By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ, Associated Press
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Retired police officer Hector Rodriguez is a self-described fiscal conservative and a military hawk, with one son in the Army and another in the Coast Guard. When it comes to social issues, though, the longtime Republican is moderate enough to have cast votes for Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
A native of Puerto Rico, Rodriguez is undecided this go-round. He and like-minded Puerto Ricans living in the Interstate 4 corridor — a wide swath of central Florida where the majority of the state's Puerto Ricans live — are drawing unprecedented attention from the presidential campaigns.
"We're at a period of renaissance," said Rodriguez, who is running for city commissioner in Kissimmee, about 15 miles southeast of Walt Disney World. "Everybody wants our vote."
The new interest stems from a combination of factors: sheer growth in Florida's Puerto Rican population, an increase in civic involvement as Puerto Ricans become accustomed to the rough-and-tumble of state politics and a razor-close presidential contest in which Florida is playing a key role.
In the latest effort to woo a segment of the state's most independent voters, Obama campaigned Thursday in the Orlando area. Before his speech at Rollins College, his motorcade pulled off the highway in Orlando's Azalea Park neighborhood to stop at the Puerto Rican restaurant Lechonera El Barrio. Obama greeted diners and left with a $6 plate of pulled pork with rice and beans.
In Miami, pop star Marc Anthony, whose family is from Puerto Rico, opened a campaign office for the president in Little Havana.
Mitt Romney's Republican campaign is competing with Obama's Democratic effort to step up the outreach to the I-4 corridor. To counter the president's visit Thursday, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, campaigned for Romney in Orlando.
Both campaigns also are paying more attention than ever to the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico itself. Many in Florida still have family on the island, which will hold a referendum on its future Nov. 6, the day the rest of the nation chooses a president.
The number of Florida's Puerto Rican voters has doubled in the last decade to more than 860,000 — about 1 in 14 voters overall. Island transplants and retirees, like Rodriguez from New York, now make up 28 percent of the state's eligible Hispanic voters. That's second only to Cuban-Americans, who make up 32 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
For years Puerto Rican turnout has been far below that of Cuban-Americans. One big factor: Those in Puerto Rico, while American citizens, can't vote for president because the island isn't a state, and many new arrivals aren't familiar with mainland — and more particularly Florida — politics.
Orlando radio talk show host and attorney Tony Suarez believes that's changing.
A decade ago, when he won a seat in the Florida Legislature, Suarez could count on one hand the number of fellow Puerto Ricans elected statewide. This year, there are at least a dozen Puerto Rican officials and candidates. Last May, more than 200 candidates, business and community leaders schmoozed during the third annual summit on Puerto Rican Affairs in Orlando.
Voter turnout by Florida Puerto Ricans was 55 percent in 2008, up from 47 percent in 2004, and well above the average nationwide for Puerto Rican voters, according to Pew. That's still below the Cuban-American turnout of 70 percent but better than the Hispanic national average.
"It's a different game now," Suarez said.
Julius Melendez is part of it. A combat medic with the National Guard, he is a school board member and a Republican candidate for the newly created 9th Congressional District in Osceola County, where Hispanics — most of them are Puerto Ricans — make up 41 percent of the electorate.
"Puerto Ricans are starting to become part of the national dialogue," said Melendez, who talks passionately about small-business opportunities and health care issues, as well as the future of the island his father left decades ago.
Veteran Democratic politician Jimmy Morales, whose father was from Puerto Rico, is even eying a run for governor in 2014.
"The days where a presidential candidate could afford to ignore the Puerto Rican community are long gone — respect and attention are the new normal," said Andres W. Lopez, an attorney from the island and an Obama campaign adviser.