LEHIGH ACRES -- Standing in front of a foreclosed home in Florida's foreclosure capital, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney promised Tuesday that he'd scale back government regulations to improve the housing market.
Romney described the new bank-regulation law, known as the Dodd-Frank Act, as a "massive pile of regulations" that made it tougher for banks to refinance loans and, he said, essentially encouraged foreclosures rather than halt them.
"The banks aren't bad people," Romney said. "They're just overwhelmed right now."
Democrats dispute the notion that regulations have saddled banks, and say more laws are needed to keep people in their homes.
Regardless, to Republicans, Dodd-Frank is a bad word now. When Romney mentioned it, the crowd booed.
Romney also drew a link between the housing crisis and Freddie Mac, a federal loan-backer that paid opponent Newt Gingrich an estimated $1.6 million. Gingrich has said he was paid both as a "consultant" and as an "historian."
"I'm waiting to see the history he wrote for Freddie Mac. Let's see what he was doing," Romney said, repeating his criticisms from the debate Monday night when he called Gingrich an "influence peddler."
Romney also pointed to the human toll of the housing crisis: 33-year-old Chris Davis, a YMCA worker, father of a 5-year-old boy and husband of a local school teacher.
Mr. Davis, who did not live at the house Romney spoke in front of, declined to talk to reporters.
The Davis family, Romney said, had tried to get out of a bad mortgage and were advised to stop making their monthly payments to get the lender to renegotiate. They got a foreclosure notice, had to fight to keep their home and finally got their new mortgage approved, Romney said.
Months later, the bank then tried to foreclosure anyway because, it said, it mistakenly applied the timely monthly payments from the new loan to the old loan.
"This is the kind of thing that's happening all over Florida," Romney said. "One-quarter of the homes in foreclosure in America are in Florida."
Romney told the story on a small neighborhood street in this new development pockmarked with new, empty homes.
"This is a real depressing place," said James McKee, a Republican spectator who had helped canvass the neighborhood as a U.S. Census crew chief. "Some streets have three homes, and two are empty because of foreclosures."
McKee said he voted early by absentee ballot for Romney on Jan. 10, and he wouldn't want to change his vote now that Gingrich is leading. McKee said Romney was "more presidential, more stable" than Gingrich.
McKee said the volume of political mailers, television ads and pre-recorded robo-calls have been staggering – a sign of the intensity of the conflict heading into the Jan. 31 election.
Another spectator, Terri Mann, said she wasn't sure whom she'd vote for. She liked Rick Santorum because he is consistent. And she appreciated Romney because he's a "good guy."
Mann, 50, said she was "nervous" about Gingrich because he was unpredictable. But she liked the fact that he was tough and smart.
"We all love Newt because he can beat the crap out of Obama on the debate stage," she said. "Newt says what conservatives have been feeling for a long time."
Marc Caputo, Miami Herald