- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

WARREN, Mich. | Sen. John McCain on Friday told auto workers to have faith that alternative technology vehicles will re-energize their sagging industry and help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

“I believe that this new technology - it’s more than an automobile - will create hundreds and thousands of jobs,” the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee said at a town-hall meeting with about 500 General Motors Corp. employees. “This breakthrough has every chance of success.”

Mr. McCain toured a facility where the struggling automaker is designing a new battery-powered hybrid vehicle, and spoke to employees while flanked by several models of GM’s emerging fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

Mr. McCain’s upbeat remarks were welcome at GM, which has been hit hard financially and has offered employee buyouts after posting a record $38.7 billion loss in 2007, the largest in automaker history.

The company continued its spiral this year, with losses of $3.25 billion in the first quarter. Earlier this week, GM announced another series of layoffs and other cutbacks as its stock dipped into the $9 range, its lowest level in 50 years.

Michigan went to Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004, but Mr. McCain believes the state could be in play this year. He trails Democratic opponent Sen. Barack Obama by about eight percentage points in recent opinion polls, but has deployed Mitt Romney, son of a former Michigan governor, to the state to try to boost his standing.

Democrats said during his time in the Senate Mr. McCain has voted against increasing fuel efficiency standards and has supported other policies the Democratic National Committee said result in jobs moving overseas.

The DNC also pointed to Mr. McCain’s votes against worker re-training programs as a problem in a state like Michigan, where manufacturing jobs have fled.

Making his second visit in a month to a Detroit-area auto facility, Mr. McCain met with GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer G. Richard Wagoner Jr. and other executives during his tour Friday morning. He has said that while he does not favor a bailout of the “Big 3” automakers, he is committed to seeing U.S. automakers succeed with improved technology.

He said a boost should come from his plan to offer a tax credit of up to $5,000 to encourage consumers to buy alternative energy vehicles like GM’s new Volt.

“Part of the future economic success of America is going to be based on this green technology,” he said, later adding that he was confident that the success of vehicles like the Volt and others “will be able to help restore the economy of a state that is hurting badly.”

Chatting with workers gathered for a morning town-hall meeting, Mr. McCain said he is a federalist and supports the rights of states to set fuel standards. He said auto industry executives and the nation’s governors should foster a relationship to handle the issue.

After years of surviving on higher profit margins from SUVs and trucks, GM and its Detroit counterparts Ford and Chrysler have been hurt by recent consumer demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Mr. McCain put part of the blame for the industry’s woes on its business practices.

“You can’t compete with other auto manufacturers when you lay someone off and then pay them a full salary for the rest of their life,” he said of union bargaining that some believe has put U.S. automakers far behind their foreign counterparts.

In the run-up to Michigan’s Republican primary Mr. McCain told voters some of manufacturing jobs are gone for good.

On Friday, he said he remains committed to retraining those out of work.

“We all know in this room that a job is more than a job,” he said. “We need to care for these people. I will take every measure in order to provide the training and education for displaced workers. I said that there are new jobs coming back.”

Mr. McCain told the GM employees that he supports innovations in solar, wind, tide and nuclear power along with improving ethanol availability for flex-fuel cars.

“I’d like to see us embark on making every automobile made in America flex-fuel,” he said, citing Brazil’s success in using sugar-cane based ethanol. While he does not believe in subsidizing ethanol, Mr. McCain says he wants to make the corn-based fuel more available at pumps across the nation.

GM plans to roll out its new Volt, a hybrid battery-powered car in 2010, adding to its current line of energy-efficient vehicles. Employees said it will take creative vision in Washington to assist the U.S. auto manufacturers in making changes that could ultimately help not only the environment but also the economy, particularly where labor has been hard hit.

“I’m hoping the next president helps us in getting this product to market,” said Derrick Grahn, 39, a senior product engineer at GM from Bloomfield Township, Mich., of the new Volt. “I’m not looking for money, but more of him guiding us.”

GM Engineering Group Manager Ray Hwang, 49, of Troy, Mich., said he does want to see government money invested in fuel-cell and battery research.

“If you’re commuting to work and you are within 40 miles, you’ll never need to fill up,” he said of the Volt’s battery capabilities. “We need to work on increasing the range and I think we will with improved battery technology.”

GM employees filled up the invitation list for Mr. McCain’s visit just seven minutes after the announcement was made online to company employees.

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