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PUERTO RICO REPORT
Candidates Debate In Tight Race For Governor
by Lance Oliver
October 20, 2000
With the race for governor of Puerto Rico too close to predict, the three candidates went before the television cameras Wednesday night for 90 minutes, each with a specific task to accomplish.
Carlos Pesquera went on the attack against Sila Calderón, who was trying to refurbish her once-glowing personal image, while Rubén Berríos tried to capitalize on his growing personal popularity to convince voters to cast ballots based on their principles, not their political ties or strategies.
On the eve of the debate, El Nuevo Día published a poll showing Pesquera with the support of 43 percent of probable voters, Calderón with 39 percent and Berríos with eight percent. Another 7 percent were undecided and 3 percent did not answer.
With a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, the race is statistically too close to call, based on the results of the poll. Assuming that supporters of the two leading candidates were firm in their decisions, and assuming that Berríos 8 percent wont dwindle to 4 percent in the privacy of the voting booths (assumptions not entirely safe), the election will be determined by those who say they are undecided.
So the question becomes: which candidate appealed to those non-partisan voters who havent made up their minds?
Pesquera, the pro-statehood New Progressive Party candidate, was on the attack from the opening moments.
He opened by suggesting that Calderóns husband, insurance executive Adolfo Krans, would create a scandalous conflict of interest by selling insurance from La Fortaleza. He managed to make several references to the Condado, where a sidewalk project and the rehabilitation of the Condado Trio buildings are sore points. He accused Calderón, of the Popular Democratic Party, of flip-flopping on issues and closed the debate by saying she could not be trusted to keep her promises.
By contrast, Calderóns jabs at Pesquera were mostly in response to his statements. She thanked reporters for their questions, even when they were phrased in nasty terms, and responded in a calm and relaxed manner.
Pesquera appeared anything but relaxed. His manner was stiff and programmed, sticking to the script he had planned in advance even when it meant not answering the question directly.
Berríos let the other two jab away, taking a different route and offering a "third option." He urged voters to vote their consciences and their values, arguing that nothing will change in Puerto Rico as long as power is shifted back and forth between two political machines. Calderón and Pesquera are honorable people, he said, but electing either one means returning to power a corrupt political machine that cannot be controlled.
Berríos goal was to win votes, but the other two candidates goal was to win the election. So they adopted different strategies.
Tactically, Pesquera adopted some approaches that were risky at best and could be damaging if they backfire. One was his aggressive attack on Calderón. That turns off many voters in Puerto Rico, and since his target is a woman, he risks offending the sensibilities of those who lean toward more traditional gender roles.
Another of Pesqueras suggestions, that a laptop computer be installed in every police cruiser, could easily be seen as a gimmick in a society where most people do not own computers. Further, it could remind voters of the administrations bungled effort to provide laptop computers to all teachers, a program that came under criticism for the high costs of the contract that was awarded. That link in voters minds could play right into the hands of Pesqueras opposition, which is trying to portray him as tied to corruption and government waste.
And finally, Pesquera opened the door for what was probably Calderóns best one-liner of the night when he said the Vieques issue is "resolved." Certainly, Pesquera must stick with his position that supporting President Clintons directives on Vieques is the best route, even though that position is not widely popular. But saying that the issue is "resolved" while the largest Navy training operations in years are underway on the island was just tossing a softball to Calderón.
"How can anyone stand here before the cameras and tell you that the issue of Vieques is resolved?" Calderón asked during her next turn at the microphone. No doubt heads were nodding affirmation in front of television sets all over the island.
Pesqueras best line was probably one he saved for his closing statement. He reminded voters that four years ago, when she was running for mayor of San Juan, Calderón had made three promises in a similar debate: she wouldnt use the position as a springboard to run for governor in four years, she wouldnt raise taxes and she wouldnt appoint a vice mayor. She broke all three, Pesquera said.
"If she couldnt keep those promises, how can she keep the ones she has made today?" Pesquera asked.
Calderón offered a weak rebuttal of that charge to the press after the debate concluded, but the point was made.
Who won? The final grades on the debate performances wont be handed out until Nov. 7.
Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at: email@example.com.