Instead, they used their first-ever Spanish language debate to walk a delicate line, trying to appeal to the largest minority group in the country without offending a Republican base deeply concerned about illegal immigration.
Besides former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s usual gift of the glib, the top candidates didn’t seem to be comfortable. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, especially, seemed to not offer their best performances.
Given McCain's views on immigration – he was among the most vocal Republican backers of President Bush's ill-fated reform plan – he should have been best equipped for the forum.
But he appeared tired, mispronounced the last name one of his local supporters and offered a dose of extended pandering on Cuban issues seemingly out of touch with his “Straight Talk” image.
Romney was not at his best either.
He offered fodder to his GOP rivals by initially saying that the Massachusetts health care plan he passed was not a “government mandate” — though there is a requirement on citizens to get coverage — before adding that he “meant employer mandate.”
And he was plainly unhappy to be asked about the illegal immigrants who worked on his lawn until last week.
“[E]verybody in the country understands who those folks are,” Romney lamented. “It became a big news story.”
The Hispanic-oriented forum, held on the campus of the University of Miami, was broadcast by Univision and each question posed by the two moderators was asked in Spanish before being translated into English.
The questions were plenty tough – especially on the issues relating to the party and immigration – but there were no follow-ups of the sort that have put candidates on the spot in previous debates and provoked heated exchanges.
The candidates all sought to explain away the GOP’s problems with Hispanic voters as a reflection of their larger challenges and made plain that they saw no conflict between taking a hard line on illegal immigration and appearing at a Spanish-language event.
But with the exception of McCain, each eventually had to detail their opposition to allowing for some form of citizenship for illegals under circumstances much different than what they’re used to along the campaign trail.
Instead of Republican crowds hungry for anti-amnesty rhetoric, the hopefuls were met with moderators and a studio audience more sympathetic to the views of McCain and President Bush on the topic.
So, careful not to pander, some of the candidates unambiguously recited their belief that illegal immigrants should not be granted special privileges.
But they also modulated their language to reflect the venue and medium.
Huckabee said he opposed “an amnesty policy” and that illegals should return to their country of origin.
But then he said he didn’t want people coming here to “live in fear.”
“They shouldn't live in hiding,” Huckabee said. “They ought to have their heads up, because the one thing about being an American is, we believe every person ought to have his or her head up and proud, and nobody should have to be in hiding because they're illegal when our government ought to make it so that people can reasonably come here in a legal fashion.”
Romney emphasized that he wanted to reward those coming into the country legally – but also praised what immigrants bring to the country.
“We welcome the cultures that come here, the education, the work ethic, the family values,” Romney said.
After imigrants do get here legally, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson said, they should be welcomed as they become “part of us” and “part of our family.”
Even Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), one of the most outspoken border hawks in Congress, managed to slip in a nod to his hosts before decrying “amnesty.”
“Listen…when I came back from Vietnam, I was a practicing lawyer in the barrio,” Hunter said, noting a previously little-known portion of his biography. “I was the only lawyer there, and I never turned away a family that came in and needed help.”
When the topic turned to Latin-American relations, any attempt to offset the pandering was quickly dispensed.
The candidates offered crowd-pleasing denunciations of Cuba's Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani drawing the loudest applause for saying agree “with the way King Juan Carlos spoke to Chavez.”
The Spanish monarch told the Veneuzelan leader to “shut up” at a conference last month in an incident that has drawn considerable media attention in Latin America.
McCain touched on the same topic, even trying out his Spanish by repeating the phrase in its original tongue.
Only Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) deviated from the consensus, by saying the U.S. should engage the two Latin American strongmen and that American policies were partially to blame for their rise.
He was met by three rounds of loud boos.
If Paul was the only candidate to draw such an overt sign of displeasure, few of the others drew much sustained applause.
Aside from Giuliani’s one-liner, the candidates were met with a largely restrained response when doing the predictable Castro-bashing here in Cuban-heavy Miami-Dade.
The debate drew considerably less national media attention than past ones.
That’s probably good for the Republican Party, because many of their top candidates were on the defensive and forced to strike a difficult balance, at least in the initial 30 minutes of the forum.
That the candidates took the opportunity to mix in more moderate rhetoric on immigration was a sign that they recognize the danger in “demagoguing” the issue, said one top backer of McCain and immigration reform.
“It was refreshing to hear a different tone, a more respectful tone and if we’d be conducting ourselves this way the whole time we wouldn’t be down to 23% and falling [among Hispanic voters],” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) after the debate.
“If we do what we did tonight we can recover,” added Graham, “if we go back to this ‘I’m going to get to the right of you’ and ‘I’m going to demagogue better than you can’ than we’re going to go back on a glide path to losing in ’08.”