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Texas candidates prepare for Spanish debate

By Manuel Perez-Rivas
CNN Washington Bureau

(CNN) -- The two top Democratic candidates for governor of Texas will take part in a Spanish-language debate in Dallas that will be televised statewide Friday night, marking a milestone on the American political landscape.

The event is being hailed by Latino advocacy groups and political analysts as recognition of the growing influence of Hispanic voters. This is particularly true in Texas, where more than 32 percent of the state's residents were of Hispanic origin in the 2000 Census.

The one-hour debate between Democratic primary opponents Tony Sanchez, a businessman who struck it rich in the oil industry, and Dan Morales, a former state legislator and attorney general, will be the second debate of the night. The first, also an hour long, will be conducted in English.

"In the context of American politics, this is a pretty big deal," said Washington-based political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "It symbolizes the influence and growth of a key voting group -- Hispanic voters -- in Democratic politics, but also in American politics."

Rothenberg noted that it has become more and more common for candidates -- including Republicans such as President Bush, another Texan -- to make a point of speaking Spanish on the stump, if they can, and of advertising on Spanish-language media in efforts to woo Hispanic voters.

Larry Gonzalez, the Washington director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said the Spanish-language debate is the first of its kind a major race in modern American politics.

Though the political landscape in the U.S. is nothing like Canada, for example, where bilingual skills are a must for politicians, Gonzalez said spoken Spanish is likely to become more prevalent on the campaign trail in the U.S. as the Hispanic population continues to grow.

"And, of course, it's going to depend on how many candidates who speak Spanish there are," Gonzalez said. Nationwide, he said, there are more than 5,200 elected officials of Hispanic origin, at all levels of government.

Still, despite the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population, a situation like the one in the Texas Democratic primary, where the top candidates are both Spanish speakers, remains unusual.

And, despite their mutual Mexican-American background and Spanish skills, Morales and Sanchez have not seen eye-to-eye on the issue of holding a debate entirely in Spanish. In fact, the debate has been a point of contention in the race.

On the day before the debate, Morales announced that he would provide English translations of his Spanish remarks during the televised event.

"The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the people who will be voting in this election consider English their first language, and that includes the vast majority of Hispanic Texans," Morales said Friday on CNN's "Inside Politics."

Meanwhile, Sanchez accused Morales of changing the debate's format at the last minute. Sanchez said he would not be translating his comments because there will be a separate English debate.

"Thats not what we agreed to," Sanchez said, adding that many Spanish-speaking Texans would prefer to hear the debate in their native language. "He agreed to the format, but he's changed it at the last minute. I really don't understand why."




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