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Years of Despair Add to Uncertainty in Florida Race

Only four years ago, life certainly seemed on the upswing for Kate and Marcus Freeman, young professionals who had recently moved from Worcester, Mass., into a new house in Lakeland here in sun-splashed central Florida, where they hoped to enjoy the warmer weather and new jobs. He was an accountant. She would be teaching preschool.

Florida Buildings
Source: Getty Images
Florida Buildings

The future was not supposed to look like this: On Saturday, Mr. and Ms. Freeman were sweating at an intersection off Interstate 4, selling chili for $5 a jar to help save their home, which is in foreclosure. Mr. Freeman, 38, was laid off last year. The couple, who have two sons, fell behind on mortgage payments. Now, hope is in a jar of chili with a label that reads “Freeman’s Home.” On a good weekend, they can clear $130 after expenses.

“One day at a time, that’s all you can do,” said Ms. Freeman, 37, aware that the fight for her house was taking place on an even larger battleground — the politically crucial Interstate 4 corridor, running from Tampa to Orlando to Daytona Beach over seven diverse and struggling counties that tend to swing the most of any in this swing state. The leading Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have been making their cases here, with back-and-forth barbs about the housing crisis being the most contentious issue. They continued to spar on the topic Sunday in a busy day of campaigning in which Mr. Gingrich moved to consolidate the support of grass-roots conservatives.

Ms. Freeman said the candidates needed to be attuned to the suffering in Florida.

“I want the candidates to be real and honest and really take a good look at what’s going on in America and definitely for us in Polk County, Florida,” said Ms. Freeman, who described herself as an undecided conservative Christian voter. “We need to look at home.”

While the most recent polls show Mr. Romney in the lead, shifting demographics and long-term despair here add an unpredictable element to the fight for Florida. It is unclear whether that will ultimately favor an anti-establishment candidate like Mr. Gingrich or a business-focused campaigner like Mr. Romney.

One thing is certain: the people of central Florida are bound to see intense campaigning far beyond the Republican primary on Tuesday. President Obama won important parts of this territory — including Orlando and Tampa — in 2008, but President George W. Bush captured it twice before that. It is, like so many strawberries that dot the landscape, ripe for picking.

A reporter’s journey from Daytona Beach to Tampa along Interstate 4 over the weekend revealed that where the upstart optimism of Florida’s building boom was once in full tilt, the mood was sour now. Voters were focused on one thing: the state’s troubled economy, which has been slower to recover from the recession than that of most states, with 1 of every 360 housing units still in foreclosure.

Every county but one along Interstate 4 has grown since the heady days that came after 2000, according to census data. The non-Cuban Hispanic and black populations have grown, and the bases for both Republicans and Democrats have fluctuated, depending on the county, according to voter registration information. The only group that has grown across all counties since 2008 is undeclared voters.

At the elementary school where Ms. Freeman teaches, 87 percent of children receive a free or reduced-cost lunch, an indicator of poverty rates. And around Lakeland, the largest town in Polk County, the unemployment rate has risen to 11 percent, up from 8 percent four years ago. All of the major cities along Interstate 4 have unemployment rates above the national average of 8.5 percent. Orlando, perhaps buffered a bit by tourism, is the lowest of them, at 9.3 percent.

“You try to find the silver lining, but it’s hard,” said Mr. Freeman, who has enrolled in business classes at a local community college, hoping to turn his homemade chili into a marketable brand. “Maybe five years down the road, things can be different.”

Others express more bitterness.

"SORRY, I'M NOT HIRING"

“I’m a business owner in Daytona Beach, and for the last eight years I’ve watched the business go downhill straight into the gutter,” said George St. Pierre Jr., an airbrush artist who runs a novelty shop off Main Street near the Atlantic Ocean. “Where I used to be able to employ a lot of people, now I have to do all the work myself and tell people, ‘Sorry, I’m not hiring.’ I used to make decent money. Down, down, down: that’s tourism. And I don’t see any change coming.”

Mr. St. Pierre said he had been a lifelong Republican but would not be voting that way this year, highlighting the potential obstacles he believed that the party faced in trying to energize its traditional loyalists here. “I will vote for a third party before I vote for anything that’s out there right now,” he said. “To me, there’s nobody good out there who really cares about what’s going on here, I don’t care how you slice it.

“One had those ethics violations,” he said of Mr. Gingrich, referring to his time as House speaker. “As for the other one,” he said of Mr. Romney, “he is just a liar.”

Others also seemed primed for a third-party candidacy.

“I’m going to do a wait-and-see at this point,” JoAnn Mellen, 68, a retired phone company worker, said over lunch Friday in Deltona, just north of Orlando. “We could have a dark horse. I’m hoping there would be someone out there that would make you feel: ‘Oh, man! He’s the one.’ ”

The housing market is atop her list of concerns. “Especially at our age, we’ve all been in our houses a long time and we’d like to unload, get smaller. And you just can’t,” said Ms. Mellen, who said she voted for Senator John McCain in 2008.

Her brother, John Palmer, 74, said he would probably back Mr. Gingrich, but also said he did not like him enough to put up a yard sign in his neighborhood, where 30 out of 150 homes are in foreclosure. “Could the president do anything about it?” he wondered aloud. “Probably not.”

There is a palpable sense of resignation. The Lopez family of five shopped for clothes on Saturday at a yard sale in Plant City, just east of Tampa, trying on shoes and shirts. “We used to shop at J. C. Penney ,” said Sofia, 12, who is of Mexican descent. “But my mom doesn’t take us there anymore. We find things at places like this.”

Rocio Araujo, who is originally from Ecuador, is co-owner of a beauty salon in Kissimmee, outside Orlando. She moved here from Queens seven years ago to take a shot as an entrepreneur. “It’s hard, right, because there’s a lot of people thinking, ‘If we spend today, what’s going to happen tomorrow?’ ”

Ms. Araujo said customers routinely bargained for discounts on hair services that cost $25. Her home has lost value. She said she could not afford to think about retirement. “People are sick from stress because they are worried every day,” she said.

“I’m a Democrat, but I’m really confused and I don’t know if I’m going to vote this year or pass,” Ms. Araujo continued. “I always think of this as a blessed country, so it breaks my heart.”

In the community of Misty Glen, outside Tampa in Hillsborough County, there is a sign of recovery, however slight. The original builder abandoned Misty Glen several years ago, leaving a few homeowners amid a partially constructed development. Six months ago, a new builder took over, and a dozen houses have filled some of the empty spaces. A fence has gone up, and a park.

Hillsborough, with 1.2 million residents, is the most populous of the counties along Interstate 4.

“In my opinion, Hillsborough still is struggling from the housing standpoint — a lot of foreclosures, a lot of short sales,” said Jarett Rieger, 35, a lawyer. “But at least our area right here, this pocket right here, seems to be turning the corner.”

But, he added, “I don’t know that the temperament or the mood is much improved throughout the county.”

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