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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There is little doubt that Hispanics will play a significant role in this year's presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain. The Census Bureau reports an 18 percent jump in Hispanic voters in 2006 compared to the previous midterm election. And they are a big part of the population in such key swing states as Florida, New Mexico and Colorado. Over the next two weeks, NPR will be taking a closer look at these voters. NPR's Martin Kaste begins today with his story about how political ads are customized for Hispanics.

MARTIN KASTE: Hispanic advertising consultants are thrilled about this TV spot which ran in Puerto Rico a month ago.

(Soundbite of Obama's political ad in Spanish)

KASTE: Yep, that's Barack Obama. He claims to speak only a little Spanish but the pronunciation in this ad is pretty good or it's carefully rehearsed. Either way, it shows just how much effort the candidates are willing to invest to reach Hispanics. Lionel Sosa, who does ads aimed at Hispanics for John McCain, says his candidate recently spent a whole afternoon recording ads targeting Hispanics. He recorded ten of them in one sitting.

Mr. LIONEL SOSA: He knows how important it is. Obama knows how important it is. So both parties are absolutely focused on this voting. I think that that is for the good of Latino community.

KASTE: The ads that have been on T.V. so far tend to be broad-brush appeals to Hispanic pride and patriotism, such as McCain's Memorial Day ad, which was subtitled in Spanish.

(Soundbite of McCain political ad)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): My friends, I want you the next time you're down in Washington, D.C. to go to the Vietnam War memorial. Look at the names engraved in black granite. You'll find a whole lot of Hispanic names...

KASTE: These ads generally avoid getting too specific on certain issues. In his T.V. spots, McCain barely mentions his efforts to legalize the status of illegal immigrants even though that would presumably win him points with Hispanics. Then again, it's risky to presume anything about a group of voters. Mariann Davies says she resents candidates who act as if all Latinos thought alike.

Ms. MARIANN DAVIES (Co-Founder, You Don't Speak for Me): The Latino vote is - I really think it's a myth because it - you know, the Hispanic population in the United States is diverse and always have been - politically, ethnically, racially, linguistically.

KASTE: Davies, whose parents came here from Ecuador, is one of the founders of You Don't Speak for Me, a group of Hispanics opposed to what they call amnesty for illegal immigrants. She says second and third generation Hispanics don't like being pigeonholed, and that includes the politics of language. She, for instance, is not automatically charmed by the sound of ads spoken in Spanish.

Ms. DAVIES: That just cuts to the - you know, one of the other issues about assimilation. If you're a citizen who votes, to become a citizen you have to prove that you have - I mean, you have take an English language test. So why would you need to get information in a different language?

KASTE: But if candidates fear a backlash for advertising in Spanish, they don't show it. Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University, says politicians can draw courage from the example of corporate America.

Mr. ADAM SEGAL (Director, Hispanic Voter, Johns Hopkins University): Virtually every major corporation in America has massive Spanish language outreach efforts, marketing, advertising. So I'm not quite sure that that will cause an uproar if a Republican candidate created an ad in Spanish. You know, I think the real question is, where are they on the issues?

KASTE: Besides, media fragmentation means that even as Spanish political ads multiply, they're actually becoming less visible to English speakers. That's especially true this year as political marketing is now migrating to the privacy of your cell phone.

Mr. JED ALPERT (CEO, Mobile Commons): Hispanics seem to have an enormous headstart.

KASTE: Jed Alpert is CEO of Mobile Commons, a company that sets up text messaging systems for political campaigns.

Mr. ALPERT: You know, I'm looking at the data right now. And of those who send or received a text message on a daily basis, 73 percent of Hispanics do while only 53 percent of whites do across the board.

KASTE: And those numbers have not gone unnoticed by the campaigns. The McCain people say they're planning to reach out to Hispanics with text messages, but on this the competition is out in front. If you send a text to Obama with the letters E-S-P, you're automatically signed up for campaign updates en espanol. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

HANSEN: To watch Spanish language commercials from the McCain and Obama campaigns, visit our web site, npr.org. Weekend Edition Sunday is building a series about race in politics and we'd like to hear from you. How has your life experience shaped your opinion about race in politics? You can send us video, audio or something in writing. Go to npr.org/soapbox and scroll down to the "race in politics" link.

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