"I expect the people of Puerto Rico will decide that they want to become a state," Romney said at a forum in Miami last fall. "If that vote comes out in favor of statehood ... we will go through the process in Washington to provide statehood to Puerto Rico."
Santorum has hedged more, saying that while he would help Puerto Rico become a state, its people would have to make a "decisive decision" to do so. He said Wednesday that a simple majority of Puerto Ricans — "50 percent plus one," as Santorum put it — wouldn't be enough to show that islanders really want statehood.
And Santorum went further in an interview with local newspaper El Vocero, saying he doesn't think Puerto Rico should become a state unless it adopts English as its main language. Spanish has been the language of Puerto Rico since Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain in 1493. The Puerto Rican government does its business largely in Spanish, and many of its residents think cultural issues like language should be dictated by the states, not the federal government.
Beyond statehood, the race in Puerto Rico also could offer an opportunity for Republicans to appeal to Hispanic voters ahead of the general election. Obama has a significant edge among Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing minority group, at a time when GOP candidates have been taking a hard line against illegal immigration.
On Wednesday, Santorum was pressed about his decision to support President Bill Clinton's promotion of Sonia Sotomayor to a U.S. district court judgeship, a position that eventually allowed her to become a member of the Supreme Court. Sotomayor is of Puerto Rican descent.
Romney has criticized Santorum for backing Sotomayor in the 1990s. But Santorum is defending his decision to vote for her two decades ago, saying the Senate should allow "great deference to the president" in selecting lower court nominees and said he would expect that if he were president.
"There's a different standard" for Supreme Court nominees, Santorum said.
For all its quirks, Puerto Rico's sudden prominence in the GOP primary contest isn't as unlikely as it may seem.
Some Republican operatives have long viewed the island as a significant primary battleground. There's also a potential financial benefit. Candidates often leverage local connections to reach deep-pocketed donors in Puerto Rican communities in Florida and New York.
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