Despite Hits, Rosselló Still In Front

by John Marino

May 21, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Since the Superaqueduct indictments were handed down last month against two key New Progressive Party figures, the gubernatorial candidacy of Pedro Rosselló has appeared stalled.

The weekly press conferences, highlighting a particular aspect of his platform, that punctuated much of his campaign last year were no longer taking place.

The Popular Democratic Party seized on the indictments to attack Rosselló on the corruption issue, running an ad campaign, releasing a calendar and deck of cards highlighting the former NPP and Rosselló administration officials indicted by federal authorities and giving daily news conferences on the issue.

Dogged by questions about his tax returns and his pension, the two-term governor also seemed to lessen his exposure to the island media, and when he did interact with reporters, he was often at odds with them.

Rosselló, once thought to be far in front of PDP contender Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, appeared to be losing support. And that was a direct result of the fact that Rosselló had stopped discussing ideas and issues because of the barrage of questions he was faced with at every public appearance.

But a poll published this week shows Rosselló with a strong 7-percentage point lead over Acevedo Vilá, evidence that the former governor is still the candidate to beat in the November election.

Moreover, the poll, taking place between April 22 and May 10, coincided with some of the worst media coverage the former governor received since returning to Puerto Rico last year to reenter local politics.

Last month, federal authorities handed down indictments against former Rosselló campaign manager René Vázquez Botet and former New Progressive Party Secretary General Marcos Morell in relation to a $2.4 million corruption scandal surrounding the construction of the North Coast Superaqueduct. The indictments, although expected, nonetheless brought the corruption issue anew to the 2004 gubernatorial campaign. They capped several weeks of attacks on Rosselló over questions of whether he met the residency requirements to run for governor, appropriately filed his taxes during his three-year sojourn off Puerto Rico and qualified for the government pension he now enjoys.

Despite that constant projection of such bad news, this week‚s poll shows Rosselló with a solid advantage in the gubernatorial race, with 38 percent of the vote to Acevedo Vilá‚s 31 percent.

The poll also showed NPP resident commissioner candidate Luis Fortuño besting his PDP rival Sen. Roberto Prats by an even greater margin of 42 percent to 31 percent. The poll reflected the greatest lead for San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini of the NPP, who had 55 percent report to the 23 percent by his PDP rival Eduardo Bhatia.

The poll was undertaken by El Nuevo Día newspaper, at odds with Rosselló since it filed a costly lawsuit against his administration during his second term over government ad cancellations. The adversarial relationship between the newspaper, owned by the Ferré Rangel family, and the former governor, has many observers believing that, if anything, the former governor‚s lead against the PDP is even higher than the poll indicates.

It did seem to pain the newspaper to publish a poll showing Rosselló in front. The section of the poll dealing with candidacies appeared Wednesday, after two previous days of poll results. The first day focused on the finding that Puerto Ricans are pessimistic about the problems facing the island and the second day on the finding that most people believe that Rosselló was aware of at least some of the corruption cases that took place among his former political allies.

Even on the day it published its conclusions that Rosselló and the NPP were winning the race, it chose to play a story on the most prominent page of the newspaper about the electorate‚s discontent with the candidates running for office.

It did not take a genius or political analyst to read between the lines.

Nonetheless, why Rosselló is winning the race was also detailed in the poll.

By a wide majority, respondents reported that the NPP was the party best suited to handle a wide range of issues, from improving healthcare and education to boosting the economy and fighting crime. The party even came out on top with non-affiliated voters on most issues. The one exception was fighting public corruption, which respondents said the PDP was better suited to handle.

Respondents also took a dim view of the effectiveness of the Calderón administration. Two previous polls by the newspaper during term had given the governor only a „C‰ grade in her running of the commonwealth government, and greater points in one area only -- her battle against corruption.

But this time around, respondents were only asked about Calderón‚s fight against corruption, and this time, the governor barely managed a „C,‰ with 41 percent of respondents saying she either got a „D‰ or „F‰ for her efforts against corruption.

It makes one wonder what the respondents would have said if asked to comment on the work of the Calderón administration as a whole. It‚s not hard to imagine her „gentleman‚s C‰ dropping to something below a passing grade.

The big caveat in the poll is that nearly 25 percent of respondents either said they would abstain from voting or were undecided who they would vote for. With a voter participation rate in the 85 percent to 95 percent range historically, nobody really believes large numbers of Puerto Ricans will simply stop voting this year.

That was a source of criticism of the poll this week; that pollsters should have pressed respondents more to decide whom they would vote for.

Pointing to the source of the poll, allies of the former governor surmise Rosselló‚s lead would have been even bigger if the number of those undecided was brought down to a level that was more in line with reality come November. And they also point to recent reports that show the NPP beating the PDP in the all-important fundraising race.

Nonetheless, the real undecided vote is still likely larger than any lead one candidate now has over the other candidate, which means voters who have yet to make up their minds will be the ones who will really pick the future governor of Puerto Rico.

Rosselló is in the lead, but the race is still on.

John Marino, Managing 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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