|Even in politically intense Puerto Rico, the 2004 gubernatorial race is shaping up into a rarity.
With the vote still three years away, the front runners and the issues have already come into focus.
There is disagreement among veteran political observers as to why the campaign has blossomed so early, but they agree on one thing: the early start is a first.
And unless a dramatic change occurs -- always a possibility in Puerto Rico politics -- the 2004 election is shaping up into an instant replay of the 2000 election, with Gov. Calderón facing off against New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera and whoever the Puerto Rican Independence Party puts up running a distant third.
Interestingly, many of the issues shaping up to dominate the 2004 debate are the same issues that were a part of the 2000 election -- the ever-simmering Vieques issue, the economy and crime and corruption.
Of these issues, the economy will probably decide the election. Neither Calderon nor Pesquera can claim victory on Vieques, and while the NPP is seen as tougher at fighting crime, the Popular Democratic Party has shown itself more resolute in going after crooks who are stealing from the government.
Regardless, the election-year antics that have been going on recently have even the most jaded sanjuaneros checking their calendars to see if the election might not indeed be closer.
On one Saturday last month, a PDP fund-raiser and an NPP pro-United States rally took place, giving the city -- with caravans of beeping cars and blocked-off streets for political rages -- the feel of dueling campaign closings three years earlier.
This month, La Fortaleza released a fat report on the "accomplishments" of the Calderón administration during its first year in power. A year and a day after being sworn into office, the governor outlined her agenda for 2002, highlighting her work to eliminate public corruption and bolster a sagging economy.
Pesquera, meanwhile, blasted the "inefficiency, paralysis and uncertainty" of the Calderón administration and called the governors "lack of capacity" the common denominator in its blunders.
Blaming everything from the decline in manufacturing to the Congressional gutting of the Vieques 2000 Agreement on the governor, he said he could find nothing positive the administration has done in its first year.
Calderón shot back that Pesquera and his NPP has been lax in attacking corruption, "whether it's stealing, not doing one's job or charging for services that should be provided as public services". "Pesquera possibly doesn't understand what it means to govern a country," she said.
It still remains to be seen whether or not the political barbs between the two will go on for another three years -- and whether or not the Puerto Rican public can withstand the drone.
But both Calderón and Pesquera are the main players in their party at this stage -- and spoiler candidates will have trouble displacing them.
Pesqueras political comeback -- he resigned the presidency shortly after his gubernatorial defeat -- can be traced to his appearance at a July statehood rally in Bayamón celebrating the birth of Dr. José Celso Barbosa.
Reportedly bothered by the attention Pesquera was getting, former NPP President Leo Díaz called for a party primary to pick a new leader, and nobody challenged Pesquera when he stepped up to the plate.
But Pesquera went one step further, not only announcing that he would assume the presidency, but also that he intended to be the NPP candidate in 2004. Throwing his hat into the ring so early is a risky move for Pesquera. The early entry had a dual reasoning. He believed firmly that with the economy tanking, and the Calderón administration making rookie mistakes throughout its first year, whoever the NPP put up as a candidate would have a solid shot of winning back La Fortaleza.
The second reason for his early announcement is that with most of the NPP thinking similarly, he wanted to put down potential rivals from within his party.
No one ever doubted that Calderón would seek reelection, but why she announced the fact in November after a PDP board meeting had some observers scratching their heads. Political allies point to her recent divorce, and her determination to show the public that events in her personal life would not distract her from her political goals.
Pesquera, of course, is more prone to a challenge than Calderón, who has already put down opposition from within her party and is sure to run for reelection.
But if the current political debate continues unheeded, and the Puerto Rican public burns out on the candidates, whats bad for Pesquera may be good for the party.
El Vocero began publishing this week a series of articles, citing unnamed sources, critical of Pesqueras leadership -- a sure sign that a potential coup is already in the planning stages.
Most point to San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini, the NPPs second in command, as most likely to rival Pesquera for the partys nomination.
But after serving seven years as Transportation Secretary and overseeing some of Puerto Rico's largest infrastructure projects, Pesquera is still the most substantial candidate the NPP has at the moment.
And although he was a political novice in 2000, he is showing signs of acquiring new political skills, with beat reporters noting that he is more at ease in public and talking in front of large groups of people than he was in his campaign.
But Pesquera needs to keep his candidacy viable for three years without the benefit of holding public office.
He seems determined, which he needs to be, because its a feat that has not been done before in Puerto Rican politics.
John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net