December 14, 2007

Univision Debate: Republicans Make Hard Sell to Latinos

By Elena Shore
New America Media

The first Spanish-language Republican presidential candidate debate couldn’t have come at a better time for the GOP. Latino support for the Republican Party has dropped substantially when the Latino vote is more important than ever. The candidates’ jostling over who is tougher on immigration has alienated Latinos even further.

Seven of the eight Republican presidential candidates showed up at the University of Miami Sunday with something to prove. Republican Tom Tancredo declined to participate, calling the Spanish-language debate un-American.

Unlike their Democratic competitors in the Univision debate three months ago, the Republican candidates were vying for the votes of a community that now has little support for the GOP.

Each candidate made a pitch to Latino voters at some point in the debate – but unlike debates in the English-language media, it was a pitch not for the candidate but for the Republican Party.

They did this while walking what some may consider to be a fine line; presenting themselves as opposed to illegal immigration but responsive to the concerns of Latino immigrants.

Candidates addressed legal immigrants, constantly reminding them of their differences from those who came to the country illegally – and even presenting undocumented immigrants as a threat to those who have waited in line to earn legal residency or citizenship. Defining this line between legal and illegal immigrants was essential to their success.

But the line is difficult to draw: As some of the questions reflected, the policies and climate toward undocumented immigrants can have ramifications for all Latinos. With the only question to receive applause from the audience, Jorge Ramos asked whether U.S.-born children who have an undocumented parent “have the right not to be separated from their parents.” Mitt Romney responded by attempting to draw an even deeper line: “We’re going to eliminate illegal immigration to protect legal immigration,” he said.

Maria Elena Salinas noted that four out of five Hispanics in the United States are legal residents or U.S. citizens, and asked what each candidate would do to combat anti-Hispanic sentiment in the United States.

In a bizarre attempt to pin the problem on illegal immigrants, Mike Huckabee said that once the border is secured, this problem will disappear. He said that racial profiling – when people hear an accent and presume the person is illegal – will not be a problem if illegal immigration is eliminated. “It’s in the best interest of legal immigrants to regularize immigration so no one questions their legitimacy,” he said.

Ron Paul was applauded when he answered that this resentment against Latinos actually has more to do with the economy. “If we have a healthy economy,” he said, “I think this problem will decrease a lot.”

As they negotiated the thorny topic of immigration to a Latino audience – through seven Spanish interpreters with different accents (several of whom made noticeable errors) – the candidates came across surprisingly clear. This was especially true when each extolled the virtues of the Republican Party. As if they had discussed the strategy together in the green room, each candidate listed shared concerns of Latinos and the GOP.

“A lot of the rhetoric that Hispanics hear about illegal immigration makes them think that we aren’t in favor of, or seeking the support of, Hispanics in the United States,” said John McCain. “Hispanics are in favor of small business, religion. They’re against regulation. They’re in favor of the Armed Forces.”

Duncan Hunter listed freedom and life as core values shared by Latinos and Republicans.

Fred Thompson cited family and opposition to gay marriage: “Hispanics know what their values are. They know, for example, that marriage is between a man and a woman. They know family is at the center of society.”

Romney shone in the debate, giving a strong pitch for the Republican Party in his opening remarks: “People came here for opportunity and our party is the party of opportunities. We stand for strength in the home, the family, the economy, the military… and so, of course, Republicans are going to have to speak to Hispanic Americans in the language they understand best.”

Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, gave an essentially different pitch for the GOP.

Rather than arguing that so-called “Hispanic values” mirrored the values of the Republican Party, Giuliani took a different approach than the other candidates, arguing that Hispanics have the same priorities as all Americans, including health and education.

When asked if their participation in the Univision debate risked losing conservative votes, Giuliani laughed, saying that “Hispanics are Americans too,” and we all share the same concerns.

Judging by the cheers (for everyone, especially Romney) and boos (for Paul, when he suggested that the United States should talk with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro), the Miami audience gave the candidates instant feedback as they pleaded their case to Latino voters.

As much as anything they said, simply participating in the historic Spanish-language debate showed that the Republican Party may finally realize that they need Latino votes. The only question now is, Is it too late?

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