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," 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 Obama is kidnapping people."
Now, Republicans say recortes automaticos - literally, automatic cuts.
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 beginning 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.
Hodson recalled holding a meeting recently with the conference chairman, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), and a longtime Spanish-language TV reporter. When it ended, "I said, thanks for coming," Hodson said. "And the reporter's statement to me was basically, 'It's about time.' "
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 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," 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."
A self-described "gringo who grew up in Cincinnati," Radel learned Spanish while backpacking through Mexico after college. He picked up his "street Spanish" over beers with strangers and mastered the pronunciation and accent.