Democrats condemned divisive immigration rhetoric and promoted issues important to Hispanics during a televised debate last night on a leading Spanish-language network.
The debate, in which the presidential candidates' remarks were translated live from English, was billed as a historic first and provided the candidates an opportunity to address America's estimated 17 million Hispanics of voting age in what for many is their native language.
Seven of the eight Democratic candidates participated in the Univision debate at the University of Miami, eager to court a Hispanic constituency that many believe 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, was the only Democrat not to take part.
By comparison, only one Republican, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has accepted Univision's invitation to a GOP debate that was scheduled for next week, forcing the network to postpone it. Political observers suggested the sharp difference in participation underscored Republican candidates' fears about saying the wrong thing on immigration, an issue that has enraged the conservative base.
"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 GOP candidates might have been 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, saying he would. But Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut dodged the question, speaking in generalities about the importance of Latino Americans and 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 supported comprehensive reform measures that would allow Hispanic immigrants to work in the U.S., and she chided Republicans in Washington for failing to help craft compromise legislation.
Obama condemned what he called "fear-mongering" by politicians who were scapegoating immigrants and said he would unite people.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was not asked about the wall, 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.
Even before it began, the Univision debate had illuminated differences in the Democratic field - such as who was comfortable speaking in Spanish.
Richardson, who is Hispanic and fluent in Spanish, and Dodd, who lived in the Dominican Republic while serving in the Peace Corps and also speaks the language, had agreed to do the entire debate in Spanish.
But the other campaigns balked at that potential display of linguistic grandstanding, and Univision agreed on a format in which all the candidates had to speak in English and have their words translated.
"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."
Miguel Bustillo writes for the Los Angeles Times.