PERRYSBURG, Ohio — For more than 35 years, Earl Danforth worked as a tool engineer at a GM plant in Toledo, the kind of plant the Obama administration’s auto bailout is supposed to have rescued.
It’s not that Danforth’s undecided. (“As far as I’m concerned, Obama’s nothing but a liar, a cheater,” he said.) It’s that Danforth hasn’t voted yet. And that makes him a prized target for Romney in a state where public polls show the GOP nominee is likely to lose among voters who cast their ballots before Election Day. Romney will need every supporter like Danforth to head to the polls Tuesday to make up the difference.
So in an area heavily reliant on the auto business, and where Republicans may be tired of hearing that President Obama saved the industry, the ads could provide one last bit of encouragement to Romney supporters such as Danforth to make it out next week.
“I see this more as a turnout game than a persuasion ad,” said Patrick Haney, a political science professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “I take it as an indication that they believe they’re behind. . . . So they might as well be a little riskier and on the edge.”
That catch-up urgency may explain why Romney has undertaken a potentially risky strategy with the ads, which indicate that General Motors and Chrysler are expanding in China and may leave some Ohioans with the impression that U.S. jobs, including at Toledo-based Jeep, are moving there. Democrats have attacked the ads as untrue, and independent analysts, including The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, have criticized them as, at the least, misleading.
Romney aides say they are confident their candidate has momentum and will win Ohio. They say the wording of the ads is accurate and provides important context on an issue Obama has run on for months.
But the potential peril of the ads for Romney was made clear Tuesday, when top executives at Chrysler and GM took the rare move of publicly weighing in. Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne sent his employees an e-mail saying that Jeep will remain in the United States and that it is “inaccurate to suggest anything different.”
A top GM spokesman said that the campaign had entered “some parallel universe” and that only “politics at its cynical worst” would undercut the company’s record of U.S. job creation.
That could hurt Romney not just in Ohio, where one in eight jobs is linked to the auto industry, but also in Michigan, where Romney has been trying to make inroads.
Democrats have pounced on the corporate critique of Romney, who has run as a friend of business.
In Florida on Wednesday, Vice President Biden offered Democrats’ harshest response yet to the ads, calling them “scurrilous” and “flagrantly dishonest,” an attempt to falsely convince workers that they might lose their jobs.
“They’re trying to scare the living devil out of a group of people who have been hurt so badly over the last — the previous four years before we came to office,” he said in Sarasota. “What a cynical, cynical thing to do.”
Republicans insist the ads are correct. As asserted in the ads, GM has added jobs in China and Chrysler is considering new Jeep production there.
And while Democrats have slammed Romney for advocating that U.S. car companies go bankrupt in a November 2008 New York Times column, GM and Chrysler did end up entering a managed bankruptcy, albeit as part of a deal to receive government assistance that Romney opposed.
“American taxpayers are on track to lose $25 billion as a result of President Obama’s handling of the auto bailout, and GM and Chrysler are expanding their production overseas,” Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan said in a statement in response to Biden on Wednesday.
“These are facts that voters deserve to know as they listen to the claims President Obama and his campaign are making,” Ryan said. “President Obama has chosen not to run on the facts of his record, but he can’t run from them.”
Danforth explained why he, like Romney, opposed government aid for GM. “It’s not that they wouldn’t have gone through bankruptcy, because they would have,” he said. “But they would have come out better and stronger and we would not have owed billions.”
He added: “I saw an article where GM now, they’re embracing China. China’s going to be the headquarters of GM. That disturbed the heck out of me.”
GM has no plans to move its Detroit-based headquarters to China — but the fear that iconic American companies will move to China is particularly acute in Ohio, which has been hit hard by manufacturing job losses.
Romney played on that fear in a rally last week in Defiance, Ohio — a deeply conservative rural town in which the largest employer is a GM plant. He told the crowd that he had read a news article indicating that “one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China.”
Chrysler, which manufacturers Jeep vehicles, responded that it is considering opening a plant in China to build Jeeps for the Asian market but has no intention of moving jobs from a Toledo plant, which is being renovated and is adding jobs.
A television ad airing in Toledo says simply that Jeep is looking at hiring in China. A companion radio ad hits GM as well, noting that the company has cut U.S. jobs and is now expanding in China.
“Barack Obama says he saved the auto industry. But for who? Ohio or China?” a narrator says in the radio ad.
Romney aides said again Wednesday that they believe they have momentum in a very tight Ohio contest.
They are wagering that the ads will not lose them votes, even as Democrats use them to energize their own supporters. In this area, a number of voters said they were upset by the spots.
“I hate it. It’s horrible. It’s a lie,” said one such voter, Bowling Green State University professor Pam Bechtel, 56. “I’m so tired of living in Ohio, in a targeted state, where we just get bombarded with this stuff.”
But, like Danforth, she’s not undecided, either. She has already cast an early ballot, for Obama.