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GOP Candidates to Face Off in Vegas Debate; Trump on Debate: 'They're All Coming After Me'; L.A. School System Shut Down After Threat. Aired 5:00-6:00p ET

Aired December 15, 2015 - 17:00   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, debate night. GOP candidates are getting ready for a showdown here in Las Vegas. Our CNN debate is it, the last of the year for the Republicans, the last look before families gather for Christmas and Festivus or whatever and talk. And for some of the White House hopefuls, this may be their last chance.

[17:00:31] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Taking down Trump. He is the runaway frontrunner in national polls, and his rivals need to find a way to try to cut into Donald Trump's lead. Can they? Donald Trump says they will be coming after him tonight. Everyone knows he can certainly dish it out. We'll see what happens on that stage tonight.

CUOMO: And terror scare. The nation's second-largest school system shut down. The fear in America is real after the bloodiest attack since 9/11. National security is the theme tonight. There will be a lot of talk about strength. But who will do something really different that makes a difference to your safety?

Our team captain, Wolf Blitzer, is preparing to moderate tonight's Republican debate. I'm Chris Cuomo, alongside the one and only Anderson Cooper, and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We are live here in Vegas, the Venetian Hotel. This is the place to be. Just a short while from now, the GOP candidates will get after it on national security. Who do you think will keep you safe?

COOPER: The focus of the CNN debate, as we said, is national security. It is the first time the GOP candidates will debate since the slaughter in Paris, as well as the massacre in San Bernardino, California, the worst terror attack on American soil since 9/11.

And the debate comes as Los Angeles school system, the nation's second largest, with 650,000 students, is completely shut down by an e-mail threat. Officials in New York received and discounted a similar threat. CNN obtained a copy of the message which warns of pressure cooker bombs concealed in backpacks, as well as the use of nerve gas.

CUOMO: All of this in context for tonight here in Vegas. The Iowa caucuses, seven weeks away. The latest polls show what we've seen to date: Donald Trump out in front, bigger than ever: 4 out of 10 Republicans say Trump is the man right now. That lead has grown since his proposal to ban Muslims from the United States sparking outrage but a boost in the polls.

And in Iowa, Trump is neck and neck with Senator Ted Cruz. Some polls actually show Cruz leading.

COOPER: And for many other candidates, of course, in this crowded field, if they are to make any kind of mark, it is now or never. Tonight is the night the frontrunner, Trump, knows he will be the target tonight. "They'll all be coming after me," he said last night.

The stage here is set for some high drama. Our correspondents, analysts and guests are standing by with full coverage.

The candidates, they have been checking out the stage behind us, getting a last-minute look before their showdown. We begin tonight with CNN's John Berman.

John, what can we expect tonight?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Anderson, I am backstage at the Venetian theater. Behind me right there is the door that the candidates will walk in in just a few minutes as they emerge from their dressing rooms. And they will walk in right there and walk across that stage.

You can even see here five lecterns. They will be added after the first debate, which begins in just a few minutes. They will be added to make nine lecterns for the prime time debate.

As you have noted, this is the final debate of 2015. And there are some new factors which could have a major impact. No. 1, Ted Cruz moving close to center. He will be right next to Donald Trump. That is a position that has been fraught with peril. Some of the people who have stood there, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, remember him?

No. 2, Chris Christie, back on the main stage after a one-night engagement in the undercard debate. He could be a big factor tonight. He knows how to control this type of event.

No. 3, they will get 75 seconds. The candidates will get 75 seconds to answer the questions. They will get 30 seconds to respond if they are named by someone else, a rebuttal, if you will, 30 seconds. They will both get opening and closing statements, as well. So the candidates could get a chance to set the tone early on.

Finally, this space, this is the Venetian Theater. This is a theater that was built for "Phantom of the Opera" to come to Las Vegas. It seats 1,400 people. "Phantom" ran for six years here. So this is a space that knows drama, maybe nothing like tonight, unless they start singing -- Chris.

CUOMO: All right, John. Let us know if there's any prefight trash talking that we need to know about as the candidates take the stage.

Ted Cruz is certainly not going to like hearing himself being described as moving to the center. He very much says he is the man on the right lane, and he's going to stay there. Donald Trump is liking what he's hearing, two national polls have him higher than ever. People were wondering, what would it mean that he offered to ban Muslims from the U.S.? Well, it's helped him. And there's no question that he is going to be a target tonight. He is the man in the middle.

[17:05:14] So let's turn to CNN political reporter, Sara Murray. The other candidates are going to be coming after him. This is the way he sets it up. He doesn't want to start it, but he'll finish it.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and it's really interesting, he did say that last night. It's like he's fully prepared for it. But you also see a different Donald Trump on these debate stages than we do on the campaign trail. On the campaign trail he ripped into his rivals. He goes after pretty much everyone.

So you remember, when you look at past debates, there were long stretches where Trump kind of almost seemed to disappear, where he was happy to let the other candidates go after one another.

Now Trump is also interesting because he has a little bit of a different day going on than some of these other candidates. He decided to skip the walk-through that the other candidates are doing and for good reason. Instead of doing that, he's meeting with Sheldon Adelson. He's the billionaire mega GOP donor. Sort of an interesting meeting for Trump today, because he says he doesn't want any money, he doesn't want any big outside donors like this.

Now, Trump also didn't have very far to travel. He tweeted earlier that he's staying at his hotel, Trump International. He's looking forward to a good debate tonight. He hopes he's treated fairly.

COOPER: All right. Sara, thanks very much.

The focus of tonight's CNN debate, of course, is national security. With America on edge after the bloody attack in San Bernardino, there was a new scare today, as we told you about, in Los Angeles, where the school system, with more than 650,000 kids, was shut down after what officials called an electronic threat. Our justice reporter, Evan Perez, has the latest on that -- Evan.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: You know, Anderson, the reaction to this e-mail threat really does tell you a little bit about the atmosphere there in over in the West Coast in California in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack.

But you know, we have taken a look at the message. And you also kind of -- you can see why New York City got a similar message, and they reacted in a different way.

We saw the message mentioned pressure cooker bombs and backpack bombs and that there were a group of attackers who were preparing to take out -- take an attack against schools in Los Angeles and in New York, and the message made a reference to a vulgar reference to a male body part.

So that's one reason why New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton reacted to this by declaring it to be a hoax. Take a listen to what he said.


COMMISSIONER BILL BRATTON, NEW YORK CITY POLICE: We have been in contact with the Los Angeles Police Department, a department I'm very familiar with, and a school system I'm very familiar with.

It appears, as of this time, that the school system out there acted on their own, without consultation with local law enforcement authorities, and they may have shut down their schools for the day. We see no need whatsoever to take that action here in New York City. That we do believe, our preliminary investigation, that this is, in fact, a hoax; and we'll investigate it as such.


PEREZ: Officials in Los Angeles were quick to defend the school district superintendent who made this decision. He wanted to make sure that the kids are safe, all 650,000 school kids there. The -- Charlie Beck, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, addressed the media. And here's how he put it.


CHIEF CHARLIE BECK, LAPD: Any time these kind of threats are made against our campuses, given all the school shootings in America, given San Bernardino, you know, we take them seriously.

You know, we gave -- we gave the school district the -- our best advice on this, and they chose a path. And you know what? As I said, everybody has to make decisions in life. Some people, the superintendent in this case, had to make a decision that affects everybody in this city's children and another 100,000 of his own employees. And you know, I think it's irresponsible to criticize the decision maker.


PEREZ: And now we know that the FBI is investigating this. They want to know who's sending these messages. These are not uncommon, as you know, Chris, for school districts and for universities to get these. Some of them react like Los Angeles did. Some react the way New York did, but they really just have to take it as each example comes.

CUOMO: There's no question they're not uncommon, Evan Perez, thank you very much. In fact, they're too common. The fear is very real. And people are erring on the side of safety. And you can't blame them right now.

And that's what brings into sharp focus this debate here tonight. Donald Trump, once again the national frontrunner, but Ted Cruz is surging and not just in Iowa. Some polls do show him taking the lead there, which some expected, but not in this fashion.

So let's turn to the national spokesman for the Cruz campaign, Rick Tyler. Good to have you, with Anderson and me here.

So going into tonight, big part of the intrigue is, how will Senator Cruz respond to his moment when he's talked, what he'll project? What can you tell us?

[17:10:02] RICK TYLER, NATIONAL SPOKESMAN, CRUZ CAMPAIGN: I think what he'll do is -- what you'll see tonight is Ted Cruz looking like a commander in chief. He'll look like he's in control.

Yes, I do think people will attack. But look, he will advance and defend his positions. But I don't -- I don't see him participating in the food fight. So if the mashed potatoes start flying around, I'll expect them to pick that up. I think he'll try to stick to the substance.

COOPER: Marco Rubio has been painting him as an isolationist. You're obviously going to be prepared for -- for that. What's the response?

TYLER: Well, he's not an isolationist, and nobody believes he's an isolationist. Ted Cruz is a -- is a conservative. And the polls, "The Des Moines Register" showed that more voters in Iowa see Ted Cruz as their commander in chief. They also say he has the right temperament, and he also has the most favorability rating.

So that's a lot of surprises that come out of the poll that I think have got the establishment in Washington sort of befuddled.

COOPER: You guys have also been playing a really -- kind of a long ground game.


COOPER: You've been preparing for this. And when you look at the most recent polls, for those people who are still supporting Dr. Carson, their second choice is Ted Cruz. So there's a lot of people who still could go to the Ted Cruz camp.

What do you think has been working best for you? Because I mean, everyone says you've got a great ground game in Iowa, even in South Carolina and in a lot of other southern states.

TYLER: We've been working really hard in Iowa. We've got 3,800 volunteers. We've got 170,000 nationally. Our people really just want to be found. They want a conservative to lead, and they see that in Ted Cruz. You've got all 99 county chairs named. That's a lot of hard work in Iowa.

They just announced that right after this debate we'll going to do our fly-around in the March 1 states. So we'll be visiting seven states in ten days. We've got, like, ten stops. And so we're going to -- we did a bus tour in the summer, which people sort of said, "What is Ted Cruz doing?" We're going to do that again, solidify the long game so that we are prepared to go.

What we don't want to do is win Iowa, and then that's the one state strategy. It got to be a national strategy.

CUOMO: That's the challenge, right? Very often, the political campaign is a two-step dance. What do we do now? What do we do next?

What do you do now is you capture your moment. You try to find a way to be the practical alternative to Donald Trump. That's what we're hearing more and more about why Cruz is suggestive to people.

Then, your second step is you can't be a one-trick pony. It can't be just Iowa. People expected you to do well in Iowa, not this well, not this soon, perhaps. Give yourself a pat on the back. But how do you replicate? You put a lot of money, a lot of time into Iowa. You can't do it everywhere. How do you replicate the success?

TYLER: Well, for one thing we've got the most money on hand. And so the candidates have to decide -- they have to show that, when they go into March 1, which is a lot of state's, you're going to have to have available resources. We've had the most available resources.

The other thing is our super PAC has not spent any money. That -- I don't -- participating in those strategies is kind of interesting.

CUOMO: Didn't he hire people for the ground in Iowa?

TYLER: I've read the same reports you have, but they have not started to advise on television. So -- but you know, March 1 is going to be a time when it's going to get very expensive, very fast. And we'll have the resources to do that.

We've already built the ground game in those states. We've been all over those states. And remember, most of those states are just southern states. They're evangelical states. All of them are in the south. They're over 50 percent evangelical. Some, like Oklahoma and Tennessee and Alabama are 70 percent evangelical, even more so than Iowa. So we think we'll do really well there.

COOPER: What do you do regarding Donald Trump tonight? We've seen Donald Trump on the campaign trail. He called Ted Cruz the other day a little bit of a maniac.

TYLER: A little bit.

COOPER: You guys put out a commercial with, you know, the best movie ever, "Flashdance."

TYLER: 1983.

COOPER: I remember it all too well.

CUOMO: How many times have I re-enacted that scene?

COOPER: But I mean, tonight -- because Donald Trump has actually, you know -- he talked stuff on the campaign trail, but often on the debate stage he doesn't necessarily attack some of these candidates. Do you expect him to come face to face with...?

TYLER: I can't predict what he's going to do. I do know this. You know, Ted Cruz likes Donald Trump. And it appears to me that Donald Trump likes Ted Cruz. I think they have a -- they have a rapport.

But they are in competition for the presidency of the United States. So they're both going to be looking at distinguishing. Many ways this could be down to a two-person race. I mean, so we'll see -- we'll see what happens.

CUOMO: Well, here's the trick. Is that he can't just look in front of him anymore. I thought one of the things that Anderson did so brilliantly in the Democrat debate, was that there was a balance of who each of the people were on the stage relative to their position. Not as many.

But he's going to have Trump in front of him. He's going to have Rubio and Carson, not necessarily behind but next to him. They're going to come at him. How does he handle that in a way that shows him at his best? Because he can be nasty. He's smart, intellectual, pressing his points.

COOPER: And he's a great debater.

CUOMO: So how does he deal with it tonight? Because you keep saying -- and we hear from everybody -- he's not going to get into it. He's going to be good. He's going to be his best self. How do you do that when you get attacked.

TYLER: If it's an attack on substance, we'll participate and clarify the substance and making people clear of the policy.

I think one of the things that Senator Cruz has been very, very strong is, yes, he's very -- he's very good at debates. I think he'll do extraordinarily well tonight.

But he also knows his policy. He also knows how the government works. He also remains the original outsider. And that's what -- the voters seem to be looking for an outsider. They certainly -- they see that in Donald Trump. But Ted Cruz is the proven outsider. And that's what he's going to see.

[17:15:04] CUOMO: Is he pumped? Is he ready for tonight?

TYLER: It's great to see you. Yes.

CUOMO: What's the word? Is he pumped? Ready to go?

TYLER: He's ready to go. He's excited.

COOPER: The word? Pumped?

CUOMO: This is like a prizefight. You see Anderson before the Democrat debate? He was back there punching the wall. That was something.

COOPER: Thanks for being with us. Good luck tonight.

Coming up next, he'll be at the center stage. That means Donald Trump will be getting it from both sides. The frontrunner says his rivals will all be coming after him.

Tonight, the question is can they do any damage? He's doing incredibly well in national polls right now. And Senator Marco Rubio is one of those rivals who's been gaining ground on Donald Trump. What does he need to do tonight to hold momentum and to gain momentum? We'll hear from one of his key advisers.


COOPER: Hey, welcome back. We're waiting to start the Republican presidential debate here in Las Vegas. The focus tonight, national security. This follows the attacks, of course, in Paris and San Bernardino; and it comes on the heels of a threat to the Los Angeles school system.

Let's turn now to our experts. We're joined here with me, along with Chris Cuomo, we're joined by political commentator David Axelrod; CNN chief political analyst, Gloria Borger; CNN chief national correspondent, John King, maker of "INSIDE POLITICS."

David, what are you expecting tonight?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, clearly, national security has risen to the top of the list of concerns, and Donald Trump has surfed what is an environment of fear out there very effectively.

So I think you're going to see candidates trying to see some muscularity here on this issue and capture the moment. And then there will be these subplots: Rubio and Cruz and how they interact. They've been sparring. How do Cruz and Trump react as Cruz is moving up on Trump and is taking over the lead in Iowa?

[17:20:15] But I think the guy to watch in this debate is Chris Christie, who has been moving up also with his muscular talk on national security in New Hampshire and is a real threat to block some of these center-right candidates in New Hampshire from doing what they need to do.

CUOMO: That's a good phrase that Gloria is using, muscular talk, because you've got this distinction between, you know, how you speak...

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm kind of wondering what muscular talk is.

CUOMO: Well, because I think the allusion is...

AXELROD: You haven't watched Donald Trump.

BORGER: I know.

CUOMO: They're talking tough: "Right now, the situation is soft. There's weakness; I am strength." But the trick here is, when you get to the how and the what, right?

BORGER: Absolutely.

CUOMO: Who's going to lay things out tonight that's fundamentally different from what's happening now?

BORGER: I think you've seen Dr. Carson tank in the polls, because he didn't lay anything out, and he didn't seem to have any expertise on national security. Today we saw him lay out a plan to fight ISIS. They know that, among Republicans, you know, terrorism was 4 percent in November as your major concern. Now it's 24 percent of Republicans. So -- and it's the top issue.

The problem that they have is they lay out their solutions, is that one of these folks is going to have to talk to a general election audience at some point. We went through this with Mitt Romney, because he went so far to the right that he couldn't -- he couldn't attack back during a general election. So you can be muscular, to use the phrase, but Democrats feel very differently about what you ought to do to fight ISIS than Republicans.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: One of the debates within the debate is, to Gloria's point, normally, you do have the strategists for the Republican campaign saying, yes, we go right into the primaries, but eventually, we have to get back to the middle.

You know, Ted Cruz doesn't feel that way. He doesn't feel that way. He thinks you run a conservative campaign. Trump is not an ideological candidate. He is not an ideological Republican, and yet, he's the national leader right now.

So what do we have? The last debate of the year, we have two Republican races, Trump is winning nationally, and Trump's terror play is the big reason he has the biggest lead he's ever had in the national polls. Because what do Republican voters think of President Obama? Fairly or unfairly, Republican voters think he's nuanced; he's vacillating; he's indecisive; he's not strong. Trump is, boom, "Bomb the bleep out of them. Kick out the Syrian refugees. Don't let Muslims into this country." And it helps him...

COOPER: The question is do Republican candidates on the stage with him go after him as being critical as they have on the campaign trail?

KING: That's the risk. Because if you're Jeb Bush and you go after him, and you're Chris Christie and you go after him, even just on the Muslim ban, which both of them have said is a bad idea and which a lot of counterintelligence people who aren't involved in politics say helps ISIS when you do this, where does -- what does Donald Trump say?

OK. So you are with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Republican establishment. If you do that to Donald Trump, he is happy as can be now, because that's what he wants. He wants Obama, Clinton, and the Republican establishment after him.

BORGER: You know, tonight they each have other people they have to go after in addition to Donald Trump. I mean, Rubio and Cruz will probably go it. Rubio's going to take on Cruz. Paul will -- will be challenged by Rubio. Christie will be talking about national security credentials. So in a way, Trump is out there, but they all have other business to conduct tonight.

COOPER: Do the debates matter for Donald Trump? I mean, they certainly matter for some of the other candidates. We've seen candidates rise and fall.

AXELROD: He has not profited from the debates as others have.

COOPER: And yet he's profited every other way.

AXELROD: Generally, he does something outrageous two or three days after the debate to bring his numbers up to recover from what has been sort of a lackluster response to his, because part of what happens here is you've got two hours, Chris's point is a good one. You have to -- you can't just do the initial line. There is substance that has to be addressed. And he hasn't really done that very well.

CUOMO: I mean, also, you've got to be ready. If you bring your hands down, because you just said a very muscular thing, Wolf Blitzer is going to pop you in the nose with a jab of how, what?

You know, as we saw from Anderson.

BORGER: He doesn't answer.

CUOMO: If you're going to be peppered with questions, the other guys are going to be responding to how you answer.

Is -- to your point, Chris Christie, can anybody on the stage argue better than the governor of New Jersey, who was the U.S. attorney, you know, for that district, to say, "You can't just talk the talk; you have to walk the walk. I've walked the walk"?

AXELROD: I think you're exactly right. That's the case he's going to make. And he's been making it very effectively in New Hampshire. He's risen in the polls. He's gotten some key endorsements there. I don't think he can go the distance, because he has other problems that will come back as he rises that have to do with New Jersey. But he is the most proficient debater, in my view, on that stage.

KING: And that's the two races you have. Trump is the national leader now.

But go back to 2008 -- forgive me, David Axelrod -- but Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton, and Ted Cruz at the moment is Barack Obama in the sense that he's -- he's ascendant in Iowa right now. You look at the national polls at this point in 2008, everybody says Clinton, Clinton, Clinton, and Obama was coming. He had made his move in Iowa by now, not quite the way Cruz has. Cruz isn't quite at the Obama point yet.

But, you know, what happens to Donald Trump's brand if he starts losing? Because he's all about winning.

AXELROD: What happens to his psyche is really the question. Can he handle that?

BORGER: What does he do?

CUOMO: Big questions, and you know what? The proof is in the pudding. We see how he does tonight, and that answers the question for itself. And if anybody wants to talk about 2008, it's Ax. That's for sure.

All right. So right now, we use a lot of prizefight analogies, because it really is like that for the men and women who have to get up on that stage. They're thinking about how do I get ready? What are my points? What do I do? That's what's going on right now.

We have two debates tonight. First one's going to be coming up at 6. We're going to have four people on that one. Then we're going to have 8:30. That's the main event tonight. We're going to give you a look into the strategies on both sides when THE SITUATION ROOM continues.


[17:29:30] CUOMO: We are getting ready for the first round of tonight's Republican presidential debate right here at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Behind us, the room starting to fill up. There's a lot of filibustering going on. The focus...

COOPER: Filibustering? Really?

CUOMO: Yes. It's filibustering. Did you like that? It's Latin.

This will be the first time all of the candidates have come together since the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. So it's a very serious setting for this discussion.

Let's check in with CNN senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. He's outside the debate hall -- Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Chris, people are arriving here at the debate. You can see behind me here, they've gone through security, and they're filing into the debate. And anticipation is building for this. Of course, the final Republican debate of the year; the stakes could not be higher.

[17:30:13] Let's start with Ted Cruz. He probably has the most to gain, and perhaps the most to lose in this debate. He's been coming on strong. He is going to, I'm told, avoid engaging Donald Trump. They've had a bit of a back and forth from afar. But face-to- face, standing right next to him, do not look for Senator Cruz to engage Donald Trump.

Why? He wants to win over his supporters. If Donald Trump supporters peel away, Ted Cruz wants to be there to pick them up.

One other thing for Senator Cruz. He's unused to facing conservative criticism. But boy, he will get a lot of that tonight from Senator Marco Rubio, from Chris Christie.

So watch the voting record. It's going to be a revisit of Senator Cruz. Those are some of his three top items.

Now, moving on to Donald Trump, I think there's no question here at all that he is going to take on Ted Cruz. He's been doing it in campaign rallies. He said that he was beholden to the oil companies. He said that he -- he raised the fact that he's born in Cuba, and he's an evangelical. So watch Donald Trump to go after Ted Cruz hard.

Of course, he's gaining on him in Iowa and across the country.

Finally, Chris Christie. I'm watching the comeback of Chris Christie. He's back on the main debate stage, after being relegated to the undercard debate one month ago.

And the issue set in this campaign is lining up nearly perfectly for Chris Christie, his advisers believe. He will talk a lot about global terrorism. He'll talk a lot about his experience. And look for him to question the experience of Senator Marco Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz.

So those are three of the things of many things we're watching here tonight -- Anderson.

COOPER: Jeff, thanks very much. And really, a big deal for Chris Christie to be able to get back onto the main stage after being on the running-up stage. That of course, is going to be the first debate coming up tonight for candidates on that stage. That's what we are getting ready for just shortly.

As we continue counting down to the start of tonight's debates, I want to bring in CNN's Kate Bolduan. She's in the spin room, where the candidates or representatives of their campaigns will be trying to put the best possible light on tonight's performances, sometimes even before those performances begin.

Kate, have any of the candidates actually been by to do some pre- -- pre-spinning?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, pre-spinning, I think that's a new word we'll have to use, Anderson. Yes. Even before the candidates have taken the stage tonight, the spinning has already begun in the spin room.

Dr. Ben Carson, he actually came through here just moments ago to take a tour. I went up and I actually reminded him the last time that I met up with him in a spin room was just before his first debate, our debate in California. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Last time we met in the spin room, it was your first debate. We were in California. What's different about this debate?

DR. BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I've had an opportunity to go through the process a few times. So you feel a little more comfortable with it.

BOLDUAN: But foreign policy, something that you face a lot of criticism on, a lot of articles written; that's your weakness.

CARSON: That's why I'm looking forward...

BOLDUAN: How are you going to -- how are you going to deal (ph) with your weakness?

CARSON: That's why I'm -- that's why I'm looking forward to some questions about foreign policy. I can demonstrate that that's not true.

BOLDUAN: Since the last debate, you've seen a big problem in the polls, in nationally and even in places like Iowa, a key state for you. What do you attribute to the drop in the polls, and how are you going to change it tonight?

CARSON: Well, I attribute it to the increased attention on security and terrorism. And I'm considered a nice guy who's not tough enough to deal with those things. Hopefully, I can demonstrate that I still am a nice guy but can deal with those things.


BOLDUAN: I think you can see right there, he lays out for us how high the stakes are for him, before going into the debate.

And they're even higher, I would argue, tonight than before previous debates. This guy, give him a tour of the spin room. It's bigger than past spin rooms, I will say. Remember, we are less than 50 days now, Anderson, to the first votes.

And this room will very soon be packed with the 600 credentialed media from across the country and around the globe. This really being the last major media moment of 2015 for the candidates and the last chance for them to face off before all of these cameras and all of this attention this year -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, it's about to get very, very crowded in there. Kate, thanks very much.

Dan, what are you going to be looking for tonight? I mean, obviously, you're a Democrat. What are you going to be wanting to see on that stage.

We are waiting for the start of the Republican debate here at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. What's it going to take to win this crucial showdown?

Let's bring in our CNN political commentators, Dan Pfeiffer, S.E. Cupp, Ana Navarro and, of course, joined here by the one and only Chris Cuomo. What are you wanting to see on the stage?

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: From a perspective of trying to study the race, I'm curious to see how Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio will engage. I think the two the best chance to be the nominee if it's not Trump. Let's see how they debate on national security and immigration.

And then, just from a Democratic perspective, we're going to be looking for every single thing that they say that could be used in a general election to motivate our base.

CUOMO: Do you see Cruz and Rubio going after each other?

PFEIFFER: I think that is more likely than Trump and Cruz going after each other. Or at least Cruz going after Trump.

COOPER: Because they both see themselves as kind of playing a long game and long-term rivals.

[17:35:05] PFEIFFER: Right. And I think Rubio -- Cruz is now standing in Rubio's way. He has sort of won his momentum. He's jumped to the -- jumped to the front of the pack as the anti-Trump frontrunner. And I think Rubio's got -- Rubio's going to make a move here to try to discredit Cruz on national security. I think that is Rubio's No. 1 objective tonight.

CUOMO: Well, if he has a mark to make, that would be Rubio's mark. He has comported himself very well with national security. Putting aside, S.E., how his position's helped him within and without the base, right?

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's such an interesting dynamic between -- between Cruz and Rubio on foreign policy right now. Because for the past few months Ted Cruz has come under some scrutiny within the party for pejoratively calling other Republicans neocons, which no good Republicans should ever do. It's sort of an unwritten rule.

You know, as Jeff Zeleny mentioned, his record, showing up at the Armed Services Committee, public hearing, something like 17 out of 50 he's only been to. People have been questioning that.

His position on Syrian intervention, his position on NSA metadata collection have put him in a very strange, almost Rand Paul-like kind of position within the party.

As we all know, terrorism is a top concern for Americans right now. So Marco Rubio's job tonight will be to paint Ted Cruz as inconsistent on foreign policy, not the kind of tough, hawkish foreign policy leader we need now for this moment and sort of put his own hawkish foreign policy out there as the grown-up version of a foreign policy in the room. CUOMO: We're not talking about your guy much today, Jeb Bush.

When he comes into tonight, what are the expectations for him? How does he make that moment? Is there strategy thinking like that motivating them into tonight?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think -- I think he's -- this is a game of low expectations at this point for Jeb Bush. That is a -- that -- that can turn into an asset. Frankly, all he needs is to be able to, you know, have one good line, to create a good moment, to have some stylistic authority up there, and it might change the narrative.

Jeb at this point, I think, realizes he's in a turnaround campaign. He needs to get people to give him a second look. And you know, I think -- I think that the race is going to be this firework between Cruz and Rubio. And that opens up a space for somebody like a Jeb, like a Christie, to say, "Boys, boys, boys, now take this playground fight outside, and you know, let's let the men with the experience talk about how we're going to take care of ISIS."

CUOMO: But has he been -- do we know if he's been practicing? Has he been trying to change his debate strategy? Because I mean, I feel like we've had this discussion now, I can't remember how many times.

NAVARRO: I can. Would you like me it...

COOPER: But it never has happened. I mean, do we know, has he been trying any new, you know, cereal or something?

NAVARRO: Well, you know, I mean, look, for the last debate, I can tell you that I literally sent him a plate of nails with a side of bacon to eat for breakfast.

Look, I think he -- he -- we've heard, we've read that he's hired a media coach. I don't know how much he's been working with him, frankly. And Jeb is a policy guy. And it's very hard for him to embrace and accept the theatrics.

But I think, you know, he has realized that the theatrics is part of the job description that comes from running for president, that comes in being a primary. And either you embrace it, or voters are not going to embrace you.

COOPER: Well, we'll see what happens tonight. We're nearing the first round of tonight's Republican debate. Coming up, will Donald Trump and Ted Cruz continue to play nice, or are we in for a memorable confrontation?


[17:42:30] CUOMO: You are at the Venetian in Las Vegas. We're getting ready for the first of two big debates here tonight. That's a look outside. We'll now show you a look inside. And it is filling up behind us right now. You have blue suits; you have gray suits; you have dappling of bald spots; you have many women in red and people wishing each other luck but not meaning it. That can only mean one thing. It is GOP debate night, and the stakes are very high.

The focus: national security. The candidates will be trying to project the qualities voters expect of a commander in chief. What will that mean? What will work?

Let's discuss right now. We have senior political reporter Nia- Malika Henderson. We have CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein, also the "National Journal's" editorial director; and CNN anchor and political commentator Michael Smerconish. I am Chris Cuomo. You have the one and only Anderson Cooper.

So Nia, as we head into tonight, there's been a lot made about the recent polls banning Muslims, a good thing for Donald Trump. The move down for Ben Carson, a good thing for Ted Cruz. They are now teed up as something to watch as a tandem tonight. Do you buy that? If so, why?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I don't buy that there's going to necessarily be sort of a breakout fight between these two folks, Trump and Ted Cruz. I think Ted Cruz is going to be able to pretty effectively parry this. He might turn back to Wolf Blitzer, going to the whole, you know, "You want to get us to fight thing, and I'm not going to do it."

But I do think Ted Cruz is going to take a lot of incoming. His folks are expecting that, and I think he's going to take some incoming from Marco Rubio, maybe from Rand Paul. We've seen sort of the inner fight between the senators. But again, I do think they're the marquee folks, and there's going to be some action there. But I do think in sort of the undercard in this debate, Chris Christie, Rand Paul, they're going to want to get into the action.

COOPER: Are you saying Ted Cruz is actually going to attack the moderator in this? Stunned to hear.

HENDERSON: Yes, yes, yes.

CUOMO: Wolf Blitzer, who knows how to kill a man 15 ways with only three fingers. Not advisable.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The dynamic, Chris, is probably -- is what you described. You're exactly right: Cruz rising as Carson falls. Trump rising as the nexus of immigration and terrorism, kind of energizes his portion of the base.

I agree with Nia. I think that the key fight may be Rubio as the third person in this race who we're waiting for to kind of step up. Many people in the media have been expecting him to kind of consolidate that center-right bracket that Bush, Kasich and Christie have failed to consolidate. It hasn't happened. It probably won't even happen tonight.

But I think he will -- he seems to have the clearest incentive to go after Cruz from the right on national security, on terrorism, on intervention abroad, and he's signaled, I think, that that's coming. COOPER: And a big opportunity, though, for Chris Christie. Not

only is he back on the main stage after being on the smaller stage in the previous debate. I mean, this is a topic which he feels plays to his strength.

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He's distinguished himself, I think, thus far in the debates that we've already had when he touts his credentials as a former U.S. attorney, as someone who's eager to prosecute, he says, the case against Hillary Clinton and so often invoking September 11th and the role that he played thereafter. So if I were looking at those establishment type Republicans, Jeb and Marco and Kasich and Christie, I agree. I think it's an opportunity for Chris Christie among that group.

CUOMO: And some optics. Anderson Cooper right to point out that Christie should get a pat on the back for making it off the undercard on to the top table.

SMERCONISH: Yes, for sure.

CUOMO: We haven't seen that kind of move out of that group since Carly Fiorina. She didn't make the most of it. Christie seems to be doing it with a ground game in New Hampshire, hopefully that helps him, if one state a trend can make.

The other one is, what's being done to Trump within the larger establishment? The radio world coming after him.

SMERCONISH: About that.

CUOMO: You do very well, you're a beautiful addition to it, he's getting attacked from some of his own. Once friends now coming after Trump.


SMERCONISH: And I think --

CUOMO: Explain the dynamics and the implications.

SMERCONISH: So you're -- I think you're making reference to Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levine, Sean Hannity, all of whom in the last couple of days have had some negative things to say about Donald Trump. They have supplanted the party leadership in the span of the last 30 years. You know, it used to be that you have to pay your dues if you're an elected official, be about venture, rise through seniority. Today you say something incendiary, you become a fundraising juggernaut, you get touted on cable television news, not ours, and talk radio, and you become a superstar. So it matters. It matters what they say. COOPER: But they've been going after Trump only because of his

criticism of Ted Cruz.

SMERCONISH: Cruz. Right. Because Cruz is sort of the chosen one thus far among that group. So I think it's very important who they are for.


NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. And you've seen the establishment try to make this argument against Trump that he's not a real conservative.


HENDERSON: Jeb Bush has done it. But if you're in the talk radio world, they have the real credibility to make this race and charge him as not quite a conservative, as sort of a faux conservative. I do think it's good that he has Sarah Palin in his corner because she obviously has -- Donald Trump has Sarah Palin in his corner because she has been some credibility as well in that talk radio world.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, when you talk to the strategists who are kind of filtering in here for the debate from the various campaigns in general, the party, they see a pretty clear path for Cruz and for Trump into the finals of this race. Cruz consolidating evangelical voters in Iowa, getting a nod from that that will radiate to other states, and trying to move beyond that to other conservatives in the Tea Party and portions of the libertarian movement.

Trump is in a dominant position among blue-collar Republicans, at 46 percent in that "Washington Post"-ABC polls in a 14-person race. The big question, is who, if anyone, is that third candidate in the race out of Rubio, Kasich, Bush, Christie, who can really bring together more of that center right, more white collar, more establishment?

SMERCONISH: Ron, to your point --

BROWNSTEIN: No one has done it yet.


SMERCONISH: To your point, I wonder if Chris Christie, instead of focusing on Donald Trump that he's better served focusing on Marco Rubio.


HENDERSON: That's right.

SMERCONISH: Focusing on the 3 percent or 4 percent than Jeb Bush has.

BROWNSTEIN: You don't have to be faster than the bear. You have to be faster than your friend. And in New Hampshire the candidate who finishes at the top of that group probably has a boost going forward in terms of trying to consolidate that part of the party that is without a candidate at this moment. And Rubio continues to kind of tilt toward the right in a way that makes him perhaps less focused than I think you would expect. CUOMO: Key point, key point, that's what you often say to me, I

don't have to be faster than the guys who are coming after us. I just have to be faster than you.



CUOMO: You applied in a different context because it hurts when he says it to me.

Marco Rubio, topic of discussion, and with good reason. He's now among the top three or four in the field by most polls. What will happen for him tonight?

We have one of the senator's top advisers joining us. Come back for that.


[17:52:29] COOPER: And welcome back. We're awaiting the start of the big Republican debate here on CNN. It is the first GOP debate since the slaughters in Paris and San Bernardino. The focus, national security. It is all happening on a day when Los Angeles schools are shut down by a terror scare, a terror scare that New York decided not to shut down their schools for.

Joining us now is Alex Conant, the communications director for Marco Rubio's campaign.

A potentially very big night obviously for your candidate. This is a subject which he has spent a lot of time on. A subject he feels very comfortable talking about. What are you expecting to see tonight from his opponents and how much of an attack do you expect from a Cruz, from a Donald Trump?

ALEX CONANT, RUBIO CAMPAIGN COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: No, you're right, Senator Rubio is on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. He's on the Foreign Relations Committee, one of the only Republicans that's on both those committees. He's been talking about these issues, ISIS, Syria, national security, for longer than just about anybody else in the race. I mean, he's really been focused on it for the last 4 1/2 years in the Senate.

He doesn't just talk about it, he's actually a practitioner of foreign policy. He's traveled around the world. And a lot of what we're seeing now happening in Syria are things he warned about years ago. He said if we don't do anything about Syria, it's going to create a vacuum. A terror group like ISIS is going to fill it and eventually that threat is going to come here to the homeland. That's exactly what we're seeing now.

CUOMO: He was too right. Painfully right. There is a trick to national security.

CONANT: Yes. CUOMO: It is easy to talk tough and say the current

administration is weak, that Secretary Clinton was part of that weakness so that she should be disqualified. That's the main line you've been hearing --

CONANT: Happens to be true.

CUOMO: As you see it. However, the trick is, what would you do differently than what is being done right now? That's hard to say about national security. What will the senator's answers be?

CONANT: Well, in that -- I don't want to get ahead of what he's going to say tonight, but he's been very clear about what we should be doing in the Mideast or what we should be doing in Syria specifically, creating a safe zone for moderate rebels that we can work with. But he's been warning about this for years. And it's got -- the problem has gotten harder.


CUOMO: Because of what to do.

CONANT: Yes. And --

CUOMO: A lot of the things that you wind up suggesting are what they're trying to do right now.

CONANT: Yes. And again, you know, that's exactly what he's going to be talking about tonight. I think that the more substantive the debate can be, the more he's allowed to talk about specifics, able to talk about specifics on what he would do as commander-in-chief. I think that will really go to our benefit.

COOPER: There's been a lot of talk about him going head-to-head against Cruz on the campaign trail.


COOPER: He's referred to Cruz as an isolationist. Do you expect -- should we expect to hear that again tonight?

CONANT: Well, we'll see what Wolf wants to talk about tonight. But there's obviously some big differences between Senator Cruz and Senator Rubio on foreign policy, on national security. Senator Cruz voted against the Defense Authorization bill every year he was in the Senate. That's the legislation that funds our troops, that gives -- that funds the Iron Dome for Israel. He voted to gut our U.S. intelligence programs, to rip out core parts of the Patriot Act that our intelligence agents use to keep us safe.

[17:55:07] And his -- you know, his record on foreign policy just isn't as strong as Senator Rubio's is. So, you know, I expect Wolf will want to talk about that tonight and we're happy to lay out the contrasts.

CUOMO: You see what just happened there, by the way? COOPER: I did.

CUOMO: My man Conant doesn't want to get ahead of the senator but I asked -- but then gives you a laundry list of what Cruz's shortcomings are.

CONANT: I'm just stating the record. I'm just stating the record.

CUOMO: So it's going to be interesting tonight to see how Senator Rubio deals with who is in front of him and who's behind him in the polls.


CUOMO: Thanks for stopping by.

CONANT: Thank you.

COOPER: Appreciate it.

A lot more coming up, the final showdown of the year for the Republican presidential candidates, and for some of them, it may be the final chance to actually make their mark and stay in the very race. We're awaiting to start the GOP debate live here on CNN. Full coverage just ahead.


COOPER: And welcome back. We are live here on CNN, we are awaiting the start of the first Republican debate tonight here in the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. A very exciting night. The room is already nearly full to capacity with people. Some 1400 or so people waiting for the start of this debate, the undercard debate, the first four candidates will be taking the stage in several minutes. As this debate gets under way.

CUOMO: A lot of energy, this is the last debate of 2015. This is the last moment of seeing these men and this woman together before you go home for Christmas or festivies or whatever it is and talk about who you like and who you don't.