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CNN "The Situation Room" - Transcript

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The Republican nominee is joining us now from the campaign trail in Cuyahoga Falls, in Ohio, that critical battleground state.

Governor, thanks for taking some time out.

Thanks for joining us.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thanks, Wolf.

Good to be with you again.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Let's begin with foreign policy. You gave a major foreign policy speech yesterday. Here's what jumped out at me.

In Syria, you said you'd identify members of the opposition and ensure they obtained arms to defeat Bashar al-Assad's tanks.

So how do you make sure those weapons don't get into the hands of terrorists or al Qaeda?

M. ROMNEY: Well, Wolf, this is a part of making sure that we're shaping events as opposed to just being at the mercy of events. It means that we would have intelligence resources. We would also be working with our friends in the region, particularly the Saudis, as well as the Turks, that are very closely involved in Syria. We'd work together with them to identify voices within Syria that are reasonable voices, that are moderate voices, that are not al Qaeda or any Jihadist type group.

We'd try and coalesce those groups together, provide them, perhaps, with funding. Some other kind of support would include, as you indicate, weapons, so they will be able to defend themselves.

Those weapons could come from -- from the Turks or from the Saudis.

But -- but the key thing here is not just to sit back and hope things work out well, but to recognize Iran is playing a major role in Syria and we, to our friends in the region, must also be playing a role to help shape what's happening there and make sure that we rid ourselves of Mr. Assad and don't have in his place chaos or -- or some kind of organization which is as bad as he is or even worse, take his place.

BLITZER: Speaking of Iran, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as you know, he was at the United Nations recently. And he literally drew a red line as far as Iran and its nuclear program is concerned.

Here is the question -- is there any daylight between you and the prime minister?

M. ROMNEY: There's no daylight between the United States and Israel. We have coincident interests. We share values. And we're both absolutely committed to preventing Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

My own test is that Iran should not have the capability of producing a nuclear weapon. I think that's the same test that Benjamin Netanyahu would also apply. I -- I can't speak for the president in this regard, but I think that there has to be a recognition that there are boundaries that the Iranians may not cross.

Let's also recognize that we have a long way to go before military action may be necessary. And, hopefully, it's never necessary. Hopefully, through extremely tight sanctions, as well as diplomatic action, we can prevent Iran from taking a course which would -- which would lead to -- to them crossing that line.

BLITZER: Because Prime Minister Netanyahu, at the U.N., spoke of the spring or summer as some sort of deadline.

If Israel were to launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and you were president of the United States, would you back up Israel? M. ROMNEY: We have Israel's back, both at the U.N., but also militarily. I would anticipate that if I am president, the -- the actions of Israel would not come as a surprise to me.

But I would meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I would speak with him. I've indicated that my first trip as president would be to Israel.

So, what -- what would happen there would not be something that would be a -- a shock to me.

But I -- but I can tell you this, that -- that crippling sanctions do have an impact. They're having an impact on -- on Iran's economy right now. They will have an impact on the public there in Iran. And there's -- there's great hope and -- and real prospects for dissuading Iran from taking a -- a -- a path that -- that leads in -- into -- into a nuclear setting.

But this is a -- this is going to require real strength on the part of -- of America. And it's also going to require showing no daylight between ourselves and Israel. We're going to have to have Iran realize they can't play one off against the other, that we're both absolutely committed to a world which does not include a nuclear- capable Iran.

BLITZER: Let's move to issue number one here if the United States, the economy.

The Obama campaign flatly says you're lying -- lying about the cost of your tax plan, your proposed tax reforms. So far, you haven't released a lot of the specifics about eliminating various deductions or loopholes or whatever. You've said that your tax cuts would be revenue neutral, you wouldn't add to the deficit.

So let's go through how you would do that, specifically, home mortgage deductions, charitable contributions.

Are you ready to remove those?

What's going on?

M. ROMNEY: Well, I've made it pretty clear that my principles are, number one, simplify the code; number two, create incentives for small businesses and large businesses to grow; number three, don't reduce the burden on high income taxpayers; and, number four, remove the burden somewhat from middle income people.

So I don't want to raise taxes on -- on any group of Americans. Those are the principles.

At the same time, how we carry them out would be lowering the rate, the tax rate, across the board and then making up for that both with additional growth and with putting a -- a limit on deductions and -- and exemptions, particularly for people at the high end.

Those are principles which form the basis of what I would do with our tax proposal.

I -- what I want to do is to make it simpler, fairer. I want to encourage the economy to grow again. It's pretty clear that the economy is not growing at the rate it should under the -- the president.

And I can tell you, with regards to the deductions you describe, home mortgage interest deduction and charitable contributions, there will, of course, continue to be preferences for those types of expenses.

BLITZER: So even wealthy people would -- would you put a cap on how much they could deduct, for example, as far as charitable contributions are concerned?

Because I've heard you mention the $17,000 cap, if you will, for some folks out there. And I'll -- I'd like you to elaborate, if you don't mind.

M. ROMNEY: Well, I'm not going to lay out a piece of legislation here, because I intend to work together with Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But there are a number of ways one could approach this.

One would be to have a total cap number. It could be $25,000, $50,000. And people could put whatever deduction in that total cap they'd like. Or, instead, you could take the posture that Bowles- Simpson did, which is going after specific deductions and limiting them in various ways.

There are a number of ways we can accomplish the principles which I have -- lowering rates for middle income people, making sure high income people don't pay a -- a smaller share and simplifying the code and then encouraging growth.

So as to how we a -- approach the various deduction limits, what I do know is, we're going to have to re-reduce the deductions pretty substantially for people at the high end, because I don't want to make the code less progressive.

I want high income people to continue to pay the same share they do today.

BLITZER: And so they will pay exactly the same, even though you're going to lower the -- the income tax rates for people making, let's say, more than $250,000 a year, but you're going to eliminate some loopholes and deductions, expectations, tax credits.

Is that what I'm hearing?

M. ROMNEY: That's right. I -- I -- I'll bring the rate down across the board but eliminate or limit, rather, deductions or credits and exemptions and so forth, particularly for people at the high end, because you have to do that to make sure that -- that, distributionally, we -- we continue to have the high income people still pay the same share, the high share, that they pay today. BLITZER: Would that add up to the $4.8 or $5 trillion that's been estimated your tax -- or your -- your comprehensive tax reductions would cost?

M. ROMNEY: Well, actually, the president's charge of -- of a $5 trillion tax cut is -- is, obviously, inaccurate and wrong, because what he says is, all right, let's look at all the rates you're lowering and then he ignores the fact that I say, we're also going to limit deductions and credits and exemptions. He -- he ignores that part.

Obviously, that was corrected by his deputy campaign manager, who said that she stipulated that, in fact, the $5 trillion number was wrong.

It's -- it's completely wrong. The combination of limiting deductions and credits and exemptions, as well as growth of our economy, will make up for the reduction in rate.

The reason for lowering the rate, by the way, let -- let's make it very clear. The reason for lowering the rate, both for individuals, as well as for corporations -- and the president's plan also lowers the rate for corporations. The reason for doing so is to make sure that America is a more attractive place for small business and for large business to invest and to add jobs. This is about economic growth. This is about getting more jobs.

We're not seeing the kind of job creation America ought to see following a recession. And we're not going to see that growth unless we have a tax policy which encourages businesses, small and large, to make investments and to hire people.

That's why I want to put in place the plan I described. And, by the way, it's been scored by people at Rice University as creating about seven million new jobs. The president's plan, on the other hand, cuts 700,000 jobs.

BLITZER: Everyone now agrees, at least I think almost everyone agrees, that your debate performance in Denver last week was very strong. The president's performance was weak.

Here's a question that I'm curious about, because you prepared, obviously, a lot.

Senator Rob Portman, was he a tougher debater in those practice sessions that President Obama turned out to be?

M. ROMNEY: Senator Portman is very effective. I think President Obama and I both had a good chance to describe our respective views as to how we'd do a better job.

And I, frankly, think I benefited from the fact that rather than having people learn about me from ads prepared by my opposition, they got to actually hear what I would do from myself.

And -- and I think that helped me. I think the president also got to lay out his plans and people were able to make a comparison.

But as for Rob Portman, he's -- he's a pretty effective guy.

BLITZER: Were you surprised by the president's performance?

M. ROMNEY: Well, I actually thought he -- he described pretty appropriately and pretty effectively his -- his policies. I just happen to disagree with those policies.

And when we talked about the economy, he really is not proposing anything he hasn't talked about for the last four years, which is another stimulus, hiring more government workers, picking winners and losers in -- in industries that he favors, raising taxes.

These are ideas he's had for some time. And, frankly, we've tested those ideas over the last four years and they have not led to the kind of job growth Americans want.

But, you know, I -- I think the -- the challenge that he has is -- is that his ideas are -- are just not demonstrating the kind of results he would hope for and people recognize that.

BLITZER: Are you confident, Governor, that Paul Ryan will take on Joe Biden Thursday night the way you took on the president?

M. ROMNEY: You know, I -- I don't know how Paul will -- will deal with his debate. Obviously, the vice president has done, I don't know, 15 or 20 debates during his lifetime, experienced debater.

This is, I think Paul's first debate. I may be wrong. He may have done something in high school, I don't know.

But it'll -- you know, it will be a new experience for a -- for Paul. But I'm sure he'll do fine. And, frankly, Paul has the facts on his side. He has policy on his side. And we also have results on our side.

So I think he'll -- I think you'll find, in the final analysis, that people make their assessment on these debates not so much by the theatrics and the smoothness of the presenter, but, instead, on whether they believe the policies being described, the pathway being described, will make their life better or not. And I -- I just think the American people recognize that the president's policies are not something we can afford for four more years. We just can't afford more of what we've gone through and they want something new.

BLITZER: That 47 percent comment that you mentioned that's caused you a lot of grief, as you know, there's been a change in your position over these past few weeks. It went from, you were initially saying, once that tape came out, that you a -- a -- you weren't exactly elegantly stating your position.

Later and more recently, you said you were completely wrong. I'm curious, Governor, how did that evolution in your thinking go on, from the initial reaction once that tape came out to what you said the other day, that you were completely wrong?

M. ROMNEY: Well, what I'm saying is that what words were that came out were not what I meant. And what I mean, I think, people understand, is that if I'm president, I'll be president of 100 percent of the people. My whole campaign is about helping the middle class have rising incomes and more jobs and helping get people out of poverty into the middle class.

That's what this whole campaign is about.

The wealthy are doing fine right now. And they'll do fine, most likely, regardless of who's elected president. It's the middle class that's having a hard time under President Obama. And my campaign is about 100 percent of the American people.

And so that -- that's a -- that describes why, you know, what was stated in the tape was not referring to what kind of president I would be or who I would be fighting for. Instead, it was talking about politics and it just didn't come out the way I meant it.

BLITZER: If you -- if you had a do-over, Governor, and you mentioned 47 percent, what would you -- what should you have said about that 47 percent?

M. ROMNEY: Well, Wolf, as you know, I was talking about how do you get to 50.1 percent of the vote. I -- I'd like to get 100 percent of the vote, but I figure that's not going to happen. So I was trying to tell contributors how I'd get to 50.1 percent.

I think it's always a -- a perilous course for a candidate to start talking about the -- the -- you know, the mathematics of an election.

My campaign is about talking about how to get 100 percent of the Americans to have a more bright and -- and prosperous future.

BLITZER: A -- a quick question on Big Bird.

Was that a mistake to bring it up in the debate?

M. ROMNEY: You know...

(LAUGHTER)

M. ROMNEY: -- I think -- I've been watching these last several days. And, you know, a lot of Americans are really -- are really hurting. We've got 23 million Americans out of work or -- or struggling to get a -- a full-time job. And -- and we've got one out of six Americans now in poverty, 47 million on food stamps. And the president is spending his time talking about saving Big Bird.

I'll spend my time talking about saving jobs, creating jobs, helping people get back on their feet, getting rising incomes again. So I -- I think people understand that we can't keep on spending like there's no tomorrow. We can't keep on borrowing and spending massively more than we take in every year.

And Big Bird is going to be just fine. "Sesame Street" is a very successful enterprise. I don't believe CNN gets government funding, but somehow you all stay on the air.

And I -- I just think that -- that PBS will be able to make it on its own, just like every one of the other stations. And it does not require us to go to China to borrow money to keep PBS on the air.

BLITZER: I've got one final question and I know you've got to go, Governor.

Your wife, Ann Romney, she had a moving story she told our own Gloria Borger in a recent interview about your ritual, as you go into a debate.

Let me play this little clip for you, because I -- I want to see your reaction and I want to get your reaction on the other side.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN ROMNEY, MITT ROMNEY'S WIFE: You know, it's -- it's a cute thing that he does, almost every answer. He finds me in the audience. As soon as he sit -- gets on stage, the first thing he does is he takes off his watch and puts it on the podium.

(LAUGHTER)

A. ROMNEY: But then he writes "dad" on the piece of paper. And that's amazing because he loves his dad, respects his dad. He doesn't want to do anything that would not make his father proud.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All of us who lost a father can relate.

But give us -- give us a little addition.

What -- what do you think about that?

M. ROMNEY: Well, you know, every debate -- she's right, I write my dad's name at the top of the piece of paper to remind myself of all that he sacrificed to give me the opportunities I now have. I think about his passion, his passion for the country. Dad was devoted to ideals that that motivated him.

I mean the guy was born in Mexico with -- with nothing when he came to this country, rose to be head of a car company, a -- a governor. I mean my dad was the real deal. And -- and his life and his memory inspires me.

So I, yes, I write his name there and -- and, of course, I look at Ann every chance I get. She's usually looking down. She's -- she's a little nervous during the debates. But I look to her to see if -- see if she feels like I've done a good job.

BLITZER: Governor, I know you're very busy.

I really appreciate your taking some time and joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT


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