There are four kinds of candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Politicians like Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Tim Pawlenty belong in the sure-thing category; we know they'll be running because, well, they already are. Next come the wild cards: the headliners who haven't decided on anything yet ... except to keep their options open. Think Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. Finally there are the long shots. Until now, I would've stocked the long-shot pool with gents like Bobby Jindal, John Thune, and Haley Barbour—prominent Republicans who occasionally inspire 2012 speculation but stand little chance of actually getting (or, for that matter, trying to get) the nod next time around.
But late last week, Republican antitax activist Grover Norquist—a guy who, love him or hate him, is still pretty plugged into GOP power sources in Washington—stopped by the NEWSWEEK offices and dropped a name I'd never even heard before, let alone heard in the context of 2012: Luis Fortuño.
I can imagine your reaction: "Um, who's that?" Or as Fortuño might put it, "Este, quién es ese?" Allow me, then, to introduce you. Fortuño is the governor of Puerto Rico, which, as you may have learned in fifth-grade social-studies class, is a United States commonwealth located to the east of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Sea. Yes, Fortuño is a U.S. citizen. And, yes, he is a true-blue, Reagan- and National Review-loving member of the GOP—despite the liberal leanings of his native island, where "Republican" typically means pro-statehood rather than conservative. So while Fortuño can't vote in a U.S. presidential election, he can, in fact, run as a Republican in one. "He could pop up on the national level like that," said Norquist, snapping his fingers. "I’m very impressed with both his presentation and what he’s accomplished so far."
Why is Norquist so fond of this unfamiliar face? For starters, Fortuño has proven to be a rather bold fiscal leader since assuming office last January. After discovering that Puerto Rico's deficit was four times greater than what he'd previously been told—at more than $3.2 billion, it's the highest per capita in the nation—he outlined a plan in March to cut spending by $2 billion per year and slash government payrolls by tens of thousands of workers. (In Puerto Rico, the government employs 30 percent of the workforce; another 30 percent rely on government contracts.) The idea was to chart a new economic future for the cash-strapped commonwealth by focusing on private-sector job creation—and so far, the plan is on track. Despite labor protests, Fortuño has trimmed approximately 20,000 government positions and, with the help of $6.5 billion in combined federal and local stimulus funds, has managed to create 17,000 new jobs in return (which, according to a recent analysis by The Christian Science Monitor, puts Puerto Rico third in the country behind Washington and Montana in terms of jobs created by the federal stimulus bill). Puerto Rico's unemployment rate—nearly 17 percent—is still staggeringly high. But Fortuño is effectively using Obama's bigger-government policies to move the commonwealth toward less bureaucracy, less spending, and more privatization. This is catnip for fiscal conservatives like Norquist.
Blessed with a Republican legislature, Fortuño stands a good chance of passing other conservative reforms as well—reforms that could "all of sudden" gain him a national Republican audience, according to Norquist. These might include a school-choice bill ("a third of the population goes to private
schools already") and a push to lower the top tax rate from 33 percent to 20 percent ("everybody who used to retire to Miami would retire to Puerto Rico"). Given that Fortuño is young (49), telegenic, well-educated (Georgetown; UVA Law), fluently bilingual, and a proven winner on Democratic turf—he was elected last November by the largest margin in 44 years and is the first Republican governor of Puerto Rico since 1969—it's not hard to see why Norquist is crushing on him.
But ultimately, the most important thing about Fortuño may be that Norquist & Co. are mentioning his name at all—at least for now. Do I think a Puerto Rican will win the 2012 Republican nomination? Not really. And neither, I'm guessing, does Norquist. A party whose base is animated in part by its opposition to illegal immigration is probably not going to "import" someone, as it were, for the biggest job in the land. But in the age of Obama, the GOP is suffering from a serious dearth of credible minority leaders—people who can speak with authority to an increasingly multiethnic electorate. And the shortfall is especially glaring in regard to Latinos, who are the country's fastest-growing minority group (they represented 7.4 percent of the electorate in 2008, up from 6 percent in 2004 and 5.4 percent in 2000) but are trending heavily Democratic, despite their religious, family-first leanings (George W. Bush took 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 versus only 31 percent for John McCain in 2008).
This is where Fortuño comes in. For Republicans, using Fortuño to fuel the eternal flame of 2012 speculation serves to make the GOP seem, at least, like a more welcoming place for Latinos—however whimsical his chances of reaching the White House currently are. "Our party needs growth among minorities," said one Republican Governors Association official earlier this year. "Then along comes a young, well-spoken Puerto Rican governor, and we've got a person who can help our party articulate why Hispanics and Latinos should fit into the GOP." Which is why, regardless of electoral reality, you can expect to keep hearing Fortuño's name from folks like Norquist—for the next three years and beyond.
And who knows? One day, he may actually be a sure thing.