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CNN Live Event/Special

CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall With Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL). Aired 9-10p ET

Aired January 04, 2024 - 21:00   ET



KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: Good evening, and welcome to Iowa, where the first contest of the 2024 presidential race is now just 11 days away.

We are live at Grand View University for a special night of back-to- back CNN town halls.

I'm Kaitlan Collins.

And, tonight, two of the leading Republican candidates are here, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. They will take questions from Iowa voters, setting the stage for their first one-on-one presidential debate live on CNN here in Iowa next week.

We're giving both candidates opportunities to make their closing arguments to Iowans as they battle against one another and against the front-runner in this race, former President Donald Trump.

First up tonight, Governor Ron DeSantis, who is aiming for a strong showing in Iowa with the support of the state's governor, Kim Reynolds. He will answer questions directly from Iowans on the issues that will help determine who wins the Republican nomination, and I will have some questions of my own.

In the audience here with me tonight are voters who say that they plan to participate in the Iowa Republican caucuses, both registered Republicans and voters who plan to register as Republicans.

To find tonight's questioners, we cast a wide net, soliciting help from various organizations, including business groups, farm associations, parent groups, young professional organizations, religious groups and also conservative advocacy organizations.

Guests of the DeSantis campaign and Grand View University are also here in the audience tonight, but they won't be asking any questions. We have asked everyone here to be respectful to each other and to Governor DeSantis, so voters in the room and you at home have a chance to hear from the candidate himself.

Now, please welcome Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.




DESANTIS: Thanks so much. Now...

COLLINS: Hey, Governor. Thanks for being here.


DESANTIS: It's great to be back at Grand View. Thanks, CNN.

So, I heard the other day someone say that Kaitlan Collins had some basketball skills.


DESANTIS: Now, I don't know if that was a mistake or not, but I know, in Iowa, they have a Caitlin Clark.



DESANTIS: So, I just wanted to give you this as a memento.


DESANTIS: And, just respectfully, if the game's on the line, and we need a buzzer-beater, I'm going with Clark over Collins. So...


COLLINS: Rest assured, her free throws and her threes are much better than mine, Governor.

But thank you so much for that. Thank you.


COLLINS: And good luck to her playing against Rutgers on Friday night.

Governor, thank you for being here.

Obviously, as you know, just 45 minutes away from here at Perry High School earlier today in Perry, Iowa, there was a shooting. A sixth grader was killed. Five others were injured, including a school administrator on their first day back after winter break.

We have gotten some questions from voters here in the audience about this tonight.

DESANTIS: Sure. COLLINS: So, first, tonight to start off, I want to turn to Jennifer

Lemon, who is here. She is a childcare provider from Des Moines, a Republican who says that she is undecided in this race.

Thank you so much for being here, Jennifer. Go ahead.

JENNIFER LEMON, CHILDCARE PROVIDER: Hi there. How are you doing?

DESANTIS: Good. How are you?

LEMON: I'm well, thank you.

In light of the shooting today and without taking away any gun rights, what would you do to address -- to address the issue?

DESANTIS: Well, first, our hearts go out to the people of Perry. I have been able to spend a lot of time in Dallas County. It's great folks there.

To have these kids go back the first day after Christmas break, this is a tragedy to lose a sixth grader. My wife and I, we have a first grader, a kindergarten and a preschooler. And so when you send your kids to school, you want to be focused on the academics and the activities. The physical safety should not be an issue with our schools.

And parents need to have confidence in that. So, I think what we will do is support efforts like I did in Florida. When I became governor, it was on the heels of the worst school shooting that we had had in the history of the state. And I was charged with implementing reforms to be able to provide security for schools.

So, we have done everything, but, like, school resource officers, help with hardening, but also help identify students that are exhibiting really problematic behavior. One of the tragedies that came out of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas back in Florida was that, before people even had identified who did it, most of the people in that community already knew who did it, because there were so many warning signs.

We're getting more information about what happened in Perry, but it seems like this -- this student had some serious, serious problems. We do things like behavioral threat assessment to take this seriously, so that there can be an intervention, if they're committing criminal acts, to hold them accountable.

And if they have mental health problems, you have got to deal with it.

COLLINS: Governor, I'm glad that you brought up the laws that are in Florida, because, right now, a state senator from Florida wants to eliminate that mandatory three-day waiting period to buy a rifle or a shotgun in your state.

That is one of the changes that, if it was eliminated, would undo something that was put in place after the Parkland shooting. Do you support eliminating that waiting period? DESANTIS: I think the -- the background check should be instant. You

have -- you have the thing, somebody goes, you can run them, and you can see.

If there's a criminal conviction, if they're a felon, then, obviously, they ping.


If they have mental health adjudication, then, of course, they're going to ping. But I think you want it to be instant background checks. And so that's what I support.

COLLINS: So you don't support the three-day waiting period? You think...


DESANTIS: I think it should be instant.

COLLINS: You would be OK with eliminating it?

DESANTIS: I think it should be instant background checks. This is somebody that -- people that go, law-abiding citizens exercising their rights, you shouldn't have to be on a mandatory waiting period. Instant checks will do the job.

COLLINS: I want to turn to another voter and some other issues that are here on the minds of Iowa voters tonight. This is Curt Ellis. He is an operations manager -- an operations coordinator from Grimes, Iowa, a Republican who says he is undecided.

Curt, thank you for being here. What's your question for the governor?

CURT ELLIS, OPERATIONS COORDINATOR: Good evening, Governor. Donald Trump is leading by significant margins in polling, particularly here in Iowa. What do you consider a winning performance in Iowa? And what is your strategy past Iowa?

DESANTIS: Well, Curt, nobody's leading until you guys get to vote. So I actually believe in the process. I've gone to all 99 counties. I've shown up. I've answered questions. You'll see me on the debate stage next week here in Iowa on January 10th. Donald Trump is not willing to show up on the debate stage. Has he come to communities and answered questions? Has he gone to all 99 counties? Heck, has he even gone to nine counties? That's not the way to do it.

So voters get to make the decision. Don't let the media pick the candidate. Let voters decide. And this is a long process. I've put in a lot of time in Iowa because I think doing 99 counties is the way it's done here. People want to be able to ask you questions. They want to be able to shake your hand. So I've done it because that's what Iowans expect, to do the full Grassley.

We're going to be doing a lot of stuff in the subsequent states. You've got to win a massive amount of delegates. And we're going to be in a situation where we're going to be competing. And it's going to be a long, arduous process.

But Iowa starts it off. You guys get to make the decision. Don't let the media or the pundits make the decision. Vote for who you think could be the best president of the United States. And I'm here to tell you, the choice, I think, is clear. Donald Trump is running for his issues. Nikki Haley's running for her donors' issues. I'm running for your issues. I'm running for your families' issues. And I'm running to turn this country around.


COLLINS: Governor, Curt mentioned how the former president is leading significantly in polls. I know you dismiss some of those polls and say you want to see what happens on the 15th. You just referenced what you believe Trump is running on this time, you say, his own issues. And you said before that you don't think he's the same candidate that he was in 2016.

What do -- what should voters in Iowa know about what you think a second Trump presidency, a second Trump term would look like if they do pick him over you?

DESANTIS: Well, so, here, look, we -- we saw what happened in the midterms in 2022. Remember, they said that this was going to be a red wave. You had a red wave in Iowa and Florida because Governor Reynolds led and because I led. And we won historic victories. The rest of the Republicans in the Senate and House crashed and burned.

Donald Trump's candidates, hand-picked candidates, lost because the Democrats have a playbook that they can run. It was effective in 2018. It was effective in 2020, '21, '22, and even this year in 2023. So don't repeat that.

The Democrats want Trump to be the candidate. They are going to talk about all the legal stuff, January 6th. That will be what the election will be about. You don't want it to be a referendum on Trump and the past. You want it to be a referendum on Biden's failures, on our positive vision for this country.

I offer that. And, oh, by the way, you need somebody that can serve two terms. You're going to go in there as a lame duck president, even if you could get elected? I don't think that that's how it works there. We need a change agent in Washington. We need somebody that's going to go in there, actually unwind the bureaucracy, which Trump promised to do and didn't do.

We need a president that's going to stop the border invasion by building a wall, which Trump promised to do but didn't do. We also need somebody that's going to be willing to deport illegal aliens. Donald Trump said he would in 2016. He'd have the largest deportation in history. He deported less than Barack Obama did in Obama's first term.

I will actually get the job done. And I will hold the Mexican drug cartels accountable for the carnage that they are causing in this country. They are killing tens of thousands of our fellow Americans. When I'm president, we're going to designate them as foreign terrorist organizations. Donald Trump had an opportunity to do that. He didn't do it. I will.


COLLINS: Well, Governor, I'm glad you brought up immigration because we actually have a question on immigration from our next questioner. This is Joseph Howe. He is a business consultant from Des Moines, who is the former Iowa Libertarian state chair. He now says he is Republican and he's undecided. Joseph?

JOSEPH HOWE, FORMER IOWA LIBERTARIAN PARTY CHAIRMAN: Yes, thanks for being here. Governor, almost all illegal migrants crossing the border carry a backpack or bag and very few are cartel members. If you order to shoot on sight, now excepting women and children, how many innocent people are you willing to have killed to kill one low-level drug mule?


DESANTIS: Well, Joseph, thanks for that, but I take issue with the premise of that.

When you're conducting military operations, you're not just doing that willy-nilly. I'm the only one running for president that actually served overseas, in a war, in the Iraq campaign.

They didn't dress. They didn't wear uniforms. You had to positively identify. People would have hostile actions, hostile intent. And then you would be able to engage.

So, it's going to be the same type of thing. It's not going to be -- and it's anything like we do even domestically, when a police officer would engage. So it's not going to be done the way the media saying it's going to be done.

But I will tell you this, I've been down there. The cartel will cut holes in the actual border wall and they will come through with fentanyl.

So, my question to you and other critics who don't say, how many fentanyl deaths are enough? Are we just supposed to sit here and let this happen?

I think the president not only has a right, I think you have a responsibility to fight back against these people.

I am sick and tired of seeing the carnage in this country. And in my travels through Iowa, I've met Angel Parents, people that have lost kids to fentanyl overdose.

And a lot of times, these are not drug addicts. These are may be a college student that is stressed out during exams so they buy a pill thinking it's going to help 'em get through the night. And it turns it's laced with fentanyl. That could be enough to poison that student to death.

And so, this is shattering families. It's shattering communities. The people in D.C., they just shrug their shoulder. They could care less about what's going on.

Well, I care about this. I care about defending American communities and American families. And so, yes, they have killed more Americans than all the terrorist groups in this -- in this world combined over the last five years. When is enough enough?


COLLINS: But do you think you would have the intelligence to do that? I think that's the question.


DESANTIS: Yes, absolutely, absolutely, yes.

Look, we have -- we have surveillance. We have drones. We have until. We have a whole bunch of stuff.

This is something -- it's a matter of will. We can do it if we want to do it.

And I would note, I was the candidate that came out to do it. Now, you have other candidates that are saying they want to do this. Some had opportunities to do this in the past. Others had not even supported things like border walls in the past.

So we've been a leader on this issue. We're going to continue to do it.

But here's the thing as Republicans, how many years have we been talking about the border in various iterations? It's been going on my entire adult life. Is it about time we had a president that solved it, once and for all? I will solve it once and for all.

COLLINS: Can I ask you, Governor -- a question on immigration, as well? Because this is something that you said -- you said that you would take action to end the idea of birthright citizenship for kids of undocumented immigrants.

Does that mean ending birthright citizenship? What does that -- what does that clearly (ph) mean?

DESANTIS: Right. So, the 14th Amendment obviously applies to U.S. citizens. It was meant to overturn Dred Scott versus Sanford. It's one of the worst Supreme Court cases in history to ensure that African Americans were citizens, in spite of what Dred Scott had said, the decision.

Now, it was never the intent of say, you come illegally across the border, have a kid, and all of sudden, the kid is an American citizen? That creates an anchor in the society so that you then can't deport the illegal aliens who came in. It's an incentive to come illegally. That was not the intention of that.

So, yes, we oppose -- we support American citizens, obviously. But when people are coming illegally, they do not have a birthright at that point. That will get litigated by the Supreme Court, but I'm convinced the court has never actually addressed that issue.

And I think we would win on the law because that was --

COLLINS: So that would be --

DESANTIS: -- not what the 14th Amendment was intended to do.

COLLINS: That would be an executive order and then you expect that it would be legally challenged?

DESANTIS: Sure, of course, it would be legally challenged.

COLLINS: Okay. I do want to go to Mary Lou --

DESANTIS: And, by the way, on this --

COLLINS: Go ahead.

DESANTIS: Donald Trump ran in 2016 saying he would exactly what I just said. Did he ever sign his name to an executive order when he promised voters that he was going to do it? Never signed it.

What does he now telling people in Iowa this time around? He says he's going to do the same thing that he didn't do the first four years.

I mean, sometimes you can say, Congress stymied you, all this other stuff. All he had to do is put his John Hancock on a piece of paper and he did not do it.

So, look -- I mean, when I tell you I'm going to do something, you can take it to the bank. I'm going to do it.


COLLINS: Are you saying -- we've got another voter question but just -- it sounds like you're saying Republican voters can't trust Donald Trump.

DESANTIS: Well, what I'm saying is, if you've run before, promised things, didn't deliver, and then you're running on the same things, wouldn't it be reasonable to say, well, gee, I don't know that I can take that to the bank going forward?

So, yes, I think the fact that he's campaigning on something, that does not mean that he would actually follow through on it.

COLLINS: We have Marilou here, Mary Lou Nosco. She's a retired army officer and educator from Nevada, Iowa. She says that she's a Republican who's undecided.

Mary Lou, thank you for being here tonight. What's your question for the governor?


First of all, I want to thank you for your service, Governor.

DESANTIS: You, too.



NOSCO: I think the only a veteran really can appreciate the sacrifice that you and your family made.

My question is, I have a 33-year-old son who is a college graduate and a professional, and he feels he will never be able to purchase a home. Home ownership has long been the major part of the American dream. What do you plan to do as president to make home ownership more accessible to the middle class?

DESANTIS: Well, thank you for the question, Mary Lou, and thank you for your service to this country. And you're right. Not only should we appreciate veterans, but also a lot of the spouses that have served. Veterans have carried a big load. It's a family effort, and we owe debt of gratitude to a lot of people.

A couple of things we do. One, we need to get interest rates down. The reason why we have high interest rates is because government has borrowed, printed, and spent ungodly sums of money starting in March of 2020. Both parties are responsible for it, and that has driven the interest rates up.

Right now, the average price home, your monthly mortgage payment is twice as much as it would have been five years ago if you had a mortgage on the average price home.

Now, some of it is home prices have gone up, but a lot of it is because of the interest rates. The other thing we got to do, we need more housing supply in this country. I actually signed legislation in Florida to greenlight projects, particularly for workforce housing, because you have a situation where in some parts of the country, if you're a police officer or teacher or a nurse, you can't afford to live in the community where you work.

So we can expect cops to have to commute an hour and a half just to go to some of these areas, and then you have rural communities where there's a deficit of housing as well. So, lower interest rates and more housing supply. But if we don't solve this issue and it's housing as part of it and buying a home.

But I think there's larger issues about people, young people that are working hard, doing everything right are falling behind. It's almost cost prohibitive to raise kids in this economy. That's taking the American dream away. We got to restore the American dream. And it starts with getting this fiscal house in order. In Florida, I've been governor. We've actually paid down 25 percent of

our state's debt. I've cut taxes every year. Our economy is ranked number one of all 50 states by CNBC. We lead the nation in net in migration. Income growth is top of the charts, number one in education. So we've shown how it's done. And we need to bring that same level of success to the United States of America.

COLLINS: Florida as well. You have no income tax. You have said that you believe other states should follow Florida's lead on that. If you were president, would you eliminate the federal income tax?

DESANTIS: Can I stop dreaming? I mean, wouldn't you like to eliminate the IRS? And what I would want is I just -- I think I would eliminate the IRS, have a single rate and just do like a flat tax. I think that would be the ideal tax system to be able to do take away the distortions.

And what happens is Florida is a good example of this. We have low tax and we cut taxes, and yet we attract more investment and our economic base expands. So I run these big budget surpluses where we're paying down debt by lowering rates. I think you look at some of the other states that are high tax states, they tax, they cause businesses to flee and individuals to flee. Then they go back to the well and they tax more. And it's like a vicious cycle.

So, low rates, broad base, ultimately is the best and most conducive to economic growth.

COLLINS: But you would push to eliminate the federal income tax?

DESANTIS: I want to eliminate the IRS, and I would like a flat one, single rate flat tax. Obviously, I would only do it if it was lower taxes for everybody. But that is the ideal tax system.

COLLINS: Governor, I want to bring in Eric Eide, who is an attorney from Ames, Iowa, a Republican, who says that he is undecided in this race. Eric, what's your question?

ERIC EIDE, ATTORNEY: Governor, I vote primarily based on foreign policy. And my question to you tonight is, should the United States supply Ukraine with more advanced weaponry, including aircraft, with an aim to helping them regain the captured territory, or should we just urge them to accept a partial loss of that territory?

DESANTIS: Well, first of all, what we would do is what are our top national security issues? I would say the top in this country are the border and China. And so I think what people in D.C. are doing, they're ignoring those security threats. They've done an awful lot of money to Ukraine, including money paying for things like pensions for bureaucrats, salaries. How is that something that is benefiting the American people?

So what I've said about this is one we need to bring it to a conclusion. I think Europe needs to do more to meet their NATO obligations. I mean, ultimately, Russia is more of a threat to them than not. But as president, I'll be very clear, because people will talk about, you got to do more money there because so that they don't invade a NATO country.,

You know, as president of the United States, NATO will be a red, they will not -- not Russia will not go after a NATO country when I am president, bar none.

COLLINS: You said it to a conclusion. Does that mean end U.S. support for Ukraine?

DESANTIS: It means end the conflict. I think we're now in a situation...


COLLINS: But how do you do that?

DESANTIS: ... Biden can't even tell us what the endgame is.

He will not articulate this. And here -- I just -- as somebody that has served, I think the pitfall of U.S. foreign policy over the past 25 years, really since the Cold War, is getting involved in conflicts where we don't have a clear conception of what we're trying to achieve, or we don't have enough support to be able to actually bring it to a conclusion.

So he will not articulate that. And I, as president of the United States, if I'm going to be obligating U.S. resources, I want a clear plan for what we're going to accomplish. And I want to make sure that we're going to be able to accomplish that. He has not done that.

It's also just the case this. Biden's weakness invited a lot of the problems that we're seeing around the world. How he left Afghanistan was a total disgrace. I mean, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of veterans who've served over there to see all that weaponry and all that stuff over there just taken by the Taliban, 13 people killed.

That was humiliating for this country. But that sent a signal to people like Russia, to Iran that now is the time to be able to start acting out. When I'm president, it's going to be totally different. We're going to lay down very clear markers, and people are going to know, don't mess with the USA.


COLLINS: But can you articulate what ending this means? I mean, does that mean that you -- I mean, because Congress is talking about this right now.

Does that mean sending no more U.S. money, no more U.S. weapons to Ukraine?

DESANTIS: What it means is, is bringing it to a situation where Russia is in a box and you're not having wars break out to Europe.

That is our interest in this, to not have larger conflicts. And I think part of the problem with some of the people who always want to get us in deeper in these conflicts is, you run the risk of an escalation. I can tell you this.

As president of the United States, American service members can take this to the bank, parents of service members. We are not going to send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine.

COLLINS: But what about U.S. weapons?

DESANTIS: Well, I think Europe should supply the weapons.

COLLINS: And not the U.S.?

DESANTIS: I'm willing to help Europe -- Europe, within the confines of our overall national security strategy, bring it to a conclusion.

But we are behind in what we need to do with China. We do not have adequate hard power to be able to deter China from going after Taiwan or breaking out of the First Island Chain, which they want to do, and would have major impacts on this country. And, of course, they're doing nothing to secure our own southern border.

That border is a threat to this country, because hostile people are coming across the southern border. So we need to do -- focus on our house here. And what bugs me about what's going on in D.C. is, they ignore problems here in the United States, and they're focusing on things that are halfway around the world.

I mean, I think it's an issue, it's an interest, but you can't put that over our own national security on our own borders.

COLLINS: We also have Cheryl Young here with us tonight, Governor. She is from Winterset, Iowa. She's a Republican who says that she is supporting you in this race.

Cheryl, what's your question?


DESANTIS: Good evening.

YOUNG: My question is, should abortion rights be controlled by the federal or the state governments?

DESANTIS: Well, thanks for the question, and thank you for your support. I appreciate it.

Well, clearly, states have the primary role in this, because that's what it was all of American history until 1973. So, you have states like Iowa that have enacted heartbeat bill. Florida has enacted a heartbeat bill. Other states have done other things.

And so that's just, I think, where the country is right now. So, we will be somebody that will defend particularly the rights of states to be able to enact pro-life protections.

Now, you have a difference of opinion in this primary, because Donald Trump has said that pro-life protections, even at the state level, are a -- quote -- "terrible thing." And he said that in relation to bills like what Iowa did, the heartbeat bill.

Now, this is a guy that was at the March for Life in January of 2020. And he said that all life was a gift from God. He said the unborn was made in the image of God. He said that there should be protections. That's what he was saying when he was president at the March for Life.

Now he's saying it's a terrible, terrible thing. So, how do you reconcile those two views? Did he flip-flop? Did he not believe it at the time? But then, to go even further, he actually has said, elevate this issue to the federal government. What he wants to do is find a time. I think he floated like 18 or 20 weeks.

Have that be the limit, but then override any protections that states have done that are more than that. Well, that is not going to be advancing the cause of life. And so I think, for pro-life voters in Iowa, Donald Trump is taking positions that are way different than what he professed to believe when he first ran for president in 2016.

COLLINS: Do you think Donald Trump is not pro-life?

DESANTIS: Of course not.

I mean, when -- when you're saying that pro-life protections are a terrible thing, by definition, you are not pro-life. When you say that you want to have a federal law at 18 weeks or 20 weeks that would override a state like Iowa that is enacted pro-life protections, that would mean more abortions, not less abortions, because very few abortions are happening that late anyways.

So he has flip-flopped on this issue. I don't know if it's because of political convenience or this is all where he always believed in.

But here's the thing, some issues are pretty fundamental. How do you flip-flop on something like the sanctity of life?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN HOST: It's pretty remarkable to hear you say that, Governor, to say that you don't think Donald Trump is pro-life.

You mentioned the bill that was signed in Florida, the six-week abortion bill that you signed earlier this year. That bill has exceptions, but those exceptions, I want to talk about them, because for rape and incest, a woman would only have up to 15 weeks to get an abortion, and only if the woman brings a police report, a restraining order, medical record, or a court document to her appointment.

For fetal abnormality, that exception requires the sign off from two doctors. Do you think that those limits are reasonable and that women agree that those limits are reasonable?

DESANTIS: So the Florida legislature enacted a Heartbeat Bill with those exceptions. You know, not every state has done that. Iowa, I don't think, has done that. Some of the other states have not, but those exceptions are in law. I know those are issues that a lot of people have strong feelings about. And so I signed the legislation with those exceptions in law, rape, incest, life of the mother, victims of human trafficking, as well as the really terrible situations where you have the fetal abnormality. So that is what I think the people wanted, and that was what the law reflects.

But you personally signed it into law. You could have vetoed it if you didn't agree with it. So do you think those are reasonable exceptions?

DESANTIS: Those are exceptions that have been talked about for many, many years, and the legislature put those in very carefully. And yes, of course, I think they're reasonable.

COLLINS: You did sign a 15-week bill before that. It didn't have exceptions for rape or incest. If you are president, you've said that you would support a 15-week ban --

DESANTIS: Well, here's the thing, though, the reason why --

COLLINS: -- a federal ban. But would it include those exceptions?

DESANTIS: But the reason why it wasn't is because there was no reason required at all for up to the 15 weeks. And so that's why they didn't put it in. When you're talking about a heartbeat, it's just a different -- there's a prudential judgment that the legislatures are making. But I've said I support exceptions and would support exceptions.

COLLINS: Wait, I want to bring in Ronald Langel, a Medicare insurance agent and a retired farmer from Ankeny, Iowa. Thank you for being here, Ronald. He is a Republican who says that he is supporting Nikki Haley in this race. He is also a Vietnam veteran. So thank you for your service as well.

What's your question for the governor?

RONALD LANGEL, INSURANCE AGENT AND RETIRED FARMER: Thank you. First off, from one veteran to another, I respectfully thank you for your service to our nation.

DESANTIS: Likewise. Thank you. Appreciate you.

LANGEL: Please give me your definition of patriotism. Did the January 6th insurrectionists display patriotism as some of them claim they did?

DESANTIS: No. Of course not. I mean, that was not a good day for the country. I think the media has taken that and I think the left has taken that and really tried to politicize it, but it was not a good day for the country.

You know, patriotism to me is willing to put yourself out there and put service above self. I mean, you served. Anyone that serves in the military, they're writing a check payable to the United States of America for an amount up to and including their life. You don't know where they're going to send you. You don't know what you're going to be able to do. But when you're doing that, you are -- you are pursuing a higher purpose. And so to me, that's noble.

We've have a lot of problems in the military now with recruiting. Recruiting's at a generational low in this country since the Vietnam War. I think there's a lot of reasons for that and I will rectify that.

But part of it is, we haven't had a president elected who's been a veteran since 1988, a president that served in a foreign conflict. So I would be the first to do that.

And part of what I'm going to do, I'm going to take out all the political, the woke, all the nonsense out of the military's commander chief day one. But we are going to hold up military service as being something that's a noble cause.

You know, Ronald Reagan was inspiring when he would talk about some people, spend a lifetime not knowing whether they made a difference. But a U.S. Marine doesn't have that problem.

John F. Kennedy said people can look back on their life with a great deal of satisfaction saying, I served in the United States Navy. And so this is something that I think is very important.

So I will be an advocate for military service. I will talk about that being a worthy endeavor for young people to pursue. And we are going to solve this problem. We are going to get more people signing up.

COLLINS: You're running for president, obviously. I want to ask you what the limits that you think you would have as president.

The former president keeps claiming that he can't be prosecuted for anything that happened while he was in office because he has presidential immunity.

If you were the nominee and if you're elected president, do you think you would have blanket presidential immunity?

DESANTIS: Well, look, I mean, I'm going to -- you take an oath to support and defend the Constitution. I did it when I commissioned as an officer.


Anyone that serves in the military does it. I took an oath as governor. As president, you're taking an oath to take care that the laws are faithfully executed and to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

So, I'm going to wield my authority with that obligation in mind. And if I don't think something is constitutional, I am duty-bound to oppose it. That's just the nature of the job.

So, I make constitutional judgments all the time. It doesn't mean a court always agrees with it, but I am going through that analysis.

So, for example, if Congress sends me a piece of legislation that I think violates the Constitution, even if I think it's a good idea policy-wise, I am duty-bound to veto it. And I will do that.

So, you're going to see an energetic executive. I'm going to wield Article 2 power to the fullest extent, to be able to advance the agenda that I'm running on, and we're going to deliver big victories.

But that oath means something to me, and I will satisfy that oath of office.

And, by the way, you know, you talked about what's going on now. Joe Biden took an oath to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. Is there anybody in this room that thinks he is satisfying that oath when it comes to our southern border? I don't think so.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN MODERATOR: Well, what about blanket presidential immunity, that a president can do whatever they want? Do you agree with that?

DESANTIS: If you -- if you're abiding by the Constitution, none of that is going to matter at that point. So, follow the law, follow the Constitution.

This stuff gets into the weeds legally about what can happen to a president when they leave office based on conduct that may or may not have been official. It's not for me to adjudicate that.

I can just tell you this -- if you nominate me, I'll get elected, I'll serve, and we won't even be discussing these issues. We'll be discussing your issues.

You're not going to be -- have to worry about my conduct. I'll conduct myself in a way you can be proud of. I'll conduct myself in a way you can tell your kids, you know, that's somebody that you should emulate. And we will have success as a result of that.


COLLINS: A lot of clear references obviously to the former president.

You have said that you believe his indictments have distorted the primary. Do you think that he is leading in this race because of his indictments?

DESANTIS: So, look, I mean, you know, there's things that happen when you're running. There's things you can control.

You know, I can control how I answer your questions. I can control how hard I'm going to work, like I've chosen to do the 99 counties. Other candidates haven't.

There's other things you can't control -- how these things happen, how they're played in the media, all this other stuff. Clearly, it's had an impact. But what I would tell primary voters is: whatever may be beneficial in

the primary doesn't mean it's beneficial in the general election. And I think a 2024 election, where the Democrats get to run against a candidate that is going through all this stuff, that is going to give the Democrats an advantage. Don't have to agree with any of the stuff that was done. That's just the reality.

And we end up in a situation where we're putting the future of the Republican Party and the future of the nation, perhaps, in the hands of 12 jurors in heavily Democrat D.C., which is likely to be a very stacked left wing jury, that if they somehow convict, then the Democrats are going to win the election. Why do we want to even go down that road?

Don't -- let's focus on your issues. Let's focus on Biden's failures. Let's focus on how we're going to be able to turn this country around.

I'll be somebody that's focused on that. But then even more importantly, as president, I'll be disciplined and determined to deliver on all those things. It's not going to be about me.

Heck, when I'm not out there doing the job -- I've got young kids. My wife and I will be back home. You know, we'll be doing stuff, raising our family.

That's going to be the extent of what we're doing. We are going to be laser-focused on your issues.


COLLINS: Governor, stick around. We have many more voters' questions for you.

We'll be right back in just a moment with more from Republican presidential candidate, Governor Ron DeSantis.




COLLINS: Welcome back to CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall with Governor DeSantis. Governor, you talk about your family a lot when you're on the campaign trail, you often see your wife, Casey DeSantis, your children with you.

I want to ask you about a loss that you experienced in your life with your sister, your family. In 2015, your younger sister, Christina died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. I know she was 30 years old. She was about to get married. How did that loss change you?

DESANTIS: Well, look, when you go through having somebody that's in your immediate family, I mean that's the loss that I think hit you the most. And part of it was just how sudden it was. You know, she was living a great life. I mean, she was having fun. And then she got checked into the hospital. She seemed to be stable, and then a couple of days later did that.

So, you know, one, I think about all the things we've done since then, you know, she would have been a great aunt to her nieces and nephews. I would have liked for them to have been able to get to know her. She obviously would have done a lot of great things with her life. You know, she would have been potentially involved in some of the things we've been doing.

But what it shows you is don't take anything for granted. You just never know what's going to happen. And so if there's ever a time when you feel you need to do something, don't just sit back on the sidelines. You go in and you do because you never know what chances you're going to have in the future.

So, don't take it for granted. Tell your people close to you that you love them and just try to live your best life every single day. And understand, ultimately, every day is a gift from God.

COLLINS: Thank you for sharing that. I think that probably resonates with a lot of people here. Governor, we also have more voter questions with us tonight. I want to now get to Bob Peters, who is a retired small business owner from Ankeny. He's a Republican who says he is leaning towards supporting Nikki Haley. What's your question for the governor?

BOB PETERS, RETIRED SMALL BUSINESS OWNER: Thank you for being here, governor, we have seen many instances of poor choices from the current administration, such as the before mentioned border policies, the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, with no effort to correct those poor choices. Even well intended plans can fail sometimes. Can you give me an example where as governor, you implemented a plan that did fail and how you corrected that?

DESANTIS: Sure. You know, I think if you look back what happened with COVID I mean, the large story is Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci plunged this country into lockdown.


Florida led the way in dragging this country out of lockdown. And part of the reason we did that is because I looked at some of the things that were recommended that we had done, so, for example, not have elective procedures at hospitals. They said there's going to be too many people in the hospital.

Well, I do this for three or four weeks, and our hospitals were empty. So I said, you know what? The data doesn't support that. We're opening it up. We protected nursing homes. And we have got 4,000 long-term care facilities. We didn't want it ravaging. We did testing. We -- we limited people going in to not have a big outbreak, which did save lives.

But those restrictions carried on for weeks and weeks and weeks. And then you had to start balancing, OK, this virus is significant. We obviously are sensitive with elderly people, but shouldn't we be giving them the decision-making about having family visitation and all this stuff?

Are we, as the government, going to make that decision for them? So I made the decision. I think we were the first state in the country to say, you know what, let them make these decisions about this, because there was more to life than just one virus, the human connection that people long for.

And I had a lady named Mary Daniel from Jacksonville, Florida. And so, in those initial weeks, she wasn't able to go and visit her husband, who was in a memory care facility. So she decided to apply to get a job to work in the facility so that she could have interaction with him.

And so she came and talked about her story. She talked about how, while people were very concerned about the virus' effect on elderly people, that we had to figure out a way to do it. So, you know what? That really touched me. And so we did it and we -- we made the change.

And I think that was a good change. And we ended up doing -- and not that we never restricted hospitals, but the hospitals throughout this country were denying visitation for people. These end-of-life moments, you're having to spend on a FaceTime or on an iPad, instead of having your loved ones there?

That was just -- that was overkill. And that left -- these are tough issues anyways, but you have a little bit of sense of closure if you're there and you can say goodbye, if you can hug your loved one more time, if you can do those things that require that human connection.

And that was taken away from so many people. So we did legislation in Florida called No Patient Left Alone Act. You have a right to have your family members present with you when you're in the hospital, particularly when you're in those sensitive end-of-life situations. That's the right thing to do.

And we made sure that we were looking at the whole picture and making sure that we had this very important human interaction respected and protected.


COLLINS: That question about being governor, being on the job, whether or not you make mistakes while you're on the job, there's another governor in this race, Chris Christie.

He recently said something about a mistake that he believes he made while he was governor of New Jersey. He says that was on gay marriage, that he was wrong, he admits it, and he says that true leaders admit that when they are wrong.

You have previously said that the definition of marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman. I'm curious, is that still how you feel today?

DESANTIS: So, that -- that's just what marriage is with the church. And I respect the Supreme Court's decision. We have abided by that in Florida, even though our Constitution defines it as between a man and a woman.

But I think what we need to recognize is, you are going to have people try to wield power against our religious institutions and try to marginalize them simply by upholding the biblical definition of marriage. And so I'm going to protect those religious institutions to be able to do what has always been done in terms of how they consider marriage as a sacrament.

So -- so, in terms of the church, that's just what it is. Now, in terms of the Supreme Court's decision with civil law, the state, we had a different policy. This was before I was governor. And so the state of Florida has respected that.

COLLINS: We have got another voter here with us, Governor, tonight.

This is Trey Wellman, a student at Iowa State University from Ames who grew up on a family farm. He is the vice chair of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans. He says he's undecided. He's not going to bring up Alabama football.

Go ahead, Trey.


TREY WELLMAN, VICE CHAIR, IOWA COLLEGE REPUBLICANS: So, growing up on a family farm and being -- and studying agriculture and rural policy at Iowa State, this is something that we have talked an awful lot about.

For many years, rural areas have been declining in population, which can lead to poverty, limited opportunity and higher prices. What do you think are the reasons for this? And what will you do as president to build up rural communities and their populations?

DESANTIS: And you said you're Iowa State?

WELLMAN: Iowa State, yes, sir.


I was at the game this year. That was -- it was a tough one. But you have a lot of Florida high school players on the roster. So I appreciate it. And, of course, the governor here is an Iowa State grad. So I didn't say anything cross about Iowa State.



DESANTIS: My son, incidentally -- so, you all in Iowa have this Machine Shed restaurant. My wife and I, we do, like, Cracker Barrel with the kids. We were going to do that.

And I was like, we got to try Machine Shed. My son's 5 years old. He's like a sports nut. He got a checkerboard modeled after the Iowa -- Iowa State football field. So, he now loves Iowa State, because he has that checkerboard.



DESANTIS: And then he also -- he also has gotten to see the Iowa stadium.


And we were at a -- we were actually watching the Iowa game with some supporters in Ankeny over the weekend. And so they got him a nice Iowa shirt. He's got Iowa socks and everything.

I was on the campaign trail with him the morning of the Iowa-Michigan Big Ten game. And I didn't rehearse this with him. He came up on the stage with me. I had the microphone. And I said, hey, buddy, who's going to win Iowa versus Michigan? And I'm moving the -- the mic down to him. And I'm thinking to myself, oh, my gosh, if this kid says Michigan, he's going to get booed in Iowa at five years old.


DESANTIS: He was so clutch. He was like, Iowa. So he was really excited about that.

Now to get to your question. Rural communities are part of the backbone of America. And I've been able to see that firsthand traveling to all 99 counties in Iowa. I've also been able to see it in my home state of Florida. I mean, some people that aren't from Florida, you know, you think South Beach or you think the attractions in -- in Orlando or you think, if you're in the Midwest, a lot of these places, themselves which are great areas.

But, you know, we have a lot of rural counties in our -- our state. I was the first governor to do public events in all 67 Florida counties. There were people that had never seen a governor before in some of our rural counties. We've worked to do rural broadband, infrastructure, things that are really, really significant.

So, a couple of things. One, I understand the importance of agriculture for our country. It's not just an economic issue, food security is a national security issue. And I think we're more secure and better when we have family farms that are viable and that can pass that down from generation to generation. I don't want everything to be massive corporations.

We need to eliminate the death tax on these family farms so that they can pass it down without getting taxed.


DESANTIS: We also need to recognize that the cost of government, when bureaucracies run amok, like they say, you know, in Iowa you had to go to the supreme court. There's a puddle on your property and that's waters of the United States. EPA can come in and have federal jurisdiction. No way. That is not right.

But that use of bureaucracy benefits the entrenched big companies at the expense of the smaller companies. So I think part of the answer for rural America is small business and the emphasis on that. And I think that's the backbone of whether our economy is going to succeed or not.

You know, you've got these guys on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, you know, that's fine. But if we don't have these small businesses in these local communities that are able to succeed, we're not going to have the American dream.

COLLINS: We have another voter here tonight, Chad Ryan, a hospice chaplain from Huxley, Iowa, a Republican who says that he is undecided in this race.

Chad, what is your question for Governor DeSantis?

CHAD RYAN, HOSPICE CHAPLAIN: Governor DeSantis, thank you for being here. I would like to hear you answer this question in the spirit of civility and humility. If you become president, what is one aspect of President Biden's leadership you would hope to emulate?

DESANTIS: Well, thanks a lot, I appreciate that. Look, we've got a myriad of policy differences. And -- and I think -- I think the results have been very, very poor. So, I think on the policy, you're going to see -- you're going to see differences.

I'll tell you this, though, you know, we had a hurricane hit, category 5 Hurricane Ian in southwest Florida. Some of you know because some of you have been down there. And it devastated southwest Florida. It knocked out a bridge to Pine Island. It knocked out the causeway going to Sanibel. We had millions and millions of people without power.

Now we had a great response. We had everyone lined up, quickest power restoration in history, search and rescue, all these things. You know, a Democrat in the White House with the media who would love to do it, you know, he could have tried to politicize it. And I'll give him credit, he didn't try to politicize it.

I think when you have situations where there is national tragedies or disasters, trying to politicize it doesn't work. You've got to put the people first. And I will notice, with respect to the media, the media -- the national media, they were down there, they -- they wanted to make it an issue politically.

I mean, I was running for re-election. That's what they wanted to do. When they're asking and people are saying, oh, my gosh, they -- they had all these rescues, all the power went on in record time. We even rebuilt the bridge to Pine Island. People said it was going to take six months. We took control of it at the state level. We rebuilt it in three days. Once they saw -- the national media saw, that things were going well

and that people were appreciative of the response, you couldn't find national media outlets in Florida if you had a search warrant. They did not have a story. Their story was to try to create conflict and to try to -- try to demean the response. So, that's just the reality.

But I will say this, you know, the White House under Biden, they worked with us to put the people first. And as president, when we have these national disasters, I don't care if it's a Republican governor like Kim Reynolds, who I'm very close with, or a liberal governor like Newsom, who I've got some differences with, when you have these situations, leaders got to lead and you've got to put politics aside.


COLLINS: People (ph) always happy when disaster responses go well, Governor.

We've got another voter here, Deanna Boesen. She's a psychiatrist from West Des Moines, a Republican who says that she is undecided in this race.


What is your question for the governor, Deanna?



BOESEN: I have a question for you on mental health.

Lack of adequate health insurance which covers diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders is a significant problem for millions of Americans. What are your plans for addressing this issue at the federal level?

DESANTIS: Well, thank you, Deanna.

I think this is a huge issue, and this is an issue that in every corner of Iowa, people are asking about. I mean, this is not just something where a few people are talking about it because we've seen this issue all across the country.

We're going to do a couple of things. One, we're going to support efforts like we did in Florida to provide more mental health resources in our schools. You know, sometimes there's a stigma about seeking help.

My wife, the first lady of Florida, has launched a program to focus more on resiliency, and it's something that athletes, famous people have gotten behind and talked about, and it's created I think a lot of positive feedback with that.

One thing we're not going to allow, though, in the schools or we shouldn't allow is the politicization of mental health or to try to use mental health to advance an agenda. And unfortunately, you see examples of this. There's like woke ideology in some of this.

Can we please not try to politicize everything in this country? So I think for the youth, I think it's important.

The other thing I think is really important, we need to do a better job for our veterans. We have 22 suicides a day still with veterans. And as somebody who served post-9/11, we didn't have a draft.

You put a huge burden on a very small percentage of this country. People did multiple deployments -- Marines, Army, Special Forces. That is not normal to be deploying that much. You are going to come back. People are going to have invisible wounds of war.

We do good about seeing if somebody has a physical wound. We haven't done as well about those invisible wounds. So, how do you deal with it?

The V.A. ultimately is not going to be able to solve this problem by itself. It's too big a bureaucracy. It's too cumbersome.

I'm going to fire a lot of people in the V.A. I'm going to have accountability. They need to do a better job for the veterans.

But we're going to do like we did in Florida, where we're going to take a model that my wife started with respect to welfare benefits. We're going to apply to veterans benefits, something like a care portal. A veteran goes in. Maybe they have post-traumatic stress.

Okay, the V.A. can do what they want. But they put that in this portal, we're going to invite veterans groups, charities, churches, businesses, individual volunteers, people that want to help the veterans.

It's going to go out. Guess what you're going to see? You're going to see these folks come. They're going offer very quick help. Sometimes, it's mental health services where we have veterans clinics around this country.

I've got charities in Florida that train service dogs to be able to help veterans who have symptoms of post-traumatic stress. You know what? The suicide rate goes down.

Maybe it's something as simple as somebody that lives in the neighborhood that's part of this portal, they say that this veteran is having a tough time, maybe they just go to his home and say, you know what? I just want to see if you're okay. Can I take you out to lunch?

That can be something. Just the fact that you show you care, that can be enough to avoid a suicide right there.

But the bureaucracy is not going to save us. We need to use the V.A. as a conduit for all these other great resources, because in every part of Iowa and in every part of Florida, and I think most parts of this United States, people value the service of these veterans, and they want to help.

We just got to link the veteran to all the services that can be utilized and all the resources that are out there.


COLLINS: Governor, we've got another voter question for you. This is Tamara Thomas, a mother and grandmother from Van Meter, Iowa, a Republican who is also undecided in this race.

Tamara, what's your question for the governor?

TAMARA THOMAS, MOTHER AND GRANDMOTHER: What do you think is your biggest strength that you have if you're voted to be our next president?

COLLINS: Is it Tamara?

THOMAS: Tamara, you got it.

COLLINS: Tamara, okay. Well, thank you for the question.

Van Meter, Iowa, interesting. As a young kid who liked baseball, one day in Dunedin, Florida, where I grew up, there was a famous guy from Van Meter, that was there signing autographs named Bob Feller, one of the fastest pitchers ever.

But, you know, in World War II, it interrupted his career. Most of these ballplayers were part of like entertaining. They could just play ball and entertain the troops.

Bob Fellers said, no, I'm going to war. So, he served in combat and served with distinction. Great American, and Van Meter should be proud of Bob Feller.

Look, I think that my strength is that if I tell you I'm going to do something, I don't just say that flippantly. I'm not just saying it to win an election.

There are things I could be promising that would probably get me some more votes that I know I couldn't deliver on.

So, if I tell you I'm going to do something, you take to it the bank, we are going to deliver on it. I'm the only one running for president that has delivered on 100 percent of my promises.

In fact, I over-delivered on what I promised. How often have you elected somebody president that has over-delivered on their promises? Not very often.

And I'll fight for you. All the people that are causing these problems, I'm the only one running that have beaten these people -- whether it's the teachers union with school choice, whether it's beating Fauci on COVID, whether it's beating people like Soros on crime, whether it's beating the Democrats and ensuring election integrity, while it's beating the left and banning China from buying the land. On issue after issue, I've delivered results.


Leadership is not about entertainment. Leadership is not about showmanship. Leadership is about articulating a vision, implementing that division, and delivering results for the people that you represent. I will be results focused.


COLLINS: Governor, we've had a lot of great voter questions here tonight. Obviously, if the caucus is just 11 days away, you've said previously that you believe if Donald Trump does not win Iowa, that he'll say the caucuses were stolen. What if Republican voters believe him?

DESANTIS: Well, no, they're not. I think Iowans know that this is an important process. I think Iowans know there's a lot of work that goes into it. It's going to be done very well. You've got a great state party. You've got a lot of great people. And you just have honest people here. You know, this is -- you know, I've been traveling around all 99 counties. People say all the problems in the country, you know, how are we going to be able to do it?

There's a lot of pessimism out there. I can tell you this, meeting Iowans in every corner of this state, I see people that are patriotic, hardworking, god-fearing. This is the backbone of this country, and this is the formula to be able to reverse the decline of this country.

We can do it. Decline is a choice. We have it within our power to take this country in a different direction, and to make sure that we are not the first generation of Americans to turn over to our kids and grandkids in America less prosperous and less free than the one we inherited. I'm not going to sit idly by and watch the managed decline of the United States of America.


COLLINS: Thank you, Governor DeSantis. Thank you to all of the voters who asked questions here. Stay right here because coming up next on this stage, Republican Presidential Candidate, Nikki Haley for Town Hall with Erin Burnett.

DESANTIS: All right. Thank you. Good job.