CORAL GABLES, Fla.- Republican presidential hopeful John McCain told a Spanish-language television audience yesterday that harsh immigration rhetoric voiced by some Republicans have driven Hispanics away from the party.
McCain 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 at a primary-election debate after the moderator noted that the percentage of the Hispanic vote for the GOP has dropped from President Bush's win in 2004 to last year's congressional elections.
McCain's remark occurred in a debate aimed at an increasingly significant Hispanic voting bloc. But with less than four weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the candidates also knew they were speaking to a broader audience whose views may not always overlap with those of their immediate television audience.
Even McCain, however, joined his rivals in calling for strong border security before attempting to overhaul immigration laws.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he would impose a real and a virtual, technical fence at the U.S.-Mexican border using a "tamper-proof" identity card.
That prompted a retort from Ron Paul, who said that would lead to a national identification card for all Americans "which I absolutely oppose."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said some anger aimed at immigrants is fueled by the influx of illegal immigrants.
"When we make the border secure, a lot of the sentiment goes away. It's a terrible thing when a person who is here legally, but speaks with an accent, is racially profiled by the public," 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.
The debate unfolded with immigration high on the minds of Republican voters and with the race in a topsy-turvy state. Polls show Huckabee bolting from the back of the pack into a lead in Iowa.
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 when we need to talk to Cuba and travel and trade with Cuba," he 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's 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 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?)