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Florida GOP primary rides on housing crisis blame

The packed pews at Exciting Idlewild Baptist, a 5,100-seat mega-church in the Tampa exurbs, are proof enough that there is at least one thing booming in Florida.

But as worshippers poured in for Sunday service at the sprawling complex – so big it has its own Starbucks – few could say as much about their own livelihoods.

"Oh, bad," Tonya Templeman, 40, said of the order book at her custom drapery business. "When the housing market declines, the interior designers I work with go out of business."

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The housing crisis is at the heart of 2012 politics in the quintessential swing state. Florida Republicans are making their choice in Tuesday's GOP primary based on which candidate they feel bears less blame for the mess their state is in.

The collapse that sent the massive luxury homes around Lutz plunging to a quarter of their 2007 values upended not only the lives of those with underwater mortgages and unbending bankers. It cut a swath through every sector and social stratum.

With 44 per cent of Florida homes still worth less than the mortgages on them, and the unemployment rate stuck near 10 per cent, you would need a Wall Street-sized appetite for risk to bet on Mr. Obama's chances of carrying the state that is a reliable bellwether in presidential politics.

But with Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich accusing each other of profiting from the mortgage meltdown that turned Florida into a collection of "zombie" subdivisions, the damage they are inflicting on each other may be giving Mr. Obama reason for hope.

As she rushed to take up her spot in the church orchestra, Ms. Templeman, wearing a black bucket hat with a pink ribbon, knows why her order book is so thin. "The banks," she said. "They gave people mortgages they couldn't pay for. They set them up to fail."

Her antipathy toward the banks is typical of the mood among Florida voters, who are not sure whether they are madder at Wall Street or the politicians who enable it.

It is still too early to tell whether they will take it out on Mr. Obama or on his Republican rival. But to win in November, the GOP nominee will likely need to fight off devastating Democratic attacks that he profited on the backs of distressed homeowners.

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The brutal primary battle between Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich has already hurt the their image among independent voters, as one is accused of being in cahoots with Goldman Sachs and the other of depositing cheques from mortgage insurer Freddie Mac.

After attending Sunday's Sanctity of Life at Exciting Idlewild, Mr. Gingrich held a press conference outside the church that barely touched on the theme of the service, signalling the secondary importance of social issues in the Florida race, even among evangelicals.

Instead, he went after his rival's financial connections, accusing Mr. Romney of dropping "carpet bombs with Wall Street money" by running attack ads against him in Florida.

It was a variation of a line he reiterated around Florida last week: "You're watching ads paid for with the money taken from the people of Florida by companies like Goldman Sachs, recycled back into ads to try to stop you from having a choice in this election."

The release last week of Mr. Romney's tax returns showed a deeply intertwined relationship between Mr. Romney and Goldman that could be a problem for him in the general election. Mr. Romney had about $37-million of his estimated $250-million fortune invested with Goldman in 2011. Employees of the firm put up $367,000 to back Mr. Romney's candidacy as of Sept. 30, making the firm his first source of campaign funds.

For his part, Mr. Romney has homed in on Mr. Gingrich's $1.6-million contract with Freddie Mac, the subject of scathing attack ads run by a Super PAC supporting the ex-Massachusetts governor. The mortgage insurer is one of two federal institutions bailed out by Washington whose activities are blamed for contributing to the housing bubble.

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Those attacks appear have stuck.

"He's been saying he was hired as a 'historian' but actually he was more or less involved in the crash as anybody," Terry Myers, a 54-year-old HVAC mechanic said of Mr. Gingrich on his way into church. "He's been in government so long, I don't think he's a true conservative."

Mr. Romney, who has entered attack mode since losing the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, was not about to let up on Mr. Gingrich as two polls released Sunday showed him opening up a double digit lead over his principal rival in Florida.

"Your problem in Florida is that you worked for Freddie Mac at a time when Freddie Mac was not doing the right thing for the American people," he said of Mr. Gingrich at a Sunday rally in Naples.

That line may help Mr. Romney in Tuesday's primary, but it will not win him Bill Weber's vote in November – even though his home in the Lake Heather subdivision near Idlewild is worth 40 per cent less than he and his wife paid for it in 2007.

"I have mixed feelings about Obama," said Mr. Weber, a 37-year-old engineer. "But with the slate of people the Republicans have, I will most likely vote for him."

But his ambivalence speaks volumes. This year, in Florida, the politicians are about as popular as the banks.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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