CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Democratic presidential candidates were meeting Sunday night for the first debate broadcast entirely in Spanish, the clearest sign yet of the growing influence of Hispanic voters.
The debate at the University of Miami will be broadcast by Univision, the nation's fifth-most watched network.
Anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas will pose questions in Spanish and the candidates will wear earpieces to hear simultaneous translations into English. Similarly, their English answers will be translated into Spanish for the live, 90-minute broadcast.
English-speaking viewers can watch using the closed caption service on their televisions.
Two participants — New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd — have objected to the format because they speak Spanish and want to address the viewing audience directly. Debate rules say all answers must be in English to level the contest, but it was unclear whether Richardson or Dodd would comply.
Other participants include Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel.
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, recently returned from a trip to Iraq, is skipping the debate to prepare for Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings he will chair Tuesday with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Candidates in both parties are reaching out to Hispanic voters with an intensity that speaks to the importance of the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group in the campaign.
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.
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 not to campaign in Florida unless the date is changed by the end of the month.
Richardson has a Mexican mother and has made overt appeals to Hispanic voters, including announcing his candidacy in English and Spanish. He has said he doesn't think many Hispanics realize he is one of them.
Dodd, who served in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, spoke in Spanish and English on Saturday in Coral Gables as he criticized U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Obama and Edwards are among candidates devoting portions of their Web sites to Spanish speakers.