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Revived auto industry gives Obama advantage in Michigan

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
updated 9:50 AM EDT, Thu September 20, 2012
  • Michigan autoworker credits Obama for his job at Chrysler plant
  • Autoworker support is big advantage for Obama in state Romney hoped to put in play
  • Local GOP chairwoman says Romney is the perfect candidate for the times
  • She concedes, though, the president's favorable image is an obstacle for Romney

Sterling Heights, Michigan (CNN) -- Joe Cefali has to leave 10 minutes earlier for work in the morning because the traffic is getting worse. And get this: That makes him happy.

"You feel the rejuvenation," the 19-year Chrysler worker says of the mood inside the Sterling Stamping plant and in the busy restaurants and other businesses near the Chrysler and GM factories.

"Yes, we have a future."

He wasn't so sure in 2009 when Chrysler was teetering on the verge of collapse and Cefali for the first time had to file for unemployment benefits.

He told his wife to prepare to move and began searching for work in Texas or Tennessee. Then help came from Washington.

Romney, Obama both seeking advantages as campaign rolls on

"Do you think you are working today because of President Obama?" I asked Cefali on Wednesday at his local United Auto Workers hall across the street from the stamping plant.

"Yes," he said without hesitation. "If he didn't come through and give that vote and say, 'Yes we have got to save Chrysler. We have to save GM. We've got to do this,' all this Sterling Heights would have been gone, would have been dead."

Byers: Romney campaign in 'crisis mode'

Support from union auto workers like Cefali is an advantage for the president in Michigan, a state Republican Mitt Romney had hoped to turn into a battleground.

A new CNN/ORC International poll shows Obama leading by eight points, 52%-44%, among likely voters in Michigan.

Romney and Obama split the suburban vote statewide and run even among independents. But the president leads by 11 points among women, by 54%-41% among Michigan voters from union households, and by 56%-43% in the critical Detroit suburbs of Macomb and Oakland counties.

Both counties are dominated by the auto industry, and Romney went to high school in Oakland County.

"I don't think he is one of us... a Michigander," Cefali says of Romney. "He doesn't really relate to the working class."

Barbara VanSyckel disagrees, yet she concedes that perception is widespread.

New poll: Obama leads in Michigan

"He is a self-made man," says VanSyckel, the chairwoman of the Macomb County Republican Party. "I don't understand why people don't see that as much."

Old Obama video featured in new GOP ad
Byers: Romney campaign in 'crisis mode'

VanSyckel says Romney's experience is perfect for the challenges of the moment, and she says her county's recent phone bank work and neighborhood canvassing gives her a measure of hope.

"I believe we still can win," VanSyckel said Wednesday. "People are interested in what you can do about the economy here."

Michigan is clearly in better shape, but hardly humming.

Romney's remarks: Huge mistake or plain truth?

The unemployment rate is 9% - above the national average. But it is down from the 11.3% it was when Obama took office. Michigan has added 57,500 manufacturing jobs during the Obama presidency -- 34,000 of those in the auto industry.

While the numbers might suggest to some a potential Romney opening, the trend line is helping the incumbent.

"The economy is on an upward slope even though the magnitude of the slope is very small," University of Michigan communications and political science professor Michael Traugott said. "Barack Obama also has a reservoir of popular support or sentiment about him personally and views about how he cares for other Americans that he can take advantage of."

VanSyckel said the president's image advantage is, in her view, the obstacle to Romney making Michigan more of a battleground.

Poll shows voters' reaction to Romney tapes

"I think he is not making himself look as real as when I have gone to his rallies," she says. "He is pretty down to earth when you meet him. I don't think he comes across much that way when you see him on television.

"He has been around it long enough. I think he needs to relax a little bit," VanSyckel said. "Romney needs to differentiate himself. I think the philosophies are different enough. But people also want to vote for someone they like, and for some reason they don't seem to connect with Romney the way they do with Obama."

Romney's son Tagg will visit Macomb County next week, and VanSyckel says she was told both Romney and running mate Paul Ryan will return to the state. But there are no firm dates, and Republicans here are well aware the Romney campaign is not spending any money on television advertising.

"Are we getting brushed off?" is how VanSyckel publicly phrased the question many Michigan Republicans are asking privately.

Those party activists were upset when the John McCain camp pulled out four years ago. VanSyckel said Romney's local roots mean activists like her "are going to work harder for him" and she hopes to get firmer commitments from the national campaign soon.

"Doable," she said of the prospects for a Romney comeback here. But she then added: "We're getting pretty tight on time. I look forward to hearing something soon."

Opinion: Election winner faces a dangerous world

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