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CNN "American Morning" - Transcript

Interview

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JON HUNTSMAN, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm honored and delighted to be here. Thank you.

CHETRY: You had your big announcement yesterday with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Still, in our polling, a lot of people aren't familiar with who you are and don't know a lot about you. What would you say in a nutshell for people about why you're running for president and why you think you would be the best man for it?

HUNTSMAN: I love this country. I think it's absolutely unacceptable we're about to pass down the greatest country that ever was to the next generation less strong, less able, less compassionate, less competitive, and less confident than the United States we got.

And I say you can either stand on the sidelines, as most people want to do, or you can get in the arena and expand the debate and do something about it knowing full well that it's a long marathon, it's going to be tough. And as a family person with seven kids, it won't always be easy but you believe in this country and you want to try to do the right thing at the right time.

COSTELLO: One thing you're likely to tackle is Afghanistan. The president is making his big speech tonight and will withdraw 30,000 troops but we still will have 70,000 troops in Afghanistan. What would you do in that situation? How many troops would you withdraw?

HUNTSMAN: I can't give you an exact number after to say after nine years and 50 days, after having put Karzai in power after the elections of 2004, routed the Taliban, disrupted and dismantled Al Qaeda I think we are can do better than 100,00 very expensive boots on the ground. And there should be I think a fairly aggressive drawdown in the next year.

COSTELLO: What is fairly aggressive? I mean, 30,000 you could argue is fairly aggressive according to the generals, right?

HUNTSMAN: I think we can go beyond that. I think what is important is recognizing the asymmetric threat we face. It will require intelligence gathering on the ground, Special Forces who are able to respond with precision like fashion and probably some training on the ground as well.

Now whether that is 15,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 I'm talking to a lot of so-called experts these days to see what exactly that right balance is, but we have got -- it will be a discussion on proportionality. Is it right to have 1 out of every 6 defense department dollars into Afghanistan? I'm here to tell you the future of the United States will not be won or lost in the prairies of Afghanistan.

COSTELLO: A lot of Americans want troops out right now. They don't want more money spent in Afghanistan not when the infrastructure is crumbling. So in your opinion, when should the troops be out of the Afghanistan once and for all?

HUNTSMAN: I think we will always have a presence in south Asia.

COSTELLO: Talk about Afghanistan. When should the troops be gone?

HUNTSMAN: Let's separate the heavy boots on the ground from the counterterror efforts. I think we always have to have an aggressive counterterror effort in many places around the world. That is the threat we face and we need to recognize the threat we are up against. We are up against a subsidiary, a series of subsidiaries around the world intent on doing us in. And whether they're in Mindanao or whether they're in Karachi, I think we need to be in a position to be able to respond.

COSTELLO: I want to pin it down to Afghanistan. What does it mean for Afghanistan specifically?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I'm not a fortune teller here, but I can tell you that, at some point, the 100,000 troops on the ground will have to be taken out substantially. It's heavy. It's expensive. It's disproportionate in terms of where our spending and our focus ought to be. Instead we need to realize that we're up against an asymmetric enemy, and we need to be able to fight them wherever we can. Whatever is left behind should be appropriate to the threat.

CHETRY: He is not going to answer a number for you today.

HUNTSMAN: Hey, give us at least 48 hours.

CHETRY: There's some say you're a dream candidate for the general but it's difficult for you among conservatives for a couple of reasons. First, the fact you were in the Obama administration and worked as the ambassador to China. You praised Obama at the time and have since been critical of him. Are you glad you worked in the Obama administration?

HUNTSMAN: I'm glad I served my country and I would do it again. I served President Reagan and President Bush and I served President Bush. When a president who is everyone's president asks you to serve during a time of war and time of economic hardship, I'm the kind of person who will say I'll serve my country before concerns about party. And I hope I go to my grave with that philosophy.

CHETRY: You now think you've changed your mind on thinking Obama is doing a good, effective job?

HUNTSMAN: I think he is a very decent person. He is earnest and hardworking and doing his best. We come from different parties and different world views and different philosophies. We want to do what is best for a country we love.

CHETRY: But for conservative credentials you have that issue. And this polling which is interesting because we know how big of a voting bloc evangelical Christians are, and 34 percent say it would work against a candidate if they knew the candidate was Mormon. You're a Mormon. How do you get over that? HUNTSMAN: Well, I like our chances. I think when you get out and people begin to get to know you and understand where you're coming from and understand your record as governor, we're running a record. A lot of people run away from their record. We are running on a record, which is very transparent.

And here is what we have to offer in terms of economic development, job creation and health care reform, so on, so forth. When you take a look at it, you'll see I'm pretty much a conservative problem solver and I think that will play very well among the early states and the people you're describing.

COSTELLO: Let's talk about one conservative, Jim DeMint. We interviewed him this morning. He wants potential presidential candidates and presidential candidates running on the Republican side to sign a debt pledge. He said if you, Mr. Huntsman, don't sign this debt pledge he will not throw his support behind you, and he is a pretty powerful voice in South Carolina.

HUNTSMAN: Other than the "Pledge of Allegiance," I don't do a lot of pledges. I think the Ryan plan is an excellent place to be longer term. Short term the debt ceiling issue and think the negotiations will play out until the final hour and I suspect we will get real cuts in exchange in meeting the debt ceiling and we need to be longer term in a debt ceiling.

So if you got cuts and you start to talk about the balanced budget amendment, something that every governor has to deal with, that's the most important safeguard for governor. You present a budget that is in balance. You have to as a requirement by law. I think that would be a pretty good out outcome and I don't need to take a pledge to get there.

CHETRY: And one thing that could also be a social litmus test is same-sex marriage. You have express in the past support for equal rights for same-sex couples and civil unions. Would you support same- sex marriage in America?

HUNTSMAN: I'm not in favor of gay marriage. I don't think you can redefine marriage in the traditional sense. I think you get in trouble longer term. I think subordinate to that we have done an inadequate job in terms of equality, in terms of recognizing reciprocal beneficiary rights.

CHETRY: Why can't marriage be extended to people who happen to be in love with somebody of their same gender?

HUNTSMAN: Civil unions I'm OK with as it relates to gay marriage. That is when you speak in redefining marriage, and I think you have no end to that. And I'm for traditional marriage. I think it's been a super piece of society from the very beginning. Civil unions, I've come out and I've stated my piece there. Some people like it, some people don't. But it's what I feel inside and I have to be honest about that.

COSTELLO: And it's J-o-n, not J-o-h-n. HUNTSMAN: I've been suffering the implications of no "h" in my name for a very, very long time, not only recently.

COSTELLO: We showed that on the air and hopefully it will never happen again.

HUNTSMAN: Thank you so much. Great to be with us.

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