SAN ANTONIO -- Two Texas congressional candidates faced off in Spanish in a debate that could help decide one of the closest races in the country.
Incumbent Republican Rep. Francisco Canseco, 63, a tea party conservative, and challenger Pete Gallego, 50, a Democratic state representative, participated in the hourlong debate sponsored by AARP Texas and the Spanish-language network Univision.
“Welcome to this historic event, in Spanish!” KWEX Univision 41 anchor Arantxa Loizaga, the debate moderator, said as she greeted the crowd of about 250 people at Palo Alto College in San Antonio late Tuesday.
The screen behind her read, “Destino 2012: En Espanol.”
The audience included many Latino seniors, as well as whites and younger voters from the 23rd Congressional District, which stretches along two-thirds of the border from San Antonio to El Paso. Some wore American flag T-shirts, others World War II veteran caps.
English translations for each candidate were provided to spectators via headsets distributed at the start of the debate.
Candidates fielded questions from a panel of reporters at KWEX, the San Antonio Express-News and Texas Public Radio. Most of the questions concerned Medicare, Social Security and the border.
The district, among the largest in the nation, is considered a tossup. Political analysts give Canseco a slight advantage because he is the incumbent, despite a recent poll showing Gallego with a narrow lead.
The district is 66% Latino, with 53% of the residents speaking a language other than English at home, according to the most recent census.
Both candidates positioned themselves Tuesday as self-made men, descendants of immigrants who came to Texas in pursuit of the American dream -- an attempt to appeal to undecided Latino swing voters.
Canseco, a businessman and Laredo native elected for the first time in the 2010 Republican wave, said Medicare was on track to go bankrupt and that Republicans wanted to preserve it, along with Social Security, for future generations. He said the district needed more jobs and better border security.
“I was born on the border; I was born in Laredo. I know the border quite well; I know the dynamics. It’s a machine that could be producing a great deal of jobs,” he said.
At times, he voiced clear tea party positions.
“The best government is that government which governs less. This is the American dream our families came to this country for,” Canseco said, prompting applause.
Gallego, a lawyer from the small West Texas town of Alpine, attacked the congressman’s stance on Medicare, saying Canseco planned to turn it into a “voucher program.” As the two contested the facts, the Democratic challenger resorted to a Spanish saying that translates as, “The truth will out.”
That prompted some whoops from the audience.
Later, when Gallego accused the incumbent of being a party pawn, the challenger used a Spanish idiom: “Más vale ser cabeza de ratón que cola de león.” (Better to be a mouse’s head than a lion’s tail.)
“He wants to be our voice, but he only has the most extremist ideas. In Congress he’s become a parrot for the ideas of his party. We need a leader, not someone who follows others,” said Gallego, who has served in the Texas state House of Representatives since 1991.
After the debate, both candidates mixed with the crowd.
Gallego called the Spanish-language debate “extremely important, given the changing demographics of Texas.”
He said he found it “ironic” that Canseco chose to participate, since Canseco had sponsored legislation that would make English the country’s official language.
Canseco said he participated to clarify his positions to the Spanish-speaking community. “There are so many untruths out there,” he said.
Aida and Larry Ybarra of San Antonio, both independents, small-business owners and Spanish speakers, said they attended with open minds.
Both thought Canseco did a better job of presenting himself and his positions during the debate, speaking fluidly and within the time constraints. By contrast, Gallego ran over time and “sounded like he was translating back into Spanish from English,” said Larry Ybarra, 57.
But Ybarra said he left the debate more inclined to vote for Gallego.
“I don’t like the tea party much,” said Ybarra, a father of three. “The tea party talks about cutting taxes, but what about services? We’re getting closer to retirement age. If things don’t get fixed, how is it going to be?”
Debbie and Will Brinson, also small-business owners and independents, left with the opposite inclination.
The Brinsons, who live about 25 miles north of San Antonio in Fair Oaks Ranch, don’t speak Spanish but attended because it was the only debate scheduled before election day. They came mostly to see Gallego and to report back to their neighbors. They wore the headsets, which they said worked well.
“Canseco seemed like he had a better command of the facts,” said Will Brinson, 59. “Social Security and Medicare are bankrupt — they can’t continue in their current form.”
Brinson shook hands with Canseco after the debate, but also approached Gallego, asking if he had any town hall meetings planned. Gallego said he preferred to talk to voters one on one. Brinson left frustrated.
“I wish they would have another debate in English,” said Debbie Brinson, 58, adding that the language barrier kept her neighbors at home. “This is a very important election, and we want to make sure we make the right decision.”
But Sandra Guzman, 63, a nutritional consultant and translator in San Antonio, said the Spanish debate would probably reach many more voters when it’s televised this weekend.
“There’s a lot of people in San Antonio who can really get to know the candidates in their own language, can really relate,” she said. Guzman said she remained undecided.
English translations will not be provided Saturday when the debate is expected to be broadcast on KWEX and sister stations across the district, Univision said.