Obama camp fights back against Romney’s false Jeep ad

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally at the Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport October 25, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio.
President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally at the Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport October 25, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio.
AFP /Getty/Mandel Ngan

The Obama campaign is fighting back against Mitt Romney’s effort to tarnish the auto industry recovery by falsely claiming that Chrysler is planning to ship U.S. jobs overseas to China. With Romney’s attack aimed straight at one of Obama’s biggest strengths—his successful rescue of the auto industry—the stakes in the dispute could hardly be higher.

The back-and-forth began when Romney told a crowd in Ohio last week: “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 was apparently referring to a story by Bloomberg News, which reported last week that Chrysler is considering adding Jeep production sites in China for the Chinese market. A Chrysler spokesman wrote on the company’s website that Romney’s claim was false, and that it will not be moving any U.S. jobs to China. ”Despite clear and accurate reporting, 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,” the post said.

Despite Chrysler’s response, the Romney campaign went up with an ad this week that doubled down on the attack, charging that “Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. Mitt Romney will fight for every American job.”

Now, Team Obama is setting the record straight. In a call with reporters, Steve Rattner, the man who masterminded the Obama administration’s  successful  auto industry rescue, told reporters Romney “fabricated” the claim. He explained that since Chrysler wants to market Jeeps in China, it “makes sense to manufacture closer” to it. That’s “all that’s going on here.”

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina called the ad one of the “most misleading, hypocritical, and indefensible ads we’ve ever seen in a presidential race.” The media essentially concurred.

And the Obama campaign even released its own ad, tying Romney’s latest claims on Chrysler to his position on the auto bailout in 2009, which he famously opposed. “Mitt Romney on Ohio jobs: Wrong then, dishonest now,” the ad says.

Appearing on The Ed Show Monday, Ohio governor Ted Strickland called the ad “a whopper,” and suggested it could backfire. “This ad, I think, may actually be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and seals Romney’s fate in Ohio,” Strickland, a Democrat, said.

A Romney aide defended their campaign’s ad to Buzzfeed as literally true: ”What’s in there that’s false?,” the aide asked. “Are they building Jeeps in China or not? I think a lot of Ohioans are wondering why we can’t make Jeeps here and ship them to China, just like they are wondering why we can’t make—insert product here—in this country and export them to China.” But the ad clearly is intended to make viewers think Chrysler is moving U.S. jobs to China—something that’s not happening.

Beneath the campaign sniping, the stakes in the dispute are high. Ohio is shaping up to be the critical state in the election, with Obama holding a slim edge, thanks in part to his administration’s rescue of the auto industry, which is connected to one in eight jobs in the Buckeye State. Romney knows that to have a chance in Ohio, he needs to tarnish that achievement. That’s what the Jeep attack aims to do, by suggesting that the auto industry remains so troubled that  it’s shipping jobs overseas. That’s also why the Obama campaign is hitting back so quickly.

And in this case, the facts are on Obama’s side.