President Obama Rededicates Himself on Puerto Rico Trip Aimed at Courting Latinos, Raising Campaign Cash

Puerto Ricans vote and donate predominantly Democratic.

ByDevin Dwyer
June 13, 2011, 10:28 PM

June 14, 2011 -- Arriving in Puerto Rico today on the first official visit by a sitting U.S. president in five decades, President Obama reminded island residents of his campaign pledge to make room for them in his presidency.

"When I ran for president, I promised to include Puerto Rico not just on my itinerary, but also in my vision of where our country needs to go," Obama told a cheering crowd of supporters during a speech in San Juan. "And I am proud to say that we've kept that promise, too."

The trip is also meant to curry favor among mainland U.S. Latinos and raise some campaign cash.

While none of the island's nearly 4 million U.S. citizens can vote in the 2012 general election, the president knows they have some political sway, both with their pocketbooks and through ties to family members who have migrated to the states where they can vote.

Puerto Ricans contributed $1.7 million to federal political candidates and committees during the 2010 midterm elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with 80 percent of the funds benefiting Democrats.

In the 2008 election cycle, Puerto Ricans gave roughly $4 million in itemized federal political donations, mostly to Democrats, including at least $354,000 to then-candidate Obama, the Center found.

Obama was scheduled to hold one fundraiser during his day-long visit to the island today. He was also expected to commemorate President John F. Kennedy's official presidential visit in 1961 and meet with Puerto Rico's Republican Gov. Luis Fortuno.

But it is the symbolism of the trip that holds the greatest significance for Obama and Democrats, generating goodwill with the booming Puerto Rican population living inside the United States, particularly Florida, where about 850,000 Puerto Ricans can cast presidential ballots next fall.

"They were the swing voters in '04, '06, '08 and they will do it again," said Fortuno, a Republican. "They will look at the candidates and see what commitment they got, not just to the Puerto Rican community but to also the Hispanic community."

And, Fortuno conceded, the president understands that "for the Hispanic community, 50 percent of the game is showing up, and he [Obama] is showing up."

The effort comes as part of a broader micro-targeting strategy by the Obama campaign to drive turnout among Latinos and other groups deemed essential to helping win the president a second term. But there are signs it will be an uphill climb.

"The president obviously sees his visit to Puerto Rico as part of a larger Latino voter outreach strategy for 2012," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a leading member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

"But one of the most important concrete steps he can take to show Latino voters he is on their side is to stop deporting DREAM Act students," the Democrat said, referring to a niche group of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally by their parents, often at a young age.

Congressional Democrats failed to pass the DREAM Act, or any legislation that would address the immigration system, during Obama's first two years in office.

"The pressure on Obama is rising," said Laurie Ignacio of, an online Latino advocacy group. "Latinos across the country need action ... not more speeches."

Advocates also say Latinos, the nation's fastest growing voting bloc, remain acutely aware of the lack of progress on job creation and growth of the economy with unemployment among the group at 11 percent, well above the national average.

Republican Party leaders see an opening with Latinos and insist their economic and social policies are finding growing appeal. The recent election of Latino Republican governors in New Mexico and Nevada, and of Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida are signs of a trend, many conservative pundits say.

"The issue in 2012 for Latinos is going to be weighing, on the one hand, you haven't seen a lot of progress on the economy or other issues from Democrats and Obama, while on the other hand there's a great deal of antagonism from the right towards immigrants," said Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza, a nonpartisan Latino advocacy group.

Obama Courts Latino Voters

"The Obama campaign clearly understands that Latinos are an important part of a victory equation, and this is a good sign," she said. "But, hopefully, voices within the campaign -- Latino and otherwise -- are also cognizant of the fact that it cannot be outreach and symbolism alone. There has to be some real policy decisions and real policy results."

Obama last week became the first presidential candidate to name a Latina as political director of a national campaign.

Katherine Archuleta, chief of staff for Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, also hails from Colorado, a key state for Obama's re-election bid with a relatively high number of eligible Latino voters.

"Her understanding of the issues of the West are important, and the understanding in the Latino community is important as well," Interior Secretary and former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar told the Denver Post of Archuleta.

A campaign aide said Archuleta will be moving to Chicago, where she'll work closely with campaign manager Jim Messina and other top advisers to, among other things, continue to try and bolster Obama's appeal among Latinos.

ABC News' Matt Gutman contributed to this report.

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