* 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
(Adds background, quotes on immigration)
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 he has neglected Latin America
since taking office in 2009 to focus instead on hot spots like
Afghanistan, Libya and the Middle East.
Obama needs the support of Latino voters to win key states
like Arizona, Colorado and Florida in the Nov. 6 vote. He will
stop in Florida, whose large Hispanic population may be pivotal
to his prospects, on the way to the summit on Friday to talk up
trade opportunities with Latin America.
Though the Democratic president is polling well ahead of
Republicans with Latino voters, many have been disappointed by
his failure to deliver on a campaign promise for immigration
reform and by record deportation numbers during his presidency.
The Obama administration's push to deepen economic ties with
Asia has further frustrated many Hispanics who would have liked
the Obama White House to pay more attention to Latin America.
"It makes it seem as if it doesn't have a focus for the
Americas," said Stephen Johnson of 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. He will also go to Mexico in June for a
Group of 20 leaders' summit.
In Cartagena, Obama is expected to come under pressure to
lift Washington's embargo on Cuba and rethink the war on drugs,
both issues he is unlikely to delve into with his re-election
campaign in full swing.
The president will seek instead to emphasize commercial ties
that could sprout from U.S. trade deals with Colombia and Panama
and potential energy projects with Brazil and elsewhere that
could help boost hiring in the United States.
Senior White House aide Ben Rhodes said Obama would also
stress the family and linguistic ties that connect the United
States and Latin America on the three-day, two-night trip.
Past U.S. presidents have also visited Colombia but Obama
will be the first to stay there overnight, a nod to improved
security in the country that has made gains against drug and
Rhodes said that although Obama has focused a great deal of
attention on "trouble spots" like Afghanistan, the president
recognized "there is a unique quality of the relationship we
have with the Americas" to build on.
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.
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 his Friday stop at the port of Tampa - a gateway for
U.S. exports to Mexico, Brazil and Argentina - Obama will lay
out his election-year case for closer economic engagement with
Christine Sierra, a professor of political science at the
University of New Mexico, said the speech would help underline
Obama's message that increased trade can help the region prosper
and also benefit U.S. businesses.
"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.
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 called for tougher border security in
their campaign appearances.
Romney, whose bid for the Republican nomination was
basically secured when rival Rick Santorum quit the race this
week, has said he supports "self-deportation" of illegal
immigrants rather than having the government round people up.
Cecilia Munoz, director of domestic policy at the White
House, told a conference on Thursday that immigration reform was
something Obama was committed to, blaming Congress for the lack
of action on the issue Hispanics care deeply about.
"It remains a priority for this president," she said.
(For more coverage of the Summit of the Americas click on
, for more coverage of the U.S. presidential
campaign click on )
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Vicki Allen)