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UP, Transcript 12/19/2015

Guests: Joshua DuBois, Tom Doherty, Janell Ross, Michael Balboni, Mia McLeod, Helen Prejean, Barry Scheck, Jennifer Granholm, Christopher Baker, Paul Bonicelli, Alexandra Petri

Show: UP with STEVE KORNACKI Date: December 19, 2015 Guest: Joshua DuBois, Tom Doherty, Janell Ross, Michael Balboni, Mia McLeod, Helen Prejean, Barry Scheck, Jennifer Granholm, Christopher Baker, Paul Bonicelli, Alexandra Petri


JONATHAN CAPEHART, MSNBC HOST: The war between Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party.

Good morning. I`m Jonathan Capehart. Thanks for getting UP with us. Big developments overnight in the fight between the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Democratic Party. The details on that are ahead.

We`re also learning more about the President`s visit last night with the victims` families and the first responders of the San Bernardino shooting. We`ll be joined by a former White House staff member who accompanied the President to Newtown, Connecticut three years ago to discuss his touching account of what it was like when President Obama met with the Sandy Hook families. We`ll have more on that in just a moment.

Plus, what the President had to say in his final press conference of the year.

Also this morning, it`s now officially year two of the improved relationship between the U.S. and Cuba with new details about what exactly the new friendship is going to look like. We`ll also be joined by the South Carolina lawmaker who wants to make men jump over the same hurdles to get a Viagra prescription that women have to clear in order to access abortion services.

But we begin this hour with President Obama who made a visit to San Bernardino, California last night on his way to Hawaii to visit with victims` family members and first responders. Those meetings lasting much longer than expected.

NBC`s Morgan Radford has the details.

MORGAN RADFORD, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Jonathan. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency to help this community recover. This comes 16 days after the attack. And on the same day as the President`s visit.


RADFORD (voice-over): President Obama offering comfort, meeting privately Friday with families of the 14 victims who lost their lives in the San Bernardino massacre.

PRES. BARACK OBAMA (D), UNITED STATES: Despite the pain and the heartache that they`re feeling, they could not have been more inspiring. And more proud of their loved ones and more insistent that something good comes out of this tragedy.

RADFORD: Words of encouragement to a community rocked by the attack. And now haunted by what could have happened. In a 36 page affidavit, prosecutors say Syed Farook and his longtime friend Enrique Marquez planned to attack Riverside City College in 2011.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Especially -- I was a student here. Like it`s crazy that you wouldn`t want to hurt so many people that you know.

RADFORD: And it didn`t stop there. They also planned to throw pipe bombs on to a stretch of busy freeway with no exits to, quote, "maximize the number of casualties." And then Farook would walk between each of the cars shooting drivers one by one while Marquez fired shots from the hillside.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know, I drive every day to take my daughter to school on the 91 Freeway, so it`s very, very scary.

RADFORD: Marquez was arrested this week on three criminal charges. He bought two guns for Farook in 2011 and 2012, guns that were later used in the San Bernardino attack. But prosecutors say there is no evidence Marquez knew what Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, had planned. In fact, he called 911 when he realized what had happened, telling the operator, they can trace all the guns back to me. The operator at one point asks, you said he used your gun? Marquez, yes, oh, my God. But the question remains, how these two go undetected for so long?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our intelligence efforts are excellent, but we don`t have an x-ray for a man`s soul.


RADFORD: Marquez remains in custody this morning ahead of Monday`s bail hearing. Meanwhile, so many unanswered questions for this community still in shock -- Jonathan.

CAPEHART: And this is Morgan Radford in San Bernardino, thanks for joining us.

Last night`s meetings between the President and the families of the San Bernardino victims were private as they should have been, so it`s difficult for to us know exactly what happened. But we`ve seen images from similar events in recent years. This is President Obama in July, 2012 hugging Stephanie Davies who helped her friend Alley Young stay alive after she was shot during the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. Alley is on the hospital bed on the left.

This is the President comforting a woman who is sitting in the family section at a memorial service for the victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September, 2013. And is this is a photo of President Obama holding the granddaughter of the slain principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School. We`re learning more about what that December 2012 day in Newtown, Connecticut was really like for President Obama.

In a new memoir, Joshua DuBois, one of the White House aides who travelled with the President to Newtown describes Obama`s meetings with the victims` families, writing, quote, "Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander-in-chief. He`d say, tell me about your son. Tell me about your daughter. And then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away, many of them, two, three or four-years-old, too young to understand it all, the President would grab them and toss them laughing up into the air and then hand them a box of White House M&Ms which were always kept at close hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break. And then the entire scene would repeat for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over 100 relatives of the falling. Each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss. We spent what felt like a lifetime in those classrooms. And every single person received the same tender treatment, the same hugs, the same looks directly in their eyes."

Joshua DuBois, author of the "President`s Devotional" and the former director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships joins us now. Joshua, thanks for being here.


CAPEHART: So, as we see the first pictures of the President in his meetings with the families in San Bernardino, what went through your mind and what do you think was going through the President`s mind at that time?

DUBOIS: I was just thinking about how this is such a grim responsibility of the Presidents, one that he and the first family have had do far too many times, but one that they really don`t do out of any obligation. This is simply about walking alongside those who mourn and letting them know that their commander-in-chief and their country is standing with them. And listen, they know that being there is not going to change what happened. It`s not going to fix everything certainly but if they can provide just a little glimmer of hope, a little bit of the comfort, they even just stand alongside these folks in their sadness for a while, it`s something that the President wants do.

And it`s not just him. You know, the First Lady is there with him both supporting the President and these terribly emotional times, but also comforting folks herself. She went to Oak Creek, Wisconsin after the Sikh Temple there was shot up by a mad man, by a white supremacist. And spent time with those families, as well. This has unfortunately been a big obligation, a responsibility of this White House. And of this president. But it`s something they know that they need do and that they want do for those who`ve lost their loved ones.

CAPEHART: Well, you know, Joshua, I was going to say that we have been -- we have watched this President unfortunately sadly do this over and over and over again with all the mass shootings that we as a nation have endured. And I`m wondering where does the President find the strength to do this? Because as you said, he`s under no obligation do this, but as a moral man, he feels compelled to do this. But this is tough work.


CAPEHART: Where does he find the strength to be the rock for these grieving families?

DUBOIS: Yes. I can`t speak for the President, but imagine he finds strength from a few places. Certainly from his family, Michelle is his rock. The First Lady is his rock as are his girls and I know he leans on them in tough times. I think he finds strength in God. He`s a committed Christian. He`s someone whose faith is important to him, something he keeps close to heart and leans on in tough times. And quite frankly from the folks who have been impacted by these tragedies, they have shown tremendous courage. They are inspiring themselves. And he feels that, you know, it`s the least he can do to be there for them in their time of need. And so, I think it`s a few places, but I imagine it does have to take a toll on him.

CAPEHART: And Josh, since you were there in Newtown and you were in the room with the President as he talked to the families, talk to us about the families` reactions to the President coming in and grieving with them.

DUBOIS: You know, very widely certainly there are some folks who, you know, it was just a little bit of a break to be able to meet a man that they heard a lot about and to spend a little bit of time with him, just a little bit of an important distraction in a terrible, terrible, terrible time in their lives. There are some folks who were just overcome by emotions, still processing what it means to lose their loved ones and sharing with the President their loved ones` quirks and, you know, favorite jokes and favorite meals and so forth. And so, you know, we have all had to be there for people that we love and care about in their time of need. And it`s similar to that unfortunately, something take just happens over and over again. I think they said the President spent three hours with these folks yesterday. And I think that`s one of the things he always wants people to know is that take as much time as you need. And he`s going to be there.

CAPEHART: Joshua, let me bring in our panel into this discussion. David Corn is an MSNBC political analyst and Washington Bureau chief for Mother Jones Magazine. Tom Doherty is a Republican strategist and former senior adviser to former New York Governor George Pataki. And Janell Ross is my colleague, she`s a reporter for "The Washington Post" The Fix. Your reaction to what Joshua is talking about, but also the President once again consoling grieving families.

DAVID CORN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, it`s not part of the official job description. And I think when he got the job, he didn`t expect to be doing it so much. And, you know, I think it`s wonderful that he does, that he`s able to according to Josh and others maintain this sort of one-on-one connection with these victims and their families and not become jaded to it even though we have politically become jaded. And, you know, to inject a little bit of politics into this, this is MSNBC, you know, I wonder what would be happening if we had a sort of Republican president in these overseeing all these shootings.

Because Obama at least has this position that he wants to do something, enact some laws. Whether, you know, people can argue whether that`s the right recourse or not. A lot of these families tend to want to see some gun safety measures endorsed. Not all, but some afterwards. So he`s been trying to fight for this, as well. So it`s not just consolation. He has prescription to kind of move forward. And most Republicans are not in that position.

CAPEHART: Uh-hm. Well, try to move forward.

CORN: Yes.

TOM DOHERTY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I have a question for Josh. Is there a time frame that sort of having been through Newtown and now, San Bernardino, that is appropriate? The President has gotten I think unfair criticism that this is sort of a fly by, he`s on his way to Hawaii. This obviously means a lot to the families. Is there a time frame that the President you wait a week for these, you wait two weeks? Do they find that the White House that you know, you kind of let things settle down for the families?

DUBOIS: Yes. You know, it`s been more than those two incidents of course. You know, over and over again, and Jonathan quoted some at the top of the segment. Even down in Charleston after what happened there at Mother Emanuel. Most of it is driven by the families in my experience. The White House is in constant communication with those who are affected, with the first responders, with the leadership in the town that is sort of overseeing investigations. And they really try to take their cues and work around their schedule where possible. I know that`s what happened in Newtown, certainly what happened in Charleston with the funeral there and I`m sure they were in close coordination with the families in San Bernardino, as well.

CAPEHART: So, Janell.

JANELL ROSS, THE WASHINGTON POST, THE FIX: I`m curious about where the President I guess has gone for guidance on the right way to act out this role as a national mourner in chief and what is appropriate and when it is appropriate. I`m wondering if there are any particular past presidents or individuals that the President has turned to for guidance.

DUBOIS: You know, my sense is that he really does go with it himself in times like this and consults scripture and certainly talks to the First Lady and, you know, and staff and just sort of hashes it out. But mostly, I mean, this is just sort of an interpersonal dynamic between him and those who are impacted. He sort of steal himself, takes a deep breath and goes in there, looks them in their eyes and asks them to tell them what`s on their heart and, you know, put arm around them and hold them close for a little bit and just provide whatever comfort he can. You know, it`s not very complex, but it is very heartfelt.

CORN: You know, interesting this is happening in a very political moment, too, because the Republicans in presidential debates out there basically saying the President is incompetent, a weakling, not a strong leader, Donald Trump says that Putin is a better leader than the President.


CORN: And yet we see him in this role which is just pure leadership. It`s not about politics right now or policy. And I mean, seems to be wearing this mental very heavily but actually doing the job very well.

CAPEHART: Well, you know, we have seen since President Clinton in the Oklahoma City bombing is, you know, where people say that President Clinton found his sea legs as president of being consoler in chief. And unfortunately, because of the mass shootings that we`ve seen over and over and over again during this president`s tenure, that he has unfortunately mastered the role of being consoler in chief.

Joshua DuBois, thank you so much for being with us this morning bringing us your perspective.

DUBOIS: Thanks for having me.

CAPEHART: Up next, one threat, two very different reactions from two of the country`s largest school systems. Their response in an era of terrorism and mass school shootings is presenting a major challenge. What are authorities looking for to determine how legitimate a threat really is?


CAPEHART: Earlier this week, the nation`s two largest school systems received nearly identical threats of a terrorist attack on the very same day. But the two cities reacted very differently. New York City determined the threat was not credible, but Los Angeles made an unprecedented decisions to close the city`s school serving more than half million students.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D), NEW YORK CITY: Based on the information that we have, this was a very generic piece of writing sent to a number of different places simultaneously and also written in a fashion that suggests it is not plausible and we`ve come to the conclusion that we must continue to keep our school system open. In fact it`s important -- very important not to overreact in situations like this.

CHARLIE BECK, LOS ANGELES POLICE DEPARTMENT CHIEF: When parents make their determination about the decisions that were made today, I would ask them to look at this way. If you knew what the superintendent and the school board knew at 5:30 this morning when the decision had to be made, would you have sent your child to school. And every parent I`ve asked has said no, of course not. And I think that that should be the test that all of us ask our school to pass.


CAPEHART: Joining me now to discuss the challenges of assessing terror threats, former New York Homeland Security Director Michael Balboni.

Michael, thank you very much for being here.


CAPEHART: So, here is what the Los Angeles School Superintendent Ramon Cortines who was the schools chancellor here in New York back in the `90s. Here what he had to say about the decision to close the schools. He said, "I go back to 9/11. People knew something. Maybe they didn`t know enough, but they knew something and they didn`t act. And I was not going to let something happen on my watch. I knew I had to do something quickly if I was going to do something."

BALBONI: Tremendous pressure. And it`s really a no win situation. Because if you do something and it turns out not to happen, then you`re the goat. And yet obviously if something does happen and you haven`t reacted. But in this case, one of the things that really were puzzling, the e-mail itself, now that we know, it had similar language. I`m a student, we`re here, I`m in L.A., I`m in New York, we`re going to attack. You know, that`s what the e-mail message said. So, a quick little calibration and communication between the two different districts, what are you seeing, that would have been a very significant tell as to whether this was real. But here is the other thing.

You know, anybody who has any experience with al Qaeda or ISIS knows that they don`t forecast when they`re going to attack. They never do. They never say we`re going to come because they want to come when you`re not watching.


BALBONI: You know, so what is the process, right? You take a look at what is the threat. How specific it is. Is it reasonable? You know, could somebody actually do it. What is the capabilities that they`re expressing? And then you talk about what is your risk, what is your vulnerability, and are there ways to mitigate that. So, what is so extraordinary about this is, the size of the district. And they said, from one minute to the next, we`re not going forward. New York City, deciding to do something different.

CAPEHART: You know, what is interesting here is, what you were describing between New York and Los Angeles, they both got this e-mail, but what I`m wondering is, did they share? Do they talk to each other? It`s like they`re reacting in isolation, but should we be talking about a system where school district number one, number two, the top five school districts should at least if they get a threat zap it around to each other, and say, have you gotten this? Do you know anything about this?

BALBONI: I would argue that the Department of Homeland Security Intelligence Analysis Center, that they take information, they put it together, and then they will send it out to the localities. They should have been the adults in the room to sit there and say, well, wait a minute, guys, are you seeing the same thing? Let`s take a look at this this, what is the background. Can we find the server from where it was sent? You know, all these things that you could have sit there and said, yes, it just doesn`t sound credible. But again, it`s a terrible decision for a local school district to have to make.

CAPEHART: And on that note, Michael Balboni, thank you very much. Michael Balboni, former director of Homeland Security for New York State.

Still ahead, is it just a matter of time before the death penalty in this country is a thing of the past? We`ll take a look at what is behind the steep decline and executions here in the United States. But first, the ongoing dispute between Bernie Sanders campaign and DNC. What really happened? We`ll go live to New Hampshire and more. And a preview of tonight`s debate. That is next. Stay with us.


CAPEHART: Democrats are set to square off tonight in New Hampshire for their third debate, but it`s the fight between Bernie Sanders campaign and the Democratic National Committee making headlines this morning. The Sanders campaign reaching a deal overnight with the DNC to regain access to the party`s voter database after a staffer allegedly accessed the data improperly.

Now, for more on this, we head to New Hampshire and NBC`s Kristen Welker. Kristen, what is the latest?

KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jonathan, good morning. It has just been a stunning 24 hours. And now Bernie Sanders is under fire really for the first time in his campaign. And Clinton is on the attack, her campaign accusing him of stealing their private voter information. Now, even though the legal issues appear to be resolved this morning, the gloves have clearly come off.


WELKER (voice-over): Overnight a deal, the Democratic Party agreeing to give Bernie Sanders` campaign access once again to a database of potential voters. This after a firestorm of controversy. Sanders facing questions about why one of his staffers took advantage of a computer glitch in the Democratic National Committee`s data files to access Hillary Clinton`s voter list. The staffer was fired.

JOSH URETSKY, FORMER SANDERS CAMPAIGN WORKER: I did not download any voter file data.

WELKER: The Sanders campaign sued the DNC for temporarily cutting off access to its own voter files.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is taking our campaign hostage.

WELKER: Outraged, Sanders supporters signed an online petition demanding the DNC reversed course and accusing the party of trying to guarantee a Clinton win. A consistent accusation from team Sanders. The DNC chair pushed back.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I mean, if the shoe were on the other foot and the Clinton campaign had accessed, Sanders campaign data inappropriately, Sanders supporters and the Sanders campaign would expect me to react in the exact same way which I would do.

WELKER: The DNC gave in to Sanders` demands before the two sides were to appear in court Friday night saying in a statement that the campaign agreed to cooperate with the party investigation and that, quote, "We are glad that all parties are moving forward and that the candidates and the party can refocus on engaging voters on the issue that matter to them." And while Sanders gave Clinton a pass over her e-mail controversy in the first democratic debate --

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.


WELKER: The question now, will Clinton attack him tonight for this breach. The democratic frontrunner surgeon at times acting like the nominee already.

CLINTON: As president, I would work with responsible gun owners.

WELKER: Now, the DNC is launching an independent audit. The Clinton campaign said this just this morning, quote, "We believe this audit should proceed immediately and pending its findings, we expect further disciplinary action to be taken as appropriate."

And Jonathan, you can expect this to really overshadow at least the first part of tonight`s debate. Back to you.

CAPEHART: Absolutely. Kristen Welker in New Hampshire, thanks very much.

Now, that fired staffer talked exclusively with our very own Steve Kornacki yesterday. Take a listen to this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We didn`t actually like use it for anything valuable. And we didn`t take custodianship of it. Like we didn`t -- it`s like the equivalent of, I guess, you know, the acknowledge you maybe would be, you know, somebody leaves the front door open for the fifth time, although this was the first time that they made a mistake like this, but somebody leaves the front door open and you left a note inside the front door saying you left the door open. And then maybe you wouldn`t checked the side door, too to make sure that door was closed.


CAPEHART: OK, now, first your reaction to that explanation and then did the DNC as a result of that explanation? Did the DNC overreact?

CORN: Well, I think overall this is a tempest in a thumb drive. It will disappear after the debate. But, you know, if the door to your neighbor`s house is open, you can walk up, you can go, hey, anybody home, and then you close the door and walk away. If you have to call the cops, you call the cops. It`s a bad examination. But everybody in this case has overreacted. I think, you know, the DNC overreacted and then Sanders overreacted. And it took about 12 hours to resolve it when they all decided, it was not worth the fight.

CAPEHART: But Janell, let`s say this -- what about what DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said, that if the Clinton campaign had been accused of doing this or had done this, what would the reaction be?

ROSS: I think there are two things going on here. One, this situation seems to run sort of counter to the narrative that the Sanders campaign has wanted to put out about itself. And that I think voters believe and understand about Sanders. That they are running sort of an outsider campaign, they`re the underdog, they have to fight harder, et cetera, et cetera. Now we`ve crossed the line into something that seems like some possible cheating so to speak, right?

And furthermore, in listening to the gentleman who was fired speak, I can begin to understand why people`s eyebrows went up. This young person sounded quite a bit like a student who was trying to justify plagiarism. Like it was just unbelievable. Oh, it`s not that bad, it was just two sentences. You know, listen, you either close the door and do your civic duty and walk away and say, alert your neighbor, you know that your front door was open when they get home, or you walk in and look around and leave a note.

CAPEHART: And it`s not like just one person, we`re talking about four people who then saved stuff at glance.

DOHERTY: Oh, they went on, they turned the TV on, sat around and watched a football game and they said, OK, let`s get out of here before they find out we`re watching a TV. What I find amazing though is, I didn`t recognize that isn`t it silly though for the DNC to be sort of hosting all of this information that is, you know, really Clinton information or Sanders information? And they just put themselves in a position where something like this would happen where they`re stealing from one another. You would think you would want to host it in your own site that, you know, no one can get a hold of.

CORN: There is a reason. I thought that, too, at first. But the explanation they gave yesterday is that all this voter data information will eventually be used in the general election. And so they`re assembling it for them. It helps the campaigns. It`s the vender who really screwed up here by creating, you know, this upping the firewall, and then the Bernie Sanders campaign that went through sat down and opened the door and looked at the bandies, as well.

DOHERTY: But to the point -- if Hillary had done this --

CAPEHART: Oh my God!

DOHERTY: Oh, this would have been -- we`d be talking about this for the next three weeks now.

CAPEHART: Well, let`s talk about --

DOHERTY: There would be Congressional investigation over this.

CAPEHART: I know about that. But let`s talk about tonight`s debate.


CAPEHART: And one of the issues here is that, you know, Bernie Sanders has been sort of knocked off his stride. He`s going into this debate, a lot of people thinking he`s been off message, especially because terrorism and international issues have taken over the conversation as opposed to domestic policies and economic issues, which is Senator Sanders` strength. What does he have do tonight to sort of get back the burn, if you will?

ROSS: I think he has got to demonstrate some actual and clear confidence on straight up core foreign policy issues and homeland security issues. And then he probably does need to display some ability to connect these issues that he cares most about or that he is most deeply connected to, which is economic instability to those issues. That is not impossible, but it has to be done with care and it has to be done artfully so it doesn`t seem that he just --

CORN: And this guy knows what the nuclear triad is. I mean, he`s been in the Senate, in the House for a long time. He`s worked a lot on foreign policy issues. It`s just that his cause has raised on death threat for running, has been economic insecurity and inequality and that`s what he wants his overarching message to be. It`s just when the news cycle turns a different way, it looks like he`s not engaged but he`s certainly has the competence and the intelligence to address that. One question I think we have here is, at what point does it become too late to close the gap between him and Hillary Clinton that seems to be there at least in the general national polls.

DOHERTY: He needs to win New Hampshire is what he needs do. And so he has to focus on, you know, voter turnout is the first step for him. I mean, he`s going to have a ground game. What he says tonight is less important to what happens in New Hampshire. Because he doesn`t get through New Hampshire with a win, it`s over.

CAPEHART: And on that point, I agree with you, Tom. Still ahead, why in my opinion Ben Carson won Tuesday night`s Republican debate without having to say a single word.

And next, why filling a Viagra prescription may be getting a little tougher in one southern state. Stay with us.


CAPEHART: Now, what would ham if men had to jump over the same hurdles to get Viagra as women have to clear in order to gain access to abortion services? That`s the question a state representative in South Carolina is hoping to answer with new proposed legislation. The bill would limit the ability of men to get erectile dysfunction drugs unless they undergo a 24 hour waiting period, they submit a notarized affidavit from at least one sexual partner affirming that the patient has experienced symptoms of E.D. within the last 90 days and they are examined by a state licensed sexual therapist to make sure their E.D. is not, quote, "attributable solely to one or more psychological conditions." And finally, within six months, patients must also attend three outpatient counseling sessions where they would receive information on, quote, "pursuing celibacy" as a viable lifestyle choice.

The bill is sponsored by South Carolina State Representative Mia McLeod and she joins us now to tell us more about this. State Senator, thank you very much for being here. Now, why did you introduce this legislation?

STATE REP. MIA MCLEOD (D), SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, you know, I`m just fed up with the way we do things in South Carolina. And I`m certainly not saying that abortion and erectile dysfunction are the same. But surely one can`t happen without the other. So, I just think it`s time that we focus on both sides of the equation.

CAPEHART: Uh-hm. And you join a growing list of female state lawmakers who are trying to counter the wave of recently passed anti-abortion laws. As we all know in Ohio, State Senator Nina Turner countered a fetal heartbeat bill with a measure similar to yours in South Carolina. In Virginia, State Senator Janet Howell sought an amendment to the State`s vaginal ultrasound bill that would require men seeking Viagra to get a rectal exam. In Illinois, State Representative Kelly Cassidy wanted to mandate that men watching graphic video about the drug`s potential side effects. And in Missouri in Georgia, female lawmakers introduced bills that would restrict men`s ability to get vasectomies only if their life depended on it. And in all three cases, the measures failed. So what has been the reaction from your colleagues to your proposed legislation?

MCLEOD: The reaction from my colleagues has been interesting. Not really strong. I`ve gotten a much stronger reaction from constituents and others outside of South Carolina who see the need for this type of legislation. The thought that we can broaden this discussion.

CAPEHART: How confident -- you don`t think your legislation is going to pass, do you?

MCLEOD: In a male dominated legislature, it`s not likely. It`s not likely. But I do think that it has ignited a conversation that we certainly need to have and I`m encouraged by that.

CAPEHART: Now, in just the last four years, states have enacted 231 new laws restricting abortions and early next year, the Supreme Court is going to hear a challenge to one of those laws passed in Texas. They could set the national template for House states can limit abortion, access to abortions, how has the national debate over abortion in your view changed since Roe v. Wade?

MCLEOD: Wow. The national discussion has changed drastically I think at least in our state.

CAPEHART: For the better or for the worse do you think?

MCLEOD: For the worse. For the worse. And that has prompted me to of course introduce legislation like this. Because every year, we waste an extraordinary amount of time and tax dollars in my opinion debating anti- abortion bills, requiring women to jump through additional hoops and hurdles. And to investigate women`s healthcare centers without cause. Those are reasons to broaden the discussion and to look at both sides of the equation. I mean we`ve only been debating one. And that has got to change.

CAPEHART: Uh-hm. Well, I look forward to the discussion coming out of South Carolina because of your bill. South Carolina State Representative Mia McLeod, thanks very much for being here.

MCLEOD: Thanks so much for having me.

CAPEHART: Up next, a look behind the sudden decline in death penalties nationwide. Stay with us.


CAPEHART: An historic drop to report in our nation`s use of the death penalty this year. Executions have fallen to their lowest point in more than two decades. Only 28 people were put to death in 2015, all of those executions taking place in just six states. A 27 year low. Just as significant, the number of new death sentences dropped to a four decade low, 49 death sentences were handed down this year. That compares to 315 death sentences in 1996. Now, behind those numbers is a falling murder rate and juries increasingly opting for life without parole. The drop also comes as states continue to have difficulty obtaining the drugs used in lethal injections. There is also that botched execution in Oklahoma in 2014. And the issue of innocence continues to make headlines with six more death row inmates exonerated this year, bringing the total to 156 since the 1970s.

Joining me now, anti-death penalty activist and author of "Dead Man Walking," Sister Helen Prejean. And Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project. Thank you both very much for being here.

Sister Helen, let me start with you. The support for the death penalty has declined from 80 percent in 1994 to 61 percent today. What is behind those numbers and how do you respond to the fact that a majority of Americans still support the death penalty?

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN, ANTI-DEATH PENALTY ACTIVIST: Well, the majority of Americans that support the death penalty is a theoretical death penalty. If there is a terrible crime and the person is guilty, are you for the death penalty? But when you give the American people the choice, which are you for, the death penalty or life without parole, and you hear that in the question, a majority now support life without parole. And you can see it in practice. So what has happened over these years since we`ve had it is I`m going to speak from the end of educating the public. Because I`ve been involved in six executions, worked with victims` families, wrote the book "Dead Man Walking." And we had a great film.

And it`s just to get out there and tell the people to help them understand. They don`t have real information of how selective the death penalty has been from the very beginning, how it`s almost always eight out of ten cases only when white people get killed that it`s sought, never people of color. And people don`t know any of those things. And when you can bring them close to it and then what I did in the book and what we do in the film of "Dead Man Walking" is just actually bring them into the killing chamber. Here is somebody who is guilty, but now let us look at what it means for us as a people to decide that we will kill a human being.

CAPEHART: And, you know, excuse me, and Barry, you know, you have the Innocence Project. There are people on death row who are innocent. What role is that and the publicity as we just said, six people had been exonerated out of death row. What role does Innocence play in this debate?

BARRY SCHECK, THE INNOCENCE PROJECT: Well, Innocence as I think really changing it in a very profound way. Because it`s not just the 154 death row exonerations or the six last year. But when you look at the 336 post- conviction DNA exonerations, when you look at the non-DNA and DNA exoneration which since 1989 are over 1500, people begin to realize that they really can`t trust the state to get it right and there is profound issues of doubt about whether somebody is really guilty of some of these crimes. And that makes a huge difference in the way people think about the ultimate punishment.

CAPEHART: Uh-hm. And Sister Helen, six states have abolished the death penalty in the last eight years with Nebraska`s legislature. Legislatures moved to abolish the death penalty likely going before the voters next year. Should we be expecting more states to abolish the death penalty anytime soon and what do you expect to happen in Nebraska?

PREJEAN: Yes. In Nebraska, I just happened to be with the two senators in Rome who led that legislation. And they said it was a tough fight, but it`s that education of the people. And also a significant factor I want to add in here, too, is the role that victims` families that are speaking out saying that the death penalty doesn`t help them, it`s eight years since New Jersey did away with the death penalty and 62 murder victims` families said this doesn`t heal us, this doesn`t give us closure to wait years and years.


PREJEAN: That`s been a factor, as well. And if you look across the whole spectrum, what you look for first is practice begins to diminish. The last thing that will happen is that it will be repealed on the books. Supreme Court may itself in the death penalty, from Justice Breyer strong dissent in Glossip v. Gross that happened recently. Because looking at the practice.


PREJEAN: Supreme Court has never looked at the practice. They keep holding on to the theory of it. But in practice, it`s never worked because from the very beginning, the Supreme Court gave us the guidelines to the states, only go after the worst of the worst murderers. Nobody knows what that is.

CAPEHART: Well, let me bring in -- before we go, let me bring in Barry on this. So, you know, as Sister Helen is bringing up, you know, the Supreme Court, we`ve got two justices who just in June said it`s highly likely that the death penalty is unconstitutional. What is the likelihood that we will actually have the high court hand down a ruling on death penalty?

SCHECK: Well, I think it`s very good. You have to understand that the death penalty is only for a few states. Ninety three percent of the executions have only been in four states, two-thirds of the death sentences are coming from two percent of the counties.


SCHECK: So, the Supreme Court is looking at all the other states that are not executing people and not putting forward death penalties and they`re putting that into the mix and that`s going to be a key to the decision they ultimately render here.

CAPEHART: And on that, we have to go. Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking." And Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, thank you both very much for joining us today.

SCHECK: Thank you.

CAPEHART: We`re following a developing story in Iraq where the U.S. military says a coalition air strike against ISIS may have killed Iraqi soldiers. Here`s what we know right now. Iraqi officials saying an officer and nine soldiers were killed or wounded in the incident in Anbar Province near Fallujah. This is the first known instance of friendly fire since operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria began. We`ll bring you more information as it becomes available. We`ll be right back.


CAPEHART: We`re getting our first look this hour. President Obama`s arrival in Hawaii earlier this morning. The President flying overnight following his stop in San Bernardino, California. He and the first family will be spending 16 days in in the Aloha State for the holidays. The state where President Obama was born and raised.

And as we look ahead to tonight`s democratic debate, I want to point something out about this week`s Republican debate in Las Vegas. Specifically my contention that when it comes to style, Ben Carson emerged from that debate the winner. Simply because he was the only candidate to wear a blue tie in a sea of red. How do you think I noticed this? Because of how remarkably similar Ben Carson looked to how I look almost every day, today included. So, I want to ask the panel, does style actually matter when you`re running for president or is it only about substance? I mean, look at that, it`s very close. Style or substance?

DOHERTY: You need to look the part. And look, clearly as the Republican - -

CAPEHART: You wear your red tie.

DOHERTY: Here`s what we do, we put the red tie on and then it`s a good day.

CAPEHART: Style, substance?

CORN: Well, you know, Donald Trump has the best style ever of anybody who ever ran for President. So, I think you`ll going to get a call from him after this segment is over.

CAPEHART: You know, I`m willing to take his call. I think he has got my number. Janell, what do you think? Style or substance?

ROSS: Listen. I think the same rule applies to presidential candidates that it does to all of us. Substance matters a lot. But if you come somewhere looking really crazy, people really don`t hear what you have to say. So style matters. It matters quite a bit. You know, I have to say that there were some particularly interesting fashion choices on that stage.

CAPEHART: Such as?

ROSS: There was a lot of red. Well, as you know, Jonathan, you and I have discussed, you know, Carly Fiorina is in an interesting position as the only woman on the stage. And it is in that sense relatively easy to stand out. Of course she`s wearing an all-red suit to match with the all red ties selections save Dr. Carson. However, it was a lot of suit and a lot of jewelry.

CAPEHART: -- A lot of jewelry. Like the overs to the pop culture sized cross that she is wearing.

ROSS: I think it would.

CAPEHART: That`s a whole other discussion. We have got more to talk about in the next hour. Another hour of news and politics, we promise, still ahead. Stay with us.


CAPEHART: President Obama`s year end report card.


CAPEHART: Thanks for staying with us this Saturday morning. I`m John Capehart.

President Obama begins his Christmas vacation in the state before he was born and raised, but not before a visit to San Bernardino as well as his final press conference of the year. All the details in what he did and what he said in just a moment.

Donald Trump`s support keeps on growing in the newest polls. So, what about those who predicted he`d already reached his ceiling.

Plus, the surprising new numbers that show how Americans really feel about assault weapons.

Also, it`s now officially year two of the improved relationship between the United States and Cuba. How long will it be before Americans will be making the trip to Havana? We`ll have the new scoop from the State Department.

And as "Star Wars" takes over the White House for a day, if seems you don`t have to be a full blooded "Star Wars" geek to get caught up in the excitement of the latest installment. I`ll be joined by my favorite "Star Wars" geek in just a bit.

But we begin this hour with President Obama and the first family touching down in Hawaii this morning to officially begin their annual Christmas vacation. On his way cross-country, the president stopped in San Bernardino to visit with the families of the 14 people killed in the December 2nd massacre and the first responders.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some described their loved ones who had come to this country as immigrants, others who had lived in the area all their lives. All of them extraordinarily proud of the work they were doing to keep people healthy and safe here in this community. And as difficult as this will time is for them and for the entire community, they are also representative of the strength and love that exists in this community and this country.


CAPEHART: Before living for his cross-country trip, President Obama was in the White House briefing room for his last press conference of the year. He appeared to take a victory lap of sorts.


OBAMA: I look back on this year and one thing that I see is that so much of our steady persistent work over the years is paying off for the American people in big tangible ways. I just want to point out, I said at the beginning of this year, that interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter and we`re only halfway through.


CAPEHART: The president cited the improving economy, the surging number of Americans with health coverage and his historic deals with Iran and Cuba. He also took a swipe at the Republicans who threatened to derail the agreement he hammered out in Paris just last week.


OBAMA: Right now, the American Republican Party is the only major party that I can think of in the advanced world that effectively denies climate change. I mean, it`s an outlier. Many of the key signatories to this deal, the architects of this deal come from center right governments, even far right parties in many of these countries, that they may not like immigrants for example, but they admit, yes, the science tells us we`ve got to do something about climate change.


CAPEHART: The president also pushed back on the criticism he`s weathered on saying on the eve of the Paris attacks that ISIS was contained.


OBAMA: Whenever I say that we have made progress squeezing the territory that they control or made inroads against them, people will say if something happens around the world, then obviously, that must not be true. But in any battle, in any fight, even as you make progress, there are still dangers involved.


CAPEHART: Looking forward, the president promised to remain productive and relevant in his final year in office.


OBAMA: Since taking this office, I`ve never been more optimistic about the year ahead than I am right now. In 2016, I`m going to leave it up all on the field.


CAPEHART: I want to bring back the panel but I want to show yet one more clip. This time, President Obama discussing his relationship with newly minted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.


OBAMA: I will say that in his interactions with me, he has been professional, he has reached out to tell me what he can do and what he cannot do. I think it`s a good working relationship. We recognize that we disagree on a whole bunch of other stuff. He is respectful of the process and respectful of how legislation works.


CAPEHART: So, are we in a new era here?

We got a budget passed with no ceilings or crises. We -- they talked. The president and speaker of the house talked publicly. Even the speaker of the house had a dinner with the former speaker of the house, the house minority leader, Nancy Pelosi.

New era here this Washington?

DOHERTY: Isn`t that the way it`s supposed to be?

CAPEHART: That`s the way it`s supposed to be, but it`s not the way it`s been.

DOHERTY: Right. But the difference -- on one hand, he loves to play the politics with climate change. He took a heavy bat to the Republicans. If you look into work and get a deal done, you would think that you would be not swinging a bat and ripping their heads off before you sit down at the table and discuss the deal.

On the other hand, he said some very nice things about the speaker who he needs to deal with and I think that relationship has got off to a good start. I wish he would take the politics out of it sometimes as we`re going to Christmas break and say, I wish the Republicans as opposed to even the far right groups away the world and civilized world.


CAPEHART: Republicans won`t say the president needs to take the politics, he`s the president.

CORN: Wait a second, you worked for Governor Pataki.


CORN: When he was this charge of a committee at the Council of Foreign Relations that put out a great report a couple years ago, (INAUDIBLE) from the Republican primaries, but a great report on climate change and called for basically all the steps that the president is trying do now.

The Republican Party is just so far off the map on this and they were out there attacking Paris and they were saying to the president, you know what, this is meaningless, we`re going to laugh you out of town on this. He has to fight back on this because they are wrong, they`re wrong for --


DOHERTY: But they should fight back on the facts. The facts are on his side, as Governor Pataki has pointed out. The facts are on his side. And that`s what he should talk about because they are Republicans like myself who agree with him on this.

Stay to the facts. He would win on the --


CAPEHART: I was going to say, the Republicans on the Hill who are not in the reality based community that you are --

DOHERTY: But you`re only going to get them farther into their corner by --


DOHERTY: We`ll see how that goes.

CAPEHART: Janell, do you think that this really incredible period that we`re in between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will continue, or is this the last positive thing that we will see from Speaker Ryan because the far right factions that drove out Boehner are going to set their sights on Paul Ryan?

ROSS: Well, I think there is reason to be hopeful. The reason that I get I would say there is probably reason to be somewhat hopeful that there will be some sort of functional relationship is that Paul Ryan was the speaker who came in and basically set some terms for his own speakership, that he wasn`t going to take the job unless he had some assurances that there was going to be some party discipline, that there was going to be some reasonable behavior.

So, assuming he can hold his caucus together and hold them to their agreement, then I think you should expect to see at least some reasonable levels of communication.

CORN: That may be true between Ryan and the White House. I still think every time people have said in the last six years, the Tea Party is going to have to get reasonable, they`re going to have to make a deal, they`re going to have to realize how Washington works and be part of that, they basically have proven that they can do that for maybe 20 seconds at the longest amount of time.

So, you have Rush Limbaugh and all the other talk show Rush wannabees out there, you have Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and others out on the stump and they are going to be fanning the flames of this sort of internal GOP civil war. So, that`s going to continue.

I guess the big question, maybe you have an idea, what is the next front for the Tea Party rebellion to come back on against the establishment?

DOHERTY: Look, I think that we`re going to make a decision whether or not as we did in 2014 where we did not talk about Palin, we didn`t talk about Cruz, we didn`t talk about the far right, we ran reasonable candidates, we won election. The question is, have we learned from that or is 2016, we shown in national election that we cannot control ourselves and we are really a midterm party?

CAPEHART: We only have about 45 seconds left, but we can`t go without talking about the president commuted sentences of 95 people yesterday, mostly drug offenders. He`s now surpassed the number of commutations granted by the previous four presidents combined. What kind of criminal justice push do you think we`ll see from the president in his final year in office, do you think, Janell, real quick?

ROSS: I think there are people who are certainly hoping that will be a real emphasis in the last year and for a number of reasons. Certainly I think, there`s some pretty wide scale agreement that the drug war has not worked or our approach to the drug war has not worked. But also because of the sheer costs of the human cost and the fiscal costs of incarcerating this many people is really unsustainable.

CAPEHART: And that is the reason why you`re seeing both the far left and the far right joining together in the capitol to get this done.

Up next, the new war of words about immigration between two sons of immigrants who are running for president.

Stay with us.


CAPEHART: A new poll released just last night shows Republican frontrunner Donald Trump leading at 39 percent, up 11 points since November. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio round out the top three. This after Trump responded to praise this week from Russian President Vladimir Putin who said in a news conference that Trump was a, quote, "bright personality and talented person".

And so, here is what Trump had to say about that on yesterday`s "MORNING JOE."


MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MSNBC ANCHOR: Did you like you Vladimir Putin`s comments about you?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Sure. When people call you brilliant, that`s always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC ANCHOR: Well, he also is the person that kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries obviously, that would be a concern, would it not?

TRUMP: He`s running his country and at least he`s a leader -- unlike what we have in this country.

SCARBOROUGH: You obviously condemn Vladimir Putin killing journalists and political opponents, right?

TRUMP: Oh, sure, absolutely. I`ve always felt fine about Putin. I think that he is a strong leader. He`s a powerful leader.


CAPEHART: Trump taking just a little too long there to condemn Putin such as it was.

Meanwhile, Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are still fighting over immigration and the gang of eight immigration bill. Cruz aggressively pushing back on Rubio this week, saying he never supported legalization for undocumented immigrants.


SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I oppose amnesty. Marco Rubio supports it. I oppose citizenship. Marco Rubio supports citizenship. I oppose legalization. Marco Rubio supports legalization.

I opposed and led the fight to defeat the gang of eight bill. Marco Rubio authored and led the unsuccessful fight to pass the gang of eight bill.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I`m puzzled by his attacks on this since he`s the one that for example supports doubling the number of green cards. He`s the one that supports a 500 percent increase in guest workers into the United States. And he`s the one that supported legalization.


CAPEHART: MSNBC`s Kasie Hunt joins us live from Cedar Rapids with more.

Kasie, how do you see the dynamic between these two -- these top three candidates playing out over the next few days?

KASIE HUNT, MSNBC POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Jonathan, good morning. We`re here in a very chilly Cedar Rapids ahead of a big Donald Trump rally. He, of course, is the national frontrunner, although a couple polls have shown him falling back in Iowa, losing to Ted Cruz.

And that`s the dynamic that you`re seeing play out right now between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. And Rubio`s campaign has really managed do a pretty remarkable thing. He is somebody who was an author of this gang of eight bill that included this path to citizenship. It was a cause he really took up.

He, of course, dropped it pretty quickly once he realized that the right wing media has turned on him in this regard. But they have always known that it was going to be a weakness for him in -- especially a place like Iowa where immigration is such a front burner issue for so many voters.

And he`s managed to put Cruz who frankly has, as you know from Washington, a pretty fiery reputation as being some who is aggressively conservative, isn`t somebody who changes his positions. And, all of a sudden, you`ve seen on the airwaves Cruz having to defend himself.


CRUZ: Securing our borders and stopping illegal immigration is a matter of national security. That`s why I fought so hard to defeat President Obama and the Republican establishment`s gang of eight amnesty plan. Their misguided plan would have given Obama the authority to admit Syrian refugees, including ISIS terrorists. That`s just wrong.


HUNT: So, there you go, it`s already into the ether here in Iowa. The Cruz campaign clearly feeling pressure to make sure that they`re getting their message out on this.

And the reality is, Cruz did try to attach a poison pill amendment to that bill. It would have killed the bill, it included a path to legalization which if you`ll remember at the time was for Democrats completely unacceptable, Democrats insisted that it be a path to citizenship instead of legalization.

Now, of course, the Rubio campaign is using to say, hey, Ted Cruz secretly wants to provide amnesty to all these undocumented immigrants who are already in the country. Cruz`s campaign is caught between a rock and a hard place frankly because, you know, this makes him look like he was making a political calculation.

And it there is anything that is dangerous for Ted Cruz and how voters perceive him, it`s issues of personality, it`s issues of him being seen as too political, John.

CAPEHART: Kasie, that`s a great point. I`m going to throw this open to the panel.

And, Tom, on Kasie`s point there about Ted Cruz being caught between a rock and a hard place looking political, I mean, isn`t that one of Ted Cruz`s biggest problem to begin with?

DOHERTY: That is his biggest problem. He comes across -- for those who love Ted Cruz, he`s a man of principle and this is what he believes. So any problem that he has in that area or that he`s wiggling or he`s changing position, et cetera, poses a potential problem. But, you know, I still believe that as Trump falls or if Trump were to fall, all of that vote goes to Ted Cruz. There`s a huge upside for Ted Cruz moving forward.

CAPEHART: Well, that`s interesting, because according to a PPP poll of Republican primary voters, 42 percent said they would choose Trump over Cruz and Rubio if those were the only three choices. And if it was just Cruz and Rubio, 48 percent say they would vote for Ted Cruz.

So, that`s to your point, but then what does that mean for Marco Rubio?

DOHERTY: I believe what happens is that that vote at some point goes to the right, it goes to the left and we wind up with two candidates battling out from two wings of my party. And who they are right now --

CAPEHART: I was going to say, on the left, is that Rubio or is that Trump?

DOHERTY: No, on the left in my party, moderate establishment side, it will come down to Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich.

CORN: I`m sure Chris Christie would love to be called a leftist Republican.

CAPEHART: It will work in the general election.

CORN: Can I share an epiphany about Donald Trump that bit about Putin?


CORN: Because it seems if you`re a narcissist, how do you judge other people around you? You judge them by what they think of you.

So, if Putin says Trump is brilliant, Trump is going to love Putin. It doesn`t matter that he`s killed journalists and he`s a thug. To him, the most important thing is what Putin thinks of him.

And so that`s why with "MORNING JOE," he was hesitant to criticize Putin because he loved the guy you because he loved him.

CAPEHART: Janell, real fast. I mean, we go to Kasie.

ROSS: It was remarkable, I have to agree. And you`re right that it seems that his assessment of Putin really was centered around Putin`s assessment of him. It was very interesting , even though, you know, Scarborough very clearly threw him a few, sort of pointed questions, last chance about reasons that other people feel about Vladimir Putin.

CAPEHART: And, Kasie, I want to end this on you and bring it back to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, "The Times" has a story this morning about the fact that Donald Trump has been trying to recruit a bunch of people in each of the state`s 1,681 Republican precincts by Thanksgiving. They had a heating in West Des Moines where 80 people showed up with about 50 participating online.

Given that, is Trump`s organization even capable of beating Ted Cruz in Iowa?

HUNT: That`s the key question right now, Jonathan. And I will tell you, I talk to some Republican campaigns here in Iowa who are at the very least operating under the assumption that Donald Trump can get his supporters out to caucus.

Now, the question is, of course, whether the game that he has on the ground is one that is going to be able to convert people who show up to these big rallies into actual caucus-goers. It`s much more difficult on the ground.

But I do think that the open question is how many new voters are they going to bring into the process? If the answer is not very many, then Donald Trump is going to have a tough time beating Ted Cruz on the ground here. But if the answer is, you know, all of these thousands of people who are showing up, then it`s a totally different story.

So, I think to a certain extent there is a sense that, you know, he does have a team that knows Iowa very well. Chuck Laudner worked for Rick Santorum back in 2012. Santorum ultimately won the caucuses. But the question is whether or not that`s ultimately going to translate. And the reality is no one actually knows at this point how this will go for them.

CAPEHART: You`re absolutely right.

Kasie Hunt, MSNBC`s political correspondent Kasie Hunt there in Iowa -- thank you very much.

Coming up, we`ll head north to New Hampshire for a preview of tonight`s Democratic debate.


CAPEHART: Overnight, the Bernie Sanders campaign struck a deal with the DNC, giving back the Sanders campaign access to its voter data, leaving the big question in the wake of that brief and intense one day conflict, how will it be talked about in tonight`s Democratic debate? The third time the candidates will face off.

It`s taking place in New Hampshire, a must win state for Sanders where Hillary Clinton has surged to a virtual tie. She`s also solidified her lead nationally in a new poll, now up nearly 2-1 over Sanders.

And as for Sanders, he picked up key endorsements earlier in the week, but his fight with the Democratic Party is what everyone is talking about before the candidates take the stage tonight.

For more on what might happen tonight, we`re joined now by former Michigan governor and senior adviser for Correct the Record, Jennifer Granholm, who is also a Hillary Clinton supporter.

Governor, thanks for being here.

JENNIFER GRANHOLLM, CORRECT THE RECORD: Jonathan, great to be on. Wish you were here, wish I were there.

CAPEHART: I bet you.


GRANHOLM: It`s a little chilly here.

CAPEHART: All right. Let me ask you, how do you expect Hillary Clinton to respond to the data breach at the debate tonight?

GRANHOLM: Well, you know, honestly, it will probably be the first question, right, and it will probably go to Bernie Sanders and then she`ll be asked to react to that.

But the issue is thank goodness resolved. I think everybody wanted to make sure that Bernie Sanders had access to his data, but he didn`t have access to her data. And that`s what the campaign had been pushing for.

Although I must say, you know, this was not a small thing. If you -- anybody who knows anything about the data gathering process in campaigns, it is millions of dollars and thousands of hours that go into building the data that goes in there. And it`s extremely sensitive stuff.

So, it is no small breach, but the bottom line is, it`s behind us thank goodness and then they can go on to talk about the issues.

CAPEHART: So, the breach in question is behind us, so then if you`re Sanders there your perspective, how do you get back on track tonight and is this make or break for him?

GRANHOLM: I do think that the debate itself is important for all of them, right? They haven`t had a chance to talk about, for example, domestic homeland security and in the wake of San Bernardino. And Hillary Clinton has come out with very strategic comprehensive 360-degree plan that talks about how to protect us here, protect our troops and our national security there, and online.

And I think obviously, this is her strong suit. So, it will be interesting to see how the others who don`t have as much experience in this area respond to her and what their plans are. To me that`s going to be one of the biggest points of conversation.

Obviously, Democratic voters are really interested both in the economic and in national security and anti-terrorism strategies. And I think both of those topics will be, you know, the absolute focus tonight, at least for the candidates. Who knows what the moderators will be asking?


Governor, Tom Doherty has a question for you.

DOHERTY: Governor, is there any concern -- Democrats at all talked that this is the third debate and it`s on a Saturday night, days before Christmas with an NFL football game? That -- is there anybody who is really going to watch this debate tonight?

GRANHOLM: Well, I think this kerfuffle of the past couple days maybe gets a few more eyeball, but I know there are a lot of us who would love to see more people watching.

I`d say on the Hillary Clinton team, you know, she does really well in these debates after every one these debate, we`re saying why aren`t we doing more of these debates? So I think that because it`s a network and not a cable outlet, they maybe don`t want to give up weeknights because they have other programming that makes them money.

CAPEHART: Governor, there are conspiracy theories out there that the fact that they`re on Saturday nights during football games is being done on purpose to protect Secretary Clinton.

GRANHOLM: But why would that protect her? She`s a great debater. What would be in her interests to hide the debate strategy? It doesn`t make sense.

CAPEHART: I yield the floor to David Corn on that.

CORN: Governor, then can we get Hillary Clinton to say explicitly that she`d like to have more debates even before the voting and caucusing begins on a weekday night? You know, just say that the DNC schedule doesn`t seem to be fair to those Democrats who want to see wider viewership participation and more discussion? Can we get her to say that?

GRANHOLM: I think she -- I mean, David, I think her campaign has said that they are totally willing to do more debates.

CORN: So, what is the problem here is this because we certainly know Bernie Sanders wants to. So, is the problem the DNC and does that give people reason to believe that the DNC is trying to play something here?

GRANHOLM: You know, I don`t think it`s fair to say that the DNC is trying to play something. You know, this whole kerfuffle yesterday which, you know, was soaked in conspiracy theories and all that, I mean, truly Debbie Wasserman Schultz has a really good point, which is that this breach, there was an audit trail was released by the company, and it`s not like anybody made this up. There were 24 attempts to draw out information. Information was saved by the Sanders people.

So, it`s not like she was making that up. I -- these conspiracy theorists, I don`t buy it at all. Now, I haven`t talked to Debbie Wasserman Schultz about their strategy, but I don`t think the Clinton campaign, I just say that, I don`t think they are afraid of debates.

CAPEHART: I want to continue your pivot, governor, to bring back to Sanders. And, you know, the GOP debate this past week was focused heavily on terrorism, international affairs. Senator Sanders seems to have a problem with terrorism, foreign affairs, international relations. He doesn`t want to go there.

Can he get away with that tonight if all of the questions are about terrorism and Paris and San Bernardino?

GRANHOLM: No, he cannot. He can`t avoid this issue.

CAPEHART: Governor, answer and then we`ll bring it to the panel.

GRANHOLM: Yes, yes. This is at the top of minds of all citizens. I don`t think that -- he can`t come in and I don`t think it would be a wise strategy, I`m sure it`s not his strategy, to just pivot back to the economy which is what he tends to do.


GRANHOLM: It`s also interesting and one other point to make, the Republicans have avoided talking about the relationship between access to guns and domestic terrorism. And Democrats need to push on that, too. And I know people have said that Bernie Sanders has -- there is some sensitivity there on the guns because he voted against the Brady bill, et cetera, but he will have to address that nexus, too, because you better believe that Hillary Clinton and Martin O`Malley are going to be talking about why Republicans are not voting to deny guns to those on the terror watch list and other things.

CAPEHART: Governor, let me bring this question --

DOHERTY: The governor raised two issues that, one, they would like to talk to foreign policy which they believe is Hillary`s strength, they would like to talk about guns which they feel is a negative for Bernie Sanders, right? So, they`re pivoting in that direction.

I still say you go to your strength tonight. He needs to talk to your foreign policy, but go to your strength.

Your voters are talking about income inequality, et cetera, et cetera. Those are your voters. That`s why you`re going to motivate to come out to vote for you. They`re not going to vote for you on foreign policy. That`s not his vote.


GRANHOLM: But he can`t -- if he`s asked a direct question on foreign policy, he can`t just pivot, short trip and pivot. He`s got to answer it.


GRANHOLM: Like I don`t want to answer that.

CORN: And I have no doubt that he can. I have said this earlier in the show. He`s been a senator and member of the House, he`s work order foreign affairs issues for decades now, as well.

And so, to me, it`s a question of basically where his head is at and whether he can sort of do what you suggest, Tom, speak to his core issue, but also at the same time use his experience and intelligence from the years and make strong points on those terrorism and overseas policy issues. He didn`t do -

CAPEHART: In the last debate just after Paris, he gave a half a phrase to Paris and then pivoted to the economy.

CORN: And the question is, and he got a lot of guff for that. The question is whether he learned from that, and it`s going to take a different tact this time.

CAPEHART: Janell, do you think he will take a different tact this time, Senator Sanders?

ROSS: I have no doubt his campaign staff has had that discussion with him and explained to him precisely why and how he can do.

I think the thing -- and there is an opening here, which was something that was completely devoid in the GOP debate the other night, the matter of foreign policy or domestic security or international security is not limited simply to issues of war. And physical defense and good posturing and looking strong.

And that is pretty much where the discussion stayed the other night. There are a whole list of issues that can be talked about, including aid, trade, medicine, science, certainly climate issues, and some of the instability that can flow from any of those things. And that is where Senator Sanders could really sort of make his mark.

CAPEHART: Governor, you wanted to jump in?

GRANHOLM: Yes, I just want to say I think you`re totally right even on this issue of terrorism, the Republicans only -- they were one note which is more military aggression. They didn`t talk about the more nuanced issues and, in fact, they insulted the Muslim world basically. I mean, there are 50 Muslim countries, majority Muslim countries in the world, 2.1 billion people.

What -- I mean, the Democrats I think will be united in saying what a terrible strategy to alienate those who you would want to enlist in creating a Sunni-led army against terror. So I think you will see unanimity there. But I think there`s also important about what you do you at home including the online stuff, including training and providing support to local law enforcement.

So, there is a whole raft of issues that the Republicans did not address other than carpet bombing ISIS.

CAPEHART: Right, and on that positive note, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, thank you very much for braving the cold and joining us today.

GRANHOLM: You bet.

CAPEHART: Up next, why fewer Americans favor an assault weapons ban in the wake of yet another mass shooting. Stay with us.



CRUZ: You don`t stop the bad guys by taking away our guns. You stop the bad guys by using our guns.


CAPEHART: That was Senator Ted Cruz speaking just days after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino sharing one of the main arguments against gun reform in this country, that innocent Americans will have a better chance of surviving a mass shooting if they`re equipped with their own guns to fight back.

According to one poll out this week, more and more Americans are beginning to agree with that thesis. This week for the first time in more than 20 years, a majority of Americans say they now oppose a ban on assault weapons. Those numbers have flipped since January 2013 when the same poll was taken just one month after Newtown.

And although support is for an assault weapons ban has steadily declined over the years, we`re only seeing this crossover now and this might be why. In the same new poll, 56 percent of Americans say they are less confident in the government`s ability to prevent a large scale attack. Even more are less confident it can prevent a lone wolf attack like the one in San Bernardino. And of those people, 47 percent believe that a better way to respond to terrorism is by having more people carry guns legally. Something to keep an eye on as this debate continues to unfold.

Up next, fastball diplomacy. Can a visit Cuba by some of Major League Baseball`s biggest stars improve relations between the U.S. and the island nation?


CAPEHART: The State Department announced Thursday that it has reached a deal to resume commercial flights from the U.S. mainland Cuba for the first time in 50 years, what will eventually be 110 round trip flights a day.

The announcement comes one year after the U.S. and Cuba agreed to resume relations. And we got a closer look at what that relationship will look like this week as Major League Baseball took its first ever goodwill tour of Cuba with players hosting clinics in the baseball mad country and even reuniting with long lost family members.

And Cuban President Raul Castro capped off the week with a rare televised address to the Cuban people yesterday, reiterating his support for normalizing relations. But he also urged the U.S. government to stop radio and TV broadcasts aimed at Cuba, a sign that despite all that`s changed, a lot still remains the same.

For more on all of this, let`s bring in Paul Bonicelli, former assistant administration for USAID, and also with us is Cuba travel expert, author and tour operator, Christopher Baker.

Thank you both for being here this morning.

Chris, let`s me start with you. What is the biggest impact this travel deal will have?

CHRISTOPHER BAKER, CUBA TRAVEL EXPERT: I think the most important thing is that we`re supporting the Cuban people who are now engaged in private enter prize. Raul Castro has initiated reforms that permit people to have their own businesses, private restaurants for example are booming because of travel. And we`re able to support this initiative.

CAPEHART: Paul, one year later the embargo remains in place, but what purpose could it still have and what can we -- when can we expect to be lifted?

PAUL BONICELLI, FORMER ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR, USAID: I don`t think it`s going to be lifted until the Congress plays a greater role in this. And I appreciate what Chris said about more tourism. Certainly hundreds of millions of dollars have been going into Cuba in the last year since the president`s initiative.

The problem is the Cuban people, the average Cuban cannot use the convertible peso. So most of the money that is coming in from tourism, just as it is always done with European tourism, Canadian tourism, is skimmed off by the government. They control the labor, they control investment, they control those little bitty businesses because those people cannot operate in a free economy. They are not even as free in their economy as the Chinese were when Jinping made his changes. So, more needs to be done on the Castro side.

CAPEHART: And on that, Chris, the head of North American affairs says economic effects have been barely visible one year later. How do you expect this travel deal will help regular everyday Cubans?

BAKER: It really is helping them. For example, I do these motorcycle tours. I do other tours, and we`re staying in private homes for the most part. We`re using private restaurants almost exclusively. We hire the old `50s cars to take our clients to restaurant, et cetera. This is money directly into the hands of Cubans.

And it is actually incorrect just -- I wanted to correct that Cuba can indeed use the convertible peso. That`s what we`re paying them in as travelers. And that channels through the economy from one private individual in Cuba to another private business, et cetera.

CAPEHART: Paul, the Castro regime hasn`t made many if any concessions on freedom for Cubans, dozens of dissidents arrested on international human rights stage just a week ago. How and when this will change?

BONICELLI: Well, with all due respect to Chris, no law has been changed in Cuba. So any kind of exchange of convertible peso is because someone is favored enough by the regime to be able do it. Of course, tourists from America, you`re going to want to show that you`re doing some of that. But the law hasn`t changed.

But you`re exactly right, Jonathan, persecution has not only continued a pace, it has actually increased. We`re on track this year for a record number of arrests, probably 8,000, hundreds of people regularly beaten and arrested. And nothing has been done about that.

And that`s why this policy has always been so unfortunate. The president missed an opportunity to use leverage to get the Castro regime to do what this needs to do to truly have a free Cuba and one that can actually prosper instead of being some quasi-authoritarian communist state that just has a little more money in the coffers of the regime.

CAPEHART: Well, Paul, one more question to you. "Politico" wrote that some Republican members of Congress are warming up to normalizing relations. Do you get that sense and where does that leave Senators like Marco Rubio?

BONICELLI: I think some are warming up because the Chamber of Commerce wants them to. The Chamber of Commerce is looking for deals for its members, I don`t think there`ll be a lot of them because people get arrested in Cuba if they offend the regime. But people like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and others will taking strong stance again this, highlighting the fact that people are getting beaten every day for simply wanting to speak out. They are the Nelson Mandelas of their country, and the president and Congress need to respect that.

CAPEHART: Christopher Baker and Paul Bonicelli, thank you both to joining us today.

Up next, just how much of a box office force is the new "Star Wars" movie? We`ll take a look right after this.



OBAMA: OK, everybody, I got to get to "Star Wars."


CAPEHART: The force was strong at the White House yesterday, with character visits and a screening for gold star military families as the new "Star Wars" film spent its first full day in theaters.

As we look at more images from the White House, let me add that "The Force Awakens", the seventh film in the "Star Wars" series, shattered box office records on opening night and it`s now on track to make more than $200 million this weekend alone.

The new film picks up 30 years after "Return of the Jedi" left off as Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, pick up new fans and make a lot of old ones very, very happy.

Joining us from Washington is my favorite self-professed "Star Wars" geek, my colleague at "The Washington Post", Alexandra Petri.

Alexandra, thanks for getting up early this morning to be here.


CAPEHART: Now, I intentionally did not go see the movie yesterday so I wouldn`t provide any spoilers. So, first thing`s first, no spoilers, what did you think of the film?

PETRI: OK, no spoilers, I loved it. If you enjoyed the original "Star Wars" movies, you will love this, because it is a movie made by someone with "Star Wars" coming through his pours and it has all those things you remember. It`s got stormtroopers. It`s got the bigger death station-type thing, all your favorites.

CAPEHART: The death star, right.

Now, Alexandra, a lot of people were let down by the prequel. So, to ease there in our minds, can you tell us how this film succeeds where the others failed?

PETRI: Well, there`s no Jar Jar, that`s the number one thing. But the number two thing I think is that all the complaints I`ve had coming out have been, like, substantive complaints. Like, why was that character doing that? Because everyone talks like a real person and they have relationships like real people and they interact normally. It`s amazing and beautiful.

CAPEHART: I want to bring the panel in on this. Has anyone else other than Tom see the movie?

DOHERTY: I saw it and it was spectacular. It really was just spectacular.

CAPEHART: Have you seen it yet, David?

CORN: No, I skipped the prequels because the first trilogy was very important to me when I was in high school and I saw it on opening night, went back the next day.

My only question is, can`t millennials get their own sci-fi trilogy? Why do they have to go back to my childhood and do this again? I`m looking forward -- I`ll see it this weekend, I hope. We need to advance the ball and get some new sci-fi fantasy trilogies going out there.

CAPEHART: When it`s this good though, why not continue the run?

Janell, have you seen it?

ROSS: I have not and I won`t be seeing it unless somebody makes me. However -

CAPEHART: Whoa! Ooh!

So you`re one of them. You`re one of those people --

ROSS: I`m not a hater. I`m just one of these people -- no, it`s not my particular set things but, you know, I am excited by how excited everybody else is.


CAPEHART: Hey, Alexandra, for folks who don`t know, is a huge "Star Wars" fan. Like, she is -- you`re a professional at this. You go to festivals and things. You were at the "Star Wars" --

PETRI: Conventions, celebrations.

CORN: Does she dress up?

CAPEHART: You do dress up?

PETRI: I do.

CORN: As what?

PETRI: Jabba the Hut actually.


So, Alexandra, what`s your reaction to people like Janell who don`t -- who don`t like "Star Wars"? They`re not even interested in it?

PETRI: Well, you know, honestly I`m just really sorry for having -- for you having to live through this week with all of us just being like we love this thing, it`s our favorite thing in the world, take joy in it. And, like, you know, I understand what it feels like to be left out of a pop culture phenomenon. I would say, take "Star Wars" into your heart. It`s kind of a cult but in the best possible way.

CAPEHART: And real quickly, you wrote a column about the "Star Wars" episodes from C3PO`s perspective saying it`s his continual nightmare. Real fast in 15 seconds.

PETRI: Oh, yes. Well, C-3PO`s like me, he`s the English major of the galaxy, none of his skills are useful. And if you look at it from his perspective, the original trilogy starts where he`s evacuating his workforce with his crazy colleague who says, I`m going on a secret mission, we need to walk through a desert. Then he gets dismembered. None of his friends respect his abilities.

Finally, in "Return of the Jedi," he gets worshiped by a group of Teddy Bears with bad teeth. For the most part, he`s just kicked around and insulted by his closest companion. He`s got a festive red arm, he`s out to party. I`m excited.

CAPEHART: That is great. Alexandra, I`m so glad you were able to do this segment. I love you. Thank you very much. "Washington Post`s" Alexandra Petri, thank you for joining us.

PETRI: Thank you.

CAPEHART: I`d also like to thank our panel for being here. David Corn, Tom Doherty, and Janell Ross.

And thank you for getting up with us today. Join us tomorrow, Sunday morning at 9:00.

Up next is "MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY". Joy Reid is in for Melissa today. Democrats are fighting, Republicans are ready for war, and questions of justice for Freddie Gray. That`s all coming up on Nerdland.

Have a great Saturday.