LEHIGH ACRES, Fla. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney came to ground zero of the housing crisis Tuesday to assail rival Newt Gingrich over his ties to the government-backed mortgage companies that helped make it worse, a message Romney has been pushing since he landed in the state. But that meant he also had to talk about banks — and he continued what's become a habit of comparing companies to people.
Romney was standing outside a Fannie Mae-foreclosed home in a struggling neighborhood telling a small crowd why they're having so much trouble. "In this case, it's because of the banks," he explained. "Well, the banks aren't bad people. They're just overwhelmed right now."
During a Monday roundtable with business owners struggling in Florida's hobbled housing market, the former Massachusetts governor told the group that their troubles with banks came because the lenders were worried about staying in business.
"The banks are scared to death, of course," he said. "They're feeling the same thing that you're feeling. And so they just want to pretend that all this is just going to get paid some day."
Both comments echoed the now-famous line Romney delivered from a hay bale at the Iowa state fair: "Corporations are people, my friend!"
They're also part of a string of comments Romney has made that his opponents have used to pummel him as wealthy and out of touch with average Americans. Ahead of the New Hampshire primary, he said he once feared being "pink-slipped" and later said "I like to fire people." He was referring to insurance companies, but both Democrats and his Republican rivals attacked him for it.
In calling corporations people, Romney was referring to laws that give companies some rights under the law that are also given to people. And in Florida, he's been trying to explain that banks are scared they'll go out of business because so many people have stopped paying their mortgages. He's also argued that regulations passed during the Obama administration give banks less flexibility if they're trying to help consumers renegotiate the terms of their mortgages.
He's focusing on the housing market because it's a critical issue in Florida, where the GOP primary will be held on Jan. 31. Gingrich, his chief rival, earned more than $1.6 million working as a consultant to Freddie Mac. The mortgage giant was heavily involved in the subprime lending business that helped drive the housing bubble.
"Housing has become a mess in large measure because the government got in the middle of it," Romney said. "I'm running against a guy, as you know, in this primary, who was out there working for one of those guys in the case of Freddie Mac."
Freddie Mac, a government-sponsored enterprise, was originally designed to help more people get access to mortgages to buy homes.
Romney himself hasn't outlined any specific proposals to help fix the housing market. He says improving the economy will allow Americans to regain their footing and keep their homes.
Since coming to Florida, though, he's softened his rhetoric. Last year, he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the government should let the foreclosure crisis "run its course and hit the bottom." Now, he's saying the housing market needs to be "reset" so that the American economy can "rebuild."
"The distress they're feeling here was heartbreaking," Romney told reporters after the Monday roundtable. "I want to do my very best to help people like that."
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