WASHINGTON -- It took awhile but it's a relief to finally know what this presidential election is about. It's about making Jeeps in Toledo.
It's somehow appropriate that this muddy, down-and-dirty campaign is ending with a focus on the Jeep, which war born in World War Two and became the automotive symbol of American toughness, simplicity, ingenuity and freedom in the fight against fascism.
As Richard Nixon once said, presidential elections are "always about Ohio." In 2012, Ohio, in turn, is all about the auto industry. And Jeep, as it happens, embodies the future of the industry. It is not an exaggeration to say that, if President Barack Obama wins reelection behind a firewall of the Electoral College, it will be because of the auto industry rescue his administration led in 2009.
The bailout not only kept GM and Chrysler (and Jeep) afloat; it gave Obama his most convincing talking point in Ohio, Western Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all places he must win, and all places where he is currently hanging on to leads.
Even before being sworn in, and after, the president supported massive government interventions in the private economy -- the biggest since, and in some way bigger than, FDR in the Depression.
They didn't all work, actually or politically.
His direct investments in "new" technologies and industries have mostly been a bust, in large part because China dropped the price floor on green technology.
The president's follow-up to the Bush-era bank rescue worked, in the sense that the big banks are now flush with cash. But it paid no direct political dividends. No one likes the big banks. They aren't lending enough money to consumers. The evidence of their survival is largely invisible, except to the extent that voters see obscene Wall Street salaries and bonuses once again.
By contrast, the benefits of the auto bailout are literally at street level: in a popular Chevy Camaro, a Chrysler, a cutting-edge Cadillac -- or one of the many Jeep models that have more casual cred, but cost half as much, as a Mercedes, BMW or Lexus SUV.
And the results can be seen on the assembly line: a million jobs saved in the industry itself and in supply chains that reach out through the Midwest and Upper South. One in eight workers in Ohio owes his or her job, in one way or another, to the industry.
No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio, and you don't win Ohio if industrial workers are unified against you.
The man who put the auto deal together, but who then largely vanished from the public scene, was a New York investment banker named Steven Rattner. He and his firm got into hot water for they way they solicited deposits from New York state pension funds for investments. But no one ever doubted Rattner's political smarts or talent as a Wall Street dealmaker.
Rattner, who was a lead economics reporter for The New York Times in his 20s before going into the investment world, is back on the campaign trail this week -- in Ohio and on conference calls. He is using his detailed knowledge and soundbite skills to attack Mitt Romney as the Man Who Would Led The Industry Die.
In an infamous op-ed piece in The Times, Romney wrote that the auto companies should go through bankruptcy in the courts, after which they might be eligible for some forms of federal aid.
"There would have been no 'after,'" Rattner said Monday. "There was no private capital. Without the help that President Obama provided, the car companies would have to stop making cars. The result would have been economic devastation. Even Ford would have had to shut down at least temporarily for lack of parts."
A renewed Chrysler, now owned by Fiat, is investing $500 million in a state-of-the-art plant in Toledo to add a third and perhaps fourth line to its Jeep production facility -- which will mean 1,100 new jobs there.
That is good news for Obama in an area that has long been considered an "Ohio of Ohio" swing-voter region.
Romney responded last week and over the weekend with speeches and a "stealth" ad -- shown without fanfare and only in the Toledo area -- accusing Chrysler and Obama of plotting to shift Jeep production to China. There IS a long-standing -- and long-shuttered -- Chrysler facility in China, which the company might conceivably re-open some day to serve the growing China market.
But Chrysler, and the Obama administration, have strenuously denied that doing so would affect expansion plans in Toledo. "Romney's making a twisted and completely fallacious point," said Rattner. "There is no validity to it whatsoever," he added.
So says one Wall Street guy whom blue-collar voters in Ohio might believe -- or so the president and his campaign have to hope.
For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.
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