President Barack Obama today makes the first official presidential stop in Puerto Rico in a half- century with a message aimed more at an audience on the U.S. mainland.
The last such visit was in December 1961 by then-President John F. Kennedy against the backdrop of the Cold War and the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Obama’s trip comes as he is gearing up for a 2012 re-election campaign in which Hispanic turnout may help decide swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Indiana, all of which he won in 2008.
“It’s almost a coming-out party on the growing importance of Puerto Ricans and the Puerto Rican population in the United States,” said Dario Moreno, professor of political science at Florida International University in Miami. “I think the visit will certainly help Obama in Florida.”
With the U.S. recovery still unsteady and a jobless rate forecast by the administration to be an average of 8.6 percent in 2012, the Republican candidates vying for the party’s nomination are making Obama’s stewardship of the economy a main theme of their campaigns. Obama is girding for a close election contest, and Hispanic voters may provide crucial support in winning the electoral votes of states that are narrowly divided.
Obama arrives in Puerto Rico from Florida, where he was the featured speaker at three Democratic fundraisers last night in Miami. Obama won the state in 2008 by a margin of three percentage points. For 2012, Florida’s growing population will make it an even bigger prize; it now has 29 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to claim the White House, up from 27 in 2008.
Hispanic voters nationally favored Obama over Republican John McCain, 67 percent to 31 percent, in 2008, according to an analysis of exit polls by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. In Florida, where Hispanic voters backed incumbent Republican President George W. Bush in 2004, Obama won 57 percent of the vote.
Puerto Ricans comprise about 5 percent of Florida voters and one-third of Hispanic voters there, the second-largest group of Hispanic voters in the state behind Cuban-Americans, according to Moreno.
Obama campaigned in Puerto Rico during the Democratic nominating contest in 2008 and promised that he would come back as president. The island’s 3.7 million residents are U.S. citizens who can serve in the military and vote in party presidential primaries. While Puerto Ricans who reside on the island can’t vote in the general election, those of Puerto Rican descent living in the 50 states or the District of Columbia are eligible to cast ballots for president.
Puerto Rico’s governor, Republican Luis Fortuno, said in a telephone interview yesterday that Obama’s visit is a chance to remind Americans that Puerto Rico has been a territory since 1898 and to focus Obama’s attention on some of the biggest challenges.
Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate in April was 16.4 percent, higher than any state. In addition, Fortuno said increased U.S.- Mexico border enforcement has shifted drug traffickers toward Puerto Rico.
Also on the agenda is Puerto Rico’s status. An Obama task force has recommended that Puerto Ricans vote by the end of next year on whether to remain a U.S. territory or become independent, and whether to pursue statehood or another option.
Fortuno said he recognizes that Florida politics also are in play; more than 800,000 Puerto Ricans are living in the state and are concentrated in central Florida, an area he described as “up for grabs.”
“That area determines who carries Florida,” he said.
He said he expects Obama’s Republican challengers to court Puerto Ricans as well.
“It’s the kind of move I would presume Democrats and Republicans will continue to make,” he said. “The Hispanic community is larger every day and plays a larger role in determining the final outcome in presidential elections.
‘‘We are 50 million strong in the nation,’’ Fortuno said. ‘‘Showing up is half of the game in politics.’’
Immigration activists, including Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, are using Obama’s visit to renew calls for expanded immigration rights for undocumented people, including foreign-born residents living in Puerto Rico. Gutierrez said in a statement Monday that Obama ‘‘obviously sees his visit to Puerto Rico as part of a larger Latino voter outreach strategy for 2012.’’
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