Having passed the first essential test believing what the candidates are saying, tropical Puerto Rico will come in from the political cold Sunday.

Far from the snows of New Hampshire, the nation's first Republican presidential primary election will be held here, with front-runners George Bush and Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) vying tenaciously for Puerto Rico's 14 nominating votes.

The prospect of grabbing 14 quick, winner-take-all votes brought Bush here Friday for a full day of campaigning around the island. Baker flew in today for a news conference and a visit to a public housing project.

Although the race appears to be a Bush-Baker affair, there are six other candidates on Sunday's ballot -- John B. Connally, the perennial Harold E. Stassen; California businessman Ben Fernandez, two local figures and Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who dropped out after ballots were printed. Ronald Reagan did not enter.

That much is certain. The rest is complex, confusing and even a little bit incongruous, with Bush's promises of instant statehood and Baker's bragging about his pro-welfare voters only adding to the joy.

Incongruous: Bush being promoted with a catchy radio jingle in Spanish and plunging through mainland-style shopping centers shaking the hands of people uncertain who he is or what he is saying.

Confusing: Puerto Ricans voting for the first time in a presidential primary, able to vote as Republicans Sunday and again as Democrats if they choose March 16, although none can vote for president in November.

Complex: party labels aside, and forgetting the candidates for a moment, the only real issue here is statehood, the topic that seems to be stirring 3.3 million Latin passions more fervently than ever.

Not everyone on this island supports statehood, but the issue dominates local politics here.

Both Bush and Baker have made support of Puerto Rico's entry into the union central themes of their campaign, leaving islanders with the misguided impression that their election could instantly convert Puerto Rico into the 51st state.

Puerto Rican statehooders are eating it up, but the truth is that Alfred E. Newman probably could get elected here by promising statehood now.

None of the major candidates is talking very loudly about other obvious local problems -- outrageous inflation, pollution-belching factories on San Juan's outskirts, chronic underemployment and overpopulation.

The statehood forces contend that solutions to these problems will come once Puerto Rico sheds its commonwealth status and becomes a full participating member of the union.

"People in the states don't understand," said Angell de la Sierra, a medical researcher who is a Bush organizer in the town of Cayey, south of here.

"It's now or never for us. We have graduated from the colony. We are, after all, U.S. citizens, and we want to be full partners. We have been in this limbo too long. Our colonial chain is five centuries long. We want the chains off."

This intensity was reflected by the cheers Bush got Friday as he toured the interior in an open red Jeep. Each time he barked out "Estatidad Ahora" (Statehood Now) in halting Spanish, applause erupted.

They cheered even louder when Bush's son, Jeb, running this campaign, took the microphone and assured crowds in flowing Spanish that his father meant what he said.

So statehood is the buring thing. At a neighborhood rally here Friday night, not long after students from the tiny independence movement had splattered him with eggs at a shopping mall, Bush got a hero's welcome.

Three students from the University Federation for Independence were subdued and arrested after lobbing the eggs at Bush, who was stained but not injured. One student was quoted as saying, "To hell with the primary," as he tossed his eggs. Bush later denounced the three as "young Marxists."

But even those who acclaimed him loudly conceded frankly that they would support any presidential candidate who is pro-statehood.

C o n n a l l y, campaigning here earlier this month, made himself unpopular by cautioning that statehood would mean that islanders, proud of their culture, would have to be Americans first and Puerto Ricans second.

That went poorly, and Bush and Baker apparently caught the message.

If Puerto Rico means 14 first-ballot votes to the GOP campaigners here, the candidates in this primary, the first ever, are being used with equal skill by the statehooders.