Detroit (Free-Press) -- For a short time Thursday, it seemed one of the few days left in the 2012 presidential campaign might pass without Detroit's automakers drawn into the open conflict. Then Donald Trump opened his mouth.
Or, rather, the Donald tweeted, remarking that President Barack Obama "is a terrible negotiator. He bails out Chrysler and now Chrysler wants to send all Jeep manufacturing to China -- and will!"
A Chrysler vice president for product design, Ralph Gilles, tweeted back a response the Detroit Free Press won't reprint in a family publication. Suffice to say, he let it be known that, when it comes to cars, Trump should stick to real estate. Chrysler declined to comment.
Never mind that Trump's claim is false. Never mind that executives from Chrysler and General Motors -- who tried fervently to stay apolitical this season -- have publicly knocked down suggestions from Republican Mitt Romney's campaign that the rescue of their companies was somehow linked to jobs in China.
The larger question is: Why is this coming up at all at this late stage of the campaign?
The answer is simple, political experts say. Both sides have known from Day One that this campaign would hinge, in large part, on the saving of Detroit's signature business, and it's still in Romney's eleventh-hour interests to change the narrative that Obama gets the credit, especially in blue-collar parts of the battleground state of Ohio.
No Republican president has ever won the White House without winning Ohio, and Romney -- in most polls -- has trailed there.
"Mainly, it's about Ohio," said Larry Sabato at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Romney's "people recognize he's behind -- mainly because of the auto industry question."
A reliance on auto jobs
It's key because about 1 out of every 8 jobs in the state is linked directly or indirectly to the business of making and selling cars.
After increasing the government's commitment to GM and Chrysler to more than $80 billion in 2009, Obama widely got credit -- though at the time it looked like it would be blame -- for saving the companies. Both have turned around, posting profits and sales numbers that have been heading in the right direction.
Romney, on the other hand, is known widely as the guy from Detroit who wrote the "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" opinion piece in 2008 that ran in the New York Times.
Never mind that Obama did run the companies through bankruptcy. Never mind that the difference between their two positions is a lot more nuanced than it appears at first -- involving government financing, guarantees and how much someone should have got and when and what other money was available. Obama has been winning on the issue, so Romney set out in the last week -- in Ohio, at least -- to change that.
Romney repeated a false claim Oct. 25 in a campaign speech in Defiance, Ohio, that Jeep was moving -- not creating -- jobs in China. He said this even as Chrysler, days earlier, started a third shift at its Jefferson North plant in Detroit and a year after the company announced plans for 1,100 new jobs at its Toledo plant.
Then the Romney campaign started airing ads dropping any claim that jobs would be moved -- but suggesting that the auto rescue was somehow linked to Chinese jobs.
GM's Greg Martin called any such claim "cynical" and that the campaign had moved into some kind of "parallel universe." The Democrats and their allies -- including the UAW -- have been crying foul, calling Romney's campaign desperate, chiding him for trying to mislead voters, they say.
The Obama campaign put out a video Thursday on "how to destroy your campaign's credibility in 5 easy steps."
But does it? Romney aides and surrogates defend the ads as fair, though they haven't been used widely in much-more-auto-centric Michigan. They point out that Chrysler, for instance, does intend to resume production in China, even if it's not moving jobs there to do so.
That could capitalize on what's becoming something of an American political tradition -- using China as a bogeyman to frighten voters.
University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute analyst Bruce Belzowski, who is organizing a conference on the Chinese auto industry next week, said U.S. auto companies must capitalize on the Chinese market as a source of growth, and Romney knows it. But that, said IHS Automotive analyst Aaron Bragman, means making cars in China because of the big tariffs it puts on imported vehicles.
"We have to break the idea that the phrase 'Chinese market' is a dirty concept," Bragman said. "The Chinese market is the largest in the world now. The world does not end at the Pacific coast and the Atlantic coast, and any international company that's going to be an international company has to have presence there. GM does, and Chrysler would like to."
But politics is politics, and the question here is, will the strategy help Romney on Election Day?
Mark Weaver, a political consultant in Ohio, said it does. He works for the Romney campaign as a lawyer but is not associated with its communications team and spoke to the Free Press outside of any role with the campaign.
"There's a slice of voters in the northern tier of Ohio who are impacted by automakers' decisions and whether those products are made here or overseas," he said. "It's a perfectly reasonable point for the Romney campaign to make."
In other words, there are some voters with jobs linked to the auto industry who might get pretty anxious at even the whiff of any hint that production might be moved, given how bad it looked for domestic automakers just four years ago.
And Romney's message did unnerve some autoworkers.
Danny Henneman, chairman of the UAW Local 12 chapter's Jeep unit representing Chrysler's Toledo plant, said he started getting text messages and calls soon after Romney recited the rumors about Chrysler's production plans.
"They want us to reassure them, and they want us to do some research and make sure," he said. "I think most people are starting to realize people are going to say anything in this next week or so to steal votes in Ohio, being a battleground state. There's no plans to move any production from Toledo or Jeep to China, and it was confirmed by the company CEO."
As much as anything else, that helps explain the passionate response by Obama's team, the UAW and the automakers themselves that no one should take these campaign claims seriously.
Melissa Miller, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University south of Toledo, said she doesn't think the Romney campaign would be making the claim if they didn't think it was going to help them, though she thinks its effectiveness is very much in doubt.
"He's probably put some fear in the minds of some people who work for Jeep, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're being told right there on the factory floor -- by management -- that this is a false claim," she said.
Mark Major, a visiting lecturer in politics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said it's a long shot at best that it'll have any effect. As for whether it really hurts Romney? Well, most voters have already made up their minds in the election, polls show.
For now, Ohioans (and Michiganders) should expect the auto rescue to remain front and center -- just as it has been throughout the campaign season -- and hope the conversation remains as civil as possible.
Later in the day Thursday, Gilles of Chrysler sent another tweet:
"I apologize for my language," he wrote, "but lies are just that, lies."