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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Cheering crowds in the steamy tropical heat are expected Tuesday when President Barack Obama makes a rare presidential visit to Puerto Rico.

But the nearly 4 million U.S. citizens who live on the island and can’t vote in the general election aren’t really the point.

Organizers are hoping this trip, the first in decades by a president to the U.S. Caribbean territory, will generate good will on the mainland, particularly in Florida, where the fast-growing Hispanic population will be essential to Obama’s re-election effort in 2012.

“The past decade has witnessed a staggering growth in the Puerto Rican community,” said Andres W. Lopez, a member of the Democratic Central Committee who helped organize the visit. “They have become the quintessential battleground community in the nation’s battleground state.”

There are almost a million more Puerto Ricans on the mainland than on the island. They long had been concentrated in the Northeast, but the 2010 census shows that Florida is in second place, with about 841,000, mostly in the Orlando area. These transplants tend to be younger and more educated than their counterparts in established communities in places such as Hartford, Conn., and New York. As more recent arrivals they also tend to have closer ties to family back home.

Democrats see the Puerto Ricans in Florida as a potential counterbalance to the larger, traditionally Republican Cuban-American community in a state Obama needs badly to win a second term.

That’s where this trip comes in.

“I am sure they will be happy about this,” said Pedro Pierluisi, the island’s nonvoting representative in Congress, who has been working to generate for support for Obama on the mainland. “We have lots of Puerto Ricans in central Florida and I know they keep close eyes on Puerto Rico.”

Reaching out to Puerto Ricans is part of a broader effort to court Hispanics, who accounted for more than half the U.S. population increase over the past decade and now number about 50 million. It’s hardly a uniform community, but there are “shared issues” of concern that include support for education, and social services, said Louis DeSipio, a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

The number of people of Puerto Rican descent, the second largest Hispanic group in the U.S. after Mexicans, grew by 36 percent over the past decade to 4.6 million, according the census. The island’s population fell by 2 percent during that time as people fled a dismal economy.

Puerto Ricans tend to be less interested in immigration overhaul because they are U.S. citizens and can move freely back and forth between the island and the mainland, but as migrants who often need to learn to speak English and face other challenges they have similar experiences, said DeSipio, chairman of Chicano-Latino Studies at the California school.

“To the extent that the president talks about issues of bringing Puerto Ricans into the U.S. mainstream that will certainly resonate with other Latino communities and immigrant communities generally,” he said.
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