President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney are turning the White House race in Ohio into a referendum on the auto bailout, an effort aimed at driving up turnout among their supporters in the election's waning days.
Obama, on a three-stop blitz across the swing state Friday, repeatedly reminded voters that he orchestrated the bailout to revive an industry that fuels the economy in the Midwest. And he slammed Romney for running advertisements in the state implying the bailout has forced car companies to move jobs overseas, an assertion Obama said was "not true."
"You don't scare hard-working Americans just to scare up some votes," Obama told voters at a rally in Hilliard, Ohio, just west of Columbus. "That's not what being president is about. That's not leadership."
Romney has dug in on the ads, which have been widely debunked. His campaign insists the spots are accurate. Whatever the case, the ad has caught the attention of some voters in Ohio, a state that has been saturated with political advertising for months.
"It offends me," said Jeanette Lewis, an Obama supporter from Columbus whose father worked on a GM assembly line in northeast Ohio. "The president hasn't turned a blind-eye to outsourcing. And people in Ohio know that."
The candidates' closing arguments on the auto bailout are aimed squarely at motivating supporters, underscoring how the focus in the campaign's final days has shifted to boosting turnout, not persuading the narrow pool of undecided voters. Obama needs big turnout from Ohio's Democratic-leaning union members, while Romney is seeking to shore up support among Republicans and independents who view the president as a big-government liberal and saw the bailout as government overreach.
The Republican nominee also needs to boost his support among white working-class voters. While Obama has trailed Romney with these voters nationally and several key target states, the president has closed that gap in Ohio, according to public and internal Democratic polls.
Private polling from both campaigns shows Obama with an edge across the state. For the president, winning Ohio, along with Iowa and Wisconsin, would put him over the required 270 Electoral College votes. If Romney loses Ohio, he would need to win nearly every other competitive state in order to reach 270.
And while Romney's campaign has reaffirmed the claims in the ad, Romney made no mention of the television spot or the auto industry during a rally at a heavy equipment manufacturer on the eastern edge of the Columbus area Friday.
Romney has been running an ad saying that Jeep would expand overseas at the expense of U.S. jobs, but he hasn't mentioned that on the campaign trail since last week.
Instead, he appealed broadly to what polls indicate to be a very small number of undecided voters in Ohio by asking them to consider his record as a chief executive and governor.
"What I hope they'll do is put aside the ads, put aside the attacks and then really focus on the record," he said in Pataskala. "Because as you know, talk is cheap. But a record, a record of accomplishment and achievement, that is something that happens with effort."
One in 8 Ohio jobs is connected to the auto industry.
"These companies are institutions, points of pride all over the state," said Jacob Foskuhl, an Obama supporter from Columbus. "It's not something you can just toy with in this economy at the last minute in an election."
But Mike Morton, a Romney backer from Columbus, said the bailout wasn't a silver bullet for Ohio's economy. "The unions benefited. Management didn't," Morton said. "There's a lot people don't know about this."
The bailout has been central to Obama's pitch in Ohio for months. The government rescue is credited with saving 1 million jobs, and Democrats say it's one of the reasons Ohio's unemployment rate is down to 7 percent, nearly a full point lower than the national average.
Obama's advisers are confidently predicting that backlash from Romney's auto ads could propel the president to victory in Ohio.
"We all felt prior to this week we were in very solid shape in the state of Ohio and our expectation is that our position has been strengthened by this," said David Plouffe, a senior adviser to Obama.
Aides also see the bailout as a tangible example of the larger message they are trying to impart on voters: that Obama is willing to side with the middle class, even if it means making politically difficult decisions. The bailout was initially unpopular, but it slowly gained momentum as the companies became profitable and added jobs.
"I knew betting on American workers was the right thing to do," Obama said in Ohio Friday. "That bet paid off."
Romney's team doubled down on its position Friday. Spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said Obama's "mismanagement of the process has exposed taxpayers to a $25 billion loss. And these companies are expanding production overseas."
Romney spent months trying to mitigate the bailout's impact on the race by simply not talking about it. But he sharply shifted course this week when he launched the new TV and radio spots.
The TV ad says: "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China." A radio ad makes a similar point.
The claims are highly misleading. In fact, Chrysler is adding 1,100 jobs to its plant in Toledo. It's also adding production facilities in China as demand for cars there grows. Because of trade rules, it's easier for companies to build cars for the Chinese market in China. It's also more efficient. Japanese automakers, for example, have plants in the U.S. to meet American demand.
Both GM and Chrysler have taken issue with the ads in recent days.
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.