he's still dominating the race. In our latest CNN poll, he's at 61 percent. Is there anything -- really anything realistic that any of these other candidates can say or do tonight to change the course of this Republican primary or is it for all practical purposes, already a done deal?

GOV. CHRIS SUNUNU (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: Definitely not a done deal. There's no doubt. These guys are trying to figure out who's going to lead that pack to go one-on-one with Trump prior to Super Tuesday. Iowa will be a big part of that, New Hampshire, even South Carolina will be a big part of that. And these debates are a very big part of it.

You know, you have someone like Nikki Haley whose numbers really moved after the first debate. A lot of folks thought DeSantis was going to do well, he actually did very well in the first two debates.

We had eight candidates about a month and a half go. We're down to five candidates now. So, the field is winnowing. So, as we get closer to that alternative to Trump within the GOP, which, again, would garner 40, 50 or more percent of the vote, then it becomes a real race.

If Trump runs the table on Super Tuesday, you know, later on by March of '24, that's probably it. But this is a chance for them not to say I'm -- you know, I'm going to beat Donald Trump per se, but I'm the best and going to show a more optimistic profile of the Republican Party.

BLITZER: As you know, Republicans saw very telling losses in last night's elections. Was this a failure for your party and how should the GOP presidential candidates take that into account tonight?

SUNUNU: Well, I'm not going to call it a failure if the party. Tate Reeves won. Cameron, you know, Daniel Cameron was down in the polls.


He surged at the end but couldn't get over the line.

But the biggest take away I think is the abortion issue, all right? If you're talking -- abortion has become this national albatross, electoral albatross if you will for the Republican Party. We don't seem to discuss it the right way.

Anyone talking about a national abortion ban should learn what happened in Ohio, even the messaging that didn't work in Virginia and stop. Don't do it.

No one cares about six weeks, 15 weeks, 24. Just stop. If you're talking about a national abortion ban, you are losing. It's losing issue.

Some candidates talk about it the right way. It's a states issue. States are going to figure it out, voters will have more accountability and that's where it is. But on that one, I think that's the biggest takeaway in terms of what -- hopefully what not to do it.

It didn't help us in '22. We lost big. It didn't help us last night.

BLITZER: I know you spent a lot of time campaigning with Nikki Haley and Governor DeSantis who are expected to feud tonight as you know, as they try to present themselves as the best alternative to Trump. What do you -- who do you think will make the best case?

SUNUNU: Well, I think they're both making very good cases in their own lane. They -- you shouldn't try to be something you're not. And I think they're realizing their strengths on the trail.

I've been at the town halls, in the living rooms, in the diners with both of them. They both have compelling cases to make. They both come from somewhat different backgrounds.

But the best similarity is they're both governors. They both have executive-level leadership and accountability. They both have a record of success. And that's I think what's translating a lot with folks.

At the end of the day, it's not just about, you know, who's the best alternative to Trump, but who can make sure we win in November of '24. Trump -- all the latest polls show Trump cannot win in November of '24. Biden is likely not going to be on the ticket.

I think the Democrats are going to be much smarter in either the Bidens or the party or however it's going to work out, the Democrats are going to find somebody else. That latest Times/Sienna poll shows that Trump is the one that loses to the alternative.

So, winning is really the issue of the day, but they have to kind of find their own pace (ph) on the ground. They're both doing very well in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And that's why they've kind of surged as the top two contenders here.

BLITZER: As you know, Iowa's Republican governor just endorsed DeSantis. You're still deciding who you're going to support. Tell us about that.

SUNUNU: Well, timing is everything, of course. I'm not sure who I'm going to get behind. I've always said I'm not -- I'm not good at being coy. As soon as I know, everyone else will know.

And then endorsement is as good as the endorser wants to put the effort behind it, right? You got to do the media and hit the trail and make the introductions, knowing that most voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, most voters in the GOP primary still haven't decided, right?

The polls are where they are today. But those can move drastically, especially after thanksgiving. So that's really where you're going to see the most movement between maybe December 7th and January 7th.

BLITZER: We will be watching. Governor Sununu, thanks so much for joining us.

SUNUNU: You bet.

BLITZER: Coming up, an emotional farewell at the national zoo here in Washington today as its giant pandas began their long journey to China. We're going to have a live report on their departure after decades of what's called panda diplomacy.



BLITZER: It's the end of an era here in Washington. The National Zoo's giant pandas are now on their way back to China.

Brian Todd is joining us live from the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

So what's the latest, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at this hour, the three giant pandas from the National Zoo are in the middle of their long flight to China, a bittersweet day for zoogoers, zookeepers and apparently for the pandas themselves.

As if to say goodbye, a giant panda peers through the window of its crate looking about as sad as we are to see them go. Two adult pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian and their 3-year-old cub Xiao Qi Ji are headed to China, leaving the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. without any pandas.

BRANDIE SMITH, DIRECTOR, SMITHSONIAN'S NATIONAL ZOO & CONSERVATION BIOLOGY INSTITUTE: The question I have been asked most in the past few weeks is, are you sad. And the answer is a very simple yes.

TODD: It was such a sad scene at the National Zoo today that the zookeepers had the look of pallbearers as they walked alongside the pandas' crates. One zookeeper kept her hand by the crate, seemingly to reassure the adult female panda Mei Xiang. The loss felt by zoogoers as well.

ABIGAIL ORTEZ, NATIONAL ZOO VISITOR: We have a little one now, and so we were hoping to let him see the pandas. He won't remember it but we would. So, we're looking forward to today.

TODD: With the liftoff of a FedEx cargo jet and a 19-hour flight to China, an odyssey ends after 51 years of pandas being at the Washington National Zoo with the exception of one year in the late '90s. It was in 1972 that First Lady Pat Nixon, during her husband's

groundbreaking visit to China, commented to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai that she loved pandas. He replied, quote, I'll give you some. Later that year, the U.S. exchanged two Alaskan musk oxen for two pandas, Ling-Ling and Sing Sing. Crowds at the National Zoo have goaded on the pandas ever since.

PAMELA BAKER-MASSON, SPOKESPERSON, SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL ZOO: We have over 2 million visitors to the zoo each year. And we know the vast majority of them come and visit the giant pandas.

ERIN LEWIS, NATIONAL ZOO VISITOR: With the glass wall, you could see them really up close and personal. You could see the pandas interacting with each other. It was just a really great exhibit.

TODD: That first set of pandas at the National Zoo, Ling-Ling and Sing Sing, were huge attractions, but getting them to produce more pandas only led to heartbreak. They eventually produced five cubs, but none of them lived more than a few days.

Still, the exchange program that has placed pandas in zoos around the U.S. has been a resounding success. And the species has been removed from the endangered list.

BAKER-MASSON: They had been downgraded on the conservation list to vulnerable. That's a conservation victory.

TODD: A key question tonight, has panda diplomacy taken a hit from actual diplomacy? There has been speculation that China has been taking back the pandas because of all the diplomatic tension between the U.S. and China in recent years. But zoo officials say that's not the case.

BAKER-MASSON: It's not tied to anything political. It's in our best interest to send these senior bearers back to China and to hopefully bring in a younger, viable reproductive breeding pair.


TODD (on camera): And those are the big questions tonight. Will pandas return to the National Zoo? And if so, when?

Zoo officials say they will be in talks with their Chinese counterparts starting next year about getting more pandas back here. We're told it will be at least a year before we do see them here.

In the meantime, Wolf, Zoo Atlanta is the only facility in the U.S. that has giant pandas, but it too could soon lose them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting -- thanks, Brian, very much.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.