Santini Tops Calderon, Calderon Tops Pesquera, Pesquera Tops Santini

by John Marino

September 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. JOHN MARINOA new poll this week showing Gov. Calderón toasting New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera in a gubernatorial race but losing big to San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini has people talking about a possible change in leadership for the pro-statehood party.

But those doing the talking don't have a grip on the political realities that resulted in such poll results.

The verdict is still out on whether or not Pesquera will survive a likely primary challenge and go on to run for governor for the NPP in a rematch against Calderón in 2004. And it's still out whether Santini will try to make the jump from City Hall to La Fortaleza during the next election. But this week's poll – undertaken by Kaagan Research Associates, Inc. for El Nuevo Día newspaper – sheds little light on what could be interesting internal NPP political battles.

The latest poll shows Calderón beating Pesquera by a 40 percent to 29 percent margin. But against Santini she would lose by nearly as wide a margin, with Santini pulling down 43 percent to her 33 percent.Reading the poll, a statehooder might figure that having Santini as the gubernatorial candidate is looking a whole lot better than having Pesquera as the candidate. But that misses the point that in a very real sense, Pesquera is battling Santini and not the governor at the present time.

Pesquera was being bitten by charges of weak leadership last spring, before taking matters into his own hands with the June 20 march on the Woman's Affair's Advocate Office, where he forcibly raised the U.S. flag in the agency's lobby after an hours-long standoff outside. He and three other NPP leaders face trial on local rioting charges next month over the incident.

This week's poll showed that 64 percent of respondents thought Pesquera's actions in the "flag-raising incident" were more of a "theatrical gesture" than "genuine patriotism." (Tip for the pollster: ask the public that question about any action taken by any politician, and I bet about the same percentage will say the act lacks genuineness.)

However, within the statehood party, the NPP chief's stock rose considerably. He was cheered as a true patriot during a July 4 celebration, while Santini, who threw the party but cautioned that is should be a non-partisan event, ignited little applause and more than a few boos. Bottom line: Pesquera appears to be the favorite within the NPP at this time, while Santini currently has more draw with non-NPP voters. But that follows the likely political strategy that Pesquera is following to first secure the party nomination, and then reinvent himself as a more centrist candidate.

It won't be an easy feat for Pesquera to pull off. But then again Santini, who has been safely out of the heat of political battles as the No. 2 man at the NPP, will probably have a tough time keeping his 10 percent lead over Calderón if he ever does became the official NPP candidate.

Which brings us to the governor, who received a grade of "C" for her work so far at La Fortaleza. It was the second poll by the newspaper giving Calderón the average grading. After the first poll, published last May, Calderón made sweeping Cabinet changes but the new faces have not pushed up her grades.

While she gets high grades for her fight against corruption, and a bit lesser marks for improving the education system, the public has not seen much improvement in a number of areas, including crime, infrastructure, the Vieques situation and U.S.-Puerto Rico relations. Calderón reacted to the poll Wednesday by saying she saw no need for further adjustments and was satisfied by the performance of her administration.

The new faces, especially the appointment of Public Affairs Secretary Jorge Colberg Toro, have helped the administration, which too often appeared chaotic during its first year in power. Colberg Toro, a veteran of political fights, has made sure that the administration presents a united front and a clear message that was absent from its first days in power. Calderón's $1 billion plan targeting poor communities throughout the island has also increased the administration's popularity.

But whether these developments are enough to boost the administration out of its mid-term doldrums remains to be seen. Much may depend on how Pesquera, or another NPP leader, rises to the challenge of trying to embrace Puerto Ricans both inside and outside the party on a number of issues.

The NPP won't meet that challenge if it continues personal attacks against the governor rather than attacking the ideas of her administration. Many voices within the NPP have been rising up against Calderón's anti-poverty plan and her other major program to publicly finance political campaigns.

But Pesquera has, so far, been bashful at attacking these ideas, preferring instead to center on the alleged "political persecution" of statehooders by the Calderón administration.

That might sound good at NPP headquarters in Santurce, but it won't resonate with the public-at-large.

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

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