Elections

The striking GOP debate moment when Ted Cruz broke into Spanish — and Marco Rubio didn't follow

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during the Republican presidential candidate debate at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016.
Sen. Ted Cruz speaks during the Republican presidential candidate debate at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. Bloomberg

The first Republican to speak Spanish on a presidential debate stage this election wasn't one of the two candidates fluent in the language. It was the one some Latinos accuse of not being Hispanic enough.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz surprised the audience in Greenville, South Carolina, on Saturday night when he taunted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — in Spanish.

Cruz has called his mastery of his Cuban immigrant father's native tongue as "lousy." But that didn't stop him from turning to Rubio and encouraging to repeat past remarks Rubio had made on immigration reform to Univision, the Spanish-language news giant.

"Marco went on Univision in Spanish and said he would not rescind President Obama's illegal executive amnesty on his first day in office," Cruz began.

Retorted Rubio: "Well, first of all, I don't know how he knows what I said on Univision because he doesn't speak Spanish."

That's when Cruz went for it.

"Ahora mismo, díselo ahora en español si quieres," Cruz said, haltingly. Right now, tell them right now in Spanish if you want. (It appeared on CBS' rush debate transcript as a quintessential minority moment: "CRUZ: (SPEAKING SPANISH).")

Rubio, who is also Cuban American, is fully bilingual. But this was a nationally televised debate ahead of next Saturday's primary in deeply red, deeply traditional South Carolina. So Rubio didn't respond en español. Neither did former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is also fluent. (Rubio, who has been pretty consistent on the need to eventually repeal Obama's executive action on immigration, used the moment to add to his argument that Cruz is a liar.)

Republicans have been desperate to connect with Latino voters crucial to winning a general election. But the two candidates who talk most often about growing the GOP shied away from their opportunity Saturday night.

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