Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum (Credit: AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
(CBS News) SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Campaigning on this island U.S. territory Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum spoke out in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico but said he also favored requiring it to adopt English as its official language. Puerto Ricans generally speak both Spanish and English.
Throughout the day, the former Pennsylvania senator was asked repeatedly about his position on the territory becoming the 51st state.
"I would support the people of Puerto Rico if they make the decisive decision to move forward with that, I would support it," he told a group of about 50 people at a town hall meeting. "But that's a decision the people of Puerto Rico have to make and so far they've chosen not to make it. And so talk to your friends, and see if you can work that out."
Later, discussing the issue with reporters, Santorum declined to say specifically how high the percentage rate of approval would have to be in his view, but indicated that the bar would be high. "It can't be 50 percent plus one," he said. "It has to be a strong voice."
The issue has long divided the people of Puerto Rico, which has been a U.S. territory since 1898. In the most recent plebiscite, held in 1998, 47 percent of people supported statehood, but a slight majority, 50.3 percent, rejected all options, including statehood, independence or continuation of commonwealth status.
While Santorum said it was not the role of the president to advocate for Puerto Rico's statehood, he said, "To me, it doesn't make any sense to be in America and not want to be a state and have full rights as a United States citizen."
Speaking with the local newspaper El Vocero, Santorum said English would have to be the official language of the state, but seemed to suggest, incorrectly, that English was a federal requirement of statehood. "Like any other state, there has to be compliance with this and any other federal law," Santorum told the newspaper, according to the Reuters news agency. "There are other states with more than one language, such as Hawaii, but to be a state of the United States, English has to be the principal language," he said.
Puerto Ricans, who recognize both English and Spanish as their official languages, are scheduled to vote in November on a referendum to decide whether they want to pursue statehood or remain a self-governing U.S. commonwealth, Reuters reports. However, the U.S. Constitution does not designate an official language, nor is there a requirement that a territory adopt English as its primary language in order to become a state, the news agency said.
Emphasizing his interest in Puerto Rican issues, Santorum joked that he was called "Senador Puertorriqueno" when he served in Congress because he looked after some of the territory's issues, including efforts to equalize Medicare reimbursement rates and secure relief funds after Hurricane George.
"They used to make fun of me, 'Why are you representing Puerto Rico?'" he told reporters of his former Senate colleagues. "Well, someone has to because they don't have a voice. ... I felt a responsibility to the island."
He developed a working relationship with Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno, who was then serving as the resident commissioner for the Island in Washington, D.C. However, Fortuno has endorsed front-runner Mitt Romney.
Asked about how that endorsement would affect his chances, Santorum lumped Fortuno in with the Republican establishment figures who are backing Romney.
"The establishment across America has lined up behind Governor Romney very early on and I certainly respect that," Santorum said, adding, "He looked like the odds on favorite at the beginning of the campaign. We tend to do that as Republicans, sort of take the person next in line. But what I think we've found is that Governor Romney is uniquely disqualified in making some of the most important arguments that we need to make in this country with respect to the rule of government in our lives."