ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) -- Political rivals for New Mexico governor will face off in a Spanish debate Monday, a rare event that nonetheless marks an emerging trend as Republicans and Democrats around the U.S. court increasingly independent Hispanic voters.
In the state with the nation's highest concentration of Hispanic residents, the moderator and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will speak Spanish, and Democrat Gary King will participate through a translator.
The debate and others like it acknowledge the ability of a growing voting bloc to swing an election. Candidates for Florida governor will meet in a Spanish debate Friday, though both Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic former-Gov. Charlie Crist will both use a translator. Other notable Spanish debates include a 2010 event in California and a 2007 Democratic presidential forum.
Of candidates involved in such events, Martinez is unique in her ability to communicate in Spanish.
The overwhelming majority of Hispanics in New Mexico speak English, but the culture of bilingualism runs deep. Some local government bodies in the state start meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish.
"The debate is more for symbolism," said Matt Barreto, co-founder of a nonpartisan Latino political research firm and University of Washington political science professor.
Martinez is the nation's first Hispanic woman to be elected governor, but her positions on driver's licenses for immigrants in the country illegally and border security fall in line with Republicans nationally and often put her at odds with some members of a group that comprises 47 percent of the state's residents.
She "will have an opportunity to connect and appear comfortable" by speaking Spanish in the debate, said Barreto, who helped launch Latino Decisions.
Meanwhile, King, who is white and the son of a popular former governor, needs support to knock off a strong incumbent. His supporters say his positions will appeal to many Hispanic voters in the state and should allow him to capitalize on momentum that has helped Democrats nationally.
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.
An inability to speak Spanish won't "hurt him more than it will help her," Barreto said.
The New Mexico race has centered on the economy and the state's struggling educational system. Martinez and King will discuss these topics and others live at a KLUZ-TV Univision Nuevo Mexico-sponsored forum. Other such debates have aired on tape delay to accommodate voiceover translations.
During her first bid for governor in 2010, Martinez took around 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in New Mexico at a time when most Republican candidates garnered 20 percent nationwide. If she can duplicate such success her strategy could become a blueprint for Republicans nationally.
Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras