Hillary Rodham Clinton’s easy victory in Sunday’s Puerto Rico primary underscores the advantage she has enjoyed among Hispanic voters over Democratic rival Barack Obama.
Obama, speaking in Mitchell, S.D., told a couple thousand people outside the Corn Palace that he had just spoken to Clinton and congratulated her for winning the Puerto Rico primary.
Speaking in terms usually reserved for a vanquished foe, he said Clinton “is an outstanding public servant, she has worked tirelessly during this campaign,” and she would be a great asset to the Democratic Party in the general election.
“I know there are a lot of concerns about whether the party will come together after this long contest,” Obama said, edging close to claiming victory in the Democratic race. He told the crowd holding “Change We Can Believe In” signs: “She is going to be a great asset when we go into November to make sure that we can defeat the Republicans, I can promise you.”
He then quickly segued into an attack on President Bush and John McCain, saying that the differences between himself and Clinton pale in comparison to those between the Democrats and the Republicans. Obama said McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, was “running to continue George Bush’s policies.”
At a victory rally in a hotel ballroom in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Clinton contended she was ahead in the popular vote total, a calculation based on her interpretation of the results over the last five months but one that is widely disputed, including by the Obama campaign.
Clinton aimed her remarks at the approximately 200 uncommitted superdelegates – the party insiders who will join the delegates selected in primaries and caucuses to determine the nominee – and made a pitch for them to come to her side.
“In the final assessment, I ask you to consider these questions: Which candidate best represents the will of the people who voted in this historic election?” she said, as the crowd broke into a chant of Spanish-accented “Hillary, Hillary.”
“Which candidate is best able to lead us to victory in November? And which candidate is best able to lead our nation as our president in the face of unprecedented challenges at home and abroad? I am in this race because I believe I am that candidate, and I will be that president.”
Clinton’s Puerto Rico triumph continues the string of lopsided victories that each of the two candidates has chalked up in recent weeks, as they have competed in states whose demographics play to their differing strengths among Democratic voters.
The New York senator has proved popular among Hispanics around the country, but in Puerto Rico the bond was especially strong, thanks to her home state’s deep ties to the island commonwealth.
Puerto Rico’s official relationship with the United States has been the most important issue for the semiautonomous island – one that Clinton has promised to resolve if she wins the presidency. Puerto Rico’s 2.4 million voters cannot cast ballots in the general election.
Clinton put much more emphasis into the Puerto Rico contest. She spent the weekend in Puerto Rico and has traveled to the island twice in recent days. Also, former President Bill Clinton has visited here twice and their daughter, Chelsea, three times.
By contrast, Barack and Michelle Obama each have campaigned once in Puerto Rico. The Illinois senator did one day of campaigning, with two events in the San Juan area.
Obama, spending the day in South Dakota, focused on veterans’ issues, drawing a contrast between his positions and McCain’s. His emphasis on improving veterans care was part of his closing pitch to voters in South Dakota and Montana, the two states whose primaries will conclude five months of Democratic nominating contests.
At a pancake breakfast for veterans in Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s most populous city, Obama pledged to honor “a sacred trust to serve our veterans as well as they have served us.”
He recalled his grandfather’s Army service during World War II and his burial with military honors in a Hawaii cemetery alongside hundreds killed at Pearl Harbor.
Obama renewed his criticism of McCain and Bush for opposing a bill that would help veterans pay for a college education.
“I don’t understand why he would side with George Bush in opposing a bipartisan bill that does so much to make college affordable for veterans,” Obama said. “George Bush and John McCain may think that the bill is too generous, but I could not disagree more.”
The Arizona senator and Bush have argued that the education benefits would dissuade young veterans from serving multiple tours while U.S. forces are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said Obama “was driven by left-wing party politics” to oppose veterans healthcare funding included last year in a larger troop buildup measure for the Iraq war. He said Obama’s “blind opposition” to the buildup showed “weak leadership and weak judgment.”