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Republicans look to rebuild their traction with Hispanic voters

When pressed on the status of GOP efforts to find more of those faces, spokeswoman Angela Sailor said the party's political and coalitions divisions are working with state parties "to recruit Hispanic candidates with an emphasis on local candidates." Yet at the winter RNC meeting in Honolulu last month, how to attract Hispanic voters and candidates was not on the agenda.

Dan Bartlett, who advised Bush in Texas and Washington, said Republicans need to recruit well and build "an authentic relationship" with Hispanics. "The Hispanics are going to be a dominant political force in the state of Texas and around the country for the next 100 years, and the Republican Party's blowing it," he said. "There's a real dearth of smart thinking on the Republican side of the aisle."

Beyond the immigration issue, Hispanics were alienated by Republicans pushing for English-only policies and stringent law enforcement while opposing paths to legal residency and citizenship. Bonilla said it was a moment when "all of this came crashing backward."

"Hispanics would get me on the phone and say, 'What's going on? Don't you like us anymore?' " he recalled.

Steele said the vitriol on immigration "harkens back, quite frankly, to the Southern strategy that the Republicans embraced in the 1960s, causing black Republicans to abandon the party." He wants to avoid a repeat with Hispanics. "A lot of stuff got miswired and screwed up in that debate. A lot of hotheads jumped in," he said of the immigration fight. "We have an obligation and an opportunity to reengage in that discussion and do a lot better than we did the last time."

Adrian Garcia, the first Hispanic sheriff of Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, is a Democrat who thinks Republicans did lasting damage to their brand, particularly among young Hispanic voters who are experiencing politics -- and choosing sides -- for the first time. "Immigration has galvanized the emerging generation, and they see it very clearly," said Garcia, whose parents and siblings were born in Mexico. "This is personal. It is personal to the fastest-growing community and to the next generation of community leaders."

The clock, Gillespie said, is ticking. He said Bush received 54 percent of the non-Hispanic white vote in 2000 and finished in a dead heat with Al Gore. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got 55 percent of that vote in 2008 and lost the election by seven percentage points. "If the current voting percentages among white, black, Asian and Hispanic stay the same," Gillespie said, "the Republican nominee will lose by 14 points in 2020. We have to be more competitive."

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