WASHINGTON (AP) – Hispanic leaders are warning of harm to Republican White House hopes unless the party's presidential contenders do more to condemn Donald Trump, a businessman turned presidential candidate who's refusing to apologize for calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers.
Trump's comments, delivered in his announcement speech last month, have haunted the GOP for much of the last two weeks and dominated Spanish-language media. It's bad timing for a Republican Party that has invested significantly in Hispanic outreach in recent years, given the surging influence of the minority vote.
Yet several Republican candidates have avoided the issue altogether, while those who have weighed in have declined to criticize Trump as strongly as many Hispanic leaders would like.
"The time has come for the candidates to distance themselves from Trump and call his comments what they are: ludicrous, baseless and insulting," said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican who leads the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership. "Sadly, it hurts the party with Hispanic voters. It's a level of idiocy I haven't seen in a long time."
The political and practical Trump-related fallout has intensified in recent days.
The leading Hispanic television network, Univision, has backed out of televising the Miss USA pageant, a joint venture between Trump and NBC, which also cut ties with Trump. On Wednesday, the Macy's department store chain, which carried a Donald Trump menswear line, said it was ending its relationship with him. Other retailers are facing pressure to follow suit.
The reaction from Republican presidential candidates, however, has often been far less aggressive.
In a recent interview on Fox News, conservative firebrand Ted Cruz insisted that Trump should not apologize.
"I like Donald Trump," said Cruz, a Texas senator who is Hispanic. "I think he's terrific. I think he's brash. I think he speaks the truth. And I think that NBC is engaging in political correctness that is silly and that is wrong."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said simply that Trump is "wrong."
"Maybe we'll have a chance to have an honest discussion about it on stage," Bush said last weekend while campaigning in Nevada.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who often talks about his re-election margins with Latino voters, called Trump's comments "wholly inappropriate" during a news conference. In a subsequent radio interview, Christie described Trump as "a really wonderful guy (who's) always been a good friend."
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who declined to address Trump's comments directly for more than two weeks, took a more pointed tone in a statement Thursday evening. "Trump's comments are not just offensive and inaccurate, but also divisive," said Rubio, a Hispanic. "Our next president needs to be someone who brings Americans together — not someone who continues to divide."
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Thursday: "I don't think Donald Trump's remarks reflect the Republican Party."
Among others, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former technology executive Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have been silent.
"We're listening very, very closely, not just what candidates say but what they don't say — the sins of commission and the sins of omission," said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, who called Trump's comments "xenophobic rhetoric."
Trump is showing no sign of backing down.
"My statements have been contorted to seem racist and discriminatory," he wrote in a message to supporters on Thursday. "What I want is for legal immigrants to not be unfairly punished because others are coming into America illegally, flooding the labor market and not paying taxes."
"You can count on me to keep fighting," he continued.
In his announcement speech, Trump said Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
Such rhetoric resonates with some of the Republican Party's most passionate voters, who have long viewed illegal immigration as one of the nation's most pressing problems. Yet GOP leaders have urged conservatives to adopt a more welcoming tone in recent years as Hispanic voters increasingly sided with Democrats.
Not since the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush has a Republican presidential candidate earned as much as 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Mitt Romney got a dismal 27 percent in the 2012 contest against President Barack Obama.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton cast Trump's remarks as "emblematic" of a larger perception within the Republican Party.
"A recent entry into the Republican presidential campaign said some very inflammatory things about Mexican immigrants," she said in an interview last month. "Everyone should stand up and say that's not acceptable."
Meanwhile, the attention has helped Trump sell some books. "Trump: The Art of the Deal," first published in 1987, and a release from 2007, "Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life," were both in the top 2,000 on Amazon.com's best-seller list as of midday Thursday. "Think Big," co-written by Bill Zanker, was Amazon's top seller for personal finance.