LORDSTOWN, Ohio — President Barack Obama's decision to help America's 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 Obama's campaign constantly reminds voters they'd 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 hasn't balanced Washington's checkbook the same way voters must.
One in eight jobs in Ohio can be linked to the auto industry — whether it's working on a factory floor or selling groceries to plant workers. The presidential race's outcome could boil down to whether voters interpret Obama's 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 voters' neighbors.
"I couldn't imagine what Lordstown would be," said Brian Axiotis, a 37-year-old Obama supporter who works in information technology and lives in nearby Newton Falls. "A lot of folks would lose their houses. Consider the mess that would have resulted. It'd be a ghost town all over the area."
Since its restructuring, the General Motors plant in this town of 4,000 people southeast of Cleveland has added a third shift — and 1,200 new workers with it — 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 Obama's decision to loan automakers billions a misuse of public dollars. Between calls to voters at Romney's office in Stow, he shakes his head when talking about the government's move to prevent the collapse of GM and Chrysler. The bailout began in 2008 under Republican George W. Bush and Obama extended it.
"I have to run my business responsibly. No one is coming to bail me out if I get into trouble," said Perrotta, a 63-year-old Hudson resident who runs a medical imaging business that employs nine workers. "The bailout was just not fair."
Romney opposed using government money to save the car companies in a 2008 op-ed piece in The New York Times, titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." Romney preferred a managed bankruptcy, without federal money, and has maintained the rescue was unfair, unnecessary and political payback to labor unions.
"If we had taken your advice, Gov. Romney, about our auto industry, we'd be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China," Obama said in Monday's 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 Romney's idea would have had. "I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry," Romney said, touting his affection for American cars, his Detroit roots and his father's leadership of American Motors Corp.
Obama insisted Romney was "trying to airbrush history" 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.
"They should've followed the bankruptcy process that applies to the rest of us who don't have union bosses for friends. They bailed out their buddies," 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. Kennedy's 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.
Obama's allies never hesitate to raise the bailout in visits to the state. "Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive," Vice President Joe Biden roars at rallies, always a sure-fire applause generator.
Obama's team even has former President Bill Clinton making the point.
"It's important to remember than one in eight jobs in the state of Ohio is tied to the auto industry," Clinton told voters in Parma last week. "When you were down and you were out, the president had your back. Now, you've got to have his."
Not so fast, says Dennis Muniak, a 60-year-old Parma resident who attended the Clinton rally near Cleveland.
"Seven out of eight jobs aren't auto jobs," countered Muniak, who is drawing disability benefits.
Back in Trumbull County's city of Warren, just across the railroad tracks from the Lordstown plant, General Motors retiree George Vukovich cast his ballot early for Obama.
"In this valley, we are autos. Obama took care of us. He kept his promise. Now, we have to have his back," the 61-year-old Vukovich said before acknowledging the auto industry's 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.
"We were lucky. We worked through the glory days of the 1970s, '80s and '90s," Vukovich said. "Those days are over. But I have great insurance and I have a great retirement."
Thanks to the taxpayers, Chuck Wirebaugh clucks.
"Obama 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," the 69-year-old retiree from Cortland said after he cast his ballot early for Romney.
"Obama shouldn't have the job," Wirebaugh said. "He should be a used car salesman. It's about the only thing he's qualified to be."