DAYTON, Ohio — The Obama campaign is counting on the auto-industry bailout to carry the president to a victory in Ohio, but it ultimately may hold little sway with voters across the state who are still out of work and struggling to stay solvent.
The bailout package undoubtedly saved thousands of jobs in places such as Lordstown, Toledo and elsewhere, but in Ohio as a whole, a weak economy and poor job prospects trump the car company rescue.
For voters like Rick and Jared Sargent, the bailout is of secondary importance, while prolonged periods of unemployment drove their decisions to support Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Mr. Obama "has destroyed this country in the last year. His whole campaign slogan is 'forward,' but for the last four years my family has just gone backward," said Jared Sargent, 21, of Dayton, just after he and his father cast early votes for Mr. Romney.
"I've been out of work. ... I can't find a job making more than $8 an hour," he said. "I'm terrified. If this country keeps going the way it's been going, I wouldn't want to bring a kid into this world."
Like many Ohioans, the Sargents felt the repercussions of the U.S. auto industry's troubles four years ago, but saw none of the benefits of the bailout. Jared Sargent said his mother was laid off in 2009 from a manufacturing job related to the car industry, a job that was eliminated after General Motors Co. closed its massive facility in nearby Moraine.
Since then, she has struggled to find a job, while her husband, Rick, battles health problems and also remains unemployed.
"His record has shown what it's shown," Rick Sargent said of Mr. Obama, as he and Jared sat at a picnic table in downtown Dayton.
"These deficits have got me scared to death," he said, speaking in hushed tones, while his son spoke of the family's continued struggle to find work with a mixture of anger and sorrow.
Even the president's supporters think the auto rescue will take his re-election effort only so far, and that the job market in parts of Ohio remains stagnant.
"I can't say that [the auto bailout] did much around here. It may have been good for people in other parts of the country, but not so much here," said Elay Lewis III, 38, of Dayton, a former GM employee who also lost his job after the Moraine plant was shuttered. He cast a vote for Mr. Obama on Wednesday morning, but said the economy has shown him little signs of improvement.
"I do whatever I can to pay the bills," he said, detailing how he holds down temporary, part-time jobs as a security guard and freelance musician. "Compared to what I was making at GM, now I'm probably making one-third of that."
Similar stories of hardship can be found throughout Ohio, but there are also many instances of jobs saved through the administration's continuation of the auto bailout, which began during the Bush administration. An estimated 850,000 Ohio jobs are tied to the car industry, many of which likely would have disappeared if GM and Chrysler LLC went out of business for good.
The Obama camp has latched onto that narrative and continues to tout the auto rescue throughout the state, promoting it in commercials and during campaign stops. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, has done the same, positioning himself as a strong supporter of the bailout and therefore responsible for saving tens of thousands of Ohio jobs.
Both campaigns are focusing hard on Ohio as the state that could decide the election. All four men at the top of the two national tickets were in Ohio for at least part of the day, either Wednesday or Thursday.
Polling numbers in the past two weeks show the presidential race in Ohio exceedingly close. The Real Clear Politics poll average had Mr. Obama ahead by 2.1 percentage points — 47.9 percent to 45.8 percent. Although the momentum has been with Mr. Romney since late September, several surveys have shown Mr. Obama with a slight or statistically insignificant lead while none has done the same for the Republican hopeful.
However, a survey last week by the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling firm suggests that the auto bailout issue isn't hurting Mr. Romney much. In the poll of 532 likely Ohio voters, the respondents said they trusted Mr. Romney more on the economy, by a margin of 51 percent to 47 percent. The survey had Mr. Obama maintaining an overall lead of 49 percent to 48 percent.
When asked in surveys, Ohio voters follow the rest of the nation in consistently naming the economy in general as the top issue. A CBS poll from late August, for example, cited 59 percent of Ohio voters as calling the economy "extremely important" in determining their vote, with only health care among other issues managing to top 45 percent.
Still, Mr. Obama has used the auto issue to disparage Mr. Romney, saying that if the Republican had gotten his way, the U.S. car industry would have crumbled.
"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," Mr. Obama said at Monday's third and final presidential debate.
In making the charge, the Obama campaign typically cites a November 2008 op-ed in the New York Times headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."
In it, Mr. Romney wrote that he favored a "managed bankruptcy" that would give Detroit a "path to the fundamental restructuring the industry needs." This was more or less what eventually happened — GM and Chrysler did go bankrupt and restructured, albeit under government auspices. Contrary to what Mr. Obama has said, Mr. Romney never proposed the liquidation of GM or Chrysler.
Mr. Romney didn't mention the auto rescue during a campaign stop in Cincinnati on Thursday, but his campaign continues to push back against the president. Mr. Romney's Ohio campaign manager, Scott Jennings, pointed to Ohioans — like the Sargents and Mr. Lewis — who got the short end of the stick as a result of the bailout.
"The fact is Obama picked winners and losers inside this deal — and many Ohioans were on the losing end. Delphi retirees lost their pensions. Many dealerships closed. And now we hear Jeep is thinking of moving production from Toledo to China," Mr. Jennings said. "Mitt Romney is a car guy, a son of Detroit. To argue he would do anything other than help support American automakers is just ridiculous."
The two campaigns' sparring over the bailout may be good action for political pundits, but the average Ohio voter is instead looking at the economy as a whole, and that is driving many of them to Mr. Romney.
Judy Gierl, a community volunteer from Cincinnati, said she voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and still agrees with him on many social issues, yet can't support his re-election.
"I think he's a great guy, but the economy is the most important issue to me, and I've been disappointed on the economy," she said Thursday morning as she stood outside the Romney rally in Cincinnati.
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