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Jeep ad caps Romney effort to recast opposition to auto bailout


As Ohio has become almost a must-win state for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, he has sought to blur distinctions between himself and President Barack Obama on the issue of the 2009 auto bailouts. 

A new TV ad playing to erroneous fears that Jeep might move its manufacturing from Ohio to China caps a prolonged effort by Romney to recast his opposition to Obama's actions to prop up an industry that employs one in eight of Ohio's voters. 

Romney has sought to reframe his criticism of Obama's handling of the 2009 rescue of General Motors and Chrysler in an effort to combat the president's usage of the bailout to court swing voters in the Buckeye State. The GOP nominee has argued it was Obama who took the companies bankrupt, and has argued that he would be a better president for beleaguered autoworkers.

Mitt Romney campaigns in the critical battleground state of Ohio as a poll shows a dead heat between the governor and President Obama. Watch the entire speech.

And a new television ad airing in Toledo and Youngstown, Ohio, the Romney campaign raises the specter of production of Jeeps moving from the U.S. to China, an assertion which Jeep's Italian parent company has said is blatantly false.

Related: Ohio governor says Romney will carry Buckeye State

The GOP candidate's new tack represents an effort to play offense on the issue of auto bailouts in the final eight days of the campaign. Obama has used Romney's opposition to the 2008-09 rescue to great effect in Ohio and other Midwestern states, where the former Massachusetts governor must perform well if he's to have any hope of being elected president.

"You saw in the debates that Barack Obama said a few things that were, as he said, whoppers," Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said at a Romney rally on Monday in Cleveland. "He turned to Mitt Romney and said, 'You wanted to take those companies through bankruptcy and not provide them any federal aid.' Let me tell you, I supported a rescue package for the autos, but what Barack Obama said was simply not true. And by the way, it was Barack Obama who took GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich tells David Gregory that the job creators deserve the credit for helping raise Ohio's economic growth.

Ohio's Republican governor, John Kasich, also suggested Sunday on "Meet the Press" that the bailout hadn't been as great as Obama might suggest.

"We are thrilled that we have a strong auto industry," he argued, "but it doesn't account for the growth of 112,000 jobs in our state."

But it was the Jeep ad in particular that marked the culmination of an effort by Romney over the past 18 months to reframe the auto debate on friendlier terms.

"Obama took GM and Chrylser into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians, who are going to build Jeeps in China," the narrator of the ad says as a clip of a disputed Bloomberg News report appears onscreen, saying Chrysler "plans to return Jeep output to China."

The original Bloomberg report became fodder for conservatives, including Romney, who said  last week in Ohio that Jeep "is thinking of moving all production to China." But Jeep's ownership has said it isn't planning to move any U.S. production to China; rather, the automaker is establishing new capacity in China to build vehicles that will be sold in China.

But the ad plays to those ill-founded fears. A fair viewing of the ad might leave that impression with a voter, though the language in the ad is so narrowly tailored that it can't be directly disputed.

That could make a difference in a battleground territory like northwest Ohio, the home to a major Jeep plant that employs thousands of Toledoans and almost left the area in the late 1990s until the city stepped forward to offer hundreds of millions in tax credits.

The Obama campaign responded with a TV ad of its own, accusing the GOP nominee of being "wrong then" and "dishonest now."

"It reeks of desperation, because that's what it is," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Monday on a conference call.

But the Jeep ad is just one component of Romney's months-long effort to better couch his opposition to the bailout.

FIRST READ: Romney's chances in Ohio tied to softening bailout stance

Romney, whose father was an auto executive before becoming governor of Michigan, penned an op-ed shortly after the 2008 election, infamously titled, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." The piece for the New York Times opposed the loans for the companies that then-outgoing President George W. Bush and some Republicans (including Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who would become Romney's vice presidential nominee) had favored, calling instead for a managed bankruptcy for GM and Chrysler with government support for the companies' warranties and for post-bankruptcy financing offered by private lenders.

Obama eventually embarked upon a different course. His administration negotiated a managed bankruptcy with bondholders, autoworkers' unions and the companies' leadership, while occasionally injecting the companies with capital drawn from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in order to stave off a more drastic bankruptcy, and possible liquidation.

Democrats contend that no private financing was available to the auto companies during the bailout, and the government was the only actor equipped to provide the companies with a lifeline while simultaneously negotiating their bankruptcy, from which GM and Chrysler immediately emerged.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports with the latest.

The bailout was unpopular at the time, derided by Republicans as a favor for unions, since autoworkers' pensions — in conservatives' view — were favored over dealers and other secured bondholders. Indeed, the Indiana State Police Pension Fund sued to prevent the deal from going forward, but it was rejected by the Supreme Court.

RELATED: Auto politics haunt Romney in NW Ohio

GM and Chrysler both rebounded in the months following the bailout to improve sales and profits, allowing the companies to pay off their loans from the government more quickly than expected. Their success has been heralded ever since by Democrats as a gutsy and successful example of Obama's leadership at the height of the Great Recession.

And since that time, Romney has — at alternating moments — both embraced and rejected central elements of Obama's decision making.

The Republican nominee has argued that it was his original idea, rather than Obama's, to put the auto companies through bankruptcy, though Romney's proposed process would have differed immensely. (Romney's plan wouldn't have necessarily forced GM and Chrysler into liquidation, nor was that what the governor had advocated — contrary to the president's suggestion during this month's debate.)

Romney was most pointedly forced to confront his opposition to the bailout during the Michigan and Ohio primaries in late February and early March. The Michigan native repeatedly called himself a "car guy" while campaigning near the Motor City, and appeared driving a Chrysler in a TV ad.

And Romney took to the editorial page of the Detroit News, where he accused Obama of "crony capitalism" in the bailout and said the companies would have been better off without Obama's intervention.

"Instead of doing the right thing and standing up to union bosses, Obama rewarded them," Romney wrote.

FLASHBACK: How much support would Romney have given to automakers?

As with a number of other issues since the primary, Romney, the Republican standard-bearer, has tried to soften the edges of some of his harder-charging rhetoric during the primaries.

"I’m a son of Detroit. I was born in Detroit. My dad was head of a car company. I like American cars. And I would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry. My plan to get the industry on its feet when it was in real trouble was not to start writing checks," Romney said at the third and final debate a week ago against Obama.

The GOP nominee's claim prompted the president to accuse Romney of trying to "airbrush history."

Speaking Monday in Youngstown, Ohio, former President Bill Clinton got in on the action. He said Chrysler "put out a statement sayin' it was the biggest load of bull in the world" in reference of the Jeep-to-China rumors. 

"He ties himself in more knots than a Boy Scout does in a knot-tying contest," Clinton said of Romney.

Reuters, Getty Images

In the final push in the 2012 presidential election, candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama make their last appeals to voters.