WASHINGTON -- Wadi Gaitan, a 24-year-old House Republican staffer who serves as a Spanish-speaking spokesman, TV booker and occasional tutor, was stumped. He was trying to teach a Republican lawmaker how to say "sequester" in Spanish, but the literal translation was proving to be problematic.
"That one was tricky at first; I couldn't figure it out, because in Spanish, 'secuestrar' literally means to kidnap someone," Mr. Gaitan said. "I said, 'Let's not use the literal translation, because we don't want to say that we're kidnapping people, or that President [Barack] Obama is kidnapping people.' "
The proper way to say sequester -- and debt ceiling, border security and other key phrases -- has become a pressing concern for many Republicans, who worry that they are increasingly unable to make their case on the issues to the nation's fast-growing Latino bloc simply because they are unable to speak their language.
It's such a critical concern that House Republican leaders at the start of the year ordered an overhaul of their messaging operation, urging members to appear in liberal news outlets and, as often as possible, on Spanish television.
"We've been absent from the conversation with Hispanic media for so long, anything can set back that progress we've made in the last eight months, so we are aggressive, just like we are in mainstream media," said Nate Hodson, spokesman for the House Republican Conference, the messaging arm of House GOP lawmakers.
GOP leaders also announced last week a "Rising Stars" program to highlight younger conservative activists and politicians. The first wave includes a black state lawmaker from Oklahoma and a Hispanic state lawmaker from New Hampshire. The project is in response to a report issued by Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus that explored how the party could attract more Hispanic support, after 71 percent of Latino voters backed Mr. Obama last year.
The efforts also come at a time when Spanish television is peaking in popularity and fast becoming a rival to the more established networks. Univision, the nation's largest Spanish broadcaster, has been more popular than ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC several weeks this summer among viewers ages 18 to 34, a coveted demographic.
Overall, 68 percent of Hispanics get at least some of their news in Spanish, less than previous years but still high, according to a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center. In several of the nation's largest cities, Univision's nightly national newscast is more popular than some of its English-language rivals.
The hottest topic on Spanish TV is immigration, but Republicans are hoping that they can appear more frequently on Univision, Telemundo, CNN en Espanol and Spanish radio stations to also discuss budget cuts, health care and the economy -- issues that they believe can draw new Hispanic support.
In order to do so, Republicans are learning that the proper Spanish terminology for debt ceiling is "tope de la deuda," or top of the debt. Border security translates to "seguridad fronteriza." Many of the Republicans willing to deliver the GOP message are newer faces such as Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., a freshman lawmaker who can speak the language well enough to do live interviews.
"I want to share the message that we as Republicans are inclusive, we're not anti-immigrant, and we want to share a message that we have to do something given the current situation that we're in," Mr. Radel said in an interview. "So any chance that I get to spread the conservative message on Spanish-speaking television, I'm happy to do it."
Anytime Mr. Radel is asked to appear on a Spanish-language television program, he calls Mr. Gaitan, who grew up in Maryland and is the son of Honduran immigrants. He's part of a seven-person press office with the GOP Conference that works out of a suite of offices in the Cannon House Office Building, recently redesigned to resemble a West Coast tech start-up.
Mr. Gaitan sends out Spanish-language news releases, keeps in touch with Spanish-language TV producers to pitch potential guests and topics, and meets regularly with lawmakers who want to practice their Spanish.
Democrats have long dominated the Spanish-language airwaves thanks to a long bench of Hispanic politicians, including California Reps. Xavier Becerra, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, and Loretta Sanchez; Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez; New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez; and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
But members of Washington's Spanish-language press corps said they appreciate the renewed attention. "It's been refreshing for them to reach out," said Fernando Pizarro, a Washington correspondent for about 60 Univision affiliates across the nation. "Republicans have tried to do this in the past, but we were getting pretty much our old, regular Republican Latino regulars. They're going beyond the usual suspects, ... and they're being persistent."
"Every time we have an editorial meeting for our Sunday show or daily newscast, we always discuss a possible immigration story. Always, always, always," said Jorge Ramos, co-anchor of Univision's nightly newscast "Noticiero Univision," and the host of the network's Sunday political show "Al Punto" ("To the Point").nation