At Michigan Debate, Questions on Auto Bailout Opposition to Rule

ROCHESTER, Mich. — With Herman Cain’s sexual harassment controversy continuing to dominate the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the GOP candidates gather tonight in a state that, like much of the country, cares more about another issue: jobs.

Few states have been hurt worse by the country’s faltering economy than Michigan, where the unemployment rate still hovers at 11 percent, 2 percent higher than the national average. The automotive industry, so crucial to this state, has tried to bounce back after receiving federal bailout money, first under the Bush administration and now under Obama’s.

At Oakland University, site of tonight’s CNBC debate, a group of students was unanimous in its belief that the economy is the key issue this year. One student, Jessica MacMurtrie, said her father – who worked for General Motors – has had three jobs in the past year.

“He’s obviously not happy about that, but it is what it is,” MacMurtrie said.

Another student, Paula Yumpo, said the automotive industry is improving, but not quickly enough.

“I think little by little it’s coming back,” Yumpo said. “I’d like for the progress to be a lot faster.”

According to a new Univision/Latino Decisions poll released Tuesday,  74 percent of all voters nationwide said the most important issue for them  in picking a candidate would be jobs and the economy. The poll found that Obama enjoyed leads over the top three Republican candidates – Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Herman Cain – but that the president also faced  fierce opposition this year.

Nationwide, 50 percent of Americans said they disapprove  of the job the president is doing (37 percent said they disapproved strongly; 13 disapprove somewhat), while 48 percent approve.

Before tonight’s debate, Democrats have sought to pounce on Romney’s opposition to federal intervention in an effort to save the struggling U.S. automakers. Romney, who was born in Detroit, has defended his position by arguing that he believed in orderly bankruptcies for GM and Chrysler, but not  bailouts with government money.  However, no private money was prepared to step in, leaving the government to choose between multi-billion dollar bailouts or liquidation.

In a new web video titled “Hit the Road, Mitt,” the Democratic National Committee highlights a November 2008 op-ed  that Romney wrote in the New York Times called “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

“Voters in Michigan will have a clear choice between Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican field, which wanted to let Detroit go bankrupt, and President Obama, who not only extended a loan and restructuring package that saved 1.4 million jobs up and down the auto supply chain,” DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse said in a statement Tuesday.

In an ABC News/Yahoo News interview with George Stephanopoulos Tuesday, Romney again defended his stance, saying the government should only have provided federal guarantees for warranties on cars. 

“If they would have needed additional support from the government for things like warranties, that is something that I could have supported,” he said. “But the initial money was wrong, and giving the companies to the UAW, that was wrong.”

Obama’s campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt quickly fired back that “if Mitt Romney was president, there would not be an American auto industry. Industry experts have been clear: Our auto companies would have faced liquidation if Mitt Romney had his way, and more than 1 million Americans would have lost their jobs. Mitt Romney must explain to Michigan voters this week why he would have let Detroit go bankrupt.”

The controversial automaker bailouts are sure to play a prominent role at tonight’s debate here. Three years ago, Obama won Michigan by more than 16 percent in the general election, but as Michiganders readily admit, this time around may not be as easy.

“Some people are very resentful to him because they say that the auto companies don’t give the same pensions as before or the same benefits as before,” said  Maria Cecilia Saenz-Roby, a professor at Oakland University. “They are really divided in Michigan.”

“The university is affected, too,” she continued. “Because our students don’t have the means, the university has had to give extra grants this year and last so as not to lose the student body. This is all to say that we are all suffering.”

Matthew Jaffe covers the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.