by Matthew Hay Brown
PEÑUELAS, Puerto Rico -- A week before this U.S. territory votes in the Democratic primary, Sen. Hillary Clinton said today she would work to resolve the debate that has paralyzed island politics for generations -- during her first term in the White House.
"I will as your president on day one work with all of the factions here in Puerto Rico and with the Congress to enable you to determine your status by majority vote among all of the options that are available," she told several dozen supporters in this southern town on the Caribbean Sea. "I wish to get this accomplished within the first four years of my term."
Resolving the political status of this island of 4 million would be an ambitious goal. Islanders have long been split between statehood and the status quo; unless a clear majority emerges for change, Washington is unlikely to reconsider the current relationship.
Clinton, like Sen. Barack Obama, has been careful to avoid choosing sides in the status debate. Like other American politicians, they say they would support whatever option a clear majority of Puerto Ricans chooses.
During her first visit of the presidential campaign -- she stopped in the western town of Aguadilla on Saturday, and makes a couple of appearances in San Juan tonight -- Clinton highlighted her experience with Puerto Rico.
"I have been privileged to work in ways to help you since I was first lady, when I worked to make sure that Puerto Rico was included in certain health programs of the federal government and came here personally to determine what needed to be done to help you recover from Hurricane Georges," she said.
"In 2001, I took a strong stand to persuade the federal government to leave Vieques, to turn the land over to the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico," she said, referring to the Puerto Rican island long used by the Navy for bombing practice. "And I'm very proud as a senator from New York to represent one million Puerto Ricans living in New York.
"I feel as though I have been your senator. Now I want to be your president."