By Laura MacInnis
TAMPA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama made a pitstop in the 2012 election battleground state of Florida on his way to a summit in South America on Friday, reaching out to Hispanic voters who could make or break his November re-election bid.
At the port of Tampa, a main departure point for exports to Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, Obama sought to drive home his message for the Summit of the Americas that greater regional trade can help create jobs in the United States and propel growth in Latin America.
"Everybody here knows how critical this part of the world is to our economy and to creating jobs. A lot of the countries in the region are on the rise," Obama told an audience of several hundred.
The president's hopes for re-election in November rest in part on whether he can coax more job creation from a gradual U.S. economic recovery, which has so far failed to curb unemployment from historically high levels above 8 percent.
Obama heads to Cartagena, Colombia, to join leaders from 33 nations across the Americas to discuss a wide range of issues including poverty, drugs, democracy and trade.
Aware that trade is viewed with suspicion by some workers, who blame it for costing U.S. jobs, the Democratic president said he was cracking down on countries who did not play by the rules and named China as being high on his list.
"We've brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate of the last administration," Obama said, referring to Republican President George W. Bush.
He will also use the weekend trip to fight an impression he has neglected Latin America since taking office, focusing instead on foreign policy hot spots like Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Obama needs the support of Hispanic voters to win key states like Arizona, Colorado, Nevada as well as Florida in the November 6 election where he is likely to face Republican Mitt Romney.
There are about 22 million Hispanics eligible to vote this year and the community is becoming more politically powerful in the United States as a result of its fast population growth.
"VERY SKEPTICAL AUDIENCES"
Though the president is polling well ahead of Romney with Hispanic voters, many have been disappointed by his failure to deliver on a campaign promise for immigration reform and by record deportations of illegal immigrants during his presidency.
The administration's push to deepen economic ties with Asia has further frustrated those who would have liked the White House to pay more attention to Latin America and its problems, including drug violence in Central America and Mexico.
Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network and a former George W. Bush White House official on Hispanic issues, said the president's weekend trip to Colombia reflected an electoral necessity.
"It is not an impression that Obama has neglected U.S. relations with Latin America, it is a fact," she said.
"All of a sudden, as he campaigns for re-election, Latin America is again 'relevant' for the White House. Actions speak louder than words, so I think the president will be greeted by very skeptical audiences both in Tampa and Cartagena."
Ben Rhodes, a senior White House official, said the stop in Tampa was designed to make sure Obama's economic message for the region resonated with the large U.S. Hispanic community.
"The fact that we are going to Florida is in part to demonstrate the deep connectivity between the United States and Latin America," he told reporters this week.
(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan; Editing by Xavier Briand)