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World News

Puerto Rico relishes clout as ballot battleground

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - The U.S. Caribbean territory of Puerto Rico can’t vote in the November presidential election. But Puerto Ricans are relishing a newfound clout in the race to see who will be the candidate of the Democratic party.

The island’s June 1 primary is the biggest Democratic contest left, with 55 delegates at stake and perhaps giving Sen. Hillary Clinton a last-gasp opportunity to claim victory in the popular vote.

The former first lady has performed strongly among Latinos. Sen. Barack Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, has not fared that well in states with large Hispanic populations.

While many mainland pundits do not believe Clinton can still beat Obama for the Democratic nomination, her supporters in Puerto Rico hope the unresolved votes of Florida and Michigan and a potential strong showing on the island could yet give her a chance.

The primaries in Florida and Michigan were disqualified by the Democratic party to punish the states for bringing their dates forward without its approval. Clinton won both races, although Obama did not compete in Michigan, and is pushing for the primaries to be recognized in her favor.

“It’s far from over,” said Roberto Prats, the co-chair of the Clinton campaign in Puerto Rico, who estimated that a quarter of the island’s 4 million people could end up voting.

Clinton is the favorite here. The one local poll conducted, taken between March 31 and April 5 by local firm Research & Research, showed Clinton with a 13-point lead over Obama -- 50 percent to 37 percent, with 13 percent still undecided.

Clinton also has a four-to-two lead among the island’s superdelegates, party officials who can support either candidate and may end up playing a decisive role at the Democrats’ nominating convention in August when a candidate is formally chosen to face Republican John McCain in the November election. Puerto Rico’s seventh superdelegate is neutral.

“They have not counted Florida and Michigan yet. That could give her an edge. This is still a vital election,” said Michelle Kantrow, a 37-year-old professional from the San Juan suburb of Carolina.

But the Obama campaign has not given up on Puerto Rico.

The senator from Illinois has nailed down a number of endorsements from local politicians, including the top Democratic leaders in the pro-statehood New Progressive Party and pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, the two main parties on the island.

He also has a lead in public endorsements from island mayors, traditionally responsible for getting out the vote.

One of Obama’s backers is Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila, but the value of his support has likely diminished since he was indicted on March 27 on charges of campaign finance fraud.

Obama’s ability to excite voters has been at work.

“Obama has raised a lot of enthusiasm about changes in politics,” said Augusto Font, a 69-year-old San Juan businessman. “It’s a whole new ballgame which is why it is so exciting and so many people are involved in the process.”

POSITIVE FOR ISLAND

The ultimate winner may be Puerto Rico itself.

“It will be good for Puerto Rico because it will push our issues in the national forum,” said Teresa Lopez, a 50-year-old artist and professor from the Santurce sector of San Juan.

The issue of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory is important to some.

The independence movement is currently small in Puerto Rico, but the population appears evenly divided between those happy with the island’s status quo as a commonwealth and those who want to be a fully fledged state.

Clinton pledged to start resolving the status problem in her first term as a New York senator.

“I think it is a fundamental question for any candidate. A colonial status is not right. It’s not even a question of good or bad. The intermediate status demoralizes society,” said Lopez, a Clinton supporter, who said a more aggressive stand on status by Obama could still sway her vote.

But many voters in both camps say the more important issues are universal healthcare, the island’s ailing economy -- now in its third year of recession -- and public education, which have a more direct impact on their daily lives.

Not everyone is enthused about the primary. Independence supporters have criticized the estimated $1.5 million cost.

And the poll taken last month found 24 percent of respondents were indifferent to U.S. mainland politics.

Editing by Michael Christie and Cynthia Osterman

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