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Rust Belt autoworkers let loose on Romney, Obama

By Poppy Harlow, CNN
updated 11:49 AM EDT, Thu July 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Autoworkers in key Rust Belt states disagree over industry bailout
  • CNN talks to workers during road trip across Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio
  • President Barack Obama is "putting us further into debt," one worker says
  • Another worker says he fears Mitt Romney won't be able to create high-paying jobs

Programming note: Watch CNN correspondent Poppy Harlow's Rust Belt road trip on CNN Newsroom this week at 10 a.m. ET.

Dearborn, Michigan (CNN) -- Steve Bengelsvorf and Terry Flynn are chatting over beers on a hot, humid Wednesday night at Bamboozles, a Dearborn, Michigan, bar and restaurant, and a common pit stop for nearby factory workers.

Both these clean-cut men sitting at the bar in polo-style shirts have a lot in common. They work at the nearby Severstal steel company. They're nearing retirement. And they both have strong opinions about who the next president should be.

But their politics are as different as their taste in beer.

"I'm not for Obamacare, I'm not for his immigration policies, I don't particularly agree with 100% of his economic policies," Bengelsvorf said.

For the record, he's a Bud Light guy -- and a Mitt Romney supporter.

"We can't go further into debt, and Obama is putting us further and further into debt by all these stimulus plans."

Flynn, a Miller Lite guy, supports President Barack Obama.

Steelworkers Terry Flynn, left, and Steve Bengelsvorf get political at a Dearborn, Michigan, bar.
Steelworkers Terry Flynn, left, and Steve Bengelsvorf get political at a Dearborn, Michigan, bar.

If it weren't for the Obama-backed health care law, Flynn said his friend's unemployed son (a recent college graduate) wouldn't have health insurance coverage.

CNN Poll: Health care ruling has not impacted race for White House, so far

When it comes to the economy, Flynn admits it's taking too long to recover from the recession. But he said that "going back to the policies that got us into this mess is not the direction we want to go."

Severstal supplies steel to the big three automakers -- Ford, General Motors and Chrysler -- so Flynn's and Bengelsvorf's jobs are tied to the auto industry.

Both agree on one thing: The $80 billion federal bailout of the auto industry was good for their jobs.

Still, Bengelsvorf looks at it through broader lens. At one point he said, "The other side of me says you don't bail out a company that's going bankrupt."

These two friends epitomize what we found when hitting the road in the Rust Belt. CNN took the pulse of voters in auto towns in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio -- important states that could make or break Election Day for Obama and Romney.

In 2008, Obama captured all four states. But this year Indiana is leaning toward Romney -- and Ohio is a tossup.

Battle for the 'rust belt' states
'Little Detroit' split on next president
Motor City stalled over Obama, Romney

In the 12 elections between 1964 and 2008 no presidential candidate has won without winning Ohio. This year Ohio has about 30,000 fewer auto manufacturing jobs than it did in 2007. Michigan has 50,000 fewer automaking jobs.

On the bright side, Michigan and Ohio, respectively, have seen the nation's biggest percentage declines in unemployment over the past two years.

Make no mistake, these four states hold keys to the White House because all together they have 55 of 270 electoral votes needed to win.

As Obama makes a second journey down the campaign trail, he's touting the bailout of General Motors and Chrysler -- and you can bet he'll continue to do so.

Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, opposed the bailout and pushed for a privately financed, managed bankruptcy of the two automakers.

Watch: Politics in a former GM town

During a stop at the Half Moon Restaurant & Brewery in Kokomo, Indiana, a lot of folks with auto industry ties wanted to talk politics, including Cliff Pitcher and his friend DeWayne Bates.

Just like in Michigan -- these two auto-industry friends are not supporting the same candidate. Bates doesn't think the president deserves another four years. Pitcher does.

"Mitt Romney, I like his economical experience and his business experience, and I think that would help get our country job growth and help us get back on our feet," said Bates, a retired Chrysler millwright.

I can't support my family on $7 or $8 with no benefits.
Cliff Pitcher, Chrysler autoworker

Pitcher, an electrician at one of four Kokomo Chrysler plants, counters, "Romney might be able to create jobs, but they're gonna pay $7 or $8 an hour and you know ... I can't support my family on $7 or $8 with no benefits. Numbers don't mean anything in the creation of jobs if they're not quality jobs."

As a member of the autoworkers' union that traditionally skews Democratic, Bates said he feels like his support for Romney puts him in the minority.

But other union autoworkers spoke out who take issue with Obama's economic policies -- particularly the auto bailout -- and are throwing their support behind Romney.

Among them are Brian Pannebecker, who has worked at a Ford factory in Sterling Heights, Michigan, for 16 years.

In Pannebecker's view, Obama shouldn't have bailed out the industry. His company, Ford, did not take a bailout.

"What I object to is all of the taxpayer dollars that were used," Pannebecker said. "I think markets need to be allowed to work. And there were some fundamental problems that GM and Chrysler had that really were of their own making."

Just a few miles away from Pannebecker, electrician Stacy Steward stood in blistering 95-degree heat across the street from the Chrysler plant where she had just finished a long day's work.

I think markets need to be allowed to work.
Brian Pannebecker, Ford autoworker

After being laid off from Chrysler in 2008 and out of work for 17 months, she said she was rehired one month after the auto bailout.

CNN Poll: Economic optimism jumping

"The Big Three support the entire state of Michigan," Steward said. "The auto loans didn't just help Chrysler and GM; the auto loan also helped all of our suppliers. It helped all the small businesses in the areas. It helped the citizens."

Throughout this road trip in every town we visited -- large or small -- autoworkers expressed countless combinations of opinions about the state of the economy and the political direction of the nation.

Come November, after all the stump speeches across the Rust Belt are said and done, many of these folks will cast their votes, hoping their candidate will take the nation's highest office. Some will get their way -- and others won't. No doubt it will be fascinating to watch.

CNN Electoral Map

Read more on 2012 at CNNpolitics.com

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