Democratic Candidates Court Latino Voters

As part of an effort to woo the nation's rapidly growing Hispanic population, all but one of the Democratic presidential candidates converge at a first-of-its-kind debate at the University of Miami Sunday.

The 90-minute forum will be televised nationally in prime time on Univision, the most watched Spanish-language television network in the United States.

"For the first time in U.S. history, a debate will focus exclusively on Latino issues," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democratic Network, a political advocacy organization.

However, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Hispanic presidential candidate, has been asked to refrain from showing off his fluent Spanish-speaking skills. Questions will be asked and answered in English, and then translated into Spanish for the network's TV, radio and online platforms.

All of the Democratic presidential candidates agreed to the debate. However Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., pulled out on Friday.

His office said he will be too busy after just getting back from a trip to Iraq, appearing on a Sunday morning talk show on Sunday, and preparing for Tuesday's Senate hearing assessing Iraq's stability.

A similar Hispanic debate for the Republican presidential candidates scheduled for Sept. 16 was canceled because Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the only candidate who said he could attend. McCain supported the failed immigration reform effort in the Senate.

Hispanic Voters a 'Battleground Community'

Latinos are the nation's largest minority group, representing nearly half the total population growth between 2002 and 2006, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Hispanics will represent about 10 percent of the U.S. electorate in 2008.

In a close contest, analysts say Hispanics could make the difference in who finishes first -- providing they come out to vote.

Political strategists say the debate is a key part of a tactical strategy to win the support of Latino voters in key battleground states such as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Florida, where the Hispanic population is rising.

"This is a battleground community of huge consequence that could decide the next president of the United States," Rosenberg said.

Democratic Candidates Court Latino Voters

With immigration reform emerging as a top issue in 2008, Democratic candidates are vying to attract Latinos like never before.

The Democratic National Committee has scheduled the party's convention in Denver; Colorado is a state with a growing Hispanic population.

Many of the candidates have Spanish-language sections on their campaign Web sites, including Richardson, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who also speaks Spanish fluently.

Richardson Struggles for Name Recognition

Despite having a mother who is Mexican, being fully bilingual and being raised in Mexico City, most Hispanics don't know who Richardson is.

Six in 10 Latinos say they have never heard of the governor, according to a June USA Today/Gallup study.

"With a name like Bill Richardson, it's a bit of a challenge," said Tom Reynolds, Richardson's national press secretary.

"His name is not a traditional Hispanic name so the Latino community doesn't readily make that connection." he said.

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