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Puerto Rico Holds Primary With Statehood In Mind


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

The Republican presidential race could take yet another twist today in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The four million people who live there are U.S. citizens and in today's primary, they'll help determine the next Republican nominee for the White House. The big issue in that contest is statehood, and that'll be on the ballot there in November. But the presidential race won't be because, first, Puerto Rico would have to become a state.

NPR's David Welna has this report from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Neither Newt Gingrich nor Ron Paul bothered to campaign in Puerto Rico. So today's primary is essentially a two-man race between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Each of them did spend a couple of days here this past week.

Santorum arrived first and he immediately got himself into some very hot water, talking with reporters about the aspirations here for statehood. Santorum had previously endorsed Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state and set no preconditions for it to do so. But in an interview here with a newspaper El Vocero, Santorum conditioned statehood for Puerto Ricans on one big prerequisite.

RICK SANTORUM: They'd have to speak English. That would be a requirement. It's a requirement that we put on other states. It's a condition for entering the Union and participating as a state in the United States.

ORESTES RAMOS: He's absolutely wrong. He doesn't know what he's talking about.

WELNA: That's Republican attorney Orestes Ramos. Santorum, he says, seemed to invent a law that did not exist to justify demanding that Puerto Ricans learn English.

Although Ramos is listed on today's ballot as a delegate for Santorum, he says there is now no way he'd cast a vote for Santorum.

RAMOS: You know, one felt that the problem is that the guy may be prejudiced. And we don't want a guy in the White House prejudiced against us.

WELNA: Santorum left Puerto Rico on Thursday with his candidacy here in tatters. It was just the time for Mitt Romney's arrival on Friday, when he showed up for a big rally organized by GOP leaders outside the capitol building.


WELNA: It was quite likely the liveliest Romney rally ever. Many in the crowd were still seething about Santorum's insistence on everyone here speaking English if they want statehood.

Denise Longo is a 44-year-old lawyer. She told me her fellow Puerto Ricans have gotten a bum rap.

DENISE LONGO: They are actually American citizens by act of Congress. So, at a certain level, you can say that their citizenship was imposed on them. And the language that they speak at their home doesn't make them any less American than somebody that was born in Ohio.

WELNA: And each speaker at the rally seized on the hot new issue of speaking English to pump up support for Romney. Here's the island's Republican governor, Luis Fortuno.

GOVERNOR LUIS FORTUNO: He understands that English is the language of opportunity, but that Spanish is a cherished part of our heritage.

WELNA: Romney was then introduced to the crowd in Spanish.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WELNA: Romney, for his part, stuck entirely to the language he knows best.

MITT ROMNEY: What a privilege it is to be here. What a beautiful island. What a beautiful place. What a wonderful culture you enjoy. What a wonderful people you are, citizens of this great land. Citizens of America.


WELNA: But Romney stopped short of calling for statehood. That worried some Republicans here. So yesterday, at another campaign stop in the prosperous suburb of Bayamon, Romney appeared to try to set the record straight.

ROMNEY: It was Ronald Reagan, who very famously in our party, said that it was important for people of Puerto Rico to have a choice to become a state. And if...


ROMNEY: ...if the people of Puerto Rico choose that path, I will be happy to help lead that effort in Washington. I respect the wonderful people of this extraordinary community.

WELNA: Romney hopes to get more than half the votes today and thus win all 20 delegates up for grabs. If he does, he may have Rick Santorum to thank for his insistence on people here speaking English.

David Welna, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.