Sunday, February 24, 2008

It’s an island in the middle of the Caribbean, it claims Jimmy Smits, Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, and it’s known more for its white-sands tourism than power politics.

Yet Puerto Rico, which sits in the Atlantic Ocean’s hurricane alley, is stirring a political storm.

While Puerto Rico is not a U.S. state, the commonwealth’s 63 Democratic delegates and caucus system could determine the Democratic nominee, providing a breathtaking last act to a hard-fought presidential primary election that has seen Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois run neck-and-neck for delegates.

“I don’t think anybody thought it would come down to this,” said Ramona Martinez, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Caucus. “The way the process was set up was to avoid this kind of thing.”

In an odd coincidence, Puerto Rico voters are set to caucus June 1, the day hurricane season begins.

“Instead of living la vida loca, it would be eleccion loca,” quipped South Florida political scientist Robert Watson, a professor at Lynn University, who has been speaking to local groups about possible primary scenarios.

Many are surprised to learn that Puerto Rico, whose residents became U.S. citizens in 1917, may be the unexpected determiner of the Democratic nominee, he said.

As several states, including Michigan and Florida, moved up their primaries in search of increased relevance as key political players, and as both candidates continue to split the tally of delegates around the nation, smaller states with later primaries may have greater consequences, he said.

If Mrs. Clinton were to win in Ohio and Texas on March 4, Puerto Rico becomes a much bigger deal, a possibility Mr. Watson called “surreal.”

Puerto Rico politics also add drama to the contest. The state, with an overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking population of close to 4 million, has two key Democratic factions, the Popular Democratic Party and the New Progressive Party. The caucuses are also conducted in old-school fashion, with power brokers holding sway in smoke-filled, backroom meetings where the wrangling is fierce, Mr. Lynn said.

“This is the way that things operate in Puerto Rico,” Mr. Lynn said. “It’s not one of these split caucuses. There’s arm-wrestling, lots of finagling. This is the way caucuses work, and this is the way they were intended to work, designed to be like horse-trading. But what an undemocratic way to end a Democratic primary.”

Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila has endorsed Mr. Obama. Others speculate that because Mr. Obama is black, and many Puerto Ricans are at least part African-descent, race could play a factor for voters.

Mrs. Clinton, however, also has her own supporters on the island. The New York senator has been winning Hispanic voters on the mainland, though less decisively of late than she once did. Some say what will make the difference is which candidate comes calling on Puerto Rico, not just asking for money. Others are happy that the territory is getting a little national spotlight.

“Puerto Rico — with a delegation larger than 27 states and many other jurisdictions that usually do not get too much attention — has benefited enormously, as both campaigns have had to zero in on places that are typically overlooked,” said Eliseo Roques Arroyo, the national vice chairman of the DNC Hispanic Caucus.

“Both candidates have openly expressed their views on the issues that are important to the U.S. citizens that live in the commonwealth, such as the economy, health care, the cleanup of the former Navy training range in the island-municipality of Vieques, and [the island’s] status” within the U.S., said Mr. Roques, who remains uncommitted to a candidate.

Besides Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and Guam also cannot vote in November and have no voting members of Congress, but are given nominating delegates by the Democratic Party. Thus far, Mr. Obama won the Virgin Islands and Mrs. Clinton took American Samoa. Guam’s primary is set for May 3.

“They are splitting these places, if this is any reading of the tea leaves,” Mr. Watson said.

Mr. Roques said the primary election is being watched closely by Puerto Rico voters, and the commonwealth is considering changing its format.

“In light of the possibility that the race actually extends itself to June, the local Democratic Party is proposing a primary instead of a caucus, mostly due to the energy this contest has created and the 70 percent-plus voting turnout usually reported in Puerto Rico,” he said, adding that the DNC would have to approve such a change.

But Miss Martinez said she doubts that the race will come down to Puerto Rico.

“If we have no clear winner by the time Puerto Rico comes around, I think it will be so close. [Puerto Rico] won’t be the deciding factor. I think it’s going to come down to a brokered convention,” she said. “I’m not so sure those delegates will make the difference in pushing somebody over. I would be surprised if they did.”

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