- The Washington Times
Sunday, June 12, 2011

In a trip heavy with implications for 2012, President Obama will visit Puerto Rico on Tuesday with an eye toward impressing enfranchised Puerto Ricans on the mainland U.S.

The White House is billing Mr. Obama’s trip as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the last official visit to Puerto Rico by a sitting president, President Kennedy in 1961. (Presidents Johnson and Ford made brief, unofficial trips to the island).

But Mr. Obama’s visit also underscores Puerto Rico’s growing influence on electoral politics.

Although the territory’s residents, who are U.S. citizens, cannot vote in presidential general elections, there are 4.6 million people of Puerto Rican descent in the U.S. who can vote. About 850,000 Puerto Ricans live in the battleground state of Florida, and the swing state of Pennsylvania now counts Hispanics as more than 5 percent of potential voters.

“This trip is a very political trip, for those two states in particular,” said Matt Barreto, a pollster on Hispanic issues and a political science professor at the University of Washington. “The population in central Florida has been growing rapidly, and Pennsylvania has a very big Puerto Rican population. It’s a symbolic step for him to say, ‘I care about the island of Puerto Rico.’ “

But others say Mr. Obama needs to do more than simply to appeal to Puerto Rican pride on this visit. Jamie Miller, a Republican strategist based in Sarasota, Fla., said Puerto Ricans in his state are concerned about the lack of jobs like everyone else.

“I don’t think they’re going to fall for just one parlor trick to garner their votes,” Mr. Miller said. “This election is going to be about jobs. This president has been a dismal failure in creating private-sector jobs.”

Mr. Obama’s visit could have an impact especially in the Orlando, Fla., region, where many Puerto Ricans have settled. The Democrat-leaning bloc of voters has gained enough numbers and clout in recent years to rival the Cuban-American community in South Florida, which traditionally votes Republican.

Analysts say Cuban-Americans typically turn out to vote in larger percentages, and one concern for Democrats is to register more Puerto Rican-Americans to vote. The Obama campaign is ramping up efforts to do that.

Mr. Obama campaigned in Puerto Rico in the 2008 Democratic primary (islanders can vote in presidential primaries, which are run by the two parties), but he lost there to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. At the time, Mr. Obama promised to return if he won the presidency. He has expressed the desire to strengthen economic ties with the island, where the recession hit especially hard. Puerto Rico has been awarded more than $2.6 billion in stimulus money, nearly all of it in grants.

While demonstrating his concern for Puerto Rico this week, Mr. Obama likely will avoid wading too deeply into the island’s politics. The territory’s political status is always a touchy subject.

The White House Task Force on Puerto Rico in March endorsed a two-phase referendum for self-determination by islanders, without setting a firm timetable.

The territory is deeply divided on the issue. The president of Puerto Rico’s Independence Party, Fernando Martin, called the report “denigrating.” Gov. Luis Fortuno, a Republican, said the option of retaining Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status is not viable. An opposition candidate for governor likened Puerto Rico’s colonial status to slavery.

Puerto Rico came under U.S. control after the 1898 Spanish-American War, and its residents were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917. Since 1952, it has been a self-governing territory. Residents of the island don’t pay federal income taxes, and their delegate to Congress, Pedro R. Pierluisi, a Democrat, cannot vote on the floor.

The House in April 2010 voted to give Puerto Rico a nonbinding vote on its status, but only after opponents secured a change that allows a second vote to include the option of keeping commonwealth status. The others choices on the ballot would be statehood, full independence or sovereignty that includes an association with the U.S.

The president will begin his two-day trip Monday with a visit to Durham, N.C., where he will meet with his Jobs and Competitiveness Council and tour a lighting-manufacturing company. Inundated with weak economic news in the past month, the administration has been holding numerous events to show the president is still looking for ways to create jobs.

North Carolina is also important to Mr. Obama’s re-election bid. He won the state in 2008 by only about 14,000 votes. The Democratic National Convention will be held in Charlotte in 2012, and the state Republican Party has been serving notice in cable-TV ads in the past week that it won’t cede the state to the Democrats.

“In 2008, we fell for his hope and change,” says the ad airing in the Raleigh-Durham television market. “And now he’s back, asking us to believe him again.”

The spot, titled “Broken Promises,” urges voters to “take back North Carolina.”

From North Carolina, Mr. Obama will fly to Miami for a fundraiser later Monday. He will spend the night in Florida before heading to Puerto Rico.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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