WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Guam is not a U.S. state.
Neither is Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands or the North Mariana Islands.
Still, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney is sparing no effort to win votes in the U.S. territories and commonwealths as he picks up delegates wherever he can, even 8,000 miles away in the Pacific.
In a carefully planned “island strategy,” Romney has blunted the effect of a surge by main rival Rick Santorum and stayed way ahead in the months-long, state-by-state fight to win the 1,144 delegates that will seal the Republican nomination.
Despite narrowly losing to Santorum in two high-profile primary votes in the Deep South on Tuesday night, Romney ended up increasing his lead in delegates thanks to less heralded victories in caucuses in the state of Hawaii and American Samoa.
Although exact numbers are hard to come by, Romney’s overall lead over Santorum increased by nine delegates to 255 on Tuesday, according to a CNN estimate. Romney had 489 delegates, compared to 234 for Santorum, CNN said.
The island-hopping by Romney’s team - including a long Pacific trip by his son Matt last weekend - shows a campaign that is much better organized and funded than those of his rivals, even as the former governor of liberal Massachusetts struggles to convince conservative Republicans he should be the nominee.
The campaign made a decision last year to include the islands in its overall plan, said Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director.
Using American Samoa’s results for Tuesday night as an example, Beeson noted that the nine delegates Romney won there are “more delegates than Rick Santorum got in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada combined.”
“Looking at it in hindsight, those are pretty valuable delegates,” Beeson said.
When Santorum won big in the Kansas caucuses last Saturday, he still finished the weekend’s contests down in the count 39 delegates to 35. Of Romney’s 39 delegates, 25 were from Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
And those delegates represent people who won’t be able to vote in the November presidential election when Barack Obama seeks a second term in the White House.
Santorum, a conservative former senator from Pennsylvania, is playing catch-up in the delegate count, and made a quickly arranged visit to Puerto Rico on Wednesday in an apparent attempt to head off Romney before Sunday’s primary vote.
“We’re going to campaign where there are delegates,” Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said.
Twenty-three delegates are at stake in Puerto Rico. When asked what a win there would look like, Gidley demurred.
“I‘m not going to put a number or a percentage or a delegate count on that.”
Gidley said the islands have been a part of Santorum’s plan since last year, but a lack of resources kept him from competing there until now.
Adam Temple, a Republican strategist not affiliated with any of the campaigns, said he does not buy the Santorum line that they planned to target delegates on the islands all along.
“I think it’s way too late for (Santorum) to pivot to a delegate strategy,” Temple said. “If that was their strategy from the beginning, then he would’ve been in Guam.”
Santorum did not get off to the best start in Puerto Rico, potentially angering residents by telling them if they want U.S. statehood, Puerto Ricans first need to make English their primary language.
“Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law,” Santorum said. “And that is that English has to be the principal language. There are other states with more than one language such as Hawaii but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language.”
However, the U.S. Constitution does not designate an official language, nor is there a requirement that a territory adopt English as its primary language in order to become a state.