WASHINGTON -- In a state where the loss of a family home perhaps has been the most painful outcome of the stressed economy, Mitt Romney took hits Tuesday from Nevada leaders of both parties after commenting that the government should let the foreclosure process "run its course and hit the bottom."
The comments from the former Massachusetts governor came as all eyes were on Las Vegas, where the Republican presidential candidates gathered to debate. They gave Democrats fresh fodder against the presumed GOP front-runner in the battleground state.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Romney's comments were insensitive at best and illustrated the differences between Democrats and Republicans.
"Nevada has the highest foreclosure rate in America, and it has for almost three years," Reid said . "And here's what Mitt Romney said. He would just let them hit rock bottom. I don't know what's more graphic than that in how we have different views of what the world should be like than our Republican friends."
Reid later said the former Massachusetts governor should apologize to "the thousands of Nevada families struggling to keep a roof over their heads."
"With the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, Nevadans can't afford someone in the White House whose response to this crisis is 'tough luck,' " Reid said in a statement put out by the state Democratic Party.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., distanced himself from the Republican presidential contender.
"Senator Heller does not agree with Mitt Romney," spokesman Stewart Bybee said. "His plan could take up to six to eight years for recovery, and that is time that Nevada just does not have."
Likewise, Gov. Brian Sandoval "respectfully disagrees" with Romney, senior adviser Dale Erquiaga said. Sandoval was at the debate with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom he has endorsed.
Sandoval remains supportive of mortgage mediations and other efforts to avert foreclosures.
"Even if it is a state by state solution, we need a solution that keeps people in their homes," Erquiaga said.
In Nevada, 9,622 properties were in foreclosure in September, a nation-worst rate of one for every 118 housing units, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure tracking service. About two-thirds of homeowners are "underwater," meaning they owe more than their home is worth.
Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., has endorsed Romney. Heck thinks the housing market "does need to reach bottom," a spokesman said, but supports "a soft landing rather than a hard crash" by having the government continue to offer refinancing help .
Romney made his comments during a meeting Monday with the editorial board of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Asked what he would do specifically to address the mortgage crisis in Nevada and elsewhere, Romney said, "Don't try and stop the foreclosure process; let it run its course and hit the bottom."
"Allow investors to buy homes, put renters in them, fix the homes up and let it turn around and come back up," Romney said. "The Obama administration has slow-walked the foreclosure processes that have long existed, and as a result, we still have a foreclosure overhang."
Romney said offering tax credits to first-time home buyers, a practice that originated in the Bush administration, "was an ineffective idea."
"It was inadequate to turn around the housing market," he said comparing it to the "Cash for Clunkers" program that subsidized auto purchases for people who traded in older cars .
The $8,000 credit for first-time buyers was "throwing government money at something that was not market-oriented," Romney said. "It did not stanch the decline in home values any more than it encouraged the auto industry to take off."
Romney said he would consider expanding efforts to help people rescue their homes through refinancing, "but I am not signing on until I find out who is going to pay and who is going to get bailed out. That's not something to which we know the answers to yet."
A spokesman for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign said Romney's message to Nevadans "is simple: You're on your own, so step aside."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.