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Bill Clinton Visits Puerto Rico, Rich in Culture and Delegates

Former president Bill Clinton greets supporters after speaking at a rally in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, on behalf of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Former president Bill Clinton greets supporters after speaking at a rally in Barceloneta, Puerto Rico, on behalf of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)

Anticipating that kind of reaction, local advisers spent the past week offering Hillary Clinton's campaign a crash course in Puerto Rican politics. More than 80 percent of registered voters usually turn out for local elections here, and big political rallies held in stadium parking lots routinely attract more than 130,000, local politicians said. During mayoral campaigns, candidates often walk door to door while carrying boomboxes, dancing to music while meeting voters.

Politics is often referred to as the "national sport" in Puerto Rico -- one that is played by three main teams. There are those who want the island to become a U.S. state, those who want it to become an independent country and those who support it staying a commonwealth. Clinton and Obama both hope to cater to all three with a neutral position: the promise of a status resolution, based on Puerto Rico's preference.

Each candidate recently released a policy letter about Puerto Rico, and local politicians have spent weeks dissecting them to determine a preference. Clinton's letter was three pages long; Obama's was one. Clinton, by promising a status resolution by the end of her first term, became the popular choice for statehood supporters. Obama, by saying he would consider all three possibilities, tends to be popular among those who like being a commonwealth.

"If a candidate just picked one status option or the other it would be too dangerous, because you alienate half of the voters," said Kenneth McClintock, president of the Puerto Rican Senate and a superdelegate who supports Clinton. "They both want statehooders and commonwealthers. They need both.

"There's going to be a lot of questions about the policies there. Puerto Ricans are smart voters. You can't talk down to us. We know how democracy works. We do it better than you do, so you should follow our lead."

For Bill Clinton's visit, the campaign mostly acquiesced to the Puerto Rican model. He packed seven events, five of them public, into 30 hours on the island. Disc jockeys played at most of the venues. Dozens of local politicians made introductory speeches. On his right wrist, Clinton wore a woven friendship bracelet.

By arriving in Puerto Rico before Obama, the Clinton campaign hoped to solidify an already-strong advantage here. Clinton represents more Puerto Ricans as a senator from New York than any other stateside politician, and Spanish-speaking voters in Texas and California voted overwhelmingly for her. Obama's campaign, meanwhile, has yet to recover from the indictment last month of Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vilá, his most prominent Puerto Rican supporter.

"With a few good Clinton events, some more local press, this thing could be pretty much locked up," said Francisco Domenech, a Puerto Rican superdelegate who supports Clinton.

Domenech and other local Clinton organizers urged Bill Clinton to loosen up during his time on the island. Domenech described the mainland campaign tradition of a staid, 1970s classic-rock music introduction followed by a halting campaign speech as a recipe that is "just too tired and boring compared to things here." McClintock, the Senate president, told the Clinton campaign how one U.S. politician managed to thrive in Puerto Rico: Appearing at a fundraiser for McClintock in San Juan, the late senator Paul Simon persuaded his wife to dance the macarena.

Barceloneta set the stage for that kind of party. Two local bands alternated songs while hundreds of Puerto Ricans clapped to the beat. The stage became a makeshift dance floor, with dozens of couples twirling in the heat.

Then Bill Clinton entered through a side door, glasses low on his nose, and the festivities abruptly stopped.

"You have to be ready to adapt to some craziness over here," McClintock said. "It's a different political world, and everybody is finally going to see it."

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