SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — In a Republican presidential race that has morphed into some elaborate math equation, Puerto Rico may be the oddest factor yet: a state that isn’t really a state, where voters can’t really vote for president, but which on Sunday holds a primary awarding a trove of delegates that will inch the winner closer to the elusive 1,144.
So it was that after Rick Santorum paraded triumphantly through Old San Juan this week (and got a bit of a sunburn), Mitt Romney’s chartered jet touched down here Friday on this island territory some 1,200 miles from the U.S. mainland.
As Romney stepped out of his plane, the tropical breeze conspired against his typically tidy hair. When Puerto Rico’s popular young governor, Luis Fortuno, spoke Spanish introducing Romney, the candidate looked on smiling. This student of French never revealed that he might have been a bit lost in translation.
“Viva, Romney! Viva, Romney!” his pre-assembled supporters chanted.
Thus began what may become the most chaotic 24 hours of campaigning in Romney’s long quest for the presidency. After the airport welcome, Romney went to a rally at sundown on the steps of the state capitol. There, Fortuno promised Romney, “we have a little surprise for you.”
What Romney saw was more street carnival than political rally. Trucks carrying huge speakers blared salsa and reggae into the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. There were more than two hours of political speeches, almost all in Spanish. Local politicians danced on stage, sometimes during their speeches. Romney swayed to the rhythm.
A boisterous crowd of Republicans ate plantain fritters and waved flags. Guns fired metallic confetti.
“You show us how to party!” said Romney’s wife, Ann.
When the candidate stood to speak, a compilation of jock jams played loudly, including “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble.” Romney observed, “Politics in Puerto Rico is spoken with energy and passion.” But if he was expected to match the spirit with a rousing address, his simple, seven-minute stump speech may have been disappointment.
Nevertheless, a fireworks display over the ocean began the moment the presidential hopeful handed back his microphone.
“We have already warned them that people in Puerto Rico are very enthusiastic about politics, so I think they’re getting ready for hugging and kissing,” Luce Vela Fortuno, the governor’s wife, told reporters.
Ann Romney, who arrived here a day before her husband and attended a private dinner Thursday with many of Puerto Rico’s Republican convention delegates, said of the event: “Again, a lot of hugging and kissing.”
Puerto Rico will be the last of five U.S. territories to hold a contest in a week. Because the island territories are not states, their residents cannot vote in presidential elections, but under both parties’ rules they can hold nominating contests and send delegates to party conventions.
The island caucuses have not generated high turnout — just 70 Republicans showed up to caucus in American Samoa on Tuesday. But they award a lot of delegates — 59 in total.
So far, all but one are in Romney’s column. His aides say that’s by design.
“We went into this with a plan for every state and every territory,” said Rich Beeson, the Romney campaign’s political director.
Unlike the other U.S. territories, Puerto Rico is expected to be a competitive race. Santorum spent two days campaigning here, and set off a firestorm by saying that if Puerto Rico became a state, it should have to make English its primary language. He sought to contain the damage, telling reporters Thursday that English should be the “preferred” language, but not the official language.
Still, some political operatives here said it could hurt Santorum in what might have been a rich opportunity: The electorate is roughly two-thirds Catholic and one-third Christian evangelical.
“This will be one of the most socially conservative jurisdictions of America,” Fortuno said in an interview. “Values are key. . . . The fact that most of us speak Spanish most of the time doesn’t mean we don’t share the same principles and the same values as most Americans do.”
Romney is counting on Fortuno’s political machine to help carry him through. Before the candidate’s arrival, Ann Romney joined Fortuno in a run-down barrio.
The governor had staged a news conference to dole out government refund checks to about 100 senior residents, the product of a local tax overhaul. He warmly introduced Ann Romney.
But just as Fortuno started calling the elderly up to get their checks, Romney made her way to the back of the room. Handing out checks to voters two days before an election was not part of the Romney playbook.