San Juan, Puerto Rico (CNN) - Minutes after his plane touched down on a Puerto Rican airport tarmac, Mitt Romney said he would not require the territory to make English its official language as a requirement for statehood.
"I don't have preconditions that I would impose" if Puerto Ricans voted to become the nation's 51st state, Romney told members of the media Friday, addressing the issue for the first time in person. English and Spanish are already the dual official languages on the island.
– Follow the Ticker on Twitter: @PoliticalTicker
Romney's position on preconditions puts him at odds with his rival, former Sen. Rick Santorum, who said early this week Puerto Rico would need to adopt English as its official language before being eligible for statehood.
Santorum's comment was met with outrage from some locals, and Romney's campaign seized on the issue as a key difference between the White House hopefuls. Santorum refined his position on Wednesday, saying that "English needs to be the principal language" for the territory to be considered for statehood.
Romney has not argued for similar conditions on statehood. While he has previously said English should be the official language of the United States government, he he has said states should determine their policies. Romney addressed the language issue at a CNN debate in Jacksonville, Florida.
"I believe English should be the official language of the United States, as it is," Romney said at the debate, in January. "I also believe that in our schools, we should teach kids in English."
But Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul responded: "Governor Romney supports making English the official language of the United States government. This should have no impact on Puerto Rico's statehood effort, English has been an official language of Puerto Rico for over 100 years."
Regardless, in a tweet, a spokesman for Santorum's campaign accused Romney of flip-flopping and pandering to Puerto Ricans ahead of its Sunday primary.
Santorum spokesman Matt Beynon tweeted: "So Romney once supported English as national language, then goes to Puerto Rico and says no language req on statehood. #FlipFlop? #Pander?"
His communications director, Hogan Gidley, noted broad support for English as the nation's official language, and said in an email to reporters, "How can Romney say he supports English as the official language of America and not believe Puerto Rico should speak English? If he'll spend the whole election being untruthful about his positions – it makes you wonder what else he's being untruthful about."
Residents will vote on proposed statehood later this year. Romney, who is backed by the territory's governor, Luis Fortuno, said he would support an effort by Puerto Ricans to become a state.
Romney was also asked Friday about his criticism of Puerto Rican Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, which has roiled some Puerto Rican voters.
"In looking at Justice Sotomayor, my view was that her philosophy is quite different than my own, and that's the reason why I would not support her as a justice for the Supreme Court," Romney said. "Had I been in the Senate - I was not in the Senate - I would be happy to have a justice of Puerto Rican descent or a Puerto Rican individual on the Supreme Court, but they would have to share my judicial philosophy. That comes first."