SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — You know a presidential primary has turned into a scramble for every last delegate when the candidates start showing up in Puerto Rico.
Politics is a boisterous pastime on this island territory, where campaigns feature festive parades and caravans of cars blaring music. Few places in the world have higher voter turnout.
So you can imagine the excitement over today's Republican primary in Puerto Rico, which in most presidential campaigns earns at best a token visit from a candidate's spouse or kid, but last week had Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum hitting the streets of San Juan.
"Nobody cares about it, nobody's talking about it. It's a very little group in Puerto Rico that's going to vote for those guys,'' scoffed Raymond Frias, a real estate investor in San Juan, who owns property in Hillsborough County.
Puerto Ricans love to talk and debate politics, Wanda Ortiz said, as Atlantic waves crashed just below her Reef Bar and Grill outside San Juan one morning last week. "But that presidential primary doesn't matter at all to the lives of the people here."
On the mainland 1,200 miles away, though, Puerto Rican political perceptions could not be more relevant to the outcome of the presidential election. Why? Florida.
The Puerto Rican population is exploding in Florida, particularly in the Orlando area, and increasingly Republicans and Democrats alike see those voters as the key to winning America's biggest battleground state.
"You have a lot of first-generation Puerto Ricans here who have strong ties with the island and travel back and forth all the time,'' said Republican Osceola County Commission Chairman John Quiñones, a former legislator, who lived in Puerto Rico until he was 14.
"The message that the candidates and the voters send in Puerto Rico," he said, "will be heard very loudly in Florida."
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From yuppie neighborhoods with overpriced martini bars to beach shacks hawking conch fritters, the sentiment remained consistent last week when people discussed the GOP race: yawn.
People here talk about the ever-growing crime threat, about the 15 percent unemployment rate, about the brain drain that draws the island's best and brightest to Central Florida and elsewhere on the mainland for opportunity. Presidential politics, though, are colored by Puerto Rico's confounding status as a vestige of American colonialism.
"They call us the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, just like the Commonwealth of Virginia or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," said retiree David Guerra. "But when I fought for America in Vietnam, the bullets coming at me were just as dangerous as the bullets aimed at Americans from Massachusetts or Virginia, but I can't vote for president, and I don't get the same benefits as citizens from Virginia or Massachusetts."
It's a constant refrain: Why bother voting in the primary when I can't vote in the general election?
Spain ceded Puerto Rico to America in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, and Congress in 1917 made Puerto Ricans American citizens. The Democratic and Republican parties include Puerto Rico in their primaries, but under the U.S. Constitution only the 50 states and the District of Columbia are entitled to choose electors in the presidential election. One non-voting delegate represents the territory's 4 million citizens in the U.S. House.
"It's ridiculous. If I move to Tampa tomorrow I can vote in November's presidential election, but if I stay here I can't," said Rosana Roig before a sparsely attended Santorum rally in San Juan.
Puerto Rico's political status — and whether it should become a state — is the overriding political issue here and transcends the ideological divide that shapes mainstream American politics. The two major political parties, the New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party, are divided by whether they support statehood or the status quo as a commonwealth. Puerto Rico's governor, Luis Fortuno, is a New Progressive member who actively campaigns for Republicans, while Puerto Rico's representative in Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, is a New Progressive who actively supports Democrats.
"Most people here, if you ask them, really don't understand the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, because they don't really fit with the parties here," said 23-year-old Osualdo Olmos, who expected to vote today but doubted he would pick a candidate until the last minute. "I wish more people here understood the importance of having a voice in Washington, but they don't."
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Even if few Puerto Ricans are paying close attention to the presidential race, how the candidates are perceived on the island can have serious repercussions in November. That's because Florida has become a veritable suburb of Puerto Rico.
Nearly 850,000 Puerto Ricans live in Florida, more than any other state except New York. The trend started slowly in the 1970s when Puerto Rican developers built communities near Orlando, aggressively marketing them with enticements of free vacations and trips to Disney World.
As more Puerto Ricans moved to Florida, more family members visited, and in turn more decided to settle. Today more than 250,000 Puerto Ricans live in the metro Orlando area, and 7,300 Puerto Ricans annually move to Florida — more than any other state.
The migration has been a mix of second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans from the New York area, overwhelmingly Democratic, and transplants directly from the island, who generally lean Democratic but tend to be swing voters.
Jeb Bush won over these voters as governor, and Barack Obama won them in 2008. Neither party can afford to take that vote for granted. Hispanic turnout in Central Florida topped 70 percent in 2008 and then dropped to 26 percent in 2010 when Republican Rick Scott narrowly won the governor's race.
Obama visited the island last summer, the first president since John F. Kennedy to make the trip. It was a nod to how aggressively his campaign is targeting Florida's Puerto Rican voters.
With an eye on those voters, Democrats are pounding Romney for deriding U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has Puerto Rican roots and is an icon to many Hispanic voters. Romney has been running radio and TV ads in Midwestern states attacking Santorum for voting in 1998 to confirm Sotomayor to a federal appeals court.
"Not only is he insulting Sonia Sotomayor, he is disrespecting Puerto Ricans and Latinos in this country. I hope that people in Puerto Rico as well as in Florida, Puerto Ricans particularly, learn and understand and get to know what this man is doing. Because it's really outrageous," U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-New York, a native of Puerto Rico, told reporters Friday in a conference call.
It was the first question Romney received after stepping off the plane here. Romney said he understood the pride people have in Sotomayor, but he did not back off his criticism.
"I would be happy to have a justice of Puerto Rican descent or a Puerto Rican individual, but they would have to share my judicial philosophy," he said.
A few miles away, walking into a Walgreens in the Ocean Park neighborhood, casino manager Gilbert Torres confessed he didn't realize the presidential primary was coming up. He's an Obama fan, but said he couldn't care less about the sudden attention given to Puerto Rico by the leading presidential contenders.
"Mostly candidates come here, raise money, and leave. Or they come here just so they can rush back to Florida to say how much they care about Puerto Rico and pump up the Puerto Rican voters there," Torres said.
"But we still can't vote for president, and that really bothers a lot of people."
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With 23 Republican delegates at stake, Puerto Rico has more influence on the nomination than Hawaii or Delaware. But in the rare occasions when presidential primaries extend into a fight for every delegate, the commonwealth becomes more than a political afterthought bypassed by the major candidates. Four years ago Hillary Rodham Clinton won Puerto Rico handily after she and Obama campaigned aggressively in the territory, and Romney and Santorum made appearances last week.
"I was referred to by many in my state as Senador Puertorriqueño. They used to make fun of me. 'Why are you representing Puerto Rico?' " Santorum boasted in San Juan, recounting his efforts as a U.S. senator to increase Medicare reimbursements to citizens in Puerto Rico.
His pandering was overshadowed, however, by an interview with the newspaper El Vocero in which he said he would support statehood so long as Puerto Rico made English its primary language.
The Constitution does not require any state to make English its official language, and Santorum stepped into the political mine field that defines why Puerto Ricans are sharply divided by the question of statehood: their identity. One Puerto Rican delegate pledged to Santorum promptly quit his campaign after the English language comment.
"Puerto Rico is very different from the United States, and if we became a state I worry we would lose something vital,'' said Therese Santos, a university student, who like many Puerto Ricans speaks perfect English. "To say we have to speak English would be changing centuries of tradition and threaten our identity."
That's a common sentiment among Puerto Ricans. They say they're proud to be Americans, but they are equally proud to wave their own flag, and field their own Olympic teams and Miss Universe contestants.
"He really bombed with that comment, but I'm glad Santorum said that because he spoke the truth," said Evelyn Nieves, a teacher. "And I hope people will question the party leaders pushing statehood who keep telling people everything would stay the same and we would continue with our own flag, our own national anthem."
Romney has managed to antagonize some Hispanic voters with his calls for "self-deportation" of some 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, but he treaded carefully on the language question in San Juan on Friday.
"Spanish is the language of Puerto Rico's heritage. English is the language of opportunity," he said at a news conference. "I would hope that young people would learn both languages, but particularly English so that as they trade throughout the country and participate in educational opportunities throughout the country that their English skills would make it even easier for them."
In November, Puerto Ricans will hold a referendum on whether they support continuing with territorial status or moving to statehood. Congress would have to approve it, but if Puerto Rico became America's 51st state, most observers believe that would lead to Democrats picking up seats in the U.S. House and Senate.
"If a majority of Puerto Ricans wish to become a state, then I will support that effort in Washington and I will help lead that effort in Washington," Romney vowed Friday, flanked by pro-statehood Gov. Fortuno, and Puerto Rican and American flags.
Romney is favored to win today's primary, but other candidates can still pick up delegates if no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote.
"Puerto Rico's never mattered more in a presidential primary because every delegate matters,'' said John Regis, finance chairman of the island's Republican Party, who hopes more than 130,000 people turn out.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]