Prominent Latino conservatives are concerned that the Republican National Committee’s decision to pull out of a February debate over a dispute with NBC will wind up affecting the party’s Hispanic outreach.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus decided to call off the Feb. 26 presidential debate, which was to be hosted by the Spanish-language station Telemundo, over concerns with how another NBC network, CNBC, handled a recent debate.
Alfonso Aguilar – head of the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership, which seeks to engage the Latino community in conservative causes – told Fox News Latino that while he understands why Priebus objected to the CNBC debate, he doesn’t understand why Telemundo and its large Latino audience should pay the price.
“CNBC was incompetent in the way they managed the debate,” Aguilar acknowledged. “The moderators showed bias and incompetence.”
Even during the debate itself some of the candidates complained that the questions were insulting or not substantive enough; others were frustrated at the lack of air time they got.
But Aguilar, for one doesn’t believe that performance would be repeated. “Telemundo is a separate organization. I have the utmost respect for Telemundo,” he said.
Daniel Garza, executive director of the conservative LIBRE Initiative, said in a statement that cutting off Telemundo could imperil efforts to form a bond between the GOP and Latinos.
"Conservative candidates in states across the country have succeeded by engaging with the Hispanic community on a positive message of limited government and greater prosperity,” Garza noted. “Those who seek the support of the Hispanic community in 2016 need to find ways to do just that, and failing to go forward on a debate with the Spanish-language outlet, Telemundo, would truly undermine that effort.”
The GOP candidates also appear to be concerned with the decision.
"I think we ought to have a Telemundo debate or a Hispanic debate — it happened four years ago," candidate Jeb Bush told reporters on Monday. "Telemundo isn’t part of the problem of CNBC."
Conservative Latino groups, which for years have been prodding the GOP to make a greater effort to court Hispanic voters – who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2012 – are also concerned that the decision will provide an opportunity for Democrats.
The Democrats already have a March debate scheduled on Telemundo’s principal competitor, Univision, and the Democratic National Committee is now in talks with NBC to take the Telemundo debate slot, according to the New York Times.
That would give Democrats two opportunities to communicate directly with the increasingly important Latino voting bloc to none for the Republicans.
Aguilar hopes it won’t come to that.
“I would hope that the RNC and the campaigns look for an alternative that focuses on the Hispanic community,” he told FNL. “It could be another forum where they focus on Hispanics, or they could keep the Telemundo debate but make sure that Telemundo, and not NBC, has complete control over it.”
LIBRE’s Garza expressed a similar desire. “We encourage all parties involved to work together to ensure that a debate takes place,” he said in the statement, “on terms that ensure all Americans – and particularly the U.S. Hispanic community – have the opportunity to hear about the issues on a fair and honest platform."
Among the GOP candidates, there was enough concern over the RNC’s decision that 11 campaigns sent representatives to a private meeting to discuss how to handle future debates.
Those at the meeting agreed to several changes, including having the campaigns coordinate directly with network hosts, mandatory opening and closing statements, an equal number of questions for each candidate, and pre-approval of onscreen graphics, according to Ben Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett, who hosted the meeting.
"The amazing part for me was how friendly the meeting was," Bennett said, noting the gathering was held in a room marked "family meeting." ''Everybody was cordial. We all agreed we need to have these meetings more regularly."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.