GOP strategists: Puerto Rico Gov. Fortuno is a sleeper vice presidential pick

Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno (R) is a sleeper pick for the No. 2 spot on the 2012 presidential ticket, according to GOP strategists.

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has kept his cards close to his chest on vice presidential prospects, saying that it would be “presumptuous” to think about it before winning the nomination. But in a recent interview with Newsmax, he described Fortuno as “a solid conservative and a firm leader.” He also dubbed Fortuno “one of the great leaders of our party.”

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Republican strategists say that whomever Romney picks, the selection has to resonate with Hispanic voters. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is by far and away the leading Hispanic candidate for Romney, but there are others. They include New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and Fortuno.

In January, Grover Norquist, the influential head of Americans for Tax Reform, said Fortuno would “be a great vice presidential candidate.”

Fortuno, who endorsed former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 2008, formally backed Romney in the GOP presidential primary in January of 2012.

Fortuno has said he does not think he would be considered for the vice presidential spot but, when pressed, indicated he will go all out to help Romney. 

“I am hundred percent committed to running for reelection,” Fortuno told The Hill, stressing he is focused on his reelection later this year. “If I can be of assistance in terms of the convention in Tampa, I’ll be happy to assist.”

Like any other potential candidate, there are pros and cons to picking Fortuno as a running mate. As governor of a territory, he doesn’t bring any electoral votes to the ticket. He also has low name recognition and even political insiders consider him a dark horse candidate.

Political scientist Larry Sabato puts him in the fourth tier of possible vice presidential picks. 

On the plus side, Fortuno is young and energetic and in good standing with the Republican Party. And, of course, he has strong Hispanic appeal.

Fortuno, who previously served in the House as the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico from 2004 to 2009, cannot vote in the presidential election, but he can serve on the ticket, according to legal scholars.

As governor of Puerto Rico, Fortuno turned the territory’s economy around by lowering the corporate tax rate from 41 percent to 30 percent and making similar cuts to individual tax rates. Since Fortuno took office, Puerto Rico’s deficit has shrunk from $3.3 billion to about $600 million.

He attributes the territory’s dramatic debt reduction under his watch to serious cuts: “These are not Washington cuts….Puerto Rico’s fiscal and economic operation was by far the worst in the country.”

The 51-year old Georgetown University and University of Virginia Law School grad and father of triplets, who got his start in politics folding envelopes for Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980, is solidly conservative on social issues. He is against same sex marriage and abortion rights.

On immigration, Fortuno advocates strong border security, but has also criticized a proposal by some Republicans to deport 12 million illegal immigrants.

“I support enforcing our laws, securing our borders and comprehensive immigration reform,” Fortuno said. “We must also promote a respectful dialogue on immigration, because too often, the tone and tenor of the public discourse has been counterproductive and pushes away instead of embracing the Hispanic community.”

Like President Obama, Fortuno sees the decaying infrastructure in the U.S. as one of the most urgent problems. In Puerto Rico, his approach has been to employ private companies on the upkeep of public buildings.

“Our basic infrastructure is crumbling and what we did is we learned from other jurisdictions, not just in the rest of the country, but around the world, on how to bring in private capital to develop your basic infrastructure and upgrade it,” Fortuno said. 

As Resident Commissioner, Fortuno’s primary focus in Congress was Puerto Rican statehood. Fortuno remains strongly in favor of statehood for the territory and is currently the chairman of the New Progressive Party, whose sole platform is statehood. 

In terms of the Hispanic vote, Fortuno argues that Hispanics are naturally Republican. 

“I am convinced that the Republican Party’s message can resonate well with Hispanic Americans,” Fortuno said. 

Fortuno says the reason the Hispanic vote hasn’t consistently gone Republican is a lack of attention. 

“The first thing you need to do is show up,” Fortuno said. He also said a serious media blitz to the Hispanic community is key. 

“You must have a truly critical effort to reach out, whether it’s at the county level or national level,” Fortuno said.

Republicans know they must do better in this area. In a 2011 interview with The Hill, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the GOP had done a “lousy job” of promoting its outreach efforts to Hispanic voters.

The RNC says it plans to strengthen its Hispanic efforts. 

“We’re certainly putting a lot of time as far as the Hispanic outreach is concerned,” an RNC official said. “The math gets hard if we don’t have the Hispanic vote.”

Republican operatives say the Hispanic vote is key in 2012, noting that the Latino population is soaring in the U.S.

“If it’s not a top priority, [Republicans] lose,” political strategist Mark McKinnon said.

A Fox News survey of likely Hispanic voters found just 14 percent of respondents would back Romney over Obama. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) captured 31 percent of the Latino vote in 2008.

Fortuno seems to fit a lot of the criteria for the vice presidential spot —he would attract Hispanics, he’s young, energetic, considered a fiscal conservative, with experience in both Congress and as a governor.

McKinnon said as long as he meets the basic criteria, he’ll be considered by Romney. 

“I think the Romney campaign will look [at] every rock possible for a Hispanic running mate,” McKinnon said. “So, if Fortuno meets basic qualification criteria, I suspect he’ll be on the list.”

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