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POLITICS: White House

Fight over auto bailout reaches boiling point in Ohio

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Photo - Chrysler sign (Getty Images)
Chrysler sign (Getty Images)
Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

TOLEDO, Ohio - Two words have defined the scramble for votes in this swath of blue-collar terrain where hard hats, work boots and goggles are the dress code: "auto bailout."

Cars are the lifeblood of this community, where a Jeep plant employs thousands. And both President Obama and Mitt Romney have bent over backward to convince Ohioans they are on the right side of an issue that carries more currency here than any place outside Detroit.

Ohio remains too close to call, but if Obama prevails here, some said it will be because of the federal bailout he pushed for American car manufacturers.

"Barack Obama saved my job," said Brian Sims, a 29-year veteran at Jeep and member of the United Auto Workers union. "We all talk about what would have happened without the bailout. It's not pretty."

Looking to stoke that sentiment, the Obama campaign dispatched former President Clinton -- and his folksy charm -- here Thursday to make a closing argument aimed at undecided voters.

"Mitt Romney has come to Ohio time and time again and tied himself in knots," Clinton said of the former Massachusetts governor's blueprint for saving the automakers, mocking recent Romney ads that insist Chrysler and General Motors are outsourcing American jobs to China.

Obama has virtually demonized Romney for a New York Times op-ed headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," even though Romney, the son of a former auto company president, claims the headline misrepresented his position and what he'd written. Romney said he would support aiding automakers if they could devise a "win-win proposition" that would actually turn the industry around.

And now Romney claims that, despite the bailout, Jeep would begin building its vehicles in China, a charge that Obama and the car companies deny.

One of every eight jobs in Ohio is tied to the auto industry, and the race for the White House could hinge on whether voters feel Obama saved automakers or gave them an unwarranted handout.

"Jeep is booming," Isaac Hubbard, of Toledo, concluded. "You have to give Obama credit for that. I think Romney is saying a lot of things he doesn't really mean to get elected."

But the heavy focus on the bailout carries risks for the president.

"It's all they talk about," Toledo's Jeff Atkins, a local telecommunications worker, complained. "We don't know what would have happened if they didn't take the bailout. I just don't like bailouts -- never will."

The bailout marked a turnaround for the president, who initially shied away from touting such assistance during the midterm elections two years ago, when the bailout was far less popular. But he now tells Ohio voters that he saved the automakers and invested heavily in the middle class while his opponent remains more concerned with protecting the interests of the wealthy.

Some analysts said this message is a political winner in the Buckeye State but not necessarily in other battlegrounds.

"The auto bailout has really been Obama's calling card in Ohio, but on the national level, many still see it as a sign of big government," said Melissa Miller, a political scientist at Bowling Green State University. "The unfortunate thing for Romney is that he hasn't been able to respond effectively."

Proving that the bailout is important to Obama's prospects in Ohio, the Rev. Kevin Bedford, pastor of Third Baptist Church in Toledo, opened the Clinton rally Thursday with a prayer that included a thank-you to Obama for "saving the auto industry."

To which many in the crowd replied, "Amen."

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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