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GOP debaters beckon Hispanics

Immigration dominates session aired in Spanish

Republican presidential candidates (left to right), former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former senator Fred Thompson, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Representative Ron Paul of Texas, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and Representative Duncan Hunter of California stood onstage prior to the debate last night. Republican presidential candidates (left to right), former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former senator Fred Thompson, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Representative Ron Paul of Texas, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and Representative Duncan Hunter of California stood onstage prior to the debate last night. (carlos barria/Reuters)
Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / December 10, 2007

CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Republican presidential candidates tempered their tough talk on illegal immigration and praised the Hispanic community's family values as they sought to stem the exodus of Hispanic voters from their party during the first debate of the GOP campaign to be broadcast in Spanish.

Much of last night's debate focused on immigration, as the candidates grappled with unusually pointed questions, such as what to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, what to do with children who are born here to illegal immigrants, and how to defuse what a moderator called the party's "anti-Hispanic sentiment."

Many of the candidates said Hispanics are like many Americans in supporting a stronger military, family values, and pro-business policies. They also called for a crackdown on illegal immigration, but did so carefully, cognizant that the debate was being shown on Univision, which calls itself the most-watched Spanish-language broadcast television network in the United States.

The candidates spoke in English during the debate at the University of Miami, and their words were translated into Spanish simultaneously.

"We're not going to cut off immigration; we're going to keep immigration alive and thriving," said Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. "But we're going to end the practice of illegal immigration. It's not inhumane. It's humanitarian. It's compassionate. We're going to end illegal immigration to protect legal immigration."

Rudy Giuliani struck a similar note, saying he wanted to "close the back door" of illegal immigration to "preserve the front door" of legal immigration.

"This isn't a harsh rule, this isn't a cruel rule," the former New York mayor said of his plans to enforce immigration laws. They make sense, he said, "so people don't hurt themselves, as well as us. It's no picnic to be living as an illegal immigrant."

The candidates also grappled with Latin American affairs and education. But Giuliani seemed to acknowledge the tough spot many of the candidates found themselves in when he said, "None of us have been perfect. All of us have been struggling," with the immigration debate.

A survey released Thursday by the Pew Hispanic Center showed Hispanic voters have been bolting the Republican Party in recent months, with 57 percent saying they are Democrats or favor the Democratic Party and 23 percent saying they are Republicans or favor the GOP. That 34 percentage point gap was just 21 percent in July 2006.

All the Republican contenders except Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado took part in the debate. Tancredo has said he won't participate in a Spanish-language debate and has been campaigning against legal and illegal immigration.

"I'll give you some straight talk," Senator John McCain of Arizona said. "I think some of the rhetoric that many Hispanics hear about illegal immigration makes some of them believe that we are not in favor nor seek the support of Hispanic citizens in this country."

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, said he wanted to win back Hispanic voters by focusing on jobs and education. He also mentioned trying to reduce disproportionately high rates of diabetes and high school dropouts among the nation's 46 million Hispanics.

"If our policies reflect lifting people up, we'll get the vote," Huckabee said.

Representative Ron Paul of Texas said he would attract Hispanic voters by disentangling the United States from Iraq and other foreign missions.

"Hispanics, like all Americans, are tired of it - they're pro-peace" Paul said.

Representative Duncan Hunter of California, who said he was a "practicing lawyer in the barrio," when he returned from Vietnam, pledged to win Hispanic votes by taking on Castro.

Later, asked about the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants, he pointed to an image of the Statue of Liberty on the stage and declared, "We have to establish the rule of law, and people who are here illegally have to go home."

Huckabee said he wanted to give illegal immigrants a "reasonable window of time" to go back to their countries and wait to apply for reentry. He also said the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States was fueling anger toward all immigrants.

"When we make the border secure, a lot of the sentiment goes away," Huckabee said. "It's a terrible thing when a person who is here legally, but speaks with an accent, is racially profiled by the public."

The debate was much more polite than previous forums, in part because the format did not allow the candidates to question one another.

Only McCain ventured to speak in Spanish. Talking about Hugo Chávez, McCain said in somewhat halting Spanish that he would tell the Venezuelan president: "¿Por qué no te callas?" (Why don't you shut up?) He was quoting King Juan Carlos of Spain, who used the phrase to quiet Chávez at a recent international forum.

Paul drew some boos from the audience when he said he would show Chávez "friendship," and allow him to talk and trade with the United States.

Giuliani pounced on the answer. "I actually agree with the way King Juan Carlos spoke to Chávez, far better than what Congressman Paul wants to do," Giuliani said. "Chávez is acting like a dictator and he should be treated that way."

Romney was asked whether he had told immigration authorities about the lawn care company that the Globe reported has been using illegal immigrants to tend to his Belmont lawn. Romney has since fired the company.

Romney did not answer the question head-on, but said the company owner, Ricardo Saenz, was "an old friend," whom he had told "in no uncertain terms," to hire only legal workers.

"He did his best and he made a mistake," Romney said. "He doesn't have a way to determine whether the people he's hiring are legal or illegal. . . . That's why we need an employment verification system."

Many of the candidates contended that that Hispanic voters share the their core values.

"They know that marriage is between a man and a woman, for example," said Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator. "They know that the family is at the center of societies, and strong families build better societies. Those are things that they share with all other citizens of the United States."

Added Romney: "This is the land of the brave and the home of the free, and Hispanics are brave and they are free, as are all the people of this great nation."

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