(AFP) – Sep 10, 2007
MIAMI (AFP) — In a dramatic sign of the fast-changing US society, the US Democratic presidential hopefuls late Sunday held a debate in Spanish that was broadcast on the main US Spanish-language television network.
Seven presidential candidates were at the historic event, including the three front runners, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama and former South Carolina Senator John Edwards. Senator Joe Biden, who just returned from Iraq, was absent.
Moderators from the Univision network asked questions in Spanish and the candidates, wearing earpieces, heard a translation in English. The answers were given in English and translated into Spanish for viewers.
The format did not favor New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Christopher Dodd, both fluent Spanish speakers. Richardson is Hispanic and grew up in Mexico, while Dodd learnt Spanish during a two-year Peace Corps stint in the Dominican Republic.
Richardson was even cut off when he sought to answer a question in Spanish, and he chided Univision for allowing an English-only format.
One of the main topics at the debate was immigration.
"We all know that this has become a contentious political issue," said Clinton. "It is being demagogued, and I believe that it is being used to bash immigrants, and that must stop."
Richardson described the fence along the US-Mexico border -- which Clinton, Obama and Dodd voted for -- as "a horrendous example of misguided Washington policy."
"If you're going to build a 12-foot wall, you know what's going to happen," he said. "A lot of 13-foot ladders. This is a terrible symbol of America."
Most candidates also emphasized their immigrant roots. "My father came to this country from a small village in Africa," Obama said, while former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel mentioned his French heritage.
California, Florida, Illinois and New York are home to many of the country's 44 million Hispanics.
According to The Pew Hispanic Center, 54 percent of Hispanic eligible voters were registered in 2006.
In the 2004 presidential election, Republican George W. Bush received about 40 percent of the estimated 7.6 million Hispanic votes.
The Hispanic vote is largely regional, with Florida and some Texas voters leaning towards Republicans and California and New York voters preferring Democrats.
Univision planned to sponsor a similar debate among Republicans next week, but cancelled after only one contender, Republican Senator John McCain, agreed to participate.
The United States has no official language, though some English-only activists have tried to encourage "official" use of English. Some local jurisdictions sensitive to changing US cultural norms have reacted by passing local laws requiring the use of English for government business.
The estimated number of people of Hispanic cultural origins in the United States in 2006 was 44.3 million, making them the largest ethnic or race minority.
Hispanics constituted 15 percent of the total population, which tops 300 million, US census data show.
Some in Florida opposed the Spanish-language event. "This is a very, very bad precedent," said David Caulkett, vice president of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement.
"It's already difficult to keep track of politicians in English," he said, adding that English "is the official language of Florida and the de facto language of our country."
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