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For Clinton, landslide in Puerto Rico

She takes twice as many delegates, but Obama is still considerably closer to the finish line.

June 02, 2008|Michael Finnegan and Louise Roug | Times Staff Writers

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Hillary Rodham Clinton chalked up an easy victory in Sunday's Puerto Rico primary, a widely expected win that underscores the advantage she has enjoyed among Latino voters over Democratic rival Barack Obama.

Clinton trounced Obama 68% to 32%.

Obama remains the front-runner for their party's presidential nomination. Although Clinton won 38 delegates in Puerto Rico to Obama's 17, he is just 47 short of the threshold for victory, the Associated Press said; she needs 202.5.

With Tuesday's primaries in South Dakota and Montana the only Democratic contests left, the final decision rests with the approximately 200 uncommitted superdelegates. Those party insiders will join the delegates selected in caucuses and primaries to determine who will be the nominee at August's Democratic National Convention in Denver.

At a victory rally in a hotel ballroom here, Clinton argued for the support of those superdelegates. The New York senator contended she was ahead in the popular vote, a much-challenged assertion that was based on disputed calculations.

"In the final assessment, I ask you to consider these questions: Which candidate best represents the will of the people who voted in this historic election?" she said as the crowd broke into a chant: "Hillary, Hillary."

"Which candidate is best able to lead us to victory in November?

"And which candidate is best able to lead our nation as our president in face of unprecedented challenges at home and abroad?

"I am in this race because I believe I am that candidate and I will be that president."

Obama, speaking in Mitchell, S.D., told a couple of thousand people outside the Corn Palace that he had just spoken to Clinton and congratulated her for winning the Puerto Rico primary.

He said she was an "outstanding public servant" who had "worked tirelessly" and would be "a great asset" to the Democratic Party in the general election.

"I know there are a lot of concerns about whether the party will come together after this long contest," Obama said, edging close to claiming victory in the Democratic race. He told the crowd that held "Change We Can Believe In" signs: "She is going to be a great asset when we go into November to make sure that we can defeat the Republicans, I can promise you."

He then quickly segued into an attack on President Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain, saying that the differences between himself and Clinton pale in comparison to those between the Democrats and the Republicans. Obama said that McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, was "running to continue George Bush's policies."

Clinton's Puerto Rico triumph continues the string of lopsided victories that she and Obama have traded in recent weeks in states that played to their different strengths among Democratic demographics.

Clinton has proved popular among Latinos around the country, but in Puerto Rico the bond was especially strong, thanks to her home state's deep ties to the island commonwealth.

Puerto Rico's relationship with the United States -- chiefly a question of whether it should be granted statehood or retain its current semiautonomous status as an "associated free state" -- has been the key issue on the island. Its 2.4 million voters cannot cast ballots in the general election.

Clinton put much more emphasis than did Obama on the Puerto Rico contest. She spent the last two weekends on the island; her husband, former President Clinton, visited twice, and their daughter, Chelsea, three times.

By contrast, Obama and his wife, Michelle, each campaigned once in Puerto Rico. The Illinois senator did one day of campaigning, with two events in the San Juan area.

Clinton made a campaign stop Sunday at a coffee shop in San Juan, greeting about two dozen diners. After her victory rally, she flew to South Dakota.

Obama spent the day in South Dakota, focusing on veterans' issues and drawing a contrast between his positions and McCain's. His emphasis on improving veterans care was part of his closing pitch to voters there and in Montana, which together have 31 pledged delegates at stake and whose primaries will conclude five months of nominating contests.

At a pancake breakfast for veterans in Sioux Falls, South Dakota's most populous city, Obama pledged to honor "a sacred trust to serve our veterans as well as they have served us."

He recalled his grandfather's Army service during World War II and his burial with military honors in a Hawaii cemetery alongside hundreds killed at Pearl Harbor.

Obama reiterated his criticism of McCain and Bush for opposing a bill that would help veterans pay for a college education.

"I don't understand why he would side with George Bush in opposing a bipartisan bill that does so much to make college affordable for veterans," Obama said.

"George Bush and John McCain may think that the bill is too generous, but I could not disagree more."

The Arizona senator and Bush have argued that the education benefits would dissuade young veterans from serving multiple tours while U.S. forces are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said Obama "was driven by left-wing party politics" to oppose veterans healthcare funding included last year in a larger troop buildup measure for the Iraq war.

He said Obama's "blind opposition" to the buildup showed "weak leadership and weak judgment."

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michael.finnegan@latimes.com

louise.roug@latimes.com

Times staff writers Scott Martelle and Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.

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