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How Did Republicans Do In Debate? Our Latino Panel Weighs In

The GOP debate included more barbed attacks against Trump and a discussion on whether the Latino candidates embrace Latino issues.
Image: Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz
From left, Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump and Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speak and gesture during a Republican presidential primary debate at The University of Houston, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, in Houston. David J. Phillip / AP

Candidates Focus on Their Base, not Texas

Jeronimo Cortina / Jeronimo Cortina

The show is over and now it is time to play ball. Super Tuesday is around the corner and everything is at stake for Mr. Trump, Sen. Cruz and Sen. Rubio. The five remaining candidates will be battling for 641 delegates to the Republican National Convention to elect their next nominee. The last Republican debate held at the University of Houston highlighted, once again, the complexities of many of the issues surrounding the presidential campaign as well as the inability of many of the candidates to communicate clear and out-of-the-box policy proposals.

Notwithstanding the perils that poverty, limited healthcare and poorly funded education impose on Texans’ future, border and immigration related issues according to recent poll data have become one of the most important problems that the state faces today.

A recent poll by Houston Public Media and the Hobby Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston show that 57 percent of Texans think that undocumented migrants should be offered a chance to apply for legal status if they have a clean record and pay a fine, while 34 percent think that undocumented migrants should be deported to the country they came from.

During last night’s debate Mr. Trump and Sen. Cruz were the only candidates that clearly were out of touch with Texans’ attitudes on immigration. At least Sen. Rubio was trying to thread the needle by creating a separation between his view that executive actions on immigration are unconstitutional instead of focusing on the need to deport all undocumented immigrants.

However, this won’t affect their chances to win the jewel of the Super-Tuesday crown. Mr. Trump and Sen. Cruz were talking directly to their electoral base: Evangelicals and members of the Tea Party, who are the ones who turn out to vote. It is clear that both candidates understand that to win the White House they need first to win 1,237 delegates even if this means alienating a huge proportion of the almost 5 million Latino eligible voters in Texas. Both candidates have taken the risk, the question now is if this risk translates into more or less delegates. We’ll find out in a couple of days when the Super Martes finally arrives to Texas.

Jeronimo Cortina is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston.

An Unconventional Debate in an Unconventional Election

Celeste MontoyaCeleste Montoya / Celeste Montoya

The Republican primary debates have turned into a reality TV show, where substance and logic are stale and the entertainment is provided by the mudslinging and catfights. Who will be voted off this week? Not Donald Trump, because if nothing else, he knows how to entertain. If this was a conventional election season, I would say he did poorly. Cruz demonstrated the skill and cunning that has gotten him in front of the Supreme Court, using The Donald’s words and records against him.

Rubio demonstrated that he speaks policy, more clearly and with the highest level of specificity of any of the remaining candidates, except perhaps Kasich. Both tried to press Trump on details and pointed out the deficient responses. But this is not a conventional election and this was not a conventional debate. As Carson rightly joked about, the rules granting the right to respond to attacks kept the spotlight on the three frontrunners. Cruz and Rubio launched well prepared assault against Trump, questioning his commitment to conservative principles. He, in turn, swatted them away dismissively with personal insults and little substance. It’s actually astounding how little Trump says, but it is working! If tonight’s debates, where this was abundantly clear, doesn’t turn the tide for other candidates, I don’t know if anything will.

Regardless of the apparent lack of interest, let’s try to pull some of the substance out of the spectacle. In regard to immigration, maybe it was because they’re starting to think about the general election, or maybe because Telemundo was there, we started to hear slightly more nuance in some of the discussion. Trump, despite sticking to his guns about building a wall that he will make Mexico pay for, talked about perhaps letting back in “the good ones” after they are deported. Rubio reemphasized that he would repeal DACA on day one, but rather than instant deportation, the program would be phased out, with no new applicants or renewals. Kasich articulated a more moderate approach, with discussion of a guest worker program and nods to the comparatively humane approach taken in the Reagan and Bush era. Of course, he did this making reference to “the illegals.” Carson, also referenced a guest worker program. He also was the only person to suggest that this might be a foreign relations issues.

After the discussion of “illegal immigration” all the candidates made sure to express their love of Latinos. Cruz, while emphasizing his Cuban heritage, argued that not all Hispanics are liberal and that “the values in our community are faith, family, patriotism.” Rubio pointed out that with two descendants of Cuban origin, and an African American, Republicans are the party of diversity, not a statement that will win over many Trump supporters. Kasich referred to “our friends” in the Hispanic community and in the African American community, and that the promise of America can be for everyone. Carson went to NALEO and Trump reminded everyone that Hispanics love him, he employs them, and they’re incredible workers. He also referenced winning the poll in Nevada. Which is kind of true...but I’ll let Stephen explain that.

In an ironic conversation about the Supreme Court, candidates argued for the need of a strict Constitutionalist without reference to the current nomination blockade. The emphasis was instead, on religious liberty and abortion. This transitioned into an interesting Trump interlude where he praised Planned Parenthood for all its important work in providing women’s healthcare, but that he would still defund it. Usually the whiplash goes in the other direction and when we shift from primary to general election campaigns, but hey, that’s using conventional logic.

Shockingly, all of the candidates will repeal Obama care. But don’t worry, Trump won’t let anyone die in the street. Policy specifics (when they did appear - although to be fair, there were more than usual) seemed to revolve around health care savings accounts and market solutions. Cruz and Rubio tried to accuse Trump of supporting socialized healthcare. And while he may have made some vague statements in that directions, I’m pretty sure there is little chance of him becoming Bernie Sanders.

Speaking of which, I’d really like to see the Republicans pressed more on issues being addressed in the Democratic debates. Soon enough, one of them is going to be pressed on issues of income inequality. What education plans do they have? How will they respond to calls to make higher education more affordable? How do we deal with and avoid crises, like the one in Flint? Mass incarceration? Wage gaps? Yes, these issues do not rank high on the list of priorities for Republicans, but they will be a part of the general election. And while national security continues to be a mobilizing force, domestic policy will likely be bigger.

Celeste Montoya is an Associate Professor in the Department of Women & Gender Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Debate An Exhausting Spectacle

Raul Reyes / Raul Reyes

And then there were five. When Jeb Bush dropped out of the Republican race for the presidential nomination, he congratulated his competitors who were, as he put it, “remaining on the island.” His reality-TV show reference was apt, since the GOP race has grown nastier as the stakes have grown higher. Tonight the ugliness was on full display at the University of Houston in a debate that was an exhausting spectacle.

On the positive side, there was a substantial immigration section right away. But it was sadly typical that the candidates often provided evasive or non-answers. Ted Cruz was asked what would happen to the U.S.-born children of the undocumented immigrants he wants to deport; he gave a long answer that never came close to actually answering the question.

Donald Trump had an off night, because he was tag-teamed by both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. For once Trump was on the defensive, though it remains to be seen if this will hurt his standing in the polls. It was notable that nearly every time one of the other candidates was asked a question, they gave a brief answer and then pivoted to attacking Trump. Some of these attacks were effective, yet the sense of desperation in the air was impossible to ignore. It was as if the other candidates suddenly realized that Trump was not off-limits to direct questioning and challenges. Imagine how different this race might have been if they had arrived at this collective conclusion sooner, instead of now when Trump seems to be riding a nearly unstoppable wave of momentum. Trump, for example, is beating Rubio in the polls in his home state of Florida.

Still, we did see cracks in the teflon of The Donald. His foreign policy and health care answers bordered on incoherent. Asked about how he would help bring about peace in the Middle East, he said that, “It doesn’t help to demean the neighbors” – ignoring the irony here with regard to his derogatory statements about our neighbor, Mexico. On the subject of U.S./Israel relations, Trump stated that he was once the grand marshal of the Israel Day Parade. And pressed about polls (one from Telemundo) showing that large majorities of Latinos have a negative view of him, Trump declared that, “I don’t believe anything Telemundo says!” – and then added in the next breath, “I love Telemundo!”

Rubio came ready to roll. He was armed with opposition research, reminding viewers (repeatedly) of allegations that Trump hired undocumented workers in the past, and that Trump’s “university” is under investigation for alleged fraud. These solid blows to Trump may overshadow the fact that Rubio reiterated his own opposition to DACA and his opposition to helping Puerto Rico with its debt crisis –positions that are sure to get play in Latino and Spanish-language media.

Way too much time at this debate was wasted on “issues” like Trump’s income tax returns. Meanwhile there were no questions about gun control, on a night where three people were killed at least 18 wounded in a mass shooting in Kansas City or the new Texas law allowing people to carry guns on state college campuses. Nor was the question of voter suppression raised, in a state with controversial Voter ID laws.

At times this debate descended into chaos, with cross-talk, shouting (“He called me a liar!”), and Wolf Blitzer yelling “Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” It could all be seen as entertaining, were these five individuals not seeking the office of the presidency. Surely, an independent voter who tuned in to see the best the Republican Party has to offer in 2016 would come away disappointed.

Ben Carson, who was largely irrelevant otherwise, did score the line of the evening when he said that he would vet potential Supreme Court nominees by looking at “the fruit salad of their life.” The Internet and social media exploded with glee.

It was refreshing to see a poised, knowledgeable Latina, Maria Celeste Arraras from Telemundo, among the moderators. How unfortunate that CNN confined her to “Latino issues” and questions about the border.

Raul Reyes is an NBC Latino contributor, attorney, journalist and TV commentator.

At Least Nobody Argued for More "Carpet Bombing"

Stephen A. NuñoStephen A. Nuño

The good part was someone finally decided it was time to attack Donald Trump. Say what you like about his larger than life personality, up until now the Republicans had largely allowed Trump to say whatever he wants without much of a challenge. Perhaps the one exception was Jeb Bush, and he's no longer around, but the other candidates were happy to let Jeb Bush take on Trump and then stand around and do nothing.

Instead, most of the candidates had succumbed to trying to out-Trump Donald Trump. I'm not really sure how this demonstrates leadership, but here we are the week before Super Tuesday and the GOP is poised to select a television personality as the leader of the party. I suppose there is precedent for this in the GOP, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised. The GOP has been on a perpetual search to replace Ronald Reagan since the first Clinton took office, perhaps it's ironic that Trump is the closest thing to "the Gipper" than anyone had previously realized.

I find it difficult to take any debate seriously in which the main candidate explains the ease with which we could build a wall along the Mexican border by citing The Great Wall of China, which is over 13,000 miles long, and then saying that it was simply impractical to build a wall across the Canadian border because, well, that would be a "massive border". And I guess it's not surprising that this was a good enough response for the GOP crowd to accept. Sounds legit.

At least nobody was arguing for more carpet bombing campaigns or wondering out loud if sand could glow in the dark after a bombing attack. But Trump continues to turn up the heat on foreigners and last night he said with an eery nonchalance, "I don't mind trade wars" with Mexico and China. Trade deficits are a reason to have a trade war, rather than creating financial incentives for companies to stay home I suppose. I should also consider a trade war with my local Safeway seeing as they are apparently obligated to buy things from me since I buy so much from them. And yet, applause from the audience.

Sure, a free education for everyone is mind boggling impractical, but waving your hand and saying, "the wall just got 10 feet taller" made a lot of sense to the crowd, and I'm sure feeds the salivating frustration of the GOP base.

But the highlight of the night for me was when even Trump wouldn't endorse a health care system that would leave people to die in the streets and Ted Cruz came back with "so you're a liberal on health care" and "so does the government pay for everyone's health care?". Sure, I guess that's what that means, Mr. Cruz. Sigh.

Stephen A. Nuño is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Northern Arizona University.

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