By RUSSELL CONTRERASS, Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ The moderator gave New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez the nod to start her opening statement. She smiled, then looked at the camera.
“Welcome. And thank you very much for the opportunity to talk to the Hispanic people of my community,” Martinez said in Spanish.
It marked Martinez’s entry in an emerging trend as Republicans and Democrats around the U.S. court Hispanic voters.
From California to Texas, colleges and Spanish-language networks are hosting similar Spanish debates regardless of candidates’ fluency amid the growing influence of Latinos as swing voters in key races.
Florida gubernatorial candidates, for example, will meet in a Spanish debate Friday, though both GOP Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Democrat, will use a translator.
In California, Republican Congressman David Valadao and Democratic challenger Amanda Renteria conducted a debate entirely in Spanish on Saturday in a race for the state’s 21st Congressional District in central California.
But in New Mexico, the debate came as Democratic challenger Gary King sought to replace Martinez, a Republican and the country’s first Latina elected governor in any state.
“I appreciate the opportunity to be here today,” King said as his voice faded away to a translator’s words. He then attacked Martinez for her opposition to raising the state’s minimum wage and for the state’s low ranking on child well-being.
The New Mexico debate and others like it acknowledge the ability of the growing and increasingly independent voting bloc to swing an election.
The overwhelming majority of Hispanics in New Mexico speak English, but the culture of bilingualism runs deep. Across the state, some local government bodies start meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish.
Still, Matt Barreto, co-founder of a nonpartisan Latino political research firm and a University of Washington political science professor, said Hispanic voters see Spanish-language debates as a sign of respect and a genuine effort to acknowledge their importance.
“The debate is more for symbolism,” said King, who is white and the son of a popular former governor.
In recent years, other notable Spanish debates included a 2010 event in California and a 2007 Democratic presidential forum.
The KLUZ-TV Univision Nuevo Mexico-sponsored forum for Martinez and King offered few surprises. Both candidates just repeated previous talking points, and the debate ran a mere 30 minutes.
However, the debate did give Spanish-speaking voters a chance to hear the candidates’ views on a state law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses. King said he was for it. Martinez said she was against it for safety reasons.
“It’s not a problem of immigration. It’s a problem of security,” Martinez said in Spanish.
Barreto said in 2010 Martinez took around 38 percent of the Latino vote in New Mexico at a time when most GOP candidates garnered 20 percent nationwide. If she gets more than 40 percent and wins, the Martinez candidacy may be used as a blueprint for the GOP as it struggles to make inroads with Hispanic voters.
Speaking Spanish is one way to make such voters comfortable, Barreto said.
“Everyone remembers (former Texas Gov.) George W. Bush speaking Spanish, even though it was bad,” Barreto said. “He ended up in the White House.”
Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras