Republicans Hablan Español in Miami

No prior Republican debate has been as inherently interesting as the one that took place this evening, hosted by Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas for the Spanish-language TV net Univision at the University of Miami. Ironically, it almost didn't happen.

Given the candidates' record of temerity, refusing BET's offer of a debate forum focusing on black issues, no one really expected GOP candidates to contest the immigration issue in front of the one audience that is presumably most alienated by Republican positions -- including opposition to "amnesty" for people who are in the country illegally and support for strict border controls.

Univision had, in fact, tried to schedule the debate for September but called it off for lack of participants; the immigration-friendly John McCain being the notable exception. There was little appreciable backlash or even notice at the time. Moreover, CNN's concocted questioning process in the last debate, as well as the Democrats' own fear of the Fox's den, had largely inoculated Republicans from accusations that they are dodging hostile audiences.

In truth, though, it's impossible to imagine a more friendly venue for Republicans to address Hispanic audiences than Miami, home of what is probably the most politically conservative Hispanic population in the world. Despite lots of intimations in the MSM that Republicans were putting themselves at risk by addressing a Spanish-speaking audience, it's difficult to understand the hesitancy. A refusal to debate in Miami would have been interpreted by many Hispanic swing voters as both a lack of courage, a serious charge, as well as interest in the community's support. One of the first questions to the participants dealt with that perceived "risk" and all the candidates shrugged it off as if they had always intended to attend.

According to Washington Times writer Stephen Dinan, it was Fred Thompson who broke the informal boycott and accepted Univision's invitation, "igniting a dash to sign up by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee." Ex-prisoner-of-war John McCain, of course, was already onboard.

In the interest of full disclosure, I worked with Sen. Thompson both at ABC Radio when he was doing commentary for the Paul Harvey show and in the early days of his non- and then official campaign. Continuing with full-disclosure, I should also point out that I live in South Florida -- so my view of Tom Tancredo's refusal to participate in the debate differs quite a bit from some who blog for this outlet.

Tancredo issued a release stating that, "It is the law that to become a naturalized citizen of this country you must have knowledge and understanding of English, including a basic ability to read, write, and speak the language ... So what may I ask are our presidential candidates doing participating in a Spanish speaking debate? Pandering comes to mind."

While he may very well hold this view, it is also true that Tancredo would have likely faced particular hostility, if not jeers. Last year, he characterized Miami as "a third-world country" and blamed the crime rate on the high concentration of Spanish speakers. Floridians, including Jeb Bush, let Tancredo know that they thought his analogy was unfortunate at the time, and a lot of people down here still haven't forgotten. Univision's pre-debate coverage included reminders for those with short memories. Tancredo continues to play the butt of Dave Barry's jokes, who protested that, "For the record, that charge is unfair: Miami is WAY better armed than any third-world country."

The Miami resident's humor, as usual, conceals an important grain of truth. Miami is the last place Republicans should be alienating. It's not an accident that the modern wave of "concealed carry" gun laws began in Florida, a result of an alliance between our politically conservative Cuban population and the Southerners up North in the panhandle. It was, in fact, Republican Governor Bob Martinez who signed the concealed carry bill into law after Democratic governor Bob Graham repeatedly vetoed it.

Tancredo misses the point when he focuses on the language used in the debate instead of the legal status of immigrants. Cuban Americans are in America, by definition, legally and their presence has been enormously beneficial for both America and Florida -- and I include those who still prefer to hear Spanish translations of candidates' view. From the earliest days of the Republic, politicians have addressed immigrant voters in native languages ranging from Dutch and Gaelic to Yiddish and German. Fiorello LaGuardia, whose heritage I believe was similar to Tancredo's, spoke to voters frequently in Italian.

Moreover, South Florida's crime rate predates the Latin influx and has a lot to do with geography and the nature of prohibitions. Al Capone was only one of many who ran contraband from the Caribbean islands through the Florida swamps and Northward, taking out the competition all the way to Chicago and New York. His victims in the St. Valentines Day massacre were Irish, if I recall correctly. I don't say that to demean in any way, incidentally, my fellow Italian-American citizens.

Regardless, all these inherent tensions have made this the most compelling of the debates thus far, especially because of immigration issues -- which is what most the evening's most discussions centered on. I would go as far as stating that it was the best of the debates as well, perhaps because there was no interplay between the candidates due to the nature of a translated debate. The candidates, by the way, had their own individual translators; and there was apparently an effort made to match the voices of the translators to the candidates. Several people who were watching live e-mailed me that they thought the effort had added to the experience, even if the matches weren't perfect. I note also that, waiting for the debate to begin, Univision news coverage of the Iraq war was much more supportive of the American military than I'm used to getting from English-speaking outlets.

The questions, posed by anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas were evenhanded and non-hostile though often blunt, especially the one posed to Mitt Romney about firing his undocumented gardeners. His answer was, basically, that the law was the law and that we needed a system that would allow American employers to easily verify legal status, was in keeping with the rest of the crowd -- except Ron Paul who opposes any kind of a national ID card as a violation of privacy.

There was also a broader question about the legal status of babies born in America to illegal parents that demanded clear answers from the candidates. For several reasons, I won't give a point-by-point analysis here of the answers, which were all consistent with the candidates' prior public positions as far as I could tell. The first reason I won't report the details of answers, as opposed to giving general impressions, is that I watched the Spanish version of the debate and am not a qualified translator. Moreover, the original English version should be online by the morning.

My observations are really more directed to the overall impact of the debate, which was bifurcated by necessity. It is assumed, correctly, that most Americans of Latin extraction, i.e. Mexican-Americans, favor liberalizing immigration policies to the point of amnesty. Univision serves this market.

The dominant Latin culture in Miami where Univision's production facilities are centered, however, is Cuban. Due to the lingering effects of the Cold War and the Castro dictatorship, Cubans enjoy a unique immigration status and any Cuban who makes it onto American soil is granted refuge and a track to citizenship. Caught offshore or outside our borders, Cubans can be turned away but, once they have set a foot on dry land, they are usually granted automatic legal status.

More than half of Miami's Latin population, which accounts for approximately two-thirds of the total population there, has Cuban roots. Their economic and political influence is greater than their raw numbers bely, though, because so many of the first waves of emigrants fleeing Communism were educated and accomplished. Cuba was one of the wealthiest countries in the hemisphere prior to the debilitating impact of Castro's totalitarianism, with a standard of living that surpassed many European countries. By demonizing and persecuting his most successful private citizens, Castro encouraged the outflow of his best and brightest to South Florida.

Fortunately, I argue, we welcomed them by passing special immigration status laws for Cuban exiles. Given this immigration double standard, however, Cubans tend to hold very different views about immigration than non-Cuban Hispanics but are extremely reticent to say so. Some Cuban-Americans privately even fear that a comprehensive immigration reform could threaten their unique status. The audience at the debate therefore was less concerned about immigration issues and more supportive of Republican efforts to close the border.

Many of the comments from the candidates tonight were clearly directed at the Cuban rather than the Mexican audience, focusing more on Castro than issues that would appeal to a less educated and less wealthy audience. This may have been wise as traditional support for Republicans in Florida has been slipping in recent years as the generation that suffered the direct effects of Communism is displaced by English-speaking descendants who have virtually no interest in returning to Cuba.

Audience reaction was respectful of the candidates, though not all in attendance were handpicked by the local Republican Party. Mitt Romney's people voice consistent enthusiasm, reflecting the consensus that he has the best and most organized campaign in Florida. Ron Paul even had his enthusiastic supporters though he also drew the only boos of the night when he called for dialogue with Castro. He also prompted vocal disapproval when the questions turned to Hugo Chavez, refraining from joining the rest of the candidates in criticizing the nascent dictator and declaring that America's problems in this hemisphere are the result of our meddling.

The two best laugh lines were from John McCain and Fred Thompson. McCain, speaking about Hugo Chavez, approvingly quoted, in Spanish, the now famous putdown by King Juan Carlos of Spain. When Thompson was asked about Castro outlasting nine American presidents, he cracked something to the extent that we should make sure that he doesn't make it through a tenth.

Not surprisingly, I think, a number of my Spanish-speaking friends sent me messages saying that McCain, who bragged of getting 70 percent of his state's Latin vote and still seems to favor some sort of path for granting citizenship to illegal immigrants, came off particularly well in terms of the overall Hispanic audience. Friends in California were especially convinced of McCain's effectiveness, though Floridian contacts didn't necessarily share that conviction. Several watchers told me that Mike Huckabee may have scored well with the larger Hispanic community as well, effectively communicating compassion and concern for undocumented workers who would be disrupted by enforcement of immigration laws.

Looking through my notes at high points, I note a few standouts. When asked about anti-Hispanic sentiments, Rudy Giuliani responded that we need to close the back door of illegal immigration to keep the front door of legal immigration open. Once again, this is a rough translation. Huckabee also blamed bad feelings toward Latino-Americans on the problem of illegal immigration, and predicted that it would evaporate when borders are enforced. Duncan Hunter was warmly applauded when he mentioned that his son had served three tours as a Marine in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was, I think, a good night for Republicans. Univision's Sept. 9 Democratic Party debate showed 2.2 million viewers according to Nielsen. It will be very interesting to see how the Republicans have done when the overnight numbers come in.

Patrick Cox is a regular columnist for Agora Financial, one of the world's largest independent publishers of investment research.