An opportunity arose at Univision’s Republican Presidential Forum on Dec. 9 for one of the Republican candidates to break out from the pack.

The Spanish-language television network’s anchor Maria Elena Salinas asked the final question of the night. On reflection, it should have been the leadoff question.

Recognizing that by 2050 one in four people in the United States will be of Hispanic background, she asked what role did each candidate foresee Hispanics playing in the United States’ future?

Present at the forum were Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter. Tom Tancredo, the trenchant anti-immigration advocate, absented himself from this national Latino television audience.

Univision news is arguably one of the best television news organizations in the United States, led by award-winning anchors Salinas and Jorge Ramos.

Although the candidates were flattering of Latinos at times, mostly they postured and pimped. The responses ran the gamut. Romney talked about needing all the U.S. people, Paul about unity with a restored Constitution and McCain about a nation richer for Latino culture and love of country. Thompson talked about national security, family values and work ethic. Giuliani said he valued diverse traditions and Latinos reaching new high levels. Huckabee talked about national unity and the value of having big dreams. Only Hunter, the California congressman, said flatly he wanted to see Latinos in a Republican role, but then digressed to an anecdote about a lady with a bullet wound voting in El Salvador.

You would have thought the bunch were candidates for president of Parador.

Not that there was anything the matter with their answers. It’s just they had little to do with the nation we are becoming, the people who will occupy it, and what we can do now to become the nation we want to become. It’s as if we are too busy yammering about the past to deal with the future.

The fact is the GOP candidates have little concept about Hispanics in the United States. Platitudes, yes; concept, no.

At the companion presidential forum in September, the Democratic candidates touched on a number of touchy matters. Much of the attention went to the now-famous waffle by Hillary Rodham Clinton concerning yes-and-no she supported a controversial New York driver’s-license measure. But what was obvious in September was not so much the issue but the engagement with the party and its candidates.

The disconnect is the same one that the Pew Hispanic Center, in a recent report, documented, showing only 21 percent of Hispanics in 2006 were supporting the Republican Party. Republicans need to tattoo on their arms that Hispanics are a nationwide small share of the total vote but they form a large share of the vote in four of the six swing states that President Bush carried in 2004.

They cannot afford to disengage from Latino interests, nor can the party disconnect unless it wants to throw the election. So what accounts for the inability by the candidates to directly and forthrightly address Salinas’ question?

They seemed out-to-lunch in recognizing where the nation’s trade and professional workforce will come from. Most of all, each and every one of them ought to recognize that we are in this together. Lip service was given to the lowly Latino foot soldiers (some with green cards) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Missing too are the policy analysts who should be working on how to get us out.

The same goes for Latino bankers, mortgage brokers and real estate agents who with their colleagues are the brawny ones to get us out of the mortgage mess when the right policies are in place. They have skin in the game. I don’t detect that those who want to make the policies do. They certainly don’t talk like they do.

So, when time ran out during the question period I wasn’t able to get mine in. This is what I was going to ask: “Thanks, Maria Elena and Jorge. My question to the candidates is this: Tell me again, you are a candidate for what country?”

(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power,” writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)

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