GOP foray into Spanish TV: savvy or pandering?
DENVER — Hola damas y caballeros!
Welcome to another edition of "Abriendo Caminos," the hip and deliberately politically correct monthly television show that encourages Hispanic Americans to flex their muscle at the voting booth, preferably for Republicans.
Listen to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez spin his Horatio Alger tale about fleeing Cuba to become a naturalized citizen and realize his dream of freedom. Hear the president's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, pronounce her last name ("Arroz") in Spanish. See Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill hobnob with Bono of the rock band U2 about debt relief in Latin America. And for all those college kids worried about too much wonkishness, there's a spicy musical soundtrack ranging from Tejana to Salsa.
Yet the creator of "Abriendo Caminos" isn't a major network, or CNN, or PBS. This half-hour "news magazine" is produced inside the plush studios of GOP-TV in Washington.
It is paid political programming broadcast once a month in Spanish to television stations that reach potentially millions of Hispanic viewers in select cities. Debuting in May, the half-hour program is part of an ambitious $1 million bid by the Republican National Committee (Comite Nacional Republicano) to woo ambivalent Hispanic Democrats and appeal to unregistered voters.
It represents the rise of a new kind of political programming. Yet behind the initiative lies an enduring question about messages targeted at specific ethnic groups: Will it will be viewed as effective communication or a form of pandering?
Certainly, Republicans have good reason to try something new. Americans of Latino heritage represent the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc. Estimates put the number of voting-age Latinos at 23 million nationwide.
But Hispanics traditionally have voted overwhelmingly Democratic, with the exception of Cuban-Americans, who are concentrated largely in Florida.
President Bush has made inroads into the Hispanic community. Although he garnered barely 1 in 3 Latino votes in the 2000 election, that represented the most Hispanic support of any GOP president in history. Moreover, recent polls show the president now drawing virtually even with Al Gore among Latino voters, though Democrats still outpoll Republicans by substantial margins in congressional races.
"There's an increasing realization in the Republican party that demographics is destiny and that unless they are successful at reaching out to Hispanics they will be a minority party in the near future," says Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute in Washington.
"Abriendo Caminos" (Forging New Paths) is a mix of news, consumer updates, and interviews with administration officials. So far, target cities include Denver, Albuquerque, N.M., Fresno, Calif., Las Vegas, Miami, and Orlando, Fla.
"This kind of programming is a first for a major political party," says Sharon Castillo, the show's anchor and a former Spanish TV reporter. "We believe we have a historic opportunity to make inroads with the Latino community by using a powerful communications vehicle in the language of viewers' first preference."
The campaign was conceived to tap into a wide melting-pot demographic, though foremost the strategy is directed toward people like Felipe Duran. He is an influential business entrepreneur who has rapidly amassed a small empire of Mexican restaurants in metropolitan Denver.
Mr. Duran casts himself as "undecided" politically. But he's impressed by the effort the GOP is making to reach Hispanic voters and the show's themes of less government and lower taxes, and its portrayals of Hispanics as role models.
"I'm not one to wear my political beliefs on my sleeve because I don't want to alienate customers," says Duran, a father of two, sitting in the first "Villa del Sol" restaurant he opened. "I am not an activist, but I am willing to support a political party that recognizes the challenges confronting small business people."
When Duran first crossed the border into the US from Mexico decades ago, he couldn't speak English. Eventually, he learned the language, worked his way through college, and took an accounting job. He reveres what it means to be upwardly mobile, though he's confused about which party represents his interests.
"Education is the key to success in this country and if 'Abriendo Caminos' helps to educate people, then it's a good thing," says Duran.
Democrats, not surprisingly, ridicule the GOP move. Democratic National Committee chair Terence McAuliffe has characterized the programming as nothing more than "political infomercials." He decries the show as an attempt to mislead voters in regions where Republican candidates have struggled with issues ranging from immigration policy to labor regulations.
Yet Democrats are clearly closely watching. Reports indicate they're considering a TV "news magazine" of their own, and the party is sending staffers around the country to work with Latino politicians and voters in states with key congressional races.
"Whenever a Democrat does something good for the Hispanic community it's considered thoughtful, but when Republicans do something similar, it's condemned ... as pandering," Castillo says. "Latino voters are savvy, and they're issue driven."
Castillo contends that little gestures matter to Hispanics, such as when President Bush opened talks with Mexico President Vicente Fox by peppering his introduction with salutations in Spanish.
Although launched as an experimental departure from the usual array of partisan political ads, the show has garnered enough positive response that the GOP is considering expanding it into larger markets such as Los Angeles and New York.
In the end, though, what's important will be the substance of the shows. "This business of trying to speak Spanish is fine, but it's what is actually said that's just as important," says Christine Sierra, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico.
Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.