By Alister Bull
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Barack Obama paid Puerto Rico its first official U.S. presidential visit in 50 years on Tuesday, courting an important slice of Hispanic voters on the mainland who could help his re-election chances in 2012.
At an arrival ceremony in an aircraft hanger, Obama expressed support for an eventual decision by Puerto Ricans on the U.S. island territory's status and said his administration was working to strengthen its recession-battered economy.
"When the people of Puerto Rico make a clear decision, my administration will stand by you," he told a cheering crowd.
"We're giving Puerto Ricans the tools they need to build their own future," the president said. "We are going to put people back to work here in Puerto Rico and all across America."
Puerto Ricans are an important voting bloc in Florida, where they could help Obama balance out the Republican-leaning Cubans in this battleground state, which he won in 2008 and needs next year to help seal a second White House term.
Thousands lined the route as the president drove to the governor's mansion in the historic district of San Juan, passing crowds waving American flags as well as some signs demanding "Statehoood Now".
Some 4.6 million Puerto Ricans live in the United States, where they can vote in presidential elections, outnumbering the 3.9 million on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, who can vote only in the presidential primary elections.
This could be decisive next year in Florida, where Obama beat his Republican challenger John McCain in 2008 by over 200,000 votes, or 2.5 percentage points, but where opinion polls show the state is now a toss-up.
Florida's unemployment was 10.8 percent in April, compared to a 9 percent national average that month, and Obama's ability to connect with Puerto Ricans could prove vital.
Many live around Orlando in Orange County in central Florida and were part of the wave who helped him last time.
"No Democratic president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt had won Orange County until 2008 ... I strongly believe it was the Puerto Rican vote that made it possible," said Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a professor of history at the University of Central Florida, Orlando.
The last U.S. president to set foot in Puerto Rico was Gerald Ford for a Group of Seven summit in 1976, which was not considered an official visit.
Latinos backed Obama two-for-one in 2008 but have been disappointed by his failure to deliver on the immigration reform that he promised during the 2008 campaign. Their continued support cannot be taken for granted, especially as they have been disproportionately hard-hit by job losses.
"We've been trying to make sure that every family on the island can find work and make a living and provide for their children. That's why our economic plan and our health care reform included help for Puerto Rico," Obama said.
After a ride that snaked through the narrow cobbled streets of old San Juan, Obama toured the governor's mansion, built in 1533, before enjoying the view over San Juan Bay.
He later ate lunch with a local opposition politician in a bakery two blocks from the beach, feasting on a local ham and cheese sandwich called a MediaNoche.
Puerto Ricans are the second-largest group within the 50.5 million strong U.S. Hispanic community, after Mexicans. As a bloc, Hispanics represent 10 percent of all U.S. voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, but are the segment of the voter population that is growing at the fastest pace.
In addition, because all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who can vote if eligible, they are much easier to target for vital campaign organization and voter-registration drives.
They are also an important presence in New York, Philadelphia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Georgia, and are growing in numbers in Ohio.
"If the election is close, people could be pointing to this trip for creating outreach," said Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Obama promised he would return to the island as president if he won while campaigning for 2008. His trip on Tuesday fulfilling that pledge is the first official presidential visit to Puerto Rico since President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
His task force on Puerto Rico's status included an examination on how to improve its economic conditions, as well as reviewing a long-standing question of whether it should stay a territory, become a full state or opt for independence.
The task force took no position on this question but recommended all Puerto Ricans be allowed to express their will.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, writing by Alister bull and Laura MacInnis; Editing by David Lawder and Cynthia Osterman)