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From Republican Insider to Martha Stewart Confidant?

When NBC’s “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart” premieres next week, the cast of 16 will include a yoga-practicing natural foods chef, a glass-blowing former stockbroker and a member of Mensa.

It also will feature Republican strategist and frequent political commentator Leslie Sanchez — one of the brightest lights in Hispanic GOP circles.

During her decade-plus of experience in the nation’s capital, the 36-year-old founder and head of Impacto Group, a Washington, D.C.-based communications and market research firm, has served as an aide to Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), a Republican National Committee spokeswoman and a Bush admini-stration official. Her firm’s clients — Cisco Systems, Prudential Financial Services and Girl Scouts of the USA — are among the nation’s most prominent corporations.

Now she’ll be putting her political and business acumen to the test, rewriting classic fairy tales and the like for the chance to win a senior position at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and a $250,000-a-year salary.

Sanchez helped the RNC develop and fine-tune its Hispanic outreach efforts and during the 2000 presidential election ran its multimillion-dollar ad campaign aimed at Hispanic voters. She then was tapped to serve as executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans before going into business for herself.

Sanchez also advises the House Republican Conference on her two specialities: Hispanic-American and women’s issues and outreach. Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) said she speaks to Sanchez “maybe once a week.”

But behind the perfectly coifed, ber-professional exterior of one of Hispanic Business magazine’s “100 most influential Hispanic Americans,” lies the ultimate girl’s girl, who loves a good laugh (she was once in a comedy improvisation group) and a day at the spa, and can channel her inner domestic diva with ease.

“She’s like the Latina Martha Stewart,” gushed her pal Art Estopiñan, chief of staff to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). He added with a laugh that during the 2000 presidential campaign, when he was serving as a surrogate for George W. Bush, Sanchez would entice him to strategy sessions with promises of her “mean chili.”

And whether it’s making homemade Halloween costumes for her beloved dog Jalapeña (last year, she dressed the Golden Retriever as a 1920s flapper) or hand-painting Jack and the Beanstalk-like murals in a friend’s nursery, Sanchez appears a woman after the domestic guru and ex-convict Stewart’s own heart.

When U.S. Treasurer and former Senate staffer Anna Cabral got married, Sanchez did the flower arrangements for her wedding. And when Cabral’s predecessor as treasurer, Rosario Marin, needed help decorating her home a few years back, Sanchez “went crazy” picking out fabrics and furniture for the modern, white-accented living room, said Marin, who is now chairwoman of the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

One Saturday even found Marin and Sanchez up until 10 p.m. painting Marin’s McLean, Va., bathroom.

“It had to be done perfect,” Marin recalled.

On another occasion, Sanchez helped Marin host a party for Bush administration Latino “luminaries,” designing the invitations and personally arranging the floral centerpieces.

Not that every effort has had perfect results. One of Sanchez’s less successful undertakings — a birthday cake for an elderly neighbor —“did not look like the pictures,” Marin divulged, so Sanchez “asked her husband to take the cake” over to the neighbor because she was embarrassed with the outcome.

Under NBC policy, Sanchez is not allowed to speak directly to the press until “The Apprentice,” which debuts on Sept. 21, concludes or she is kicked off the show. But Sanchez, responding to e-mailed questions, said that shortly after the idea for the show surfaced, friends and associates, many of whom had been the recipients of her creative largess over the years, began encouraging her to try out. And after her alumni association at George Washington University sent her an invitation to audition, she decided to take the plunge.

While the move shocked some of her friends, Sanchez said it proved an irresistible opportunity to “connect with women — and that’s what my career has always been about.”

Indeed, her polling work during the 2004 campaign on how women perceived candidates’ political and policy messages is considered “seminal” in the field, said Nancy Pfotenhauer, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, which commissioned the psycholinguistic survey of Hispanic and Caucasian female swing voters.

The survey helped to shape some of the key words and arguments used by GOP candidates by looking at “what women hear when [candidates] talk about public policy issues,” said Pfotenhauer.

Sanchez comes to the show with a compelling back story. A grandfather fled Mexico for the United States to escape Pancho Villa’s revolution while a grandmother grew up on the historic 825,000-acre King Ranch in Southern Texas, home to many Mexican workers over the years.

After Sanchez’s parents divorced when she was in high school, the Texas native earned money for college and helped support her mother by selling Collier’s encyclopedias in 23 states, eventually working her way up to sales superintendent and trainer for other door-to-door salespeople. Sanchez earned an M.B.A. from Johns Hopkins University by taking night classes.

Sanchez’s passion for politics was ignited while debating the role of government as a member of her high school’s forensics team.

“This was during the Reagan years, and the more I read, the more I learned the arguments pro and con, the more I came to believe that while government has a role to play, the richness of life is really the individual and the family,” Sanchez said, noting that both her parents were Democrats. “I became a Republican.”

And fellow GOPers are glad she did.

“She breaks all the stereotypes,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former RNC colleague. “It’s hard to look at her and think, ‘That’s a three-piece suit Republican.’”

“Until Leslie Sanchez, the Republican Party wasn’t talking to Univision,” said Mike Collins, who also worked with Sanchez at the RNC and now handles public relations for her firm.

“She really has her finger on the pulse of Hispanic American communication,” said Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) spokesman Ron Bonjean, adding that Sanchez has been a key figure in helping House Republicans “put the foundation together” for their Hispanic outreach efforts.

As for her competitive abilities, colleagues and friends paint a picture of a resourceful and tireless team player (don’t expect any back-stabbing here, they say) and an overachiever who doesn’t take herself too seriously.

Still, “you don’t want to be on the other side of her in any contest,” Cole said. “She plays to win.” Cole’s advice for her competitors on the TV show: “Give up now. I would withdraw before I was humiliated.”

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