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Candidates court Puerto Rican votes

Rivals seek symbolic win in small primary

BAYAMON, Puerto Rico – The delegate haul in Puerto Rico’s primary today will be small and the island’s voters will not be able to weigh in on the presidential race in November. But that did not deter the leading GOP presidential contenders from giving premier treatment to voters here as they battled for a symbolic victory demonstrating strength among Latinos and an ability to compete in the nation’s most far-flung contests.

For Mitt Romney, the primary is yet another test of whether his well-funded organization and establishment backing can trump the insurgent campaign of Rick Santorum, who spent several days campaigning here with his family last week.

As Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, wrapped up his visit here Saturday with a trip to a market for mangoes, mandarins and papayas, he told reporters he was “cautiously optimistic that we’re going to do well in Puerto Rico.”

Although there is little polling data available, Romney enters today’s contest with considerable advantages. He has the backing of Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, who guided the former Massachusetts governor through two days of campaign events that included an airport news conference focused on the territory’s quest for statehood, a raucous night rally at the state Capitol and a meet-and-greet at the market in Bayamon.

Unless one candidate crosses the 50 percent threshold in today’s contest, the territory’s 20 delegates will be split proportionally. Santorum’s campaign co-chairman, San Juan attorney and delegate Carlos Rodriguez, said the campaign hopes to deprive Romney of that outright win by turning out Christian supporters here, including evangelicals.

Although former House Speaker Newt Gingrich dispatched his daughter Kathy Lubbers to campaign on his behalf, “it’s a two-man race here,” Rodriguez said.

The three candidates largely agree on the issue of chief concern to many of the voters who will cast ballots in the primary: whether Puerto Rico will win the right to become the nation’s 51st state.

Romney, Gingrich and Santorum have all said they would back statehood for Puerto Rico as long as the territory’s voters support it in a November referendum.

But when discussing that issue during a local newspaper interview this week, Santorum set off a furor by saying that English should be the “main language” of the island if it becomes a state. (Puerto Rico currently recognizes English and Spanish as its official languages.)

Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, insisted that his remarks were misunderstood – that he was only saying he wanted Puerto Rico to become a fully bilingual state.

But the controversy generated a series of local stories.

“It really hurt him,” said Zoraida Fonalledas, a Republican National Committeewoman who backs Romney. “If (people) were going to vote for him, they changed their minds.”