How Puerto Rico's Governor Could Be Dark Horse for VP

Nearly forgotten at the debate, Puerto Rico governor still poised for key role in GOP election.

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When the debate moderator asked the Republican presidential candidates to name Hispanic leaders they'd like to have in their cabinet, one person was conspicuously absent—Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno.

And at least one key conservative says that was a big mistake.

"They were so Florida-centric they missed it," says Grover Norquist, an influential anti-tax advocate and president of Americans for Tax Reform. "Somebody doesn't know how many Puerto Rican-Americans there are in Florida. That was pretty silly of them."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Fortuno, who has been governor of Puerto Rico since 2009, is hardly a household name—yet. He's doesn't have the star wattage of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American. But his record of trimming billions from the island's budget despite angry protests from government workers has made him a favorite among many key GOP figures. There have also been whispers that Fortuno is a long-shot candidate for the vice presidential spot on the Republican ticket this summer.

"He'd be a great vice presidential candidate. He's brilliant. He's Hispanic, and Republicans have to articulate a message to Hispanic voters," Norquist says. "He's been the Chris Christie of the Caribbean."

Fortuno's name did pop up later in the debate, when Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, CEO of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, asked why the candidates had neglected him. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum responded.

[Read why Hispanics are key to a victory in the 2012 presidential race.]

"I will give a shout-out to Gov. Luis Fortuno, who is a good friend of mine," Santorum said.

According to news reports, Fortuno is set to endorse former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Friday. The endorsement would be a huge boost to Romney's chances in a state where 3 percent of the population is of Puerto Rican descent. As Republicans try to make in-roads with the Puerto Rican community, Fortuno and Rubio are expected to gain a higher profile as the summer onslaught begins.

So far, Fortuno has denied any interest in a national electoral run, instead focusing on his job as governor as well as campaigns to make Puerto Rico the 51st state.

Whether Fortuno—a San Juan-born lawyer who went to Georgetown and the University of Virginia—is serious vice presidential timber remains to be seen. Are Americans ready for a Puerto Rican on the national ticket? Norquist notes that one of the biggest issues would be reminding people that someone born in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, is just as much a citizen as someone born in the continental United States.

"If he was nominated, there would be a three-day period where everyone on MSNBC and Fox News would get a history lesson," Norquist says.

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC