|The 2004 gubernatorial campaign has begun.
Its clear because in the middle of the beer and rum commercials being shown during No Te Duermes -- a variety show mixing silly humor, popular music and scantily clad youth -- Pedro Rosselló appears in a white shirt, energetically telling viewers that progress can return to Puerto Rico.
Sure there have been some political posters popping up around town, but the Rosselló campaign commercials are the surest sign yet that the race is on. In another publicity blitz, the former two-term governor talks about the "new corruption" that has supposedly taken place in Puerto Rico since he left office.
True to his word, the former governor is looking straight past his primary opponent, New Progressive Party President Carlos Pesquera, and into the eyes of the Popular Democratic Party administration which he sees as his real opponent in 2004.
Since officially filing his candidacy, Pedro Rosselló has been all business, giving weekly press briefings on different aspects of his campaign platform, warming up his publicity machine and refusing to enter into political slugfests, especially with fellow statehooders. Barring some other extraordinary event in this wild political season, the two-term governor will be the NPP's candiate in 2004.
He is already trying to appeal to the youth vote - why else advertise on Telemundo Monday prime time? - as well as other cross-over constituencies.
The clearest signal of Rossellós strength as a candidate is the fact that all four resident commissioner candidates for the NPP back his gubernatorial aspirations. His primary opponent, NPP President Carlos Pesquera, was unable to convince someone to enter the crowded resident commissioner race who would support him. The smart engineer is increasingly sounding desperate in his ongoing battle to win the statehood partys nomination despite what appears to be overwhelming support for Rosselló.
In contrast to Rosselló, Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, the PDPs gubernatorial candidate, has been taking his time at formulating his message and drawing up his campaign platform.
In an Associated Press interview, he said he is just beginning to try to reorganize the party, write up his campaign platform and develop a campaign communications strategy. When meeting with a group of San Juan journalists last week, he declined to be too specific about what he would do on important issues such as political status and economic development.
He did say he would continue to offer the middle class tax relief and hinted that he would do so by reducing income taxes by taxing consumption -- probably through a sales or value added tax.
While Acevedo Vilá is still warming up, Rosselló is out of the gates, and for better or worse, the pace he is setting is already defining the race.
Two of his proposals -- to move the proposed superport to Roosevelt Roads should the Navy base close and his plan to institute universal health insurance coverage in Puerto Rico -- made front-page news when he released them.
By moving so quickly he is setting the tone in the campaign, which has already made him as big a target of criticism as Acevedo Vilá, who respresents an incumbent administration at a time of economic stagnation and rising crime.
While Rosselló said that moving the superport to Ceiba would make for a quicker, cheaper way to build a transshipment port, administration officials countered that it would require a $1 billion investment in new roads and other infrastructure needs on the east coast in order to for the project to be viable.
Others said the east coast was a better place for tourism development than an industrial project like the shipping port.
One of the biggest criticisms against the Rosselló plan came from pro-statehood marine biologist Máximo Cerame Vivas who said beyond the deep water port of Ceiba lies the Vieques Passage, a body of water "peppered with rock and reef" that is totally inappropriate for the heavy shipping traffic the superport would require.
The doctors plan for universal health coverage drew milder criticism, with Puerto Rican Independence Party officials taking credit for the idea and PDP officials questioning whether it was financially feasible.
Meanwhile, Rossellós brash attack on the "new corruption" released this week had PDP politicos sharpening their sabers Thursday to remind voters of the numerous corruption cases that took place while Rosselló was governor.
The ad campaign was also attacked as a "bunch of lies" for calling corrupt PDP politicians who have never been charged with any crime. Others attacked the campaign for insinuating that PDP figures arrested for corruption a decade ago were somehow connected to the administration of Gov. Calderón.
Given the general outrage being expressed over the campaign on local talk radio, the corruption ads are probably the former governors biggest misstep so far.
No matter, Rosselló is running, and he is clearly running against the PDP, not worrying about Pesquera or the PIPs Rubén Berríos.
Whether breaking away from the pack so early is a smart move is unlikely to be known until that fateful day in November 2004.
John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net