Jan. 23, 2012— -- The issue of the housing crisis has stayed largely on the backburner in the 2012 campaign cycle, but that's likely to change this week as candidates head to Florida, one of the states hit hardest by the housing bubble.
Mitt Romney was quick to jump on that bandwagon, playing up the housing issue as he kicked off the week of campaigning in the Sunshine State, and hitting his chief rival, South Carolina primary winner Newt Gingrich, hard on his past ties to beleaguered housing giant Freddie Mac.
Romney's message can have far-reaching impact in Florida, where the housing market remains in doldrums and unemployment is at 10 percent, higher than the national average of 8.5 percent.
"It's very big because so many communities are just so hard hit by it. People see it up close and personal," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "There's just this nagging thing that the federal government can help the rich and help the poor but when it comes to the middle class person whose losing their home, they haven't done squat. So they [the candidates] are going to be aiming that message toward the middle-income, middle-age voters."
Over the last four years, Florida has consistently been among the top four states in foreclosures. In 2011, it ranked seventh in RealtyTrac's list of states with the highest foreclosure rates. One of the main reasons for that drop, experts say, is the backlog in the market that will push many foreclosures to this year.
One in every 360 housing units received a foreclosure filing in December, according to RealtyTrac, and the problem is particularly amplified in cities such as Miami and Palm Beach.
"We'd expect Florida to remain very hard-hit by foreclosures in 2012," said Daren Blomquist, vice president of RealtyTrac. "The silver lining is probably we won't see the numbers as high as they were in 2009, which was the peak of the foreclosure crisis in Florida, but it's still going to be painful."
Romney, who advocates a hands-off approach, will have to walk a fine line in a state that's particularly sensitive about this issue. The former governor earned liberal ire in October for suggesting that the foreclosure process should just "run its course and hit the bottom."
"The idea of the federal government running around and saying, hey, we're going to give you some money for trading in your old car, or we're going to give you a few thousand bucks for buying a new house, or we're going to keep banks from foreclosing if you can't make your payments, these kind of actions on the part of government haven't worked," Romney said at a debate in Nevada, which has the highest foreclosure rate in the country.
Romney, however, sang a different tune in 2008, which may not only disconnect him from conservatives but is also unlikely to sit in well with Florida voters.
The former governor suggested four years ago that one way to help the housing market would be "by loosening and relaxing some of the requirements of the FHA program so that more loans can be guaranteed and more people can stay in their homes without having to foreclose."
Many economists say it was exactly those lack of restrictions that caused the housing bubble. In Florida, the problem of loose mortgage standards was especially compounded and is one that is still being played out in courts to this day.
"What kind of triggered all this was loose lending practices that allowed anybody who could fog a mirror to get a loan even if they couldn't truly afford that and that was all on the assumption that home prices would continue to go up indefinitely, and they did not," Blomquist said.
Those questions, however, have yet to be posed to Romney, who is on the offensive against Gingrich for his past work.
"I found it a very disheartening thing to listen to people having such challenges as you heard this morning -- individuals out of work, individuals who are losing their homes or have lost their homes, people who are thinking about even going to other countries," Romney said at an event in Tampa today. Gingrich "said during a debate actually that the people who profited from the failed model of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae ought to give back their money. Well, speaker made $1.7 million in his enterprises from providing services to Freddie Mac. He ought to give it back. We also ought to be able to see what he told them."
The former Massachusetts governor questioned Gingrich's claims that he did not lobby and called on him to release his contract with Freddie Mac, as well as his list of clients.
"Let's have full disclosure of what's going on. And by the way, saying that Newt Gingrich is a lobbyist is just a matter of fact," Romney told reporters today. "He indicates that he doesn't fall within the narrow definition of lobbying that we might have in mind, but if you're working for a company, getting paid through a company through one of your many entities and you're speaking with congressmen in a way that would help that company, that's lobbying. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck."
Some of the documents pertaining to Gingrich's work with Freddie Mac were released this evening by the Gingrich Group, which the former speaker left in 2010 when he decided to run for president. But the documents were only for the year 2006, even though Gingrich worked with Freddie Mac from 1999 to 2008.
Gingrich has said that, as an adviser, he warned Freddie Mac that its model would collapse, a warning that Romney charged today should've been made public. He went another step further and said the former House speaker should actually return the money he made from Freddie Mac.
"I didn't hear him making those warnings to the nation. He should have if he was working inside this industry providing counsel to them," he said. "He was the one who said if you made money on this failed model that you ought to return that money."
A new television ad released by Romney today follows the same line of attack.
"While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in," the ad begins, slamming the former House speaker's for reportedly receiving between $1.6-$1.8 million from Freddie Mac.
Restore Our Future, the Super PAC supporting Romney, has already been attacking Gingrich for nearly a month in the Sunshine State.
Gingrich has said that the decision to release his contract is in the hands of his former company, the Center for Health Transformation, and he denied once again that he did any lobbying.
Connecting with people in a state that has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates will be a tough job for Romney and Gingrich, both of whom are millionaires.
Jobs are a prime agenda for Floridians. Only four other states – California, Nevada, Mississippi and Rhode Island -- have an unemployment rate higher than Florida's while Illinois and North Carolina are tied. For Romney, that challenge is magnified even more. The former governor has said he would release his tax records on Tuesday, which would, on one hand, satisfy his rivals' demands, but on the other hand, could expose the amount of wealth he has, which his competitors could use to present him as disconnected with voters.
Gingrich and Romney go head-to-head tonight for the first time in Florida in an NBC News debate at the University of South Florida in Tampa.