NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Likely presidential candidate Mitt Romney this afternoon toured a depressed neighborhood besieged by foreclosed homes as he continued trying to criticize President Obama’s handling of the economy.
Romney so far has staked his budding presidential bid on economic concerns, but new upticks in the unemployment rates could complicate his case.
“I’m afraid some people are becoming conditioned to unemployment rates above 8 percent,” Romney said today. “Unemployment should be around 4 percent or less. And the idea that we celebrate 8.8 percent, I’m glad for the progress, but my goodness, we’ve got a lot of people out of work.”
To highlight the dour economy, Romney headed to a neighborhood north of the glitzy Vegas strip – one that Lieutenant Governor Brian Krolicki said was in the zip code with the highest foreclosure rate in the country.
Romney met with Dave and Kathy Tyler, a couple whose home value has decreased by about $210,000 over the last seven years. He also walked with them around their neighborhood, where houses sit vacant, with one garage door nearly collapsing.
“The neighborhood’s just gone to pot because of all the foreclosures,” said Kathy Tyler, who voted for Romney in the 2008 nominating contest but said Sarah Palin could compete with Romney for her vote this time. “Something needs to be done.”
It marked a rare public, campaign-style event for Romney, who has been grooming his presidential campaign mostly by meeting with donors behind closed doors. His last public appearance was about a month ago, when he delivered a speech in New Hampshire.
Tomorrow, Romney is scheduled to address the Republican Jewish Coalition in a speech that is expected to focus on foreign policy.
Dressed casually in Gap jeans (slightly frayed at the bottom), black loafers, and a buttoned shirt, Romney attempted a lighter, more laid back tone. When he approached a small gaggle of reporters standing outside the home, he looked around, smiled lightly, and said, “Old friends.”
One woman stopped her Chevrolet Silverado, and yelled out to Romney that she had voted for him in 2008.
“It’s not every day I find someone who voted for me,” Romney joked.
Romney, addressing reporters for the first time in months, would not engage in any discussion over his campaign.
“No process observations today, or great insights in that regard,” he said, when asked when he planned to announce his campaign. “You know, I’m doing the things that I need to do to keep the option open and proceeding with friends and colleagues. Just good to be here today.”
Romney didn’t address the foreclosure crisis head-on, instead saying that if more jobs were created, foreclosed homes would be repaired and property values would eventually increase. But he largely criticized government intervention.
“The best thing you can do for this community is not to come here and give checks, to go around and give everybody a check. That doesn’t sole the problem,” he said. “The right thing you can do is to create jobs, and to make the environment of America the best in the world for job growth, for investment, and for the economic vitality we deserve.”
He also trotted out a line that criticizes Obama on three levels – that he delegates responsibility to others, that he’s failed to boost business, and that he has pushed for larger government.
“He delegated to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid a stimulus,” Romney said. “Instead of stimulating the private sector, he protected government jobs. The one sector that could have afforded to be shrunk was the government sector.”
Romney also criticized the financial reform legislation, saying it “frankly scared the dickens out of anybody in financial services, caused them to retreat.”
Nevada Democrats quickly pounced on Romney, casting his appearance as an April Fools joke and pointing to foreclosure rates that rose in Massachusetts during his four years as governor. There were about 4,200 foreclosures in the Bay State in 2003, Romney’s first year in office, compared with 19,500 in 2006, his last year in office. That was also a period when the foreclosure crisis was gripping the nation.
“It is very ironic that Mitt Romney decided to come to Nevada to talk about foreclosures while as Governor, foreclosures skyrocketed in Massachusetts,” Zach Hudson, spokesman for the Nevada State Democratic Party, said in a statement. “…He and his Republican colleagues have no solutions to the foreclosure problem and instead are focused on ending programs that are helping thousands of Nevadans stay in their homes.”
Nevada, which is likely to have its caucuses just after Iowa and New Hampshire, is a crucial state for Romney as he readies his early strategy. This is his second visit to the state so far this year, while he has yet to make any appearances in Iowa, which will hold the first nominating contest.
By the numbers, Romney should perform strongly. An estimated 7.5 percent of Nevada residents share Romney’s Mormon faith, and exit polls showed Mormons accounted for one in four caucus voters in 2008.
Still, he faces several challenges here. The Tea Party movement, whose activists have been skeptical of Romney, is well organized in the state. Nevada Republicans have also changed the caucus rules to assign delegates proportionally – rather than a winner-take-all contest. That could attract more competition.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.