Politics

03.14.12

Santorum, Romney Square Off in Suddenly Crucial Puerto Rico Primary

Sunday’s primary in Puerto Rico, with 20 delegates at stake—more than New Hampshire, Vermont, or Hawaii—could be a very big deal.

After Tuesday’s night disappointing third-place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi, the delegate math has not gotten any better for Mitt Romney. While he did increase his delegate lead Tuesday night, winning 41 out of the 107 delegates up for grabs with wins in Hawaii and American Samoa, that’s a step backward for a campaign desperate to get a majority in the delegate count.

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Rick Santorum (L) campaigns in Puerto Rico against Mitt Romney (R), who is endorsed by Puerto Rico's Governor Luis Fortuno. (AP Photo)

That makes Sunday’s primary in Puerto Rico, with 20 delegates at stake—more than New Hampshire, Vermont, or Hawaii among the states that have voted so far—a very big deal. Until Tuesday, the Caribbean territory, which has never played a big role in a GOP primary before, had been written off as a gimme for Romney, who is backed by the Republican governor, Luis Fortuno, and has been racking up delegates in territorial primaries that his less well-funded competitors have effectively conceded.

But in his victory speech last night, Santorum announced that he would be spending the next two days campaigning in Puerto Rico—threatening to upend Romney’s message of, effectively, “never mind momentum, the delegate math makes us inevitable.”

“We will compete everywhere,” said Santorum. “We are going to spend two days campaigning in Puerto Rico because we want to make sure everybody knows we are campaigning everywhere there are delegates because we are going to win this nomination before that convention.”

The move came as Santorum was riding high from his strong southern performance Tuesday and at a time when Romney’s stock is diminished in Puerto Rico. Recently, the former Massachusetts governor aired a campaign ad attacking Santorum for having voted while in the Senate to put Sonia Sotomayor on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which the ad says put her on course to join the Supreme Court. While Romney meant to attack his opponent for backing a liberal judge, it could play badly on the island, where both of Sotomayor’s parents were born and she’s very popular.

If Santorum holds Romney below 50 percent there, it would deny the former Massachusetts governor at least 10 delegates.

If Santorum holds Romney below 50 percent there, it would deny the former Massachusetts governor at least 10 delegates—effectively removing the cushion he picked up with his two wins Tuesday. While there’s been no recent polling on the island, where turnout is expected to be as high as 400,000—which would be more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined.

However, Santorum may have committed an act of self-sabotage Wednesday by stating that “English has to be the principal language” in Puerto Rico as a precondition of the U.S. commonwealth ever becoming a state. Such a gaffe, reminiscent of his statement that John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on the separation of church and state “almost made him want to vomit,” will not play well in Sunday’s election. It increases the pressure on Santorum to find alternative ways of appealing to Puerto Rican voters and prevent Romney from piling up more delegates outside the Lower 48.

Illinois will be a strange and confusing primary for pundits to draw conclusions from. It is actually two different contests, a nonbinding beauty primary where voters state their preferred candidate and then an election by congressional district to vote for delegates by name. The result is that voters can get distracted by the array of interesting names or not even bother to fill out the part of the ballot where delegates are elected.

For example, voters electing an alternate in Illinois Sixth Congressional District will be choosing between such political heavyweights as Samson Scarpino (a Paul delegate) and the colorfully, if unappetizingly, named, Rusty Popp (a Santorum delegate). This is not to mention that, in four congressional districts, Santorum did not file a single delegate. Santorum voters in these parts of the state will be forced to select between delegates pledged to Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney.

The convoluted process not only muddies the narrative waters, but may lead to some very strange discrepancies between the popular vote and the allotment of delegates. Whoever claims the headlines with a win there is unlikely to gain very much in terms of delegates.