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Republicans Set to Debate; Interview With Texas Governor Greg Abbott; New Poll: Rubio Trailing Trump in Florida; Interview with Bobby Jindal. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 25, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. We're live in Houston.

It's debate night in America, quite possibly the most critical debate of the Republican race so far, five candidates still standing five days before Super Tuesday. Donald Trump has decisively won the past three states in a row. Will he go for the kill tonight? Will he make the case that this is already over?

Will Marco Rubio and/or Ted Cruz with one win between the both of them stop attacking each other long enough to hit the guy who shut them out in South Carolina and trounced them Nevada and could bury them just five days from now?

The best political team on TV is here to bring you all the highlights, arrivals, analyses and some of the bruising moments on the trail leading up to this big night.

First, CNN political reporter Sara Murray is standing by here in Houston. She's in the spin room.

Sara, the candidates are arriving. The big question is whether any of Trump's rivals will lay a glove on him tonight, perhaps even more so if they will even throw a punch.


The challenge for them is really twofold. They have to stall Donald Trump's momentum. He's coming off a string of three victories. They can't just go on this debate stage and let him stay there unscathed. But if you're Marco Rubio or if you're Ted Cruz, you're also trying to knock the other guy off.

Both of their campaigns have said they believe they can win against Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup, but they are stubbornly sticking in this race, as is John Kasich. I think we have seen a little foreshadowing and a little bit of a realization that they know they need to take on Trump.

Marco Rubio had some harsh words for Trump at a campaign event last night, essentially questioning whether he is prepared to be commander in chief. And Ted Cruz has been laying into Trump a little bit on the trail as well. Ted Cruz has another challenge today. He has to convince voters that all this stuff about him being a liar, about his campaign being up to dirty tricks is not true and his advisers tell me he is ready to push back forcefully against that narrative on the debate stage tonight -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Tonight is it, perhaps the last shot for Republicans not named Donald J. Trump to go after the Republican front-runner. With Super Tuesday so close and so important, they need to figure out a way to tank Trump or he could be the presumptive nominee within a matter of weeks.

To avoid that scenario, the establishment's pick, Marco Rubio, would need to win, say, a state, something he hasn't done and keeps hearing about on the trail.


QUESTION: At what state do you think that it's -- you're going to be the one to trump Donald Trump?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, we will win in Florida.


TAPPER: A new poll out of Florida shows that Rubio may be in trouble in Florida. The Quinnipiac University survey found Rubio 16 points behind Donald Trump.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is here in Houston as well.

Jim, what is Rubio's campaign saying about this poll?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jake, a senior Rubio adviser just told me a few minutes ago he will win Florida -- quote -- "Take it to the bank."

As for the GOP establishment, as you have been saying, they have been accused of taking it too easy on Donald Trump, but no more kid gloves for the GOP front-runner, as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and now the last Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, are all attacking Trump just hours before tonight's debate.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Tonight's CNN Republican debate could be Donald Trump's biggest test yet. With the GOP establishment in a near panic Trump will win the nomination, the Republican front-runner is now under siege from all sides.

RUBIO: Thank you. Thank you.

ACOSTA: From the establishment favorite, Marco Rubio. RUBIO: The front-runner in this race, Donald Trump, has actually

alluded to the fact that he thinks parts of Obamacare are pretty good.


ACOSTA: To conservative firebrand Ted Cruz.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is only one campaign that has beaten and that can beat Donald Trump in this race. And if we stand together and say the stakes are too high to gamble, to roll the dice when we don't know what someone would do as president.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Texas, Georgia, Florida, so many different places, they take early voting.

ACOSTA: Trump, who posted a Facebook video to get out the vote on Super Tuesday, told Anderson Cooper he will be ready at the debate for Rubio, who's desperate to win a state somewhere and signaling he will be on the attack.

TRUMP: So far, everybody that's attacked me has gone down. Maybe that's a good thing for the country because maybe that's what our country needs.

ACOSTA: John Kasich is making the case he should be the establishment's first choice. A pro-Kasich super PAC ad argues Rubio's strengths are overrated.


NARRATOR: Washington politicians and lobbyists are rushing to crown Marco Rubio, but national polls show John Kasich is the one who beats Hillary Clinton by 11 points, not Marco Rubio.

ACOSTA: As for Trump, he has other problems, namely the GOP's last nominee, Mitt Romney, who's calling on the real estate tycoon to release his tax returns.

MITT ROMNEY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: ... that I think there's a bombshell in there is because every time he's asked about his taxes, he dodges and delays.

ACOSTA: Trump, who tweeted out a pic of what his tax returns look like, accused Romney of doing Rubio's dirty work, adding: "I'm going to do what Mitt Romney was totally unable to do, win."

Romney fired back, tweeting: "Methinks the Donald doth protest too much. What is he hiding?"

The dust-up means Trump has now tangled with the GOP's last three nominees from Romney, to John McCain to George W. Bush.

TRUMP: They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none.

ACOSTA: Trump says the matter will be settled in time, telling CNN he will release those tax returns.

TRUMP: I get audited every single year, which I think is unfair. But I go through large audits, and that's the way it is. But we will make a determination over the next couple of months.


ACOSTA: Now, sources close to Romney tell me the former GOP nominee just wants Trump to do what other candidates have traditionally done, and that is stop stonewalling on his tax returns.

But as one person close to Romney for years added, the former Massachusetts governor also wanted to show the current candidates a lesson, how to hit an opponent, adding Romney knew exactly how to wield a blade when needed -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jim Acosta, thank you so much.

Joining me now to talk about the 2016 race and tonight's debate, the governor of the great state of Texas, Greg Abbott. He just endorsed Senator Ted Cruz from the Lone Star State yesterday.

Governor, thanks for being here.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R), TEXAS: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: So the polls indicate that Ted Cruz is well-positioned here in Texas to win. But would you say it's a must-win? Doesn't he have to win his home state?

ABBOTT: Well, Ted is showing that he's able to galvanize the conservatives in this country. And the more he's able to get out his message about the real conservative values, the more that the field has been winnowed down, I think that the genuine conservatives who are going to vote based upon issues are going to galvanize behind Ted Cruz, not just here in Texas, but across the entire SEC primary states.

TAPPER: One of the reasons he won in Iowa was he had such strong support among evangelical or born-again Christian voters, but Donald Trump won those voters who were also in sizable quantities in South Carolina and Nevada. Why? Are you surprised by that?

ABBOTT: Well, for one, I do anticipate that Ted Cruz will continue to win the evangelical vote.

But another is that, of course, the evangelicals are very upset about the way government has been run, about how their principles have been trampled upon, about the way the Supreme Court has been rewriting the Constitution to destroy the values and principles that have been held dear in this country for 200 years.

TAPPER: Then why would they vote for Donald Trump?


TAPPER: Go ahead.

ABBOTT: Yes, because they see in Donald Trump a symbol of their frustration.

But they can find in Ted Cruz a solution for their frustration. I think Ted Cruz as president is going to be able to solve all these problems, far more effective than any of the other candidates.

TAPPER: Former Ted Cruz communications director Amanda Carpenter, who is a CNN contributor, she makes the point that she's disappointed that Cruz hasn't adapted his language to better meet Republican voters where they are.

And you look at the exit polls and you look at Donald Trump's success so far, the voters are angry. They don't want a Washington insider. They want somebody fighting for their jobs. They want somebody who's perhaps a little bit more protectionist and populist when it comes to trade. Are you surprised or are you disappointed that Senator Cruz isn't adapting more to where the voters are?

ABBOTT: You know, he has a great message that I think now that the field has been winnowed down will connect with people.

Let's talk about jobs for a second. And that is, of course, a lot of Americans are concerned about jobs. Ted Cruz's message, but also his solutions are far more effective, because he understands that the biggest killer to jobs right now are all the heavy hand of regulation from the United States government, Obamacare, the EPA, Dodd-Frank, et cetera.

Ted Cruz is the one who's able to bring all these things down very quickly once he's elected. That will stimulate GDP in the United States and get jobs growing again.

TAPPER: A white supremacist group is out with a robo-call endorsing Donald Trump and telling voters, Republican voters presumably that are being targeted, not to vote for Rubio or for Cruz because they are Cuban American.

Specifically, the robo-call says: "The white race is dying out in America and Europe because we are afraid to be called racist. Donald Trump is not a racist, but Donald Trump is not afraid. Don't vote for a Cuban. Vote for Donald Trump."

What's your reaction?


ABBOTT: What we see here in Texas by, for example, me winning the Latino vote, Ted Cruz winning the Latino vote, and that is core conservative values and principles transcend racial lines.

Core conservative principles resonate with Anglos, with Hispanics, with African-Americans, with Asians, with every type of demographic group. And that's because it's one of hope, promise, and more jobs and economic opportunity. TAPPER: Do you think Donald Trump should decry the racist and white

supremacists who are out there campaigning for him?

ABBOTT: That's up to him. I don't know what the message is, but I think that Ted Cruz is going to run a very positive campaign, a campaign that's focused on the issues, a campaign that will connect with America and ensure that the future of America is far more promising than what we have seen under the Obama administration.

TAPPER: You just talked about how you won the Latino vote here in Texas, how Ted Cruz won the Latino vote here in Texas.

"The Washington Post" has a poll out today indicating that eight out of 10 Latino voters nationwide have a negative view of Donald Trump. Can you win the White House, your party, if he is the nominee?

ABBOTT: Look, I'm not a pundit, and I'm not an expert on the polls. I do know Ted Cruz, and I know that Ted Cruz can win the White House in November and that's why I'm supporting him.

He's the right guy who can galvanize Hispanics, Anglos, Asians, African-Americans, all demographic groups in the United States, because he stands for the core conservative principles that will put America on the right pathway.

TAPPER: Governor Abbott, thanks so much for joining us. I hope you enjoy the debate tonight.

ABBOTT: Thank you.

TAPPER: Tonight, it's their last best chance, so how do Senators Rubio and Cruz stop the Trump train before it steamrolls through Super Tuesday? That's next.


[16:15:45] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We are live from Houston, Texas, where CNN will host the last Republican debate before Super Tuesday. You're looking at live pictures of Dr. Ben Carson. He's in the CNN spin room talking to reporters, talking to our own Sara Murray, getting a little pre-debate spin, I guess, of his own. We have a little bit more than four hours until tonight's showdown.

Let's talk strategy with CNN political commentator Amanda Carpenter. She's a conservative writer and was communications director for Senator Ted Cruz.

Also with me, CNN political commentator and Republican strategist, Kevin Madden.

Thanks to both of you for joining me. I appreciate it.

So a simple question, I'll start with you. It's the same question for you, Kevin, afterwards. Can Trump be stopped and what is an effective way to do so if you think he needs to be stopped?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Of course. This is the race where anything can happen, as we've seen before. Debates have consequences. They can change outcomes.

But that said, it's going to be hard to do. I think it comes down to making it a character attack. As we've seen in previous debates, Donald Trump is he'll lay back, let the others duke it out and go to Twitter later on that night.

So, I think there's a chance someone can get under his skin with a type of question and even in the last CNN town hall, Anderson Cooper was able to ask him about his previous statements about the Iraq war and Bush lied, and he didn't handle it that well. And so, I think Donald Trump can be exploited in this environment. It's very hard to make a moment and both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio will certainly be trying very hard to do that.

TAPPER: You think a character attack is the way to do it?

CARPENTER: I think that is where he's most weak. - I think what's what gives people the most worry about him. When I talk with my Republican friends, the thing that comes up again and again is that "I don't want to tell my children I voted for Donald Trump". There is a guilt factor. People are worried about what he would be as a role model for the country. We'll see if somebody goes there. That's what I'm worried about that.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The hard part about that is doing it in a debate. I think that's probably better done with --you know, the infrastructure of a campaign, ads, that type of thing.

TAPPER: Surrogates.

MADDEN: Yes, I think in a debate, the one thing Donald Trump has been bad about is offering the specifics and filling in any of the details. So these campaigns have to continue to press him or at least expose the fact that when Donald Trump talks in very big powerful rhetoric, there is no -- there are no details behind any of it. I think if holding him accountable to that will begin to expose him on that vulnerability that he has.

TAPPER: Let's talk about what Democrats might do with Donald Trump in a way that Republicans have not been willing. BuzzFeed's Andrews Kaczynski spent hours and hours listening to old interviews with Donald Trump. He came up with a few choice comments.

Let's roll some of that audio.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Because I like kids. I won't do anything to take care of them. I'll supply the funds and she'll take care of the kids, right?

(CROSSTALK) TRUMP: It's not like I'm going to be walking the kids down Central Park.

HOST: What is the most outrageous offer you ever got?

TRUMP: In levels of beauty you wouldn't believe. And there are really, I mean, some incredible beautiful women. They'll walk up and they'll flip their top.

HOST: Whoa.

HOST: Wow.

TRUMP: And they'll flip their panties.



TAPPER: There's more than that. That is what was deemed safe to air on CNN. Democrats seem very excited about using some of this to target at women voters, Kevin.

TAPPER: Here's the thing -- it is stunning to me that we know that these type of tapes have been out there. Any really routine opposition research should have exposed that. And the campaigns that are running against Donald Trump in a primary should have had that and they should have made -- that was the time to make what Amanda alluded to before, was open Donald Trump's character to questions from the public.

At the heart of voting for a presidential candidate is, is this somebody that I can trust, is this somebody who understands the problems of people like me, is this someone that I want to leave to protect my family? When you have that type of rhetoric, that really does expose that candidate to losing on those type of questions.

TAPPER: And what do you think? You're a Republican woman. Would that have been effective in primaries? Could it still be?

CARPENTER: Oh, yes. I mean, when he started making comments about Megyn Kelly, I always thought since he came on the scene as a presidential candidate that his attitude towards women would make it very easy for Hillary Clinton to exploit and then become president.

[16:20:07] But listen, there's a lot of material out there. You know, people talk about an October surprise. Republicans who want to stop Trump need a March 1st surprise in this week.

I think he has a long record of things out there. It could happen in this environment. There may be more. Thank God somebody is doing the work.


TAPPER: One second, Kevin. And that is -- nothing he has said or done that people, no offense, like you thought would hurt him has hurt him. If anything, he has gotten stronger and stronger.

MADDEN: Because at the outset of this campaign, he was able to really build a strong connection on populist economic messages and things like immigration and national security. Not by offering details, by offering bold declarative statements on what he would potentially do as president.

And during that time, nobody attacked him on some of these vulnerabilities. Remember, all the other campaigns deployed hope as a strategy and said let him self-destruct. He'll do it on his own.

You can't. Front-runners don't fall on their own, they have to be tripped up by other campaigns and that has been absent for six months. That's why he is pretty well dug in. This is a last-ditch effort and it may not work but think about it, any of these other campaigns had that type of research dropped on them with an interview that they had done with Howard Stern using that type of language, they would have been disqualified from the beginning because the media and other campaigns would have attacked them on it.

TAPPER: Let me reiterate, that was some of the tamest stuff in those Stern files.

MADDEN: That's right. That's what you could play on television.

TAPPER: The Stern files.

Kevin, Amanda, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Just as the Republican establishment is beginning to line up behind Marco Rubio, a new poll shows trouble for the Florida senator. Could Donald Trump beat him in his own state? That's next.


[16:26:19] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper coming to you live from the Lone Star State where no one is messing with Texas. No one is messing with you, Texas.

You're looking right now at Florida Senator Marco Rubio. He is arriving to the debate hall moments ago.

Let's bring in one of Senator Rubio's biggest supporters, former presidential candidate, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. He's joining me on the phone.

Governor Jindal, thanks so much for joining us.

At an event yesterday, Senator Rubio called out Donald Trump by name, something he's been reluctant to do in the past.

You have experienced attacking Trump but it didn't work. It didn't work for you, it didn't work for Rick Perry, it didn't work for Lindsey Graham, it didn't work for Jeb Bush.

Is there a way to go after your front-runner that didn't work? BOBBY JINDAL (R), FORMER LOUISIANA GOVERNOR (via telephone): Jake,

first off, thank you for having me.

Absolutely. Look, I think with the unfortunate death of Justice Scalia, voters are realizing just how important this election is. The court is divided on issues like religious liberty, on Second Amendment rights, on the sanctity of the human life. The next president is going to appoint I think the next Supreme Court justice. I think as voters realize how important this election is, Rubio will do better and Trump will do worse.

TAPPER: But, Governor, that's what people who supported Cruz and Jeb Bush and Rubio and others said after the attacks in France. Now finally the electorate is going to get serious. I don't know that the death of Justice Scalia is going to change anything.

JINDAL: Well, look, I think Rubio projects a positive image for conservatives. He is forward-looking. He can unify the party. He can attract voters across party lines, across demographic lines.

I think voters know it's important we win. Look, Trump, I think there are a lot of voters that are supporting Trump as a protest vote. I think they understand as a consequence as the stakes get higher and we get closer to this actual election, I think more and more voters are taking a second look at Rubio. He's done well in Nevada. He did well in South Carolina. I think he can do well across the country.

I think Donald Trump has got a ceiling. I think certainly he got some support. But I think a majority of Republican primary voters have still said they don't support Donald Trump and head-to-head Rubio beats him. So, I think Rubio will continue to grow his vote share. I don't think Trump can do that.

I think in part because Rubio is optimistic, he's a conservative. He's not saying no to Obama, he's actually offering serious solutions.

I know Trump channels people's anger and that's great but he doesn't take the next step and say this is how we're going to fix our economy, this is how we're going to fix our foreign policy and shrink the government spending and borrowing. Marco Rubio is doing that.

TAPPER: Governor, that's the same critique that people have had of Donald Trump since last summer. The latest Quinnipiac poll in Florida finds Donald Trump 16 points ahead of Marco Rubio in his own home state. Do you agree that if Rubio can't win Florida that he should drop out?

JINDAL: No. First of all, look, these polls -- Scott Walker was going to be our nominee if you listen to these polls. Jeb Bush was inevitable if you listen to these polls. Donald Trump was not even on the radar screen if you listen to these polls.

Polls don't win elections, voters decide elections. Will decide this nomination. We've had four early states vote, those are important states, but 46 more states, the District of Columbia and there's a lot of campaigning left to go. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.

Secondly, I would say this. That I think that as we move forward, as voters begin to examine their records, they'll see that Donald Trump is not really a conservative. Yes, he channels that anger very well but, he's been for the government taking our health care and subsidizing every American's health care. On a variety of issues, he has not been a conservative consistently, either during this campaign or even before this campaign.

I think as voters take a closer look at their records, more and more of them are switching to Rubio. You saw that. You saw some Trump voters leave him in Iowa and go to Rubio. I think you're going to see that across the country.