As GOP Races On, Puerto Rico Could Be Battleground Puerto Rico holds its Republican primary in March. The island's Republican rising star governor, Luis Fortuno, has endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In return, Romney has promised to support statehood for Puerto Rico.
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As GOP Races On, Puerto Rico Could Be Battleground

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As GOP Races On, Puerto Rico Could Be Battleground

As GOP Races On, Puerto Rico Could Be Battleground

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After today's primaries in Michigan and Arizona, Washington State holds caucuses this weekend, then comes Super Tuesday followed by several primaries that don't normally get a lot of attention. On March 18th, Puerto Rico will choose 23 delegates; that's about as many as were at stake in South Carolina.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that the contest in Puerto Rico will test Republicans' appeal with Hispanic voters, and it will also highlight the island's new Republican governor.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Republican and Democratic Party contests give Puerto Ricans their only chance to say who should be president. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but can't vote in the general election, only in the primaries.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fought hard for Puerto Rico's delegates. This year, it's Republican votes that'll count. The party's finance chairman, John Regis, is expecting 300,000 people to come out for the primary.

JOHN REGIS: If there's a close race, the numbers should be a lot higher than that. And I think that's about the highest we've ever done.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: Talk radio in Puerto Rico is a big source of information about the primaries. Every Sunday, Vanessa Viera answers questions from callers. She keeps things pretty basic: Puerto Ricans don't really see themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

VANESSA VIERA: A lot of people, they just don't exactly know what the parties stand for. Others are just basically concerned about what the position of the candidates will be towards Puerto Rico and statehood.

GJELTEN: Statehood - the issue that dominates all others here. Anyone competing for Puerto Rican votes has to say whether he'd support Puerto Rico becoming a state or leave it as a U.S. territory.

All four Republican candidates are on the primary ballot. The edge probably goes to Mitt Romney. He got a big endorsement last month from Puerto Rico's governor, Luis Fortuno.

GOVERNOR LUIS FORTUNO: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: Governor Fortuno is a rising star on the national Republican stage and a big reason Republicans are interested in Puerto Rico. On this day, he's visiting a new golf resort.

FORTUNO: (Foreign language spoken)

GJELTEN: Fortuno says the project has already created 200 jobs. Not a lot, but every new job is something to celebrate in Puerto Rico; the economy here has been in crisis.

FORTUNO: When I came in, I was facing the worst state budget deficit in the country. It was 44 percent of revenues.

GJELTEN: As governor, Fortuno gets to works out of a grand 16th century residence in old San Juan, with high ceilings and gilded chandeliers. And three years into his term, he says Puerto Rico is on a much sounder fiscal foundation.

FORTUNO: What we did was 75 percent cuts, 25 percent closing loopholes, tax loopholes, so we raised some money there. But at the end of the day, you want to grow. And in order to grow, you want to reduce regulations, merge agencies - government agencies - to make it easier to do business in your jurisdiction, and lower taxes. And that's what we've done.

GJELTEN: Talk about an approach Republicans like. Fortuno, a U.S. trained lawyer, 51 but with a neat, boyish appearance, has been mentioned as a dark horse vice presidential candidate. His fiscal policies impress Republican leaders; they also see him as someone who can attract Hispanic voters to the party.

Fortuno is willing to help do that, but he says the Republicans' Hispanic outreach efforts have not been helped by their tough talk on immigration.

FORTUNO: I think it's been awful. Really, a lot of people I feel have missed the point. I haven't met that many people that don't agree that we have to protect our border. Especially after 9/11, we all agree that the border has to be protected. All I'm saying is that the way it has been posed, especially the tone that has been used, at times, is counterproductive.

GJELTEN: Mitt Romney has taken perhaps the hardest line on immigration of the Republican candidates, but Fortuno thinks in the end he'd be a moderate on the issue. And he says Romney promised he'd support Puerto Rico becoming a state. That counts for a lot.

Some Republicans - Newt Gingrich is one - have also said they'd back statehood but only if Puerto Rico adopts English as its official language. Right now, Spanish and English are both official.

The idea that English should take precedence irritates many here, including Governor Fortuno. He sees it as a states rights issue.

FORTUNO: And I resent Washington telling states or the residents of those states what to do and what to think. I am making sure, as a territory, as the governor of a territory, making sure that our kids speak fluent English. Having said that, I will tell my wife that I love her in Spanish. And I will pray in Spanish. And no one from Washington should come down here and tell us how to go about it.

GJELTEN: Puerto Ricans are proud. An effort to make them adopt English as their one official language could backfire on those who push it.

In the next weeks, if the Republican race is still wide open, some candidates may come here seeking primary votes. But they should be warned: In Puerto Rico, an election message has to be tailored to Puerto Rican concerns.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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