YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Vice President Joe Biden, campaigning in Democratic territory with high unemployment, went after Republican Mitt Romney's business background Wednesday and cast him as a corporate raider more interested in profits than people.
Biden said the former businessman favors policies that benefit the well-to-do over average people. He said President Barack Obama wants to give everyone a fair shake and make sure everyone plays by the same rules.
"These guys don't get it," Biden said, his voice rising as he addressed supporters on a factory floor in Youngstown, where the unemployment rate is 10.4 percent, more than 2 points above the national average.
"As long as the government helps the guys at the top, workers and small businesses and communities, they can fend for themselves," Biden said. At the same time, "the big guy is doing well," he said.
The speech in Ohio, an economically battered state that will help decide the November presidential election, continued the effort by Obama's campaign to portray Romney as more in tune with rich people like himself.
Obama's campaign and an independent group that supports the president have begun airing ads in several states, including Ohio, that highlight the failure of a Missouri-based steel company that was bought by Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney helped get off the ground. GST Steel later went bankrupt in 2001, costing 750 people their jobs. Romney was no longer with Bain at the time of GST's collapse.
"Nobody knows better than the people in the (Mahoning River) valley the consequences of that kind of philosophy. You have been through hell and back," Biden said.
After Romney's company bought the Missouri steel company, its debt increased from $13 million to $533 million, Biden said. "When you get that kind of debt and things turn bad, you're dead, you're done," he said.
Biden said the company wound up in bankruptcy court, leaving employees without health care or pensions. Thirty top executives came away with $9 million and Romney and his partners came out with $12 million, Biden said.
In a response to the vice president, Bain Capital said it had tried to make GST prosperous amid a difficult steel industry environment.
"Bain Capital undertook an ambitious plan in 1993 to turnaround GST Steel, a struggling manufacturer of specialty steel products that was slated for closure if no investor could be found," the company said in a statement.
"We invested more than $100 million and many thousands of hours into this turnaround, upgrading its facilities in an attempt to make the company competitive. This was unfortunately at a time when the steel industry came under enormous pressure, and nearly half of all U.S. steel companies went into bankruptcy."
Romney's campaign said he has a net job creation record both as a businessman and from his term as Massachusetts governor. It countered the attack on Bain Capital by citing Solyndra, a California-based solar energy company that collapsed despite receiving more than $500 million in Obama administration loans.
"President Obama has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on unsuccessful policies that have not created jobs, burdened future generations with massive debt and resulted in failed investments like Solyndra," said Romney spokeswoman Sarah Pompei.
Biden's speech came a day after Romney portrayed Obama as an agent of reckless spending who is leading the country toward a threatening debt crisis. And it comes two days after the Obama campaign signaled it would make Romney's tenure at Bain Capital an issue in a campaign that both sides are trying to keep focused on the economy and jobs.
The back and forth illustrates the power of the economy as the dominant campaign issue this year, leaving voters to decide whether the slow recovery represents a success or a failure.
In the Senate on Wednesday, lawmakers rejected five budget plans, including one based on Obama's February budget and offered by Republicans to embarrass Democrats and the White House. That vote was 99-0, prompting Romney to tell supporters at a fundraiser in Coral Gables, Fla., that Obama couldn't get any support even in his own party.
"He has shown a remarkable lack of leadership, and this is an individual who has not been in a leadership capacity before, and is learning on the job, and perhaps is making a little progress – I don't know," Romney said. "I can't see any evidence of progress they've made in terms of that leadership capacity, but the vote today is another example of the people of Washington saying that this president can't get the job done."
In choosing Youngstown for Biden's speech, the Obama campaign picked a symbol of Rust Belt economic struggles. But as Ohio's unemployment rate has dropped by 3 percentage points in two years, Biden is casting Obama economic policies as a success.
Biden made a brief stop at the Salem fire department south of Youngstown to shake hands with firefighters and onlookers. The department used a $300,000 federal grant to recall three laid-off firefighters.
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in Coral Gables, Fla., contributed to this report.