MIAMI, FLORIDA — The Hispanic Leadership Network is a center-right political advocacy organization that, in its single year of existence, has attracted considerable support from the Hispanic-American political establishment.
Tonight—Thursday—the group is co-sponsoring, along with CNN, the latest Republican presidential debate, held in Jacksonville, Florida. I am in Miami, at the lush Doral Golf Resort and Spa, where the HLN is holding a debate viewing party to kick off its “Inspiring Action” conference, which runs through Friday. The action the conference wants to inspire: increased synergy between the Republican Party and America’s Hispanic voters. “To co-sponsor a presidential debate is, I think, a measure of the commitment of the Republican Party to the Hispanic community,” says the HLN’s executive director, Jennifer Korn.

Or, at least, a measure of the Republican Party’s desire to pander to Florida’s substantial and influential Hispanic voting bloc. The candidates need the Hispanic vote if they are to take the nomination, and the GOP needs the Hispanics if it is to ultimately take this state, which is why careful attention has been paid here to immigration policy, Cuban relations, language politics, and the like. On Wednesday, for instance, I went to Miami Dade College to watch Univision anchor Jorge Ramos interview Mitt Romney on immigration and related issues. (The most memorable part of the interview was an extended exchange in which Ramos kept trying to get Romney to say that, since his father was born in Mexico, he would be the first Mexican-American president.) On Friday, both Newt Gingrich and Romney will speak at the HLN conference.

It’s not just a Florida thing, though. This is a national issue. At every big Republican event like this I’ve attended this campaign season—whether it’s an hours-long affair or a hit-and-run campaign stop—the discussion has eventually come around to the role of the Hispanic vote in the 2012 election. Before the debate starts, former Florida governor Jeb Bush literally bounds up to the stage and cites a stat that I’ve heard before: in 2000, George W. Bush won 55 percent of the white vote, and took the election; in 2008, John McCain also won 55 percent of the white vote, and lost handily. The difference is the Hispanic vote, which is growing, and which is not going to the GOP; Bush and others know and have said that, without the Hispanic vote behind them, the Republicans will continue to lose.

It’s a huge story, and will be a huge part of this election. But from what I’ve seen, this issue hasn’t been covered very closely by the national English-language press. Maybe it’s a language barrier thing; maybe it’s just too early in the campaign, and will be covered later. But it seems to me that there’s a lot of journalistic grist in the ways that the candidates are courting the Hispanic vote, and how the Hispanic community is responding to their efforts; and it seems like there’s a real need for serious analysis of how their proposed policies will actually affect this diverse and rapidly growing demographic group. This is why I’m here tonight. (Well, that, and also Jacksonville is six highway hours away from Miami, where I’ve been staying.)

Most of the national press corps who have dropped into Florida this week are in Jacksonville, in some filing center attached to the debate hall, hoping that proximity will bestow insight. There are about twenty-five or thirty reporters here at the Doral with me—Macbook-toting twenty-somethings who can’t get on the bus and can’t afford to go to Jacksonville themselves; cameramen who, as always, seem to be locked in an unspoken competition to determine whose shoulders can support the most photo gear; plenty of Spanish-language reporters. A fashionably bald reporter in an open-necked pink dress shirt stretches out on an unused camera dais as if it were a chaise longue, drinking a glass of red wine, looking like he’s more comfortable than anyone else in the room. His notebook is completely empty. (I later learn that he’s British, which makes perfect sense.)

Gathered to watch the debate are couple hundred people, a few of whom have been selected by the HLN to ask the candidates questions via a satellite link. A CNN truck sits outside, ready to beam the questions—and occasional shots of the enthusiastic yet well-behaved crowd—to Jacksonville, and, subsequently, to the world.

The audience is seated facing two huge screens, which show the CNN feed. The debate begins, and Wolf Blitzer, speaking to the camera, kicks things off: “Tonight! The final face-off before Florida voters choose!” Wolf sends it off to us, and we show up on the screen. Huge cheer from the crowd, which soon thereafter rises for a national anthem that, due to momentary technical difficulties, nobody can hear.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.