The battle for the Republican presidential nomination has so far been waged in states relatively untouched by the Great Recession. Now it heads to three states with some of the country's highest rates of unemployment and foreclosures.
In South Carolina, where primary voters hit the polls on Jan. 21, unemployment's flying high at 9.9 percent. After that, elections will be in Florida, with a 10 percent unemployment rate, and Nevada, where it's 13 percent. The jobless rates in Iowa and New Hampshire are 5.7 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively.
Nevada leads the nation in both joblessness and foreclosures. One out of every 16 homes in the state was subject to some type of foreclosure filing in 2011, according to Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac, an online marketplace and foreclosure data firm. It's the fifth consecutive year the Silver State has topped RealtyTrac's list. Florida's seventh, with filings on more than 2 percent of homes.
Frontrunner Mitt Romney hasn't pandered to struggling Nevada homeowners. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in October he supports the government stepping aside: "Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom."
It's not likely Romney will have much more to say on his next visit. The candidates didn't talk foreclosure policy in Iowa, even though the state attorney general is leading national foreclosure settlement negotiations with the country's biggest banks. Only Jon Huntsman, who didn't bother to campaign in the Iowa, has taken a position on the settlement.
While the candidates have spoken in broad terms about hard times and recovery, they've offered few specifics on unemployment policy.
Could that change in South Carolina? For the past year lawmakers there have pushed controversial reforms to the unemployment insurance system. State Republican lawmakers succeeded last year in reducing the duration of state-funded jobless aid from 26 to 20 weeks. Now they're pushing to require drug testing and to force the long-term jobless to perform part-time volunteer work.
The South Carolina state senators leading the effort said they don't expect the GOP primary to bring their cause extra national attention (though Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have said in passing that they support drug testing the jobless, so maybe that proposal will get more scrutiny).
"The unemployment issues and that sort of thing haven't been anything anybody's talked about with any of the candidates that I'm aware of," state Sen. Kevin Bryant (R), a leading unemployment reformer, said in an interview. "I think for your average voter, that's probably too specific to campaign on."
The economy was already a top concern in New Hampshire, despite the state's relatively strong economy. Six out of 10 New Hampshire voters told exit pollsters the economy was their top concern, and 94 percent said they were worried about it.