Puerto Ricans set to voice a choice in GOP race

March 14, 2012 - 6:36 PM
Puerto Rico Santorum 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, speaks to an audience at a town hall meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday March 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Welcome to the Caribbean, Republicans.

Puerto Rico doesn't get full voting privileges in Congress. It doesn't vote for the president in the general election. And it has been fighting for decades not just over its status as a U.S. territory but to make its voice heard on issues of national importance.

Now, islanders are getting their chance — for one day at least.

A series of state-by-state Republican presidential contests on the mainland have failed to provide clarity to the muddy GOP field. So the race has turned to Puerto Rico. And on Sunday, Puerto Ricans will weigh in on who the GOP should pick to challenge President Barack Obama in the fall.

"We can do exceptionally well here in Puerto Rico, but we're going to need your help and support," Rick Santorum, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney's chief challenger, pleaded Wednesday at a town hall-style event in San Juan's financial district.

The Republican presidential primary has turned into a slog, with no end in sight anytime soon. Romney leads in the hunt for delegates to the national nominating convention and Santorum is looking to prevent him from getting the 1,144 needed to secure the party nod.

On Sunday, 20 delegates are at stake in Puerto Rico's GOP primary, more than those that were up for grabs in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary in January. Puerto Rico's delegates will be split among candidates unless someone wins 50 percent of the vote, which is unlikely in a multi-candidate field.

The Caribbean island of 3.7 million people is part of the United States. Even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they pay no federal taxes and cannot vote in presidential elections. Its political parties are largely built around disagreements over its political status. The fight over whether it should push for statehood or independence has been waged since 1964, and it's likely to shape the GOP primary race on the island. The economy too is certain to be an issue given Puerto Rico's sky-high 15.1 percent unemployment rate.

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, arrived in Puerto Rico on an early morning flight from Louisiana, riding high on momentum from winning the Alabama and Mississippi primaries a day earlier.

"If we keep winning races, eventually people are going to figure out that Gov. Romney is not going to be the nominee," Santorum told a sun-drenched group of reporters outside the governor's mansion.

Santorum met privately with Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno — he is a rising star in Republican politics who supports Romney — for about half an hour early in the day.

Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts, is set to arrive Friday.

Puerto Rico was last in the national political spotlight four years ago, in June 2008, during the epic Democratic delegate battle between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Clinton, who was a New York senator at the time with a huge crop of Puerto Rican constituents, campaigned hard on the island and won it 68 percent to 32 percent. At the time, Obama refused to take a position on the island's status. As president, Obama promised to "enable the question of Puerto Rico's status to be resolved" in his first term. But the administration was silent when the House weighed in on a bill in 2010 about the island's fate.

Four years after the Clinton-Obama clash, the struggle over statehood could end up helping Romney.

It divides politics on the island as much as the traditional Republican-Democratic split, and the establishment forces that will help get people to the polls prefer Romney's position on the issue. One aspect of the statehood fight is whether English should be made the official language in the former Spanish colony.

Fortuno, for one, hails from the New Progressive Party, which supports making Puerto Rico the 51st state. He has pushed for a referendum on the question, and on Nov. 6 voters will choose whether they want change the status quo and become a state instead of remaining a U.S. commonwealth. Congress has the ultimate say.

The two GOP candidates' approaches to where to go after Puerto Ricans vote have pushed Fortuno and others like him toward Romney. Fortuno spokesman Edward Zayas said Fortuno endorsed Romney early in the GOP nomination fight in large part because of the statehood question.

"I expect the people of Puerto Rico will decide that they want to become a state," Romney said at a forum in Miami last fall. "If that vote comes out in favor of statehood ... we will go through the process in Washington to provide statehood to Puerto Rico."

Santorum has hedged more, saying that while he would help Puerto Rico become a state, its people would have to make a "decisive decision" to do so. He said Wednesday that a simple majority of Puerto Ricans — "50 percent plus one," as Santorum put it — wouldn't be enough to show that islanders really want statehood.

And Santorum went further in an interview with local newspaper El Vocero, saying he doesn't think Puerto Rico should become a state unless it adopts English as its main language. Spanish has been the language of Puerto Rico since Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain in 1493. The Puerto Rican government does its business largely in Spanish, and many of its residents think cultural issues like language should be dictated by the states, not the federal government.

Beyond statehood, the race in Puerto Rico also could offer an opportunity for Republicans to appeal to Hispanic voters ahead of the general election. Obama has a significant edge among Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing minority group, at a time when GOP candidates have been taking a hard line against illegal immigration.

On Wednesday, Santorum was pressed about his decision to support President Bill Clinton's promotion of Sonia Sotomayor to a U.S. district court judgeship, a position that eventually allowed her to become a member of the Supreme Court. Sotomayor is of Puerto Rican descent.

Romney has criticized Santorum for backing Sotomayor in the 1990s. But Santorum is defending his decision to vote for her two decades ago, saying the Senate should allow "great deference to the president" in selecting lower court nominees and said he would expect that if he were president.

"There's a different standard" for Supreme Court nominees, Santorum said.

For all its quirks, Puerto Rico's sudden prominence in the GOP primary contest isn't as unlikely as it may seem.

Some Republican operatives have long viewed the island as a significant primary battleground. There's also a potential financial benefit. Candidates often leverage local connections to reach deep-pocketed donors in Puerto Rican communities in Florida and New York.