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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Republicans Set for Debate. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 16, 2015 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:07]

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN GUEST HOST: I'm Anderson Cooper, in for tonight's moderator, Jake Tapper, as Brooke just said. This is THE LEAD.

The stage is set, debate night just two hours away. It has a big fight feel, so who will come out swinging and who could get counterpunched right off the main stage?

More contenders are arriving this hour. Many have already walked through, sized up the podiums. Donald Trump is expected to get here later this hour. He will not be allowed to park his jet next to Air Force One. We have cameras perched at every angle to bring you all the pregame preparation preparations, along with the best political team on television, our analysts, reporters, questioners and moderator, as we count down to the biggest night in the race for the president so far.

Just seconds ago, we saw Rick Santorum arrive here at the Reagan Presidential Library. And today's coverage with the man himself, Mr. Moderator, host of this show, and CNN's chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper.

Let's check in with Jake Tapper.

Jake, what's your strategy for tonight?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as you and I have spoken about, Anderson, our goal is to get the candidates to debate each other.

I thought the best moment in the first debate was when Rand Paul, Senator Rand Paul, and Governor Chris Christie were passionately disagreeing on NSA mass surveillance. I thought that was just illuminating. They both were very, very passionate, disagreed very strongly.

And we're going to try to prompt as much of that as possible, encouraging the candidates to step up and explain why their view, why their position, why their policy is superior to the rival one on the stage.

We don't want this to be about stump speeches or talking points. We want it to be about an actual debate.

COOPER: And how is it going to work? Because you're moderating. There's Hugh Hewitt as well, Dana Bash asking some questions as well.

TAPPER: Yes. I will be asking questions. I will throw to Hugh. He will ask a question. I will throw to Dana. She will ask a question. They're both going to be integrated throughout the night, a number of times, starting in the first block of the first debate.

And it's just going to proceed. And a lot of it, of course, is going to be up to the candidates themselves. If there's an exchange that really needs more time than a minute response to the question, 30 seconds rebuttal, we're going to give it. We want there to be real differences, real excitement.

And we hope the candidates meet the challenge.

COOPER: And, Jake, it looks like Rick Santorum is behind you checking out the podium. Have all the candidates done that so far? I know Trump has not.

TAPPER: We have seen Governor Christie, Marco -- Senator Rubio, who actually, interestingly, went behind his podium and very discreetly, where his name was written on a piece of tape, he took out a pen and he drew a cross right next to his name, I guess as something to reassure him throughout the debate.

I asked permission from his staff before I shared that detail because obviously it was a personal one and meant to be private, but I thought it was very telling about Marco Rubio. And we have Rick Santorum here. We're expecting them all to be here. They're all checking out where they're going to be standing, who's going to be standing there. The arena, as you --

COOPER: And we just lost Jake.

Let's check in with Athena Jones, who has been standing by watching the candidates coming, correspondent Athena Jones.

Who have you talked to so far? Who have you seen?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Anderson.

We have seen a whole slew of people coming through here. It's exciting to see them. This is where they make their first foray into that debate set, that spectacular debate set, I should say. We have seen Senator Lindsey Graham. Senator Rick Santorum just went by, Governor Kasich, Governor Christie.

Let's go ahead and play for you a sampling of some of what the candidates told me as I asked if they were ready and what they're trying to do tonight. Go ahead and play that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: How are you feeling?

GEORGE PATAKI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I feel great. I'm ready for the fight. SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think there may be a lot of fireworks tonight.

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My goal tonight is to keep from having one of those moments that sends me back home.

GOV. BOBBY JINDAL (R-LA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I had a great breakfast of cold pizza and Diet Coke. And I'm thrilled to be here.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm just going to be me. See what happens.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

JONES: There was a little selection there. I asked Governor Bush when he walked in, you know, what he'd done to prepare. He said he went on a six-mile hike this morning. He wasn't bitten by a rattlesnake, so things are looking pretty good.

I also asked Senator Rubio what his goal is, how he's going to break through. And he said something interesting to me, Anderson. He said this is a long process. The contest won't be decided tonight. I thought that was interesting especially because for some candidates they really do have to make a strong impression tonight, or suffer a steeper loss in the poll and maybe a loss in the money race.

So this is definitely do or die for some of the candidates -- Anderson.

[16:05:00]

COOPER: Certainly, and particularly those candidates in the first debate, which starts in one hour, 55 minutes.

Athena, thanks very much.

A lot is at stake, as we said, for several of the candidates gracing the stage tonight.

Let's talk debate strategy. With me here, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger, John King, the anchor of "INSIDE POLITICS," David Axelrod, a CNN senior political commentator, a former senior adviser to President Obama.

David, who has the most to lose tonight?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think there are people on the fringe of the stage who could fall off that stage.

COOPER: In both debates.

AXELROD: Governor Christie. Rand Paul has a lot at stake there.

And certainly in the first debate, I call it the dead man walking debate. It's going to be very, very hard to play yourself on to the main stage in that first debate. There are people who are going to follow Rick Perry out of this race after this debate. I feel fairly --

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Before Iowa even?

AXELROD: I think so, because it's all about whether you can raise the money to continue.

Some of the candidates on the stage, Governor Bush and others, have ample resources to move on. And so there's a little less at stake, although it's still a very important debate.

COOPER: John King, what do you expect?

JOHN KING, HOST, "INSIDE POLITICS:" I'm most interested in what Dr. Carson does tonight, because we know Donald Trump has moved to the head of the pack. We know that despite all of us trying to apply the normal rule of politics when he says things that we think are outrageous or just too much bravado to them, too much belligerence to them, we think it's going to hurt him, and it only helps him.

He's here. We know that now. He's a force and he's going to be a force until we get to the voting. Is Dr. Carson, is this a temporary boomlet, like we saw some of the candidates in 2012? Or can he use this debate tonight to build it and sustain it? Because he's the kinder, gentler Trump. Republicans are clearly looking for somebody outside of the establishment, somebody different, somebody without a title like senator or governor.

Can he sustain it when he will be the target tonight? In the first debate, he had the opportunity to just choose his moment, to be Mr. Nice Guy. He's going to take a little bit tonight because somebody needs those votes.

COOPER: Gloria, in order for him to sustain it, is that an organizational issue?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No. I think it's a candidate issue tonight.

Yes, Carson needs to have and build an organization, but they also need to have a candidate who can sustain himself on a stage like this. He doesn't have experience. He's had a lot of controversial things in the past, which nobody is particularly paying attention to right now.

The person that I'm kind of interested in is how Jeb Bush navigates tonight, because he's got a lot at stake here. People have $100 million investment in this guy. And he is at, you know, single digits in Iowa. You know, he's not doing as well --

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: His PAC's about to drop, what, $25 million?

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: Exactly, a quarter of their money. And so they understand that he's got a problem here.

And I think, in talking to sources in the campaign, that he's going to try and portray Donald Trump as the impostor on the stage, that Donald Trump is not the reformer that Jeb Bush is. He's not the conservative that Jeb Bush is. He's not the optimist here at the Reagan Library that Jeb Bush is.

And so he's got to try to figure out how to do that without directly attacking, attacking, attacking, because you know what happens when Trump is attacked. He attacks back. And I don't think the Bush people really want Jeb to get in that gutter.

COOPER: David, you think they don't want Bush going toe-to-toe against --

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: But he would. But he would.

AXELROD: Yes, he has to find the right way to do it. It's very, very difficult.

It's remarkable, as you move around here and talk to Republican operatives, how much Trump is in everybody's head. And they're all trying to figure out how to get to this guy. One of them said, we know there's Kryptonite. We just haven't found it yet.

And I think for Jeb Bush, who's not by nature a combative person, it's very dangerous. You don't want to look weak and you don't want to look like you're playing a role that really isn't suited to you. So he has to find the right tone to expose Trump.

COOPER: And yet we are hearing from -- you know, we have heard from a number of people kind of behind the scenes that they feel the electorate is angry and they want their candidate to kind of reflect that anger. The danger on that is being inauthentic --

BORGER: Sure.

COOPER: -- and that suddenly you become the angry guy because that's what the polls say.

KING: And how do you strike that balance?

On this stage tonight, you have three candidates who thought they would be different voices in this election. They would be sort of the different candidates. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio all were insurgents. They all ran against establishment candidates in Senate primaries when they came to Washington. They thought that they were going to be the outsiders, they were going to be different.

Well, now you have got Trump and Carson and Fiorina, and they look like the same old. So how do they find their spot? Look for them to try to emphasize that. Look for them to try to say they're anti- establishment. But because they have the title senator in this summer, now fall of

Trump, and now with the Carson rise and Fiorina being the new face on the stage tonight, she's going to have some play to do -- I don't know how they do it.

AXELROD: I think it's important to understand that we focus so much attention on Trump because it's hard to take your eyes off of him. But he's really speaking to a base out there.

And that base is a group that has experienced an economy where you haven't seen a raise in 20 years. They're frustrated with their economic standing. And they're frustrated with a political system that they don't think has responded. And so to be too optimistic is to not speak to the experience that they're having.

[16:10:01]

BORGER: To the anger. To the anger.

So how do you appeal to the Trump supporters, the angry voters? You don't want to turn them off. Jeb Bush doesn't want to turn them off, because at some point he hopes they can --

AXELROD: Well, that's true. But the question is whether Jeb Bush is vying for those voters or whether he's vying for the non-Trump voters and coming up that sort of center-right lane.

BORGER: I think there are lots of different lanes on this highway.

AXELROD: Right.

BORGER: And there's the outsider lane. And Trump is in it. And Carson is in it. Bush is not in the outsider lane, but he wants to be the reformer who is -- can be different. And that's hard. That's hard when you're a Bush.

AXELROD: And the third lane, which is the social conservative lane, and that's where Carson, if you're a Huckabee, if you're a Ted Cruz --

BORGER: Exactly.

AXELROD: -- you have to look at Carson and say, he is eating up a lot of that social conservative vote, so how do we get past him?

COOPER: John, you have looked at the numbers a lot in all the various polls that we have seen.

If Dr. Carson does start to fade out, doesn't have the organization or people just start to look elsewhere, where do those conservatives who are supporting him now, where do they go? Do you think they gravitate toward Trump? Because Carson and Trump are often linked together as outsiders.

KING: The interesting thing when you look at the polling is that, as these guys -- the numbers have gotten higher, it's also gotten wider in the sense of the breadth of it. They're getting women, they're getting men, they're getting

evangelicals, they're getting Tea Party, so it's not coming from one well of the Republican Party, which is fractured into a bunch of pieces, and yet Trump's getting little pieces of each pie and Carson getting little pieces of that.

To David's point, you would assume if Carson started to go down, that the first beneficiary would be the other candidates pushing the social conservative issues. Dr. Carson may not be known to many people around America, but in the evangelical community, when you visit the small churches in their communities, they have been buying his books for years.

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: But I was surprised, in our poll of Iowa -- likely Iowa caucus-goers, that Trump was beating Carson among evangelicals.

COOPER: Right, which surprised a lot of people.

BORGER: Surprised a lot of people.

AXELROD: Which may have been why Carson brought up Trump's faith last week.

I think Carson's going to begin to focus on whether Trump truly is a social conservative.

BORGER: So it's the impostor on the stand.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: We have got to take a quick break. We're going to have more with our panel in just a moment.

We're awaiting more candidates, Donald Trump, Dr. Carson expected to arrive. We will take a short break. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:40]

COOPER: Welcome back to the Reagan library. Ben Carson just arriving here at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you ready? Are you excited?

CARSON: Excitement might be a little extreme, but I'm very ready. Very happy to be here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's your goal tonight? How are you going to make a strong impression?

CARSON: The goal is to be who I am. That's what got me here. Not going to change it now. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And did you do anything special this morning to

prepare for tonight?

CARSON: Yes. I flew from Florida to here.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right. Thanks, sir. Good luck.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What'd he say?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I flew from Florida to here.

COOPER: Flew from Florida to here, that's how he specially prepared. I want to go to the candidate waiting area. Our senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson is at that location with former Senator Rick Santorum. Nia.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi there. Rick Santorum is here. He's already done the walk-through. Senator Santorum, what is your strategy going into tonight?

RICK SANTORUM, GOP PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Just be authentic, try to give people some insight as to who you are and why you're the right person to come into Washington, D.C., shake things up, and make a difference for the country.

HENDERSON: What do you think you need to do to break out of the undercard debate and maybe make it to the main stage next go-around?

SANTORUM: I think show you're the outsider with the insider experience to really make things happen. People are frustrated. They want someone that's going to go to Washington, D.C. and shake things up. I just want to remind people that, you know, when I first came to Washington, we sent the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee to jail. We knocked out the speaker of the House of Representatives after 40 years of Democratic control. We reformed (inaudible). I mean, I went to Washington, shook things up. I've been out in the private sector for ten years, ready to go back and do it again.

HENDERSON: Good luck tonight, sir.

SANTORUM: Thank you.

HENDERSON: Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: All right. Thanks very much. Also joining me again is Gloria Borger, John King and David Axelrod. It's a hard message to say you're the outsider with inside experience.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SR. POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Especially because you're an outsider because you lost your Senate seat. He was not an outsider by choice, he was an outsider by the insistence of the people of Pennsylvania, which I think makes it a little more awkward.

(CROSSTALK) GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Excuse me, because President Obama ran for a second term kind of as an outsider with insider experience. How do you do that?

AXELROD: I think we can be too glib about this outsider/insider thing.

It is your orientation. Do you come at it from the perspective of people out in the country, who are very deeply concerned about this economic issue, very disappointed in the politics of Washington and are you an agent for change? And I think that's what people want to convey. It's just some are more convincing at it than others.

JOHN KING, HOST, INSIDE POLITICS: Rick Santorum though is the living, breathing example of throw out the rule book, and this is a very different election. There's something in the water. We have disruptive forces in our politics.

He won 12 states last time. He won 12 states. Now, again, part of that was being the guy still standing, the anti-Romney in the election. But the Republican Party's history has been if you run once, you come back a second time, you're at least afforded more respect. Here's a guy maybe he wasn't going to be the front runner, but he won 12 states, and he's an asterisk in the polls. And all of these candidates are wrestling with how can I say I'm the outsider when I was an insider or am an insider? How can I make the case -- the key, the governors tonight, Kasich, Christie, Bush especially, the Republican party's $100 million man, how do they make the case I get why you're for him, for Trump, but we have to govern. Someone's going to win, put their head on a Bible and then how do you actually govern if you just say everybody is stupid?

(CROSSTALK)

[16:20:00]

BORGER: Rick Perry was the outsider. Somebody who ran once before and tried again this time, and he's gone. Governors used to be considered outsiders in the old days like the last cycle. They were outsiders because they weren't of Washington. Now the governors are insiders because they've governed.

AXELROD: The guy who was supposed to be the guy in this category was Walker. He was the sort of star guy who shook up Wisconsin and he was going to do that for the country. And he's made some missteps here and is in big jeopardy.

BORGER: Talk about make or break.

COOPER: I want to take you inside to the debate stage. Dr. Ben Carson is checking out the debate stage. Our Jeff Zeleny is standing by inside. What's the scene there, Jeff?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I can tell you that Dr. Ben Carson is standing now on the stage, looking at his podium as you can see. Note, he is right in the middle of center stage with Donald Trump just to one side of him.

Anderson, I can tell you, you've seen it, these podiums are so close together. So he's going to be as close as he's ever been to his rival, Donald Trump. He's looking over the debate stage right here. Of course this is such an august setting with the Air Force One right behind him here. But he is a new debater. He's an outside politician. That's one of the reasons he's closing in on Donald Trump. So he is looking at this very carefully. He's sizing up what the podium looks like. He's smiling and he looks relaxed and loose. He just flew in from Florida, as we heard him say just a few minutes ago. He seems to be taking this preparation here pretty seriously. But boy, he certainly looks relaxed right now, Anderson. As you can see behind me here, now he's actually looking where some of his family members will also be sitting in this very intimate audience of some 500 people or so. So such a small, almost living room like feel up here, Anderson, in this debate hall.

COOPER: Jeff, when you think back to the last debate, the Fox debate, I think there were some 5,000 people or so in that auditorium or several thousand people at the very least. And you could really hear that. This is a much smaller audience, as you said, about 500 or so seats. And they're very, very close to these candidates.

ZELENY: Absolutely. You can see Ben Carson looking right now. Each seat, Anderson, has a name on it where an invited guest will be sitting. So he presumably is looking for where some of his advisers or maybe family members will be sitting. Candidates often do that, look for a touchstone in the audience to see a comfort level perhaps as they're debating here, someone to perhaps fetch an eye to so you can see as he's walking through, seeing who else is on this invite list here on this stage, Anderson.

COOPER: I want to thank David Axelrod, John King, Gloria Borger. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, what can the candidates expect on stage here tonight? Hear from the two people who will be asking the questions during the debate. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:30]

COOPER: Carly Fiorina arriving just a few seconds ago. Let's see what she has to say.

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi. Athena Jones from CNN. Are you ready?

FIORINA: I am ready. Yes, I'm looking forward to it.

JONES: We have seen you tussling a little bit with Donald Trump in the media spotlight. How are you prepared to handle him tonight?

FIORINA: Oh, I think I'll handle him just fine.

JONES: Did you do anything special to prepare for today, this morning, for now? FIORINA: Got a good breakfast.

JONES: Good luck.

FIORINA: Thank you.

COOPER: She's now going to be heading into the stage. Let's take you down there. Welcome back to The Lead. I'm Anderson Cooper in for Jake Tapper. We're less than two hours from round two of the Republican presidential debate. Everyone will have to play by the rules. Let's spell those out. I want to bring in CNN political director David Chalian, who is inside the debate hall for us, where Carly Fiorina is heading. David, show us what the stage looks like.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Anderson, as you know, you've been on the stage, you're going to be able to feel the tension tonight. It's palpable. Look at those podiums. They're so close together.

What I'm fascinated by and what I'm going to be watching for tonight is to see how body language will sort of impact the debate itself. As you can see we've sort of put the candidates out in an array based on their polling. Donald Trump is center stage. He is at the top of the heap. And then it fans out from there as you go down the polls to the sides. So you've got Chris Christie and Rand Paul, the two lowest polling candidates in this tier, at opposite ends of the stage. They also have no love lost for each other, so there's a lot of distance for them to sort of trade barbs at. Unfortunately if you're looking for that Jeb Bush-Donald Trump death match, I'm curious to see how the candidates handle it. The psychology of standing so close to someone or next to someone may make it a little more difficult to actually bring the fight to them. The physics of the stage certainly impact the debate.

COOPER: David, we'll check in with you throughout the day. I do want to bring in CNN's chief political correspondent Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt, conservative radio host. They are both going to be asking questions on that stage. Dana, how do you think it's going to go? What are you looking for tonight?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I am looking for a couple of things. One is just since we just saw Carly Fiorina, let's talk about that. That is the difference in this debate. One of the many differences, but just when you're looking at the stage, this (inaudible), and how her presence will play into the dynamic. Not only sort of what she brings, the obvious fact she's a woman, but the fact she's been among the toughest on the campaign trail, not just on her fellow Republicans but on trying to show the conservative electorate that she's the best to go up against Hillary Clinton.

COOPER: Hugh, what are you looking for tonight?