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ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: And, good evening, everyone.
In just three days, Republicans here are going to go to the polls and if history is any guide, Saturday's South Carolina primary will make some campaigns and break others.
It matters that much, which is why tonight matters so much, with three candidates one last chance for voters to ask the kind of questions face-to-face to help them decide.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight, a conversation with three leading Republicans in South Carolina. They're facing the voters and fighting for every last vote.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you ever want to fall in love with the American people, run for president.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Marco Rubio rising.
Ted Cruz talking tough.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The time for games is over.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ben Carson running behind, hoping to rise above the fray.
And the rest of the field.
BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think I can win South Carolina.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three contenders, men of faith in a state where faith runs deep and the faithful vote.
But it's not all sweetness and light. South Carolina is a state that knows raw politics.
RUBIO: He's now literally just making things up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Marco Rubio hitting Cruz, Cruz hitting back.
CRUZ: Whenever anyone points out their record, they simply start screaming, "Liar, liar, liar!"
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three contenders in a state where manners matter, but winning matters more. Just days before the first Southern primary, at the end of a campaign like we and the voters have never seen before, this is an ANDERSON COOPER 360 CNN Republican town hall. Voters seeking answers, a chance to drive the debating before making a choice that could make history.
COOPER: And good evening and welcome from the Old Cigar Warehouse in Greenville in South Carolina.
What a night ahead.
We are here tonight with just three days to go until primary day, just three days left to decide. Yet a lot of voters in this state remain undecided.
So tonight, Senators Rubio and Cruz, and Dr. Carson are here with voters and viewers for a conversation.
Tomorrow night, I'll be with John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump, the voters and I not too far from here in Columbia, South Carolina.
I want to welcome our viewers watching in the United States, watching here in South Carolina and around the world on CNN International.
I also want to extend a warm welcome to all our service men and women who are watching on the American Forces Network and to those who are listening on the Westwood 1 radio network and on CNN Channel 116 on SiriusXM.
In the audience tonight here in Greenville, people who tell us they will be participating in Saturday's Republican primary. Some decided, some undecided.
We asked audience members to come up with their own questions, which we reviewed to make sure that they don't overlap. I'll ask some questions, as well.
But tonight, we really hope this is about South Carolina voters getting to know the candidates.
So let's get started.
Joining us first tonight is retired neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben Carson.
COOPER: And welcome.
Great to see you.
Have a seat.
COOPER: How's it going?
BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Very good.
I want to start just, you obviously are a retired neurosurgeon. You've been running now - you've been out on the campaign trail for 10 months.
What's harder, brain surgery or politics?
CARSON: Brain surgery is a lot harder.
CARSON: But, you know, the interesting thing that I've discovered about politics, good things and bad things. It's been wonderful having an opportunity to meet so many people across the country and hear what their concerns are.
It hadn't been that great, you know, dealing with the press.
COOPER: Are you looking at me or?
COOPER: Well, that's what really tonight is about, it's really you interacting with the voters. I'm just going to ask a couple of questions and then we're going to turn it over, really, to the voters.
COOPER: I want to ask you just about a couple of items in the news.
As you know, the government is trying to unlock the cell phone of one of the terrorists in San Bernardino. They've been unable to do that. They've now, they've gotten a judge to - to ask Apple or to try to order Apple to create new operating software that would allow them essentially a back door to - to open up and get access.
Do you think Apple should be forced to do that, because Apple says that's going to violate not only privacy rights, but it's going to make everybody's cell phone vulnerable, potentially, to hackers.
CARSON: Sure. Well, you know, the interesting thing is I think that Apple and probably a lot of other people don’t the privacy rights but it's going to make everybody's cell-phone vulnerable potentially to hackers.
CARSON: Well you know, the interesting thing is I think that Apple and probably a lot of other people don't necessarily trust the government these days. There is probably a very good reason for people not to trust the government but we're going to have to get over that because right now we're faced with tremendous threats and individual radical jihadist who want destroy us. And we're going to have to weigh these things one against the other.
I believe what we need is a public private partnership when it comes to all of these technical things and cyber-security because we're all at risk in a very significant way. So it's going to be a matter of people learning to trust each other which means, Apple needs to sit down with those trustworthy in the government. And that may have wait until the next election, I don't know but we'll see. They need to sit down with people they can trust and hammer out the relationship.
COOPER: If you were president right and you just have 11 months left in your term, would you nominate someone to fill Justice Scalia's seat.
CARSON: I probably would. I probably would take the opportunity to nominate someone. It doesn't necessarily mean that, that person is going to be acted on confirmed but why not do it?
But here is the real problem, you know, the Supreme Court is a very important part of our governing system. It was originally intended to consist of jurists who were people who loved America, and were people who fully understood our constitution, and were there to make sure that America preserved it's constitutional traditions. It was not suppose to be a partisan group.
It has become very partisan, so as a result everything that is done surrounding it; the pics, the confirmation hearings, deciding on whether to actually make the vote, all of it has become partisan in reaction to what is happening. Does it mean that we're forever gone? No, I think it means that these are things that we're going to have to start looking at.
We're going to start figuring out how in the world do we once again get back to a reasonable judicial system. We do not have that now. We have overreaching. We have a Congress that for some reason has become the peanut gallery, and is just watching what the Executive branch and the judiciary do and not really stepping up to correct some of the incorrect decisions that has been made by the Supreme Court.
COOPER: How would a President Carson pick judges? Would you have a litmus test as people often say?
CARSON: Yes, the litmus test would be their life. I would look back at what they have done throughout their lives, what kind of rulings they have had throughout their lives, what kind of associations they have had. You can tell a lot more about how a person has lived their life than you can with a series of interviews which they have been prepped for, which they know exactly how to answer. We've been burned by those kinds of things before.
COOPER: So you wouldn't necessarily have a list of questions on abortion, on whatever other issues?
CARSON: I think I could find out what their opinions are by looking back at their life.
You know, the bible says in Matthew:1720, by their fruit you will know them.
COOPER: I want to have you meet a voter. Her name is Jessica Fuller. She works in advertising. She's a voter here in Greenville. She says, she is still undecided so you could pick up a vote right here tonight.
COOPER: Welcome Jessica, go ahead.
JESSICA FULLER, PARTICIPANT: Dr. Carson, how do you reconcile the differences between traditional Christian values, specifically caring the least of these and current GOP stances on social issues such as welfare and subsidies for the poor?
CARSON: Well, when you say current GOP, I'm a part of the GOP and let me tell you what my stance is. My stance is that, we the people have the responsibility to take care of the indigent in our society. It's not the government's job. You can read the constitution all you want, it never says that it is the government's job and I think where we've gotten confused.
In the old days of America when communities were separated by hundreds of miles, why were they able to thrive? Because if it was harvest time and the farmer was up in the tree picking apples and fell down and broke his leg, everybody pitched in and harvested his crops for him. If somebody got killed by a bear, everybody took care of their family.
So we have a history a taking care of each other. Now, for some strange reason starting sort of in the 20's with Woodrow Wiilson, the government started getting involved in everything. It kept growing and by the time they got to the 60's LBJ was saying...So we have a history of taking care of each other.
Now for some strange reason, starting sort of in the '20s with Woodrow Wilson, the government started getting involved in everything. It kept growing, metastasizing. By the time we got to the '60s, LBJ was saying, we, the government, are going to eliminate poverty.
Now how did that work out? You know, $19 trillion later, 10 times more people on food stamps, more poverty, more welfare, broken homes, out-of-wedlock births, crime, incarceration. Everything is not only worse, it's much worse.
And that's because it's not their job. It's our job. I wish the government would read the Constitution. I think that would probably help quite a bit. And maybe they did read it and maybe they got confused when they read the preamble which says one of the duties is to promote the general welfare.
They probably thought that meant putting everybody on welfare. But in fact…
CARSON: … I don't think it means that at all. And what we need to do is level the playing field.
But the government can play a very important role in facilitating what we, the people, do. Let me give you one quick example.
Look at all of the out-of-wedlock births that are going on, particularly in our inner cities. I have been speaking at a lot of the non-profit organizations that support organizations that support these women so that they don't have an abortion, so that they have the baby.
But usually their education stops when they have that baby. Now if you not only support them through that pregnancy, but now provide childcare for them so they can go back to school and get their GED or their associate's degree or bachelor's degree or their master's degree, learn how to take care of themselves, teach their baby how to take care of themselves so that you break the cycle of the dependency.
That's the only way we're going to get through these programs. That is true compassion. Having people become dependent on others is not compassion at all.
COOPER: Dr. Carson, I want you to meet, this is Katie Busbee. She works for the Chamber of Commerce here in Greenville. And she says she is undecided.
KATIE BUSBEE, GREENVILLE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: Dr. Carson, I know you would probably agree that one of the biggest issues facing our country is national security threats. So with groups like ISIS and the Middle East becoming more and more unstable, you are running as a candidate that has never governed before.
Are you qualified to be commander-in-chief? And are you qualified to deal with these national security threats?
CARSON: I obviously think so or I wouldn't be running for president. You know, it's the political class that has tried to convince everybody that they are the only ones who can solve our problems.
But the fact of the matter is our system was designed for citizen statesmen. It was designed for people who have had real-life experiences and then can transfer that to government work.
You know, I can guarantee you that I've had more 2:00 a.m. phone calls than anybody else, all the rest of them, had to make life and death decisions, had to derive information frequently from interns or residents who didn't know a lot but you've still got to manage to get the right information, make the right decisions, put together teams, complex teams to accomplish things that have never before been accomplished before.
You know, I think what we really need are people who know how to solve problems, not people who know how to talk. You know, we can all talk, but we can't all solve problems.
And what I think you need to look at is the course of a person's life. Go back and see, what kinds of things have they had to face? What kinds of things have they had to overcome?
And, you know, the people who say, well, you've never run anything, you don't know how to do anything. Maybe none of the things that they want to do. But I'll tell you, it does take skill to take - you know, the division of pediatric neurosurgery, when I became chief, it wasn't even on the map.
And to take it to number one in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report, by 2008, that's not something that's done lightly.
You know, to start the Carson Scholars Fund. These are things that are outside of medicine. And people said, you can't start another scholarship program. There are tens of thousands of them. But we started it. It's in all 50 states, has won major national awards that are only given to one organization in the country.
Obviously, you have to know how to do things. You know, I've spent 18 years on the board of Kellogg's, 16 years on the board of Costco, learned a tremendous amount about business, both domestically and internationally, and a lot of things that people who are politicians who are running have never done.
So I think you have to really look at what a person accomplishes in their life and not whether they have a specific pedigree of the political class who thinks that they rule us when, in fact, this country is of, for, and by the people. And it's we, the people, who need to assume once again the pinnacle position.
COOPER: Dr. Carson, this Alexander Sexton (ph). He works in the defense industry, right here…CARSON: ... people, and it's we the people who need to assume once again the pinnacle position.
COOPER: Dr. Carson, this is Alexander Sexton, he works in the defense industry right here in Greenville. He says he is also undecided, but leaning in your favor. Welcome.
QUESTION: Dr. Carson, thank you for your time. Like many Americans, I've only recently felt the need to own a gun, and you know, right now the world is in a dangerous place. So, what is your plan to preserve my rights to own a gun, and also to protect the American people?
CARSON: Sure. Well, you know the Second Amendment is there for a very good reason. It was so that the people could assist the government in case of an invasion. More importantly, it was so that the people could protect themselves in case the government itself ever became tyrannical, and tried to rule the people.
So, we've had guns for hundreds of years, and we've been free for hundreds of years. I think there may be a correlation there.
And, you know, I think, you know, after the San Bernardino attacks, and the Paris attacks, you know? The current administration, their ideal of solving the problem was to take guns away from the people. Somehow that's going to solve your problem because there are terrorists trying to kill you. Take your guns away. It makes absolutely no sense.
What they should be doing is offering free classes in gun safety to all the citizens who want to take it so they can protect themselves. It is the fundamental right that we have to be able to protect ourselves, but we also need to take safety into account. Once we do that in a reasonable way, I think you're right, my right, all of our rights should be preserved.
COOPER: I just want to follow up on Alexander's question. He was saying he's gotten a gun for the first time in his life. Have you ever - do you own a gun? Have you ever felt the need to have a gun?
CARSON: Yes. I don't know that I felt the need to have a gun, but I like having a gun. It's a nice thing to have. You know, I have multiple marksmanship awards from ROTC, and I'm very much in favor of preserving those rights.
COOPER: I want you to meet Vickie Burns. She's a retired small business owner. She says she's leaning towards Governor Bush, but she has not yet made up her mind. Welcome...
CARSON: ... OK.
QUESTION: Hi, Dr. Carson. My question for you is if you are elected president, what would be your big idea? In the past we've had great presidents that have united our country with programs such as the space program, the WPC, and we are in much need of a big idea.
CARSON: Well, I have multiple big ideas, but here's one of the things that I really want to get across to the country. We have only 330 million people. Sounds like a lot of people, but China has 1.4 billion people. India has 1.1 billion people. We have to compete with them on the world stage which means we can't afford to waste any of our people, so it doesn't make sense for us to have 20 plus percent of people who enter high school dropping out of highschool in the technological age, in the information age.
It makes no sense for us to have 5% of the world's population, and 25% of the inmates. And, we have to reorient ourselves in a way that we keep those things from happening because for everyone of those young people we can keep from going down that path of self destruction, that's one more person that we all don't have to be afraid of, or protect our family from. One more person that we don't have to pay for in the penal system, or the welfare system.
One more taxpaying, productive member of society who may discover the cure for cancer, or a new energy source. We can't afford to throw away any of our people. that's a big idea.
COOPER: This is Richard Leland, he's a family physician right here in Greenville, and he also says he's undecided. Richard, welcome.
QUESTION: Thank you. Dr. Carson, in the event that you did not win the presidency, but one of your fellow Republicans did, if they were to ask you to consider serving as the Surgeon General, or head of the Department of Health and Human services, with your passion and your ability, would you be willing, at some point, to consider this?
CARSON: Well, I got to tell you, I'm not looking for a job, you know?
CARSON: You know? After...
COOPER: ... Well, there is one job you're looking for.
CARSON: After 15,000 operations, and a very arduous career, I'm definitely not just looking for something to do. I feel that our country is on the precipice and it's about to go over the edge. And, if we continue with politics...CARSON: Operations in a very arduous career.
I'm definitely not just looking for something to do.
I feel that our country is on the precipice and it's about to go over the edge. And if we continue with politics as usual, Democrats or Republicans, we are going to go over that edge.
And I think we have to reach down and recognize that we're - we can't just tinker around the edges. We're going to have to have some real ideas here, ideals of how we get that economic engine which is the most dynamic and powerful economic engine that the world has ever known rolling again.
I've got good ideas about that, bencarson.com. And I can explain them if anybody asks me that question.
But, you know, also, when we look at what's happening to our nation in terms of our vision for who we are, I think we're starting to lose sight of who we are.
We are so busily giving away our identity, our values and our principles for the sake of political correction - correctness that we don't know who we are.
And the Bible says without a vision, the people perish.
So I have a vision that I think I share with a lot of "we, the people," and that's the direction I want to go in.
It would be very difficult for me to serve in an administration that didn't have that same philosophy.
COOPER: OK, thank you.
We're going to take a short break, Dr. Carson.
COOPER: We're going to have more questions from the audience for Dr. Carson when we come back.
You're watching a CNN Republican town hall from Greenville, South Carolina.
Marco Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz are also coming up.
We'll be back in a moment.
COOPER: Welcome back to the CNN townhall here in Greenville, South Carolina. We're talking to Dr. Ben Carson.
Our next question comes from Katie Abrames. She's a Clemson student. And she is undecided.
KATIE ABRAMES, CLEMSON STUDENT: Hi, Dr. Carson. My name is Katie. And when I was 18 and I had just graduated from high school, I lost one of my dearest friends to a senseless murder. It's one of the main reasons that I'm extremely passionate about impacting positive change in the current criminal justice system.
Personally I believe that people who go to prison should have the ability if they get parole or probation to re-assimilate into society and serve the community that they negatively impacted.
So if you are elected president, how would you work alongside policymakers to impact positive criminal justice reform?
CARSON: Well, you know, as I mentioned a little earlier, you know, we have 5 percent of the population of the world and 25 percent of the inmates. And that, obviously, means that something is askew.
And we're putting a lot of people in prison who don't need to be in prison. They're not violent criminals, and all we do is send them to the university (sic) where they become violent criminals, and then we release them on society. That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
But when we send people to prison, we need to be thinking about whether they are going there for life or whether they're going to be reintegrated into society. If they are going to be reintegrated into society, we need to be thinking about, how are we going to make that a successful reintegration?
In many cases that may mean we should be offer something practical training. There's no reason people can't learn how to become a welder or a plumber or a whole host of different things.
Plus, you know, there are high level courses where people can learn mathematics and, you know, engineering skills. So we really ought to be thinking about how do we take these people and turn them away from a life that's going down the wrong pathway to one where they become part of the fabric of success in America.
COOPER: So does that mean for you re-looking at mandatory minimum sentences for…
COOPER: … low level, non-violent offenders?
CARSON: Absolutely it means that. And it also means we need to look at those who are mentally ill. There are a lot of mentally ill people who are being housed in prisons. That doesn't make any sense.
We have facilities all over the country that are sitting empty because we have decided that it's too expensive to take care of the mentally ill. So they end up on the street where frequently they become victimized by people and then they wind up in the criminal justice system.
And then we put them in amongst people who are violent criminals. So now you take somebody mentally unstable and now you are teaching them how to be a violent criminal, and then you're releasing them on our society. That doesn't make any sense.
So I think it would be a lot cheaper if we begin to take care of these people the way they should be taken care of.
And there's going to be, quite frankly, plenty of money to take care of people when we stop doing all the silly stuff that we're doing with all of these unnecessary regulations which tamp down our business with a tax system that absolutely is asinine and makes no sense whatsoever.
And then the money will be drawn in that's sitting on the sidelines. And we once again begin to create the can-do attitude as opposed to the what can you do for me attitude. And I think America will be on its way pretty quickly.
COOPER: Katie, thank you for your question, appreciate it.
COOPER: This is Will Richter who goes to Clemson. He's involved with student government at Clemson. He says he's deciding between you and Senator Rubio.
CARSON: That should be an easy choice.
WILL RICHTER, CLEMSON STUDENT: Hi, Dr. Carson. According to a "60 Minutes" investigation, the Justice Department says that China's corporate espionage is so vast that it constitutes a national security emergency, costing American companies hundreds of billions of dollars and American citizens over 2 million jobs.
If elected president, how would you go about protecting American intellectual property rights abroad while maintaining diplomatic relations?
CARSON: A very important question. I mean, we are being hit thousands of times a day. And if you go to individual Americans, millions of times every day by cyber attacks from China and other places.
CARSON: ... I mean, we are being hit thousands of times a day, and if you go to individual Americans, millions of times, every day by cyber attacks from China, and other places.
And, that's why, you know, I have advocated for a comprehensive solution for cyber security, and again, you can read about that on the website. But, again, public-private partnerships so that we can create the kind of common monitoring process so that if you get attacked, or your company gets attacked, you know? We have a common place that we can report that, and we can begin to see where the pieces fit together so that we understand where it's coming from.
And, quite frankly, we have some pretty substantial offensive cyber capabilities. Our administration is reluctant to use them. I would not be reluctant to use them.
If somebody hit us from another country with a cyber attack, they would not do it a second time, believe me. And, people think that I'm nice, and I am nice, but I also want to protect our people. And protect - if you stand up to people who are doing these things, it makes the much less likely to continue.
But, again, by having a public-private partnership being able to tap into all of our resources I think we'd have a much better opportunity to defend ourselves, and put up the kinds of defenses that can keep morphing so that they will not be able to keep up with us.
Americans have always been incredibly innovative, and if we can release that innovation again, and get rid of some of the things that dampen that innovation, I think we'll stay far ahead of the competition.
COOPER: Thank you for your question, appreciate it.
COOPER: I want you to meet Jillian Rogiers. She's a stay at home Mom, she's also still undecided. Gillian?
QUESTION: Hello, Dr. Carson...
CARSON: ... Hi.
QUESTION: I do appreciate your mild-mannered nature in this campaign, however...
CARSON: ... Uh-oh.
QUESTION: ... If you are...
QUESTION: If you are the Republican nominee, how do you plan to not - how do you plan to get your message out over a boisterous Democrat?
CARSON: What boisterous Democrat would that be?
CARSON: No, quite simply. What I have discovered, you know? As a pediatric neurosurgeon, and as someone who dealt with loss of children - I had a program at the hospital where I bring in 800 students at a time, frequently elementary students, and you would say how are you going to speak to 800 elementary students and keep them quiet?
You know what? By speaking softly because then they would - what's he saying? They would shut up.
CARSON: It actually worked extremely well. But, really the key is not so much the volume with which you speak, but it's the content of what you say. That's what's going to make the difference. And, I think the American people are smart enough to be able to understand bluster, and rhetoric versus truth.
And, when it comes to the general election, you know? People who are running around saying things like free college for everyone, it'll be very easy to counter that by simply educating people as to the actual financial condition of our nation. And, that's not done, you know?
I think Margaret Thatcher probably said it best. She said socialism is great until you run out of other people's money, and that's exactly what would happen when we would explain that to people, and I think they would understand. So, I look forward to such a challenge.
COOPER: Of course - a follow up to that. It's not just obviously in a general election, you've been on a stage with some pretty boisterous folks the last couple of months. I'm not going to name any names, but do you - what are you thinking when you're on a stage in those debates? What is going through your mind?
CARSON: Well, I'll tell you, honestly what was going to my mind is will these guys in any way remember what happened in 2012 when they tried to tear each other apart, which was probably the only reason that President Obama was able to win reelection with a record that even noone could have won on.
So, we have to stop finding ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
COOPER: Do you have a candidate you would prefer to run against in a general, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton?
CARSON: I would relish running against either one of them. It would not be a problem.
COOPER: Our next question comes from, oh, I'm sorry, we're going to go for some of the personal questions here. Actually, if you would take a seat here. So, was it hard.. Was it hard for you to give up surgery? I mean, you trained for this for so long. You were an excellent surgeon by all accounts.
CARSON: Some people have said, "I was just an OK surgeon." No, I miss very much what medicine used to be. I do not miss what it has become. And I think you will find if you talk to a lot of people in the medical profession that they're not very happy today.
COOPER: Because they're not able to spend time with patients?
CARSON: There are so many new rules and regulations and yes, the epicenter in all the various things that you have typed in – you don't even have a chance to look at the patient. There's a lot of information that you can gain from just looking at somebody when you're talking to them which is an essential part of medical care that's being lost.
That's the reason that I denoted a different type of system that actually costs less than either the current so-called Affordable Care Act or the system that we had before that. It would provide excellent care for everybody including the indigent and doesn't have any second class citizens. We have enough money to do it. We spend almost twice as much per capita as many other nations that have much better access.
We have so much disruption and inefficiency in our system that can be easily corrected.
COOPER: We know President Obama plays golf, we know former President George W. Bush, he used to play down in Texas. What do you do to relax?
CARSON: Play pool.
COOPER: Play pool?
CARSON: I love to play pool.
COOPER: Are you competitive when you play pool?
CARSON: I like to win and I'll tell you it relaxes me. When I would come home from a busy day of surgery, I would shoot pool. And my wife who didn't know how to play pool, learned how to play pool and has become an excellent player. She's good competition, if I mess up, she will beat me.
COOPER: What sort of music do you listen to?
CARSON: I primarily like classical music, particularly baroque music.
COOPER: Did you listen to that when you did surgery?
CARSON: Absolutely. All the residents knew when they came and did their pediatric nuero-surgery rotation that they would also learn classical music. I remember one resident, I would always ask him questions and he would always say, "that's the 1812 overture." And then he says, "I know I'm going to be right one time."
COOPER: Dr. Carson, a pleasure.
CARSON: Thank you very much.
COOPER: Dr. Ben Carson.
When we come back, Senator Marco Rubio takes the stage and takes the questions.
We'll be right back.