President Barack Obama is scheduled to set foot in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, the first time a sitting president will do so in nearly five decades, a push to court Boricuas on the mainland for his 2012 re-election campaign.
About 4.6 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland, boosting a fast-growing Hispanic population that is becoming increasingly important in American politics.
The visit caps a two-day trip that took Obama to two crucial political battlegrounds — North Carolina and Florida — as he solidified his political outreach while defending his economic record against sweeping attacks from potential Republican foes.
Addressing donors at three Miami fundraising events Monday evening, Obama hit on a recurrent theme: "Big changes don't happen overnight" and "The reason we're here today is because our work is not done."
By venturing into Puerto Rico, Obama is courting a population that is concentrated in the New York region but which also has established a foothold in Florida, where about 841,000 Puerto Ricans live, according to the 2010 census.
While there, Obama will make brief remarks upon his arrival, meet the island's Republican governor, Luis Fortuño, and attend a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
In setting foot on the island, Obama inevitably also steps into its ongoing debate over its status as a territory. Fortuño supports statehood for Puerto Rico. Others prefer the existing status, while still others call for full independence.
While administration officials said the visit gives Obama a chance to interact with Puerto Rico's citizens, the president plans to spend only a few hours on the island.
Obama has stayed neutral on the status issue, a nettlesome issue in Puerto Rico for decades. Obama supports a referendum to decide the issue. In an interview with The Associated Press, Fortuño said he intends for the question to be put to the island's voters before his term ends in December 2012.
That schedule follows a timetable proposed by a presidential task force. If the island's political leaders can't agree on a process, however, the president and Congress then could weigh in with legislation setting down requirements on how to resolve Puerto Rico's status.
The recession hit Puerto Rico harder than the mainland United States, with unemployment rising to nearly 17 percent. It had dropped to 16.2 percent in April.
Fortuño said the economy is the biggest issue among islanders. And because they are U.S. citizens, immigration is not as potent a political subject as it is with other Hispanic groups.
Still, he said, "Many issues cut across the different subgroups within the Hispanic community."
He said he welcomed the attention his island was getting and credited a growing regard among politicians for the Hispanic vote.
"There is a heightened level of awareness about the importance of the Latino vote that hadn't existed for a while," he said.
He noted that both Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton courted the island during their intense contest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the Republican candidates would do the same next year," he said.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.