Mitt Romney greets the crowd as he arrives for a campaign rally in front of… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
Reporting from Lehigh Acres, Fla. — Mitt Romney's taxes were the talk of the campaign and the latest Gallup national tracking poll showed him falling behind Newt Gingrich in the wake of his stinging defeat in last weekend's South Carolina primary. But as he campaigned briefly Tuesday in Florida, where the biggest primary yet this year is just a week away, Romney largely directed his fire at President Obama.
At one of only two events of his schedule, he traveled to a subdivision east of Fort Myers to blast the Democratic incumbent over one of the central economic issues in the 2012 election: the housing bust.
Before a crowd of several hundred curious onlookers, drawn to the event by local TV news coverage on an unseasonably hot January afternoon, the former Massachusetts governor tried to draw attention to the housing sector's continuing drag on the country's struggle to bounce back from the worst recession since the 1930s.
Romney did not offer any specific prescriptions of his own. Instead, he fingered Obama for blame, along with new regulations designed to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial collapse.
He said the Dodd-Frank legislation package had smothered banks with regulations that made it harder for them to help struggling homeowners dig out from mortgages that in many case are larger than the value of their homes.
"Now, the banks aren't bad people. They're just overwhelmed right now," Romney said. "They're overwhelmed with a lot of things. One is a lot of homes coming in, that are in foreclosure or in trouble, and the other is with a massive new pile of regulations."
Romney did take a swipe at Gingrich, who now leads him by four points, 31% to 27%, in Gallup's rolling five-day average and recent surveys in Florida. Recycling a line from Monday night's debate in Tampa, he said Gingrich was "peddling influence" as a consultant to Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant that Romney said was one of the biggest causes of the housing crisis, built on a pile of government-guaranteed debt.
"We can't have an influence peddler leading our party," said Romney, standing on a makeshift stage in front of a one-story house that is in foreclosure.
Few states have been hit as hard by the housing bust as Florida, a point that all the Republican candidates have been emphasizing this week.
"Do you realize one quarter of all the foreclosed homes in America are in Florida?" Romney said. He asked those in the crowd how much their home values had fallen, and received shouts of "three-fourths" and "fifty percent."
Romney has yet to propose a comprehensive housing policy, and Democrats have criticized him for a seemingly cold-hearted response to the problem.
In shirtsleeves beneath a blazing sun, Romney alluded to earlier statements about the need to let the market wring out excesses in the real estate sector so that prices can rebound, as they are slowly starting to do here.
"Let it run its course and hit the bottom," Romney said last fall. "Allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up, and let it turn around and come back up."
Those remarks, in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board, also included a tentative Romney endorsement of "the idea of helping people refinance homes to stay in them," calling that notion "worth further consideration." He did not make a similar statement Tuesday, however.
Neighbors said that sandy lots in the area that once sold for $1,000 skyrocketed to as high as $80,000 at the height of the boom. Houses built in the last 10 years that marketed for $250,000 plunged as much as 80%. Many can now be purchased for $60,000. Abandoned homes and "for sale" signs are everywhere in the former farmland, about 20 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, where thousands of new houses were built in the 1990s and early 2000s.
For a few hours Tuesday, this corner of Florida was the focal point of the Republican presidential contest. In addition to Romney, Gingrich and Rick Santorum were also expected to campaign in Lee County.
Four years ago, southwest Florida was one of Romney's strongest parts of the state. He defeated John McCain in Lee and neighboring Collier counties, even as he was losing the primary by five percentage points.