Gov. Benigno R. Fitial endorsed Republican Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy yesterday at a luncheon he hosted for the former Massachusetts governor's son, Matt, and his wife Laurie, the first presidential campaign team to ever step foot on CNMI soil since it became a member of the American family.
Fitial, chairman of the Republican Party of the NMI Association, made the announcement soon after receiving a phone call from Mitt Romney himself.
“I am apologetic that I can't be with you today but as you could imagine I'm running from place to place, trying to secure as many delegates as I can.and I hope I will be able to secure the nomination,” Mitt Romney told Fitial via a phone call that everyone at the luncheon heard.
The luncheon was held by the poolside of Fitial's private residence in Gualo Rai.
Not only did Fitial endorse Mitt Romney but he also urged other delegates to vote for him at the Republican National Convention in Florida in August.
There will be a total of nine delegates from the CNMI, including Fitial and two other officials, at the Republican National Convention.
Six of these delegates will be chosen in today's caucus on Saipan, Tinian and Rota.
Mitt Romney assured that he will always remember the CNMI.
“And if I become president, I can assure you that you will have my attention and my interest and I will update myself with the concerns of the Northern Marianas.I hope that I will be able to win the support of your delegates at the forthcoming caucuses this weekend,” he added.
Fitial thanked Mitt Romney for sending his second oldest son Matt and Laurie to Saipan.
The governor said he found out only yesterday that Matt and his family live right next to his house in San Diego, California.
“We really want you to know that we believe in your leadership and we believe that you will always remember us here. Just the fact that you sent out your son is a testimony that you care for us. So we want you to know that I will be endorsing you, I will be supporting you and I am going to ask the other delegates that they also do the same,” Fitial told Mitt Romney on the phone.
The presidential candidate thanked Fitial for his endorsement, adding that he looks forward to meeting with him.
'Every delegate vote counts'
The Romneys arrived on Saipan early Friday morning, had a short morning run, a meeting with Fitial on CNMI issues especially the economy, and then graced the luncheon at the governor's private residence.
Matt, 40, and Laurie Romney left Saipan Friday night for Guam, where they are also drumming up support for their father.
With the race to the White House heating up, presidential campaigns are reaching out not only to the 50 U.S. states but also to territories such as the CNMI and Guam where nine delegates each are at stake.
As of yesterday, Mitt Romney has garnered 421 delegates, less than half of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has 181 delegates so far, former House speaker Newt Gingrich has 107, and Rep. Ron Paul has 47.
Matt Romney said that every delegate vote “counts.”
“It is important for us to get everywhere we can, everywhere that people vote. This is obviously one of the harder locations to get to but by far, it's one of my favorites so far,” he said.
Fitial said that mathematically, “it's going to be difficult to beat [Mitt Romney] in the caucuses.”
Should Romney become president, Fitial said he wants the CNMI to get additional help for its economy.
“Governor Romney understands the critical role that the CNMI plays in the Pacific region and I also understand from talking to him that he's committed to helping us improve our economy the right way,” he added.
The CNMI budget has steadily shrunk in years. It only has $102 million this year to run the government, forcing it to resort to 16-hour work cuts and unpaid holidays and experiencing delayed payrolls, power cutoff over outstanding utility bills, financial crisis at its retirement system and hospital, among others.
Matt and Laurie Romney arrived at Fitial's residence overlooking Saipan's western lagoon around 12pm yesterday.
The governor and House Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan) greeted the Romneys who were each presented with head mwars or flowers.
“We're really happy to be here,” Matt Romney told the media before heading for a tent prepared for the luncheon.
He said he and his four brothers had a debate on who was going to get to the CNMI first and he was fortunate to be the one to visit the islands.
Matt Romney hopes to secure all the nine delegate votes from the CNMI.
After hearing Fitial's endorsement of his father, Matt Romney said, “That means a lot to us.”
“I know it means a lot to my dad, and thank you to you and your wife Josie for welcoming us here to your island. You've been very hospitable. Everyone has been very nice to us. We've had a chance to go out and meet a bunch of people since we've been here. It's a very warm place in more ways than one and we really admire and respect the people here,” he added.
Ed Deleon Guerrero, second vice chairman of the CNMI Republican Party, said he's “very grateful” for the Romneys' visit to Saipan.
“We live in very remote islands of the U.S. Oftentimes people in Washington, D.C. make decisions without talking to us or visiting us,” he said, adding that this is a “historic moment.”
Deleon Guerrero, who is among the Republican delegate candidates in today's race, said he personally supports Mitt Romney.
Joann T. Aquino, a member of the National Women's GOP, said she supports Mitt Romney, although she backed out from the GOP delegate race after seeing the list of candidates.
She said she thinks more women should come out, vote, and get involved in national politics.
'From the horse's mouth'
Mitt Romney, in his phone call to Fitial, also spoke briefly about his credentials and leadership experience, including balancing Massachusetts' budget and cutting taxes 19 times when he was governor.
He also took a swipe at President Obama's presidency, including what he claimed as the continuous buildup of “massive deficit which I think is very threatening,” an “unsuccessful path in rebuilding our economy,” “shrinking the military dramatically at a time when I believe the world is more dangerous and at a time when China is exercising a newfound wealth in building a very substantial maritime presence in the Pacific.”
“I only wish that we could maintain our military spending at a percentage of our total economy,” Romney said.
Fitial said he's also “very touched” that Romney has an understanding of the number of sons and daughters that the CNMI has in the U.S. military. The CNMI has lost over a dozen sons and daughters in the war against terror.
Rep. Fred Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan) said it's “fantastic” to have a presidential campaign team personally reaching out to the CNMI.
“I'm sure the nine delegates will all vote for him at the convention,” he added.
Matt Romney spoke of his father's character, principles, background, and qualification to become the next president.
“He's someone who's been in business for a long time like your governor. He has a business background and I think that really matters. He understands what it's like not only to look for a job, employ people but also understands what it's like when people don't have a job and the kind of impact that has.For me it's a perspective that I think our next president needs to have as a business background. He's got that. He cares a lot about our nation, our economy,” he said.
He said there are a lot of people who don't necessarily have a good impression of his father because of what they see in the mainstream media.
“But let me assure you, from someone who knows him best, perhaps only my mom knows better, this is someone who cares a lot about our country, who cares a lot about our economy, who cares a lot about our future and the future of his kids, his grandkids, and all of our kids and because of that I'm proud to be out here campaigning for him,” Matt Romney said.
He spoke of his father's knack for turning things around, including while working for the private sector for 25 years.
“He took over troubled companies, turned them around, fixed them, and made them better,” he said.
Matt Romney cited as an example the time when his father, as chief executive officer of the 2002 Winter Olympics, rescued it from a financial mess to a budget surplus.
“He also did that as governor of Massachusetts. He came into office and I know you can appreciate this, but things were tough and so he had to cut the budget quite a bit and he did that very smartly. But he was able to take a $3 billion shortfall and turned it into a rainy day fund,” he added.
Matt Romney shared a personal story about their family vacation when his father rescued him from drowning. He got pushed into a reef, his leash and surfboard were wrapped around the reef, he was under the water, “and probably in real danger of drowning.”
He said his father, who just walked back to the hotel, had that nagging feeling that he had to turn around and watch over his children again.
“My dad, when he saw it, jumped in with all his clothes on under the reef and literally pulled me up by my leash and saved my life and we walked back to the hotel. We were both covered in blood from the reef. the waves were crashing into us.That's the kind of person my dad is. He dives in, full board and he just rolls his sleeves up and gets the job done. Other people are comfortable watching. He's very comfortable taking charge and I've seen him do it time and time again. This is exactly what we need right now in our country,” he said.
At that point, Fitial said, “That's right.”
Matt Romney also recalled how, while he was growing up, his father would say “turn it off” when they left the water on for too long, or he would say “shut the door” when they left the refrigerator door open for too long.
“And you got very used to it. He hates waste. We need someone like that in Washington who hates waste, and who isn't going to waste our money. We need someone who's got to cut the government and allow a prosperous environment for businesses to flourish again,” he said.
During a question-and-answer with the Republicans at the luncheon, Matt Romney said he will pass along the concern raised by Danny Aquino about treating the CNMI equally among states and territories by allowing its people to participate in presidential elections.
The Romneys got a taste of island food that was served at the luncheon, watched traditional dances, and met with Republicans that included former and current government officials.