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Barack Obama; fluent Spanish speaker?

"No puede ser." (It can't be.)

Yet, there he is in one of his latest television ads chatting away in seemingly fluent Spanish. The Obama spot is saturating Hispanic TV stations in key battleground states, such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada.

While countless politicians have made earnest, if clumsy, efforts at Spanish greetings in stump speeches, this marks the first time a non-Hispanic presidential candidate has delivered an ad entirely in Spanish, says Arturo Villar, publisher of Hispanic Marketing Weekly.

What is most striking is the quality of Obama's Spanish. He speaks almost flawlessly.

"Compartimos un sueno: que trabajando duro, tu familia puede triunfar. ... Este es el sueno Americano," says Obama. "We share a dream: that working hard, your family can succeed. ... That's the American Dream."

Republicans are crying foul.

"It's deceptive. He's pretending to know Spanish when he doesn't," said Ana Navarro, co-chair of McCain's National Hispanic Advisory Council. "Barack Obama will say anything in any language that he thinks will help get him elected."

Obama does not pretend to speak Spanish. Campaign staffers say Obama picked up some Spanish as a community organizer in Chicago. He recorded the 30-second ad in a two-hour sitting, recording each phrase in separate takes.

My wife, Ines Lozano, a Spanish language teacher, said it's unusual that someone is able to pronounce the language so well without much practice.

"He obviously rehearsed the phonetics, even though he may not have that level of conversational Spanish."

While that does raise "a small ethical issue" it does not rise to the level of some of the falsehoods perpetrated by candidates, said Kelly McBride, a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, the non-profit school for journalists that owns the St. Petersburg Times.

"There's a lot of things on the political stage that are meant to evoke an emotional response in the audience, whether it be visual props, the setting, how they dress, and what they say," she said. "It's really part of the game that's played. Sarah Palin is very, very good reading from a TelePrompTer and seeming much more informed than she really is. Is that deceitful?"

The more important question is what is Obama's intent - besides trying to win votes? To better communicate what he believes in, or to mislead people into thinking he speaks Spanish? I suspect it's the former, as it's hard to deceive Hispanics in their own language.

To find out, I played the ad to the first Hispanic I could find. That's not hard on my street. Peruvian-born Henry de la Torre, 48, was fixing the screen on a neighbor's patio Thursday.

He had already seen it on TV.

"It surprised me," he said. "He sounds really good with hardly any gringo accent." The first time he heard it he was so distracted by Obama's pronunciation, he missed the message.

It was clear Spanish "is not his language," de la Torre said.

But that wasn't the point.

"I think it's good that he forced himself to try and speak our language," he said. "It's like a courtesy he's showing us."

By the way, de la Torre is voting for the first time this year. He doesn't think much of either candidate. But he likes Obama more after hearing him for the first time - en espanol.

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