- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

The nation gets a real chance to sort out the Democratic presidential roster tonight.

PBS will air the first of six sanctioned debates among all nine of the party’s hopefuls, broadcast live from an auditorium at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

“This is an historic event for New Mexico. This will be the first bilingual debate in the history of American presidential politics,” said Gov. Bill Richardson, who is also chairman of the 2004 Democratic National Convention and a former Cabinet member in the Clinton administration.

But candidates don’t need to brush up on their holas and adioses since the debate will be simultaneously translated into Spanish and broadcast two days later on Univision, the most-watched Spanish network in the United States.

Mr. Richardson and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus will host the event, which will be moderated by PBS correspondent Ray Suarez and Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas.

The biggest challenge for the nine candidates is not their language prowess, however — it is being recognized at all.

A CBS News poll released yesterday found that 67 percent of the Democratic respondents and 61 percent of the Republicans couldn’t name a single one of the candidates. Overall, only 15 percent said they were paying “a lot” of attention to the race.

The poll of 775 voters was taken the last week of August.

The 90-minute debate, meanwhile, will showcase the political diversities of Carol Moseley-Braun, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Howard Dean, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

Issues have also been tailored to woo Hispanic voters, now the nation’s largest minority and a much coveted voting bloc. The nine candidates will be asked to address, among other things, immigration, tax cuts, health-care access and education benefits for Hispanics and U.S. relations with Mexico and other Latin American nations.

Fred Harris, former chairman of the New Mexico Democratic Party, likened the debate to “found money.”

He also told the Albuquerque Tribune yesterday that the event challenged the candidates “to be really plain-spoken, succinct and direct.”

Through year’s end, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has organized five more debates to be broadcast on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, and hosted by the Wall Street Journal and the Congressional Black Caucus, among others.

The debates have some fringe benefits. The DNC is also using them as a fund-raising and voter-outreach springboard, urging party loyalists to host a “Debate Watch Party” in their homes.

“Let your neighbors and friends know why the debate is important and invite them to your party,” the DNC advised prospective hosts at its Web site (www.dnc.org), offering help with “talking points,” invitations and tracking sheets to monitor donations, press coverage and attendee personal information.

“If they show interest in a particular candidate, encourage your party participants to volunteer with that campaign,” the DNC noted. “We will follow up with you after your party to see how it went, collect material and solicit your thoughts and ideas.”

Tonight’s debate will begin at 8 p.m. on most PBS stations, and at 11 a.m. Saturday on Univision.

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