WASHINGTON (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 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 November 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 guerrilla violence.
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, totalling 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 Latin America.
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.
Editing by Mary Milliken and Vicki Allen