Air Force Campaign One to Puerto Rico

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Puerto Ricans are a rock-solid Democratic voting bloc, and President Barack Obama is giving them a big hug by completing this week’s US Air Force One swing state tour of Florida and North Carolina with a Tuesday stop-off on the island.

The trip is the first presidential fly-in since 1961. Obama is slated to attend a Democratic National Committee fundraiser there that night, but the White House’s announcement made sure to mention the March 2009 report by the President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status.

The report urges the president, Congress, as well as Puerto Rico’s government and population, to “work to ensure that Puerto Ricans are able to express their will about status options and have that will acted upon by the end of 2012 or soon thereafter.”

But the status report is a sideshow because the president needs a big turnout from Puerto Ricans in Florida if he is to win in 2012.

A significant number of Puerto Rican voters live in states, such as New York and Illinois, that Obama will likely win in 2012. But many also live in must-win Florida, and all are part of the burgeoning Hispanic community that is taking a central role in Obama’s campaign strategy.

The emerging strategy calls for a much-increased turnout among Hispanics to offset Obama’s declining support among white voters in economically distressed areas, such as Ohio. Obama’s election officials have said they hope that increased Latino turnout will allow them to win Virginia and North Carolina.

To spur this turnout, Obama’s campaign officials plan to register many Latino voters, partner with Hispanic media personalities to boost enthusiasm, and use surrogates and the Spanish-language media to paint Republicans as anti-Latino racists.

This week, the Obama campaign announced the hiring of Katherine Archuleta, an experienced Colorado-based Latina political operative, to run the political side of the reelection effort.

There’s much potential for gain, because only 29.6% of eligible Puerto Rican-origin Latinos voted during the 2010 election, according to an April 2011 report by the Pew Research Center. At least 5 percent of Florida’s eligible voters are Puerto Ricans.

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GOP activists are skeptical about this strategy, in part, because GOP Hispanics won statewide races in Florida, Nevada and New Mexico, but also because low GOP turnout in 2008 was critical to Obama’s victories in North Carolina and Virginia.

In 2012, the ginned-up GOP base and the painful economic recession will likely give the GOP candidate a solid advantage in those states, as well as traditional swing-voting states such as Ohio and Florida. A June 8 memo from Rick Wiley, the political director at the Republican National Committee, noted that Republicans have made sweeping midterm election gains in nine states Obama that won in 2008.

“Republicans have proven every one of these states is winnable for our 2012 nominee,” Wiley said in the memo. “President Obama will be playing defense on a very wide playing field, and all of the new Republican players elected since Obama’s inauguration will be standing in his way.”

The GOP will also push its own Hispanic outreach campaign in the hope of driving Obama’s share of the Hispanic vote below 65 percent.

Before visiting Puerto Rico, the president will take Air Force One to Durham, N.C., on Monday to meet with his Jobs and Competitiveness Council at Cree Inc., a company that is developing new-generation lights.

That evening, he’ll take the modified Boeing 747 down to Miami to attend two fundraisers. The aircraft will not stay overnight in Miami, but will jet to Puerto Rico for a Tuesday landing.

There’s little press attention being given to the task force report on Puerto Rico’s status, partly because there’s little prospect the recommendations will be have any impact. Even if Congress approved the cumbersome referendum process, Puerto Ricans may decide not give up their favorable relationship with the US.

Many Democrats want Puerto Ricans to vote for statehood, in part, because it would likely result in two new Democratic senators and a myriad new opportunities for local political activists.