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Warren And Sanders To Share Stage With Moderates Tonight In Debate; Interview With Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Presidential Candidate, On Medicare for All; Debate Highlights Split Between Progressives And Moderates; CNN Debates: Last Chance For Some Dems To Break Through; Poll: Biden Top Choice Of Dems In New National Poll; Beto O'Rourke Aims To Recapture Lost Momentum. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired July 30, 2019 - 17:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST (voice-over): I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM live tonight from the historic Fox Theater right here in Detroit, where we're just hours away from the first of our two CNN Democratic presidential debates.

Ten candidates will face off, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren tonight. But this is a big night for all of the men and women who want to be President of the United States, those who need to boost their poll numbers to qualify for the next round of debates and those leading the pack, who need to get an edge up on their rivals.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST (voice-over): One hundred percent, Wolf.

I'm Chris Cuomo, pleasure to be with the captain. We're here outside of the Fox Theater. Excitement is building. You're seeing different waves of supporters come through and there's no reason to exaggerate the significance, it is very simple.

You'll never see these collections of candidates tonight and tomorrow again because not all of them will make the next cut.

So what do you do tonight and tomorrow night to save your space?

The candidates have had time to walk through and take a look at the inside of the stage and also to review their attacks on their rivals since the last showdown.

All right. Now one after the other, how does it look?

Does negativity work?

What is that angle?

Will anybody talk about Detroit and Flint and about people and try to make a positive moment?

A lot of different angles going on. So now let's get to our coverage. Let's go inside of the Fox Theater and we have Phil Mattingly.

And we were talking before, holy cow, is it beautiful inside of that room.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN U.S. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it. A beautiful theater, a beautiful stage. But for the candidates, a very clear focus less maybe on the aesthetics and more on the strategy.

And make no mistake about it, all 10 candidates on stage tonight standing at the lecterns over my right shoulder are going into this debate with a strategy. Whether or not that strategy lasts, that will be an open question. The way you have to break these things down right now is in tiers.

You have ideological and polling tiers and you have candidates that are just trying to survive.

All eyes will be on the center of the stage, where the top two progressives in the polling field, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, will be standing. They're very aligned on policy issues but they're also competing for a similar pool of voters.

How that plays out over the course of two hours will be very interesting to see. What will also be interesting to see is as you start going down the line of those lecterns, there are other candidates not as progressive and more pragmatic or moderate and looking for their own moment, whether it is Pete Buttigieg or Beto O'Rourke.

And as you go down the line, moderates like Amy Klobuchar and John Hickenlooper who are clearly looking to strike at those progressives, to make their own message the prevailing message of this debate.

As you get further down, you also have to keep an eye on those who -- this may actually be their last moment in the sun. They need to do something tonight, whether it is to create momentum or a moment or coalesce voters around their strategy, everybody is watching on the stage tonight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly, reporting for us. Thank you very much.

Let's bring in our analysts and discuss what is going on.

Our Correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, what are you looking forward to tonight?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: As Phil was talking about, the ideology debate and the range of ideology on the stage is critical to watch. Of course Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the center of the stage. But certainly not in the center of the party's ideology.

Look for some of the moderate governors to make an electability argument. I think I'm told they are going to quite bluntly say that if Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are elected president or elected the nominee, President Trump will be re-elected.

So look for a broad debate. It answers -- we're going to get a sense of what the party is searching for here.

When you step back from this, is it the wiser course to elect a moderate to win over the Trump voters here in Michigan?

Or is it smarter to find someone who could excite and energize the party?

So that is the center of this. But also look for the age divide. When we see Pete Buttigieg, age 37, standing next to Bernie Sanders, age 77, that is also going to represent the future, the direction of the party which way people want to go. So overall, ideology and electability.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Warren is 70 years old and will be joined by some of the other candidates, who are obviously much younger. But Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, they share a lot of these progressive positions.

How will they differentiate between themselves?

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR U.S. CORRESPONDENT: Well, they've already telegraphed so they're not interested in taking each other on. Both of campaigns have said that they are going to focus on their message and they're not going to beat each other up because they have a lot to lose.

If these two beat each other up, they are not going to get much further with their people. So what we're actually looking for is to see, as Jeff was saying, the moderates versus the left and how the two --


LAH: -- slight differentiation, with Bernie Sanders backers who are more ideological and Elizabeth Warren who is appealing to women and younger people, that is where you see the slight differentiation that we're going to monitor tonight.

BLITZER: Michael Smerconish, what are you looking for tonight with the 10 people on the stage?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: I don't think the fireworks will be in the center of the stage. I agree with what is said so far. I don't think there will be a sharp division evident by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

By the way, not in her best interest to go after him because, as between the two of them, she's the more ascendant. Instead, my eyes are on stage right or stage left. When you look at the candidates to the right side of the screen, the gang of three, I want to see the combination of Bullock, Delaney and Hickenlooper.

Because, as Jeff pointed out, therein lies the ideological divide, the three of them and then Warren and Sanders in the middle and maybe Klobuchar on the other angle. But therein lies where you'll see the differences this evening, not in the center.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Pete Buttigieg for a moment. He clearly wants a generational change.

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He does. And it is going to be a very -- physically a stark contrast having him stand in between -- or next to Bernie Sanders. And at the last debate you saw him stand next to Joe Biden. The two of them being the oldest candidates in the Democratic field.

And Buttigieg has been making this argument about needing a generational change. But I don't think Bernie Sanders is going to let that go. Remember a lot of the support that Bernie Sanders has is among young voters.

And one thing that I found interesting, being out on the campaign trail with Joe Biden, who is 76 years old and Bernie Sanders is 77, a lot of the people showing concern about his age are the older voters.

So I think that you're going to have Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders both trying to make the arguments, Buttigieg needs to have a moment. He's raised a lot of cash and looking to build off of that.

BLITZER: Let's not forget Donald Trump is 73 years old.


BLITZER: So he's not exactly 37 years old like the other candidates are, either. So there is a generational issue.

Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, we interviewed him in the last hour. He wants to make the point, I won, I was elected governor of Montana, a state that Donald Trump won as well in 2016. I can help deliver for the Democrats.

ZELENY: And that is all about the electability argument and this is Governor Bullock's first time on stage. He's the last candidate to jump into this race. He was not in the Miami debate. So, of course, the country will be seeing him largely for the first time.

He's been trying to gain ground but the reality is he was jumping into essentially a moving car. This campaign is moving along. So he's behind in that case but he's going to be, as Michael was saying, making the argument with the moderates on that side of the stage.

And he's trying to say, look, if you want someone electable and beat Donald Trump, I know how to do it. That is the central question, the Left isn't looking for that. We have to see how he performs in this first debate. He may have stage fright and this is a different moment that a Montana governor has had. But we'll see how he does.

BLITZER: He was on stage in the last hour and we spoke about him winning in Montana and he makes a strong case on that point. SMERCONISH: He does. I had to bend his arm and ask him if he would come on my show on Saturday and he said, is it dependent upon how things go tonight? There is truth in jest because he needs to throw the long ball; otherwise in September, given the increasing guidelines which have to do in terms of polling and fundraising, he won't be around.

So does that alter the way in which someone like Bullock handles himself?

The candidates, half of them on the bubble and at risk of not being able to participate in the next debate.

BLITZER: How does Amy Klobuchar grain traction tonight?

SMERCONISH: She's not been able to pop so far even though I think she's got great credentials that make her, in the same way -- this is all about electability. That is why Joe Biden is running ahead of the pack thus far.

But Klobuchar should own some of that territory for all of the reasons that Biden does. She, too, could be an appealing candidate in the Rust Belt states among the electorate that abandoned the Democratic ticket in the last go-around.

BLITZER: Will there be a breakout star?

LAH: We don't know. But if somebody is hoping to break out, who is working hard, it is Beto O'Rourke. I mean, he is someone who has got to have his moment, who had so many expectations starting this.

His campaign is saying, look, we learned the first time around. We have studied, we understand. He was too wooden and he understands that. So he is hoping that he is going to have his breakout moment.

But don't count out somebody like John Delaney. When I saw him on the trail with the other progressives, he was unafraid to be booed in California. He was unafraid. So I have my money on him doing something.

BLITZER: He's been campaigning for the two years. Everybody stand by.

Up next, they've had weeks to prepare for tonight's showdown so what are the candidates' debate strategies?

Will they focus on policy or the man they hope to replace, that is President Trump?

We'll have much more as our --


BLITZER: -- countdown to the CNN Democratic presidential debates continues.




CUOMO: So here is a little pro tip about the plus-minus of debate night --


CUOMO: -- it is an amazing opportunity, a chance to go toe-to-toe with the people you're trying to hold off or get closer to in the polls. But here is the minus. You have to make choices. What do you do and not do. You don't have that many at-bats.

I have a panel of experts. Joe Lockhart, Bakari Sellers, Karen Finney, Alexandra Rojas and Mayor Mitch Landrieu. A really nice field here. Different perspectives and experiences about which way to go.

So Joe, you are an old hand of knowing message --



CUOMO: -- venerable and redoubtable and experienced.

What kind of choice you make, depending on who you are, what pops out to you tonight about what somebody has to do and why?

JOE LOCKHART, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think there is two things that I'm looking for, is how Bernie Sanders engages Elizabeth Warren. His vote has been hemorrhaging to her and he has to challenge her.

CUOMO: So he must challenge, not "my friend" all night.

LOCKHART: He can say "my friend," but then he has to say I was there first and I am the real progressive. Otherwise it goes the same direction.

The second thing is there is talk about the moderates, the governors, people who are more electable than the progressives, they have to deliver tonight. They did not deliver in the first debate.

And Bullock is new but Hickenlooper -- and they've got a case and I think they're going to have to be explicit about the people at the far left aren't electable. And so that is what I'll be looking for from them.

CUOMO: Bakari, pick up on the word "deliver."

What does delivering look like on the stage tonight?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In Detroit, there is a saying that it's a clothing company and you see the shirts everywhere, it says "Detroit versus everybody." And I expect Delaney, Klobuchar, Hickenlooper, Bullock to be those moderates versus everybody.

I don't expect much fireworks. I know we're talking about Beto probably will take a swing at Pete; everyone will be pensive and see what that looks like. I don't anticipate that being that exciting of a moment. And I don't think you'll get the Warren-Sanders issue unless it is over guns. And I don't think Warren will go there yet.

But I do anticipate Bullock and Hickenlooper and Klobuchar coming out strong, not just against the people on the stage but against the progressive wing of the party.

Let me warn my Democrats, because we're proverbial bedwetters, it is very healthy. Having this debate on stage about the ideology and the philosophy and everything, letting America see that we are a big broad tent is very healthy.

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I agree with that. We were talking about this the other day, in 2008, part of what was positive about the primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went long made Barack a much better candidate and it was a substance and policy conversation. It wasn't personal.

And I think we'll see a generational divide because you got Beto and Mayor Pete both trying to compete for this lane of we're the younger Joe Biden and Mayor Pete apparently is going to try to talk about the generation that he comes from and the future and try to make this future argument.

So I think he's going to be trying to go after Biden to say I'm the real alternative. We'll see how it works out for him.

CUOMO: In terms of the choice of the personal versus the policy, I always have you on because you really have your head and your heart wrapped around what is the progressive agenda in the party. This is also about separation.

How do you marry the two?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, JUSTICE DEMOCRATS: It is not just about policy but about making people feel you'll change history because this is a historical election to defeat Donald Trump. And the real contrast right now is you have progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders that are talking about Trump as a symptom of many problems.

And you have moderates and centrists like Joe Biden talking about Trump is the problem. So it is really a healthy debate within the Democratic Party, where you have more moderate candidates, more of the Democratic Party of the 1990s trying to mimic Republicans, not catering more to Wall Street and corporations.

And Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that are talking about transformational change, taking on Wall Street, taking on corporate giants. And that is very different again and those contrasting visions are important. And to add to that, I think policy is a big part. You have to make

people feel like you have a vision. Presidential campaigns are about charting a vision for the future and not looking at the past.

CUOMO: So Mr. Mayor, my metaphor in this situation -- look, you're right, this is part of the primary process, they have to talk about ideas and especially the Democrats that won't be able to get away from it.

But there is a guy standing on the other corner of the ring with a big bat that says identity politics, not plans on it and he's getting it ready to swing at the head of whoever comes out of this primary. And I'm not sure the party is ready for that yet.

MITCH LANDRIEU, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: They're getting closer to being ready for it, which is what the debates are proposed to do. I think a lot of the candidates are good.

I would caution everybody at the end of the day, the mission is to beat Trump. Although people may not be on the same page tonight, the overall goal is to beat Donald Trump because you have to win the general election and that is --


LANDRIEU: -- something you always have to keep in mind. And I think there's a big debate out there about whether the country is ready for a revolution or the country wants stability. And stability looks different than having a revolution.

I think it is possible for all of these folks to be soft on each other and hard on the problems, really aggressively getting after the debates, specifically on health care. I think most of the Democrats believe health care is a right and not a privilege.

But I think there's a big debate about what the pathway is to get there and the same thing is true about infrastructure and education. And I think they have to distinguish themselves. This debate is going to begin to narrow the field. That is starting tomorrow.

CUOMO: This is really the beginning because you'll never see this same group again.

Joe, if we use Obama -- and I'm very slow to use former President Obama's model because he was unique in so many personal regards of what he represented in the first campaign especially.

But he did something we haven't seen anybody do and Bakari did it. He talked about Detroit and the people here and what that ethos is. So you forget about the people on the stage with you. And Obama was able to -- yes, he was dealing with Clinton but he was talking to people.

And if you are able to marry this and this in terms of, I'm going to deal with you and what you're saying. But I'm talking to the people and talking about Detroit and Flint and I'm talking about beating Trump because your plans aren't going to get it done. I love you, I love to have the fight and I'm happy to have it with

you. You won't get it done and we have to beat this guy and I know how because I'm a fighter and that is what I'm set up for. But to talk to the American people, we haven't seen anybody do it yet in my estimation.

JOE LOCKHART, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And that is why I think the debates are important. And I'm totally with Bakari on the idea that we ought to have a big fight. Because out of big fights come strength, comes the best candidate.

And we don't know who that is yet. There were people at the beginning who thought it was Joe Biden. He stumbled a bit in the first debate so he has a lot to prove tomorrow night.

But out of this will come the best candidate. And you always think this early in the process that that person doesn't seem presidential. Here is how they become presidential. They win. They win week after week after week. And like Barack Obama, he emerges as an incredibly strong candidate, which he wasn't the day he got in.

CUOMO: True, but also we've never seen an election like this. I have to leave it like this right now timewise but this is a very different time. We all know it. We'll see what the direction is tonight.

So there is much more. We're counting down to tonight's CNN Democratic presidential debate. My thanks to the panel. When we come back, we'll talk to one of the 2020 candidates taking the stage over the next two nights, Senator Michael Bennet. Senator has got to make a play, next.





BLITZER: We're counting down to tonight's CNN presidential debate. The first of two debates, each featuring 10 of the Democratic presidential candidates. One of them is joining us right now, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, who will be on the debate stage tomorrow night.

Senator, thanks for coming in.


BLITZER: What are you going to be looking for tonight?

You're going to watch it on TV, I assume.

BENNET: I will watch it on TV with my wife and our kids, who are here. And it will be fascinating to watch. I think how people up there litigate Medicare for All, I think that is really important. BLITZER: Tell us about your position. You disagree.

BENNET: I disagree. For 10 years I believe we should have a public option.

BLITZER: So if you were on the stage tonight with Bernie Sanders, what would you say to him?

BENNET: I would say the American people do not have an appetite for raising taxes on the middle class by trillions to take insurance away from millions of other people who get it at work. I get Bernie's ideological commitment to that. But that is not where the Democratic base is.

I spent today with union pipe layers in -- right here in Detroit. And they want to know why the Democratic Party is threatening to take away their health care because they are self-insured.


BLITZER: Elizabeth Warren supported Medicare for All, too.

BENNET: I understand.

BLITZER: Do you see a difference between the two of them when it comes to health care?

BENNET: I actually don't. Elizabeth said I support Bernie's plan. And I don't fault Bernie. This is his ideological commitment he's had since 1973. But I don't think it should be the Democratic Party's commitment going into the election.

BLITZER: And you have said, a direct quote, "Colorado would be at risk if Bernie Sanders is the nominee."

BENNET: And that raises a important point as well. We need to nominate somebody who can beat Trump and also deliver a Democratic majority in the Senate. And I don't believe you can run on that health care bill and win in states like Colorado or Arizona or Maine or North Carolina.

These are the places we need to win if we want to have the Democrat control.

BLITZER: Give us your vision of health care.

What would you do?

BENNET: My view is we should finish the job we started with the Affordable Care Act. Give every American, trust every American family with the choice to decide, do I want the private insurance that I have, if I have it?

Or do I want a public option?

And if I want a public option, then I can have that. It just seems so --

BLITZER: So it sounds like you and Joe Biden are on the same page.

BENNET: We're completely on the same page on this.

BLITZER: So he's going to be on the stage with you --

BENNET: He will be.

BLITZER: -- tomorrow night.

Any significant area where you and he disagree?

BENNET: Obviously we have big disagreements on foreign policy. He voted for the Iraq War. I think that was a terrible foreign policy mistake that he made.

[17:30:00] And I think more broadly that his view that somehow, if we just get rid of Donald Trump, which we desperately need to do, that Washington will go back to normal, as he said. And we're going to be able to strike the kind of bipartisan deals he struck before.

I don't think there's deal from particularly good to begin with. But I think that era is long past and we need to be looking forward with that.

BLITZER: Your polling right now about 1 percent. Is it do or die for you tomorrow night?

BENNET: I don't think -- I'm not going to say it is do or die tomorrow night. I think this is one step in front of the other. I've won two really tough national races in the state of Colorado, which is exactly a third Democratic, a third Republican, and a third independent. And I won those races just putting one foot in front of the other and that's what I'm going to do.

BLITZER: Because tomorrow night it's not just Joe Biden who's going to be at the center of that stage, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris. How do you differentiate --

BENNET: I know half of the Senates could be there.

BLITZER: I know a lot of senators will be there.

BENNET: Well, I think the American people need somebody to tell them the truth and you just tell them the truth about how far we've -- you know, how much time we've lost as a nation because of Donald Trump, the fact that we can recover our balance and we can move forward and once again start building for the future.

We can't be the first generation of Americans to leave less opportunity not more of people coming after us and I think that's really what's at take. When you make claims, you know, political claims that sound great, but you can't deliver, to me that's just more politics.

BLITZER: Another hot-button issue, immigration. Where do you differ with some of the other candidates?

BENNET: Well, you know, I was the only one that didn't put their hand up last week with the last debate for open borders and maybe that's because I was part of the Gang of Eight that wrote the immigration bill in 2013.

That bill, with John McCain, that bill had a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people that here. It had the most progressive dream act that it ever been conceived, but it also had $46 billion of border security, 21st century security, not the -- not Trump's medieval wall.

Every single Democrat in the Senate voted for that. That should be our position. Don't open us up to an attack from Donald Trump that were for open borders when we've supported real border security as well as a pathway to citizenship for the people that are here that are undocumented that need a way out of the shadows and back into our economy.

BLITZER: Senator, good luck tomorrow night.

BENNET: Thanks for having me. I look forward to talking again after this is over.

BLITZER: A lot of excitement building here.

BENNET: I'm excited about it.

BLITZER: People are beginning to arrive. They're coming in. We're going to have much more of our special coverage as we countdown to the presidential debate tonight from the historic Fox Theater. But in the meantime, let's go back to Chris.

CUOMO: Boy, look, it's all about politics, of course, Wolf. What a beautiful venue this is. I mean, I just -- you know, we do a lot of these all over the country and they don't always have the importance of tonight. But I got to tell you, there rarely is beautiful.

So let's bring back the panel, Joe Lockhart, Bakari Sellers, Karen Finney, Alexandra Rojas and Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Now, we're all watching Senator Bennet. Everybody of this panel is like, I know Bennet, he's a smart guy. He's a smart guy. He's got good things to say. He's got -- he's not really in the conversation, though, Bakari.

SELLERS: Well, listen, I think if you're Kamala Harris or -- particularly Kamala Harris, but Joe Biden as well as we say down south, keep your good eye on Michael Bennet and Julian Castro, because both of those individuals are very, very, skilled. Both of them have a great deal of talent and -- excuse me, he has a -- both of those individuals have a great deal of talent and they can attack you and knock you off kilter.

That's the same thing with Bullock tonight. Bullock is extremely talented. And so, if Bullock gets into a one-on-one spat with Bernie Sanders and you have that split screen moment that lasts two minutes and he's able to clearly articulate why his vision for health care is more sound, more cost efficient, is moderate in approach, then he could have a good bet.

CUOMO: Now, you have another audience out there, Alexandra, which is the young aspects of the Democratic Party, OK. And a lot of this appeal, especially with micro donors, is overweighting to younger people which is, you know, I would argue a good thing for the process.

What are they listening for tonight? Because they don't necessarily want to see somebody going at it with someone -- I agree with you by the way, but the split screen, that doesn't work for this demographic that we're talking about. They want someone to capture their heart and marry it to their head and say something that's positive. Is there a chance for that tonight or do think it's just too much of a blood fest?

ROJAS: No. I think there's absolutely a chance for it. And I think the sort of beautiful thing about Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is that they feel accountable to the small dollar donors. They feel accountable to people like me and their grassroots movement that they are building.

And so what that means is that they're not going to sort of get side track by attacking each other. They are going to differentiate their vision of transformational change for this country versus, I would argue, you know, a more moderate approach that's largely talking about maintaining the status quo, doing things within reach.

And in an election that is so historic, people want to feel like they're part of changing history, that's why I got involved in 2016 was because I felt, you know, I was one of those young people that was sitting on the sidelines but finally felt like there was hope in government again.

And so I think, you know, the biggest thing that people are going to have to overcome is cynicism for not just people like me but, you know, a lot of the people that stayed home in 2016.

[17:35:05] FINNEY: You know, I think the big -- one of the biggest irony of this whole cycle, most diverse candidates we've had, most diverse electorate our county has even seen and yet poll after poll, "The Associated Press" in June, and "L.A. Times," what do people say, I want someone with experience. I want someone with Washington experience.

And they believe it's the older white man. They name of Joe Biden when people were asked to say who would be the ideal candidate. A majority of Democrats still believe that he is the one who can beat Trump.

And what that means is for the women and for the diverse candidates, if you have a vision of change, you have to really convince people that that is a good thing when people are feeling more conservative and they -- because they just want to beat Trump and they feel like there's too much at stake. CUOMO: But if that's the metric then, Mayor, don't you have to go with Biden?

LANDRIEU: Well, for the moment you do. And this goes back to really what the public -- what are the voters looking for. A lot of young voters are looking for transformation and revolution and it's not to say that the country doesn't need it. But the question is, are they willing to take a risk on that now?

I think the most historic thing that we can do as Democrats is throw Donald Trump out of the White House because it will change history forever. And so I think that people are really -- the voters are a little bit unbalanced about what is the best way to do it, which is way the candidates have to show up.

And as you said, marry the heart and marry the mind. You have to do both of those things. It's always been very interesting to me how Bernie Sanders captures the imagination of young people. It's not just Mayor Pete. So you have a generational thing, but it's really not the age of the candidate, it's the poignancy of the message.

The other person, Bakari, I was thinking about is Amy Klobuchar, you know, can bring some heat. And when you look -- if you look behind you, these candidates do have to separate because after this debate, as I said before, it's going to start falling out.

CUOMO: With a big field, you've got a lot of options. I'm going to leave it there. I got to get to break.

Up next, we're going to talk to Beto O'Rourke's campaign manager about how he is getting ready for tonight's debate. You could argue nobody has more to lose.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you going to prepare?



O'ROURKE: Running and thinking through what I want to say tonight.



[17:41:39] CUOMO: Former Congressman Beto O'Rourke shot out of the gate as an early candidate, a lot of glow on him. Since then, there's been some stagnation. Now, tonight, big, big opportunity for him.

Joining us now, O'Rourke campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon. Good luck to you tonight. Thank you for taking the time. First, do you agree? I've had panels out here all day long saying Beto O'Rourke has got to make a move tonight or he may not make the next campaign. I don't think that that's going to be right. On the poll side, you've got to start popping in some polls. But he's got so much of a donor base, so much currency nationwide from the Cruz race. Do you agree with the stakes?

JEN O'MALLEY DILLON, BETO O'ROURKE CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Well, look, I think it's a big night anytime you have a debate and you have an opportunity to tell the American people who you stand for, who you're going to fight for. And we're really focused on that opportunity. So, yes, it's a big night but this is a long campaign, a long time before people caucus in Iowa and we're building this foundation overtime that we need to be focused on.

CUOMO: You do not believe you're living in fear of an early exit?

DILLON: No. I mean, we're already qualified for the debates in the fall. We have the resources we need to compete. We have an incredibly strong organization and more importantly we have an incredible candidate who when he spends time reaching out to folks, the connection he makes with voters wherever he is across the country, that's what's going to matter in the long run.

CUOMO: I saw it this morning, and I wasn't spying on him, we just happened to go to breakfast in the same place and he was with the number of his family members and there is a geniality there. It's very interesting.

They say that's the hardest part of retail politics is to be able to make connections with people that you don't really know. The easier part is supposed to be him and time. You know, when you're up on the stage and saying the right things and getting into it, he did not thrive in the last debate. What do you do different tonight?

DILLON: Well, look, I mean we approach tonight the way we approach every day that he's out there on the trail. Our job is to introduce Beto to the American people. The reality is there are still about 40 percent of the American people that don't even know who he is.

And so we have a shot to make the case directly to the American people, just like he does out on the trail. This is who we are. This is who we stand for. These are the kind of issues that he's going to focus on and fight for and that I think that's what we owe the American people tonight same as if we're on the trail.

CUOMO: You always have to fit the strategy to the fight, right? So tonight it's about a little bit of introduction of course, but differentiation.


CUOMO: You could make the argument that Pete Buttigieg is in the lane that Beto O'Rourke wanted to inhabit alone, which is on the outside or I'm new, I'm young, I got the energy, I got the idealism. Do -- does Beto have to draw some points of comparison tonight with Buttigieg or others? DILLON: Well, I think our point of comparison is going to be standing out there and saying who we are and what we're going to fight for. I honestly don't think the American people know Beto as well as many of us think because they saw him in the Senate race. I think we have a real opportunity against all the candidates to show we are an outsider.

We come from Texas. You know, Beto wasn't afraid to talk about issues, whether progressive or more moderate all across Texas no matter what county he was in, red or blue, and I think that that really is what this is going to take, this moment is going to take for a president and I think that that's what he's going to show tonight.

CUOMO: A little bit of this is obviously dealing with who is next to you, but also who is waiting for you. What is the best argument for Beto O'Rourke that when it comes down to him and this president, Donald Trump, that the most fearsome politician maybe in a generation that he has what it takes to go toe-to-toe and win.

DILLON: Yes. I mean, look, Beto absolutely has what it takes and I think he's showing that every day.

[17:45:01] I think, you know, there's a poll out, I hate to talk about polls, but there's a poll out this morning in Texas showing us leading all primary candidates by three points, showing us plus 11 to Donald Trump in the general election. I can't remember in my lifetime a Democrat placing that high in Texas.

So, there's really a real opportunity in terms of our path to victory. But fundamentally I think the American people want someone who understands the issues that they're facing, that understands what they're going through, what a critical moment we are, whether it's climate change, whether it's health care, whether it's immigration.

These are the issues that Beto has always stood for, never been afraid to talk about what he believed, not afraid to take the fight to anyone and you're going to see that tonight as he's doing out in the field.

CUOMO: Jen, good luck to you tonight. Thank you for taking the time right now. I know you got a million things to do, but this matters so thanks for being with us.

DILLON: Thank you.

CUOMO: All right. And good luck. All right, so coming up, we're going to be getting ready for tonight's debate. Guests are starting to arrive. You hear some of the die-hards behind us. We'll take you through the moment in the making at the Fox Theater.


[17:50:38] BLITZER: We're live here in Detroit. Our correspondents and our analyst are also with us. Jeff Zeleny, well, Bernie Sanders sees on the opportunity tonight to differentiate himself of on health care with the other candidates. ZELENY: He certainly has throughout the course of this campaign. And if you look back to this first presidential campaign, the party is largely with him on many issues. The health care is one defining difference of this race.

You will, of course, have a soul mate on this issue. Elizabeth Warren standing right next to him, but there certainly will be several candidates on stage trying to poke holes in his argument about the feasibility of Medicare for All.

He has been unapologetic about it. He believes this is the correct approach to health care. He has said, look, I am going to raise middle class taxes but it will come out in the wash essentially because premiums will come down. But without a doubt, he will have to defend and explain it.

But I think overall, he is -- and this is where he is, he's not moved around on this issue as some other candidates have. What I'm watching tonight is he going to take the opportunity to point out that someone who is not on the stage tonight, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, others, don't agree with him on this. We'll see if he does that. He certainly has been very vocal about that in the past few days.

BLITZER: Who will be, Kyung, the leader on the issue of climate change?

LAH: Am I allowed to say nobody tonight, because the standard bearer really in the field Jay Inslee. I mean, he's not on the stage tonight. This is an issue that they all agree. They generally all agree. All Democrats say, and if we're running for 2020 that it is a crisis. They just disagree on how to get there.

So you have the more left flank (ph). You have the Warren, Sanders who support the Green New Deal. You had Beto O'Rourke who first big policy rule out was climate. The others, they agree with the problem. They're just going to be more moderate, again, the moderate versus the left flank that we're going to see tonight.

BLITZER: Arlette, you've been doing a lot of traveling with these candidates. Are voters really looking to the candidates for substance on policy issues or do they want Democrats, do they want somebody who can beat Trump?

SAENZ: It really is a combination of both. You heard a lot of voters say that they like Elizabeth Warren because she's been out there with a lot of policy proposals. Health care is one of the top issues for Democratic voters now right now. It's going to be an animated debate on the debate state.

But something that you see over and over in the polls and in conversations that I've had with voters is that their number one issue is defeating Donald Trump. And so they're going to be able the tune in tonight and see the way that these candidates spar with each other a little bit of a preview if they would be able to take out the President.

BLITZER: How important is it, Michael, for electability as far as the Democratic candidates are concerned in a potential race against Trump?

SMERCONISH: It's the only thing. The substance is the vehicle. It is the only thing that matters here tonight. After that first debate, Joe Biden turned in a performance that was sub par by all accounts, although I didn't think it was as poor as most of the reviewers.

He was at 22 percent according to Quinnipiac. He's now at 34. He hasn't done anything in the last 30 days that would justify that rise in the poll. My theory is it's the bad behavior of the part of the President.

The worst the President acts in the eyes of Democratic voters, the more those Democratic voter say, my god, we've got to get rid of him at all costs. Who can beat him? And Joe Biden is the beneficiary of that. So somehow the task for this 10 is to convey that they can go toe-to-toe and beat Donald Trump.

BLITZER: Take us, Kyung, a little bit behind the scenes. How are the candidates, the 10 of them, preparing right now for tonight?

LAH: Oh, they're probably looking in the mirror and saying calm down, just focus on the message. You know, on the last couple of hours before they come on to stage, they are talking to their families. They are breathing in and out and they're trying to remember what it is that they are about.

And we saw some imagery today of what they're doing. We saw Beto go in a run. We also saw Bernie Sanders meeting with Cardi B. You know, that was really interesting and he was going talk about climate change. He is going to focus on the youth and his preparation is to remember what he's about and to try to share that with you.

BLITZER: You know, some of these 10 candidates will be on the stage behind this tonight. For them it's do or die tonight.

ZELENY: It is do or die and the reason for that is the next debate is in September and the rules are harder. The price of admission, if you will, is about twice as much. You have to have more supporters and be doing better in the poll. So it is do or die for some of them, even to make it into the next debate.

But I think beyond that, even some of the ones who will make it into the debate, they have to show that they really are belong as serious candidates in this field.

[17:55:02] It is, as Michael was saying earlier, the behavior of the President I think has created a sense of urgency among some Democrats to find a candidate. So I'm looking at Beto O'Rourke, can he live up to the expectations that were set at the beginning of this campaign. We'll see if he does that.

Also Mayor Pete Buttigieg, he could have a moment in this debate to really, you know, rise up in the polls, which he hasn't done so far.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. We have a lot more coming up. Stay with us. The guests clearly are arriving here at the theater. There's much more ahead as we get ready for CNN's Democratic presidential debate.