POLITICS

With eye on Florida, Jeb Bush heads to Puerto Rico to court Republican donors

Former Florida Jeb Bush speaks during an interview at the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) February 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former Florida Jeb Bush speaks during an interview at the 42nd annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) February 27, 2015 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)  (2015 Getty Images)

He hasn’t launched a presidential campaign yet, but former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose state has a growing middle-class Puerto Rican community, is scheduled to arrive in Puerto Rico on Tuesday to fund-raise and hold a town hall meeting.

Bush is also expected to meet with local Republican leaders on the island and visit the college Universidad Metropolitana. The fundraiser will be held at the home of Republican delegate Zoraida Fonalledas.

Though Cuban-Americans in the Sunshine State once tilted the Latino vote there toward Republicans, over the years the Latino community has grown in diversity and political leanings, with younger Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans and South and Central Americans throwing their support to Democrats.

But the vote is still, to a large extent, up for grabs, and a political candidate who wins the Latino support can gain a huge advantage in winning the state – a crucial move in a presidential campaign.

Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican political analyst, characterized Bush as smart for putting Puerto Rico on his calendar.

“He’s engaging the Hispanic audience early on,” Aguilar said of Bush. “Puerto Ricans are going to help decide Florida” in the presidential election.

“He’s going there before any other presidential candidate,” Aguilar said. “He’s supporting statehood, and a majority of Puerto Rican voters support statehood. Jeb Bush and his staff are thinking ahead of other Republicans and even Hillary Clinton.”

On Sunday, Bush said that the “Latino vote can make a difference” in the election in key states including Florida, Colorado and New Mexico. 

Responding to a question from Efe, an international news service headquartered in Spain, he said his campaign would be positive and would emphasize conservative values -- a strategy that he feels will appeal to Latinos.

Puerto Ricans are about 1 million strong in Florida, narrowly behind Cubans, who number 1.3 million. Puerto Ricans are 28 percent of Latino registered voters in the state, Cubans are 32 percent.

Puerto Ricans – who have settled in Central Florida by the hundreds of thousands – tend to lean Democrat, but they are not blindly beholden to any single party.

They overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama when he ran for re-election in 2012, but more than half voted for Jeb Bush, who won some Central Florida counties with large Puerto Rican communities. And in 2004 his brother, former President George W. Bush, lost Orange County by a small margin, and won Osceola County, home to many Puerto Ricans.

“Puerto Ricans in Florida are very different from Puerto Ricans in other states” such as New York, where they are predominately Democrat, Aguilar said. “They’re mostly middle-class, professional, and many go back and forth to Puerto Rico.”

Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi, who is based in Florida, said to Fox News Latino last year that the challenge for Republicans in 2016 is “whether they can make real inroads among Hispanic voters” in the state.

Although Puerto Ricans who live on the island are U.S. citizens, they are not permitted to vote for U.S. president unless, for example, they have an official residence in a U.S. state or the District of Columbia.

Bush has been to Puerto Rico before.

He traveled there with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, during the elder's 1980 presidential campaign. Ronald Reagan defeated Bush in that election.

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.