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Monday, November 12, 2012

Associated Press Modified: November 12, 2012 at 6:45 am •  Published: November 11, 2012

Those four words would haunt Mitt Romney across the Rust Belt, where auto manufacturing remains an economic pillar — especially in Ohio, a state that every successful GOP presidential nominee has carried, and in his home state of Michigan, where his father was an auto executive and governor.

Romney's opposition to the federal rescue of General Motors and Chrysler didn't necessarily seal his fate in those two crucial states. But no other issue hung in the background for so long. And nothing that Romney tried — his many visits, the millions spent on ads, his efforts to explain and refine his position — could overcome it.

"The biggest determining factor was that we couldn't handle the automobile bailout issue," said Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.

Fairly or not, the perception of Romney as indifferent to the auto industry's fate was "a coffin nail," said John Heitmann, a University of Dayton historian who teaches and writes about the car's place in American culture.

Ohio is second only to Michigan in auto-related employment. A 2010 report by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor said the industry accounted for more than 848,000 jobs in Ohio, or 12.4 percent of the workforce. That included jobs with vehicle manufacturers or dealers and with businesses that sell products or services to them, plus "spinoff" jobs produced by their economic activity.

Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks found that about 60 percent of voters in both states supported the government's loan and industry restructuring program, and three-quarters of them backed Obama. The bailout also was popular in Wisconsin, even though it hadn't stopped GM and Chrysler from closing plants there.