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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – A deep economic crisis was on the minds of many voters in Sunday's Republican primary in the U.S. island territory of Puerto Rico.
Residents of the island cannot vote in the general election in November but they can take part in the party primaries. Voters in the GOP contest said in interviews that they want a U.S. president who will help the island emerge from a decade of recession and a debt crisis that threatens basic government services.
"We need a radical change," 53-year-old Richard Suarez said as he waited to cast a ballot for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in Guaynabo, a city in the San Juan metropolitan area. "Otherwise, we'll be stuck in the same situation and will have to keep asking the U.S. government for favors."
Raul Octaviano, a 65-year-old retiree, declined to say which candidate he favored, but said it would be someone who would help the island deal with economic conditions so grim that tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland, mostly to Florida, in the largest exodus in decades.
"It's a terrible situation," Octaviano said. "There is no solution on the horizon. The decisions that have to be taken will be painful."
A decisive victory, with more than half the vote, would give one candidate all 20 delegates at stake. Otherwise, they would be distributed proportionally, though a candidate would have to get at least 20 percent to qualify. Three other super-delegates already have declared for Marco Rubio.
No candidate has had a major presence in Puerto Rico this cycle, though Rubio visited the island Saturday for the second time in seven months There have been no publicly released polls.
Politics in Puerto Rico generally revolves around the island's relationship to the U.S. One major party favors statehood and the other wants to maintain the current semi-autonomous commonwealth status. A small minority favors independence. The pro-statehood party has traditionally attracted Republicans and anyone taking part in the primary must sign a pledge to support the effort to become the 51st state.
Party officials say about 25,000 people were expected to take part in the vote — about 20 percent of the number who voted in 2012, due in part to a sharp reduction in the number of polling places.
The result could be affected by about 6,000 votes cast on Friday by prisoners. Puerto Rico is one of the few U.S. jurisdictions that allow inmates to vote. The only other people allowed to submit absentee ballots in the territory are members of the military but party officials said they did not yet know how many of those had been cast.
Any registered voter can take part, but only if they sign a document of affiliation with the Republican Party moments before casting a ballot.
"We have to send a message of what Puerto Rico wants, of our problems, of the help we need for the economy, and more than anything, the Republican Party here wants statehood," said Zoraida Fonalledas, the national committeewoman for Puerto Rico's Republican Party and one of the super-delegates.
But there were also supporters of Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz. Voter Luis Rosario said the real estate tycoon has the business savvy to turn around the economy in Puerto Rico, where unemployment is above 12 percent and a debt of about $70 billion has the government teetering on the brink of insolvency.
"Trump is a tycoon. He has billions and is a fighter," said Rosario, a 68-year-old retired nurse.