Mitt Romney is making a late-campaign play to win over Rust Belt voters by trying to dent President Obama's credentials on his federal auto bailout — but the claims he is making about Chrysler creating jobs in China are drawing return fire from Democrats and the auto workers union.
With Ohio set to play a crucial role in next week's election, the auto bailout has become a critical policy battleground, and Mr. Romney argues both in person and in a new campaign commercial that Fiat, which bought Chrysler as part of the bailout deal, is planning to create a new Jeep factory in China rather than the United States.
Chrysler officials have confirmed that plan — though they, Democrats and the auto workers union all say Mr. Romney's claim makes it sound like the company will ship existing jobs overseas, when in fact plans call for a new plant to add capacity, not take it away from the United States.
"I feel obliged to unambiguously restate our position: Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China," Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said in a recent email to company employees. "Together, we are working to establish a global enterprise and previously announced our intent to return Jeep production to China, the world's largest auto market, in order to satisfy local market demand, which would not otherwise be accessible."
It's estimated that as many as 850,000 Ohio jobs are in some way tied to the auto industry.
The president's political advertising throughout the state largely has focused on that fact, reminding Ohioans that without the bailout, the state's relatively low jobless rate could be much higher. Down-ticket Democrats, such as incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown, locked in his own tight re-election fight with Republican Josh Mandel, have adopted a similar strategy of making the auto-industry rescue central to their campaigns.
Mr. Romney has largely avoided discussing the rescue package on the stump in Ohio and hadn't made it a cornerstone of his advertising effort until recently, when he began running the ad: "Mitt Romney has a plan to help the auto industry ... [Obama] sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China," the commercial says.
On the stump, he has gone even further. At a rally last week in Defiance, Ohio -- one of many towns that saw jobs saved as a result of the auto bailout — Mr. Romney said he "saw a story today that one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China."
Mr. Romney apparently based his claim on an Oct. 22 Bloomberg News piece that referred to Chrysler's plans to "return Jeep production to China" though it didn't say U.S. jobs would be moved.
Mr. Romney's television ad doesn't go that far — though Democrats and fact-checking organizations said it leaves the same impression.
The United Auto Workers was especially harsh in its attacks, calling the ad a "lie."
"Mr. Romney opposed the rescue and now attacks Chrysler with misinformation. In putting out this misinformation, Romney is recklessly undermining Chrysler's reputation and threatening good American jobs," said UAW President Bob King.
For its part the Obama administration and other Democrats have yet to criticize Chrysler for its plans to create new jobs and build vehicles in China, rather than continue to rely on union labor and hire more workers in the U.S.
The debate puts both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney on opposite footing from last year, when aircraft giant Boeing announced plans to open a new factory in the right-to-work state of South Carolina, which the company said would add to production, not take it away from existing factories in Washington, a union-rights state.
Mr. Obama's National Labor Relations Board brought a case against Boeing alleging that the company was simply trying to punish its union workers in Washington state, and Mr. Romney and fellow Republicans leaped to defend Boeing. The NLRB case was eventually dropped.
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