CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The Republican presidential candidates sought to embrace Hispanics in a Spanish language debate, striving to mark common ground with a growing voter bloc while softening the anti-illegal immigration rhetoric that has marked their past encounters.
The candidates avoided the harsh exchanges and name-calling of their most recent debate, while still emphasizing the need for border security and an end to illegal immigration.
The polite debate Sunday night came less than four weeks before the Iowa caucuses that traditionally start off the months of primary contests in which the parties decide on their final candidates. In the topsy-turvy race, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has bolted to the lead in Iowa.
Only Sen. John McCain warned that harsh immigration views voiced by some Republicans have driven Hispanics away from the party. The senator from the border state of Arizona has stood apart from most of his Republican rivals because he supported changing immigration laws and creating a path for citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"I think some of the rhetoric that many Hispanics hear about illegal immigration makes some of them believe that we are not in favor of or seek the support of Hispanic citizens in this country," he said.
Univision, the Spanish language television network, and the University of Miami hosted the debate. The questions were posed in Spanish by Univision anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas and simultaneously translated into English for the candidates. Their responses were then simultaneously translated into Spanish for broadcast.
Republicans have had trouble courting Hispanics, who have become an increasingly significant source of votes. A poll this week by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center found Hispanic registered voters favor Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 57 percent to 23 percent, a wider gap than in July 2006.
Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were especially critical of each other over illegal immigration in a Nov. 28 Republican debate, with Romney accusing Giuliani of providing a sanctuary for illegal immigrants while he was mayor of New York City. Giuliani shot back, reminding Romney that his landscaping firm had been found to hire illegal workers and dubbing Romney's house a "sanctuary mansion."
But it was Huckabee who got better reviews for expressing a more compassionate view toward illegals. The lesson appeared to have been learned.
"Hispanic-Americans have already reached great heights in America. I saw that in my city. They pushed us to be better," Giuliani said. "They're coming here to be Americans and they're making us better by being here in America."
Added Romney: "This is the land of the brave and the home of the free, and Hispanics are brave and they are free, as are all the people of this great nation."
Still, Giuliani, Huckabee and Romney made it clear they would not favor a special path toward citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants in the Unites States illegally.
"There can't be an amnesty policy, because that's an insult to all the people who waited, sometimes, ridiculously, for years, just to be able to make the transition here," Huckabee said.
Giuliani stressed the need for a tamper-proof identification card and the need to control the borders.
That prompted a retort from Ron Paul, who said that would lead to a national identification card for all Americans "which I absolutely oppose."
Said Romney: "Those who have come illegally, in my view, should be given the opportunity to get in line with everybody else, but there should be no special pathway for those that have come here illegally to jump ahead of the line or to be come permanent residents or citizens."
Thompson, asked if children born in the United States from illegal immigrants should be separated from their parents, said the greater issues is "chain migration."
"Right now, we have a situation where people can bring in spouses, children, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and so forth," he said. "I think that people should be able to serve as a basis for the bringing in of their spouses and of their children, but I do not think there should be endless chain migration. So I think that is the issue to focus on, and not innocent children who are born here not of their own accord and who our courts have said are United States citizens."
In this, the heart of Cuban-American country where Fidel Castro is still ostracized, Paul was loudly booed when he called for improved relations with Cuba.
"We're at a time where we even ought to talk to Cuba and trade and travel to Cuba," Paul said.
As he spoke, other Republican presidential campaigns e-mailed reporters news releases pointing out that Huckabee has supported an end to the Cuban embargo. It is a position shared by a number of Republicans and Democrats, particularly in the Midwest, where farmers say a new opening with the island nation would provide an expanded market for their goods.
The candidates, with the exception of Paul, denounced Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez as a a tyrant.
Asked how to deal with Chavez, both Giuliani and McCain made reference to Spain's King Juan Carlos recent retort to Chavez during a November summit in Chile of Latin American nations and Spain and Portugal: "Porque no te callas?" (Why don't you shut up?)
At one point Romney stumbled when describing the health care plan he helped institute while governor of Massachusetts. The plan requires individuals to obtain health insurance or face penalties.
But in his reply to a question about health care, Romney said: "You need to have health insurance for all of our citizens. And I've found a way to do that without requiring raising taxes, without a government mandate, without a government takeover."
He promptly corrected himself, to say he meant that the Massachusetts plan does not place a mandate on employers to provide health care.
Initially scheduled for September, the debate had to be rescheduled because only McCain had agreed to appear. This time, the only candidate who refused to attend was Tom Tancredo, a long-shot candidate who has made a tough immigration stance the centerpiece of his campaign.
McCain, Romney and Giuliani voiced support for school choice for parents. Romney also stressed improving teacher pay, and Duncan Hunter, a California congressman, expressed dissatisfaction with what he called "old credentialing," calling for school systems to use people such as aerospace engineers to inspire students.