The two earliest voting states — Iowa and New Hampshire — also are gripped by economic worries, even though they have among the nation’s lowest jobless rates and relatively few housing problems.
Those divergent circumstances call for the kinds of tailored economic strategies that the GOP candidates have mostly avoided in the campaign’s early stages.
As the candidates seek to harness the economic anxiety eating away at President Obama’s popularity, they have focused on items central to Republican orthodoxy: reducing taxes, cutting government spending, jettisoning regulations and promoting free trade.
“So far, the candidates have been playing it a little bit safe and have been tapping into the general anxiety that people feel,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “They have been mostly sticking to Republican canon.”
As they prepare for Tuesday night’s debate, co-sponsored by The Washington Post and Bloomberg at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, none of the GOP candidates has been able to securely grasp the front-runner’s mantle.
Since the start of the campaign, one candidate after another — first Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), then Texas Gov. Rick Perry — has rallied and then faded in the polls. Businessman Herman Cain most recently has been catapulted to the top tier, alongside Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Part of the reason for the turbulence could be that many voters have yet to hear specific solutions to the specific economic problems their regions face. The difficulty confronting the GOP candidates, not to mention Obama, is that the economic problems — and possible solutions — vary widely across the country.
Factory workers in critical swing states such as Michigan and Ohio have been buoyed by the Obama administration’s auto bailout, which helped reverse the car industry’s long slide. For many of them, the idea of government intervention is a good thing.
But many workers in South Carolina think the opposite is true, partly because a government agency, the National Labor Relations Board, through a charge of unfair labor practices, is seeking to force Boeing to move production jobs for its new 787 Dreamliner from a nonunion plant in South Carolina to a unionized one in Washington state. Critics say the move could cost the state 1,000 jobs, lending resonance to the GOP admonition that government must simply “get out of the way.”
The Boeing case has been a rallying point for the GOP candidates, who highlight it as an example of how the Obama administration’s regulatory approach and its support of organized labor threaten jobs.
South Carolina has one of the nation’s highest jobless rates, 11.1 percent. Analysts blame it largely on a manufacturing sector that has been overwhelmed by competition from low-cost foreign suppliers. Although the state’s textile industry is among those that have lamented free-trade agreements, Republican candidates have been advocates for more such pacts.
“South Carolina has seen the trade issue cut both ways,” said Dave Woodard, a political scientist and GOP consultant in South Carolina. “It has devastated the textile industry, but it has allowed firms such as Honda, Fujifilm and BMW to emerge as large employers.”
In Nevada, where the unemployment rate is 13.4 percent, many of the economic woes are related to this fact: More than three in five homes are “underwater,” meaning owners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. In Florida, 45 percent of homes with loans are underwater, and unemployment is at 10.7 percent.
Obama has acknowledged that his administration’s policies have been inadequate in addressing the nation’s housing woes. Still, the GOP candidates have not laid out proposals many people hit hard by the housing crash are hoping to hear.
“So far, the messages being delivered by the candidates have not been Florida-specific,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn (D). “We have been devastated by the real estate collapse.”
When the candidates have gotten specific, they have sometimes run into trouble. Perry’s assertion, for example, that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” has drawn sharp attacks from other candidates, particularly Romney, who has emphasized his plans to reform the program.
“There is dissatisfaction about the size of government. There is dissatisfaction about the deficit, the debt and bailouts,” said Sean Snaith, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. “But there’s a rub. Florida is an older state with a lot of retirees. They are not happy when you come out and call Social Security a Ponzi scheme.”
At the same time, Snaith said, people feel like “something big has to happen. We’re not on a course that will require only minor adjustments to get us back on track.”
In unveiling his 59-point plan for the economy in Nevada last month, Romney detailed steps he would take to reduce taxes, reform regulations, broaden trade and roll back the president’s health-care reform plan. The larger goal, he says, is to encourage the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit and replace Obama.
The president “faced a recession and he made it worse. He announced a recovery summer; a year and a half later, we’re still waiting,” Romney said at the Values Voter Summit held in Washington over the weekend. “Twenty-five million Americans out of work or out of hope. Chronic unemployment is worse than at any time in recorded history. Home values and retirement funds have been devastated.”
Cain has touted a tax reform plan that he said would unleash economic growth. The 9-9-9 plan would do away with the current federal tax system and replace it with a 9 percent personal income tax, a 9 percent corporate income tax and a 9 percent national sales tax.
Perry, meanwhile, has boasted about his job creation record in Texas. He says his state’s combination of low taxation, minimal regulation and small government has allowed Texas to be home to 40 percent of the nation’s new jobs since mid-2009.
“Get out of the way, government,” Perry said at a dinner attended by a few hundred GOP supporters last month in Jefferson, Iowa. “Let the private sector do what the private sector does best, which is to create jobs, which in turn creates wealth.”
But his record in Texas comes with a caveat that undercuts part of his pitch: A disproportionate share of the jobs created in his fast-growing state during his years as governor have been in government.
The other candidates, including former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Bachmann, have focused more on their broad economic philosophies than tailoring their ideas to specific parts of the country.
Some analysts say that, at this point, candidates are calculating that voters want them to acknowledge their concerns rather than offer precise remedies.
“The voters in the Republican primaries and caucuses are really looking for a candidate who they think is going to pay attention to their [anxiety],” said Timothy M. Hagle, a University of Iowa political scientist. “That makes the substantive issues secondary.”
Staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this report.