Republicans Reach Out to Latinos in Univision Debate

Republican Presidential candidates recently participated in a Spanish-language debate in Miami. Luis Clemens, of the online journal CandidatoUSA, offers analysis on the debate, GOP outreach to Latino voters and whether one candidate's thoughts on speaking could hurt his chances of becoming his party's nominee.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we're going to take a look at an increase in the teen birthrate after years of steady decline. The rate of teens having babies is inching up again, and we want to know why.

But first, politics in Espanol. Last night, all but one of the Republican presidential candidates faced off in Miami, Florida at a debate hosted by the Spanish-language television network, Univision. The candidates were asked questions in Spanish, which were then translated into English. Then the candidates' answers, given in English, were translated into Spanish.

Here to recap the debate with us is Luis Clemons, editor with CandidatoUSA, an online publication dedicated to covering election news and politics relevant to Latino voters. He joins me from Miami.

Welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LUIS CLEMONS (Editor, CandidatoUSA): Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Now, first, the debate was originally scheduled for August, and then it had to be rescheduled because nobody agreed to come but John McCain. Why did they change their minds?

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, actually, both John McCain and Duncan Hunter originally agreed to the first date that was proposed. The various candidates cited scheduling conflicts, and I think there's some truth to that. But clearly, since we got much closer to the Florida primary, it became more important for the Republican candidates to make their presence known in Florida and target Hispanic voters, where in the state of Florida, Republican primary goers, roughly 8 to 10 percent are Hispanic. So it's a significant chunk.

MARTIN: Everybody came but Tom Tancredo. Now, why didn't he come?

Mr. CLEMONS: Representative Tom Tancredo has, perhaps, the most strident position of the Republican candidates on immigration. He wrote an op-ed, actually, in the Miami Herald ahead of the debate, where he said the Spanish language debate and his participation in it would've offended the spirit of democracy. He very clearly has been consistent in making clear that he has no interest in communicating in Spanish to Hispanic voters. He thinks that's anti-democratic. That's plain wrong.

MARTIN: Did that come up during the debate?

Mr. CLEMONS: It was, in fact, a question asked during the debate - not specifically his decision to not participate, but whether or not the participation of the other candidates would somehow damage their standing with the Republican base. And to a fault, all of them responded saying that no, it would not.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you this. You know, you said that you thought it was pandering. Did these candidates come across - I know I'm asking you for your impression, but did they come across as if they were pandering?

Mr. CLEMONS: Oh, very clearly. Very clearly, they were pandering. They worked in references to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, which in the Miami area - where there are plenty of conservative Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan ex-patriots -it's, you know, throwing red meat to a hungry dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. CLEMONS: It very clearly was pandering to the audience. There's no other way to describe it.

MARTIN: So how do you really feel, Luis?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How do you feel about the whole thing? What were your overall impressions of the debate?

Mr. CLEMONS: It was an insipid debate. It was innocuous. It was sugar-coated answers to softball questions that were largely evaded. They were asked several questions about immigration, which they simply skirted. They restated their existing stance, but what is new - that they did actually toned down their rhetoric. They didn't use the word illegals. They didn't use the word illegal aliens.

MARTIN: I noticed that myself, that they didn't use the word aliens, which is something that makes a constant presence on the campaign trail. And that word was not used. But let me go back. You said you thought that the questions were softball. You really think so?

Mr. CLEMONS: I think so. Yes. And perhaps the format here does not help. The fact that everything has to be translated back and forth makes it unwieldy, makes it virtually impossible for the candidates to interrupt one another and challenge one another and engage in the back and forth that we've seen in previous debates.

What it doesn't inhibit, I don't think, is the opportunity to ask follow-up questions and assure that the tough questions, the few tough questions that were answered - that were asked rather - you have to follow up and press for an answer, and I didn't see that at all during the debate.

MARTIN: Did you see - were there any moments that set out for you? Any candidate answer that you thought was particularly noteworthy that's going to be heavily impact in the days ahead?

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, I think there was one class of responses by almost all of the Republican candidates, which was a significant departure from previous practice, and that concerns Iraq. The answers by all the candidates, with the exception of - as in so many things regarding the Republican race - Ron Paul, were incredibly upbeat about the surge in Iraq. There was talk of victory in Iraq. There was a change, a willingness to address the issue of the U.S. military presence in Iraq to a greater degree, and in a much more positive context and tone than we've seen today.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Interesting also that in - often, when the Republican and Democratic debates are closer together in time, many people say, gosh, it's almost like we're living in a parallel universe here. The tone is so different. Did you notice striking differences or any differences between this debate and the one that the network held for the Democratic candidates back in September?

Mr. CLEMONS: I think, again, there were plenty of softball questions back then. I think there were not as great - or not as sharp differences between what the Democratic candidates had said before the debate and what they said at the debate. That's the most notable difference.

In this case, the Republican candidates clearly came in intending to soft pedal their views on immigration and tone down their rhetoric. That is a marked difference from the Democratic debate back in September.

MARTIN: And finally, did they make it - well, actually, I have two more questions for you. Did they make any, did the Republican candidates, did you notice, make any effort to change the tone in the days leading up to the debate? Was there any increase in their outreach to the Latino community in the days leading up to the debate? Or do you think this is kind of a one-off experience, and it's back to the prior rhetoric after that?

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, I think South Florida experienced a greater presence of Republican candidates reaching out to Hispanic voters in the days before, and today as well, following the - before and after the debate, much more than had happened before.

Largely, Hispanic Republicans in Florida had been ignored by the Republican candidates, with the notable exception of, first and foremost, of Governor Mitt Romney, and secondly, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Is this a one off? I think what it is is a preview of the kind of language, the kind of talk we will hear once there is a Republican nominee, and how that nominee will communicate with Hispanic voters, how they will try and restate their existing positions on immigration without actively offending Hispanic voters.

I'm very curious to see what happens on the campaign trails in Iowa and New Hampshire, to see if they go back to using illegals, illegal aliens in these coming days, if they sent out mailers with that sort of language.

MARTIN: Okay. Finally, Luis, one last quick question for you. Speaking of parallel universe, there was another big political event competing for everybody's attention this weekend in South Carolina, Oprah Winfrey campaigning for Barack Obama. Is anybody talking about that?

CLEMONS: No. I think, I mean, clearly, there's interest in anything Oprah does, but I think it's fair to say that the focus in South Florida was very much on the Republican debate. It had been delayed, as you mentioned right at the beginning, and it was - there was a great deal of expectation, a great deal of curiosity to figure out what the Republicans were going to say and how they were going to address Hispanic voters.

MARTIN: All right. Luis Clemons, I hope you come back and see us.

Mr. CLEMONS: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Luis Clemons is editor of CandidatoUSA. He joined us on the phone from Miami.

Thanks again, Luis.

Mr. CLEMONS: I appreciate it.

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