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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Rubio's Achilles Heal, Immigration; Donald Trump Stumps in New Hampshire, Not Iowa Ahead of Caucuses; Ted Cruz Has "Rough Night" at Debate; With Trump Absent Who Took Debate Center Stage. Aired 11:30- 12p ET

Aired January 29, 2016 - 11:30   ET

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


[11:30:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Another issue Rubio might have to address is immigration and his position over the last few years working with the Gang of Eight in the Senate on a bill, which would provide legal status to many immigrants in this country. Amnesty is what some others call it.

CNN reporter, Manu Raju, is at this event with Marco Rubio in Burlington.

Manu, you know, Marco Rubio is on stage emerging from the debate last night. Once again, he was drawn into an extended back and forth on an issue that many people think is his Achilles heel, immigration.

MANU RAJU, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Clearly, this debate last night he had a harder time explaining his position on immigration than he did in other debates. He shifted his positions rather dramatically since 2013 when he did cut that Gang of Eight immigration bill, and now he says we can't deal with this on a comprehensive basis. We need to deal with it on a piece by piece basis, and then you can deal with people here illegally.

One thing he doesn't talk about, John, on the campaign trail is the fact that he's still open to seeing a lot of immigrants eventually getting citizenship. He takes a harder line on amnesty, and Jeb Bush called him out on that last night in a rare moment in which Jeb sort of had the upper hand in these debates. Clearly, this is an issue going forward for him. Rubio did take that fight back to Cruz who, himself, has shifted his position on immigration since 2013. It's a major issue in this debate. And a lot of candidates are having a hard time explaining themselves to voters who have their own hard-line views on this issue, particularly in some of the more conservative parts of the state -- John?

BERMAN: They have three days to explain the issues.

Manu Raju, thank you so much.

We saw Marco Rubio standing in Iowa. One candidate not in Iowa as we sit here, Donald Trump, who just finished up an event in New Hampshire. How will that play here in Iowa?

One man who knows the answer, CNN senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, who is with me in Des Moines. Jeff Zeleny born in Nebraska, worked at the "Des Moines Register" for years.

You know Iowa. You know Iowans. Will they be offended by the fact that not only did Donald Trump skip the Iowa debate last night but this morning he's not here?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think there were Iowa voters who were hoping to size up Donald Trump and Cruz last night. I've been keeping in contact with a woman for about three or four months I met. She's trying to decide between the two. Yesterday she said she was disappointed he didn't show up in fact he's coming back here, but middling the debate may have been a good national strategy. In terms of Iowa, I'm not sure.

BERMAN: It's about an Iowa strategy right now. What happens here has an impact on candidates.

ZELENY: That's right.

BERMAN: Donald Trump in the end at the New Hampshire event today goes I'm so glad I made this ridiculous trip. He was there, he's coming back here.

ZELENY: I think it was the fact that he's there, he was flying back to New York City with his family. New Hampshire is closer to New York, obviously. Donald Trump is the only candidate that I can remember in the five caucus cycles that I've covered who made news in a good way out of the fact that he spent one night in an Iowa hotel. It would be almost disqualifying for other people. People are drawn to his celebrity.

But, look, I'm looking at his crowds over the weekend to see if he's drawing any other people or is he's just drawing people who are here for the show or people who are actually going to support him on Monday night.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: Can we pull the voters, and the answer is?

ZELENY: But even if he gets a small sliver of the people who have come out to see him for the past month, that's enough to win the Iowa caucuses. Mike Huckabee in 2008, 40,000 people. That's all it takes. Mitt Romney and Santorum in 2012, 29,000. That's not very many people.

BERMAN: Three days we'll know.

Jeff Zeleny, great to have you with us. Thanks so much.

The candidates did not hold back in going after Ted Cruz last night. Now Donald Trump says his rival got pummeled. The communications director for Ted Cruz joins us live, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:38:33] BOLDUAN: The Republican front runner, Donald Trump at a rally down the street, and there was a new candidate at center stage last night and who was also the center of some of the toughest attacks of the evening. His name? Ted Cruz. According to Iowa's newspaper of record, the "Des Moines Register," he had one rough night.

Joining me now is CNN political commentator and former communications director for Ted Cruz, Amanda Carpenter; and Democratic strategist and former executive director for the Congressional Black Caucus, Angela Rye.

Great to see both of you.

Amanda, that's not the newspaper headline that Cruz or his supporters wanted to be waking up to in Iowa. What went on last night?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: With Donald Trump not being there, everyone was focusing their attacks on Cruz. I would say overall, this debate was really lackluster. I think it's hard to pick a winner or loser other than FOX. I think they were so dependent on Donald Trump or hoping he would show up at the last minute. So it made things kind of awkward all night. The questions that were asked got the same kind of answers. We rehashed the fight of the Gang of Eight bill. No new ground was plowed. I'm trying to see what anybody got out of it. I think the field is still frozen. Donald Trump is off in his own orbit away from everyone else. Cruz is two, Rubio is at his heals, and everyone else is floating around. It wasn't my favorite debate for Ted Cruz, but it doesn't matter much. The debate was inconsequential.

[11:40:03] BOLDUAN: Angela, it's interesting. Amanda calls it lackluster. I was looking at your tweets throughout the night last night, and you seemed to suggest that it was one of the better GOP debates?

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: From a policy stand point, I would have to disagree with Amanda. I do not see eye to eye with her on this. I think this was the first time because Donald Trump's personality which is the only thing that was missing yesterday, allowed us to see real policy battle. I think one of the scarier points to Amanda's point earlier about the Gang of Eight bill and the rounds that folks went on that, the issue here is we saw candidates who were trying to out anti-immigrant each other. These folks are running to be commander in chief of the free world. It was scare yes to me to see that type of posturing. How can I continue to grow the sentiment in I think if it weren't for some of the questions on Islamophobia, and what it means to be a successful immigrant in this country, even if your path isn't what it should have been, I think without those questions it would seem very terrible, prejudicial, bigoted, and all of that. I think those things are similar to when Donald Trump is on the stage.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Let me ask about this, Amanda. Cruz, we're talking about immigration and they hammered on that last night. It looked like Rubio and Rand Paul almost teamed up on Cruz last night, a one, two punch on immigration. Listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RAND PAUL, (R), KENTUCKY & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He can't have it both ways. But what is particularly insulting is that he is the king of saying, oh, you're for amnesty. Everybody is, except Cruz, but it's a falseness. That's an authenticity problem. Everybody he knows is not as perfect for him because we're all for amnesty.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R), FLORIDA & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Now you want to trump Trump on immigration. But you can't -- we're not going to beat Hillary Clinton with someone who is willing to say or do anything to win an election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Immigration, especially against Rubio has been one of Cruz's enduring attacks going at Marco Rubio. After last night, and they did seem to land a couple punches there, Amanda, do you think Cruz can continue to afford his line of attack on immigration against Rubio?

CARPENTER: Sure. Anybody that followed this debate, and listen, this debate over immigration is very important to GOP primary voters. I think people have followed this and understand that Ted Cruz had an amendment strategy to expose the fact that the Gang of Eight bill contained a path to citizenship. Marco Rubio was denied that along the way. While these moments in the debate is difficult to explain, I think people have pretty well figured out who are voting on this issue, where Ted Cruz has been and where Marco Rubio has been. It's a net negative for Rubio to bring up. While they engaged in this, the base ft is that Rubio was for the Gang of Eight which contained a pathway to citizenship, and Cruz was against it and helped lead the fight to stop it when the House voted it down. That's where it ends up. This wasn't new ground. This was a replay. I would have preferred to see more of a debate over President Obama's amnesty. They didn't pursue new angles they could have.

BOLDUAN: Angela, let me ask you quick on the Democratic side. We were just had Joel Benenson on, chief strategist for Hillary Clinton, talking about the race in Iowa between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and Joel told me that he thinks Bernie Sanders is running the most negative campaign in a Democratic primary ever. Do you agree?

RYE: No, of course not. I think he's stayed above the fray and tried not to be negative. I think whether it's from nobody cares about your e-mails to be complimentary after every debate I've seen, I don't think that's true. I do think as of recently, of course, Iowa caucuses are on Monday. I don't know what folks are expecting. I think recently he's started hitting hard and ways that are unfair as it relates to Wall Street, retainers or payment arrangements, speaking fees for -- and even political contributions for Hillary Clinton. I think she is the former Senator of New York. I don't know what he expects. There's going to be a relationship there. And I think if Bernie Sanders were a little more honest here, I worked on the hill. You can't take speaking fees, Senator, and she's no longer in office, so she can. I think we need to be honest. You are taking speaking fees and they are very, very high. One of the things I wanted to just briefly go back to and Amanda

mentioned --

BOLDUAN: Real quickly.

RYE: -- was the authenticity factor for Cruz. I think the strategy with Paul and Rubio was brilliant yesterday and folks got to see just why so many of us call him the Manchurian candidate.

BOLDUAN: Amanda Carpenter and Angela Rye -- I'm sorry I have to leave it there and without a response --

CARPENTER: I disagree.

BOLDUAN: Next time.

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: We'll talk about it on Twitter.

(LAUGHTER)

[11:45:14] BOLDUAN: Thanks, guys. Great to see you both.

Coming up for us, three days until the Iowa caucuses, the final sprint. Who has the best strategy to pull off the first win of the election season, or is this all about turnout? Pretty much.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: John Berman, live in Des Moines, Iowa, with a bold prediction. Which ever campaign turns out the most voters Monday night will win. It's like saying whichever baseball team scores the most runs will win. It is something we say in political coverage.

Here to discuss who has the best turnout operation and best ground game, CNN political reporter, Sarah Murray; and editor-in-chief of the "Iowa Republican," Craig Robinson.

Craig, let me start with you and give people some perspective on the Republican side what we're talking about.

In 2012, when 21,000 voters showed up to cause. 21,000, not exactly a lot. In 2008118,000 voters showed up to caucus. I think Mike Huckabee got about 40,000, which is a high water mark for any Republican candidate ever. You are of Iowa and here watching. Who has the best ground game?

[11:50:17] CRAIG ROBINSON, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, IOWA REPUBLICAN: I don't know if anyone has a top notch ground game. There is plenty of excitement out there, Ted Cruz has a lot of ground game. He has a lot of volunteers knocking on a lot of doors and making phone calls. I think that matters. I think the Trump campaign is better organized than people think. It's a little unorthodox maybe, so to speak. Let's not forget, Chuck Logner (ph) is the former political director for the Republican Party of Iowa. He has organized these caucuses before. He knows all the tricks and the things to look for. I think that kind of experience really matters. Then, you know, from there I think it really tail offs. I was talking to a Ben Carson person last night. They still think they have the ground troops to really make a showing on Monday night.

BERMAN: It's interesting, you talk about Trump's ground game.

Sarah, I have heard people saying we have the best. Trump has something out there. You have been with him more than any reporter out there. What is it looking like, what does the Trump operation look like when you see it in person?

SARAH MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: It almost feels like it would be an extraordinary operational failure if he didn't win the Iowa caucuses at this point, right? If you look at his rallies, he is drawing thousands of people in towns where you would be happy to fill a room with 50. Where if you get a couple of hundred, that is a huge boon for any other campaign. He's able to lose more people and not necessary turn out everyone that comes to theses. But when you talk to voters, they have been contacted by the campaigns. Now, getting e- mailed regularly, phone calls from real humans, not just robo-calls, which makes a difference.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: No, it is. There's nothing like real human contact.

MURRAY: There's nothing like real human contact. But we less of is we don't hear a lot about Trump campaigners going door knocking and door to door. People know when the caucus is, making sure they know they can register the night of, that they can switch their party affiliations. We're seeing more of that effort. The Trump campaign is very tight-lipped about this. I think there are a lot of unanswered questions.

ROBINSON: I think there's a big difference, there's a local component to Trump's staff, where he has people like in the Dubuque area that are organizing areas they've grown up in their entire lives.

BERMAN: That's what you want.

ROBINSON: The average age of a Trump staffer is over 40, versus a lot of these campaigns who have kids. So they're using these people that have deep roots in these communities to activate their own networks. Maybe they're not political networks.

I don't know what to expect on Monday night, but I think there's a lot more there than people think.

BERMAN: Just give me a number. North of 120,000?

ROBINSON: Way over. I'm looking like 150 to turn out.

BERMAN: 150. Let me tell you one campaign that would be happy with 150, the Donald

J. Trump campaign.

Craig, Sarah Murray, thank you for being with us. Appreciate it.

All right. It was the last chance to woo voters before the Iowa caucuses, the debate here. Who got pummeled? Who prevailed? A prominent Republican debate coach joins us live.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:56:37] BOLDUAN: New this morning, with Donald Trump absent from the debate stage last night, what did the rest of the field do with that golden opportunity to finally take center stage?

Let's bring in Brett O'Donnell, a renowned debate coach who has worked with a number of Republican campaigns, especially in the past.

Brett, it's great to see you once again.

You say Ted Cruz had his worst debate last night, and one of the reasons that you are pointing to is him attacking the moderators. You really took on Chris Wallace at one point and said he was even going to walk off the stage trying to make a joke. Why do you think that fell flat because that tactic has worked in the past?

BRETT O'DONNELL, POLITICAL DEBATE COACH & CONSULTANT & PRESIDENT, O'DONNELL & ASSOCIATES: It works in the past when you're attacking the media from a philosophical standpoint, like the media is too liberal, but for Ted Cruz it was all about whining about the rules. You know, that just never comes off very well. Ted Cruz had the opportunity last night with the stage all to himself to make the case that he should win the Iowa caucuses, and instead he came off as a whiner who couldn't even handle Rand Paul and Marco Rubio in their exchanges.

BOLDUAN: You also think that Marco Rubio really stood out, especially in his moments when making a move for evangelical voters. I'm going to play a bit just for our viewers. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, (R), FLORIDA & PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Let me be clear about one thing. There's only one savior, and it's not me. It's Jesus Christ who came down to earth and died for our sins.

(APPLAUSE)

RUBIO: The Bible commands us to let our light shine on the world. For over 200 years, America's light has been shining on the world, and the world has never been the same again because in the end my goal is not to live on this earth for 80 years, but to live an eternity with my creator. I always allow my faith to influence everything I do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: That was clearly a theme throughout the night for him. Why does that work?

O'DONNELL: Well, he is trying to compete for some of the same voters that Ted Cruz and to a certain extent Donald Trump are competing for, the evangelicals in Iowans. It was an overt attempt by Marco Rubio to wear his faith on his sleeve, to send a message, hey, I am just as good on your issues, I am just as committed to my faith as either of those two might be. He made that play very strongly last night, event more strongly than Ted Cruz did.

BOLDUAN: I want to get your take, Brett, on the strategy on stage of taking on Trump in his absence. From what we saw last night, most of them took on Trump in absence on his style, not necessarily on substance. Do you think that was the right way to take him on when he's not there?

O'DONNELL: Well, I don't think it's right to either go after his style or substance. I think it's right to go after his brand. Trump is most vulnerable when you undercut the brand that he cares about the people of Iowa, that he is committed to them rather than himself. I think taking on the brand is where the candidates needed to be. No one did that last night.

BOLDUAN: Did that surprise you?

O'DONNELL: It does surprise me. Ted Cruz is playing to win, the last time I checked. He needed to show through that debate that he was the guy to undercut Trump and to actually show that he cared about Iowa voters.

BOLDUAN: Brett, it's great to see you, as always.

Brett O'Donnell for us. Thank you so much.

O'DONNELL: Good to be with you.

BOLDUAN: Of course.

Thank you all so much for joining us AT THIS HOUR.

BERMAN: Kate Bolduan, coming out here on Monday, I will be here on TV every waking minute between now and then.

BOLDUAN: Forever.

BERMAN: Perhaps even more than that.

"Legal View" with Ashleigh Banfield starts right now.

[12:00:13] ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield.