Santorum's Gaffe May Cost Him in Puerto Rico

Santorum, Romney face off in Puerto Rico.

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Puerto Ricans don't get to vote for president in the fall, but they do have the opportunity to help pick the GOP presidential nominee on Sunday. With a dearth of polling available and mixed messages coming from the pair of top candidates, the outcome of the primary remains a wild card.

Comments by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum implying he would support statehood for the commonwealth only if it agreed to make English the official language have caused the biggest stir in the contest. Puerto Ricans will decide whether or not they would like to pursue statehood in a fall referendum but will only be granted the status if approved by Congress.

"It was poorly received in Puerto Rico because Puerto Ricans are very proud of having the special status, they're very proud of being Puerto Rican, they're very proud of the Spanish language and culture and history," says Steffen Schmidt, political analyst for CNN Espanol and professor at Iowa State University.

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Santorum has subsequently tried to clarify that he only meant Puerto Ricans would have to be fluent in English, not officially designate it as the region's only official language. But his equivocations are unlikely to mitigate any damage he caused with voters, Schmidt says.

"For Puerto Rico, probably, it was not a great move on the part of Santorum whether it was deliberate or not," he says.

Schmidt also says the gaffe makes the endorsement by Republican Gov. Luis Fortuno of Mitt Romney all the more meaningful.

"It just gives the ... endorsement of Mitt Romney more juice and makes it a more robust endorsement," he says.

The former Massachusetts governor has featured the Puerto Rican governor in a Spanish-language television advertisement there.

And Romney's also said he would not "as a prerequisite for statehood require that the people of Puerto Rico cease using Spanish," according to a campaign spokeswoman.

However, the Santorum controversy may turn into a very shrewd move when the GOP race shifts back to the mainland.

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"Blow off the 20 something delegates from Puerto Rico, sure. But send that powerful message of English as the official language of the United States, which conservatives love," Schmidt says. "It's a great selling point to Republican conservatives for Santorum in the whole rest of the country."

Romney himself is confronting a mini-gaffe as well, after he sponsored ads in other states knocking Santorum for voting to approve now Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor for a lesser court when he served in the Senate. Sotomayor's parents are Puerto Rican and she's viewed favorably there.

"I don't think that is going to help Romney in Puerto Rico," Schmidt says. "On the other hand, Puerto Rico is a Democratic state it's not a Republican state so frankly, you know the Republicans in Puerto Rico will probably vote for Mitt Romney more than Santorum I'm guessing."

As has been the case throughout the see-saw Republican contest, Schmidt says the real story is that places like Puerto Rico are getting so much attention.

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"That's the big story. It's sort of unbelievable that we have come down to Pacific territories and Puerto Rico as really important factors," he says.

And he also points out that the competitions in those areas – and how the candidates carry themselves there – will have a larger impact on the race.

"It'll be very interesting to watch but the bigger story of it is actually the fact that we're going to see all of this reverberate with Latino voters in other states that are still coming up," Schmidt says, adding that this GOP field has a poor record when it comes to issues Latinos care most about.

"Even Hispanic Republican voters would like to see a new immigration law and would like to see the DREAM Act pass," he says, referring to legislation that would create a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants if they attend a four year college or join the U.S. Military. "And the Republicans just have a terrible, terrible position on those issues when it comes to that community."