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Romney: Virginia shipbuilding jobs on the line in election

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Photo - A decommissioned aircraft carrier en route to Norfolk (Getty Images)
A decommissioned aircraft carrier en route to Norfolk (Getty Images)
Politics,Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney is hoping there are a lot of people just like Ken O'Leary in Hampton Roads.

O'Leary, who works at Newport News Shipbuilding, came into the 2012 election undecided. But after Romney vowed to increase the size of the Navy to 313 ships, O'Leary felt he had to vote with his paycheck.

"In the past, I haven't voted like that," O'Leary said. "But when I don't feel strongly about one candidate or the other, it's sort of the one thing pushing me over."

In debates, on the campaign trail and in a new radio ad, Romney is trying to undercut President Obama in Virginia by questioning his commitment to shipbuilding, a vital industry in the Navy-centric Hampton Roads. But in the state's shipyards, Romney and Obama supporters agree that they've seen a steady flow of work during Obama's first term.

"Regardless of the president, the demand is defined by the Navy," said John Anderson, a Romney supporter and a dock manager at Newport News Shipbuilding for the last 12 years. "It shows a disconnect on their part between the Navy and their ideas. They're politicizing it. That's what they do."

Romney charged in the final presidential debate that "our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917." The Navy's fleet was smallest, however, in 2007 under President George W. Bush, a Republican. The Navy had 278 active ships then, compared with 285 now.

While the fleet is certainly smaller than it was 20 years ago, when there were 450 active ships, Obama likened the decline to having "fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed." His point was that technological advances allowed the Navy to maintain strength with a smaller force. But Republicans charged that the Navy needs additional muscle to project power around the globe and is unlikely to get it from an unsympathetic Obama.

"Our ships are the best in the world, but at some point, quantity [of ships in other countries] overcomes quality," said Rep. Rob Wittman, a Republican whose district includes parts of Newport News and Hampton, where the shipyard remains the largest employer. "You can look at the past and where the numbers are, but we should be looking strategically at the Navy going forward."

Democrats counter that for all his criticism of the president, Romney failed to provide any detailed plans for expanding the fleet.

"Just counting ships is an absurd way to measure the strength of your Navy," said Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat representing Virginia's shipyards. "The president has expressed support for nuclear subs and aircraft carriers, and that is where [shipbuilders in] Hampton Roads [have] an interest."

Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., which employs more than 21,000 Virginians at its Newport News shipyard, stands to gain from any plan to further grow the Navy. And while a spokesman said the company isn't picking sides in the presidential race, its workers are betting that they'll have work under Romney or Obama.

"I understand people are worried about the military on the peninsula, but the military is always going to be the military," said Stanley Lofton, an engineer for Allied Engineering and an Obama backer. "The work will be there."

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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