Transcript: GMA's Town Hall With John Edwards

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards took part in a town hall forum on "Good Morning America" today, answering questions from host Diane Sawyer, audience members in New Orleans and e-mails from viewers.

You can read a portion of the transcript from today's "GMA Town Hall" below.

Sawyer: Let us start, we just heard Chris Cuomo tell us the news out of Iraq this morning. It is a big week in decision making in Washington this morning.

But I want to play what the president said at the end of last week. Because he seems to be saying that there's only two ways to go, two kinds of people in America right now, and you've got to choose which side you are on.

You were one of the first people saying we need to withdraw from Iraq, do you think the fight is lost?

Edwards: No, I don't think it's lost but I think the president is dead wrong about what's happening, he has a completely unrealistic view and has for a long time about what's happening in Iraq. Things have not gone well, and it's obvious to anybody in America, and the president unfortunately is not willing to change plans or change course and the American people are demanding on it.

Sawyer: The president says you either think it's lost or victory is possible. Do you think victory is still possible? Military victory?

Edwards: Depends on your definition of victory. Not military victory, there was never a possibility of a military victory.

And basically, what's happening is the Shiites and the Sunnis have a political conflict that is the base of all the violence in Iraq, and until that conflict is resolved by the Iraqis, there's going to continue to be violence there.

Sawyer: But you have talked about withdrawing 40-50,000 troops immediately and then within a year virtually pulling all out...what does that say to the Iraqi people? Where does that leave them? What if ethnic cleansing begins? Do you send troops back in, what do you do?

Edwards: Well let's start with the first part of your question. I think what it says to the Iraqi people is that you have now reached the stage in which you have to take the responsibility for your own country. What's happened is there has not been a serious effort of compromise, between the Shiite leadership, Maliki and the Sunni leadership, and as a result this conflict has continued.

I think first of all, we are saying to them you're going to have to take responsibility. I do think, and I can tell you as president what I would do besides withdrawing combat troops over a period of time, I do think we need to maintain a presence in the region.

Sawyer: In the region or inside Iraq?

Edwards: No, inside the region, which means once our combat troops are gone, which means we need a rapid deployment of force in Kuwait, we're going to need to beef up our presence in Afghanistan, naval presence in the Persian Gulf, and may, if we get permission, station some troops in Jordan.

Sawyer: Do you think there is a real possibility of a regional calamity if American troops pull out of Iraq, which is the White House's argument?

Edwards: I think what the president of the United States has a responsibility to do, which this president hasn't done, is to prepare for the worse. So as we go through this and shift responsibility to the Iraqi leaders, as we get the Iranians and other countries engaging to help stabilize Iraq, I think America also needs to prepare for the worst, which means we have to have a plan to control civil war if it gets worse.

Sawyer: What is the plan to control civil war, except going back in?

Edwards: It's not an easy thing, but there are things you can do. You can set up buffer zones around the borders, over people out of the populated areas. It's not easy, and I don't suggest it's easy, but I think America, also the president, has the responsibility to prepare with the international community for that possibility, and then worst case scenario, the possibility that genocide would break out.

Sawyer: At one point, you suggested that the "war on terrorism" is used as a phrase, as a slogan used by the administration. Aren't we in a war on terror in America?

Edwards: What I was saying, and I stand by it, is the president and this administration have used this term, "global war on terror," to justify everything they do, ranging from the war in Iraq to Guantanamo to torture to legal spying on the American people, and what I have said is that terrorism is a serious and immediate threat. And as president I would go after these terrorists, find them, and stop them, to keep the American people safe. But what's been missing is any long-term strategy to undermine the forces of terrorism, global poverty, spread of disease, all those things that contribute to the efforts of terrorist recruits.

Sawyer: Really problematic question this morning, we read in Pakistan that the agreement between the government and the Taliban is broken down, al Qaeda moving back into Pakistan by most reports there. What would you do if the nuclear weapons of Pakistan seemed vulnerable to the resurging al Qaeda? What would you do? Would you send in American enforcements to protect the nuclear weapons in Pakistan?

Edwards: Well the starting place is that Musharraf has been the president of Pakistan. He has been somewhat cooperative with America to some consistencies. It's always been a great risk that Pakistan has a nuclear weapon and that India has a nuclear weapon, and they have great conflict over Kashmir, so that conflict creates great potential for crisis in that part of the world. And of course, if something were to happen to Musharraf, the possibility that radicals would take over the government in Pakistan and that they have nuclear capability creates an enormous risk.

So, I think we need to have a long-term plan for dealing with the Pakistani government, dealing with Musharraf, trying to do everything we can do to help stabilize the situation. And then, over the long term, America needs a plan for dealing with the spread of nuclear weapons at large, and reducing nuclear weapons on the planet.

Sawyer: Even if it meant sending troops into Pakistan?

Edwards: Well I don't think you can make that judgment in advance. You have to see how things develop.

Overheard at the Debate

Edwards: The whisper heard round the Democratic presidential race. You and Sen. Clinton at the debate, you go over, her mic is open and this is what we hear. Click here to see video.

First of all what have you learned about open mics?

Edwards: Oh, I already knew about open mics; I have a lot of experience with that.

Sawyer: Congressman Dennis Kucinich said he feels betrayed, and that he would like to have a one on one debate, just the two of you, if you are going to be cutting some of the other people out of the debate here. Would you agree to a one-on-one debate with him if he apologized?

Edwards: There's nothing to apologize for, we ought to get away from these sound bites and sound bite debates. Well, let me put you in my shoes: "What are you going to do in Iraq? You have 30 seconds." To answer the question, I mean, this can't be a serious discussion. However, we can break up into smaller random groups and have a more serious discussion and get away from this sound bite mentality. America deserves something more serious than that.

Sawyer: You're at 16 [percent in national polls] and Sen. Clinton is at 42 -- why and does she deserve to be doing this well?

Edwards: Well, I think Sen. Clinton is a very serious good candidate for presidency, so is Obama, and I think myself as well. But what will happen is that we won't have a national primary and we will start in one place, Iowa, and these states will decide in large part who the Democratic candidate is. But what matters is not the politics; what matters is what we are talking about, doing what are we going to do about Iraq, health care, global warming.

Sawyer: Sen. Edwards, poverty is not listed in the top three concerns of the nation right now, why for you?

Edwards: It's something I have a huge emotional and personal commitment to for a variety of reasons. I came from my own place, I wouldn't say poor, but not having much when I was young, and now I have everything, and it's something I have compassion for. I didn't have much when I was young and I feel that opportunity should be available to everyone, and I think it's a moral issue.

Sawyer: How do you argue to the people that this ranks right at the top?

Edwards: America has to be an example of what is possible for ourselves and the rest of the world. We have millions of people who don't have health care, live in poverty, and we need to set examples when we don't respond to the moral commitment of our own people.

Sawyer: Was it something you decided one day?

Edwards: This is a cause of my life and it will be something I will be doing. I think there is huge work that needs to be done here and I think there's been a void in national leadership, that the government has not done its job.

Sawyer: You were walking around in the 9th Ward last night. What's the lesson of what you saw?

Edwards: The government has not done its job. The people who live in the 9th ward, the number of families, have rebuilt themselves and bring together what they could and there's volunteers doing incredible work. People are brave and resilient. But the help is not coming in from the government and all the help is coming from within not from without. The answer was no, that these people aren't getting any help from anybody.

Sawyer: This is a failure of caring, compassion, competence?

Edwards: I think it's a combination of bureaucratic red tape and failure of competence. I do think it's a failure of presidential leadership. Because the president said he was going to take care of New Orleans, and he hasn't. If he demands actions, he'll get a response, and he has not demanded action. He has not stayed on top of this and has not lead, and this is a direct consequence of that.

Audience Questions

Sawyer: And good morning to all. We return in this half hour because he has a bold conviction: He says poverty can be ended in the next 30 years.

So what works and why is it his No. 1 issue?

Dolly Simposon, audience member: Looking beyond the well documented and overly debated problem of poverty in America and focusing on solutions...what, in your opinion, is your most single most important solution and as president what would be your first step in implementing that solution?

Edwards: It's very hard to pick one because the problem is poverty has many components. If I was only allowed one, it would be to make work pay. One of the problems with the pictures is that people have a mental images in their head of people who live in poverty living on the street.

But the huge portion of people in this country who live in poverty work every day, work full time, and the problem is, either because they don't have health care coverage, or they don't earn enough in their jobs, they're not able to adequately support their families and pay their bills.

There are a few things we can do to help. Raising the national minimum wage, Congress just raised it, and I think in the next few years it needs to be raised again, and probably indexed, so that it goes up automatically.

A second thing is a tax credit for low-income families, so that if they're working, we can make work pay for them. Helping working being able to organize themselves and collectively bargain so that they can earn a decent wage for the work they're doing.

I have to say I went to the 9th Ward last night and the first house I went to, the woman we saw said to me, 'Please make sure that everyone knows that those us who live in 9th Ward, I get up and go to work every day.' They just want to be treated with some dignity and respect, and be able to earn enough money to support their families, and it just seems like to me, that no one in America should work every day and live in poverty.

Patrick Quinland, audience member: If I could do one thing it would be to fix public education. The best cure for poverty is the ability to get a job and chance... Do you have the interest to lead fundamental change in our public education system? Do you have the courage and the ability to confront the educational establishment including some of your key constituents, like teachers union to put the interest of students and employers first?

Edwards: I could tell you I'm willing to do whatever has to be done to make our schools what they're capable of being.

Some people have heard me talk about the two America's and the need to build one America so that everybody has an equal chance. I believe we still have two and public school systems in this country, they're not segregated just based on race, they're segregated to a large extent based on economics, which has racial implications.

But the result is, that if you live in a wealthy suburban area, the odds are very high that your child will get a very good public school education. If you live in the inner city, or you live in a poor rural area, the odds of that go down dramatically. And I think there are things we can do, very specific things we can do, to not only improve the quality of education in those areas, but to improve the quality of our schools at large.

First, much more intensive investment in early childhood. We ought to treat education as birth to death experience in this country, which means we need to get to children as soon as we possibly can after they're born. Train those who are teaching in early childhood so they are prepared to do the job, to make sure the nutrition and health care needs of those children need to be met.

Crucial in K-12, is we need to have the best possible teachers at the front of every class room, which means, we're going to have to improve teacher pay at large, but second and really crucial, we're going to have to provide incentive pay, to teachers who are willing to go to the hardest places, to the inner city schools, to the poor rural areas, we can make sure we attract the best people and get the best people where they're needed the most.

Audience member: How do you justify spending $400 on a haircut?

Edwards: I don't. No excuses, but can I just tell you, some lessons you learn the hard way. I got a very cheap haircut a few days ago, and I'm going to keep getting cheap haircuts. I wasn't paying attention. What happens when you're on the campaign trail you're going from place to place to place, you do things quickly, other people arrange that, but none of that's an excuse, I wasn't paying close attention and it shouldn't have happened.

Sawyer: Can you be among the privileged in this country and really make a difference in poverty, really in your heart be committed to poverty?

Edwards: If you look at the arc of my life, I came from very little to having a lot and I lived the American dream, nobody gave it to me, I worked for it, but I want that chance to be there for everybody, and I think if you look at what I've spent my time doing, before I got involved politics, I was involved in Urban Ministries in North Carolina, which is a faith-based group to help people, actually the poorest of the poor.

I've helped organize workers into unions, help lead campaigns to raise the minimum raise, Elizabeth and I started a college program in for low-income kids in eastern North Carolina, we started after school centers for kids so they could have access to technology. I'm actually very proud of the work I've done in my life to improve the lives of people who are struggling.

Lightning Round

Sawyer: We're going to take a break from policy questions, because we know a presidential campaign is a human endurance test at some level. These are some of the questions that have come up in what we call our lightning round, for want of a better phrase here.

What is the worst meal you've had on the road?

Edwards: I've had some really bad cheeseburgers. I can't think of one specifically. But they're memorable in general.

Sawyer: How about this -- if you have one fellow Democratic candidate you could take with you if you were stranded on a desert island, who would it be and why?

Edwards: Mike Gravel. They don't even know who he is. He's fascinating and thinks in a very different way in these debates.

Sawyer: Should you get your wish and they'd be narrowed down to four and you end up with Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, is that OK with you?

Edwards: Perfectly fine. They have something important to say and I think their voice should be heard in this process.

Sawyer: Here is something we retrieved from 2004 on the campaign trail. You were on "David Letterman" and you gave 10 things you will never hear a candidate say in a presidential race.

Here were a few of them: 10. Vote for me or I'll slash your tires. 9. Forget universal health care -- I'm buying every American an XBox. 8. In a crisis, I ask myself, 'What would Tony Danza do?' 7. I'd give you my plan for economic recovery if I wasn't rip-stinkin' drunk. 6. If your last name begins with 'M' through 'Z,' sorry -- your taxes are doubling. 5. We're gonna cut the deficit by selling North Dakota to Canada.

Do you want to add any to those?

["Good Morning America" told Edwards before the town hall that we would do a lightning round about such things as books, music, and comedy, including the Top 10 list, though we had no idea what his answers would be.]

Edwards: You want me to add one now? I can't compete with Letterman's comedy writer. How about, "Can I spend this campaign money on a new car?" Or how about, "What is the tip on a $400 haircut?"

Sawyer: I don't think we can top that. Take that, David Letterman. What do you read on the road?

Edwards: It's hard to read because you spend so much time reading policy stuff. But I've got a book called "The Race Beat," which is about the reporters who covered the civil rights movement. It's a great book.

Sawyer: Do you have a campaign song?

Edwards: I don't have.

Sawyer: Do you listen to the iPod?

Edwards: Yeah, I listen to music all the time.

Sawyer: Everybody wants to know, do you know how many days you've been away from home since March?

Edwards: I don't know. Usually it's about -- I don't know, Elizabeth, is it about six or eight gone, one day back.

Sawyer: Are there times when you say, "I cannot get up this morning?"

Edwards: There's a lot of times you feel -- what really happens, you wake up in the middle of the night. This happened to both of us -- and you have no idea where you are. Absolutely no idea. I've thought I was in New York or New Orleans and it turns out I was on the West Coast. You just can't keep track of this. You're just traversing the country at such a pace.

Sawyer: You are. What is the biggest lesson you learned from 2004 that you're applying in 2008?

Edwards: I think having very specific ideas about the problems facing the country. I think you have to get past the superficial rhetoric and get to very deep and serious substance because that's what America wants to hear.

Sawyer: The first time around?

Edwards: The first time around, I was learning. I think that's true of every first-time candidate. You think in short language, sometimes you talk in sound bites. America wants something much more serious than that from a presidential candidate.