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Round Two: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly of The GOP Debate

Birthright citizenship, border walls and the criticism - and defense -of Spanish were all part of second Republican debate.
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Political scientist and NBC News contributor Stephen A. Nuño and three Latina political scholars weigh in with their opinions on Wednesday night's second Republican presidential debate.

The Good

Both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush defended speaking Spanish. It was refreshing to see the presumptive frontrunners, with any chance of winning over enough Latino votes to make the presidential election a close race, defending Latinos. Mr. Rubio gave a lesson on American patriotism and culture by explaining to Donald Trump that his Cuban grandfather taught him how to love America in Spanish.

This was a decided shift in approach for Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush. “Rubio provided a broader framework for the discussion of immigration and Spanish language, including his personalization of the actual people that are impacted by the issues,” said Christina Bejarano, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kansas University.

Suggesting he might push back on Trump’s assault on immigration, Mr. Bush released a political ad titled “Todos Somos Americanos” (We Are All Americans) two days before the debate, in which he speaks in Spanish and his Mexican-American wife, Columba, speaks in English about family values.

Marco Rubio is by far the most articulate candidate of the group to capture his vision of what it means to be American. He accomplishes this quite effectively through the lens of his immigrant history.

RELATED: In Debate, Rubio Fires Back At Trump Over Speaking Spanish

But if Mr. Rubio or Mr. Bush are looking for pointers on how to confront the anti-immigrant messages coming from their party, they should take a look at Senator Lindsey Graham’s remarkable encounter with Rick Santorum in the earlier debate over immigration. Rather than entertaining Rick Santorum’s position on immigration, Mr. Graham chose to mock him with a relentless barrage of questions, even rolling his eyes at one point to communicate his frustration with Mr. Santorum’s arguments. It was the most powerful moment of the night that Latinos probably did not see.

The Bad

In a debate dominated by discussions about foreign policy, there was little to assess the candidates on domestic issues. Celeste Montoya, an Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies and Political Science at University of Colorado, Boulder, said, “In terms of policy issues that matter most to Latinos, this debate generally didn't offer a lot of substance. There was very little discussion of education. The discussion of healthcare was either on repealing Obama care or vaccines, so very little was said in regard to addressing public access.”

Despite the moment in which Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio defended speaking Spanish, Sylvia Manzano, a principal at the polling and consulting firm Latino Decisions, pointed out the irony of Republicans continuing their harsh stance on immigration at the Reagan Library.

“It was surprising that the word ‘amnesty’ was used many times in the moderator's question, but he never mentioned the last amnesty/Immigration Reform and Control Act”, which Manzano points out was signed by Ronald Reagan. It was a missed opportunity to remind the audience about Reagan’s immigration policies.

The Ugly

The Republicans continue to assault birthright citizenship, something that is highly unlikely to ever change. Carly Fiorina said as much, but “no one defended the 14th amendment, not even those who said mass deportation is not feasible,” says Ms. Manzano.

Despite there being very good reasons to never change the 14th Amendment on birthright citizenship, no candidate seems to care enough to put up an argument in favor of birthright citizenship.

“The birthright citizenship discussion is really troubling," said Montoya. "It takes the negative rhetoric to a whole new level when they start talking about changing the Constitution to essentially keep certain people out.”

The ugliest moment of all, however, was when Jeb Bush pointed out his wife in the crowd and demanded that Donald Trump apologize to her for suggesting that her heritage influenced Mr. Bush’s policies. Mr. Trump responded, “I won’t apologize, I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Mr. Bush continues to have awkward moments in the primary, as he struggles to find his footing in a field dominated by Mr. Trump’s personality. To add to his unbalance, Mr. Bush also saw it fit to pick last night to reveal that he smoked marijuana forty years ago. As awkward as that was, however, it did seem to release some pressure in the building.

NBC News contributor Stephen A. Nuño is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. @stephenanuno

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