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Statehood Debate Key As Romney Wins Puerto Rico

Mar 19, 2012

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Mitt Romney scored a landslide victory in yesterday's Puerto Rico presidential primary. Returns showed him easily beating Rick Santorum, his closest rival. Romney got much more than the 50 percent of the votes needed to win all 20 of the delegates at stake in Puerto Rico. Both men campaigned in the Caribbean territory last week. And for each of them that meant having to take a stand on the hot-button issue of statehood. Doing that may have sealed Santorum's defeat. NPR's David Welna has this report from San Juan.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Many of the streets were closed off yesterday here in the Puerto Rican capital. It was hard getting around, but still a lot of people showed up for a race that's become well known as a grueling test of endurance.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD NOISE)

WELNA: This race was actually the annual Iron Man Triathlon in Puerto Rico. It produced a clear winner, just as Mitt Romney came out on top in the latest heat of that political marathon known as the GOP presidential primary. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul did not even bother to campaign here. But Rick Santorum did come for two days last week, and it could be that his campaigning achieved exactly the opposite of its desired effect. Santorum, while here, stepped on the landmine of language.

Asked by a local newspaper about his support for Puerto Rican statehood, a cause many local Republicans embrace, Santorum said Puerto Ricans would first have to learn to speak English.

RICK SANTORUM: And we are not doing anybody on this island a favor by not following the law, which is that this is a society that will speak English in addition to speaking Spanish.

WELNA: That offended many Puerto Ricans, who correctly pointed out that in fact there is no law requiring that English be spoken as a condition for statehood. Even Puerto Ricans fluent in English, who are perhaps a fifth of the island's four million inhabitants, thought that while Santorum's stance may please English-only supporters back on the mainland, it was a surefire way to lose yesterday's primary.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

WELNA: At a polling place in San Juan's Miramar neighborhood. 77-year-old Erise Ocasio(ph) says she was earlier willing to give Santorum her vote, but not any longer.

ERISE OCASIO: He says that we have to speak English as our first language. And we speak the two languages - Spanish and English. So I don't like that.

WELNA: I also asked a 60-year-old physician named Wildo Vargas(ph) whether he had considered voting for Santorum.

WILDO VARGAS: Yes. At first, yes. But then when I start to hear him talk, I discarded him.

WELNA: Both of these people ended up voting for Romney. Even one of Santorum's delegates declared he could no longer support the former senator from Pennsylvania. For Mitt Romney, who arrived here to campaign the day after Santorum left, the flap over language was a political gift. It let him play the good cop, making Santorum look even more like the bad cop, trying to get this island populated by U.S. citizens to follow a law that does not exist.

Last night while campaigning in Illinois for its primary tomorrow, Romney told supporters that CNN had declared him the winner in Puerto Rico based on very partial returns.

MITT ROMNEY: Apparently the reason they were able to make the call was that with only 20 percent in, 83 percent of the people of Puerto Rico, of those who voted, voted for me. So that's a pretty good start.

WELNA: And yet the boost Romney got yesterday in Puerto Rico is as much help as he can expect to get from the commonwealth in his quest for the presidency. While Puerto Ricans can help decide who gets the presidential nomination, they cannot actually vote for president.

Still, yesterday's results did give Romney probably the biggest proportion of Hispanic voters he'll get this year. It also handed victory to a Mormon from a population that's 85 percent Catholic.

And while Santorum's stance on English likely hurt him here, it could also win him support on the mainland. And Romney's pledge of support for statehood, should Puerto Rico pursue it, could end up costing him votes as this marathon continues.

David Welna, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.