Why the Puerto Rico GOP primary matters

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, right, waves at supporters following a campaign rally in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 15, 2012.
AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo
Rick Santorum, Puerto Rico
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, right, waves at supporters following a campaign rally in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday March 15, 2012.
AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo

The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico will have no say in the presidential election come November, and its Sunday primary has been overshadowed by bigger upcoming races in states like Illinois.

Still, frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum ventured off the mainland this week to woo Puerto Rico voters. In a race in which every delegate counts -- and in which a connection with the Latino vote could pay off in the long run -- the Puerto Rico primary will matter more than many probably expected it to this year.


Puerto Rico will award a total of 23 delegates after Sunday's primary -- 20 at-large delegates will be allocated proportionally while the last three will remain unbound to any candidate, though they can state their candidate preference.

That makes Puerto Rico nearly as delegate-rich as Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands combined. After Romney won 34 delegates delegates in those territories, his campaign noted boasted in a memo that they "helped expand his delegate lead, pushing him closer to the nomination."

With that in mind, it's not that surprising that Romney is heading to Puerto Rico on Friday, while his wife Ann joined Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno to meet with Puerto Rican senior citizens earlier in the day.

Newt Gingrich hasn't traveled to the island himself, but his daughter Kathy Lubbers has spent the past two days there. Meanwhile, Santorum visited Puerto Rico earlier in the week, but the trip may have backfired after he stirred up controversy by asserting that English should be spoken "universally" in Puerto Rico before the territory becomes a state. Santorum said his initial comments were misconstrued, but they nevertheless cost him two important Puerto Rico supporters who found the remarks offensive.

CBS News Estimated Republican Delegate Scorecard

Latino vote

Santorum's remarks could do broader harm to his reputation within the Latino community, since Republicans already suffer from the perception that they're insensitive to Hispanic issues and culture.

"We're not a separate country," Fortuno, who endorsed Romney in January, told CNN on Friday in response to Santorum's position on the issue. "Gov. Romney has shown respect for our heritage and our history, understands it better."

The results of Sunday's primary could also influence Hispanics -- Puerto Ricans in particular, of course -- on the mainland, both in the primaries and the general election.

While most of the Latinos in the United States are of Mexican descent, Puerto Ricans make up 9 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population, making them the second-largest group. About 10 million Latinos voted in 2010, and some expect about 12 million to vote in November.

The key swing state of Florida is gaining a net 7,300 Puerto Ricans a year, according a 2011 survey by the U.S. Census -- far more than any other U.S. state. About one in 10 Republican voters are Latino in Florida, and Latinos made up 14 percent of Florida Republican primary voters in January. Romney did particularly well among those voters, winning 54 percent of Florida Latino Republicans.

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While Latinos have traditionally been aligned with Democrats, Republicans are trying to make inroads with the demographic group by stressing their economic message.

"What's on [Latino's] minds is what's on your mind and my mind and everybody else's mind: How am I going to provide for my family?," Sen. Marco Rubio, a Hispanic Republican from Florida, said on CBS This Morning in January. "What I encourage our candidates to do is speak to that, and particularly as they are doing, I think, embrace the free enterprise system... I think that's where we win, I think that's where we're different than President Obama and his party."

The message could resonate in states hit hard by the mortgage and financial crises that also have sizeable Latino populations, like Nevada or Florida. It could also resonate particularly well with Puerto Ricans. Even though more than 20 percent of Puerto Ricans have a bachelor's degree -- compared with 16 percent of Puero Ricans on the mainland -- the unemployment rate on the island is about 15 percent.

When Fortuno announced his endorsement of Romney, he stressed the importance of Romney's economic platform. "Mitt Romney is the one candidate who has the record, leadership, experience, and pro-growth plan to continue the course of private-sector job creation we've begun in Puerto Rico and provide economic stability for generations," he said.

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