Republican presidential candidates are adding a twist to one of the principal tenets of medicine: First, do no harm — to yourself.
That was evident Sunday night during their debate on the Spanish language network Univision. No more unbridled attack lines or bitter rejoinders. If there was a model to follow, it was Mike Huckabee, who during a previous free-for-all debate kept his elbows to himself and now sits atop some public opinion polls.
From the start, the candidates faced a challenge that was best addressed with a low key performance.
This was not the usual debate aimed at the Republican base. It was a Spanish broadcast to a Hispanic audience that does not tilt Republican. In fact, a poll last week by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center found Hispanic registered voters favor Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 57 percent to 23 percent, a wider gap than in July 2006.
Moreover, on the hot subject of immigration, Hispanic voters tend to have more sympathy for immigrants, legal or not, than many core Republican voters.
And yet Republicans believe that on other issues — from abortion to support for smaller government — Hispanics have more in common with them than Democrats. In Florida, many Cuban Americans still vote Republican and could be a factor in the state’s Jan. 29 primary.
So the Republican candidates weren’t in town to make enemies.
“Time’s a wastin’ now and they can’t afford to alienate anybody now who could show up at the polls,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
Univision and the University of Miami hosted the debate. The questions were posed in Spanish and simultaneously translated into English for the candidates. Their responses were then simultaneously translated into Spanish for broadcast.
When the expected immigration questions came, the candidates kept true to their stands but abandoned the tone. They sounded virtually the same, praising legal immigrants, calling for a more secure border and arguing that illegal immigration is unjust to foreigners who want to come to the United States through proper channels. Not a single candidate referred to them as “illegal aliens,” a term many Hispanics find objectionable,
Indeed, there was no vitriol. No pointed accusation from Mitt Romney that as mayor Rudy Giuliani permitted New York City to give sanctuary to illegal immigrants. And no riposte from Giuliani that Romney had a “sanctuary mansion” because his landscaper employed illegal workers.
But when asked why Hispanic voters support Democrats over Republicans by a wide margin, only John McCain blamed “the rhetoric that many Hispanics hear about illegal immigration.”
In the end, even McCain, who has supported a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, conceded the public may not be where he is.
“I learned that Americans want the border secured first,” he said. “That’s what we will do. But I’ll say to you what I said at the last debate before a non- Hispanic audience. And that is, we have to address this issue with compassion and love, because these are human beings.”
Giuliani called for tamper proof identification cards for immigrants. And Romney and Fred Thompson decried “chain migration” policies that permit one legal immigrant to host an extended family in the United States.
They tried hard, sometimes quite hard, to find common ground.
With only Texas congressman Ron Paul dissenting, the candidates denounced Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro — a guaranteed applause getter in this predominantly Cuban American city where many loathe Castro and his ally Chavez.
Asked what he would do with Castro, who has reigned through nine different U.S. presidents, Fred Thompson said, grinning: “I’m going to make sure that he didn’t survive 10 U.S. presidents.”
Initially scheduled for September, the debate had to be rescheduled because only Sen. John McCain had agreed to appear on the earlier date. This time, the only candidate who refused to attend was Tom Tancredo, a long-shot candidate who has made a tough immigration stance the centerpiece of his campaign.
Atonement may have been a factor in their participation. In September, Giuliani, Thompson, McCain and Romney were roundly criticized for failing to attend a debate devoted to minority issues at historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore.
In the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the tepid nature of Sunday’s debate may well go unnoticed by the party’s base voters, few of whom will likely have watched a debate broadcast in Spanish.
Don’t count on the good nature to last, though. The Republicans will face each other again Wednesday in a debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper. It’s the last chance for Republicans to contrast each other before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
It’s cold in Iowa, but that doesn’t mean things can’t get hot on the debate stage.
Jim Kuhnhenn has covered politics in Washington for 14 years.