Presidential Debates in Spanish is 'Pandering,' Tancredo Says

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

( - Now that the first U.S. presidential debates have been held in which candidates had their remarks in English broadcast with Spanish subtitles, some analysts called these events "historic," while a GOP contender who boycotted the Republican forum criticized it as having "perilous consequences" for the nation.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who boycotted the debate, said that immigrants must, under law, show the ability to read, write and speak English to become naturalized U.S. citizens.

"So what, may I ask, are our presidential candidates doing participating in a Spanish-speaking debate?" he said. "Pandering comes to mind."

Tancredo added that it is pointless to have a Spanish-language presidential debate in America, where the dominate language is English.

The Sept. 9 forum that featured seven Democratic contenders and the Dec. 9 event that spotlighted seven Republican candidates were aired in primetime over the Univision Spanish-language television network and hosted by the University of Miami.

These debates were "really a recognition of the growing importance of the Hispanic population in the United States as voters," said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy, a think tank examining critical issues affecting countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Univision Communications CEO Joe Uva said in a statement that the events provided an "unprecedented opportunity to connect with the Hispanic community by addressing the issues that matter to them most" and were "part of Univision's commitment to inform, educate and empower Hispanic voters."

The first event drew Democratic candidates: Sens. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Chris Dodd (Conn.), Mike Gravel (Ala.) and Barack Obama (Ill.); former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

Questions during the debate dealt with the Iraq war, health care, and education, though immigration reform took the spotlight. The Democrats promised they would address the issue during their first year in the White House, if elected.

Three months later, it was the GOP's turn, with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.), Reps. Ron Paul (Texas) and Duncan Hunter (Calif.), former Govs. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) and Mitt Romney (Mass.), and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

As in the first forum, the center of discussion was immigration, though most Republican contenders took the opportunity to criticize Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez as a tyrant and called for democracy in nearby Cuba.

The Republican debate had to be rescheduled from Sept. 16, because only McCain accepted the first invitation to take part. Nevertheless, not all GOP candidates attended the Dec. 9 event.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) released a statement over the weekend explaining that he was boycotting the forum. According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, an immigrant must show the "ability to read, write and speak English" in order to become a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Additionally, he or she must show "a favorable disposition towards the United States."

Presidential candidates who participated in the Spanish-language debates were most likely pandering to Hispanic voters, said Tancredo.

"America has been a melting pot of people from all over the world, but it can not survive as a nation if our immigrants do not assimilate," he said. "A common language is essential to that goal."

"Bilingualism is a great asset for any individual, but it has perilous consequences for a nation," Tancredo added. "As such, a Spanish debate has no place in a presidential campaign."

However, the GOP contenders who took part in the event worked hard to boost the party's standing with the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority.

"Hispanic-Americans have already reached great heights in America," said Giuliani. "I saw that in my city. They pushed us to be better. They're coming here to be Americans, and they're making us better by being here in America."

"This is the land of the brave and the home of the free," Romney stated, "and Hispanics are brave and they are free, as are all the people of this great nation."

According to a recent report by the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center, 57 percent of Hispanic registered voters now call themselves Democrats or say they lean to that party, while just 23 percent align with the GOP, compared to 33 points in July 2006.

At 46 million, Hispanics make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population, the center noted. The group's electoral clout continues to be undercut, however, by the fact that many are ineligible to vote, either because they are not citizens or not yet 18 years of age.

Despite these modest numbers, Hispanics loom as a potential "swing vote" in next year's presidential race, because they are strategically located on the 2008 Electoral College map.

Hispanics constitute a sizable share of the electorate in four of the six states that President Bush carried by margins of five percentage points or fewer in 2004 - New Mexico (where Hispanics make up 37 percent of the state's eligible electorate); Florida (14 percent); Nevada (12 percent) and Colorado (12 percent).

But another center report might be bad news for those who see debates translated into Spanish as the way of the future.

Nearly all Hispanic adults born in the United States of immigrant parents report they are fluent in English, even though only a small minority of their parents describe themselves as skilled English speakers.

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