Vice President Joe Biden used his first official campaign speech to do something President Barack Obama has avoided: mention Republican rivals by name.
Speaking before more than 500 United Auto Workers union members and local officials in Toledo, Ohio, Biden said that in coming weeks he will lay out the “clear, stark differences between us and our opponents” and the stakes for the middle class in the November election. “Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, these guys have a fundamentally different economic philosophy than we do,” Biden said.
In a bid to win support from white blue-collar voters who polls show favor Republican candidates over Obama, Biden attacked Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, and former U.S. House Speaker Gingrich for opposing the Obama administration’s auto industry bailout.
Obama “didn’t flinch” over the decision, Biden said. “This is a man with steel in his spine.” The administration is “about promoting the private sector,” while the Republican candidates are “about protecting the privileged sector.”
Ohio is a swing state that has picked the winning presidential candidate in the last 12 elections, going with the Democrat three times and the Republican five times since 1980. Obama won the state in 2008 with 51.4 percent of the vote. Since then, Republicans swept statewide offices, won the U.S. Senate race and replaced five Democrats in the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections.
While the U.S. recovery has been gaining strength, the economy remains the primary issue in the presidential race and Obama’s campaign team is expecting a closely fought election. In 2008, exit polls showed 54 percent of white voters without a college degree went for Republican John McCain.
“Democrats have a problem with white males,” said Ted Kaufman, a Delaware Democrat who was appointed to fill the remainder of Biden’s Senate term after the 2008 election. “If the electorate was Hispanic, African-American, married women and Jewish, the Democrats would win everything.”
Biden, who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is a natural fit for the job of pitching for those voters, according to Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston.
“He’s made a career out of putting on a hard hat, eating doughnuts and talking to people on an assembly line,” said Brinkley, who’s from Perrysburg, Ohio, about 10 miles south of Toledo. “That’s what his shtick is, so it makes perfect sense that he’s going to be really beginning his active campaign participation in Toledo.”
At today’s rally, Biden said the Republican presidential candidates were “dead wrong” about the auto bailout, and scoffed at Romney’s argument that the private sector would have saved the industry and Santorum’s claim that the rescue was intended to placate special interests.
“In 2009, no one was lining up to lend General Motors or Chrysler any money, or for that matter to lend money to anybody,” Biden said. “That includes Bain Capital, they weren’t lining up to lend anybody money.” Romney co-founded Bain Capital LLC and Democrats have used his personal wealth as a line of attack.
“Gingrich and Romney and Santorum, they don’t let the facts get in their way,” Biden said.
‘Go Joe Go’
“If you give any one of these guys the keys to the White House they will bankrupt the middle class again,” Biden said to applause from the crowd, many of whom shouted “Go Joe Go” and wore UAW T-shirts and hats.
“Republicans have been calling Obama out for six months, it’s about time he stood up and named names,” said Jack Siebemaler, 73, a retired auto worker at the Jeep plant in Toledo.
John Rizzo, 56, a bridge and lock tender at the Ohio Department of Transportation said he’ll vote for Obama unless someone new enters the race.
Rizzo said that, while Obama saved the auto industry, “if gas prices keep going up I give it a couple weeks until it’s just as bad as before, you’ve only got so much money to spend.”
Chrysler employs more than 2,000 people in the Toledo area, including at a plant that manufactures the Jeep Liberty and Jeep Wrangler, and Owens Corning Inc., a maker of insulation, has its headquarters in the city. GM’s Lordstown Plant near the state’s eastern border with Pennsylvania, another swing state, has added workers and is operating on three shifts.
Obama’s political advisers are increasingly concerned about winning Ohio’s 18 electoral votes in 2012. In December, when campaign manager Jim Messina and chief strategist David Axelrod laid out five paths for Obama to get the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win re-election, only one of them included Ohio.
“The failed policies championed by Joe Biden and Barack Obama have cost Ohio jobs, prolonged our recession and loaded unsustainable debt onto the backs of taxpayers and autoworkers alike,” Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine said in an e-mail.
Ohio lost almost 275,000 manufacturing jobs over the last decade, a 30 percent decline that is second only to Michigan. The state’s unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in January, below the national average of 8.3 percent in February. When Obama took office, Ohio’s unemployment rate was 8.6 percent. The unemployment rate in the Toledo metropolitan area was 8.6 percent in December, according to Labor Department data.
The state ranks fifth in improving economic health in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States from the third quarter of 2009 through the third quarter of last year, the most recent data available.
“Toledo has become a sort of a symbol of Midwest industrialism in decline,” Brinkley said. “If Toledo can rebound the country can rebound.”
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