TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Mitt Romney came under withering criticism Wednesday over his depiction of President Barack Obama's auto industry bailout, with Vice President Joe Biden accusing him of perpetuating an "outrageous lie" and newspapers assailing the Republican's advertising campaign on the subject. Chrysler and General Motors also have protested the ads, as the 2009 bailout was pushed to the forefront of the White House campaign in a key battleground just days before Tuesday's election.
"They're trying to scare the living devil out of a group of people who have been hurt so badly over the last previous four years before we came to office," Biden told voters in Florida, labeling the Romney commercials "one of the most flagrantly dishonest ads I can ever remember in my political career."
Countering Biden, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, one of 32 House Republicans to vote for the auto bailout, said in a statement released by Romney's campaign: "GM and Chrysler are expanding their production overseas. These are facts that voters deserve to know as they listen to the claims President Obama and his campaign are making."
Romney's campaign insists the ads are accurate.
The TV ad says: "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China." And the radio ad says: "Under President Obama, GM cut 15,000 American jobs, but they are planning to double the number of cars built in China, which means 15,000 more jobs for China. And now comes word that Chrysler is starting to build cars in, you guessed it, China. What happened to the promises made to autoworkers in Toledo and throughout Ohio? "
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.
For much of the race, Romney had been carefully avoiding raising the auto issue; aides say he was reluctant to give Obama's campaign a bigger opportunity to remind voters about the bailouts. But advisers say that thinking has changed as Romney has looked for traction in Ohio in the race's final days.
Last week, Romney himself suggested on the campaign trail that U.S. auto giants were moving jobs to China at the expense of Ohio, citing a Bloomberg News report that said Chrysler would move jobs to China.
"I saw a story today that one of the great manufacturers in this state — Jeep, now owned by the Italians — is thinking of moving all production to China," Romney said Oct. 25 in Defiance, Ohio. He hasn't repeated that claim since then.
His spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said Wednesday that Romney was relying on an inaccurate report from Bloomberg News, and that Bloomberg had updated its story to indicate that while Chrysler did plan to manufacture all types of its cars in China, it was expanding into the Asian country, not moving its operations there.
The original story, headlined "Fiat Says China May Build All Jeeps as SUV Demand Increases," appeared four days before Romney made his remarks. Bloomberg did add a clarifying sentence; the update appeared Oct. 22, three days before Romney referenced it.
Bloomberg, in a statement to The Associated Press, said neither the original story nor the update was inaccurate. "We stand by our reporting," spokeswoman Meghan Womack said. The story also referred to Jeep models, Womack said, not all types of its cars.
The newswire did not fundamentally change its story, though it caused enough confusion that Chrysler issued a statement to clarify. Several hours before Romney took the stage in Defiance, Chrysler said that "clear and accurate reporting" had been misinterpreted.
"The take has given birth to a number of stories making readers believe that Chrysler plans to shift all Jeep production to China from North America, and therefore idle assembly lines and U.S. workforce. It is a leap that would be difficult even for professional circus acrobats," said Gualberto Ranieri, a Chrysler spokesman.
Saul also said that neither auto company disputed the facts of the ad, even if they complained about becoming topics in the presidential race.
The ads reflect Romney's late-game effort to win a state that's critical to his effort to win the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. It's difficult to see how he wins the White House without winning in Ohio, a state that offers 18 electoral votes and that every Republican president has won.
Over the past week, auto bailout politics have flared red hot in the state. Obama hammered Romney during the final debate last week over his opposition to the auto bailout, then renewed that criticism against Romney with greater emphasis in Ohio. During that period, polls showed Romney slipping in Ohio among white, working-class voters, a group he has courted aggressively and who polls show have favored him in other states.
Mindful of the stakes, Romney has spent considerable time in Ohio during the final weeks. But Romney's internal polling still shows the race stubbornly close. Campaign aides say that's because voters give Obama credit for rescuing the auto companies, which also kept dozens of parts manufacturers and other associated businesses afloat.
Both GM and Chrysler have taken issue with the ads recent days, emphasizing that they are not sending jobs abroad that would otherwise employ Americans. "Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China," Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne wrote an email to employees on Tuesday. And newspapers in Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo and Youngstown all ran stories or editorials highlighting the automakers' objections or mentioning problems with the Republican's ads.
One or both of those commercials are airing in Toledo, Dayton and Youngstown, where thousands of people have jobs in part because of the government loans that helped General Motors and Chrysler through a managed bankruptcy.
Ohio Republicans say the auto bailout has been — and continues to be — an obstacle for Romney in Ohio.
"No doubt, it's having an effect," said Gene Pierce, veteran Republican campaign consultant.
Some Republicans say it's wise that Romney is working to reclaim a share of that vote by arguing the bailout was not the industry savior Obama suggests.
But some also say the Jeep ad is misleading, and worry it feeds characterizations of Romney as untrustworthy — or runs contrary to traditional GOP arguments about free enterprise.
"Obama has been consistently ahead in Ohio because of the relatively good economy and the impression that the auto bailout worked and that Romney was against it," said Ohio Republican campaign strategist Matt Cox. "Romney may now be trying to convince Ohioans that the auto bailout didn't work or had unintended consequences in an attempt to change those impressions."