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Issued : Thursday, January 19, 2012 06:05 AM
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GOP’s primary in PR taking shape

By CB Online Staff

Puerto Rico Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock certified on Wednesday the seven Republicans who will be eligible to appear on the ballot for the party’s March 18 presidential primary on a small island that could play an oversized role in the GOP race.

The list includes five better-known candidates, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, as well as two lesser-known candidates, Buddy Roemer and Fred Karger.

Each candidate will have until February 17 to decline the offer to appear on the March 18 ballot, before McClintock issues a final certification to the State Elections Commission on February 18.

Presidential primary politics are coming back to Puerto Rico. But this election cycle, it’s the Republicans that are paying attention to a little island that could play an oversized role in the GOP race for the 2012 ballot.

At stake in the island’s Republican caucus on March 18 are Puerto Rico’s 23 delegates, 11 more than the New Hampshire primary awarded last week in a vote won by Romney.

Some 245,000 people voted in the GOP’s New Hampshire caucus last week. Only 208 votes were cast in the Republican caucus in heavily Democratic Puerto Rico in 2008. John McCain won all 20 pledged delegates (and the support of three unpledged delegates) in that caucus.

The three unpledged delegates in the 2012 vote are the top Republican Party leaders in Puerto Rico ― the national committeeman (Gov. Luis Fortuño), the national committeewoman (Zoraida Fonalledas), and the chairman of Puerto Rico’s Republican Party (Aguadilla Mayor Carlos Méndez).

By the time the GOP race reaches Puerto Rico, no candidate will have been able to wrap up enough delegates to seal the nomination.

Romney won the first two Republican contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he is leading in the polls in South Carolina and Florida, the next two states to have primaries. However, a certified vote count issued Thursday showed that Santorum actually bested Romney in Iowa by 32 votes. Also, Gingrich is gaining on Romney in South Carolina ahead of the Saturday primary in that state.

But even if Romney wins in South Carolina and Florida, he will technically still have a long way to go before winning the GOP nomination. Mathematically, no candidate can seal the nomination until late April, which leaves a lot of campaigning yet to be done.

It remains to be seen how hard the GOP hopefuls will push for Puerto Rican support with roughly two months to go ahead of the island caucus.

So far, Paul, who few political observers see as a potential nominee, is the only GOP hopeful seen making much of a push in heavily-Democratic Puerto Rico.

“With that many delegates at risk over that few votes, it would stand to reason that the current GOP field would be making manic maneuvers to shore up support in Puerto Rico. But so far, only one candidate seems to be doing much, if anything: Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas),” writes Sam Stein at the Huffington Post.

Stein notes that Paul has a coordinator in Puerto Rico and a “Hispanics for Ron Paul” team that prominently features a Puerto Rican business leader. He also points a non-affiliated group, Puerto Rico for Ron Paul, that has also been disseminating caucus-related information.

Although Puerto Ricans are natural-born United States citizens, they cannot vote for president. However, both national parties apportion the territory the same number of voting delegates that Puerto Rico would have as a state.

Some 387,299 Puerto Rico voters turned out for the June 2008 local primary between then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and then New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, with the current U.S. secretary of State taking two-thirds of the vote. Still, the turnout for that primary was the lowest for an election in island history. The 15.5 percent voter participation rate paled in comparison to the 80-plus percent in local gubernatorial races. Some 850,000 voters participated in the island’s first Democratic Party primary in March 1980, in which President Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Some pundits argued that the low turnout for the 2008 Democratic primary reflected Puerto Ricans’ indifference toward national politics, as polls indicated.

There were other factors at play: media declarations that the race was already over; Obama and Clinton didn’t split the vote along Puerto Rico political party lines; the number of Republicans high up in the majority New Progressive Party (NPP); and upheaval at the top of the Popular Democratic Party due to the federal indictment of then-Gov. Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, who headed the commonwealth party at the time.

This year, local Republicans may be able to throw some weight around despite their relatively small ranks as the GOP primaries heat up.

For one thing, Fortuño, who heads the statehood supporting New Progressive Party, is widely touted as a rising star in the national Republican Party, with some pundits even pitching him as a potential vice presidential pick as the GOP seeks to grab a bigger share of the vital Latino vote in the states.

Also, Puerto Rican primaries and caucuses are open contests, meaning any voter — regardless of party registration ― may vote in the primary or caucus of either major party (but not both). With no Democratic Party primary needed this cycle, members of that national party in Puerto Rico may choose to take part in the Republican caucus. A voter’s party affiliation is unaffected by which primary he or she might have chosen to vote in.

Beyond capturing local delegates, a big win in Puerto Rico could carry over to the national election even though island voters are blocked from the presidential election.

Nowhere is that potential more important than in Florida, where a large and growing Puerto Rican population wields increasing political powerful in a highly competitive and key swing state with 29 electoral votes.

The flood of Puerto Ricans to Florida — an estimated 350,000 islanders have moved there in recent years — has swelled the Sunshine State’s total Puerto Rican population to more than 850,000 and shows no signs of slowing.

And unlike Puerto Rican blocs in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that are seen as safely Democratic, Boricua voters in Florida are up for grabs, in part due to demographic differences from longtime hubs further up the U.S. East Coast.

Many first-time Puerto Rican voters in Florida are college-educated and middle-class professionals who have fled the island’s marathon recession. Democrats can’t take votes for granted in a bloc that in many cases is more politically, socially and economically conservative than other stateside Puerto Rican populations.

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