Twelve hours before he was stand toe-to-toe with three other Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney sat down with eight Tampa Bay area residents to chat about their problems.
As dozens of reporters clicked away on laptop computers and photographers tapped shutters, Romney held court this morning, leading a roundtable discussion of housing woes in Florida.
The former governor of Massachusetts who has been – or flirted with – the front-runner position in the GOP race said Florida holds about a quarter of the foreclosed-upon homes in the nation.
He sat down with selected homeowners, small-business people, real estate agents and insurers, all of whom laid out their tales of recession woe.
Richard Wood said he owned a title insurance company in Bradenton that closed down last year.
While some of his friends are looking at moving to another state, he said, "We've been exploring the option of moving to another country."
"It's tragic," Romney said. "It's just tragic."
One by one, the participants told Romney about their problems. They told tales of bank bureaucracy that wouldn't allow refinancing until foreclosure proceedings were started and real estate agents who had to close their offices because there was no business. And title insurance companies that went under because of a lack of home sales in Florida.
Mary Pinion has been a mortgage lender for 26 years.
"This is the worst we've ever seen," she told the candidate.
The participants were chosen by local Republicans working on Romney's campaign.
Todd Swift of Tampa explained how he began losing money in the stock market when the markets faltered about four years ago. He reinvested in real estate, buying two condominiums in Cheval. He sold one for less than what he paid, and is renting the other just to cover expenses.
"I never imagined I'd lose this much money," he said.
Romney said there was plenty of blame to go around, from banks that wrote mortgages for homes and businesses that weren't worth it, to government for being stagnant in helping the nation out of the mess.
He said that over the past 100 years, homes generally have increased in value about 1 percent a year. A decade ago, he said, it jumped exponentially. That spurred investment.
"It was a bubble," he said. "It was going to crash. It was going to be a disaster."
He said banks have to take part in the fix, by allowing people to refinance at lower levels and homeowners will have to realize their homes don't hold the same value as they did six or eight years ago.
"It will get better," he said. "This is a detour in America. I can't say when it will be better, but I can see the signs."
The discussion took place at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk hotel in downtown Tampa.