WASHINGTON - Hispanic leaders are warning of harm to Republicans' White House hopes unless the party's presidential contenders do more to condemn Donald Trump, a businessman turned candidate who's refusing to apologize for calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers.
Trump's comments, delivered in his announcement speech last month, have haunted the party for much of the last two weeks and dominated Spanish-language media. It's bad timing for a Republican Party that has invested significantly in Hispanic outreach in recent years, given the surging influence of the minority vote.
Yet several Republican candidates have avoided the issue altogether.
"The time has come for the candidates to distance themselves from Trump and call his comments what they are: ludicrous, baseless and insulting,'' said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican who leads the American Principles Project's Latino Partnership. "Sadly, it hurts the party with Hispanic voters. It's a level of idiocy I haven't seen in a long time.''
In his announcement speech, Trump said Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.''
Such rhetoric resonates with some of the Republican Party's most passionate voters, who have long viewed illegal immigration as one of the nation's most pressing problems.
The Trump-related fallout has intensified in recent days.
The leading Hispanic television network, Univision, has backed out of televising the Miss USA pageant, a joint venture between Trump and NBC, which also cut ties with Trump. On Wednesday, the Macy's department store chain, which carried a Donald Trump menswear line, said it was ending its relationship with him.
The reaction from Republican presidential candidates, however, has often been far less aggressive.
In a recent interview on Fox News, conservative Ted Cruz insisted that Trump should not apologize.
"I like Donald Trump,'' said Cruz, a Texas senator who is Hispanic. "I think he's terrific. I think he's brash. I think he speaks the truth.''
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican-born, said simply that Trump is “wrong.''
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who declined to address Trump's comments directly for more than two weeks, took a more pointed tone in a statement Thursday evening. "Trump's comments are not just offensive and inaccurate, but also divisive,'' said Rubio, who is Hispanic.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry said Thursday: “I don't think Donald Trump's remarks reflect the Republican Party.''
Among others, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former technology executive Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have been silent.
"We're listening very, very closely, not just what candidates say but what they don't say: the sins of commission and the sins of omission,'' said the Reverend Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, who called Trump's comments "xenophobic rhetoric.''
Trump holds his ground
Trump is showing no sign of backing down.
"My statements have been contorted to seem racist and discriminatory,'' he wrote in a message to supporters on Thursday. "What I want is for legal immigrants to not be unfairly punished because others are coming into America illegally, flooding the labor market and not paying taxes.''
Not since the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush has a Republican presidential candidate earned as much as 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton cast Trump's remarks as “emblematic'' of a larger perception within the Republican Party.