SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said today Puerto Rico would not have to make English its official language in order to gain statehood, but maintained that the island territory would need to be bilingual.
Santorum drew fire on what was largely meant to be a goodwill trip to Puerto Rico for comments he made to a San Juan newspaper on Wednesday suggesting the U.S. territory needed to make English its official language before it could become the 51st state. But speaking to reporters after here after visiting a local school, the former Pennsylvania senator said he simply called on the island to learn English.
"What I said is English has to be learned as a language and this has to be a country where English is widely spoken and used yes," Santorum said.
However Santorum did say he believes English needs to be taught and that Puerto Rican schools would need to teach the language as a condition of statehood.
"They need to be taught English. That's how you integrate fully into American life. Its the best opportunity for you to be economically successful is to speak English," he said. "One of the important things about Puerto Rico is to be able to be a bridge between the mainland and central and south america, well bridge requires that you be able to speak both languages."
The island was Santorum's first campaign stop since two primary wins in Mississippi and Alabama. It's a place that is largely seen to favor chief rival Mitt Romney, who has won the endorsement of Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño. But Santorum's trip here is a sign he is hopeful he can earn some of the 23 delegates up for grabs during Sunday's primary.
The candidate visited the governor's mansion for a photo opportunity with Fortuño, his only appearance with the Puerto Rican leader.
Instead, it was the Secretary of Recreation of Sports Department Henry Neumann that was by his side during the two-day visit.
During a press conference on the steps of the governor's mansion, Santorum attempted to downplay the importance of Fortuño's endorsement of the former Massachusetts governor. "The establishment across America has lined up behind Gov. Romeny very early on and I certainly respect that," he said. "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."
The question the GOP hopeful most commonly faced was regarding his feelings towards Puerto Rican statehood. He has said he favors allowing the island to decide for itself whether or not to abandon their territory status. But, there would need to be a resounding consensus, not simply a majority plus one, Santorum said.
Throughout his campaign stops here, the candidate emphasized the work he did with Puerto Rico during his time in Congress. It is the reason he took exception to local reports characterizing his remarks about a bilingual Puerto Rico as a dig against those living on the island.
"This is my 3rd trip to Puerto Rico. We've worked with the people of Puerto Rico, governors of the past. We've done things to try to help benefit Puerto Rico. For someone to misrepresent and completely fabricate something that I never said or even intimated is very disappointing," he said.
The latest candidate to surge in Republican nominating contest did not draw overwhelming crowds to his campaign stops, until his last event -- a parade throughout the streets of Old San Juan. Walking behind a marching band and an emcee shouting his name, Santorum greeted surprised Puerto Ricans during the march that shut down blocks of the old city.
He has not set an expectations for how he'll finish here on Sunday, predicting only that he'll earn "as many delegates as we can get."
Santorum returns to the continental United State tomorrow, spending the remainder of the week stumping in Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana.