(AP) The Republican presidential candidates sought to embrace Hispanics in a Spanish language debate Sunday, striving to mark common ground with a growing voter bloc while softening the anti-illegal immigration rhetoric that has marked past encounters.
The candidates avoided the harsh exchanges and name-calling of their most recent debate, while most emphasized the need for border security and an end to illegal immigration. The polite debate came less than four weeks before the first votes are cast in Iowa and amid a topsy-turvy race in which former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has bolted to the lead in the state.
Only Sen. John McCain warned that harsh immigration rhetoric voiced by some Republicans have driven Hispanics away from the party. The Arizona senator has stood apart from most of his Republican rivals because he supported changing immigration laws and creating a path for citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"I think some of the rhetoric that many Hispanics hear about illegal immigration makes some of them believe that we are not in favor of or seek the support of Hispanic citizens in this country," he said after the moderator noted that the percentage of the Hispanic vote for the GOP has dropped from President Bush's win in 2004 to last year's congressional elections.
Republicans have had trouble courting Hispanics, who have become an increasingly significant source of votes. A poll this week by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center found Hispanic registered voters favor Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 57 percent to 23 percent, a wider gap than in July 2006.
Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were especially critical of each other over illegal immigration in a Nov. 28 GOP debate, with Romney accusing Giuliani of providing a sanctuary for illegal immigrants while he was mayor of New York. Giuliani shot back, reminding Romney that his landscaping firm had been found to hire illegal workers and dubbing Romney's house a "sanctuary mansion."
But it was Huckabee who got better reviews for expressing a more compassionate view toward illegals. The lesson appeared to have been learned.
"Hispanic-Americans have already reached great heights in America. I saw that in my city. They pushed us to be better," Giuliani said. "They're coming here to be Americans and they're making us better by being here in America."
Still, Giuliani, Huckabee and Romney made it clear they would not favor a special path toward citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants in the Unites States illegally.
"There can't be an amnesty policy, because that's an insult to all the people who waited, sometimes, ridiculously, for years, just to be able to make the transition here," Huckabee said.
Giuliani stressed the need for a tamper-proof ID card and the need to control the borders.
That prompted a retort from Ron Paul, who said that would lead to a national identification card for all Americans "which I absolutely oppose."
Said Romney: "Those who have come illegally, in my view, should be given the opportunity to get in line with everybody else, but there should be no special pathway for those that have come here illegally to jump ahead of the line or to be come permanent residents or citizens."
In this, the heart of Cuban-American country where Fidel Castro is still ostracized, Paul was loudly booed when he called for improved relations with Cuba.
"We're at a time when we need to talk to Cuba and travel and trade with Cuba," he said.
As he spoke, other Republican presidential campaigns e-mailed reporters news releases pointing out that Huckabee has supported an end to the Cuban embargo. It's a position shared by a number of Republicans and Democrats, particularly in the Midwest, where farmers say a new opening with the island nation would provide an expanded market for their goods.
The candidates, with the exception of Paul, denounced Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez as a a tyrant.
Asked how to deal with Chavez, both Giuliani and McCain made reference to Spain's King Juan Carlos recent retort to Chavez during a November summit in Chile of Latin American nations and Spain and Portugal: "Porque no te callas?" (Why don't you shut up?)
Univision, the Spanish language television network, and the University of Miami hosted the debate. The questions were posed in Spanish by Univision anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas and simultaneously translated into English for the candidates. Their responses were then simultaneously translated into Spanish for broadcast.
Initially scheduled for September, the debate had to be rescheduled because only Sen. John McCain had agreed to appear. This time, the only candidate who refused to attend was Tom Tancredo, a long-shot candidate who has made a tough immigration stance the centerpiece of his campaign.
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