Former U.N. ambassador George Bush swamped his Republican opponents today to win Puerto Rico's kickoff primary of the 1980 presidential campaign.
There were eight candidates on the ballot here, but the fight for Puerto Rico's 14 delegates to the Republican National Convention was expected to be strictly between Bush and Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee.
But Bush jumped into a commanding early lead and held it as returns kept coming in. Unofficial results with about 97 percent of the ballots counted showed Bush had 60 percent of the vote of Baker's 37 percent. Former Texas governor John B. Connally was running a poor third with 1 per cent, slightly ahead of Ben Fernandez, who had hoped his Hispanic heritage would carry him to victory, also with 1 percent. Former California governor Ronald Reagan did not enter.
"I am delighted with the results of the Puerto Rico primary," Bush said in Nashua, N.H. "This gives us another overwhelming victory after winning the Iowa caucuses. It will provide my campaign with new momentum going into the New Hampshire primary.
"I have stressed that mine is a national campaign, not a regional effort, and the results today support that. In addition, the 14 delegates that this victory provides us at the National Convention is very significant."
Klaxons and automobile horns erupted outside GOP headquarters here after Baker's campaign manager, Antonio Monroig, conceded victory to Bush about 9 p.m.
But even in defeat, Monroig saw triumph, alluding to the Puerto Rican statehood issue that overrode all else in this campaign. "It is a great victory for Puerto Rico," he said. "It is a victory for statehood."
Jeb Bush, the candidate's son and campaign manager here, agreed, calling today's voting "the first step toward statehood." He added, "We're winning nationally now with 14 votes and it doesn't hurt to win nine days before New Hampshire."
The results were another blow to Baker and Connally, neither of whom has been able to make a strong showing in the early tests of the 1980 campaign. h
Beyond the 14 nominating convention votes that it means and the fact that it is the first primary of 1980, today's balloting was viewed by Puerto Rican political leaders as a signal event in the island's history.
Puerto Ricans for the first time were taking part in the U.S. primary election process, but this event was as much a vote on statehood as it was a clash between Republican challengers.
Every candidate endorsed statehood for Puerto Rico, and the Bush and Baker posters that emblazoned palm trees and lampposts around the island spoke of nothing else.
Former governor Luis A. Ferre, a Republican national committeeman, said that today's vote, in combination with that of the March 16 Democratic primary, will provide "the best vote yet" on the statehood issue.
"Today is a turning point for Puerto Rico," Ferre said in an interview. "The people have responded in a wonderful manner, peacefully, affirming that the great majority are against independence or continuing as a commonwealth."
Ferre said that precinct canvassing indicated that as many as 200,000 voters -- about a fourth of those eligible -- would turn out today. He said growing interest in the statehood issue would bring many voters to the polls.
Bush and Baker, campaigning here in the final days, each hammered hard on his support for statehood, with Baker additionally pointing to his votes on Medicaid and aid to families with dependent children -- important here -- as proof of his fiber.
Bush, harking to his background as a director of the Central Intelligence Agency and ambassador to the United Nations, talked also of maintaining U.S. commitments to allies and beefing up U.S. intelligence capabilities.
But once past statehood, there seemed little for either candidate to talk about or to be considered seriously for. Personality was a factor and the fervor with which a candidate could shout "statehood now" was graded accordingly.
All observers here agreed that Bush got an early upper hand by dispatching his son Jeb, 26, to San Juan to organize the campaign two months ago.
In a land where a visitor speaking Spanish makes a favorable impression, Jeb Bush impressed. Not only did he address crowds in Spanish at more than 75 public gatherings, his Mexican wife was with him.
When Baker flew in for a four-hour campaign visit Saturday, his daughters tried out their Spanish on adoring crowds. But they got here too late. Jeb Bush had said it all.