ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Political rivals for New Mexico governor faced off in a Spanish debate Monday, a rare event that nonetheless marked an emerging trend as Republicans and Democrats around the U.S. court Hispanic voters.
The debate and others like it acknowledge the ability of the growing and increasingly independent voting bloc to swing an election.
Spanish forums have been held recently in California and Texas, and Florida has one scheduled Friday. Other notable Spanish debates include a 2010 event in California and a 2007 Democratic presidential forum.
Most candidates, including New Mexico Democrat Gary King, use translators. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, however, answered in Spanish.
The forum, sponsored by KLUZ-TV Univision Nuevo Mexico, covered topics including the economy, education and a state law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to have a driver's license.
"It's not a problem of immigration. It's a problem of security," Martinez said in Spanish.
King disagreed with the governor's desire to repeal the law. "I'm concerned about making two classes of citizens" if the program is dropped, he said in English.
About 47 percent of New Mexico's population is Hispanic, and the state's bilingual culture runs so deeply that some government agencies begin meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish.
The debate provided Martinez "an opportunity to connect and appear comfortable," said Matt Barreto, co-founder of a nonpartisan Latino political research firm and University of Washington political science professor.
Martinez, the nation's first Hispanic woman elected governor, often takes positions that align with national Republicans, which can put her at odds with Hispanic voters, the majority of whom are Democrats.
Still, Martinez took around 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2010, showing more success with the demographic than most other GOP candidates at the time.
King, meanwhile, needs to expand his appeal to knock off the incumbent. His inability to speak Spanish won't "hurt him more than it will help her," Barreto said.
Supporters of King, who is white and the son of popular ex-Gov. Bruce King, say the forum gave him a showcase for Democratic principles that should help him capitalize on the party's national momentum with Hispanic voters.
In 2004, more than 40 percent of Hispanic voters supported George W. Bush for president. By 2012, about 75 percent of Hispanics went for President Barack Obama.
Martinez and King largely stuck to previously stated positions.
King criticized Martinez over child poverty. "We're last in child welfare," he said. "That's the most egregious."
Martinez countered by saying that some of the state's lowest-performing schools had gotten better under her watch and promising that things would continue to improve.
Ralph Arellanes, a Martinez critic who chairs the Hispano Roundtable, a civil rights group, said some Hispanic voters support Martinez because she's charming and looks like a relative, "but when you look at where she stands on the issues, you'll see that some of her policies hurt Hispanos."
Las Vegas, New Mexico, voter Charles Ray Sanchez is among the governor's Hispanic supporters, saying she has "cleaned up" state government and comes across as a needed reformer.
"I like Gary King. I've met him, and I think he's a nice man," Sanchez said. "But I don't think he's the right person to be governor."
Absentee voting in New Mexico begins Tuesday by mail and at county clerks offices. Early in-person voting expands to more locations on Oct. 18.
Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras