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Democratic presidential candidates gather for debate

Forum focuses on Latino voters

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will host Thursday's Democratic debate.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will host Thursday's Democratic debate.

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (CNN) -- Hoping to stem efforts by President Bush to make inroads with Latino voters, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates will square off Thursday night in a debate that will be simulcast in Spanish across the country.

The 90-minute event at the University of New Mexico is the first of six major debates sponsored by the Democratic National Committee. It will be hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Latino.

The most senior Latino in Congress, Rep. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, said the candidates "not only have to give [Latino] voters someone to vote for, but also something for which to vote."

During an earlier debate on Hispanic issues in Phoenix in June, Menendez said, the candidates' answers "were very generalistic. You would think that they would have a much better focus on this community and the challenge it faces."

Richardson said Democrats "need to talk more about mainstream issues, more than just immigration and civil rights."

"They need to address home ownership and entrepreneurship and strong education systems. Our community is becoming more mainstream, and that's how I would appeal to those voters."

While recent polls show more Latinos identify themselves as Democrats than Republicans, a majority of them also approve of Bush's job performance. Increasing numbers of Latinos also identify themselves as independents, willing to be courted by a very attentive Republican Party.

Bush -- who speaks Spanish and ran strongly among Latinos when he was governor of Texas -- has made a concerted effort to reach out to Latino voters, who could be a critical swing vote in 2004 battleground states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida.

Publicly, Democrats express confidence that Bush's record on issues important to Latino voters will be enough to dampen enthusiasm for his re-election. But privately there is more concern, particularly because Bush doesn't need a majority of the Latino vote to deny Democrats the White House, just a respectable number.

"If I were a Republican candidate, I would stress social issues -- patriotism, abortion, those kinds of issues," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. "If I were a Democratic candidate, I would stress education, jobs, health and the environment."

Wednesday's debate takes place in New Mexico, which, along with Arizona, will participate in a multi-state primary the week after the New Hampshire primary -- an election some Latino Democrats are calling Hispanic Tuesday.

The debate, which begins at 6 p.m. (8 p.m. ET), will be moderated by Ray Suarez of PBS and Maria Elena Salina of Univision, a Spanish television network. Both networks will broadcast the debate nationally.

Scheduled to participate in the debate: Sens. Bob Graham of Florida, John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Civil rights leader Al Sharpton of New York was not expected to make it because of weather-related travel problems.

--CNN Political Editor John Mercurio and Correspondent Candy Crowley contributed to this report.

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