Translating Faith into Spanish

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It makes all the political sense in the world: take your wedge issues — abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research — and aim them at a population whose membership in the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian churches exceeds 90%. That's the strategy deployed this season by Focus on the Family, the conservative group run by James Dobson, to try to sway the Hispanic vote for George Bush. Its "Vote por Sus Valores," or "Vote Your Values," radio and television spots began running on Spanish-language media around the country last week — along with a cascade of commercials from the Kerry and Bush campaigns, the two parties and outside interest groups. The amount those organizations will spend on Spanish-language TV and radio this year will top $12 million, which is four times the amount spent in 2000.

That's a lot of attention for a constituency long believed to be a Democratic bedrock. But in 2000, Bush captured 35% of the Hispanic vote, more than any other Republican presidential candidate, and his campaign has made it a goal to bring in 40% this time. It may be close: Hispanic voters surveyed in an ABC News tracking poll this month preferred Kerry to Bush by only 56% to 39%. The proportion of Latinos who say they are Democrats is down from 48% to 45% since Bush's victory. And recent gubernatorial elections in California, Florida and New York have shown that G.O.P. candidates can win a large share of Hispanic votes.


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Other trends make it even more urgent that both sides crowd the airwaves of networks like Telemundo and Univision. The Hispanic population has grown 21% in the past four years, to 39.8 million, and a bigger percentage than ever are recent immigrants who speak primarily Spanish and are open to being romanced by either party. The nation's largest minority group is expected to send 7 million to 8 million citizens to the polls, and even small shifts in the sizable Hispanic communities in hotly contested Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado could have a crucial effect on the outcomes there.

What moves those potential voters? With its emphasis on moral issues, Focus on the Family is trying to buck conventional wisdom, which says, according to polls done for the nonpartisan National Council of La Raza and others, that Hispanics care about education above all, with jobs and the economy a strong second. "They think family values are about putting food on the table and sending a child to college," says Sergio Bendixen, pollster for the New Democrat Network, a centrist Democratic group that is spending more than $6 million on Spanish-language ads.

Still, even some of Kerry's Spanish-language ads have a drive-by reference to religion. One opens with Kerry playing soccer with his daughters and the voice-over, "We introduce you to a man of faith. A man of family. A man of honor ..." But don't touch that remote. On Friday, Bush began running an ad accusing Kerry of voting to raise taxes 98 times — his campaign's 11th Spanish-language TV spot. More are sure to follow.