By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 11:22 PM
Mid-morning on a recent Sunday, pausing between the studios of C-SPAN and Mass at the National Shrine, Newt Gingrich is in mental overdrive, as usual, merrily riffing on a not-so-usual theme: all things Latino.
He segues from what to do with 11 million illegal immigrants - "We're not going to deport all of them," he says - to security in Mexico, identity in Brazil, the economy in Argentina and back to the state of Hispanic America.
While he's on the subject, one would be remiss not to request a command performance of the Spanish he has been studying assiduously. Gingrich is game.
"Estoy cansado porque viajar para seis de los siete dias de esta semana," he says. ("I'm tired because I traveled for six of seven days this week.")
Hmm. He used the infinitive instead of the past tense, among the peccadillos.
But hey. He gets an A for effort. Gingrich is trying his darndest to reach out to Latinos - linguistically, culturally and ideologically. And that's his advice to fellow conservatives, some of whom have not seemed so embracing.
On Thursday in Washington, Gingrich's curious, intense, occasionally gaffe-prone relationship with Latinos and their language comes into full bloom with the opening of an unusual two-day forum he is hosting at the Washington Hilton.
Nearly 60 speakers on more than a dozen panels will offer a largely conservative take on domestic and hemispheric affairs of interest to Latinos. The speakers include Jose Maria Aznar, the former Spanish prime minister; Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico's ambassador to the United States; and Carlos Gutierrez, who served as commerce secretary during George W. Bush's second term in the White House.
Topics for discussion include: "Why Hispanics are Natural Conservatives" and "Hispanics and the American Experiment." A gala awards dinner Thursday will follow a concert by the Miami Symphony Orchestra.
This wonkish fiesta is not necessarily designed to boost a potential presidential campaign, says Gingrich, who has not yet made a decision on whether he will run in 2012. But it couldn't hurt. "There's a substantial number of Latinos now in Iowa," he says.
He adds, "You can't have a major party that doesn't pay substantial attention to the most rapidly growing single part of the country."
In House races last month, 60 percent of Latinos voted for Democrats. Republicans, however, boast of electing GOP Latinos to the Senate from Florida, to governorships in Nevada and New Mexico, and to several House seats.
This week's summit also is serving as a coming-out party for TheAmericano.com, a bilingual Web site that Gingrich started last year, offering news and conservative opinion. It presaged a boomlet of such ventures. Fox News launched Fox News Latino in October. The Heritage Foundation says it will go live shortly with Libertad.org.
Gingrich's efforts are drawing the most attention.
"This is the first time that planning for the Latino vote and getting together all the conservative Latinos in a major effort has been done outside of a campaign," says Lionel Sosa, who pioneered GOP outreach to Latinos on behalf of Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes.
"Newt is setting a table that had not been set before," says Juan Hernandez, who founded Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. "We needed a Nixon to go to China. Having Newt be the one going to Hispanics is kind of like that."
Liberal-leaning Latinos, however, say Gingrich is merely putting a smiling face on a party that is also home to harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is ostensibly aimed at illegal immigrants, but Latino citizens say they feel the sting. They cite Sharron Angle's ads in her recent Senate campaign from Nevada, showing scary, swarthy, tatooed men juxtaposed with fresh-faced non-Hispanics; or zingers by former Colorado Congressman and former presidential candidate the Tom Tancredo, who called Miami "a Third World Country."
Still, Gingrich is on to something, says Jorge Ramos, the influential news anchor of Univision. "It's a matter of respect," Ramos says. "Newt Gingrich understands that."
Gingrich's sense of respect has been called into question in the past. In a speech three years ago, he railed against bilingual education, equating it with learning "the language of living in a ghetto." Latinos were livid. Amid the uproar, Gingrich apologized, speaking for three minutes on YouTube, in Spanish.
"That was one of the edgiest things I've ever done," he says.
He says his original point was that mastery of English is the linguistic road to success. He has spent too long studying Spanish - an hour a week of Spanish conversation these days - to think it's a ghetto language.
Almost as edgy as speaking Spanish on YouTube, at a time when Republican lawmakers have abandoned immigration reform, Gingrich's Latino agenda includes . . . immigration reform. He favors "a path to legality" for many illegal immigrants. "People who have been here obeying every law except immigration," and have put down roots, "you're not going to send them home," he says.
Gingrich says he doesn't fear backlash from his non-Latino right flank. Instead, in a funny way, he says, he has to make sure he's not too Latino for the Latinos:
"My firm defense of American exceptionalism gets its strongest endorsement from first-generation immigrants, who walk up with tears in their eyes and say, 'This is why we came to America,' " he says. "On one hand, they want to know that I'm sensitive to, and care about, their historical background; on the other hand, they really want me to be aggressively for America.
"It's the integrating of that balance that's so important."