Jeep Liberty and Dodge Nitro vehicles move down a production line in Toledo,… (Jeff Kowalsky, Bloomberg )
TOLEDO, Ohio — The demand for Jeep Wranglers outstrips supply these days, so the assembly line keeps cranking straight through the lunch shift at the Toledo factory where Chrysler builds them.
"I'm putting a new conveyor in right here," Tyson Stoll, who manages part of the plant, said Thursday as workers bolted axles onto each chassis rolling down the line. He pointed to tires running through a shiny balancing machine. "This is brand-new equipment," Stoll said.
Across the floor was another sign of the plant's revival: Beeping forklifts were making their way around a vast warehouse recently built to accommodate the growing stacks of crates full of Wrangler shock absorbers, clutches and other equipment.
In a region where hundreds of boarded-up and abandoned houses not far from the Jeep plant attest to the devastation caused by decades of manufacturing decline, few have failed to notice the rare burst of job growth at the local plants of Chrysler, General Motors and their suppliers.
For Toledo, Chrysler's $500-million expansion of the Jeep plant means 1,100 new jobs.
Yet over the last week in Toledo, Mitt Romney has been airing TV and radio ads implying that Chrysler and GM were using auto bailout money from President Obama to ship Ohio jobs to China. It is one of Romney's final — and most important — efforts to overcome the slight edge that Obama has held for months in Ohio, the state most likely to decide Tuesday's election.
"What happened to the promises made to autoworkers in Toledo and throughout Ohio — the same hardworking men and women who were told that Obama's auto bailout would help them?" an announcer asks in the Romney radio ad.
The clash between Romney's closing pitch to voters in the Toledo area and the reality of the local auto plant growth reflects the steep challenge that Romney faces in explaining his opposition to the government bailout of the auto industry in a state now reaping the benefits. Thanks partly to new auto jobs, Ohio's 7% unemployment rate is lower than the national rate, 7.9%.
Both Chrysler and GM denounced Romney's ads, a step that no giant corporation would take lightly in the heat of a presidential campaign. Local residents echoed their concerns.
Karen Caputo, a retired hospital billing coder who stopped for a chili dog at Rudy's Hot Dog, a popular lunch spot for Jeep workers, fretted over the impact of Romney's ads.
"There are people who are really going to believe him — that's the sad part," said Caputo, whose son works for a Jeep supplier, Kuka.
Randy Cornelius, a Romney supporter who was reading the paper over a chili dog at Rudy's, begrudgingly give Obama some credit for the auto recovery, even though he was "not real crazy about my taxpayer money going to bail out any company."
"I think it was good to help the industry," said Cornelius, 56, a retired Toledo welfare office mailroom clerk whose sister, stepfather and grandfather worked for Jeep.
In responding to Romney's ads, Chrysler and GM also called attention to their recent investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in their Ohio plants. Beyond the jobs created or saved at the plants in Toledo, Lordstown, Defiance and Parma are more jobs for suppliers and contractors. Among them are the electricians who were wiring the Jeep factory's new conveyor belts last week for Mobis North America, the company that builds the Wrangler chassis.
The TV ad, heavily aired this week in Toledo and Dayton, says Romney would do more for the auto industry than Obama. "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China," the narrator says.
Fiat took control of Chrysler as part of the auto bailout settlement. In an email to employees on Tuesday, Chrysler chief executive Sergio Marchionne reiterated the company's intent to restore production to China for Jeeps to sell in China. But assembly lines in the U.S. will stay in operation and "constitute the backbone of the brand."
"It is inaccurate to suggest anything different," he said.
Romney senior advisor Stuart Stevens said the ads were accurate. He also denied they were misleading.
Given the unique circumstances of the taxpayer bailout of Chrysler, he said, the company has an obligation to expand production in the United States for the sale of vehicles abroad, rather than following the industry practice of maximizing efficiency by building cars close to where they are sold.
"I think most people in the United States would think that that would be better," he said.
But the ads have sparked scathing editorials in Ohio newspapers, poor marks from independent fact checkers and a storm of criticism from Obama and his allies.
"You don't lie that much about something, and scare that many people, and try to deceive a whole region of the state if you're not desperate," said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a Democrat who has highlighted his support of the auto bailout in his reelection campaign.
For months, Obama has made the auto recovery one of the main themes of his campaign in Ohio. A series of Obama TV ads has shown Romney saying, over and over, "Let Detroit go bankrupt."
The video snippet shows Romney repeating the headline placed by the New York Times on an opinion essay that he wrote in opposition to the federal bailout. Romney did not actually call for letting the car companies collapse; rather, he was suggesting a managed bankruptcy with private loans guaranteed by the government.
Romney critics say that with credit markets all but frozen in 2009, no lender other than the government was willing to put up the billions of dollars needed.
In Toledo, about an hour's drive from Detroit, 15,000 people work in the auto industry, and many businesses depend on the money they spend from their wages. As a result, the auto bailout has strengthened Obama's standing in what was already a Democratic stronghold.