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.
Both candidates have visited the island in an attempt to strengthen their connection to Puerto Ricans on the mainland. In June 2011, Obama made the first official state visit to Puerto Rico by a president since John F. Kennedy in 1961. Unlike John McCain in 2008, Romney campaigned there in March, touring with the island's popular Republican leader, Gov. Luis Fortuno.
Obama and Romney have also expressed support for the November referendum in which Puerto Ricans could decide to push for statehood after more than a century as an American territory and commonwealth. Romney's endorsement specifically for statehood came after GOP supporters of statehood walked out of a Republican debate in Florida in February when Romney and other candidates ignored a question about the issue.
In the I-4 corridor, about half the self-identified 300,000 Hispanic voters are Democrats, one-fourth are Republicans and the rest are mostly independents.
As with most Hispanics nationwide, Puerto Ricans here tend to support the president's economic and health care policies. But Romney has support from Florida's Puerto Rican business community, and Republicans are walking the neighborhoods in Osceola County on his behalf. Obama won the county handily in 2008, but unemployment in Metro Orlando among Hispanics was above 16 percent in 2011, according to the Economic Policy Institute — nearly double the national and state averages.
Romney headquartered his state Hispanic outreach in neighboring Orlando, and Republicans have been backing local candidates like Melendez, one of two GOP Puerto Ricans running for the House in the 9th District. Local Democrats are backing former Rep. Alan Grayson, a white liberal firebrand who lost his last election.
Still, the Obama campaign invested heavily in community outreach in 2008 and never left. Obama earned added points for nominating the first Latina to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor. She grew up in the Bronx, but her parents hail from the island. Obama also successfully appointed a Puerto Rican-born ambassador, despite initial strong opposition from Senate Republicans, including Rubio.
Talk show host Suarez, a Republican, said Obama's decision in June to allow many young illegal immigrants to remain and work in the United States has also resonated with Puerto Ricans.
"There is not a Puerto Rican family in the U.S. who doesn't have someone who is married to a Dominican, an Argentinian or a Mexican who may have someone in their family affected by that decision," Suarez said. "We may not be sure about the economic issues and what the answers are. But what we are sure of is that they aren't deporting my cousin."
Rodriguez said he wants to support Romney but is bothered by his immigration stance and his opposition to Sotomayor, whom Rodriguez called a "great American story."
In an interview in Puerto Rico in March, the former Massachusetts governor described the justice as "an activist, liberal jurist," adding, "I prefer people who follow the Constitution."
It took only minutes before his comments were picked up and replayed across central Florida.
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider contributed to this report.
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