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Debate focuses on Hispanic issues

By Ray Quintanilla

McClatchy Newspapers

MIAMI — The nation’s Latino voters took center stage Sunday as the Democratic presidential candidates debated on Spanish-language television for the first time, courting a voting bloc that has often backed Democrats but was split when President Bush won re-election in 2004.

Much of the night focused on two front-burner issues to Hispanics: immigration reform and promoting U.S. relations with Latin America, especially Cuba and Venezuela.

"We have to start lifting the embargo against Cuba," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Latino who chided Univision — the broadcast network sponsoring the forum — for not letting him answer questions in Spanish.

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"As president, I would pay attention to Latin America and associate myself with the democratic movements in Brazil, Argentina and Chile," he explained, criticizing Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut for supporting immigration reform legislation that included construction of a barrier along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Obama called the fence a necessary part of border security and pledged to create "a pathway" to legalization for illegal immigrants in the United States within his first year in the White House. That vow generated applause from the audience of several hundred on the campus of the University of Miami.

Clinton took the issue a step further, saying she would speak out against a wave of anti-Latino sentiment as the nation struggles to reach consensus on immigration. "We must treat people with dignity," Clinton said, adding that her campaign manager is a Latina.

"The Cuban people deserve freedom and democracy," Clinton said. "We need to do all we can to work with our friends to ensure a peaceful transition."

Dodd, a former humanitarian worker in the Dominican Republic, said the political transition in Cuba has already begun and called for lifting travel restrictions because "it’s hurting us. We do not need to fear Fidel Castro. Are we going to sit on the sidelines or be a part of the transition?"

Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska called on the U.S. government to stop deportation raids against suspected illegal immigrants, saying immigrants are being turned into scapegoats for U.S. failures at home and around the world.

Gravel said he would reach out to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. "Did we forget our CIA tried to depose him?" Gravel asked. "We are doing the same thing in Iran."

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the United States could "pull the rug" out from under Chavez by "being a force for good and healing" across Latin America.

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Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio called the North American Free Trade Agreement a major problem between the United States and Mexico. If elected, he would scrap it, he said, and replace it with an agreement that enables workers to form unions to promote better living standards on both sides of the border.

"I will cancel NAFTA," Kucinich declared. "Immigration reform should mean a path to legalization, not walls," he added.

The Latino vote is growing and gaining political muscle, especially in California, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New York and Arizona — home to many of the nation’s 44 million Hispanics.

The Pew Hispanic Center says about 54 percent of Latino eligible voters were registered in 2006, up from 53 percent in 2002. In the 2004 general election, 7.6 million Latinos cast ballots. Bush captured about 40 percent of the vote, enough to help him defeat Sen. John Kerry.

During Sunday’s debate, the moderators asked questions in Spanish that were translated into English for the candidates, whose answers were delivered in English and translated into Spanish for viewers.

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who just returned from a trip to Iraq, did not attend the debate.

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