CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton insisted Sunday night it's time to start pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq as she and her Democratic presidential rivals debated the war on the eve of a much-awaited assessment by U.S. commanding Gen. David Petraeus.
In the first presidential debate ever broadcast in Spanish, the protracted war in Iraq competed for attention with the swirling argument over immigration. On Iraq, Gov. Bill Richardson retorted that Clinton and others who want to leave residual forces there would leave soldiers at risk.
"I'd bring them all home within six to eight months," the New Mexico governor said in the debate, which was broadcast on Univision, the nation's largest Spanish-language network. "There is a basic difference between all of us here ... This is a fundamental issue," he said.
Clinton said that a report being presented in Washington by Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker this week won't change the basic problem that there is no military solution in Iraq. "I believe we should start bringing our troops home," she said. "We need to quit refereeing their civil war and bring our troops home as soon as possible."
All who were asked about immigration at the debate on the campus of the University of Miami said they would address this vexing issue in their first year in office.
Clinton criticized the immigration bill proposed in the last Congress, dominated by Republicans. That legislation would have penalized those who help illegal immigrants. "I said it would have criminalized the good Samaritan. It would have criminalized Jesus Christ," she said.
That the Democrats participated in the Spanish-language debate is the clearest sign yet of the growing influence of Hispanic voters. The candidates are reaching out to Hispanics with an intensity that speaks to the importance of the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group in the campaign.
Anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas posed questions in Spanish and the candidates had earpieces to hear simultaneous translations into English. The candidates' responses were simultaneously translated into Spanish for broadcast, and English-speaking viewers could watch using the closed caption service on their televisions.
Not surprisingly for anchors who vocally support a path to legalization for the nation's estimated 12 million immigrants, both Ramos and Salinas framed their questions with the basic assumption that immigrants, including those in the country illegally, face discrimination and have been unfairly demonized — a view not universally shared in the English-language media.
Univision's late entry to the field of networks hosting such high-profile political events was evident Sunday night. Reporters from around the world who came to Florida to cover the debate were left with no audio feed in the room where they were placed outside the debate hall for the first 35 minutes of the 90-minute event.
Richardson, one of two candidate who speak fluent Spanish, objected to the debate rules that required all candidates to answer in English. The rule was designed to make sure that no candidate had an advantage in appealing to the Spanish-speaking audience.
"I'm disappointed today that 43 million Latinos in this country, for them not to hear one of their own speak Spanish, is unfortunate," said Richardson, the governor of New Mexico. "In other words, Univision is promoting English-only in this debate."
Dodd, who served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, also speaks Spanish fluently. He called for more U.S. engagement with Latin America, including a lifting of trade embargo against Cuba.
"We're allowing a Hugo Chavez to win a public relations effort in Latin America because we don't invest enough in Latin America," he said.
Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel boasted that he's also bilingual — in French. "I honor everyone who comes to this country as an immigrant because we are all immigrants."
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich said he would make Spanish a second national language, but no leading candidate was willing to go that far.
The candidates were asked why they supported a wall along the Mexican border — and not a similar fence along the U.S.-Canadian border — a question that seemed to catch them somewhat off-guard. Most avoided answering directly, saying simply that they believed security was a key part of comprehensive immigration reform.
"I do favor more security on the border and in some cases a physical border because that has to be part of securing our borders," Clinton said.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama spoke of his father's experience as an immigrant and noted that he supported the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the U.S. Senate last year.
Richardson, who has opposed the wall, said he would commit to comprehensive reform in the first year.
"If you're going to build a 12 foot wall. You know what's going to happen? A lot of 13-foot ladders."
But there are strong feelings against the Iraq war among Hispanics, so that topic lead the debate, with the moderators noting that two-thirds of Hispanics support a withdrawal from Iraq. Kucinich was loudly applauded for saying he would pull troops out.
Obama aligned himself with Kucinich.
"I was a strong opponent of the war, as Dennis was," Obama said, adding that President Bush is trying to make it appear that the 35,000 troop surge earlier this year has had an impact.
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said he's concerned the Petraeus report "will basically be a sales job by the White House."
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, recently returned from a trip to Iraq, skipped the debate to prepare for a Foreign Relations Committee hearing that he is scheduled to chair Tuesday on the Petraeus report.
Univision invited the Republican candidates for a similar forum, but only Arizona Sen. John McCain has accepted.
Hispanics have a new voice in the Democratic primary process with Nevada holding an early contest. Florida also has moved up its primary to Jan. 29, violating party rules. Democratic candidates have pledged to stop campaigning in Florida unless the date is changed by the end of the month.
In 2004, President Bush won about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally, the most ever for a GOP presidential candidate. His Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, won 53 percent, down from the 62 percent former Vice President Al Gore garnered in 2000.
Throughout the debate, Richardson stressed that Hispanic's main concerns are the same as most Americans: the war in Iraq, health care, education and housing.
"We're part of the American mainstream," he said. "We shouldn't be put in a box."