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In blue-collar Ohio, campaign economic debate is also cultural

Obama is adept at sowing mistrust of his rival's business past, but Romney also has ways of playing to Ohio's blue-collar workers.

October 28, 2012|By Michael Finnegan
  • President Obama and Mitt Romney are dueling for the blue-collar vote in Ohio, but the choice is made for these residents who take advantage of early voting in Cleveland.
President Obama and Mitt Romney are dueling for the blue-collar vote in… (Olivier Douliery, Abaca…)

Los Angeles Times

MENTOR, Ohio — Presidential elections have hinged on Ohio for decades. Time after time, it has tilted slightly more Republican than the nation as a whole.

But President Obama has tied three things together to build a potential firewall in Ohio for his reelection: the auto industry's recovery, the loss of U.S. jobs to China and Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital.

Obama's case against his Republican rival is not just economic. In a state where manufacturing's slow decline has hurt families for generations and stoked anger at the unseen forces disrupting their lives, it is also cultural.

The closing line of one of Obama's final TV ads sums it up. It flashes on the screen over a map of Ohio after a few blue-collar workers voice dismay that Romney opposed the government bailout of Chrysler and General Motors: "Mitt Romney: Not One of Us."

But will it work?

Obama's lead in Ohio all but vanished after Romney outperformed him in the Oct. 3 debate in Denver, polls show. In the perennial "dogfight" over Ohio, as former President Clinton recently put it, Romney is now dashing around the state trying to capitalize on the same Rust Belt anxieties that Obama has tapped.

In North Canton on Friday, Romney reminded supporters of the rising cost of gasoline and healthcare. "We've seen over the last four years, people out of work, and then people with work find their incomes not going up," he told them. "These have been tough times to be middle class in America."

For six months, Obama and his allies have waged a TV ad assault to undercut Ohio's faith in Romney's vow to protect the middle class. In Lake County, a stretch of mainly white, working-class suburbs along the Lake Erie shore northeast of Cleveland, the message has resonated with many swing voters.

"His company, Bain Capital, that he was a part of, has a track record of sending jobs to China," said David Grice, 38, a firefighter who voted for George W. Bush and now supports Obama's reelection.

Obama's attacks have also dampened enthusiasm among Romney supporters like Nancy Scanlon, 47, the manager of a dry cleaner.

"Obama's got to go," she said. "He screwed up this country." But Romney's track record at Bain, the investment firm where he built a fortune of up to $250 million, has made Scanlon question whether he would help those living paycheck to paycheck, as she does.

"I'm driving this old clunker because I can't afford a car payment," Scanlon said, leaning against her 16-year-old Buick Skylark with rusty hubcaps outside the library in Mentor. Scanlon has no cable TV or Internet at home, so she borrows videos and catches up on the Web at the library.

Lake County, an election bellwether, is as closely split as Ohio and the nation, as anyone in Mentor can tell from the alternating Romney-Ryan and Obama-Biden signs on front lawns all over town, alongside holiday displays of pumpkins, witches and scarecrows.

In Ohio, the most coveted prize on the electoral map, the race is now so close that it's anyone's guess whether Obama can sustain the dynamic that set him on a path — a steady one until the Denver debate — to replicate his 2008 victory over John McCain by an almost 5-point margin.

Campaigning Thursday in Cleveland, Obama struck each of the main themes in his ads, saying Romney's economic plan would mean "folks at the very top get to play by a different set of rules than you do."

"They get to pay a lower tax rate, outsource more jobs, let Wall Street run wild again," Obama told the crowd on a lakefront runway where Air Force One was parked. "It was the philosophy he had when he was in the private sector."

If Romney had been president when the auto industry was on the brink of collapse, he added, "we'd be buying cars from China, instead of selling cars to China. … I wasn't going to let Detroit go bankrupt — or Toledo go bankrupt or Lordstown go bankrupt."

Romney, who during the Republican primaries often spoke of creating thousands of jobs in investment deals that he oversaw at Bain, has rarely highlighted his private-sector record in Ohio. Romney has also avoided talking about the auto bailout. At a stop near Toledo on Thursday, he tried to turn the subject to his advantage, saying he'd read that Chrysler's Jeep division, a major employer in the region, was "thinking of moving all production to China." Chrysler denied the report.

But Romney has made attacks on Obama's China trade policies a major part of his pitch in Ohio. And a TV ad aired in Ohio by American Crossroads, a "super PAC" that backs Romney, shows Obama bowing to Chinese President Hu Jintao. It says Obama borrowed from China to cover his economic stimulus spending, and then gave Beijing a free pass to undercut U.S. manufacturing jobs.

"The more Obama borrows from China," an announcer says, "the more we'll have to bow to China."

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