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Spanish Speakers Highlight Democratic Primary Debate


Last night in Miami, the first of two Democratic primary debates. Ten candidates said what they thought about climate change, health care, the economy and a lot of other stuff. Now, these debates are a chance for voters to hear the candidates, to get to know their voices. And last night, some of those voices were in Spanish.


JULIAN CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

BETO O'ROURKE: (Speaking Spanish).

CORY BOOKER: (Speaking Spanish).

KING: Julian Castro introducing himself, Beto O'Rourke saying we need to listen to every voice and Cory Booker saying the president attacking and demonizing immigrants is unacceptable. With me now, Democratic strategist Maria Cardona and Republican strategist Scott Jennings.

Good morning to both you guys.

MARIA CARDONA: Good morning. Or should I say buenos dias?

KING: Maybe you should. Listen. I...

SCOTT JENNINGS: Claro que si.

KING: I was really struck that we had three candidates for president speaking Spanish on that debate stage.

Maria, what did you think?

CARDONA: I actually thought that it's an indication of how important the Latino community is in this country and obviously, especially for the Democratic primary. I think the candidates understood that so many of the policies that this president has put forth and so much of the rhetoric that has marginalized and scared and really essentially put aside Latino voters - and, frankly, a lot of voters of color in this country - really came through last night. And the fact that there were various candidates that were trying to speak Spanish and speaking Spanish - some of them do know Spanish - I think indicated that the Latino community is going to be a very important voter electorate going into the 2020 election.

KING: Let's talk about immigration because there was this heated exchange between Julian Castro and Beto O'Rourke. Castro's been making this point that he doesn't think crossing the border without documentation should be a criminal offense. He thinks it should be a civil offense. And he was really hammering that last night.

Scott, when you heard him saying that, what did you think?

JENNINGS: Well, I think it's what Democrats have to say to win this primary, but I'm not sure it's going to be a popular position if someone with that position is their party's nominee for a general election. I think most people think we can walk and chew gum at the same time, and that means enforcing our borders, having border security, trying to dissuade people from breaking our laws, while at the same time handling the humanitarian crisis at the border. But it strikes me that the Democratic position of having less border security, of having less deterrents for coming to the United States in an illegal way and not at a port of entry is not something that's going to be broadly popular in a general election format.

KING: And just to be clear, not necessarily less deterrents just a different type of offense is what he's arguing for - civil not criminal. Let's talk about President Trump because he was expected to loom kind of large in yesterday's debate, and I think there's a question as to whether or not he really did. But here's what some of the candidates said.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: This president is 10 minutes away from going to war - one tweet away from going to war.

TIM RYAN: We have a president of the United States who's so focused on hate and fear and division.

CASTRO: On January 20, 2021, we'll say adios to Donald Trump.


KING: Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan and Julian Castro - Scott, what did you think? Did any of these candidates strike you as a competitor to President Trump at this point?

JENNINGS: No, not really. I mean, after watching the debate, my general view was, this really was the JV debate. With the exception of Elizabeth Warren, I didn't see a potential threat to Trump on the stage. And even Warren sort of faded over the last two thirds of the debate. I was stunned, frankly, that none of them actually went after the person they should be looking at, and that's Joe Biden. I thought the person who was going to dominate the news this morning would be the person who had the guts to say, we can't nominate Biden. I'm better, and here's why. But nobody did that. I think tonight's debate features people who are more likely to be competitive with the president. I didn't see that last night.

KING: Maria, let's break that out a little bit. Do you think Elizabeth Warren was as disappointing as Scott seems to be suggesting?

CARDONA: No, not at all. I think Elizabeth Warren made a very strong standing last night. And I think she still comes out of this debate as being one of the front runners. But look. I think Julian Castro had an extraordinary night. I think that he really benefited from acute knowledge on the issues that he was talking about. There's no doubt that he was - he bested everyone else on the issue of immigration.

KING: You think so?

CARDONA: And I think that he had a breakout moment. And the fact that he came in there with very low expectations really worked to his advantage last night. And I think you're going to - everyone's talking about him this morning. And I don't think people were talking about the fact that they would be talking about him this morning. So that's a big, big win for him. And I think it gives him another opportunity to get to the next level. And I disagree with Scott. I think a lot of people on that stage would absolutely - could beat President Trump and would be absolutely much better commanders in chief than he is right now at this moment.

KING: Were you surprised, just quickly, that we did not hear more about Joe Biden?

CARDONA: I was, actually.

KING: Yeah.

CARDONA: I do agree with Scott on that point. But I'll say this. I think that the candidates last night were in there to do one thing - to make themselves better known to the American people. And I think that a lot of them would have run the risk, if they went after Biden, that they would be looked at negatively from a primary electorate that they need to win over and not alienate.

KING: All right, last question for you both. Based on what you saw last night - Maria, let me start with you - are there any lessons from the - for the candidates who will be debating tonight?

CARDONA: Well, I think that what we're going to see tonight that was different from last night is that I do think tonight, you're going to see the candidates really go after Trump in a much more aggressive, frontal manner. Clearly, that has been the tactic for Biden because he is trying to demonstrate to the American people that he's going to be the one that's going to be nominated. And they're showing - he's showing how he's going to go against President Trump. And I think the others will do the same tonight.

KING: Scott, you've called tonight's debate the varsity team. What do you think about this going forward?

JENNINGS: I think tonight we're going to see them set it up - and I - by them, I mean the moderators - to try to really get Biden and Sanders to mix it up. Last night, they set it up, I think, for it to revolve around Elizabeth Warren to some degree. But tonight, I think what everybody is looking for is, can Bernie Sanders create a compelling argument that Joe Biden cannot win the presidency and that he can? So I would expect a lot of fireworks among those candidates early.

KING: Republican strategist Scott Jennings and Democratic strategist Maria Cardona.

Thanks to you both, guys.

CARDONA: Thank you.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.