Interlacing calls for tougher immigration policies with admiration for the family values and entrepreneurship of Hispanic immigrants, Republican presidential hopefuls attempted to win back waning support among Hispanic voters in the party's first televised debate in Spanish last night.
Even as they attempted to salvage their standing among Hispanics, the candidates did not back away from vows to close the borders and issue a national identification card to track new immigrants. But several tried to soften language from the campaign trail that could be alienating a bloc of voters that helped send President Bush back to the White House in 2004.
"There can't be an amnesty policy," a former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, said, adding moments later: "Nobody should have to be in hiding because they're illegal."
A study released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center found that Republican gains among Hispanics in recent years have disappeared in the last few months, possibly jeopardizing the party's chances to win several key swing states in the general election.
The Spanish-language television station Univision hosted the debate at the University of Miami, and many of the questions for the candidates were drawn from Univision viewers. The vast majority of the questions submitted focused on the candidates' views on the subject of immigration, which dominated the first half of the debate. The Republicans waded carefully into the delicate issue by emphasizing their concern about the rule of law and arguing that the growth of the illegal immigrant population threatened legal immigrants.
"There should be no special treatment," a former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, said, adding that he would welcome the immigrants "who've been standing in line first."
Mr. Huckabee suggested ending illegal immigration by closing the borders would be a good thing for Hispanic immigrants because they would no longer be stereotyped as illegal.
Mayor Giuliani said of Republicans that "none of us have been perfect" on the issue. "It is no picnic to live as an illegal immigrant," he noted after promising to make it impossible for people to enter the country illegally.
Candidates deflected a question about the American-born children of illegal immigrants whose parents are deported, with several saying they would seek to cut down on "chain migration," in which immigrants sponsor their family members.
As the author of a bill to grant a path to legal residency to illegal immigrants, Senator McCain seemed to be on the surest footing during the debate. He was the only candidate throughout the entire debate to utter a phrase in Spanish — to loud applause — repeating the King of Spain's call on President Chavez of Venezuela to "shut up."
In the past few months, most of the Republican candidates have established hard-line immigration platforms that are largely similar, but several candidates have had to defend their pasts to do so.
Mr. Huckabee has been confronted with his support of a plan to allow the children of illegal immigrants to have access to scholarships, while Mr. Giuliani has been dealing with the characterization of New York City as a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants.
When Mr. Romney was asked about new allegations last week that he continued to employ a Boston company to tend his lawn and paint his house after it was disclosed last year that the company had hired illegal immigrants, the former Massachusetts governor responded with a call for a national employee verification system.
Univision had originally scheduled the debate for September, according to published reports, around the same time that Democratic presidential hopefuls participated in a Spanish-language debate hosted by the station.
Senator McCain was the only Republican to accept, however, insulting some Hispanic leaders and leading the station to postpone the debate until yesterday. Asked about whether he worried that his appearance at the Spanish debate could hurt his standing with the Republican base, however, Mr. Giuliani echoed the other candidates, saying he didn't "see any risk at all."
Only one of the Republican candidates declined the second invitation: Rep. Tancredo of Colorado, who has championed border control, attacked a bill that would create a path to legal residency for illegal immigrants, and likened Miami to a "Third World country." "Our democracy doesn't need different messages to different audiences in different languages that aren't listened to or understood by other groups," Mr. Tancredo said in response to the invitation, according to a Spanish translation of his remarks published on the Univision Web site.