Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, look toward moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN as they participate in the Republican presidential candidates debate in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)AP2012
Puerto Ricans, the second largest voter group among Hispanics in the US, are "outraged" and "insulted" at CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and the Republican candidates for their "disrespectful" handling of a question centered around the longstanding issue of Puerto Rico’s statehood and independence.
During the live broadcast of the Jacksonville debate, audience members attending the Hispanic Leadership Network Conference, a center right advocacy organization in Miami, were given a chance to ask questions to the candidates. That’s when Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, the Republican president and CEO of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Florida, asked the GOP candidates where they stood on the issue of the island’s statehood.
The answer, or lack thereof, she received on national television sent her and a group of about five Puerto Ricans packing early as they stormed out of the CNN sponsored Watch Party mid-debate.
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Rick Santorum was the only candidate who was given a shot to answer the question they said, after Blitzer, who moderated the debate, opted to move to the next question before the other candidates were given their shots to respond.
“It turns us off. The whole issue of Puerto Rico was just really insulting. They just blew it off. And of course no one takes a position,” Anthony Suárez, a veteran and lawyer, told Fox News Latino as he stormed off.
“You have got to understand not only is this an issue that is important to the four million American Puerto Ricans here -but there are four million Americans on that island who do not vote for president, who fight in wars, but have not had an opportunity to participate and that question is not even being debated - it’s not even being discussed.”
Colonel Dennis Freytes, USA Army Ret. Veteran and Chairman of the Hispanic Achievers Grant Council, was red mad specifically at Blitzer who moderated the event.
“I cannot understand the concept of Wolf Blitzer and CNN not even giving it the decency of having that question being asked of the other three candidates. It’s pretty disgusting,” he said.
Cuevas-Neunder, who had pinned the Puerto Rican flag on her outfit, was enraged after asking her question on national television.
“I felt as a second class citizen. As if we are not worth anything. Four million Puerto Rican voters, consumers, who have given more men and women to the United States armed forces then any other state in the union,” she said. “I am outraged. I think they need a little bit of education. I want to instruct them on who the Puerto Rican community is – they don’t know.”
In a debate that featured clashes on immigration, Freddic Mac, and even Moon colonies, Cuevas-Nuender said she believed they could have spent more time on a very important issue. She has said they will rally until the candidates give clear answers on the issue of Puerto Rican statehood.
“They know more about going to the moon but they don’t know about the men and women who have served to protect our sovereignty,” she added.
At 4.4 million, Puerto Ricans represent the second largest voting block of Hispanics in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. There are more than 830,000 Puerto Ricans living in Florida, with more than half living along the I-4 corridor in the central part of the state.
Puerto Ricans make up 28 percent of eligible Latino voters in Florida – just behind Cubans who make up just under one third at 32 percent. Overall, of the more than 1,473,920 registered Latino voters in Florida a little over 452,000 are registered Republicans and more then 564,000 are registered as Democrats.
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José Fuentes, the former Puerto Rico Attorney General from 1997-1999, believes the flubbed debate moment which he called “shocking” will reverberate throughout the Puerto Rican community and will be felt as early as primary day on Tuesday in Florida.
“The impact is that there is going to be lower turnout of the I-4 corridor of the Puerto Rican community,” Fuentes told Fox News Latino specifically about this primary election.
Others reaffirmed the same belief that while CNN is at fault, it ultimately was a lose-lose for the Republican party.
“Even though it was an error on CNN they [the candidates] should have seized the moment. The other candidates should have said wait a second let me talk about Puerto Rican statehood. They spent more time talking about lunar statehood than Puerto Rican statehood,” said Alfonso Aguilar, of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
“Puerto Ricans are the decisive vote within the Latino electorate in Florida. This is a problem that CNN had. It was a big mistake. But to allow only Rick Santorum to answer the question was insulting.”
As for Suárez, despite the anger he feels as a Puerto Rican, he remains adamant about supporting the Republican cause despite the constant examples of "ignorance" toward the Latino community thus far in the primary.
"“While I have to deal with the problems in the Republican community, I know with the message in general – we are going in the same direction.”
Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL).
Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.