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Obama visits Puerto Rico. Is it the path to taking Florida in 2012?

At the end of what looks like a campaign swing Tuesday, Obama is visiting Puerto Rico, the first sitting president to do so since JFK. Will it help him with mainland Hispanic voters in 2012?

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“This is historic, commemorating President Kennedy’s visit 50 years ago,” says Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs. “But the visit itself is part of a larger effort,” she adds, noting that it is the administration’s work “over all” that has the greatest potential for Puerto Rico.

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In particular, Obama expanded a presidential task force on Puerto Rico’s political status created by President Clinton in 2000 to take up the island’s economic issues. That task force, co-chaired by Ms. Muñoz and Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli, issued a report in March that highlights the island’s potential for green energy development.

Obama also directed federal agencies to ramp up efforts to include Puerto Rico in their activities, Muñoz says. As one example, the Commerce Department on Wednesday will hold a business and trade conference on opportunities on the island, she says.

But it is the “status issue” that has dominated Puerto Rico’s relations with the mainland for decades. Obama is not expected to dwell on the topic, if he mentions it at all publicly, although aides say it is likely to come up in his meeting with Gov. Luis Fortuño, a Republican who backs statehood.

The percentage of island residents favoring statehood over other permanent status options – including independence or maintaining the actual commonwealth arrangement – inched up in plebiscites in past years, with some recent polls showing statehood now favored by a majority. Governor Fortuño says he plans to hold a vote before leaving office at the end of 2012.

And just in case that hasn’t happened by that date, the Justice Department’s Mr. Perrelli notes that the March task force report calls on the president and Congress to step in and come up with legislation paving the way for a vote on Puerto Rico’s status.

But even that initiative might, if undertaken, come across to some as suspiciously political. The University of Miami’s Dr. Purcell says such a move from Washington could be part of a Democratic Party “game plan” to bring in another reliably Democratic state.

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