By PHILIP ELLIOTT
LORDSTOWN, Ohio â President Barack Obamaâs decision to help Americaâs automakers could end up being what helps drive him back into the White House.
Some 850,000 jobs in this critical battleground state are tied to autos and Obamaâs campaign constantly reminds voters theyâd be jobless if not for the decision to inject taxpayer dollars into General Motors and Chrysler.
However, the move has not translated into automatic support for the president, even in areas that depend on the industry.
Republican Mitt Romney also is pitching these voters hard with his message that Obama hasnât balanced Washingtonâs checkbook the same way voters must.
One in eight jobs in Ohio can be linked to the auto industry â whether itâs working on a factory floor or selling groceries to plant workers. The presidential raceâs outcome could boil down to whether voters interpret Obamaâs move as saving Detroit or bailing it out. But like other flashpoints in this rough campaign, there is little middle ground between the versions of events and what it means for votersâ neighbors.
âI couldnât imagine what Lordstown would be,â said Brian Axiotis, a 37-year-old Obama supporter who works in information technology and lives in nearby Newton Falls. âA lot of folks would lose their houses. Consider the mess that would have resulted. Itâd be a ghost town all over the area.â
Since its restructuring, the General Motors plant in this town of 4,000 people southeast of Cleveland has added a third shift â and 1,200 new workers with it â to produce the popular compact Chevy Cruze. GM has pledged $220 million in updates to the factory and to keep the 4,500 workers, suggesting this town in the former steel-heavy Mahoning Valley has some stability ahead.
Romney volunteer Frank Perrotta still finds Obamaâs decision to loan automakers billions a misuse of public dollars. Between calls to voters at Romneyâs office in Stow, he shakes his head when talking about the governmentâs move to prevent the collapse of GM and Chrysler. The bailout began in 2008 under Republican George W. Bush and Obama extended it.
âI have to run my business responsibly. No one is coming to bail me out if I get into trouble,â said Perrotta, a 63-year-old Hudson resident who runs a medical imaging business that employs nine workers.
Romney opposed using government money to save the car companies in a 2008 op-ed piece titled âLet Detroit Go Bankrupt.â Romney preferred a managed bankruptcy, without federal money, and has maintained the rescue was unfair, unnecessary and political payback to labor unions.
âIf we had taken your advice, Gov. Romney, about our auto industry, weâd be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China,â Obama said in Mondayâs presidential debate.
His statement sparked one of the most contentious moments of the evening, with the two interrupting and arguing over one another about what impact Romneyâs idea would have had. âI would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry,â Romney said, touting his affection for American cars, his Detroit roots and his fatherâs leadership of American Motors Corp.
Obama insisted Romney was âtrying to airbrush historyâ and suggested voters should check the record.
While GM paid back its loan and the government took an ownership stake, the Treasury Department estimates Washington might lose about $25.1 billion on its investment. It smacks of government waste for its critics.
âThey shouldâve followed the bankruptcy process that applies to the rest of us who donât have union bosses for friends. They bailed out their buddies,â said Loretta Hurite, a 74-year-old Romney supporter from Cuyahoga Falls working the phones in Stow.
And so it continues through the state, where polls are close and both campaigns are in overdrive. No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio, and John F. Kennedyâs 1960 campaign was the last Democratic effort to win the presidency without it. Voters here are bombarded with campaign ads and candidate visits, mail at the ends of their driveways and phone calls at all hours.
Obamaâs allies never hesitate to raise the bailout in visits to the state. âOsama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive,â Vice President Joe Biden roars at rallies, always a sure-fire applause generator.
Obamaâs team even has former President Bill Clinton making the point.
âItâs important to remember than one in eight jobs in the state of Ohio is tied to the auto industry,â Clinton told voters in Parma last week. âWhen you were down and you were out, the president had your back. Now, youâve got to have his.â
Not so fast, says Dennis Muniak, a 60-year-old Parma resident who attended the Clinton rally near Cleveland.
âSeven out of eight jobs arenât auto jobs,â countered Muniak, who is drawing disability benefits.
Back in Trumbull Countyâs city of Warren, just across the railroad tracks from the Lordstown plant, General Motors retiree George Vukovich cast his ballot early for Obama.
âIn this valley, we are autos. Obama took care of us. He kept his promise. Now, we have to have his back,â the 61-year-old Vukovich said before acknowledging the auto industryâs heyday might be in its past.
Across the street from the early voting site, weeds are growing high at a car audio shop that has shut its doors. A retail plaza next door is vacant.
âWe were lucky. We worked through the glory days of the 1970s, â80s and â90s,â Vukovich said. âThose days are over. But I have great insurance and I have a great retirement.â
Thanks to the taxpayers, Chuck Wirebaugh clucks.
âObama sold out to the auto unions. GM would be better off had it gone through bankruptcy like everyone else has to. Instead, they got special treatment and a sweetheart bailout,â the 69-year-old retiree from Cortland said after he cast his ballot early for Romney.
âObama shouldnât have the job,â Wirebaugh said. âHe should be a used car salesman. Itâs about the only thing heâs qualified to be.â