SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Wooing Hispanic voters back home, President Barack Obama kept his campaign pledge to become the first president since John F. Kennedy to make an official visit to this recession-battered U.S. territory. "The aspirations and the struggles on this island mirror those across America," Obama declared Tuesday.
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On a sweltering day, thousands crowded the main roads and waved flags as Obama's motorcade roared by. A huge banner filled eight stories of a building, featuring the images of Kennedy and Obama. "We are proud to be part of history," it said.
Puerto Ricans are an important component of the fast-growing Hispanic population in the U.S., now totaling 50 million, that Obama wants to mobilize in his re-election campaign. Even though he spent mere hours on the island, the visit was designed to lift the president's visibility and create goodwill in a territory known as a vacation destination but otherwise something of an afterthought in America.
Residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in presidential general elections — only in primaries — one of many factors that give rise to a sense of second-class citizenship among some here.Video: Obama: I’m committed to working for Puerto Rico
Reaching out to Puerto Ricans is part of a broader effort to court Hispanics, who accounted for more than half the U.S. population increase over the past decade. National exit polls showed that 67 percent of Latinos voted for Obama in 2008, compared with 31 percent for Arizona Sen. John McCain, but some Hispanics have become disillusioned with Obama because of his failure to deliver on promises to overhaul immigration policy.
Obama, who visited as a candidate in May 2008, sought to ensure his Puerto Rican listeners they were not forgotten by his administration.
In remarks at an arrival event at the airport in San Juan, Obama quickly turned to the decades-old debate about the island's status, which has some pushing for statehood or even independence. The president reaffirmed his support for a referendum in which island voters would resolve the matter for themselves, eliciting cheers when he said: "When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you."
The words could resonate not just here but with the millions of Puerto Rican voters on the mainland, including more than 800,000 in politically important Florida, where Obama stayed overnight Monday before flying here Tuesday morning. Democrats see the Puerto Ricans in Florida as a potential counterbalance to the larger, traditionally Republican Cuban-American community in a state Obama needs to win a second term.
About 4.6 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland.
Obama talked about his commitment to including Puerto Rico in his administration's initiatives, such as the health care bill, and praised Puerto Ricans' cultural achievements and contributions to American society and the military. The president singled out Dallas Mavericks player J.J. Barea, a celebrity here as a Puerto Rican athlete on a championship team.
"Every day, Boricuas help write the American story," the president said, using a term for Puerto Ricans. His feel-good message included references to Puerto Rican foods and sprinkled in a little Spanish.
The president spoke in front of American and Puerto Rican flags lined side by side. Then his motorcade took him through sunny streets lined with palm trees as he headed from the airport to a visit with the island's Republican governor, Luis Fortuno.
At the governor's mansion, La Fortaleza, Fortuno told Obama: "On behalf of the people of Puerto Rico we want to welcome you. I guess you saw a taste of it driving over here. We are proud to welcome you and we thank you for the visit."
"I cannot be more honored to be here," said the president, joking that he just wished he could jump in the inviting ocean.
As the president's motorcade approached, protesters with megaphones could be heard in the distance calling for "Independencia para Puerto Rico" — independence for Puerto Rico.
While administration officials touted the visit as giving Obama a chance to interact with Puerto Ricans, he spent less than five hours on the island. Part of that time he was in a closed Democratic National Committee fundraiser, but he also sat for interviews with Puerto Rican journalists sure to give his visit a big splash in island media despite its brevity.
And, the president made time to mix informally with residents, making an unannounced stop at a local lunch spot a couple of blocks from the beach. As customers snapped pictures with their cellphones, the president, in shirt sleeves, ordered the house specialty, a Medianoche sandwich — ham, pork and swiss with pickles and mustard on a sweet bread.Story: Romney's rivals hold their fire on front-runner
But even here Obama didn't escape the economic concerns that are his political sore spot heading into the 2012 elections. The recession hit Puerto Rico harder than the states, with unemployment rising to nearly 17 percent. It declined to 16.2 percent in April.
"In these challenging times, people on this island don't quit," Obama said in his speech. "We don't turn back. People in America don't quit. We don't turn back. We place our bets on entrepreneurs and on workers and on our families. We understand that there is strength in our diversity. We renew the American dream. We have done it before. We will do it again."
Fortuno said in an interview with The Associated Press that the economy is the biggest issue among islanders. Because they are U.S. citizens immigration is not as potent a political subject as it is with other Hispanic groups.
The governor said he welcomed the attention his island is getting. "There is a heightened level of awareness about the importance of the Latino vote that hadn't existed for a while," Fortuno said.
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