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CNN Live Event/Special
CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall With Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Presidential Candidate. Aired 9-10p ET
Aired January 16, 2024 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Good evening, and welcome to New Hampshire, home to the first Republican presidential primary of 2024 just one week from today.
We're live here at New England College for CNN's town hall with Republican presidential candidate and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
I'm Wolf Blitzer.
Governor DeSantis is one of three Republicans left standing in the race for the White House. He's here less than 24 hours after his hard- fought second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, where he narrowly edged out former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, but trailed former President Donald Trump by nearly 30 points.
Tonight, Governor DeSantis will answer questions directly from New Hampshire voters on the issues that will help determine who wins the Republican presidential nomination. And I will have some questions of my own.
In the audience are voters who say they plan to participate in the New Hampshire Republican primary, both registered Republicans and undeclared voters who aren't registered with either major party, but are still allowed to participate in the primary elections.
To find tonight's questioners, we cast a very wide net, soliciting help from various organizations, including business groups, parent groups, young professional organizations, religious groups, and conservative advocacy organizations.
Guests of the DeSantis campaign and New England College are also in the audience tonight, but they won't be asking questions. We have asked everyone here to be respectful to each other and to Governor DeSantis, so voters in the room and at home have a chance to hear directly from the candidate.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Governor Ron DeSantis.
GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: All right.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) DESANTIS: Thank you.
DESANTIS: Thanks. How you doing?
BLITZER: Thank you.
DESANTIS: Good to see you.
DESANTIS: Yes. It's good to be here.
BLITZER: Nice round of applause for you.
Before we get to the folks of the audience, Governor, I want to ask a couple of questions about the results in Iowa last night. As I mentioned, you were the second-place finisher in the Iowa caucuses last night, but Donald Trump cruised to a historic victory.
What can you do to stop him from scoring another big win here in New Hampshire next week?
DESANTIS: Well, look, I think that he was the former president of the United States. He's one of the most famous people that's ever been involved in American politics. And there's obviously a lot of Republicans that appreciated his policies.
But you still had roughly half of the Iowa caucus-goers that made another choice. And so that shows me, that tells me that there is an appetite for a different leader. And I think what I represent is somebody that has delivered on those key conservative policies that we have all been wanting to see in Washington, D.C.
You know, in Florida, think about what we have done with our taxes and budget, massive tax cuts every year I have been governor, but budget surpluses. And we have paid down 25 percent of our state's total debt. That's all the debt we have had since statehood. I have knocked out 25 percent of it.
Florida's state government, lowest number of state employees per capita in the country. Our budget -- even though we have millions of more people than New York, our budget is half the size of New York state's budget.
So I represent the fulfillment of a lot of what we want to do, honestly, a lot of what Donald Trump promised to do, but didn't deliver, whether that's the border wall, whether that's reducing debt, whether that's draining the swamp.
So I think, as the field has narrowed, we're now in a position where people are going to be able to make even better choices. But I will tell you, I have had almost $50 million spent against me so far this presidential election campaign. That's more than has been spent against Donald Trump and Joe Biden combined. And one's the current president, one's the former president.
But I think that should tell you something. They don't do that unless they think you're a threat. And I think they see me, rightfully, as somebody that's going to go to Washington and not just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, not just be a potted plant, but be a change agent, because we all know Washington's not working for the American people, and we need to change that.
BLITZER: Governor, instead of flying directly here to New Hampshire, right after the Iowa caucuses, you immediately went to South Carolina, which doesn't hold its primary as you know until the end of February.
What message does that send to the folks here in New Hampshire?
DESANTIS: Well, what it says is we had a town hall scheduled earlier today in the afternoon in New Hampshire, and then this, so I had the morning where usually candidates sleep in a little bit after a hard fought caucus.
But I said, you know, let's make use of that. We weren't sure how the weather was going to be here in New Hampshire. So he said, why don't we dip into South Carolina, make an appearance, and then come up to New Hampshire?
So I think what it says is that we consider New Hampshire, South Carolina, to both be important as well as Nevada, by the way.
Nikki Haley, for example, she didn't even get on the Nevada caucus ballot. So she has zero delegates out of Nevada. No matter what happens, I'm competing for delegates.
And, yes, the party went to a caucus to try to rig it for Trump. But, you know, as Republicans, it's not always going to be fair for us. You got to be willing to fight in all these situations. So we're doing that.
So I think all three of those states are all going to happen over the next six weeks. And I think that'll be really, really important. But clearly, the tradition here with First in the Nation, I think is something that's very significant.
I agreed to do a debate with WMUR and ABC on Thursday and with CNN on Sunday. I'm the only candidate that actually agreed to come to New Hampshire to debate.
And what does that say? We have four candidates for president now, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, Nikki Haley, and me. I'm the only one who's not running a basement campaign at this point.
You deserve as a voter to have the candidates come up, answer your questions in forums like this. Have somebody like Wolf moderated debate where you go back and forth. And I think we've gone away from -- and obviously Donald Trump didn't debate the whole time. We've gone away from, hey, let's make -- let people make these decisions to almost like, you know, just let the media coverage determine what's going on. I don't think that's what we want in a Republican form of government.
BLITZER: Governor, I want to turn to our voters now who are here with us in the audience. I want you to meet Caleb Lombard (PH). He's a college student here in New Hampshire, who's originally from Hingham -- from Hingham, Massachusetts. He's an undeclared voter who says he is currently undecided.
Caleb, go ahead.
CALEB LOMBARD, COLLEGE STUDENT: President Trump has a lot of ads highlighting your endorsement of Trump years earlier. How have you changed since then to become a better candidate for president than Trump and the others?
DESANTIS: Well, Caleb, thanks for that. You know, it's interesting. Look, I'm a Republican. I know 2016 Trump was controversial, but I looked at it. It's like, you know, with Hillary, we're not going to get anything I believe in.
With Trump, even though he had a liberal past, I was like, you know, maybe we can get some good stuff.
And to his credit, he did have some good policies. And I support him, of course, for re-election in 2020, even though we had disagreements. For example, I disagreed with him turning over the government to Dr. Anthony Fauci during COVID. That created huge problems for this country. And Donald Trump and Dr. Fauci plunged our nation into a lockdown.
We in Florida dragged this country out of lockdown. We made sure schools were open. We made sure businesses were open. We opposed any type of forced COVID-19 vaccines. And so those are just big-time differences.
You know, Donald Trump did not fire Dr. Fauci, of course. I know most Republicans think that should have happened. And his explanation was that while the media and the left would have gotten upset at him, which is absolutely true.
But you know what? As a leader, you got to be willing to stand in there, do what's right, and take the heat.
I can tell you, when we were fighting in Florida in those early days to have schools open, have businesses open, all that, I was getting an immense amount of pressure from the media, attacked by the left, even by people in my own party.
I had a lot of supporters of mine that said, you need to reverse course because they are -- they are filleting you, and your political career isn't going to be long for this world. But you know what? A leader is going to put the interests of the people, their jobs and their freedoms, ahead of protecting his own political hide. So I was willing to let the chips fall where they may to do the right thing.
BLITZER: Governor, let me follow up. Earlier today, Governor Haley spoke to our Dana Bash here on CNN in New Hampshire today and said this about you. This is what Governor Haley said.
He is not my concern. I'm going after Trump. What do you say to her?
DESANTIS: So she said, and her campaign said, that there's only two tickets out of Iowa, that the top two out of Iowa would be viable, and that she would finish at least second, and then that would be the race.
Well, guess what happened. Even though she spent 100 percent of her money attacking me and not one red cent attacking Donald Trump, and I faced almost 50 million in total, I got in second and she did not.
And that's just the reality.
And here's the thing, in -- in Iowa, you can actually show up as a Democrat on the day of the caucus, change your registration, and then participate in the Republican Caucus. In New Hampshire, you can't do that. If you're a declared Democrat, then you -- you can't vote in the primary. So, she was relying on her support for a lot of these Democrats changing their registration on the day of the caucus.
And here's the thing, in Florida, I won -- I won a lot more Democrats than previous governors have been able to do. I think it's great in a general election to build a big tent. But to win a Republican primary, you can't rely on Democrats coming in and changing their registration. You've got to be able to win core Republicans. You've got to be able to win conservatives. And she cannot do that.
You look at a lot of those folks, because I spoke at these caucuses, I spoke at two caucus sites, you know, a lot of the Trump voters were coming up to me saying, you know what, I'm for you in '28 or I love what you're doing, like -- like they know that I have a great record. They -- none of them like Nikki Haley because they don't think that she shares their values.
So she does not have the ability to build the type of coalition that you need to win a Republican primary, period, much less take on Donald Trump.
BLITZER: Governor, I want to go to Christina McKillop. She works at a software company and is the mother of a U.S. Army soldier. She's a Republican from Weare, New Hampshire, who says that she is undecided.
Christina, go ahead. CHRISTINA MCKILLOP, WORKS IN SOFTWARE: Thank you. The federal debt
recently topped a staggering $34 trillion. Washington's spending as if there are unlimited resources which place -- places our future and that of future generations at risk. What would you do if elected to bring federal spending back in control? And are you willing to make balance budgeting mandatory within your administration?
DESANTIS: Well, thanks for that. And -- and thanks for what your son is doing, Christina. We really appreciate it. I'll tell you, as commander-in-chief, it'll be meaningful to me, and I will have -- I will have his back.
Look, this is a problem, we have to be honest as Republicans. It has not just been the Democrats. Both parties have spent and borrowed and printed money, particularly since COVID. They went on a massive printing and spending binge.
And so, you need a president that's going to go out there and is going to be a force for more restrained spending. That means you've got to be willing to use your veto pen to veto some of these grotesque spending bills.
In Florida, I vetoed -- I have a line-item veto, which I'll get to in a minute, because I think that would be good for the president. I vetoed 3 percent of the budget one year. That's part of the reason we were able to pay down debt in the state of Florida.
So, you have to do that. But it -- it requires leadership. You've got to set priorities. I do think we should have a balanced budget requirement in the United States Constitution. I know they've come close to passing that.
But here's why it's good. In Florida we have it. I -- I presume you have it in New Hampshire. You go into a legislative session, it's not even a question you're going to balance the budget. So you have to make choices. You're forced to make choices.
Now, it's always in their political interest, the members of Congress, to charge it on the credit card. Because if they reduce spending, some people wouldn't like that. And so you have to do that. So I'm in favor of a balanced budget amendment through the states, because I don't know that Congress would do it.
I'm also in favor of term limits for members of Congress, because their -- their number one priority is to stay in office for 30-40 years. That's not the right incentive. And I do think the president should have a -- a line item veto. That means you can have budget bill on your desk, and you can veto individual pork barrel items or any item you want without having to veto the entire spending bill.
Right now they pass these massive spending bills, the president's choice is to fund nothing or to fund everything. I don't want your money going overseas to do things like promote transgenderism in Bangladesh, and yet that has happened with your tax dollars, and it's wrong, and we need to put a stop to it.
BLITZER: Governor, earlier today a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled, I don't now if you heard about this, a $78 billion bill to expand the child tax credit for low-income families in exchange for business tax breaks favored by Republicans. During CNN's debate last week, you said it, I'm quoting you now, "Republicans need to do a better job lifting up folks who are having children." Given that, Governor, do you support this deal?
DESANTIS: I don't know the details of it. But -- but let me tell you this. And this is from me talking with people in New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, all around the country. The American dream is slipping away from people in this country because, you know, nothing is handed to you, that's never what America has been about.
But there are people that are working hard, getting the most out of their God-given ability, doing everything they can to put food on the table, to raise their families, and they are falling further and further behind. And I think for this country to work, when you are willing to work hard and you're doing all the right things, you've got to be able to get ahead.
And so part of that is the inflation that we've seen with the reckless spending, the rise in interest rates. I think government's role -- so in Florida, we've taken steps to help families.
For example, we eliminated all sales tax on every baby item. So, you're raising babies tax-free in the state of Florida -- no tax on diapers, wipes, cribs, strollers, none of that.
You know, we have 7-year-old, a 5-year-old, and a 3-year-old, I signed the permanent repeal last spring. By that time, our 3-year-old was out of diapers and I was very happy that I did this. My wife kind of deadpanned to me and say, why didn't you sign that your first year in office when our kids were in diapers because we would have saved a lot of money.
So I can't speak to the specifics of that deal, but I do think my view on economics is going to be hard work has to pay off in this country. And if we can get that where people are getting ahead, we're going to be able to reinvigorate the American dream
BLITZER: Governor, I want you to meet Ben Kiniry. He's an attorney from Bow, New Hampshire. He's a Republican who is currently undecided.
Go ahead, Ben
BEN KINIRY, ATTORNEY: Governor DeSantis, by some accounts, we have over 20 million people in this country illegally. What is your plan for dealing with deporting, making citizens of or other avenue of dealing with the people who currently are held in limbo as to their status in the United States? BLITZER: Well, thanks for that question, Ben, and this has been a
problem that's compounded for decades. And so, here's my policy.
One, the number of people that will be amnestied is zero. We cannot do an amnesty in this country. That will just invite more people to come illegally. We saw that in '86 when they did that, it didn't work.
We are going to deport people who are here illegally and we'll do that through routine interior enforcement. We're also going to do it by empowering states to enforce immigration law.
Someone comes across the border in Texas or from Canada and in New Hampshire for that matter, why should -- why shouldn't the state authorities or the local sheriff be able to just deport them back across the border?
Instead, they come in. They get turned over to Border Patrol. They get a sheet of paper saying come back for a hearing in two years? That is not a deterrent.
So, yes, I support a border wall. But if you don't have interior enforcement, you're going to continue to have this problem. So we are going to do that and we are going to make sure that the rule of law prevails.
BLITZER: Governor -- Governor DeSantis, you're vowing, as we just heard, to deport all undocumented immigrants who entered the country during the Biden administration. So to be clear, by the end of your first term, if you're elected president, every single one of those undocumented immigrants will be out of the country?
DESANTIS: It's not limited to -- to just what's coming from Biden, but we're going to start there and go through that. So, obviously, all of them that we can do there.
Now, there's lawsuits, there's all these other things that happened. At a minimum, we're going to make sure they remain in Mexico. I don't think we can have in the United States.
You know, we have situations where just the practicality of this -- New York City had to close a school. You literally have kids told don't go to school because they commandeered the school to be able to house illegal aliens.
Talk about putting the American people last, that is not what you want to do. So I don't think we can just have -- if you think about rent prices and housing prices, we don't have enough construction in this country as is.
So, you have millions more people coming in. That puts us -- that puts the screws on the housing.
So, you have to enforce the law. We're going to definitely start with those Biden folks because I think it was reckless that he led all these people in illegally.
And you know what? It's not just people coming from Mexico or Central America. Yes, there's a lot from Central America. They're from over a hundred different countries -- China, Middle Eastern countries, Russia.
And you know what a lot of it is? Military age males. Do you think that's going to be a benefit for this country to have those folks coming in that we know nothing about? I think it's a security risk and we need to act.
BLITZER: Speak -- staying on the topic of immigration, Governor, staying on the topic of immigration, I want you to be Geoff Woollacott. He's a business consultant to technology companies from Rindge, New Hampshire, who briefly ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent back in 2022.
He's an undeclared voter, says he's leaning toward supporting Nikki Haley.
Geoff, go ahead.
GEOFF WOOLLACOTT, BUSINESS CONSULTANT: Hi.
The nation has serious long-term issues to address that will require bipartisan cooperation.
How do tactics such as rounding up illegal immigrants and shipping them to Martha's Vineyard bring the nation together to discuss comprehension -- comprehensive immigration reform? Wasn't that a little more than a cheap political stunt pandering to one side?
DESANTIS: Well, thanks for that, Geoff.
Actually, if you think about -- you go back to September of 2022, how was the border being treated? It was not at front-burner issue. The problems were real, but it wasn't getting the type of scrutiny that it needed.
Doing the Martha's Vineyard -- and, by the way, they said they were sanctuary jurisdiction. They said all people are welcome, whether they're legal or not. These border towns in Texas are getting thousands and thousands. Martha's Vineyard couldn't even handle 50.
And so I think that was an example of them wanting to impose a certain worldview of open borders on the rest of the country but not willing to be able to do it.
But this was something that the media really glommed onto. So it ended up raising the temperature on this, and now you have this being discussed everywhere. So I don't think it was cheap at all. I think it was designed by,
partially, I just believe that, if you're are a sanctuary jurisdiction, you should be the ones to have to shoulder the burden. We're not a sanctuary state in Florida. We're not -- we don't have -- we banned sanctuary cities in Florida. I think that's -- as president, I'm not going to allow sanctuary states -- or sanctuary cities in this country. They're violating the law.
In fact, we had a -- I did a debate against the governor of California, so I researched some of the stuff that goes on. You will have criminal aliens in custody in places like Los Angeles. ICE will have a detainer to say, "Turn them over; don't release." They will not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
So there was one fellow, multiple-deportee, multiple times, big criminal record. They released him, and he murdered the mother of a three-year-old. All they had to do was give him to immigration authorities, and he would have been deported.
So we can't have sanctuary jurisdictions. I think this issue is now a front-burner issue. And I think what we did there was part of it; I think what Texas has done with -- with the manhattan as well. But we've got to solve this, and I'm willing to work with anyone who is willing to solve the problem.
BLITZER: Governor DeSantis...
BLITZER: ... over the weekend -- and you know this -- over the weekend a woman and two children drowned near Eagle Pass, Texas, as they simply tried to cross the Rio Grande. After the drownings, federal authorities got a distress call about two more migrants in distress, but agents were physically barred by Texas authorities from entering the area.
What obligation does the United States have to protect the lives of these migrants?
DESANTIS: Well, first of all, I think this is part of the problem with an open border. Because you're incentivizing some really perilous behavior. There's people that are paying large amounts of money to coyotes and drug cartels to be brought into this country.
There are people being abused sexually. There are people that are being trafficked. We're -- the country -- the U.S. is incentivizing this. It's madness. So stopping the -- the migration and having a closed border is the humanitarian thing to do.
Now, I am going to empower the states to be able to enforce immigration law. I don't think that Texas should have to sit there and deal with all the consequences of the federal government neglecting their duties.
And I think that's been a problem with the Biden administration saying, "We're not -- federal immigration laws just for the feds; you can't do it," but they're not doing it. So, what? We're just supposed to let this happen?
So we're going to work together with the states and the local sheriffs so you're not going to have these conflicts like that exist right now between Biden and Texas or between Biden and local sheriffs and places down in Texas.
BLITZER: I've got a question -- and Graham -- go back up there -- I just want to -- make that Graham Padgitt -- into this conversation. He plays hockey here at New England College and is originally from St. Charles, Illinois.
He's an undeclared voter who says he is intrigued by you in the primary. Go ahead with your question, Graham.
QUESTION: Thank you. I'm relatively new to politics, but this past administration has made me much more aware. What are some policies that you are looking to implement that will make it easier for a young person like me to transition into the world financially?
DESANTIS: Well, Graham, thanks for the question. And, you know, I was born and raised in Florida, so I grew up playing baseball, but where I grew up in the Tampa Bay area, people are now crazy about hockey because the Lightning have been so good over many, many years. And it's good to -- good to have your question.
Incidentally, there aren't very many Floridians who come north in January. Usually the north comes down to my state. I got negative temperatures in Iowa, and this isn't quite as cold, but there's a lot of snow and everything, and I think my blood is starting to get a little bit thicker having done all this.
So here's a couple things. One, what I -- when I've talked to young people, particularly young families, they can't afford things like buying a new home right now. Interest rates have gone up. We've had inflation. The average monthly mortgage payment of an average price home today is probably about twice as much as it would have been five years ago. People aren't making twice as much money as they were five years ago.
So we're going to get inflation down, and we're going to get interest rates down. And I think that's going to be really, really important.
The other thing that we're going to do is we're going to provide help with the student loans, but not the way the Democrats want. I think it's wrong that taxpayers would have to pick up the burden on somebody's student loan, like, you made the decision to do it; to say that a truck driver should have to pay off the loan of somebody that has a degree in Zombie Studies, no, we're not going to do that.
However, the universities have facilitated a lot of the -- the debt. Because they're happy if you're going six years to get a four-year degree because you get more loans; they can do it; they -- they grow their administrative budgets.
So we're going to have the universities be responsible for backing the student loans. [21:25:04]
What that's going to do, that's going to change the incentives. Universities are going to have an incentive to graduate people on time, or even early, and to get them in programs that they're going to be gainfully employed. So, you're going to have less zombie studies. You're going to have more engineering. You're going to have more things that are practical.
And I would say this too. And there's some -- obviously, some great colleges in New England, but a four -- a degree from a four-year brick-and-Ivy university is one way you can be successful. It is not the only way. And we need to tell young people that there are multiple pathways, including work force education and the skilled trades.
And if you look, what we have done in Florida, we have increased apprenticeships. We have doubled the number of apprenticeships. We're increasing certifications at a high school. You can get certified in aviation mechanics. You can get certified in welding, HVAC, electrical, all these things.
There's a demand for this. You have zero debt. You go into the work force. And what we find is, because our state's growing, some of these folks, they work for a few years and then they start their own businesses. So there's great opportunities for entrepreneurship.
I was told when I was growing up, if you don't get that college degree, you're not going to be successful. That really isn't true. So let's have a more balanced approach. Let's understand that these skilled trades provide great opportunities for young people. And it's also important for our economy.
I want a better industrial base in this country. I want more manufacturing. We have increased manufacturing jobs in Florida by 100,000 since I have been there. Let's do that across this country.
BLITZER: Governor, we're only just getting started.
We will be right back with more from Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis right after this.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BLITZER: Welcome back to CNN's Republican Presidential Town Hall. We're live here in New Hampshire with the Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis.
Governor, a quick question. Less than 24 hours after his big win in Iowa last night, former president Trump was back in court once again today, attending a hearing in the second defamation suit filed against him by E. Jean Carroll.
In an earlier trial, a jury found that he defamed her and sexually abused her at a New York department store back in the 1990s.
This case is just one of several looming over the former president in the coming months. How much should Trump's legal peril into voter -- how much should it -- should Trump's legal peril factor into voters' decisions as they head to the polls here in New Hampshire and indeed across the country?
DESANTIS: So we have a choice as Republicans. What do we want the 2024 election to be about?
And with me as your nominee, it'll be about holding Biden accountable on the economy, on the border, on crime, on the problems internationally, on the growth of government and the bureaucracy, bringing accountability for COVID, ending weaponization of federal agencies, and then offering a way where we can restore the American dream and get the -- get the nation's fiscal in order.
I think we win if that's how the debate is. If Donald Trump is the nominee, the election will revolve around all these legal issues, his trials, perhaps convictions if he goes to trial and loses there, and about things like January 6th.
We're going to lose if that's the decision that voters are making based on that. We don't want it to be a referendum on those issues. We want it to be a referendum on the country going in the wrong direction and a candidate like me being a president that can reverse the decline.
And here's the thing. You know, we talk about issues that are important for sure, and there's some things that need to address right away.
But me as president, I view this election not just for eight years, but really things that are going to impact this country for a quarter century.
And if you're not thinking down the road that long, then you're just not going to be able to do what we really need to do so that America remains the last best hope on Earth.
I just don't think we're going to succeed if all those issues are front and center on voters' minds. And so we have an opportunity to choose and choose well.
BLITZER: Governor, I want to turn to Theresa Negron, who's standing right here. She's an attorney and former U.S. military legal officer from Nashua.
She volunteers with the Nashua Republican City Committee and the Nashua Area Federated Republican Women. She says she's supporting you in the primary. Theresa, go ahead.
THERESA NEGRON, ATTORNEY, FORMER MILITARY LEGAL OFFICER: Governor DeSantis, what can you offer today's youth as to why you felt an obligation to serve in the U.S. military?
DESANTIS: Well, Theresa, thank you for that question. And thank you for your service. It's important.
So, you know, I was a kid growing up, but was obsessed with baseball, obsessed with sports. I played baseball all the way through college. And I wanted to do that as long as I could. If I couldn't play, then be involved in it somehow.
And then 9/11 happened. And 9/11 really changed how I viewed the world because I grew up in the '80s and '90s, particularly the '90s. It was like a holiday from history. We didn't seem to have a care in the world.
And that was a reality that brought to our shores when those terrorists killed those 3,000 people. And so our nation was in conflict. I didn't get anything in terms of money special. I gave up a lot of money in the private sector that I could have been able to do in order to serve.
But I just felt that I'm blessed to be an American, blessed to be born and raised in this country. We were in conflict. And I felt that I should raise my hand and serve.
And so we raised our hand to serve and also volunteered to go to Iraq. At the time, I was not forced to do that. It was something that I wanted to do.
So I was there in 2007 and 2008 time period. And I learned a lot about what veterans go through, what our service members go through, what happens when they come home. And I'm going to put veteran issues on the front burner as commander-in-chief.
And I'm also going to be a commander-in-chief that if your son or daughter or your grandkids are in the military, you're going to have a commander in chief that has their back.
I am not going to let a social agenda...
DESANTIS: ... or all these distractions in the military. We're going to accomplish the mission.
BLITZER: Governor, on this issue, a lot of countries from Finland to Israel to South Korea have mandatory military service for young people. Is that something you would support here in the United States?
DESANTIS: I don't support a draft. And -- and obviously our recruiting is at a generational low. We're at the lowest level since at the end of the Vietnam War when they got rid of the draft. So some people said maybe you do it.
I think the way you solve that -- that problem is to inspire young people to want to join. I do think when they see commander-in-chief hold the brass accountable, because no one's been held accountable for Afghanistan, not one person has been held accountable for one of the worst military debacles in American history.
When they see us getting rid of some of the social stuff and the woke ideology, saying, no, it's about mission first, and you're going to be promoted based on merit, that, I think, inspires people to want to join.
You know, when you join the military, you're writing a check for an amount payable to the United States of America, for an amount up to and including your life. You don't know where they are going to send you. You don't know what contingencies are going to happen. But you want to know that the people in charge of both the civilian and military levels are only going to do that if it's to pursue the mission. And they're not going to let these other considerations cloud that out.
And so, I'll be a president that will do that. We're going to increase recruiting. And I'll also -- I'll be the first president elected since 1988 who served in a foreign war. So I'll be able to say -- you know, John Kennedy said, you can look back on your life with a great deal of pride and say, I served in the United States Navy. That inspired a lot of people.
Ronald Reagan said, some people spent a lifetime wondering whether they've made a difference, U.S. Marines don't have that problem. So I'm going to be a voice to tell young people that pursuing a career in the military is a noble calling.
BLITZER: Speaking of U.S. Marines, I want you to meet Jayson Wulf. He's a disabled U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Hudson, New Hampshire. He's a Republican who says he is undecided in the primary.
Jayson, go ahead.
JAYSON WULF, DISABLED MARINE CORPS VETERAN: Governor DeSantis, what do you plan to do about the lackluster performance of the Veterans Administration. During the previous administration, there was a White House hotline that was amazing and helped veterans. It is no longer available in the same manner. What do you intend to do to help the veterans?
DESANTIS: Well, Semper Fi, Jayson. And thank you for your service. We would not be a free country without those Devil Dogs. So -- so thank you.
What we're going to do is recognize that the V.A. is a massive bureaucracy. I'm going to fire people that aren't doing a good job. We're going to bring accountability. But we're also going to harness all the resources that are in our country outside of -- of government. And this is a model we've used in Florida. And we're going to use it for veterans.
So we -- we have something called the CarePortal. We recruit military groups, charities, churches, businesses, individuals. So you go to the V.A., you need -- maybe you have post-traumatic stress, you need something, maybe the V.A. helps you, but that immediately goes out to all these organizations. So, for example, in Florida, we have an organization, K9s For
Warriors, they train service dogs to be matched with a veteran that has post-traumatic stress. The dog understands the symptoms and can help mitigate. And guess what? The suicide rate with those veterans plummets.
It may be as simple as an individual that wants to volunteer that -- that lives in your town and they say, you know what, I'll go to this veteran's home, he's having a tough time, knock on the door, hey, I just want you to let you know, I care about you, I thank you for your service, is there anything to do? Can I take you to lunch? That right there could -- could avoid a suicide.
So we've got a lot of resources. Every part of this country appreciates the service of our military men and women and the veterans, and let's harness that. So government can't solve all these problems, but what government is it can be a facilitator so that a veteran gets the resources that they need.
When I left active duty, I was given a packet with all these veterans benefits, it was bureaucracy. I didn't understand what -- what that was. Let's cut through the red tape, cut through the bureaucracy, and harness all of these great resources that are available.
BLITZER: Governor, I want to ask you something that Nikki Haley said earlier today, earlier this morning. She was asked in an interview if the Republican Party was a racist party. And her response was, and I'm quoting her now, "we are not a racist country, we have never been a racist country."
Do you agree that the U.S. has never been a racist country?
DESANTIS: Well, the U.S. is not a racist country, and we've overcome things in our history. You know, I think the founding fathers, they established a set of principles that are -- that are universal. Now they may not have been universally applied at the time but I think they understood what they were doing. They understood that those principles would be the engine for progress for generations to come. And that's -- that's what's happened.
I think the Republican Party stands for merit and achievement and colorblindness. That is what we should stand for. So, for example, in Florida, I've eliminated things at our universities like this DE&I. They say it's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, but it's really very ideological. And they're trying to impose an agenda.
I think the way it's actually practiced, it stands for discrimination, exclusion, and indoctrination. And it's wrong.
Let's not divvy people up based on race, ethnicity, or gender. Let's treat people as individuals, not as members of group. Of course, we'll all come together and they say there should be no discrimination against anyone base -- based on that. But that's not just discriminating against ethnic or racial
minorities. Of course, you don't do that. It also means you don't discriminate against white Americans. Or in the university setting, you don't discriminate against Asian Americans just because they tend to have -- to have high performance.
So, individual achievement and merit has to be restored in this country. A colorblind society is what we should aspire to. And that's what I'll do as president.
BLITZER: I just want to clarify, Governor. I just want to clarify. You agree with Nikki Haley that the U.S. has never been a racist country?
DESANTIS: Well, what I said was, we've had challenges with -- with how race was viewed. And so, for example, those were universal principles in the Declaration of Independence.
And you had a decision in the 1880s, the Dred Scott case, said Dred Scott because he was Black wasn't an American citizen. That was wrong. That was discriminating on the basis of race. That's why you ended up having the 14th Amendment ratified to overturn Dred Scott.
So, yes, we've had challenges with how we've dealt with race as a society, but we are the -- no matter where -- what's your background is, if you have one place you want to grow up and have the most opportunity, it doesn't matter your background. This is the best place to grow up and to pursue your dreams of any place in the entire world.
BLITZER: All right, Governor.
We're going to be right back. We have a lot more coming up with the Republican presidential candidate, Ron DeSantis
BLITZER: Welcome back to CNN's Republican presidential town hall with the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis.
Governor, baseball, as you well know, better than me, played a big role in your life, in your younger years. Your team made it to the Little League World Series when you were just a kid, and you were the captain of the baseball team when you were an undergraduate at Yale.
BLITZER: Is there anything you learned in your playing days that still guides you today?
DESANTIS: Well, that's a great question.
So, I mean, this is -- from the time I could walk, I was involved with baseball. This was, kind of, my passion. And I think what baseball teaches you is, one, you learn to deal with failure. You could have -- you could be the best hitter in the league, and you're failing 65 percent of the time. And that wasn't always easy for me as a kid. I'd get upset if I didn't get a hit. But you learn how to do that, and you learn how to come back next time.
You also learn, it's a combination of individual sport but also a team sport. When you're in that batter's box, no one else can do it but you. You see the ball; you hit the ball; you either do it or you don't. But then, in the grand scheme of things, you know, you need to be able to get runners on base; you need to have people drive people in; you need to play good defense; you need to do that.
So it's a combination of individual initiative as well as a team sport. And I've told this story a couple times up here. So I spent seven years in New England, partially playing baseball, but also for law school. And I rooted for the Red Sox, all seven years, against the Yankees...
DESANTIS: ... and I was here -- I was here in 2004 when they reversed the -- reversed the curse and broke the curse. And interestingly, on one of our trips to New Hampshire, we stopped in Boston the day before, and I took my five-year-old son to Fenway Park. So he got to take a tour of it. And I was showing him the video of Fenway, how historic it was. And he was excited.
We pull in to Fenway, and he said, "Daddy, I want to go to Fenway Park, but I am not a Red Sox fan. I'm a Rays fan and a Marlins fan."
I'm like, "Don't worry, no problem."
So he had fun. I didn't think anything of it. Well, fast-forward to Christmas. Santa brought him some baseball cards. He's opening up the baseball cards. Any Marlin he put in a special stack. Any Tampa Bay Ray, he put in a special stack.
When he got to the Red Sox players, he included the Red Sox players in a special stack. That was not prompting from his dad. So it just shows you, these formative experiences with things like baseball -- he saw that green monster. He got to walk on Fenway Park. Now he sees the Red Sox, and it's something that he likes. So maybe we've got another Red Sox fan down in Florida for you all up here in Red Sox nation.
BLITZER: Nice story.
I want you to meet Andrew Dow. He's a retired U.S. Army officer and freelance photographer from Farmington, New Hampshire. He's an undeclared voter who says he's going to support Donald Trump in the primary.
Andrew? QUESTION: First of all, I'd like to thank you for your service. You and I served at the same time in Iraq together.
This question I would ask for any candidate.
As a combat veteran and a military officer, I worry about our veterans and the things that are going on in the world today. Are you ever going -- are we ever going to deal directly with Iran?
If you are elected president, do you go for the head of the snake, or are you a "rub the belly" diplomat?
DESANTIS: Well, Andrew, thanks for that question. And where were you? What part of Iraq were you in?
QUESTION: I was in Baghdad.
DESANTIS: OK. Yeah, we were in Fallujah and Al-Anbar and that area. But thank you for your service, and I appreciate it.
So -- so here's what we're going to do with Iran. We're going to understand, they are the root of the terrorism throughout the Middle East. This is a country, from the time the Ayatollah took power in 1979, has viewed America as "the great Satan."
They were responsible for killing over 240 U.S. servicemembers when Hezbollah bombed Marine Corps barracks in 1983 in Beirut, Lebanon. They financed that and orchestrated it. When I was serving in Iraq -- and you probably saw this, too -- a lot of our combat deaths were at the hands of Iranian-backed Shia militias. They were responsible for killing hundreds of our troops, maybe even over 1,000. So -- so that's personal to me because I remember that.
The way you deal with Iran, is you turn the financial screws on them. You deny them money going into the regime. Biden relaxed sanctions on Iran. Why would you do that? They're going to take that money and they're going to use it for nefarious purposes.
So, we're going to use every tool at our disposal to deprive the regime of resources, starve them of money, so that they're not able to foment jihad throughout the Middle East.
BLITZER: Governor, I want you to meet Lisa Moran. She's the co-founder of a mental health counseling agency from Nashua. She's an undeclared voter who says she is leaning towards supporting Nikki Haley.
Lisa, go ahead.
LISA MORAN, MENTAL HEALTH COUNSELING AGENCY CO-FOUNDER: Thank you.
Our mental health system is broken and relies heavily on underperforming nonprofits who lack the skills and resources to execute effective care. As president, how would you support the expansion of the small business mental health sector in executing mental health services that the government typically awards to nonprofit institutions?
DESANTIS: Well, thanks for that question.
Do you have any recommendations on that, since you're involved in it?
MORAN: Anything you can give us.
DESANTIS: OK. Well, I think it's important.
I mean, talking to voters, obviously, the border, economy, anyone, the one thing that doesn't get as much play with media or polling is mental health. Every corner of this country, people are concerned with mental health. So this is not just a local problem or a state problem. It is a national problem.
And I think there's a lot of different iterations to it. We have done a lot to help kids in school in Florida. I have spoken about the need to help veterans, because they have, obviously, significant issues, but it extends broader than that.
So we want to be a good partner with state and local communities. As president, I understand that this is a national priority. I understand that this is something that's impacting communities in every corner of the United States of America.
BLITZER: Governor, we have more coming up, but we are going to take a quick break right now.
Much more with the Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis right after this.
BLITZER: Welcome back to CNN's "Republican Presidential Town Hall." We are live here from New Hampshire with the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis.
Governor, I want to bring in Gavan Fink right now. He's a college student from Hanover, New Hampshire. He's an undeclared voter who says he is currently undecided.
Gavan, go ahead.
GAVAN FINK, COLLEGE STUDENT: Thanks so much for taking my question, Governor DeSantis. Dartmouth College is the institution that I currently attend, has recently had forums promoting peaceful discussions between students. This has resulted in it being one of the few universities in the country that has maintained healthy political dialogue on campus, even after the events of October 7th in Israel. As president, how would you advocate for peaceful and thoughtful policy conversations even in such a polarized political environment?
DESANTIS: Well, it's good to hear that that's happening there. Back in the day, I played baseball, we -- we went up to Dartmouth, it's interesting from Connecticut, up there it's a lot colder when you get up to Hanover, that's for sure.
DESANTIS: But I'm glad to hear that. Look, we have got to start being able to have conversations and disagreeing without hating each other. And part of it is just that's how you have a healthy society. You know, I think about when I was growing up, I didn't know who a Republican or Democrat was. Like my friends and their families, you know, that was not a dividing -- you know, we all loved this country. You know, we were all -- we all believed in God. We were all patriotic.
And like, now it's almost like if you have different political views, you can't socialize with somebody? I know the online, and I know all that stuff can be very nasty, but the way I view it as a leader is, I'm going to take strong stands. I'm going to pursue a bold agenda. Not everyone likes decisions that you make, that's just the price of leadership.
But we're going to tussle on issues. I'll fight people that are on the other side. They can fight back. We will settle that issue. Next issue, maybe I agree with you on that. Why would I want to burn a bridge and not be able to work with you? Because, for me, leadership is not about showmanship. It's not about entertainment. It's about producing results.
As president, I will put a vision for this country. I will work on executing this vision, and making our country freer and more prosperous. And if you care about anything else other than that, then you are in the wrong line of work.
So, yes, you know, we have way more things that unite us than divide us. I think the divisions get brought to the surface so much. And part of it is, I don't take the politics personally. People attack me, that's just the -- that's just the price of -- the cost of doing business. I expect that. I don't -- you know, people sling arrows, that's fine. You know, we go a year from now, you slung arrows at me, but if we're going to work together, I'll do it. Because my responsibility is to the people. It's not about -- it's not about myself.
BLITZER: Governor, I want to bring in Brian Henchey. He's a sales engineer and former talk show host from Merrimack. He's an undeclared voter who says he's supporting you in the primary.
Brian, go ahead.
BRIAN HENCHEY, SALES ENGINEER: Thanks for taking my question, Governor. So, my name's -- my name's Brian Henchey -- sorry, I didn't mean to say that. During this campaign, you've been asked many, many, many questions by voters and the media. So my question for you is, what's a question that you have never been asked? You've been through so many different debates, so many questions, a lot of stuff. So, and I've been to a few of your events, so I would love to hear you say something new that you have never said before. So, what's a question you have never been asked during this presidential campaign that you wish that you had been asked? Thank you.
DESANTIS: Well, that's a good question, Brian, so thank you. And thank you for your support. So, I had a debate with the governor of California, Gavin Newsom a couple of months ago. And one of the points of contention that came up was Florida, what we did with respect to Special Olympics and having the athletes be able to compete. And it didn't really get resolved. People didn't necessarily know. And I've never actually been asked to kind of clear the air on that. And here's what's happened. I think it shows the type of leader I am.
In Florida, we saw the COVID stuff being used to deprive people of their rights. And we took a stand against that. We said past protections, you can't have to choose between a shot you don't want and a job you need. And we also -- we're not going to have COVID-19 vaccine passports where you're discriminated against based on your status of whether you decided to take this shot or not.
Well, we hosted the Special Olympics one year. And lo and behold, the international bureaucracy that oversees that imposed a COVID vax mandate on the athletes. Well, one, that violated Florida law. But, two, I had families frantically coming to our office, saying that their -- their kids are not going to be able to participate in this. And that was wrong.
So we said we're going to enforce the law against you if you discriminate against these athletes. And we ended up getting all of the athletes that wanted to, to be able to compete. And that had a huge impact on people's lives.
This summer, I'm walking around the Iowa State Fair, and I get -- I get a big hug from a family because we made sure their son, who had unique abilities, was able to compete in the Special Olympics. That is how you use your position of authority to ensure that people are able to realize their dreams. They wanted to exclude those people based on these ridiculous mandates. I stood up and said, no, not on my watch, everybody gets to compete.
BLITZER: We want to say thank you to Governor DeSantis. And thank you to you, in our audience here at New England College. Please make sure to join us next Tuesday, January 23rd, at 4:00pm eastern for CNN's special live coverage of the New Hampshire Primary.
Stay right here, Abby Phillip and Laura Coates have analysis of this town hall. That starts right now.