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Trump Tops Polls with Cruz Closing In; Should Americans Pay Attention to Polls; Carson, Rubio Win Hypothetical Vote Against Hillary Clinton. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired December 14, 2015 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:21] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Move over, Wayne Newton, get out of the way Britney Spears, the biggest show in town and easily the most important, the CNN Republican debate, the very last debate of the year. The front runner, Donald Trump, will again be center stage, but he has a new next door neighbor, Senator Ted Cruz, who is closing the gap on Trump, even surging ahead in Iowa. Also making a return to the main stage after a brief one-night engagement on the undercard, Governor Chris Christie. That's big for him.

Here to discuss all the new dynamics, CNN political commentator, former senior advisor to President Obama, Dan Pfeiffer; also here, famed debate coach, Republican consultant, Brett O'Donnell, who is advising Lindsey Graham this year.

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

I want to talk about this new dynamic, which is Ted Cruz, center stage with Donald Trump. Ted Cruz up until now has gone out of his way to be friendly to Donald Trump, to not press too many buttons. The "Flashdance" YouTube video aside. Even that, it's friendly because we all love "Flashdance."



BERMAN: How much more can he afford, Brett? Can he go on that stage and be, Donald Trump is my best friend, or does Ted Cruz need to draw a contrast?

BRETT O'DONNELL, REPUBLICAN POLITICAL CONSULTANT & CAMPAIGN ADVISOR TO LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think he needs to draw contrast. Debates are about being the alpha person on the stage. That's how people judge who wins and loses. It's very important Donald Trump is going to engage him. If Ted Cruz takes a pass, he'll look weak. I think he's got to engage Donald Trump. There are clear-cut differences. They're fighting for the same voters. So, it's going to be very important for him not to back down. If he does, he looks weak. All indications are he's going to be the "rise above the fray" candidate but I think that's a giant mistake on his part.

BERMAN: And, Dan, it's different when you're in the center. It's different when you're standing next to Donald Trump. Those who have been there, Governor Scott Walker. Remember him? PFEIFFER: Vaguely.

BERMAN: Jeb Bush, next to Donald Trump. Ben Carson, who is still next to Donald Trump, but has not had a huge amount of success in these debates being there. How do you think Cruz handles that spotlight? Because people are going to look at him like he's never looked at him before.

PFEIFFER: Right. He's been on the sidelines picking his moments. Now he'll be center stage, going to get more questions, more scrutiny and he has to be prepared for that. I think Brett is completely right. He should not back down from Donald Trump but I think he should engage him with humor, like the "Flashdance" video to disarm it. Cruz is a very good debater. He's been good to date and it will be interesting -- he's better than Walker and Bush and others that have been in it.


O'DONNELL: This debate is really a test for Cruz to see if this is a permanent moment for him or a passing moment, like it has been for Bush and Fiorina and Walker and some of the others that have stood next to Donald Trump.

BOLDUAN: You get the sense that Ted Cruz is the type that prepares.

What about Donald Trump, Brett? What does Donald Trump do? Does he have to approach this differently?

O'DONNELL: I think he has to have a better debate he's had to this point. Donald Trump hasn't been all that fantastic, to use his terminology, in the debate so far. I think he has to have a better debate where he engages Cruz and really shows folks that he's the bigger man.

BERMAN: It's interesting, Dan, we're talking about Ted Cruz, Donald Trump isn't his only problem. He's going to get incoming from a lot of these guys, particularly Marco Rubio.

PFEIFFER: I'll be interested to see how hard Rubio goes after Cruz. To date Rubio has only counter-punched. But Cruz is a problem for Rubio. Rubio has other problems. Christie and Bush and Kasich are hemming him in, in New Hampshire. Rubio is not winning in any state. He seems unlikely to win Iowa. He's in a fierce competition for the establishment vote in New Hampshire and Cruz and Trump seem like favorites in South Carolina. He has to find a way to break out and have some mow machine item. He had a great moment a couple debates and we haven't seen since.

BERMAN: We haven't seen a lot of movement in the poll since.


BERMAN: Brett, you're an expert on the theater of this. We're in this gorgeous space, this gorgeous theater in Las Vegas. The fact it's a national security debate with all these weighty issues, with the attacks in San Bernardino, does that change how these candidates should perform on this stage?

O'DONNELL: I think we're looking for our president now. We're looking for our commander-in-chief. It does change. Audiences are not going to just be judging who is the better debater. They're going to look for who can keep them safe and secure. So, they've got to be able to address those issues, show they have a comprehensive plan, like Lindsey Graham has -- get a plug in for my guy -- but also show they are presidential in the sense that they can lead the country through a wartime -- be a wartime president.

[11:35:12] BERMAN: Dan, that's always been Jeb Bush's thing --


BERMAN: -- from the very beginning when he got in this race. It hasn't worked up until this point.

PFEIFFER: Look, I think that Brett is right. People are looking for their commander-in-chief. I think the metrics by which primary voters have shifted from what people traditionally in Washington have thought. Someone in the past it would be someone serious, governor of the state. But it's really about strength, who shows the most strength. Trump has done that in ways counterintuitive to the way people in Washington think about it, but it's worked. So people looking for a commander-in-chief, they're looking for the strongest person, and that's been Trump. Cruz has made a play for that. We'll see how that plays out.

BERMAN: These voters may be very different than we've seen in the past.

Dan Pfeiffer, Brett O'Donnell, nice to have you here. We'll talk to you throughout the week.


BERMAN: Kate, back to you.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, John.

Coming up for us, Trump and Cruz, they may top the Republican field right now. But according to a new poll, these front runners do not have the best prospects in head-to-head match-ups with Hillary Clinton. We'll tell you who does, and what that means.

Also ahead, should Americans even believe the polls anymore? That's what some Republicans are asking. We'll talk to a Republican pollster who has questions about that, and says we should take all of these numbers with a big old grain of salt.

We'll be right back.


[11:39:51] BOLDUAN: Starting to get exciting, folks. Republican presidential candidates are getting ready to rumble once again as they head into tonight's big CNN debate at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

Before we get there, we, of course, have to see where they stand. What are the latest numbers? What are the latest standings? A brand new NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll shows Donald Trump is holding the lead at 27 percent. Ted Cruz surging, though, to a close second, now only five points behind the front runner. Rubio third, and Ben Carson taking a nose dive, from 29 percent in October, now down to 11. Jeb Bush in single digits, rounding out the top five at 7 percent.

Here to weigh in on all of this ahead of the big debate, former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, Brad Woodhouse; and Republican pollster and the author of "The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America and How Republicans Can Keep Up," Kristen Soltis Anderson.

Love the title of your book, Kristen. Love to plug it.

Great to see both of you.

I gave you guys the top line from the NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll. But, Kristen, it's not just that one. Take a look at the CBS/"New York Times" poll, the latest CNN polling, 35 percent, 36 percent for Donald Trump. But then there's this. You start to hear from some Republicans they don't even believe the polls anymore because they don't believe that what is going on in it is Republican field. This is a question that you've actually explored, a Republican pollster yourself. Why are some folks saying they don't even believe the polls now?

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN POLLSTER & AUTHOR: I think it's important to take polls with a little grain of salt, at least be a thoughtful consumer of them. Not all polls are created the same. Some polls are done vigorously and others less so. I think when people are looking at these polls, what they need to bear in mind is that on election day, not everyone who's a registered voter will vote. Not everyone with a reasonably good track record will turn out in something like the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary. When we're taking a look at a poll, are we taking a look at really the people who are show up that day or are we casting a wider net? It's fine to cast a wider net because, say, Donald Trump brings new people into the process, energizes new voters, but the thing is we can't know that until Election Day. I always caution people, it's not that the polls are garbage, but we should be a little more thoughtful and cautious about how predictive we think the polls really are.

BOLDUAN: You sure hope they aren't garbage because they cost a whole lot of money to conduct a poll.



BOLDUAN: Exactly.

Brad, do you believe the polls? WOODHOUSE: I do think there's a lot in the Republican establishment,

a lot of people in the Republican establishment that don't want to believe these polls.

BOLDUAN: Want to believe the poll is the operative word.

WOODHOUSE: They fear a Donald Trump candidacy for whatever reason. Look, I think Kristen is right. No poll is completely predictive. I think there's something you learn about trends in polls. There is a definite trend of Ted Cruz moving up in the polls, Ben Carson moving down in the polls, kind of steady as you go Donald Trump, but I think what the polls really tell you is two people at the top right now, in New Hampshire, in Iowa and nationally, happen to be the two the most extreme, pushing the buttons of the Republican base, that are anti- immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-women's choice in health care. So I think that trend is probably more important about what it portends for the general election than who's going to win the Republican primary.

BOLDUAN: That trend is more important for the Democrats and how they're going to focus come the general election, I think we can say.


BOLDUAN: You said you also think they can show trends, brad. I think we should just walk down that path and talk about the things you love to hate the most. You do this to me every time I bring it up. That's why I'm bringing it up with you.

Let's look at the hypothetical head-to-heads of Hillary Clinton and the Republican candidates. There's nothing that you as a Democrat are going to hate when you see Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump in the hypothetical head-to-head beating Ted Cruz in the head-to-head. What is going on with Clinton losing to Carson and Rubio in the head-to- heads?

WOODHOUSE: Well, look, I'm back with Kristen here. It's like these polls, the quality of them, you know, I can't speak for, but the truth is we're going to have a close general election. Apparently there are people in the general electorate that don't believe Trump is a serious candidate. All of those other results are within the margin of error, her beating Cruz and Rubio, and Carson beating her. So, I think what it is predictive is we'll have a close general election like we've seen the past presidential cycles.

BOLDUAN: Kristen, given all of this, what are you really looking out for in tomorrow's debate? Do you think someone can have a breakout performance? Is this the last time, especially for the folks on the undercard debate, they have to break out or it's over for them?

SOLTIS ANDERSON: It's going to be very important for the folks in the undercard debate to try to have a moment. It feels like the field is beginning to clarify itself. We're beginning to see this clearer top tier that is staying a little more consistent. You're seeing variation within it. Carson was up, now he's down. You're seeing this top five that sort of solidified. What I'm looking for is, how does Ted Cruz handle the other folks on the stage, particularly Donald Trump? You'll notice in those head-to-head match-ups Ted Cruz falls between Donald Trump losing to Hillary Clinton by ten and folks like Rubio who are doing pretty well. Ted Cruz has been notably kind of quiet on the subject of Donald Trump, saying is he going to give him a bear hug. I think the question for Ted Cruz is, is he going to try to so far hug Donald Trump so much that he wins Iowa but then jeopardizes himself in the general election. That's what I, as a Republican, is watching for.

[11:45:39] BOLDUAN: Nuance is tough, in cable tv and in politics. How can you attack without actually attacking? Let's see if Ted Cruz can thread that needle tomorrow night for sure. We'll be watching together.

Brad, it's great to see you.

Kristen, thank you.


WOODHOUSE: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: You can watch along with all of us the final GOP debate of 2015 only here on CNN. It starts tomorrow night, 6:00 p.m. eastern live in Las Vegas.

Let's head right back out there to John.

BERMAN: Only 30 more hours and 14 minutes to wait, Kate.

Such an important debate, the discussion on national security. And these words today, "a recruitment poster for ISIS," that is what one governor called Donald Trump. With national security front and center here, we will discuss that, and what it means, what it means for Trump and how he will battle his rivals on the issue of terror.

And happening right now, President Obama with a rare trip to the Pentagon, reviewing his strategy against ISIS abroad, also here at home. We'll bring you his remarks live.


[11:50:27] BERMAN: It all happens right here in just about 30 hours. This is CNN's special coverage of the final Republican debate of 2015. I'm John Berman.

Behind me is the Venetian Las Vegas. Inside of that building the Venetian Theater, it is inside of that hall, the beautiful hall that you will see the beautiful candidates, nine on the main stage and four on the undercard, facing off on the issue of national security. Center stage once again is Donald Trump, the frontrunner. He does have a new next door neighbor. Ted Cruz, for the first time will be standing next to him. What does that mean?

Now joining me is discuss, CNN political commentator, S.E. Cupp; and CNN political commentator and former Reagan White House political director, Jeffrey Lord. Jeffrey, Donald Trump has Ted Cruz who is vaulting nationally, and so to quote the "Sound of Music," how do you solve the problem of Donald Trump?



JEFFREY LORD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, how do you deal with the soul mate? Well, you find a way to criticize him, and draw a line in the sand between the two of you. When you run for president or anything else, you don't say, I'm the greatest and the best candidate for president, but the other guy is better than me. So you have to draw that line, which I'm sure he is going to find ways to do.

BERMAN: Which is where? Where is the line?

LORD: Well, one of the things that I find interesting -- and I said it earlier on the air with S.E. -- I talked about Justice Scalia and criticism of him, and I also know that Donald Trump, which I did not realize at the time said that the justice was terrific, to the point that he wanted to make was that towards the African-American community, and you know, he has had a good relationship with the black pastors and that sort of thing which is a different direction from where Senator Cruz is going.

BERMAN: And it will be surprising that he would talk about the Supreme Court here at the national security debate.

LORD: Well, you can talk about anything.

BERMAN: S.E., what do you think that Ted Cruz is going to talk about?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Ted Cruz has talked about his strategy of embracing Donald Trump, and embracing Ben Carson in the hopes that he will collect their voters when and if they collapse. That seems to have are been working with Ben Carson, but it has not entirely worked with Donald Trump yet, although, he is gaining in Iowa, which has Donald Trump pretty nervous.

It is a big night tomorrow night for Ted Cruz. It is the first time that he's close to the main, to the se center, and he is right next to Donald Trump. It is going to be a huge spotlight, and not everyone has tuned in to every debate that we have and for a lot of people, this might be the first big introduction to Ted Cruz --


CUPP: And hopefully, they will give him or Wolf Blitzer will give him a lot of questions. So he will have a lot of opportunities to differentiate himself from not only Trump, but the eight other people on the stage.

BERMAN: It is one thing on Twitter to respond with a YouTube video from Flashdance when Donald Trump calls you a maniac, but you can't play "Flashdance" when Donald Trump calls you a maniac. CUPP: Sadly.


BERMAN: So what about Ted Cruz? If Donald Trump does take a swing at him, what does he do?

LORD: Right. Right. Well, I suspect that Ted Cruz is going to be playing Mr. Nice guy with this. For two reasons, the two people who have done it are no longer on the stage. And the second thing is they know Ted Cruz a little bit and I have met him a year ago when Scott Walker was the presumptive, and it was a private setting, and he did want to say anything about Scott Walker.


BERMAN: Yes, and now he is trying to raise money for him.

LORD: I'm not sure this is the first inclination, period.

BOLDUAN: It may be, S.E., Ted Cruz is not Donald Trump's biggest problem tomorrow night --

CUPP: Right.

BERMAN: -- because Marco Rubio has telegraphed what he is going to be talk about, NSA and intelligence gathering.

CUPP: Yeah, yeah. The race that everyone was expecting to have was between Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and obviously, Donald Trump and to a smaller extent Ben Carson shook it up. That is the most interesting matchup between Rubio and Cruz and I am hoping that we get to see a lot of that, the policy differences as well as the personality difference, and they substantial tomorrow night. Donald Trump's success or failure has never ridden on his debate performances, and he is lack luster in the debates, and in some, he effectively goes to sleep, and he stops talking completely. So I don't think that -- I think that you are right. I think Ted Cruz does not need to worry about Donald as much as he does Marco, and maybe some of the other candidates tomorrow.


LORD: Well, they will be attacked by Marco Rubio tomorrow night, make no mistake.

[11:55:14] BERMAN: Marco Rubio has been calling him an isolationist.


BERMAN: Close to it. What do you say if you are Ted Cruz?

LORD: Well, Ted Cruz is not an isolationist, but he is going to be defending himself chapter and verse and fling it right back. And Marco Rubio is beginning to take on, which I find astonishing, the heir to the establishment people, and this is the guy who was the original Tea Party candidate, and suddenly now, he is morphing into all of the Bush people looking around and Jeb, maybe it is Marco.

CUPP: But with terrorism, the number-one issue that most Americans are concerned about, it is not a great spot for Ted Cruz to have to explain a nuanced foreign policy point of view. On that, I think Marco Rubio wins.

BERMAN: We will see, and tomorrow night right here in Las Vegas.

S.E. Cupp and Jeffrey Lord, thank you so much.

Stay with us here. President Obama will deliver remarks shortly from the Pentagon as part of his visit there to review the strategy against ISIS. We'll bring that to you live.

That is all for us AT THIS HOUR.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much for joining us. We will be joining you live tomorrow in Las Vegas, tomorrow, ahead of the big debate. You don't want to miss that special coverage of that

Right now, though, let's go straight to Ashleigh Banfield. "Legal View" starts right after this.