TAMPA — Mitt Romney sat down with eight Tampa Bay residents suffering the side effects of a sagging housing market for a roundtable discussion Monday morning.
As each person recounted their struggles with banks, lenders, mortgages, loans and employment, the Republican presidential candidate expressed his sympathies, calling the accounts "just tragic," and said they "break my heart."
Romney did not specify policies he would enact or change if elected, but blamed regulatory laws for paralyzing banks and vowed to focus on job creation.
"The banks are scared to death . . . they're feeling the same thing you're feeling," he said to the group at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel in downtown Tampa.
But that was of little comfort to roundtable participant Candice Tamney, who has been unemployed for three years and was served foreclosure papers in October.
"I'm going to be living in my home until I'm kicked out," she said. "This system is not working for those who need it."
Richard Wood, a Bradenton resident who recently shut down his small insurance company, said he and his wife are overwhelmed by debt and unsure if they can afford a future in the United States.
"We've been exploring the possibility of moving to another country, where we might be able to live on our retirement and Social Security," he said.
But Romney asked the group to hold out hope for the future.
"It will get better," he said. "We'll not always be like this. This is a detour from America's history."
In a news conference following the 8:30 a.m. discussion, Romney emphasized opponent Newt Gingrich's ties to mortgage lender Freddie Mac and declared that the former House speaker's consulting work was a thinly veiled lobbying effort.
"Saying that Newt Gingrich is a lobbyist is just a matter of fact," Romney said. "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck."
He added that Gingrich "ought to give back" the money he made as a Freddie Mac consultant.
This message was a key component of a new offensive campaign Romney launched Sunday that alleges "Newt Gingrich cashed in" while "Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis."
Gingrich was also in Tampa and expected to hold an afternoon rally following his victory in the South Carolina primary.
Romney planned no more public events before tonight's GOP debate at USF Tampa. Sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, NBC News, National Journal and the Florida Council of 100, the 9 p.m. debate can be watched live on NBC or tampabay.com.