SAN JUAN (Reuters) - Lured by the possibility of casting decisive votes in the White House race between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Democrats in Puerto Rico have decided to hold a full primary rather than a more casual, and less well-attended, caucus.
The decision on Thursday night by Democrats on the U.S. island in the Caribbean, which does not actually get to vote in the presidential election itself in November, could prove to be a boost for Clinton, for Hispanic votes in primaries held so far have gone heavily for her.
The change was prompted by the continued tightness of the battle between Obama and Clinton to represent the Democratic Party in the presidential ballot, party officials said.
Local Democrats usually hold caucuses because the race is normally long-decided before the island votes, which will be on June 1.
“Everybody was under the impression the vote would be over by February, but time has proved us wrong,” said attorney Roberto Prats, Puerto Rico’s Democratic Party chairman.
A Democratic caucus would have entailed informal gatherings at eight different places, with votes being taken by supporters moving to different parts of the room.
But in the primary, Puerto Ricans will be able to cast ballots at about 3,000 polling stations across the island in the privacy of a polling booth.
Puerto Rican elections have among the highest voter participation rates in the world.
With enthusiasm for this race expected to be especially high, party leaders felt a caucus would get chaotic, especially since local Democrats are split between those who support turning Puerto Rico into a U.S. state and those who want to maintain its commonwealth status.
“We felt the eyes of the world would be on us, and we wanted to vote the way we are used to voting,” Prats said.
Puerto Ricans won’t vote in the November elections, which are reserved for the 50 states.
The territory will however be able to send 63 delegates to the nominating conventions that decide the parties’ presidential candidates. Those could prove decisive in the Clinton-Obama contest.
“By May, both Obama and Clinton will be coming to Puerto Rico to begin campaigning,” said Puerto Rico Senate President Kenneth McClintock, a local Democratic Party official. “Having primaries will guarantee that we will be the focus of national politics.”
Clinton is well-known in Puerto Rico. Under Bill Clinton’s administration, a big push for statehood was made in 1998 and a plan to end Navy training on Vieques island was instituted after a civilian security guard was killed by an errant bomb during war games in 1999.
Clinton has also been active in Puerto Rico as a senator, and is expected to do so again in Puerto Rico.
But Obama too has picked up support in Puerto Rico, including that of pro-commonwealth Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila, who endorsed him in February.
Editing by Michael Christie and Philip Barbara