The Orlando Sentinel

Poll: GOP has chance to court Puerto Ricans
The party should let them vote on whether they want statehood, analysts said.

Tamara Lytle
Washington Bureau

(05/13/98, Copyright © 1998 The Orlando Sentinel)

WASHINGTON – Republicans need to shore up support among the nation's fast-growing Hispanic population by letting Puerto Ricans vote on whether the island should become a state, according to a new GOP poll.

So far, the possibility of Puerto Rican statehood rests with one man: Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. The House passed legislation earlier this year allowing Puerto Ricans to vote for statehood, independence or continued commonwealth status. But Lott has said the bill tilts toward statehood and he doesn't intend to bring it up for a vote. His office reiterated that stance Tuesday.

That's a mistake, according to former Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin and Republican consultant Mike Murphy.

"This is an opportunity for the Republican party," said Murphy, whose clients include Florida's Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush. "The clock is ticking on this."

Because the U.S. Hispanic population is fast-growing, within two decades the Republican party will not be able to win the presidency without more Hispanic support.

"Giving them the right to determine their own governance will send a strong, strong signal the Republican party is inclusive rather than exclusive," said Wirthlin, who did the survey.

The poll, conducted last week, found that 97 percent of Puerto Ricans would like to vote on their political status. The breakdown of support for each option was similar to recent plebiscites held on the island. About 45 percent favored commonwealth, 42 percent statehood and 5 percent independence. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.

Among voters on the mainland, 63 percent favored letting Puerto Ricans vote on their fate. The poll was commissioned by the Citizens Educational Foundation in Puerto Rico, a non-profit group that promotes ``self-determination'' for the island. Murphy, who helped analyze the survey, said some of the foundation's officials are for statehood.

Murphy and Wirthlin said the chances for GOP inroads in Puerto Rico are big news to Republicans. They plan to lobby GOP lawmakers to reach out more to Hispanics.

Their lobbying likely won't change Lott's mind. Susan Irby, his spokeswoman, said Tuesday that he still opposes bringing up the bill. Senate rules make it difficult to bring up issues without the majority leader's approval. But the issue will get a hearing Tuesday by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which will consider the economic impact of statehood.

Wirthlin's poll shows Puerto Ricans hold deeply conservative views on many issues. Huge majorities, for instance, oppose abortion, favor school vouchers, are for silent school prayer and want a strong national defense.

``In a very clear way, Puerto Rico is much more like Oklahoma politically than Massachusetts,'' Wirthlin said.

But Ricardo Pesquera, head of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida, said Republicans have a credibility problem with Hispanics left over from the last presidential election, when candidate Pat Buchanan railed against immigrants.

``The Republicans have moved to an extreme right position that has turned off a lot of Hispanics,'' said Pesquera, who dropped his Republican party membership in favor of independent status.

Some analysts suspect Republicans are stalling on the issue because they fear a Puerto Rican state would mean more Democrats in Congress and more votes for Democratic presidential candidates. But Murphy said that's not necessarily so. Puerto Rico, he said, is much like the southern United States before the Reagan era -- when many conservatives registered Democratic but voted Republican.

If Puerto Rico became a state, it would have two senators and possibly six House members. Currently, as a commonwealth, Puerto Rico elects one non-voting delegate to the House. Puerto Ricans have U.S. citizenship but do not pay income taxes or vote in presidential elections.

Spokesmen for the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico, which favors a commonwealth and opposes the plebiscite legislation, could not be reached.

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