By Megan Davies
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Puerto Rico is getting attention from 2016 presidential hopefuls, who are making early stops in the U.S. territory, likely in part due to the rapidly growing number of Puerto Ricans living in the key battleground state of Florida.
Contenders for the White House, such as Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Marco Rubio, are scheduled on Friday to visit the island, which is trying to dig itself out of a wrenching fiscal crisis.
While Puerto Rico's residents will not be eligible to cast presidential votes in November 2016, they have a voice in the primaries and, as the island's economy has suffered, an increasing number have moved to U.S. states, where they can vote - particularly Florida.
"The Puerto Rico vote in Florida, a swing state, is substantial," said U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat. "The larger you have a Puerto Rican community in Florida ... the more you have what has generally been a Democratic vote."
The state's Puerto Rican population has doubled in little more than a decade, according to U.S. Census data. In Ohio, another swing state, the population of Puerto Ricans also increased from 2000 to 2013.
Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate and Rubio, a Florida senator, follow former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican, and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat contender, who have both visited.
Clinton, Bush and O'Malley have addressed the Puerto Rico issue of bankruptcy access, voicing support for a push to enable the territory's public agencies to take advantage of U.S. bankruptcy laws - bills which are yet to receive the necessary Republican support in Congress.
Clinton, who won the most Democratic delegates in Puerto Rico during her failed 2008 presidential bid, will discuss the “unequal treatment” of the territory by U.S. healthcare policies, according to her campaign. Rubio will be visiting with supporters at a restaurant, his campaign said.
A spokeswoman for Bush's campaign said their engagement with different demographics within the Hispanic community was a "core part of our campaign" and that it was important to engage with each and every demographic within the Hispanic community.
An O'Malley campaign spokeswoman said he has led on Puerto Rico issues, adding "these are our fellow citizens and they deserve equal treatment." She said there was "no question that the Puerto Rican vote is critical in many areas."
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is also scheduled to visit next week. New York has the largest population of Puerto Ricans in the 50 U.S. states.
For presidential candidates, the visits could boost their images beyond the island.
"(They) will be covered by Puerto Rican media outlets that in turn are read, watched and listened to by Puerto Rican populations (in the states)," said Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant in Gainesville, Florida.
The number of Puerto Ricans in U.S. states significantly outnumbers those on the island itself, according to Census data. Florida is home to the second largest population of Puerto Ricans among the states and the community there has added almost as many Puerto Ricans as the Cuban population in recent years.
"As the population has matured, has grown over the last particularly 10 years, you've really seen that Puerto Rican vote become a fairly solid bloc for Democrats," said Tallahassee-based Democratic strategist Steven Schale. "For the Democratic nominee, maintaining, growing the margins that we've got among Puerto Ricans in the last few cycles is critical to winning the state."
Schale said Puerto Ricans typically sympathize with Democratic positions on issues such as healthcare.
However, Patton said Puerto Ricans' voting pattern was not so predictable because their vote in many cases is new - as thousands have recently arrived - and they have not formed as deep an attachment to one party.
Orlando is a popular destination for Puerto Ricans. Strategists say the key area to track is the Interstate 4 corridor, named for the highway which cuts across central Florida, passing through Orlando as well as Tampa.
"The Puerto Rican community ... is playing a pivotal role in the central-Florida political landscape," said Miami-based Democratic strategist Christian Ulvert. "If you're losing the Puerto Rican community in central Florida, you have to make that up somewhere."
Florida is a critical swing state because its sizeable population gives it an outsized influence in selecting a president and it is up for grabs.
"Without Florida, any Republican has almost a zero chance of capturing the White House," said Patton.
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)