TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- President Barack Obama, determined to connect his upcoming Latin American travels to voters back home, told port workers in Florida that he was headed to Colombia to find more customers for U.S. companies to help fuel the broader economic recovery at home.
Obama toured the Tampa Bay port Friday on the first leg of a weekend trip to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering that the president said would allow him to connect the needs of U.S. workers with trade opportunities in a growing region.
"While I'm in Colombia talking with other leaders, I'm going to be thinking about you," Obama told workers after touring a sprawling concrete port ringed by containers and three large cranes. "I want us selling stuff, and I want us putting more Americans back to work."
The president's stop in Tampa on Friday was driven not just by Florida's trade connections to the region south of its borders. Obama, in an election year, also wanted to stop in a politically important state to drive home the point that his work at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia would have ramifications in the U.S.
The short visit also provided an image the White House desires: Obama with his shirt sleeves rolled up, surrounded by cranes and shipping containers, before he ventured out of the country.
"A lot of the countries in this region are on the rise. In Latin America alone, over the past decade, tens of millions of people have stepped out of poverty and into the middle class. So they're now in a position to start buying American products," Obama said.
"That means they've got more money to spend, and we want them spending money on American-made goods, so that American businesses can put more Americans back to work."
It was Obama's second trip to Florida this week. The state is expected to be one of the chief election battlegrounds as Obama gears up to face Republican Mitt Romney.
Outside Central and South America, Obama's three-day visit was expected to be closely watched by Latinos, a key voting group in the U.S. With more than 50 million U.S. Hispanics — 21 million of them eligible voters, Obama has an important audience that is especially vital in an election year.
During the brief detour, Obama outlined an initiative that helps small businesses, including those owned by Latinos, get financing and connect with foreign buyers interested in their products. The president has set a goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2014.
The White House pointed to the area's history of trade with Latin America, saying more than 40 percent of total exports from the Port of Tampa are destined for countries in Latin America.
Such outreach to the U.S.'s southern neighborhood is not unique to Obama. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush before him also "understood that the right Latin American policies and relations could match the right domestic relations toward Latinos and immigrants," said Nelson Cunningham, who served in the Clinton White House as a special adviser on Western Hemisphere affairs.
Obama will arrive in Colombia with larger and more immediate foreign policy entanglements facing him, including North Korea's failed launch of a long-range rocket Thursday, a budding though fragile truce in Syria, and international talks in Turkey over Iran's nuclear program.
Indeed, Obama had a similar experience last year, traveling to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, a trip overshadowed by the U.S. bombing of Libya as part of an international military campaign to remove Moammar Gadhafi.
Obama was making his fourth trip to the region, with a fifth visit upcoming in June, when he is scheduled to attend a Group of 20 session in Mexico. What's more, the past two weeks in Washington featured a joint meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a separate meeting this week with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Polls show that a vast majority of Latino voters support Obama, who carried 67 percent of the Latino vote over Republican John McCain in 2008. But Obama's deportation policies and lack of progress on changing immigration laws have softened his support, and Obama aides are determined to re-energize that voting bloc in time for the November election.
In toss-up states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada, the Latino vote could be essential.
"If you look at where Latino voters exist now in the United States, they are in great numbers in a lot of the states that are going to be bellwethers," said Cunningham, now managing partner of McLarty Associates, an international advisory firm.
Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a think tank that studies U.S. Latino voters and relations with Latin America, pointed out there are 50,000 Colombian immigrants in Florida alone, a bloc with a vested interest in Obama's trip that could help decide an election in a close contest.
If Hispanics are paying attention to Obama's trip, so are many in the business community who have been pressing the administration to expand trade. They will be keeping a close watch on whether Obama will announce that Colombia has met the labor rights conditions that were required under a free trade agreement approved by Congress and signed by Obama last year.
Obama is under pressure from U.S. labor leaders to put off that announcement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has sent a delegation to Cartagena to participate in a regional CEOs summit on Saturday, is pushing Obama to implement the trade deal.
White House officials this week sidestepped questions about what the president might do, but they did note that he will be accompanied by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a sign that the issue will not be far from his mind.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Cartagena, Colombia, contributed to this report.
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