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Is Rush Limbaugh Helping or Hurting Republicans' Chances With Hispanic Voters?

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With Rush Limbaugh being painted by Democrats as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, and the Hispanic vote swinging back to the Democratic side in the last election, it's worth asking: What do prominent Hispanic Republicans think of Rush Limbaugh?

Is he helping or hurting the cause to bring them back under the conservative tent?

HispanicBusiness.com asked several Hispanic Republican leaders to weigh in on Limbaugh, who last week publicly lashed out at Michael Steele, the new leader of the Republican National Committee, for referring to Limbaugh as an "entertainer" whose commentary could be "ugly." To the delight of Democrats, Steele later apologized to Limbaugh.

Steele's relatively moderate stance on many Republican issues -- and the fact that he is black -- seem to indicate that the Republicans are trying to broaden their base. Meanwhile, the Republicans lost a sizable chunk of the Hispanic vote in the last election: While 44 percent chose George W. Bush in 2004, just 31 percent went for John McCain in 2008.

Most of the handful of leading Hispanic Republicans interviewed by HispanicBusiness.com were quick to dismiss the entire Limbaugh-Steele flap as a clever ploy by the Democratic Party to divide Republicans. Still, they also tended to rally behind Steele more than Limbaugh, referring to him as the leader of the party, and Limbaugh as an entertainer.

Of the six interviewees, just one would go so far as to say Limbaugh is more of a liability than an asset in the effort to win back a bigger share of the Hispanic vote.

"If you listen to him, he hoots and hollers -- it's entertaining," Joe Gomez, the state leader of the New York chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, told HispanicBusines.com. But, he added, "I think Mr. Limbaugh is too far to the right to be considered a conservative. . . . I think he hurts the cause."

Gomez said he seldom listens to the show, save for the YouTube clippings he receives from friends showing Limbaugh making controversial remarks.

"I just don't agree with his ranting and raving," he said.

Danny Vargas, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, was more careful.

"It's much ado about nothing," Vargas told HispanicBusiness.com of the Steele dustup. "It's sad that the White House and some Democrats felt it appropriate to have this little issue going on when we're dealing with so much big stuff."

Still, Vargas said Steele -- not Limbaugh -- is the true leader of the party.

"By no means would anybody say (Limbaugh) represents the entire spectrum of the Republican Party," he said. "I don't think even he would try to paint himself as the leader of the party."

In Steele, Vargas, founder and president of a Virginia marketing and public-relations firm called VARCom Solutions, sees a promising leader.

"I met with him yesterday, and he is an exceptional individual," Vargas said earlier this week. "He'll bring a lot of new energy and optimism to the party nationally."

Vargas said he believes Republicans lost a sizable share of the Hispanic vote largely because of a vocal minority of Republicans who espoused caustic views on illegal immigration -- mostly in the blogosphere.

"It was really, really ugly stuff that was out there," he said. "It was just the ugliest side of bigotry and xenophobia and racism that exists in our society, by a very, very small percentage of Republicans."

Limbaugh, he said, wasn't among those voices, though Vargas said Limbaugh did say things that "weren't necessarily helpful to the debate."

In May 2007, Limbaugh laid out some of his "Limbaugh laws" on immigration, which he said are actually on the books in Mexico: "First: you immigrate to our country, you have to speak the language. You have to be a professional or an investor -- no unskilled workers allowed. . . . If you're in our country, you cannot be a burden to taxpayers. . . . And another thing: You don't have the right to protest. . . . You're a foreigner: shut your mouth or get out." (Click here to watch the video.)

Limbaugh, who couldn't be reached by HispanicBusiness.com on Friday, also found himself under fire in May 2008 for referring to Hispanic Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as "a shoeshine guy."

Phil Barbosa, the state leader of the Ohio chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said Hispanics have come to the defense of Limbaugh when Limbaugh has been "misquoted" in some of these flaps.

"There are a lot of folks who are Latino who listen to Rush," he said, adding that he is one of them. "I find him funny, I find him entertaining, I find him thought provoking."

Barbosa isn't so offended by the hard-line stance on immigration. He said his own grandparents came to America from Mexico the legal way in 1920: they were sponsored by relatives.

Rick Rios, state leader of the California chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said he listens to Limbaugh occasionally.

"Rush communicates with a specific audience, and he does it well," he said.

Rios said he tends to agree with Limbaugh on matters such as taxes and small government, but isn't so sure about Limbaugh's take on immigration.

"If we put as much effort into helping the immigration process mature as we do just bashing it or doing harm to it, we could get much more done," he said.

As an example, Rios cited his own father, a retired police officer who only recently received his citizenship. Rios said his father learned he was not a legal citizen when he tried to collect social security. His fathers' ensuing quest to become a citizen took nearly five years. During the process, the family feared he might be deported.

"When someone like him goes through four and a half years not even knowing if he could stay in this country after defending it for so long, there's something wrong," he said.

Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist and former advisor to President George W. Bush, said it's unfortunate the spat between Limbaugh and Steele was so visible.

"That's the kind of conversation you have on the phone privately, not on the air publicly," she said.

But Sanchez wrote off the incident as a mere distraction, deftly organized by the Democrats.

"The White House threw this out there," she said. "It got some of our leaders off balance trying to explain what Rush does."

Limbaugh, she said, "has looked with a jaundiced eye at everything the (Obama) administration is doing, and is giving that critical perspective - but in a very loud roar."

Sanchez says she sees Limbaugh as neither an asset nor a liability in the Republican quest to lure back Hispanic voters.

"I don't think the young bloods -- young Hispanics in the middle class and upper-middle class and small business owners -- that's not what they are going to base their vote on," she said. "We find the new young population do not like party labels of any kind."

Sanchez believes Republicans and Democrats alike need to stop singling out Hispanics as a separate group, and start thinking of them as Americans.

"I have a lot of friends who don't want to be at the Latino party, they want to be at the main party," she said.

Asked whether she herself is a Limbaugh fan, Sanchez answered: "I love
Laura Ingraham -- she's not as caustic."

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