CANTON, Ohio -– Mitt Romney's campaign sees a chance to reduce President Barack Obama's edge on the auto bailouts issue in a struggle for crucial votes in Ohio.
The opening, campaign aides said, springs from a comment Obama made in the final debate last week.
"You were very clear that you would not provide government assistance to the U.S. auto companies, even if they went through bankruptcy. You said that they could get it in the private marketplace," Obama said to Romney in the debate.
In Defiance, Ohio, on Thursday evening, at a large rally with what the Romney campaign said was a crowd of 12,000 people in the part of the state most dependent on auto jobs, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) took to the stage to introduce Romney to the crowd. And in his warm-up speech, Portman spent a few minutes talking at length on the auto bailout issue. He zeroed in on Obama's debate comment.
Obama "said that Mitt Romney didn't want the auto industry to get any government help. We need to talk about this," Portman said. "Mitt Romney did propose government help. He proposed government guarantees for loans. He proposed deductions backing up warranties. And folks all the independent fact-checkers who have looked at this agree: President Obama was wrong. He was not telling the truth."
Portman also pointed out, correctly, that "it was President Obama who actually took GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy."
Portman's reference about fact-checkers was to a Politifact article this week that examined Obama's accusation in the debate and rated it "mostly false."
Reading the Politifact article is a glimpse into the complexities of the bailouts, and Romney's position. Romney, in a 2008 New York Times op-ed that the newspaper titled, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," wrote that "it is not wrong to ask for government help, but the automakers should come up with a win-win proposition."
Romney's position was that the auto companies needed to restructure before receiving government assistance. He said that "the federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk."
Politifact pointed out that Romney's comment may have indicated support for government help to sustain GM and Chrysler as they worked through a managed bankruptcy, or government help after a privately financed bankruptcy. But in 2008, when President George W. Bush was considering giving the auto companies what amounted to a bridge loan to get them into 2009, the U.S. economy was in meltdown and there was no private financing available.
What makes matters even murkier is that Romney has made comments in the years since 2008 that indicated he did not think the auto companies should have received any taxpayer funds during bankruptcy.
Regardless, the Romney campaign believes Obama's statement, and a fact-checker article rendering the president's comment false, is enough for it to wage a fresh assault on an issue that has undoubtedly hurt the Republican candidate badly in northern Ohio.
"They've dropped the auto bailout on us," Romney political director Rich Beeson told Politico on Friday. "But … there’s only so long you can ride that one-trick pony, and they just kept pounding away at it, and so that's baked in right now and we're tied.”
Romney needs every vote he can get in Ohio, with the polls showing Obama maintaining a small lead in the Buckeye State. So even a small measure of doubt about Obama's assertions on the bailouts is enough to undo some of the damage that's been done, according to the Romney campaign.
Republican strategist Mike Murphy told National Journal that if Romney can increase support among white voters in Ohio, it may be enough to deliver the state, and the presidency.
Obama isn't letting up, either. In Cleveland on Thursday, the president said that "if Mitt Romney had been president when the auto industry was on the verge of collapse, we might not have an American auto industry today."
Obama also was eager to revisit the debate.
"I mean, I don’t know how a guy sits on a stage, talking to tens of millions of fellow Americans, and you are saying somehow that you were all for the auto industry when everybody remembers you weren’t," Obama said. "The people of Detroit remember. The people of Ohio remember."
The Romney campaign is going to continue talking about this, one campaign source said. On Friday, Portman wrote an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer litigating the bailouts in detail.
"It is simply inaccurate to say that Mitt Romney would not have provided federal help," Portman wrote.
Portman argued that "President Obama engineered a more 'political' bankruptcy that had the federal government playing a bigger role, while Gov. Romney proposed a process that he believed would have put these manufacturers in a more competitive position for the long haul."
And in his warm-up for Romney here on Friday night, Portman again made the argument he had made on Thursday in Defiance.
Romney never mentioned the auto bailouts either night, showing he is unwilling to directly engage the issue. Romney did mention, on Thursday, a story that had been reported by Bloomberg earlier in the week that was interpreted by some to mean that Jeep was considering moving some of its production to China. Chrysler denied it was moving production to China, and Romney did not mention the story on Friday.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the publishing date of the Bloomberg story and stated incorrectly that the story had been updated.