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After narrowly winning the popular vote in Michigan, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visited a North Toledo manufacturer Wednesday, where he took shots at President Obama and touted his own experience in the private sector.
"You're going to have a choice in Ohio," Mr. Romney said. "Do you want someone who has spent his life in the private sector and understands where jobs come from, or do you want someone who has spent his career in Washington?"
It seemed like an easy choice, given the location: Universal Metals LLC, a steel distributor and parent company of American Posts, a fence-post manufacturer. Behind Mr. Romney were big coils of steel. A massive C-hook hung from the ceiling above. And among the roughly 300 people listening to his speech were employees in work boots and safety glasses. It was a picture of American industriousness.
But the North Toledo steel distributor also highlights an irony in Mr. Romney's campaign message, because Universal Metals has benefited heavily from the federal government's bailout of the auto industry, which Mr. Romney opposed.
Still, the company's president, William Feniger, said he's supporting Mr. Romney because he is a businessman who understands how to help small businesses.
PHOTO GALLERY: Romney campaigns in Toledo
OHIO PRIMARY: Election ballot and precinct information
Competition from China
When the company founded American Posts in 2005, there were several other U.S.-based competitors. Today, all but American Posts are gone, the result of fierce competition from China, Mr. Feniger said. American Posts has survived -- and grown, actually -- largely because of its custom-made automated production line. It's the kind of innovation Mr. Romney and other candidates say they want to promote.
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During his speech, Mr. Romney addressed the challenge from China, saying that nation is "cheating" by manipulating its currency to keep the price of its products artificially low. The former Massachusetts governor took President Obama to task for not doing more about the problem.
"He says he will take them to the mat, but then they walk all over him," Mr. Romney said. "If I'm president of the United States, that's going to end."
He said he would impose tariffs on Chinese products if they remain inexpensive because of currency manipulation.
Mr. Romney didn't mention his opposition to the federal government's bailout of the auto industry, an issue that plagued him in Michigan, where he defeated former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum on Tuesday.
Despite winning the popular vote, Mr. Romney will split Michigan's convention delegates with Mr. Santorum. Each won 15 of the state's 30 delegates.
The auto bailout issue
Like other Republican contenders, Mr. Romney has said the federal government should have allowed the teetering car companies to restructure under normal bankruptcy proceedings. It's a view he promoted in a 2008 guest column in the New York Times under the headline "Let Detroit go bankrupt."
But if Mr. Romney hoped to put the issue behind him after the primary race in Michigan, he's likely to be disappointed -- especially in northwest Ohio, where the local economy is tightly tied to Detroit's.
The North Toledo company Mr. Romney wanted to highlight as a beneficiary of his policies is a prime example. Universal Metals would be much different today without the bailout of the auto industry.
"I have mixed emotions about it," Mr. Feniger, the company's president, said when asked about Mr. Romney's opposition to the bailout. "Obviously, it has proven to be successful to this point. I'm not totally sure I agree it was the right thing to do, but it's hard for me to argue. I'm obviously benefiting from it."
That kind of statement contradicts one of Mr. Romney's core messages regarding Mr. Obama's handling of the economy. If voters are seeing economic improvements, it's "not because of him, but in spite of him," Mr. Romney said Wednesday.
Although Mr. Romney has won over Mr. Feniger, his position on the auto industry bailout is likely to remain an issue, especially if he becomes the nominee. President Obama touted the industry's successful comeback earlier this week at a United Auto Workers convention, and Ohio Democrats were quick to slam Mr. Romney during a news conference after his Toledo speech.
"Given his opposition to the auto rescue, it is unbelievable that Governor Romney would insult the people of Ohio in such a way," said Chris Redfern, Ohio Democratic Party chairman. "Let me be clear: Mitt Romney would have let Jeep die."
Chrysler's Toledo Assembly Plant, which produces Jeep Wrangler and Liberty models, employs about 1,800 people locally, with plans to hire 1,100 more. Statewide, about one in eight jobs are supported by the auto industry, Mr. Redfern said.
"This issue is not so much about Democrat versus Republican as it is about right versus wrong," said Mr. Redfern, who was joined by state Rep. Michael Ashford, Lucas County Democratic Party Chairman Ron Rothenbuhler, and congressional candidate Angela Zimmann.
Mr. Romney's narrow win in Michigan saved him the embarrassment of losing in the state where he grew up. His father, George, was a popular Michigan governor in the 1960s and was head of the former American Motors Corp., which for a time owned the Jeep brand.
Mr. Romney only briefly noted his win in Michigan during his speech Wednesday. "People who said the economy and jobs were their top issue, they voted for me overwhelmingly," he said.
The battle for Ohio
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Romney can fend off another strong challenge from Mr. Santorum in Ohio, where recent polls show Mr. Romney behind.
Mr. Romney did pick up an endorsement during his Toledo appearance from Ohio Auditor Dave Yost. Mr. Yost is the second state officeholder to endorse in the primary. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine endorsed Mr. Santorum last week. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman is backing Mr. Romney and is chairing his Ohio nomination campaign.
After the Toledo appearance, Mitt Romney was in suburban Columbus, where he turned his attention to foreign policy, saying Ohio's top priority has to be stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Responding to a question from the audience on the campus of Capital University, the Republican contender said an Iran armed with nuclear weaponry and material that could be accessed by terrorism organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas would be the greatest modern threat to the United States.
"…If Iran, their sponsor, has nuclear material, at some point that nuclear material can find its way into the hands of those terror groups, and having at our border or potentially within our border people with fissile material, nuclear material, is unthinkable -- that we could be held hostage or worse," he told a crowd of about 300.
Ohio's primary election is Tuesday, along with nine other states', but Ohio voters have been casting absentee ballots since Jan. 31. The window to vote early in person will close at 6 p.m. Friday.
Ohio Democrats could vote GOP ballots on Tuesday, but unlike in Michigan, they would officially become registered Republicans in the process. Unless challenged by a precinct official, the voter would not have to sign a statement saying he agrees with the principles of the party whose ballot he is voting, according to Matt McClellan, spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.
While Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney wasted little time getting back to Ohio from Michigan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Wednesday continued to concentrate on the biggest delegate prize of Super Tuesday, Georgia.
Mr. Santorum is expected to arrive back in Ohio late Thursday night in anticipation of an early Friday rally in Chillicothe. He will also headline a GOP dinner that night in Lake County. Mr. Romney is expected back in Ohio by Friday, and all three are expected to be in Ohio on Saturday when Washington is holding its caucuses.
They will participate in a Fox News taping Saturday in Wilmington, and then Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich will head north for a GOP dinner at Bowling Green State University Saturday night.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has yet to make an Ohio campaign appearance.
Information from Columbus Bureau Chief Jim Provance and The Blade's news services was used in this report.
Contact Tony Cook at: email@example.com or 419-724-6065.