The Republicans Flunk Spanish

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Kevin Sanders / AP

Republican presidential candidates on the stage prior to the ABC News Republican presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, August 5, 2007.

To many casual political observers, it may have seemed remarkable that seven of the eight Democratic presidential candidates showed up in Miami on Sunday for the nation's first Spanish-language debate. But the more extraordinary thing is that only one G.O.P. candidate is apparently willing to take part in a Republican follow-up.

The Univision debate showed the growing power of Latino voters; it also showed how that group — which has the potential to swing electorally crucial states like Florida, Nevada and New Mexico — is trending increasingly Democratic. Univision invited all of the G.O.P. candidates to the same forum next week. But only one, Senator John McCain of Arizona, accepted the invitation and the debate has been indefinitely postponed.

That kind of snub wouldn't have seemed possible only three years ago. President George W. Bush won reelection in 2004, in part, due to historic Latino support for a Republican candidate. Fulfilling the dream of Karl Rove, his former top political adviser, Bush drew nearly 40% of the Latino vote, double that of any previous G.O.P. presidential nominee.

So why are 10 G.O.P. candidates so unwilling to face Hispanic voters this year? In one word: immigration. Most Republican platforms on the divisive issue — which are variations of beefing up border controls — serve to shore up their base, but anger most immigrant communities, not just Hispanics. "For the Republicans, if they had a debate in Spanish, on Univision, they would get as many questions on immigration and so they would have to speak about immigration in the same way they speak about immigration on CNN on MSNBC and all the other networks," said Sergio Bendixon, a leading pollster of Latino voting trends. "And that, I'm sure they have figured, would be offensive, almost insulting to most Hispanic voters and definitely to Latin American immigrant voters."

The flip side of that political calculation was apparent on Sunday night. In Miami, all the Democratic candidates rushed to show their support in answering the first question, one clearly aimed at the G.O.P.: "Do you consider that participating in a forum run in Spanish and addressed specifically to Hispanic voters is a political risk for you?"

"It's an opportunity," Illinois Senator Barack Obama said via translator (all responses were given in English and simultaneously translated). "It's a privilege to be here," said New York Senator Hillary Clinton. "An extraordinary privilege," echoed former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's campaign said he had a scheduling conflict with the proposed Republican Univision debate, but his campaign is in "regular contact with Univision about other opportunities in the future," said Alex Burgos, who handles Hispanic outreach for Romney. Burgos was quick to note that Romney was the first candidate from either party to run Spanish-language ads, is the only G.O.P. candidate with an Hispanic steering committee and has an extensive Spanish-language website. Romney was also, notably, the only Republican candidate to put out a statement on the Democratic debate Sunday, contrasting his record with Democratic statements on taxes, health care, trade, relations with Latin America and abortion. (Tellingly, immigration was not mentioned.) A spokesperson for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, "We would love to attend all of the debates we're being asked to participate in, but our campaign has had to make tough decisions based on the accelerated schedule and fundraising demands about the number we can realistically participate in." Calls and e-mails to the campaigns of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson were not immediately answered.

As one of the authors of an immigration reform bill that did more than just push heightened border security, McCain is the only G.O.P. candidate that has a chance to appeal to Hispanic groups, says Eduardo Gamarra, a specialist in Hispanic studies at Florida International University. "There are many people that think that Senator McCain is going to be a formidable candidate, not only because he's taken a middle-of-the-road approach, but because he's positioned to take votes from the Democrats," Gamarra said.

The few G.O.P. candidates who have bothered to campaign in Florida's Hispanic communities have done so on a single-issue platform: keep the Cuban embargo in place. This tactic is a mistake, Gamarra contends, because not only are Cubans no longer the largest Hispanic group in Florida, but many younger Cubans don't have the same strong feelings about the embargo. "Voters are telling us that they don't really give a damn about what they say about Cuba," Gamarra said. "They care about immigration, health care, education and the Hispanic presence in Iraq."

Rove's 2004 strategy was to focus on Hispanic voters in swing states like Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Ohio. "Those groups are now firmly back in the Democratic camp," Gamarra said. Republicans "are losing their base, so they're much less concerned with solidifying what they gained with Hispanics in 2004." And the Democrats have been quick to pick up on Rove's strategy: All four of the top Democratic candidates have aggressively been courting Hispanic voters in those states, Gamarra said.

Fernando Romero, president of the non-partisan Hispanics in Politics, an activist group in Nevada — which now holds an important caucus slot between Iowa and New Hampshire early in 2008 — has also seen little or no G.O.P. outreach this cycle. Romero's group last year endorsed Jim Gibbons, the successful G.O.P. candidate for governor, but this year didn't like the Republican presidential field in part because of the immigration debate and in part because Republicans have neglected the community. "They have certainly really brushed off the Hispanic vote," Romero said. "Not even one of the 10 that are running has made an effort to contact any of the Latino groups in the area."

Not surprisingly, Romero's group has endorsed Bill Richardson, the only candidate of Latino background, for the Democratic nomination. "We have in Bill Richardson an individual who has 15 years in Congress, served as an ambassador to the U.N., was nominated four times to the Nobel Peace Prize, governor of New Mexico. The fact that he's also Hispanic is just the cherry on top."

During the Univision debate, Richardson made the most of his ethnic advantage. Going against the debate's rules, which called for all answers to be given in English, Richardson answered in Spanish. "I'm very proud, first of all to be the first Latino — major Latino candidate to run for President," said Richardson, who has been gaining in polls of early voting states, though he only averages 3% nationally. "I'm disappointed today that 43 million Latinos in this country, for them not to hear one of their own speak Spanish."

Ultimately, it's unfortunate that the Republican candidates seem to be paying little attention to Latino voters, said Bendixon. Historically, the group has been notoriously fickle and capable of swinging from one end to the political spectrum to the other in just two years' time. "If I were a Republican, I wouldn't give up on it," he said. "Though this might be the toughest year yet for them."