Flap with Marco Rubio causes six GOP candidates to boycott Univision debate in January

After the Spanish-language TV network Univision reportedly tried to coerce Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) into an interview, six GOP presidential candidates say they will boycott Univision’s proposed presidential debate in January if the network doesn’t apologize.

Apparently, Univision planned to air a story about the decades-old drug-trafficking conviction of Rubio’s brother-in-law, but offered to soften or scrap the story entirely if Rubio would agree to appear on a Univision program that had been courting the senator for an interview for months. When Rubio refused, Univision aired the story about his brother-in-law.

Several of Rubio’s friends in the Florida state legislature then called for a Republican boycott of Univision’s planned debate — and Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich responded, saying they won’t appear on the network until an apology is proffered.

But it doesn’t look like one is forthcoming: Univision executive Isaac Lee continues to deny the allegations of coercion.

The Atlantic calls the Univision boycott — and the defense of Rubio’s honor it implies — the GOP’s “way to woo Latinos without angering the Tea Party,” pointing out that Tea Party darling Rubio won his Senate seat in 2010 with 55 percent of the Latino vote. The Atlantic even goes so far as to offer this hint: “Of course, there’s another benefit to boycotting the Univision debate. The current crop of contenders won’t have to answer some potentially tricky questions about immigration.”

But boycotting the debate is what’s politically risky for the Republicans. Univision is the largest Spanish-language network in the nation and the proposed debate would have offered the candidates the opportunity to speak directly to Spanish-speaking audiences and a portion of the electorate many Republican strategists say the GOP needs to win.

That suggests the candidates decided to boycott not so much out of any grand strategy to win votes, but because they genuinely believe Rubio’s version of the story. Good reason exists to pick Rubio’s side: The Miami Herald, which broke the story, was first approached by sources within Univision, not by the Rubio camp.

Rubio supporters are also assiduously seeking an apology from Univision — and have even suggested Lee should be fired. Those demands also suggest Rubio’s aides are telling the truth: Calling more attention to the story would make no sense if more attention might mean his aides could be caught in a fib.

“At the very least, Isaac Lee needs to acknowledge and apologize that that type of extortion doesn’t belong in journalism,” Rubio’s good friend and ally Carlos Lopez-Cantera (one of the three Florida state representatives who called for the boycott) said today on Fox News.

In the meantime, the Republican candidates will have the opportunity to pitch their message to the Spanish-speaking community at a different debate hosted by NBC and Telemundo, Univision’s top rival.