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Published: Thursday, 2/23/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

GOP hopefuls quiet about housing crisis

Topic omitted in Ohio, Mich. forays

BY TONY COOK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Attend a speech by Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum and you're likely to hear all kinds of claims about the economy -- gas prices are too high, deficit spending is out of control, and government regulations are hindering free enterprise.

But as the two leading Republican candidates crisscross Ohio and Michigan, an odd omission has emerged in their speeches. Neither has mentioned the housing crisis.

During two half-hour speeches in the Detroit area last week, including one dedicated exclusively to his economic plan, Mr. Santorum never once mentioned the collapse of the nation's housing market.

In fact, he blamed the recession on high energy prices, not the housing bubble.

"If you look at the recession that we went into, we went into it in 2008. Why? Because of a huge spike of energy prices," he told a group of executives at the Detroit Economic Club.

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Mr. Santorum didn't mention the foreclosure crisis during Ohio speeches in Columbus, Akron, and Georgetown, either.

Mr. Romney also has avoided the issue during recent appearances in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Monroe, and Shelby Township, Michigan.

The silence is peculiar given the housing crash's deep impact in the two key swing states where the candidates have concentrated much of their energies during the past week. Michigan, which holds its primary on Tuesday, has the fifth-highest foreclosure rate in the country. Ohio ranks No. 12.

In Toledo, one out of every 56 homes experienced foreclosure-related filings in 2011. And nationwide, 29 percent of homeowners with a mortgage are underwater, meaning they owe more on their homes than they are worth.

Moreover, the nominating contests in Michigan and Ohio have ramped up amid news that federal and state authorities reached a landmark $26 billion settlement with five of the nation's biggest banks over flawed and fraudulent foreclosure practices. One of the signatories to that agreement was Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who endorsed Mr. Santorum last week.

Still, the candidates have remained mum on the issue.

The campaigns of both candidates told The Blade they aren't avoiding the issue.

"Rick's been talking about this in every state," said Hogan Gidley, a national spokesman for Mr. Santorum's campaign. Rebuilding the housing market has "been one of the cornerstones of the campaign," he said.

Ryan Williams, a spokesman for Mr. Romney's campaign in Ohio, said, "We actually have over the course of the campaign discussed housing at length."

The former Massachusetts governor held several housing roundtables with distressed Florida homeowners in advance of the primary there, Mr. Williams said.

But even in states with higher foreclosure rates than Michigan and Ohio, the candidates have been slow to address the issue -- and for good reason, according to Don Haurin, an economist at Ohio State University who specializes in the housing market.

In wooing their Republican base, the two front-runners are emphasizing their conservative credentials. That means an emphasis on fewer government regulations and less intervention in the free market. That message doesn't do much to reassure those who have lost their homes or are facing foreclosure, Mr. Haurin said.

"You're telling them there's no help and that's not going to win you any votes," he said.

Mr. Romney learned that lesson first-hand in Las Vegas, where more than 70 percent of home loans are underwater. He took heat in October when, in response to a question from the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board, he said he wouldn't try to stop the foreclosure process. "Let it run its course and hit the bottom," he said.

Eric Herzik, who is chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada-Reno and a registered Republican, said such a message is problematic for GOP contenders.

"The easy answer to why Republican candidates don't talk about this is they don't have any type of solution," Mr. Herzik said. "You can say it's tough love, but it's not the 30-second sound bite you want."

When the candidates have addressed the housing market in other states, it has usually been at the prompting of a question. Replies often involve attacks on President Obama's Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, a reform measure whose restrictions some economists have said goes too far, discouraging banks and other financial institutions from making loans.

"A host of Obama Administration policies, and especially Dodd-Frank, have caused credit to dry up and made a bad thing worse," the Romney campaign said in a statement to The Blade. "The only real solution to the housing crisis is to get the economy growing again at a healthy rate. And the only way to implement that solution is to get Barack Obama out of the White House and undo the damage he has done."

Another common response is to attack Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, lenders that the federal government took over in 2008 amid concerns that their financial instability would cause further damage in the housing market.

In response to questions about why Mr. Santorum hadn't mentioned the housing crisis in his recent speeches, Mr. Gidley, the campaign spokesman, said the former Pennsylvania senator had warned about the risk Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac posed to taxpayers and the economy at large as long ago as 2006, when he and other lawmakers wrote a letter to Republican leadership expressing their concerns.

But even criticism of those government-backed lenders has been tricky for some Republicans. Newt Gingrich, who made some appearances in Ohio earlier this month but has not campaigned at all in Michigan, was paid $1.6 million as a consultant for Freddie Mac, and Mr. Romney has as much as $500,000 invested in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.

Mr. Herzik said the Republican base might be content with attacks on Dodd-Frank and Freddie Mac, but that such a strategy could present problems for the eventual nominee in the general election.

"At best, they are talking about the proverbial locking of the barn after the horses have gotten out, and at worst it's just naive," Mr. Herzik said. "I think they'll actually pay a price in the fall, when Barack Obama will bring it up."

Despite occasional talk about Dodd-Frank and Fannie and Freddie during their appearances elsewhere, local Republicans acknowledge that the two leading candidates have not directly addressed the housing crisis on the campaign trail in Ohio and Michigan.

"I've never heard the topic brought up thus far by any of the candidates that have passed through our state or even Michigan," said Jon Stainbrook, chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party and a supporter of Mr. Romney.

He attributed the candidates' silence on the issue to a broader disinterest among the Republican base they are courting.

"In order for you to keep the attention of the voters, you have to remain focused on the issues at hand that people are concerned with. Those are jobs and the economy and making sure we have the right person leading this country for the next four years," he said. "Nobody's talking about [the housing crisis]. It's not an issue that has been in the forefront so far."

Mr. DeWine, the Ohio attorney general who is supporting Mr. Santorum, agreed.

"It's not that it's not a concern. It's just been with us a long time," he said. "We talk more in general about the economy. When most people today discuss the economy, woven into that is the housing problem. Everybody gets that it's part of the problem."

Contact Tony Cook at: tcook@theblade.com, or 419-724-6065.



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