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As GOP race reaches Fla., economy dominates

By Curt Anderson

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 18 2012 1:26 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to reporters after campaigning at the Florence Civic Center in Florence, S.C., Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

MIAMI — Property manager Nancy Leon knows all too well the effects of Florida's dismal economy. People can't pay their condominium association fees and fall behind on mortgages or rent. The condo property suffers. Then it has to cut costs, which makes the place less attractive for new residents. A vicious cycle.

"People are really struggling. We see it every day," says Leon, a 42-year-old Republican who voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 as a symbol of hope and change but now isn't sure the Democrat should get another term. Yet, she's not sold on Republican front-runner Mitt Romney or his rivals. Like many other Florida residents, she can't help but fret: "We are so knee-deep in the economic problems, so far down in the hole, who is going to get us out?"

With the Florida Republican presidential primary looming on Jan. 31 and Obama coming to the state Thursday to announce a new economic initiative, this is the grim situation in a key campaign battleground: Ten percent unemployment. Rampant home foreclosures. Nearly half the state's homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their properties are worth.

Ten months before the election, Florida's environment presents a stark challenge for Obama and an opportunity for the eventual Republican nominee in the nation's largest state with a history of vacillating between choosing Republicans and Democrats in presidential contests.

Obama carried Florida in 2008 against Republican John McCain, 51 percent to 48 percent. And, for now at least, Florida voters don't seem to be abandoning Obama in droves. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed the president and Romney, the GOP front-runner, in a near-statistical tie in the state in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup.

Reflecting the stakes for the fall even though the GOP hasn't settled on a nominee, Republicans and Democrats alike have been busy testing lines of argument on the economy.

In a recent appearance in West Palm Beach, Romney mentioned almost nothing about Florida-specific issues such as offshore oil drilling and U.S.-Cuba relations, focusing instead on criticizing Obama and promoting his own economic plans. Campaign mailers sent to Florida Republicans echoed the strategy.

"Our economy has fallen flat. Who's to blame?" asks one mailer. Another proclaims that Romney is the strongest to lead the country out of economic turmoil, arguing this: "With conservative leadership, America can be first in the world in job creation again."

Romney is in a strong position heading into Saturday's primary in South Carolina after back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. Entrance and exit polls from both states showed that voters overwhelmingly bought Romney's argument that he is the strongest Republican to take on Obama in the fall on voters' No. 1 issue: the economy. Romney's rivals — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — trailed on those measures and are fighting to keep their bids alive through the Florida primary.

Obama, for his part, planned a trip Thursday to Walt Disney World outside Orlando to outline a new strategy to boost travel and tourism.

"He's pursuing every avenue possible here to tackle what he thinks is our most important challenge which is growing the economy, creating jobs, positioning the American economy to compete and dominate in the 21st century and this is another indication of that effort," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

For Obama, the economic numbers are daunting in Florida, a state critical to his re-election chances:

—The November unemployment rate of 10 percent was good news because it was the state's lowest since May 2009. But it's much higher than the national 8.5 percent jobless figure. About 926,000 Floridians were out of work in November.

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