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CORAL GABLES, Florida (Reuters) - Hillary Clinton and other Democratic presidential hopefuls wooed Hispanic voters on Sunday with pledges to back a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and attacks on Republican "demagoguery" on the issue of immigration.
All the 2008 Democratic presidential contenders at a debate broadcast in Spanish on Univision, the country's largest Spanish-language television network, said they would push quickly once in the White House for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.
Most of the candidates condemned what they said were Republican efforts to demonize illegal immigrants and use the issue of immigration to divide Americans.
"It is being demagogued and I believe it is being used to bash immigrants and that must stop," Clinton, a New York senator, said of the debate on how to handle the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who would be the first Hispanic U.S. president, said, "I object to the dehumanizing of people that want to be part of the American dream."
He and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd are the two fluent Spanish speakers in the Democratic field.
"The politics of fear are the most dangerous politics in our country, and those people who deal with fear and frighten the American people on this issue ought to be dealt with accordingly," Dodd said at the University of Miami debate, billed as a discussion of issues crucial to Hispanic voters.
Hispanics are the country's biggest and fastest-growing minority group, accounting for about 15 percent of the population and at least 14 million potential voters in 2008.
President George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, but Democrats see a growing opportunity to win over Hispanics alienated by the hard-line Republican stance on immigration.
A USA Today/Gallup poll in June found nearly three quarters of Hispanics identified themselves as Democratic, and Clinton, the leader in national polls among all voters, held a wide lead among Hispanic voters as well.
Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois and Clinton's closest rival in polls, said the "fear-mongering" against illegal immigrants had been successful in recent months because many working Americans feel they are losing economic ground.
"A president not only has to speak out forcefully against anti-immigrant sentiment ... but make sure all workers are taken care of," Obama said.
Efforts at a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws collapsed in the U.S. Congress amid a bitter debate on the future of undocumented workers and illegal immigrants in the United States, many of whom are Hispanic.
The Democrats condemned a bill passed last year by the then Republican-led House of Representatives but never approved by the full Congress that cracked down on illegal aliens and boosted border security efforts.
Richardson lampooned plans to build a fence along the Mexican border to protect against illegal immigration.
"If you're going to build a 12-foot wall, you know what's going to happen? A bunch of 13-foot ladders," Richardson said.
But Clinton, Obama and Dodd defended their votes to build a wall, included in a Senate immigration bill not passed by the full Congress, as a necessary part of greater border security.
"We've got to secure our borders. That has to be part of comprehensive immigration reform," Clinton said.
The questions were asked in Spanish and the candidates heard English translations through earpieces. All the candidates answered in English and were translated for the Spanish-language audience.
Richardson complained about the restrictions on speaking in Spanish.
"I'm very proud to be the first major Latino candidate to run for president," said Richardson, adding he was "disappointed" that 43 million Latinos would not "hear one of their own speak Spanish."
Seven of the eight Democratic contenders participated in the debate. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, recently returned from Iraq and did not attend.