Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, the son of Mexican immigrants, Lionel Sosa was expected to learn a trade, defer to gringos and vote Democratic. But he was so impressed at age 13 by Dwight Eisenhower's version of the American Dream during a televised speech at the 1952 Republican Convention that he decided he wanted to be a rich businessman and a Republican.
Two decades later, as a struggling ad-agency owner, Sosa helped U.S. Senator John Tower win his 1978 re-election bid with 37% of the Hispanic vote; no Republican in Texas had ever won more than 8%. Soon clients like Bacardi rum, Dr Pepper and Coors beer came seeking his advice on how to woo the Latino market, eventually turning Sosa & Associates into the largest Hispanic advertising agency in the U.S. At one point it was billing more than $100 million annually.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan reached out to Sosa, who created gauzy, feel-good ads that focused on the candidate rather than the issues, promising Latinos that Republicans shared their values of family, personal responsibility and hard work. "It's an insight Ronald Reagan gave me," says Sosa, who has worked on six presidential campaigns. "He told me Latinos are Republican. They just don't know it yet." With Sosa's help, George W. Bush snared an estimated 40% of Latino voters in 2004, a huge jump from Bob Dole's 21% in 1996. Semiretired, Sosa, 66, now spends most of his time painting and writing (his latest book, Think & Grow Rich: A Latino Choice, is due out next year), but if he gets the call in 2008, he'll be back on the stump.