Damage Control: Meg Whitman and the Latino Vote

Tensions are high at the Univision debate between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown.
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Republican candidate Meg Whitman and her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown made two things Saturday in the first ever Spanish-language debate in the race for governor of California: history and good television.

History was made because the 60-minute event -- held midday on the campus of Cal State Fresno and translated accordingly for both the audience and the candidates -- marked a political acknowledgment of the increasingly important Latino vote in the Golden State.

A political acknowledgment, which experts believe, is both astute and no longer really an option for political hopefuls in this country.

Tensions are high at the Univision debate between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown.
War of Words at California Gubernatorial Debate

"The demographics are very clear," says Shira Toeplitz, National Political Reporter for Politico. "Hispanic voters are a growing block of voters and politicians are going to have to look at that when they want to run for re-election, this year or two years from now or two years from that."

It is largely undisputed in the political world that the Latino vote is an essential one. Latinos compose approximately 21 percent of the electorate and roughly a third of California's population as a whole.

In fact, Whitman herself even admitted at the start of the debate, "I cannot win the governor's race without the Latino vote."

And that's exactly why her campaign has so aggressively targeted California's Latino community; opening neighborhood offices in the state's Latino hubs and creating numerous ads for Spanish-language radio and television stations that communicate her ideas on jobs and the K-12 education system.

And, up until this week, these focused campaign efforts had been working. Whitman had garnered approximately 26 percent of the California Latino vote.

"$120 million of her own money later, she was leading in the polls," says Toeplitz. "Traditionally Democrats have a hold on Latino voters in most areas of the country, including California; but Meg Whitman really made a play for that section of California and that voting block. And she was doing pretty well, relative to other Republicans."

That is until Whitman's former housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, came forward earlier this week -- flanked by powerhouse Democratic attorney Gloria Allred -- to announce that she is an illegal immigrant and she had been employed by Whitman for nine years.

This is where Saturday's gubernatorial debate got ugly because, as hard as Whitman and the debate's moderator tried to turn the discussion away from this topic to issues like jobs, taxes and education, Brown tried even harder to keep the conversation exactly where it was -- on Nicky Diaz.

So, when the candidates were asked about their platforms on immigration, Brown slyly said, "These people are working for Miss Whitman."

When Whitman tried to discuss her plans for future tax breaks, Brown responded:

"It's not just about cost-benefit, about tax breaks, about competition; we're also human beings. When someone works with you, you do have familial bonds and ties. And I think, if that story is to be believed, I think Meg flunked the most fundamental test of all, and that is to treat people with respect and decency."

And when Whitman answered the moderator's question about how she plans to help her Latino constituents by declaring that she plans to crack down on jobs and education to fix California's ailing economy; Brown responded, "Talking about cracking down, Miss Whitman obviously did not crack down on herself."

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