(Repeats without changes to text or headline)
* 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 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
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
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)