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Republicans look to rebuild their traction with Hispanic voters

"This is the largest and youngest minority group in our country. Because of the demographic bulge, they're going to grow much more quickly," said Pew executive Paul Taylor, a former political reporter, who says sheer numbers show why parties must find ways to reach Hispanics.

None of this is a surprise in El Paso, where then-Gov. George W. Bush (R) set out to win the largely Hispanic city in 1998, and did. Bush found issues -- notably education -- that resonated with El Paso residents and made frequent trips there.

"We're over 70 percent Hispanic. For a long time, we've been like Texas will be in another 20 years," said Republican insurance executive and Texas House candidate Dee Margo, who described El Paso as a town where "everyone was raised to pull the party lever straight-ticket for Democrats."

How did Bush win? "He spent a lot of time here. It didn't matter what their ethnicity was. Voters were voters," Margo said. "The focus was on the candidate, not the party. It helped to remove the stigma that some still believe out there -- that Republicans are bad."

On his way to winning two terms, including 240 of 254 counties in 1998, Bush once told voters he was elected "because my vision is to include, not exclude; to unify, not to divide."

Estimating Hispanic vote totals is an inexact science, but the high-water marks for Republicans in Texas appear to be 1998 and 2004, when Bush got more than one in three Hispanic votes. As James Henson, head of the Texas Politics project at the University of Texas, put it, "The Republican Party made some inroads during the Bush hegemony but hasn't been able to hang in there."

Bonilla, now a consultant dividing his time between Texas and Washington, said he has urged Republican leaders in Congress "not to forget" Hispanics: "Sometimes I'm concerned that there's not more action. They're absolutely in agreement, but once the next day begins, they're distracted by bailouts and health care and cap-and-trade."

Why GOP is falling short

Luis Saenz managed the 2006 reelection campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2006. He sees increasing inclusiveness among some GOP politicians, but he perceives "too much patronizing." His counsel is grounded in fundamentals: "The efforts have to be constant, not just election year."

The beginning of GOP success, Saenz said, is the answer to a riddle: "How do you get voters to say, 'This party looks like me'? The Democratic Party has done a really good job of bringing everybody in. The Republican Party has to do a better job."

Strategists emphasize the need to avoid treating voters differently on the basis of ethnicity or race. "This idea of putting all short people in one box, tall people in another box, Hispanics in one box, black people in a box, women in a box, is anachronistic," said Steele, an African American who became the first Republican lieutenant governor in Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2 to 1.

Manny Flores, a great-great-grandson of Mexican-born sharecroppers, heads an Austin advertising agency where Perry recruited him for his 2010 reelection campaign. Flores said the key is "really understanding the consumer's point of view, whether it be beer, pizza, burgers or a governor."

In California, where politics professor Louis DeSipio says Hispanics have become "part of the fabric" of state politics, Democrats are often more visible to young, politically active Hispanics and newly naturalized citizens. "They just don't have local faces who are Republican who can show them the ropes in politics," said DeSipio, who teaches at the University of California-Irvine.

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