Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney greets supporters after… (Ethan Miller, Getty Images )
Reporting from Las Vegas — When Nevada elbowed its way toward the front of the presidential calendar, the idea was simple: No longer would candidates ignore the West and its issues. Rather, they would come here and speak to the concerns of people like Victor Tingley.
At 56, the former assistant casino manager has been jobless for nearly three years. His home in North Las Vegas, purchased more than a decade ago when the neighborhood was more desert than development, is worth less than a third of its former value.
Yet Tingley, a Republican-leaning independent, has heard nothing meaningful from the GOP hopefuls about the collapse of the housing market or the resulting implosion of Nevada's building industry, which, experts say, may take decades to recover. Not even from Mitt Romney, who took a well-publicized tour of Tingley's foreclosure-wracked neighborhood in April and held it up as an example of the nation's struggling economy.
"They don't give a [damn] about us," said Tingley, as he stood in his front yard surveying a gloomy landscape of empty and abandoned homes, many worth far less than their outstanding mortgages.
When the Republican hopefuls gather in Las Vegas on Tuesday for the eighth in their series of debates, it will be a rare Western appearance. Should they address the bursting of the housing bubble and its devastating effects, it will be rarer still.
The candidates have said little about the issue on the campaign trail and mentioned nothing on their campaign websites, save a veiled reference from businessman Herman Cain, who criticizes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federal mortgage guarantor.
The topic has come up a handful of times in previous debates, but only in passing. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has offered the most concrete response, saying the federal government should abandon efforts to prop up home values and let prices sink until the market responds — hardly a salve to homeowners who have seen their equity and, in some cases, their life savings, wiped away.
The virtual silence from the GOP field is not just frustrating to Tingley and his neighbors — "They're not really talking about it. Nobody is," said Republican Shirley Ayala, 77 — but also puzzling to business and economic analysts. They say the economy will not fully recover, here in Nevada or elsewhere across the country, until housing rebounds and the construction industry mends.
"Job creation" — which the candidates have emphasized — "is not, in and of itself, the answer," said John Restrepo, who runs a Las Vegas economic consulting firm. "You have to deal with the housing market, since that's one of the biggest assets most people have."
The Republican candidates have pinned the housing collapse on President Obama, whose stimulus plan was intended to spur growth and boost job creation, healing the real estate market in the process. Specific programs to help struggling homeowners have met with little success, experts say.
But beyond their criticism of the president, the GOP hopefuls have little incentive to raise the issue — or, for that matter, visit Nevada all that much. Compounding the snub, several said last week that they wouldboycott the state's Jan. 14 caucuses in a dispute over their timing.
Although Nevada is tentatively third in line to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire are still far more consequential. So the candidates are spending the bulk of their time in those two states, where the housing issue rarely comes up. While Nevada ranks first in foreclosures, New Hampshire and Iowa rank 15th and 33rd, respectively. Joblessness in the two states is less than half of Nevada's 13.4% rate, which also leads the country.
Moreover, the Republican belief in limited government and less regulation, which Paul enunciated in its purist form, does little to placate many of those who have lost their residence or who, unable to sell, face a decade or more trapped in a ghost town of stucco and red tile.
"The free market will work over an extended period of time," Restrepo said. "The question is how long do you let the pain and suffering go on?"
Most of the GOP candidates have written off Nevada, believing that Romney has the state locked up after easily winning here four years ago. Of those boycotting — an effort to win favor with New Hampshire officials who want Nevada to caucus later — only Cain was potentially competitive in the state.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the race in mid-August, has the support of the state's governor, Brian Sandoval, and his political team. Paul also has a presence in the state and a following among the tea party faithful, who hold considerable sway in Nevada.
No candidate, however, has worked the state harder than Romney, who has a built-in base of support in the state's large Mormon population.
He has visited repeatedly since he last ran, picked up local endorsements across Nevada, filmed a TV spot and last month used a North Las Vegas trucking company as the setting to announce a 59-point jobs program. The plan, however, made no mention of the housing crisis, even though in some nearby neighborhoods more than 80% of homeowners are "underwater," owing more than their properties are worth.
Even while touring Tingley's neighborhood last spring, Romney offered only vague solutions, saying greater job creation would perk up the economy and, eventually, boost home values.
Things have scarcely improved since that day in April. The couple that hosted Romney — Tingley's former backyard neighbors — have moved to Texas and their home is in foreclosure. Leaves gather in cobwebs by the front door and a notice taped to the garage warns potential squatters away.