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CNN "The Situation Room" - Transcript


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FORMER AMBASSADOR TO CHINA JON HUNTSMAN JR. (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Greetings, Wolf. Delighted to be with you from New Hampshire.

BLITZER: Good. Let's talk about Social Security first.

If you were president, how would you make sure that our children and grandchildren would continue to get Social Security? HUNTSMAN: Well, I'd begin with a conversation like I had with a large group of seniors today in Exeter, and that is not to scare them with language that tends to turn off voters, but rather put forward ideas like the idea that we can look at the underlying assumptions for inflation and peg it more for the Consumer Price Index, like the idea that we can take Social Security now that we are living three decades longer than somebody born in 1900 and maybe take it out to the 85th percentile of the average length of life.

And third, Wolf, I got to tell you, Wolf, there are a whole lot of people in this country beyond a certain income category who probably don't need Social Security, and they would be the first ones to stand up and probably applaud if a politician was courageous enough to say, let's get -- let's get the numbers right, let's maybe draw a line in the sand where people don't need it, they can afford to do otherwise, and let's begin fixing the numbers to secure it for future generations.

BLITZER: All right --

HUNTSMAN: The fixes are there, we just don't have the political leadership to move us forward.

BLITZER: Well, those are courageous positions you're taking cause on the cost of living, for example, in effect that means less money for retirees, right?

HUNTSMAN: That's correct. I get --

BLITZER: On the issue of means testing, people pay into Social Security all their lives. If you earn a certain income, you wouldn't necessarily get Social Security. Where would that cut-off point be?

HUNTSMAN: Well, we'd have to work out those details, but let me just say, I would be willing to have that conversation with the American people.

You can find the cut-off and it would be in the spirit, Wolf, of shared sacrifice. Everyone has to recognize that given entitlements, where they are today, given the fact that this economy is sucking wind and we've hit the wall, we have no choice.

People have to stand up and they have to hear the president say that it's going to require a little bit of shared sacrifice. We haven't started that conversation, but I believe part of it will be exactly what I outlined in broad strokes here.

BLITZER: So from 65 to 67, what age do you think would be a good age, not necessarily for the current retirees, but for 10 years down the road? Seventy? Is that what you want to raise the age to?

HUNTSMAN: Well, let's just say that we are living long were each passing year and the benefits of science and health, all a very good thing. Let's just face it to the 85 percent percentile of the average length of life and use that as kind of a moving scale. I think that would be a good place to start this conversation. BLITZER: Let's talk about another sensitive issue that came up during the debate we all had Monday night in Tampa, the HPV vaccine, the vaccine that in Texas the governor, by executive order, Rick Perry, mandated that 11 and 12-year-old girls get this vaccine, it's a sexually -- to deal with sexually transmitted disease that could lead to cervical cancer. Michele Bachmann, as you well know, is very critical of him on this.

Who is right, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann?

HUNTSMAN: Well, let me just say, whoever comes down against mandates, I think, is on the side of where the American public are. Parents and guardians can make choices. Mandates do not have a role predominantly in these kinds of issues, whether it's health care reform or whether it's what we are discussing here.

I think American people -- the American people are very skeptical of mandates in society. They want freedom. They want the freedom -- they want the freedom to choose these things.

And I think Rick came out courageously and basically said that he had erred and basically had took back that earlier decision he made.

BLITZER: He said he erred in the sense that he did it by executive order, he should have gone to the legislator. He went one step further yesterday and he said this, he said, "We should have had an opt-in instead of an opt-out."

Are you -- are you with him on the opt-in as opposed to the opt- out? In other words, you would get that vaccine if parents want the little girl to get the vaccine, but you wouldn't get it if the parents don't want you to get it?

HUNTSMAN: I think the parents ultimately ought to drive that decision. I think that opt-in is probably right.

But I think the broader issue, Wolf, is we've got to take our dialogue beyond simply the day-to-day drama and into the bigger issues we face -- our place in the world, our role in Afghanistan and Iraq, what we are going to do structurally to get this economy back on track. These are the big issues of the day, and I believe the American people are crying out for a real dialogue and a discussion around them.

BLITZER: I want to get to those issues in a moment, but one final question on this.

Michele Bachmann, one of your rivals, she says she spoke to someone, a woman who told her that her daughter became mentally retarded after getting that HPV vaccine. A lot of scientists, almost everyone saying that was totally irresponsible, no evidence for that.

What do you make of that?

HUNTSMAN: Well, if you're going to say something, just check your sources, get your information right. If you're going to run for president of the United States, people are pretty much going to want to rely on your facts, they are going to rely on what you're presenting, and you darn well better make sure it's consistent with reality.

BLITZER: Is she qualified to be president of the United States?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I think she meets the constitutional requirements, of course.

BLITZER: The Constitution is one thing, but in terms of her experience, her expertise, her knowledge, is she ready to become commander in chief?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I would never go beyond what the Constitution requires. Leave that up to the people to decide. They've -- they always typically make the best choices.

BLITZER: All right, another sensitive issue, immigration. Twelve million illegal immigrants or so here in the United States.

In Texas, Governor Perry did support in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants going to state universities. Are you with him on that?

HUNTSMAN: I am with Rick on that. I supported the same kind of legislation in our state of Utah. I don't want to punish young kids for the sins of their parents. In many senses, young kids were dragged across a border with no say over their destiny.

And I'm not prepared, Wolf, to have a two-tiered bifurcated society. I want to make sure first and foremost we fix the system whereby we are able to grant citizenship. That is broken, and it's has been broken for years. I mean, when I ran an embassy in southeast Asia 20 years ago, on average, it was a year to a year and half to get citizenship. Today it's 12, if you're lucky.

So we have a broken system. The reality of 12 million people living in the shadows, we cannot create a bifurcated society, particularly among the young kids. If they earn their way into a local university, I would -- I was willing to say, let's give them the opportunity to succeed.

BLITZER: Assuming the border is secure, what would you do for the 12 million illegal immigrants who are in the United States right now as far as a pathway towards citizenship is concerned?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I would deal with it humanely and I would deal with it pragmatically. You can't round people up, you can't wish them away, but I think you can wish away those who are the violent criminals, those who are the drug dealers. I think you can wish them away.

The others we need to somehow bring out of the shadows and we have to establish some sort of systemic approach with back taxes, English as our primary language, whatever fee or penalty or fine has to be paid, and we have to begin to make this system work because it is broken and it has resulted in a lot of very passionate conversations in our country dividing people and dividing families at a time where we just need solutions.

We need a Department of Homeland Security that can fix the system. And beyond that, we need to remember that immigration and legal immigration has always served this nation extremely well. We are going to need to rely on that again in the future. The infusion of brain power, infusion of capital, the infusion of energy that we are able to assimilate and have from the very beginning is one of our nation's greatest attributes.

BLITZER: I want to pinpoint your position on Afghanistan. It's costing the U.S. taxpayers about $2 billion a week to maintain 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, try to develop and secure that country and it's going to go on for a while.

If you were president, what would you do specifically? I know you want to withdraw all those -- a lot of those forces, but how quickly would you do it?

HUNTSMAN: As quickly as you could do it in a safe -- in a safe and systemic fashion, realizing full well that we still have a job to do there, Wolf. And that is collecting intelligence, that is a special forces need on the ground to take after the terrorists as we see our very brave folks do on a daily basis, and some element that would be left behind to train the Afghan military. That's not 100,000, that's well south of there.

We've got to bring the rest of them home. We've got to realize that this is an asymmetric threat. This isn't a nation-building exercise. Our nation needs to be built, we need to rebuild our core in this nation or we are of no value to the rest of the world.

So I say, let's focus first and foremost on the real threat, it's one of an asymmetric nature that requires intelligence and special forces responses. And beyond that, let's begin to review our real national security needs internationally and building around that.

And I believe our real national security needs will be, first and foremost, international economic policy, free trade agreements that will play right back to creating jobs here at home. And second, counterterrorism, where our relationship with, for example, Israel and India, I think, will be extremely important going forward.

BLITZER: So just to be precise, you think those 100,000 troops, if you were president today you could get them out six months, a year? What are you talking about?

HUNTSMAN: Well, as soon as we could do it safely, and as soon as we could do it in a way that would be consistent with the best advice I could get from the generals on the ground, realizing full well that many would be of differing opinions, and realizing full well that as president, you're also the commander in chief. You can't always defer to them for all the decisions. You have to make some of them at the end of the day. But I know the American people, I believe, increasingly feel passionately about this. For 10 years, we have given our all in Afghanistan. And a lot of families have given the ultimate sacrifice, and it's to them that we offer a salute and a heart-felt sense of gratitude. But the time has come after 10 years, Wolf, to restructure our presence in Afghanistan and make sure we are prepared for the future and not the past.

BLITZER: One final question, Governor, before I let you go.

Look at the polls. Our most recent CNN/ORC poll came out before the most recent debate, it had you almost at the bottom down there with Michele Bachmann at 4 percent, Huntsman 2 percent, Santorum 2 percent.

Why aren't you resonating with Republican voters nationwide right now?

HUNTSMAN: Well, I believe we will resonate with all voters, many independent, a whole lot Republican, some the old Reagan Democrats. We are just beginning the process of introducing ourself to the American people. And I know it's slow and arduous, we've been at this a couple of months.

When they hear what we have to talk about, they think about it and they say, that is a common sense conversation that this candidate is willing to have with the American people. I think he would serve us well. And above all, he wants to bring this country together, because what people feel pains the most, I do believe, is the fact we are divided in an unprecedented fashion and there is no need for that. We are Americans and Americans don't do well divided, it's an unnatural place for us to be.

And I'm going to continue to take these messages out to people in New Hampshire. That's where this begins. And from what than can tell, anecdotal evidence on the street, Wolf, and where we go to meet, it's I catching on.

BLITZER: Governor Huntsman, good luck.

HUNTSMAN: Thank you, Wolf. I appreciate it.

BLITZER: Thank you, Governor Huntsman, former governor of Utah, the former U.S. ambassador to China.


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