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.
— More than 2 percent of all Florida housing units were involved in foreclosure last year, according to the RealtyTrac foreclosure listing service. That translated in December to one in every 360 units, placing Florida at No. 7 among states with the highest 2011 foreclosure rates. And 2012 is forecast to be even busier.
—Florida is third in the number of homes with "upside down" mortgages, at 44 percent of all mortgaged properties, according to the CoreLogic real estate data firm. That works out to slightly less than 2 million Florida homes where the owners owe more than the properties are worth.
For many people whose home is by far their biggest investment, the housing problem is believed to be dragging down confidence and the state's recovery as a whole. Said Mark Fleming, chief economist at CoreLogic: "This overhang is holding back the recovery of the housing market and the broader economy."
It's all causing indecision — if not confusion — among Florida's pivotal swing voters.
Hollywood resident Phillip James, 48, is a libertarian-leaning independent who says he cannot support Obama. "I think he has just broken too many promises," James said. But he's also suspicious that the wealthy Romney with an "aristocratic air" may favor the rich too much in his economic proposals, adding: "I don't think he has a grasp of the position of the middle class, the conditions of the working class today."
Peter Gonzalez, a registered Democrat from Miami who voted for McCain, seemed just as confounded.
He was leaning toward Romney, and assuming that the former Massachusetts governor will be the GOP nominee, but said he hadn't given up on Obama
"With Obama, I kind of know what I got." Gonzalez said. He predicted: "If the economy gets stronger, and the unemployment rate gets better, it's going to be difficult to beat Obama. Because people vote with their wallet."
Even at this early date, it's not too hard to see how Obama and the eventual Republican nominee may try to make their cases.
Obama may try to gain traction by stressing "the Republican policies that contributed to the economic problems the country is facing and make the case that the economy is improving, and jobs are growing, and that the situation would be much worse if Obama had not taken the actions he had," said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political science professor.
As for Republicans, Jewett added: "The GOP nominee needs to continually focus on the simple theme: Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
Associated Press writer Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.
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