RPT-Obama looks to Americas summit to lift Latino support

Thu Apr 12, 2012 6:59am EDT

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* Focus on Latin America could help reassure Hispanic voters

* To focus on election themes like job growth

* Tries to fight impression he has downplayed role in region

By Laura MacInnis and Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama takes his re-election campaign to Colombia this weekend, using the Summit of the Americas as a platform to tout his trade record and convince millions of Hispanic voters back home he cares about the region.

Spending time with leaders in Cartagena, Colombia is a way for Obama to fight an impression of neglect toward Latin America as he kept his foreign policy focus on hot spots like Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Obama needs the support of Latino voters to win key states in the Nov. 6 election such as Arizona and Colorado, along with Florida, where he will stop en route to the summit to talk up trade opportunities with Latin America.

Though the Democratic president enjoys a strong edge over Republicans with Latino voters, many in the Hispanic community are disappointed by his failure to deliver on a campaign promise for immigration reform and by record deportation numbers during his presidency.

The administration's heavy focus on places like Afghanistan and a push to deepen economic ties with Asia have further frustrated many who would have liked the Obama White House to pay more attention to, and invest more in, Latin America.

"It makes it seem as if it doesn't have a focus for the Americas," said Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The Colombia visit will be Obama's fourth trip to Latin America as president, and he also heads to Mexico in June for a Group of 20 leaders' summit.

Obama will sidestep calls from regional leaders for him to lift Washington's embargo on Cuba and rethink the war on drugs, focusing instead on commercial ties that could grow as a result of U.S. trade deals with Colombia and Panama and potential energy projects with Brazil.

Senior White House aide Ben Rhodes said Obama would also emphasize the family and linguistic ties that connect the United States and Latin America on the three-day, two-night trip.

Rhodes said that although Obama has focused a great deal of time in office on "trouble spots" like Afghanistan, the president recognized "there is a unique quality of the relationship we have with the Americas" to build on.

FAST-GROWING VOTING BLOC

Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing minority in the United States, totaling more than 50 million people.

About 22 million are eligible to vote in November, when Obama is expected to face off against Mitt Romney, a Republican who took a hard line on immigration to compete in the primaries and who lags far behind in polls among Hispanic voters.

"Gaining the Hispanic vote is so important (to Obama) in a few critical states," said Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University. "He's got to do his utmost to show not only his interest (in Latin America), but his presidential stature," he said.

Latinos supported Obama, the first African-American U.S. president, by a two-to-one margin in 2008, helping him beat Republican John McCain in closely fought states including Virginia, North Carolina and Nevada.

During the stop on Friday in Florida, a pivotal state for November with a large Latino population, Obama will lay out his election-year case for closer economic engagement with Latin America.

Christine Sierra, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, said the speech at the port of Tampa - a gateway for U.S. exports to Mexico, Brazil and Argentina - would help underline Obama's message that increased trade can help the region prosper and also boost U.S. jobs.

"He is going to draw on the gateway to Latin America (idea). He's appealing to business interests, which can also include the conservative Republican Cuban-Americans," she said, saying "Latinos are essential" to ensuring a November win in Florida.

TRADE MESSAGE CUTS BOTH WAYS

But Wayne said the message on trade could have a mixed impact on core Democratic voters the president hopes to reach.

Trade pacts with Colombia and other countries have been greeted with wariness by union voters, a key Democratic constituency. Some U.S. workers worry that jobs growth in Latin America could come at the expense of jobs at home. "It does cut both ways," Wayne said.

Although Obama has said the comprehensive immigration reforms he promised in 2008 would have to wait for a second term, he may use the Tampa stop to contrast his vision with that of Republicans, who have emphasized deportation and a crackdown on border security in their campaign appearances.

Romney, whose bid for the Republican nomination is practically secured after rival Rick Santorum quit the race this week, said in January he supported "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants rather than having the government round people up. (Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)

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