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SAN JUAN (Reuters) - Puerto Rico held its Republican presidential primary on Sunday, with 20 of the U.S. territory's 23 delegates up for grabs in a race in which an upcoming vote on statehood has taken central stage.
Mitt Romney, campaigning hard for the trove of delegates on the island, had initially planned to stay in San Juan until Sunday before heading to Illinois, which holds a crucial primary on Tuesday.
But the Republican front-runner decided Friday to return to Illinois a day earlier than scheduled in a sign of the urgency his campaign feels to win Illinois over rival Rick Santorum.
Aides to Romney said only that the former Massachusetts governor wanted to spend more time in Illinois, but a campaign that typically plans its schedule days in advance seemed to be scrambling.
Romney is still in a commanding position in the race to determine who will face Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
He has a big lead in support from party delegates whose backing is needed to win the nomination, but his campaign is eager for a symbolic victory to counter the momentum Santorum picked up by winning in Mississippi and Alabama last Tuesday.
As Romney flew out of Puerto Rico his campaign appeared confident that he would sweep the nominating contest in the territory because of remarks rival Rick Santorum made last week that angered many Puerto Ricans.
Santorum, whose Catholicism and social conservatism could still resonate among some voters in the predominantly Roman Catholic territory, said that if Puerto Rico wanted to pursue statehood it would have to make English its primary language.
"You can't impose English on people. My sense is that he (Santorum) was very poorly advised or he would not have said what he said," Ana Lydia Porrata-Doria, 69, who cast her vote for Romney, told Reuters.
"Even though we want to be a state, we have a right to speak Spanish which is our first language," said Iris Segarra, 59, a statehood supporter and Democrat who did not vote on Sunday.
Romney, whose Puerto Rico campaign was endorsed by just about every prominent Republican on the island led by Governor Luis Fortuno, seized on his opponent's misstep by declaring that he would assist Puerto Rico in pursuing statehood if that's what its citizens voted to do.
Fortuno is the head of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood New Progressive Party.
Puerto Ricans, who recognize both English and Spanish as their official languages, will cast ballots in November on a referendum to decide whether they want the island to become a state or remain a self-governing U.S. commonwealth.
"Romney has spoken clearly about his support for our aspirations to become the 51st state and for me as a 'state-hooder' that carries a lot of weight," said Luis Ramos, a 31-year-old engineer, who said he voted for Romney.
"That raised a lot of suspicions in people," said Ramos, when asked about Santorum's remarks about not supporting a state in which English was not the primary language. "It would have been a much closer race if he did not say that," he said.
With Puerto Rico's unemployment rate running at a sky-high 15.1 percent, Porrata-Doria and other voters said they also supported Romney because they believed in his campaign pledges about job creation for the island.
The gaffe-prone Romney may have suffered at least one self-inflicted wound, however, by reiterating his opposition to the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court over her judicial philosophy. Fortuno is a supporter of Sotomayor, whose appointment was a source of pride to Puerto Ricans from all political backgrounds.
Puerto Rico has about 3.8 million people and its population can vote in partisan primaries but not presidential elections. Puerto Ricans on the mainland have the same voting rights as other U.S. citizens.
Congress would have to give approval if Puerto Rico is to become the 51st state. Although Congress has considered numerous proposals to make English the official U.S. language, none has ever passed.
Reporting By Reuters in San Juan; Additional reporting by Sam Youngman; Writing by Tom Brown; Desking by Eric Walsh