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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