- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Think the campaign’s nasty in English? Try it en Espanol. For the first time, both presidential campaigns are engaged in a brutal, almost completely negative war in Spanish-language commercials, all but overwhelming their other messages to Spanish-speaking voters.

“It’s much more harsh. Usually Spanish-language advertising is very sort of softball, inclusive, apple pie kinds of messages,” said Louis DeSipio, a professor at the University of California, Irvine. “This is the first year I can think of national commercials coming from both parties, Spanish-language ads taking a harsh message. And it’s come early.”

For the exploding Hispanic population, graduating to negative advertising is another political coming of age. But it also serves as a reminder that there are two different campaigns going on - one for the English-language audience and another, with a different emphasis, for voters who speak predominantly Spanish, and playing out in both Spanish-language news coverage and ads.

English-language voters receive a steady dose on newscasts and in ads of William Ayers and Charles H. Keating Jr., horse-race coverage of who’s up and who’s down, and a back and forth over who is more “dishonorable.”

Spanish-language audiences, though, have seen Mr. McCain attack Mr. Obama on immigration and Latin American issues, including his willingness to meet with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Mr. Obama responded with ads trying to tie Mr. McCain to Rush Limbaugh on immigration and blasting the Republican for the being unprepared on the economy.

A decade ago the few Spanish-language ads run were clunky translations of English ads. Political pros quickly realized that didn’t connect. But for years the pros concluded Spanish-language negative ads still didn’t work. That began to change in the 2004 presidential campaign when the Bush-Cheney campaign, along with the positive ads, mixed in ads on abortion and gay marriage to attack Sen. John Kerry.

“There was a dramatic evolution and it took the Republican strategists from 2000, when they almost exclusively aired positive ads, to 2004, when I’d say virtually the same exact strategists decided that the Hispanic electorate was ready for intensely negative advertising,” said Adam J. Segal of Johns Hopkins University’s Hispanic Voter Project.

The campaigns started out positive this year, but turned nasty after Mr. McCain fired off a commercial this summer arguing Mr. Obama tried to sink the Senate’s immigration bill - a charge that’s been debunked by myriad fact checkers.

Mr. Obama responded with a commercial linking Mr. McCain, a longtime supporter of Hispanic causes and of citizenship for illegal immigrants, to Rush Limbaugh, a talk show host who harshly criticized amnesty and who Hispanic rights groups say has injected hate into the immigration debate. When Mr. McCain ran a second ad on the subject, Mr. Obama fired back with a commercial arguing Mr. McCain “wants to hide the fact that he’s the one who turned his back on us.”

Both of them are playing loose with the truth, said Maria Elena Salinas, co-anchor of Noticiero Univision, the Spanish-language network’s nightly newscast, who is also a columnist.

“They’re both misleading. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have put out immigration ads that are misleading and mischaracterizing,” she said, adding that both did advocate for last year’s immigration bill but both also voted to build 700 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border - a vote that for many Hispanics symbolizes the negative tone of the immigration debate.

Mrs. Salina said Hispanics have a chance this year to prove they can be difference-makers. Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, all states that went Republican in 2004, are considered at the top of the battleground this year, each has a sizable Hispanic population and many of the newly registered voters in those states are Hispanic.

“People are very motivated and we have to remember one of the reasons the campaigns are going after the Latino vote is a lot of these new naturalized citizens don’t have a committed party,” she said. “They are both trying, and I dont know that either one of them is actually succeeding, even though it is very clear Latinos are very motivated to vote.”

The campaigns said they are pursuing those voters, and that means conveying specific messages just as they would with other identifiable demographics.

“We try to target audiences, of course, and make sure Hispanics in Florida and other regions know what they’re voting for,” said Hessy Fernandez, spokeswoman Hispanic media for Mr. McCain’s campaign. “They need to know Barack Obama has never been in Latin America, they need to know he wants to sit down with dictators, Chavez, Castro.”

The Obama camp blamed Mr. McCain for introducing the negative Spanish ads.

“We’re responding hard with the truth. They’re going to resort to lies and distortions,” said Federico de Jesus, a spokesman for the campaign who said the negative ads show Mr. McCain “has a Hispanic problem” among voters.

Polls of Hispanic voters show Mr. Obama leading Mr. McCain by as much as 30 percentage points.

The voters themselves are left to sort out the charges and countercharges, but Spanish-speaking voters are hindered by the dearth of news voices available to them.

Federico Subervi, professor at Texas State University and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Media & Markets, said unless a Spanish-speaking voter lives in Miami, New York, Los Angeles or a handful of other major cities, it’s unlilkely they can get a Spanish-language newspaper delivered. And he said Spanish radio is devoid of most political talk outside of a few major markets, such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago.

“But leave those cities, and unless you live in california and have access to Radio Bilingue … you don’t get political news on a regular basis,” he said.

That leaves the national Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision as the main sources for political news - and gives Spanish-language ads enormous power to control the debate.

Both campaigns have been accessible to Spanish-language press, with Univision’s Sunday political talk show Al Punto airing yet another McCain interview last weekend. The topics were Mr. McCain’s attacks on Mr. Obama, military action in Venezuela - the candidate ruled that out, saying, “I don’t think it’s necessary” - and immigration and Hispanic outreach.

•Explore different election-night scenarios with our ‘Road to 270’ interactive electoral college map.