Former Vice-President Walter F. Mondale should emerge as the unparalleled victor of Puerto Rico's Democratic primary Sunday. But his expected victory will have little to do with his popularity and everything to do with strong backing from the island's pro-statehood government.
Mr. Mondale, who is expected to sweep all 53 of Puerto Rico's delegates to the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in July, is backed by Gov. -Carlos Romero Barcelo, an ardent supporter of Puerto Rican statehood. The Democratic Party in Puerto Rico is co-chaired by Marlene Gillette, a Romero aide and Rep. Charlie Rodriguez, a member of Governor Romero's New Progressive Party (NPP). Ms. Gillette is also director of the Mondale campaign in Puerto Rico and of the local New Democratic Party (NDP).
Besides strong support from the NPP, another factor is contributing to Mondale's strength here: He now lacks any organized opposition. Backers of Ohio Sen. John Glenn, anticipating his withdrawal from the race, had pledged to switch to their support to Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. But in a surprise move Wedensday, Senator Hart withdrew from the Puerto Rico race. While the names of the two candidates will remain on the ballot, the lack of any organization will keep their number of votes small.
Neither Senator Glenn nor Senator Hart had received the backing of the Popular Democratic Party (PDP), defenders of the island's commonwealth status, and the island's only other major political party. Because the PDP has not offered its organization to any candidate, Mondale, with NPP backing, will have the only wide-ranging, vote-getting drive on the island.
As a general rule, primary elections in Puerto Rico have less to do with names and issues than with the commonwealth's labrynthine politics. While statehooders immerse themselves in the trying to emulate the United States political process, the commonwealthers, or ''populares,'' waffle on the issue. The PDP's autonomous wing rejects primaries as a move toward ''assimilation,'' while the more conservative PDPers may simply remain neutral.
In 1980, the PDP did mobilize its ranks to support Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, giving him 20 delegates to the 21 mustered by the NPP for former President Carter. The contest between the two parties brought 835,000 people to the 1980 polls, earning Puerto Rico 53 delegates to the Democratic National Convention this year.
Puerto Rico, whose citizens do not vote in the presidential election, will have the 25th largest delegation to the convention this year.
Due to the lack of any outright PDP-NPP competition this year, Sunday's primary is only expected to draw between 200,000 and 300,000 voters.
Even without the active participation of the PDP, however, the primary has been fraught with interparty rivalry. The vote-counting at the 1,653 polling places this Sunday has been put in doubt because it will not be supervised by Puerto Rico's State Elections Commission, but by the NDP.
Because the NDP is heavily staffed by statehooders, directors of the Hart and Glenn campaigns have charged the results will be unreliable.
Sergio Camero, chairman of the Glenn campaign, and Dr. Carlos Lopategui, chairman of the Hart effort, are prominent PDP members.
Dr. Lopategui in announcing Hart's withdrawal from the primary charged that balloting would be ''rigged and unfair'' and called it ''an internal NPP attempt to limit the participation of anyone not favoring Romero's presidential candidate.''
Mr. Camero said he suspected that the results would be inflated in Mondale's favor if neither Hart nor Glenn supporters were present at the 1,653 polls - a virtual impossibility without the backing of the PDP.
''Without the State Elections Commission, the results are not reliable and I don't accept them,'' said Camero. The counting, he said, ''will be controlled by the NPP, through its political arm, the New Democratic Party (NDP) which is presided over by Marlene Gillette, who runs Mondale's campaign. That's quite a bit of conflict.''
Mondale supporter Rodriguez accused Camero of bemoaning his own lack of organization in the Glenn effort, and defended the system as ''the same one used in the general elections.'' In a general election, however, both major parties, plus the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the newly formed Puerto Rican Renewal Party have observers at the polls to prevent fraud.
As to Lopategui's claim, Rodriguez answered, ''The only reason Hart is not running in Puerto Rico is that his people here are afraid he would not win the primary, and that would be bad for his image in the states as the leading candidate.''
A second test between the parties centers on the reorganization of the Democratic Party this year.