- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2011

MIAMI — President Barack Obama is making a rare presidential visit to Puerto Rico, the U.S. island territory, with a firm eye on Puerto Ricans back on the mainland who could help him win at least one key state during his re-election campaign next year.

About 4.6 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland, boosting a fast-growing Hispanic population that is becoming increasingly important in American politics.

The first official visit to the island by a president in 50 years caps a two-day trip that took Obama to two crucial political battlegrounds — North Carolina and Florida — as he solidified his political outreach and defended his economic record against sweeping attacks from potential Republican foes.

Addressing donors at three Miami fundraisers Monday evening, Obama hit a recurrent theme: “Big changes don’t happen overnight” and, “The reason we’re here today is because our work is not done.”

By venturing into Puerto Rico, Obama is courting a population that is concentrated in the New York region but that also has established a foothold in Florida, where about 841,000 Puerto Ricans live, according to the 2010 census. Puerto Ricans living on the island can only vote in presidential primaries.

While there, Obama will make brief remarks upon arrival in San Juan, meet with the island’s Republican governor, Luis Fortuno, and attend another fundraiser.

About 20 pro-independence demonstrators kept an all-night vigil at a colonial fort in San Juan to protest Obama’s visit. They want the release of three Puerto Rican nationalists imprisoned in the U.S.

By setting foot on the island, Obama inevitably also steps into the decades-old debate over its status as a territory. Fortuno supports statehood. Others prefer the existing status, while a small but vocal minority in Puerto Rico favors independence. Island residents have voted consistently to maintain ties to the U.S.

While administration officials said the visit gives Obama a chance to interact with Puerto Ricans, he was only spending about five hours on the island.

Obama has stayed neutral on the status question and supports a referendum to resolve it. In an interview with The Associated Press, Fortuno said he intends for the question to be put to the island’s voters before his term ends in December 2012.

That schedule follows a timetable proposed by a presidential task force. If the island’s political leaders can’t agree on a process, however, the president and Congress could then weigh in with legislation setting down requirements on how to resolve Puerto Rico’s status.

The recession hit Puerto Rico harder than the mainland, with unemployment rising to nearly 17 percent. It had dropped to 16.2 percent in April.

Fortuno said the economy is the biggest issue among islanders. And because they are U.S. citizens, immigration is not as potent a political subject as it is with other Hispanic groups.

Still, he said, “Many issues cut across the different subgroups within the Hispanic community.”

The governor said he welcomed the attention his island is getting and credited a growing regard among politicians for the Hispanic vote.

“There is a heightened level of awareness about the importance of the Latino vote that hadn’t existed for a while,” he said.

He noted that both Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton courted the island during their intense contest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

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