Island gets its moment in the sun today

Times Staff Writer

This old university town, perched on a lush hillside in western Puerto Rico, is a world away from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yet the Democratic road to the White House, which has already passed through 48 states, goes through this commonwealth today.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to win the popular vote, dominates in San Juan and the northeast. Barack Obama has a stronger foothold in cities and rural areas southwest of the capital. The island has 55 pledged delegates at stake.

In the western city of Mayaguez, Rafael Pietri Oms, a local official with the Popular Democratic Party, has wielded his oratory powers for Obama, addressing voters on the radio and in person. At 86, the Puerto Rican grandfather hardly typifies Obama’s voter demographic. But Oms, wearing thick eyeglasses and a blue-and-yellow short-sleeved shirt with an Obama button, is enthusiastic and well-versed in mainland talking points.


“He has gone through almost everything immigrants go through when they come to the U.S.,” said Oms, describing Obama as a “hybrid” who -- once he is better known to Latino voters -- will enjoy broad appeal against the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain.

Latino voters -- a multifaceted constituency that has tended to vote for Clinton over Obama -- are likely to be important in November. In recent weeks, Obama has specifically courted them in battleground states, such as Nevada and New Mexico.

Oms said: “I’m sure he can mobilize the leaders of the Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican American communities.”

Obama has made one visit to Puerto Rico.

On Saturday, Obama was in South Dakota, which holds one of the last two primaries Tuesday, along with Montana. In Rapid City, he praised Clinton for running a “magnificent” campaign and predicted that “we’re going to come together, because Sen. Clinton is an outstanding public servant.”

Obama said that “whatever differences Sen. Clinton and I may have, they pale in comparison to the differences we’ve got with the other side,” and he resumed his attacks on McCain for being “unwilling to change course” on Iraq.

For Clinton and Obama, the Puerto Rico primary is another chance to appeal to Latinos, who are 15% of the U.S. population and whose votes could decide who becomes president.

A recent report from the New Democrat Network, a partisan think tank in Washington, noted that Latinos have voted in record numbers during the primaries, tripling their turnout compared with 2004. Of those, 78% percent have voted Democratic, according to the report.


Puerto Ricans who live on the island cannot vote in the general election, but those who live on the mainland can. And they are paying close attention to today’s primary. “The big battle is here,” said Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua, a senior political analyst and popular radio talk show host based in San Juan.

Clinton has spent more time campaigning here than Obama has. Both have unleashed a torrent of television ads. In one, Obama tells voters in impeccable Spanish that he would be honored to get their vote. The candidates are also on the radio, a popular medium on the tropical island where even the campesinos in the sugar fields listen to small portables.

The candidates also employ people to drive around the island with loudspeakers mounted on their car roofs, blasting music and political slogans.

And then there is the particular Puerto Rican campaign ritual of the so-called caravan -- described by Clinton on Saturday as “one long Puerto Rican Day parade,” as she crisscrossed northeastern Puerto Rico, alternately speaking and semi-dancing to Latin hip-hop.


“It was the most fun I’ve ever had campaigning anywhere,” said Clinton on Saturday evening as she made her pitch at the Templo Principal church in San Juan. Wearing a canary yellow pantsuit, Clinton addressed about 4,000 worshipers, who were dressed almost exclusively in white.

About 2.4 million people are registered to vote on the island, and officials project a turnout of about 500,000. Voter participation usually runs much higher than in the rest of the United States. Early voting in Mayaguez indicated strong interest in the primary.

Puerto Rico’s official relationship with the United States is the most important political issue for the semiautonomous island, whose three largest political parties are defined mostly by their positions on the issue.

“I will work to make sure that the people of Puerto Rico have the right to decide, by majority vote, what your future status should be,” said Clinton. When a translator delivered the remarks in Spanish, Clinton received a standing ovation.


“She has integrated so well with Puerto Rico,” said Elmo Sullivan, 51, a history teacher who attended the event. “She has the best platforms and policies for Puerto Rico, the mainland and the world.”


Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report from South Dakota.