CARTAGENA, Colombia - Putting an election year spin on his international agenda, President Barack Obama on Friday cast Latin America's rapid rise as a business opportunity for the U.S. economy. On his way to a regional summit in Colombia, he told voters in Florida, "While I'm in Colombia talking with other leaders, I'm going to be thinking about you."
Obama's stop in Florida, a crucial state in the election, underscored White House efforts to keep the president's three-day trip to the Summit of the Americas focused squarely on the economy, the top issue for voters in a general election now fully under way.
One diversion from that economic message - and a potential embarrassment for the U.S. delegation - surfaced Friday night after a dozen Secret Service agents were reported to have been sent home amid allegations of personal misconduct. The Secret Service would not dispute an anonymous tip received by The Associated Press that the allegations involved prostitution.
President Barack Obama speaks at the Port of Tampa in Tampa, Fla., Friday, about trade with Latin America before heading to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas.
The agents were replaced by others and the security plan for the president's visit was not affected, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said Friday night. He would not divulge how many agents were sent home, but a U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss the matter, placed the number at 12.
If some Latin American leaders get their way, Obama will be forced to engage on issues that are less politically palatable in the U.S.; namely, Washington's strained relationship with Cuba and the prospect of legalizing drugs.
The president steered clear of those matters as he kicked off his trip at the Port of Tampa, where about 40 percent of exports go to Latin America. Obama said economic growth in Central and South America has created a booming middle class with money to spend.
"We want them spending money on American-made goods so that American businesses can put more Americans back to work," said Obama, his shirt sleeves rolled up, surrounded by cranes and shipping containers.
Obama's re-election prospects are largely tied to the nation's unemployment rate, which has dipped to 8.2 percent. Yet, the job market remains fragile and millions of Americans are still out of work.
From Tampa, Obama headed further south to Cartagena. Air Force One touched down in the hot and humid colonial-era port city late Friday afternoon. The president was greeted at the airport by a military band and several Colombian dignitaries and the U.S. ambassador to Colombia.
The president was joining more than 30 other regional leaders for a dinner Friday night at the base of Cartagena's historic Spanish fortress, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
Obama's stop in Colombia is emblematic of his election-year foreign travel itinerary, which is limited to the international meetings U.S. presidents traditionally attend. The president had little planned in Cartagena outside the official summit events, except for meetings with some of the summit leaders and a visit to a historic church.
Obama's goal: Get in, get out and don't do anything that can create a political distraction back home.
Still, the president's focus on Latin America this weekend was expected to catch the attention of Hispanics in the U.S., an increasingly important voting bloc, especially in battleground states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado. More than 20 million Hispanics in the U.S. are eligible to vote.