Democrats court the Latino vote, en español

Times Staff Writer

Democrats condemned divisive immigration rhetoric and touted issues important to many Latinos during a televised debate Sunday on a leading Spanish-language network in which their remarks were translated live from English.

The debate, billed as a historic first, provided the candidates an opportunity to address America’s estimated 17 million Latinos of voting age in what is the native language of many of them.

Seven of the eight Democratic candidates participated in the Univision debate at the University of Miami, eager to court a Latino constituency, which could play a pivotal role in battleground states such as Florida. (Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who recently returned from an Iraq trip, did not take part.)

On the Republican side, only Sen. John McCain of Arizona accepted Univision’s invitation to a GOP presidential debate for next week, forcing the network to postpone it. The sharp difference in participation, political observers suggest, underscores Republican candidates’ fears about saying the wrong thing on immigration, an issue that inflames the conservative base.


Democratic officials portrayed Republicans’ decisions to skip a Univision debate as proof that only one party cared about the Latino vote. But during Sunday’s 90-minute forum, the candidates largely avoided criticism of the GOP -- or one another.

“It’s a great honor to be here, an extraordinary privilege,” former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said when asked whether attending the debate represented a political risk.

As the debate got going, it quickly became clear why Republicans might be wary of addressing the Univision forum: One of the first questions the Democrats faced was whether they would approve Spanish as a second national language.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio answered the question clearly: yes. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut dodged the question, speaking in generalities about the importance of Latino Americans and of English as the nation’s common language.


On the volatile immigration issue, the questions were no less pointed.

Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, both of whom voted to erect a wall along the Mexican border, were asked why it was OK there but not on the border with Canada.

“I think we’ve got to secure our borders,” Clinton responded, holding firm on her position. But, she added, she supports comprehensive changes in federal policy to allow Latino immigrants to work in the U.S., and she chided Republicans in Washington as failing to help craft compromise legislation.

Obama condemned “fear-mongering” by politicians who were, he said, scapegoating immigrants. He would be a president who united people instead of dividing them, he said.

“My father came to this country from a small village in Africa because he was looking for opportunity,” Obama said.

“And so when I see people who are coming across these borders, whether legally or illegally, I know that the motivation is trying to create a better life for their children and their grandchildren.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was not asked about the wall, harshly criticized it anyway while answering another question.

“If you’re going to build a 12-foot wall, you know what’s going to happen? A lot of 13-foot ladders,” Richardson said to loud applause, adding that the wall would be a “terrible symbol” for the United States.


Even before it began, the Univision debate had illuminated differences in the Democratic field -- such as who was comfortable en español.

Richardson, who is Latino and fluent in Spanish, and Dodd, who served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic and also speaks the language well, had agreed to do the entire debate in Spanish.

But the other campaigns balked, and Univision ultimately agreed on a format in which all the candidates had to speak in English and have their words translated, even if some didn’t actually need the help.

“I was under the impression that in this debate Spanish was going to be permitted,” Richardson said at one point, adding, “For them, not to hear one of their own speak Spanish is unfortunate.”

Regarding Venezuela, Edwards and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska were asked whether they considered its leader, Hugo Chavez, a dictator.

“I would reach out to him,” Gravel said. He said he believed that Chavez had been built up as an enemy of America in part because U.S. leaders had failed to engage him in diplomacy.

Surprisingly, given the debate’s location in Miami, there was relatively little discussion of U.S. policy toward Cuba, a major issue for many Cuban Americans in Florida.

The Cuba questions could be particularly important for Clinton, who may be saddled with lingering bad feelings in Florida over her husband’s record as president and his attempts to extend diplomatic relations with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.


“It appears as though the reign of Castro is coming to an end,” she said in response to a question about Cuba’s post-Castro future, drawing strong applause.